^zhurnal v.0.26

This is volume 0.26 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.)

Crumbling Customization

There are some nice parallels between classical artists and web page designers. For many centuries painters have experimented with pigments, solvents, binders, carriers, canvases, papers, woods, brushes, and just about every other aspect of capturing images on surfaces. They've tried the most bizarre chemical concoctions imaginable (and in some cases, unmentionable). They've varied the physical processes of drawing and painting, and have explored countless possibilities for how to treat their works to preserve them when finished.

And, like mutations in genes, most artistic experiments are failures. Colors fade; layers crack and peel off; lacquers become opaque; mold, mildew, and insects chew into materials. Catastrophic deterioration sometimes becomes apparent within a few years, in other cases only after decades have passed.

Just so, the results of hyper-customization in web page creation. A designer can craft a lovely layout, with meticulous control of font and color --- and it only works with a particular browser, on a particular display size and resolution, under a particular operating system. Try to see it with a different configuration, and it's ugly or even unreadable.

And just wait until next year's "upgrade" to see how ephemeral and short-lived are style-sheet-nazi attempts to dictate the viewer's experience ....

(note Jonathan Sturm's comments on this and related themes in his Ephemerides (early 2003 at http://www.sturmsoft.com); see also Something To Say (13 Apr 2002), ...)

- Saturday, January 18, 2003 at 07:26:09 (EST)

Jog Log Fog 3

Recall how:

Those are memories that need to be preserved --- in contrast to mere log entries of miles traversed. Shakespeare in Sonnet CXXII writes:

  Thy gift, thy tables, are within my brain
  Full character'd with lasting memory,
  Which shall above that idle rank remain,
  Beyond all date, even to eternity:
  Or, at the least, so long as brain and heart
  Have faculty by nature to subsist;
  Till each to razed oblivion yield his part
  Of thee, thy record never can be miss'd.
  That poor retention could not so much hold,
  Nor need I tallies thy dear love to score;
  Therefore to give them from me was I bold,
  To trust those tables that receive thee more:
    To keep an adjunct to remember thee
    Were to import forgetfulness in me.

And thus the table below casts but a faint shadow of on-the-run activities in this year's final quarter (7 Oct 2002 - 5 Jan 2003):

M + T + W + T + F + S + S = Total
8 4 9 21
10 4 9 23
10 26 36
4 5 6 15
5 8 13
6 26 32
2 2
4 2 6
2 3 5
5 3 8
4 2 10 1 17
4 10 3 17
4 4 16 24

... though if digits could tell stories the pair of Sunday "26" mile figures above might step forward to speak ....

(see also Jog Log Fog (9 Jun 2002), Rainposts And Godrays (23 Sep 2002), Jog Log Fog 2 (11 Oct 2002), Bless The Leathernecks (28 Oct 2002), Marine Corps Ordnance (1 Nov 2002), Lose Track (11 Nov 2002), Rocky Run (17 Nov 2002), Healthy Trails (24 Nov 2002), Two Towers (29 Dec 2002), ...)

- Thursday, January 16, 2003 at 04:56:00 (EST)

Hollywood and Washington

A few weeks ago I was captivated by a morning NPR radio conversation with retiring US Senator Fred Thompson (23 Dec 2002, interview by Bob Edwards). Maybe I'm a sucker for certain smooth-talking politicians (especially retiring ones?!) --- but this fellow seemed to be actually honest as well as self-effacing and realistic in his judgments. How many others are there like him in the Congress? In my more optimistic moments I fantasize that there might be a (bare) majority of such folks ... but of course, they're not the ones that get quoted, photographed, interviewed, and splashed across the front pages. Thank goodness, since if they did, they'd cease to be worthy of respect.

Now-former Senator Thompson is also an actor (though I must confess that I've never seen him perform; guess I don't watch enough TV?). He remarked, memorably, on the envy and misperception associated with his two jobs: "I know that Hollywood doesn't have all that much fun, and I know that Washington doesn't have all that much power."

- Tuesday, January 14, 2003 at 07:38:31 (EST)


When our kids were toddlers, and doing all that toddlers do so well, Paulette and I often joked that human beings start out with IQs of over 1000 but lose a point every time they fall down and hit their heads ... until they end up in the "normal" range. I recently was reminded of this when the instructional chess book How to Become a Class A Player came to mind. As (Class A player) Alan Beadle told me at a tournament in 1991, "The best way is to start out as a Master and go down!"

Similarly, perhaps:

etc., etc. But a self-help book that takes that honest an approach probably wouldn't sell many copies.

More seriously, maybe the best way to appreciate what we have is to lose most of it --- as, eventually, we all do in this mortal world ...

(see also Chess 1990 To 1991 (14 Dec 2000), ...)

- Sunday, January 12, 2003 at 14:13:46 (EST)

Triple Thrills

When you keep a journal, you get to enjoy everything three times:

A pleasant thought, offered in a new biography of Samuel Pepys by Claire Tomalin (who writes, "The politician Tony Benn has said that he writes his diary in order to experience everything three times, once as lived, once in the writing down, once in the later reading of what he has written.")

And it applies not just to diary-like logs of events, but also to more general musings ....

(see also Annals Of Journals (4 Apr 2000), Dear Diary (19 Mar 2001), Tidy Time (28 Apr 2001), Peeping Sam (5 Jun 2001), Writing Rewards (9 Jun 2001), ...)

- Saturday, January 11, 2003 at 20:19:08 (EST)

Hamming It Up

Amateur radio is a fascinating historical artifact. Why did society give up something as valuable as electromagnetic spectrum to a bunch of mere hobbyists? (We're talking billions of dollars of potential profit here!) Well, there are several big reasons, summarized in a Federal Communications Commission acronym: PICON. Those letters stand for the "Public Interest, COnvenience, and Necessity".

Since early in the twentieth century, radio amateurs were pioneers in creating the technologies that evolved into modern telecommunications systems. Hams taught themselves and each other Morse code, circuit design, ionospheric propagation principles, antenna theory, and a host of other concepts. When war came they enlisted (or were drafted) as ready-made comms experts. When natural disaster struck they provided emergency connectivity. They policed the airwaves and tracked down pirate operators. They led countless young people into careers as scientists and engineers. And they did it all at their own expense. Governments wisely encouraged this because it promoted the general welfare.

But fast-forward to the present. Is ham radio obsolete today? Like bridge, bowling, numismatics, philately, and many other graying leisure-time pursuits, the ranks of the amateurs are thinning as death turns them one by one into "Silent Keys". Not many people build their own equipment anymore; it's too complicated and expensive. Cellphones and Internet chat offer some of the same thrills that used to come only grudgingly, through the crackle of static in headphones, late at night while carefully tuning the dial. Who needs to study for months to learn the radiotelegraph code, electronic theory, and regulations? Why bother to take tests and earn your callsign and then practice still more to advance to the higher ranks, when you can have it all with just a few mouse clicks?

But of course, without hard work you don't really have it all --- you've only rented the illusion of having a sliver of it. And the mirage only persists as long as everything is working properly. Go outside normal parameters and the house of cards collapses. Try to do something unanticipated and hit a brick wall. Annoy folks who have more knowledge and less morality, and watch them hack into your systems. Stop paying license fees and see how long your ship stays afloat. Pry open a black box and watch the lawyers swarm over you. Let a hurricane blow through and hope, in the dark, that somebody better-prepared will be able to turn the power back on.

There's magic in the long-term learning that amateur radio encourages --- self-reliance, creativity, resiliance, and above all, honor. Like girl scouts and boy scouts, like volunteer firemen, like emergency rescuers: hams exist to serve. PICON ....

(see also Molybde Numbed (10 Jan 2001), Wouff Hong And Rettysnitch (19 Jul 2001), Cardinal Newman (4 Oct 2001), Script Kiddies Everywhere (18 Sep 2002), ...)

73 de N6WX

- Friday, January 10, 2003 at 17:47:24 (EST)

Fecklessness, Ltd.

If past centuries were known variously as the Age of Reason, the Age of Discovery, the Age of Invention, and so forth, what then will our own era someday be called? Alas, when one of my kids asked me that question, about the only name I could come up with was The Age of Entertainment. After all, the search for effortless amusement seems to be the dominant force in society today.

And that, in turn, brings to mind tales that my elder son, Merle, has told about certain organizations of students he has encountered in recent college experience. Which of the following are real?

According to Merle at least one of these exists. Its meetings are rather uneventful, however, since nobody can find the energy to do much of anything. The outfit isn't officially registered either; no member has bothered to get a faculty sponsor or fill out the necessary paperwork, even though as a sanctioned organization it could get a cash subsidy from the school for its activities. At a typical get-together people mostly sit around, complain, and watch each other play video games. At times, Merle says, a can of soda sits untouched in front of a diehard slug for hours while s/he works up the motivation to reach out and open it.

Our future, friend ....

- Wednesday, January 08, 2003 at 18:02:50 (EST)

Enchanted Landscapes

After writing some comments about the feeling of distance in J. R. R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings (and the relative success (or lack thereof) achieved by the recent film version in conveying that), I was tickled to read Kathryn Kramer's essay "Middle Earth Enchants a Returning Pilgrim" in the 30 December 2002 issue of the New York Times. Kramer clearly loves the books, and accurately fingers the root of Tolkien's genius: "... the unflagging quality of the prose, the range of Tolkien's descriptive powers, [and] how integrally involved the plot is with the landscape."

Kramer marvels at Tolkien's naturalistic descriptive powers, "... not for 15 pages, or 50, but throughout the trilogy, more words in English to describe place than most of us use in a lifetime." (emphasis added) She speculates that there's something peculiar about England, perhaps, that nurtures this kind of consciousness:

This English sensibility about landscape, where does it come from? England is the land best known for standing stones and ley-lines, but were these imposed on the topography by their builders, or were they responding to something already in the place? There's a way of locating buildings quintessentially English, seeming to give form to what the terrain was wanting --- right there, on that hillock, in that dale --- to articulate. German castles towering at improbable heights proclaim how astonishing it is that they should exist, that humans built them; French chateaus affirm a serene orderliness; Italian villas and their grounds express a charming regret that humans should be so much better at ordering nature than she is herself.

Over-generalization? Maybe so, but with an element of truth. And setting aside the nationalistic caricatures, Kramer hits the mark when she identifies a key element of LotR as "[t]he feeling of there being intention in place ..." (emphasis added) and in conclusion when she notes "He didn't, in other words, paint the world around us with a magic brush, he reminded us of the actual magic already there ...."

(see also Sense Of Where You Are (4 Jun 1999), Strands Of Truth (2 Nov 2000), Walk About (9 Mar 2002), Two Towers (29 Dec 2002), ...)

- Tuesday, January 07, 2003 at 10:25:51 (EST)

Twelve Mile Brownies

Yesterday the angels appeared to me in the form of three young girls, thickly cloaked and gloved and hooded against the cold winds of downtown Bethesda Maryland. In front of them stood a card table on which they had spread cupcakes, cookies, and other baked goods they hoped to sell.

I had begun running (if that's the right term for my snail-like mode of locomotion) two and a quarter hours earlier near the midpoint of the Marathon in the Parks (MitP) route. My wife dropped me off as she and our daughter drove on their way to a chamber music practice session. A heavy rain the previous day left mega-puddle water hazards across the path; my socks were soon damp. In three minutes I reached the first landmark, milepost #10 on Rock Creek Trail. The temperature was in the mid-30's (Fahrenheit, ~1-3 Celsius) with intermittent sunbeams peeking between clouds. Occasional solitary snowflakes drifted down. My knit cap and my gloves, they comforted me --- as did the two pairs of shorts and two shirts that I wore.

Thus commenced my first experimental long(ish) run since the MitP test-to-destruction experience on 17 November 2002. I resolved to go slowly and baby my left knee, which still tends to become painful at times. As usual, however, in spite of fine intentions the first half dozen miles flowed by at an unsustainably rapid pace (9:53, 10:21, 10:19, 9:55, 10:39, 10:39). Finally, for the seventh mile, I got a more reasonable 11:08 split.

As part of my trial I religiously took a one-minute walking break every ten minutes. Knee stiffness began to be troublesome around mile marker 2.5, where the trail passes near Chez ^z. So there was now a decision to make: limp home and call it a nine mile day? Or soldier on at a reduced rate of speed?

Hitherto the journey had been fun, in spite of frigid breezes and mud wallows. My path unexpectedly overlapped a real roadrace in Kensington, a combo 10 and 20 miler which had started a couple of hours earlier. That gave me the opportunity to give cheerful chatter and encouragement to the runners who zipped past, including Christina Caravoulias (editor and photographer for the Montgomery County Road Runners; see http://www.mcrrc.org). Then an old gentleman met me. He marched along the trail holding up a six-foot pole from which streamed a large American flag. I saluted as I jogged by, and he complimented me, "You've got the best beard in the race!" "Thanks --- you've got the best flag!" I replied.

With all that behind me, how could I stop now? I doubled the frequency of my walk breaks, to one minute in every five, and the old knee stopped hurting so much. Occasional high-stepping served to keep the joint mobile. The next hour went by pleasantly at ~5 mph.

My drinking bottle was almost empty now. It had started out full of dilute orange-juice-and-water solution, a concoction that was all that I could come up with based on the refrigerator's contents that morning. I refilled the bottle at a Ray's Meadow park fountain and left Rock Creek bound for Georgetown Branch, home stretch of the MitP course. Brisk winds blew into my face. A shower of seeds from a grove of trees rained down as the gusts hit, propellor-shaped pods spiralling around me in a local mini-blizzard of winter fecundity.

It was then, after ~12 miles, that I sensed "The Wall" looming. Hypoglycemia? Dehydration? Hypothermia? Cartilage inflammation? Glycogen depletion? Endorphin deficit spending? Whatever the reason(s), as I emerged from the tunnel under Wisconsin Avenue and faced the prospect of turning around to trek four more miles to my house, I felt my confidence start to sink into my soggy shoes.

That's when the trio of heavenly messengers materialized across the street from the bookstore. My eyes lit on their tray of thickly frosted cupcakes. "We're raising money for ..." one girl began. "Just a minute," I interrupted, my speech slurred with cold exhaustion. "I'll be right back."

I shuffled a hundred yards farther to the Capital Crescent Trail water fountain and once more filled my bottle. Back at the table of home-baked munchies I chose a pair of dense brownies as the optimal combination of portability and caloric value. "They've got chocolate chips and Butterfinger chunks in them," a young cook proudly and unnecessarily informed me. Then it was the girls' turn to get excited --- first as I fumbled stiff-fingered with my wrist wallet (they oohed over its velcro and zipper design), and next with the Sacagawea "golden dollar" coin that I gave them.

Those brownies saved my bacon. I took a bite or two every five minutes during walk breaks, and a couple of times awarded myself a bonus nibble while waiting to cross a busy street. My spirits soared with my blood sugar.

The feast lasted well over half an hour, long enough to get me most of the way home. The elapsed time was 3:09:36 when I crossed the line at the end of my driveway --- relaxed, happy, tired, but not exhausted --- quite a successful jaunt in my current state of decrepitude.

Thanks, kids!

(see also Richardsonian Extrapolation (18 Apr 2002), Coordinate Collection (19 May 2002), Rock Creek Trail (31 May 2002), Jog Log Fog (9 Jun 2002), Score Of Miles (15 Sep 2002), Rocky Run (17 Nov 2002), ...)
- Sunday, January 05, 2003 at 16:49:28 (EST)

Wonder Land

John Mayer's "Your Body is a Wonderland", a currently popular song, is appealing in various musical and poetic ways --- but for me, one of its strongest (and strangest) resonances is with Andrew Looney's Wunderland domain (see http://www.wunderland.com). Looney is perhaps appropriately named: he's a game designer with a penchant for off-the-wall humor. His most successful creation, Fluxx, is a wacky adventure in mutable goals with rules that shift abruptly as cards are played.

Andy Looney is unabashed about his love of long, flowing hair: he's built a virtual shrine to it on one of his web pages, and the official rules to his game Aquarius say that the player with the longest hair gets to go first. But lest you write him off as a complete basket-case refugee from the '60s, Looney's online biography confesses that he is also an Eagle Scout and a computer science graduate of the University of Maryland. His self-description reads:

Andy to his friends, he's a postmodern renaissance hippie who used to program computers for NASA but now designs games for a living. He also writes stories, draws cartoons, takes photographs, opposes unjust laws, and unbeknownst to most, also rules the universe as an ineffective figurehead Emperor.

Unlike James Ernest (http://www.cheapass.com), the other game designer whom I worship at the feet of, Andy Looney makes his home not far from here. Maybe some day I'll get to meet him. Meanwhile, I'm happy just to live in a society that can support (at however meager a level) a tiny subpopulation of musicians, grandmasters, astrophysicists, and game designers. Our world is the real wonderland ....

(see also Falling Prey (16 Aug 1999), Seven Manes (9 Feb 2001), ...)

- Saturday, January 04, 2003 at 17:13:40 (EST)

Great Writers

Maybe hubris, maybe poetic truth:

"A great writer is, so to speak, a second government in his country. And for that reason no regime has ever loved great writers, only minor ones."

- The First Circle, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, 1968 -

(see also Building Book Web (2 Feb 2001), ...)

- Thursday, January 02, 2003 at 20:05:30 (EST)

Glass Darkly

Sky & Telescope magazine in September 1989 ran a article titled "Viewing Sunspots with Just a Filter" (on pps. 289 & 291). A copy surfaced here yesterday, crumpled and yellowed and dusty, from behind a book on our overcrowded mantel when I moved one volume to make way for another.

The author, identified only as "A. M.", describes how to observe the solar disk safely with minimal expense or equipment. The trick is to use a slab of #14 welder's glass, a standardized quality-controlled filter that cuts light by a factor of exp(-14), so only one photon in every million gets through. That lowers the Sun's brightness from an apparent magnitude of -27 down to -12, about the same as a full Moon. (see Log Scales (23 Feb 2000))

I remember back in '89 when, encouraged by this very article, I ventured into a local welding supply store charmingly named Roberts' Oxygen. I bought a dozen #14 filters. They cost less than a dollar each. For years thereafter I was the neighborhood cynosure as I stood by the street and looked at partial solar eclipses and major sunspot groups. Most of those slabs of welder's glass are long gone, given away to friends, passers-by, and curious children. But I still have a couple stashed away. (Important Safety Tip: don't try to observe the Sun with anything less than a #14 shade, and never use the filter with any light-gathering device such as binoculars or a telescope.)

The S&T article concludes with an inspirational suggestion:

A long series of 1-power drawings might not only allow you to "discover" the solar cycle but also the Sun's differential rotation (the Sun rotates faster at its equator than near its poles) and perhaps much else. The possibilities serve as a reminder of how much a diligent observer can accomplish with the "naked" eye.

I was never disciplined enough to keep a notebook of my own solar sketches. Perhaps some day ....

(see also Noise And Predictability (14 Sep 1999), Nobel Neutrinos (13 Oct 2002), ...)

- Wednesday, January 01, 2003 at 11:19:56 (EST)

For Us

 Pastel bouquet floats overhead: pale balloons,
   Tugging for release, held back by your tight grip
     Upon their reins. I see your hand tremble, aching
 To set them free. My fingers wrap around yours.
   "Wait," I whisper ...
 We touch. Lights fade as gibbous moon rises.
   Thin dark crescent embraces gravid curve
     Of crystal sphere. Then constellations
 Gather, melt, and rain their blessings down.
   For us ...
 Our hands open together: balloons leap forth.
   A living myriad, they toss their heads
     And whip their tails as up they race into
 The infinite womb of the sky. Our sky.
   Now ...

- Tuesday, December 31, 2002 at 05:56:35 (EST)

Two Towers

Not enough cross-country. In a nutshell, that's my critique of the newly-released movie version of The Two Towers.

Yes, the film is good, like its predecessor and (presumably) its sequel. Given the limitations of today's technology and the realities of entertainment economics, it's probably the best treatment possible of J. R. R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings. Yes, the evil characters are sub-dimensional in their ugliness. Yes, the eponymous towers aren't the same pair as in the book, and many scenes have been altered for dramatic effect. Yes, the battles are loud and long, stirring and chaotic. Yes, Frodo and Sam (and Gollum) are heart-wrenching as they strive in their quiet smallness to do the impossible.

But the real 2T shortfall is a subtler one: the heroic ultramarathon of Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli has been cut to the point where it seems to be little more than a 10k stroll. Really, now! Where's the feeling of distance, of human (and elven, and dwarven) triumph over pain and exhaustion? Missing --- in contrast to the first movie of the trilogy, which successfully conveyed the immense scale of the lands to be crossed. (see Walk About (9 Mar 2002), ...)

Too bad ....

- Sunday, December 29, 2002 at 03:24:44 (EST)

Gu, Ya, Jia

Wendy Moonan wrote a fascinating "Antiques" column in last week's New York Times (Friday 20 Dec 2002, page B46) entitled "Scholarship, Morality and Taste". She begins:

Ancient China didn't have a phrase for "rite of passage," but if one existed, it would probably revolve around mastering appreciation of what the Chinese called superfluous things. For the scholar, the sage and the monk, the creation of art was an act of self-actualization, and the "superfluous" tools used in the creation of art were actually essential.

Moonan goes on to quote various academics and dealers involved with these scholar's objects --- artifacts such as carved brush pots, ornate water droppers, brush rests, ink stones, trays, seals, and so forth. Sometimes she and her sources lapse into unfortunate promotional prose (e.g. "... probably the most affordable Chinese antiques on the market. There are many for sale in Manhattan this season, and they make wonderful presents, as they have for a thousand years in China. ..."). But for the most part the article offers a delightful glance at a captivating area of æsthetics.

Besides the self-actualization theme, some of the words that recur in Moonan's piece simply resonate with my psyche. "Superfluous", for instance --- Lysander Spooner, an American anarchist (and semi-pro baseball player) called his autobiography Memoirs of a Superfluous Man; I read it with great enjoyment a few decades ago during my antistatist years, along with Benjamin Tucker's Instead of a Book: By a Man Too Busy to Write One. Similarly, on the Asian cultural mystique and æsthetic vandalism front, "Scholarship, Morality and Taste" reminds me of a scene in Neal Stephenson's sf thriller The Diamond Age, in which one character sends another a piece of calligraphy so beautiful, so refined, so precious, that the recipient cannot refuse to do whatever is requested in the message.

To tickle the word-collector in me, Wendy Moonan quotes from Craig Clunas's Superfluous Things: Material Culture and Social Status in Early Modern China (1991). Clunas defines three key words:

In concluding her column, Moonan relays a vital thought out of Chandra Mukerji's book From Graven Images (via Clunas) --- a point that echoes central conclusions of Daniel Dennett and other philosophers of knowledge:

Objects are carriers of ideas. ... They help to make autonomous forces out of ideas by remaining in the physical world long after their production.

- Friday, December 27, 2002 at 20:16:19 (EST)

Thank Goodness

Looking around the world and across the millennia, isn't it amazing how wonder-filled and happy a life that most of us have achieved, most of the time?

Yes, we're finite and imperfect creatures. We witness tragedy and experience it ourselves. Friends die of cancer, are crippled by disease, lose their personalities to senility. The universe seems not to be designed with justice for us in mind. It's cold outside and lonely in here.

Yet we manage, for the most part, to arrange our affairs to produce reasonable comfort. Often we even succeed in making gradual improvements for our later years and for the next generation. Productive society goes on ... in spite of natural disaster ... in spite of violently destructive behavior by disgruntled or fanatical subpopulations ... in spite of shameful misallocation of resources ... and in spite of corruption in politics, business, labor, and just about every other big organization one can name.

Rose and Milton Friedman titled their joint autobiography Two Lucky People --- an appropriate self-assessment that applies more widely. We really are incredibly lucky.

So call me Mister Pollyanna --- I don't mind. Pollyanna is a pretty interesting book, not "great" but nonetheless thought-provoking and worth reading in the original version. It's by Eleanor H. Porter (~1912), and its eponymous protagonist with her relentless optimism is kind of a neat character to observe. And maybe to emulate ....

(see also Optimist Creed (16 Apr 1999), Remember Me (21 May 1999), My Business (30 May 1999), Human Nature (5 Dec 1999), Good Will (25 Dec 1999), Bennett On Life (19 Mar 2000), My Religion (6 Nov 2000), Christmas Faith (23 Dec 2000), Universal Flourishing (25 Dec 2001), ...)

- Wednesday, December 25, 2002 at 10:25:36 (EST)

Eye Candy

If a picture is really "worth a thousand words" then a good graphical user interface should provide at least a thousand words worth of textual information behind every iconic image. Alas, in far too many cases the graphics are just decorations --- designed to distract from a lack of substantive content.

(see also Things Themselves (13 Oct 1999), Seeing Thought (19 Oct 1999), Tufte Thoughts (18 Dec 2000), ...)

- Monday, December 23, 2002 at 20:51:26 (EST)

Stoic Struggles

For more than two years now I've subscribed to a discussion list on yahoogroups.com named "Stoics". By turns these self-styled savants are annoying and delightful, petty and great-spirited, pedantic and perspicuous (or perspicacious?! --- see Later Dude (14 Oct 2002)).

Every so often in the forum a most un-Stoical war of words breaks out. Some recent battles have pitted vegetarians versus carnivores, pacifists versus fighters-for-the-truth, and academics versus good ol' boys. Sometimes these tempests are entertaining to watch; more often than not they're embarrassments. Emotions among the participants run hot. As Edward Gibbon characterized a dispute among bishops in the early Christian church, "If this Punic war was carried on without any effusion of blood, it was owing much less to the moderation than to the weakness of the contending prelates." (Decline and Fall, Chapter 15; see Gibbon::GibbonReReligiousArgument)

Sporadically the signal-to-noise ratio on Stoics gets so bad that I find myself on the verge of unsubscribing ... and then somebody unexpected makes the most brilliant observation, and I have to stay tuned. A recent example highlighted the apropos comment by Epictetus in his Handbook (aka Enchiridion, from the translation by Thomas Wentworth Higginson, 1865), part 46:

Never proclaim yourself a philosopher; nor make much talk among the ignorant about your principles, but show them by actions. Thus, at an entertainment, do not discourse how people ought to eat; but eat as you ought. For remember that thus Socrates also universally avoided all ostentation. And when persons came to him, and desired to be introduced by him to philosophers, he took them and introduced them; so well did he bear being overlooked. So if ever there should be among the ignorant any discussion of principles, be for the most part silent. For there is great danger in hastily throwing out what is undigested. And if any one tells you that you know nothing, and you are not nettled at it, then you may be sure that you have really entered on your work. For sheep do not hastily throw up the grass, to show the shepherds how much they have eaten; but, inwardly digesting their food, they produce it outwardly in wool and milk. Thus, therefore, do you not make an exhibition before the ignorant of your principles; but of the actions to which their digestion gives rise.

Sage advice, anticipating suggestions by Leonard Read (Education Versus Eduction (30 Apr 1999)) and Albert Einstein (Exempli Gratia (22 Apr 2000)) among many others ....

(for further on Epictetus see Keith Seddon's essay http://www.utm.edu/research/iep/e/epictetu.htm in The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy; here in the ^zhurnal see Bennett On Stoicism (29 Apr 1999), Apathy And Apatheia (3 Sep 1999), Beyond The Inner Citadel (26 Sep 1999), Subliminal Blues (24 Dec 1999), Dialogue Density (21 May 2002), Inside The Inner Citadel (15 Oct 2002), Spiritual Exercises (25 Oct 2002), ...)

- Sunday, December 22, 2002 at 16:16:33 (EST)

Normanstone Trail

It's late Sunday afternoon and I'm setting out on a hike in Washington DC. My daughter is preparing to play her violin at an entertain-wealthy-potential-donors party for a music school. We arrive early at the old building, are buzzed through heavy brass doors, show our invitation, and pass scrutiny at the front desk. Then we ride up in a slow elevator that includes a narrow cushioned bench, presumably placed there for the elderly or infirm to take their rest on during the journey.

The affair is being held in an apartment --- though that word scarcely does the place justice. It's bigger than our house; don't ask about the marble or the mirrors. Servants offer us drinks from silver trays. The general atmosphere is a bit too stratospheric for comfortable breathing.

So I slip out from the soirée and walk northwest beside busy Connecticut Avenue, past the utilitarian Chinese Embassy and toward Rock Creek. My left knee feels good in the cold air, much better than on the previous day's run when it stiffened up and ached after half a mile. I venture along an alley, seeking a path down to the water, but the route dead-ends at a leaf-covered hillside too steep to navigate. Back on the main road I pass two stone lions and start across the long bridge. A hundred feet below, fenced paddocks for Park Service horses look small and muddy. On the other side of the span I find a rough asphalt and stone stairway that lets me descend to the trail.

A bulletin board by the side of the path features an old map of the park. It's hard to read in the December twilight, but I can see that the Kennedy Center is too far for me to reach and return in the hour or so that remains before dark. Only half a mile downstream from me, however, a dotted line leads away from the creek along something labeled Normanstone Drive. It seems to run almost all the way to the Naval Observatory, from which another dotted line curves off to Dumbarton Oaks Park and then back to Rock Creek somewhat farther down. Maybe a total length of a couple of miles, just the right amount to stretch the old legs and still get me back in time for the concert's finale.

I proceed. The path leads southwest past a series of old exercise areas --- benches and bars, steps and ramps --- to a small wooden bridge over Rock Creek. A juggler stands on the gray grass meadow between the trail and the road. He holds three painted clubs in one hand, two in the other ... flips one up, then another and another ... catches and throws, misses and drops ... then stops and stoops to pick up his equipment ... and tries again. A cyclist swoops by and warns, "One more coming!" I step aside for his follower to pedal past.

I've jogged past here a few times earlier this year, back in September and October while getting into shape for longer runs. Hitherto I've always followed the paved path. Today at the bridge I turn right and take the track on the west side of the stream, marked "No Bicycles" by a wooden signpost. The route is leaf-covered and rutted from foot traffic as it snakes down through boggy dips and climbs up to cross little woodsy ridges. There's a nice view of the creek from here. I remember peering across from the opposite side a few months ago, watching people walking on the farther bank and wondering where they were going to end up. Now here I am.

The track wriggles along for perhaps a quarter mile, past fallen trees and a sign that warns of possible leakage from the sewer system during flood times. Then a clear path branches off to the right. Is this the Normanstone Trail? I climb uphill, parallelling a tributary stream for a hundred yards --- and suddenly I'm on a sidewalk by a city street. This is obviously a well-to-do neighborhood, one that deliberately isolates itself from the masses with narrow curving lanes, stone walls, and high gates. I continue somewhat nervously along the sidewalk, looking for signs of a trail. An urban walker in front of me pauses to light a cigarette, then asks for directions to 33rd Street; I offer a vague guess that it may be somewhere ahead.

The road leads westward a few blocks to a hillside where I spy another Park Service signpost forbidding wheeled vehicles. I clamber up the slope, hear traffic ahead, and emerge out of breath on Massachusetts Avenue at Observatory Circle, just as the glimpsed map at the bulletin board had promised me half an hour ago. Barbed wire fences and pop-up barricades protect the Vice President's home and the other US Naval Observatory buildings. I cross the street at a traffic signal and find myself in front of the British Embassy. A police car blocks the road. I ask the officer whether it's OK to walk past to find the rest of the trail, and she says "Sure."

It's beginning to get dark now, but a nearly full moon plus the glow of city lights conspire to make navigation easy. I take off my coat and carry it over one arm while I stroll briskly past a chancery office building. Then a big square wooden gate forms an open portal on the lawn in front of the New Zealand Embassy, the next structure along the road. I divert to admire the gateway, but it's hard to read the inscription on the plaque by its side ... something about Maori traditional architecture, perhaps. I refrain from walking through the archway lest it offend against some illegible tradition or unilluminated gods.

The street proper ends at another barricaded gate, the southeast entrance to the Naval Observatory. No guards are visible but there are plenty of cameras. A dirt path bends along the periphery of the facility a few feet outside of the high fence with its crown of barbed wire. I follow the trail until a well-used track branches off to the left. There are more leaves, a few fallen trees, and some mud, but overall it's quite passable.

Downwards again through the woods, wondering whether I should have brought a GPS receiver along, suddenly I emerge onto a narrow lane --- clearly part of another fine ambassadorial-class 'hood. Houses bulge with bay windows; classy cars grace the driveways. I see the Danish Embassy, and then at the bottom of the hill the Embassy of Brazil, proudly decked with holiday lights. Apparently I've curved prematurely back to Mass Ave and have missed most of if not all Dumbarton Oaks Park. Perhaps there was another path in the Observatory woods that I overlooked?

I cross the big street and continue along a side road named Rock Creek Drive, past imposing residences decorated with Canadian maple-leaf flags and other diplomatic insignia. Looking downhill I glimpse a trail below. I scramble down a steep slope and discover that I've returned to a point just a few hundred yards southwest of where the Normanstone Trail first led me astray.

Retracing my route I get back to Connecticut Avenue. Now streetlights are lit as I cross the high bridge again toward the building where my musical daughter is playing her violin. I walk around the block to our parking place, past the Embassies of Portugal and Ethiopia. An abandoned building --- the Embassy of Algeria, damaged in a fire almost two years ago --- stands incongruous, apparently deteriorating behind cheap chain-link fences. I get into the car and take out a book on MySQL that I'm studying. After I strain to read a few pages under the faint dome light I give up. It's time to return to the apartment, catch the end of the performance, then head home to dinner and to bed.

(see Infra Structure (26 Dec 2000), Rock Creek Trail (31 May 2002), Marine Corps Ordnance (1 Nov 2002), ...)

- Friday, December 20, 2002 at 06:47:59 (EST)

For the Visually Impaired

In order to help those who can't read small fonts, why doesn't somebody sell large-print blank books? And while they're at it, how about multilingual versions?

The same applies in the audio domain to relaxation-background-sound recordings of water falling, crickets chirping, etc.

(see also Corn Floss (16 Jun 2001), Mock Mack (31 Jul 2001), ...)

- Thursday, December 19, 2002 at 06:02:00 (EST)


Now that the Washington-area snipers are captured, a couple of modest suggestions to prevent future incidents:

And perhaps there are other countermeasures that could be implemented by philosophers, meteorologists, historians, newspaper columnists, numismatists, linguists, ....

(see also Morning Mourning (23 Oct 2002), ...)

- Tuesday, December 17, 2002 at 06:21:21 (EST)

Exaggerated Certainty

Do certain (pun intended!) people achieve fame by concentrating on narrow factors and exaggerating their importance to larger issues? Consider an example, altered to protect the possibly innocent, from a major newspaper:

On Monday, the Institute of B***** issues its C**** Index for January. On Friday, the government issues its report on the nation's employment for January. The Institute's C**** Index, which is created from a broad survey of businesses around the nation, shows that the economy has been growing for the previous three months, and although growth may slow this time the report will probably continue to point to a recovery.
R**** S*****, an economist with T***** Economics in V*****, DE, asserts that the Institute's Index is "the best single indicator of where the economy is going." S***** predicted ....

Really? An obscure survey, identified by an obscure savant, is the brightest ray of light we have to shine into the future? Or could it be that S***** wouldn't have been quoted if s/he hadn't been so darned sure of herself or himself? And how often have S*****'s predictions, based on the C**** Index, been confirmed by an objective observer? I'm just curious ....

(see also On Hubris (27 Dec 1999), Money Wisdom (20 May 2001), Science And Pseudoscience (6 Oct 2001), Predictive Power (23 Oct 2001), ...)

- Monday, December 16, 2002 at 06:12:31 (EST)

Webb Wiggins

Many years ago when our kids were beginning to get into early music --- harpsichord, viola da gamba, etc. --- we had the pleasure of hearing Webb Wiggins play for the first time, in a concert at the Folger Shakespeare Library. Webb is an accomplished keyboard artist and a great teacher of music. He also has a wry sense of humor.

I still remember how Webb did the page turns while he played that day, flicking out his hand faster than as a snake's strike or a frog's tongue. I also recall watching Webb pull out his wrenches and retension the strings of his harpsichord between segments of the performance. As he explained to the audience, "For me, F sharp is not the same as G flat!" --- since his instrument deliberately wasn't tuned to an equitempered scale.

As in his page turning and harpsichord tuning, so also in his music: dazzling speed plus perfect control .....

(see also Buechner Magic (27 Oct 2000), Remember Rafe (11 Dec 2000), Organ Lessons (24 Jun 2001), ...)

- Sunday, December 15, 2002 at 11:22:04 (EST)

Upheavals Of Thought Revisited

A potpourri of ^z musings provoked by Martha Nussbaum's book Upheavals of Thought:

On a completely different note, Martha Nussbaum offers a splendid disavowal on page 390 of Upheavals, footnote number 60: "I am unable to do justice to the subtlety of Anna's argument."

Clearly, as a frequently cranky former physicist I am unable to do justice to the subtleties of philosophical thought!

(see also Wonder Why (10 May 2000), Education Culture And Blame (1 Jun 2000), Irreducibility And Pseudoscience (6 Jul 2000), Physics Envy (11 Apr 2001), Universal Flourishing (25 Dec 2001), Universal Disclaimer (7 May 2002), Upheavals Of Thought (29 Jun 2002), ...)

- Friday, December 13, 2002 at 06:19:56 (EST)

Paramilitary Organization

Some years ago a naval officer happened also to be serving as the Scoutmaster of my sons' troop. One evening he was addressing a group of parents. He talked about the principles of scouting --- how it gives boys good outdoor experiences, teaches them important life lessons, and promotes the development of leadership, teamwork, and character.

"Now, some people say that the Boy Scouts is a paramilitary organization," he said. Then he smiled. "I see nothing wrong with that!"

(For those who don't know our former Scoutmaster: he was joking --- I think. See also The Pax (6 Mar 2000), Flashlight Music (7 May 2000), Demerit Badges (9 May 2002), Ein Ben Stein (19 Sep 2002), ...)

- Thursday, December 12, 2002 at 05:57:46 (EST)

Wiki Voting

The other day I started thinking (danger!) about single-click feedback mechanisms for Zhurnal Wiki pages. Perhaps there could be a couple of buttons at the bottom of every essay, labeled "+" and "-", say, or "bravo" and "yuck". A counter somewhere would increment with each vote, and the results would be displayed either on request or by default.

Sounds straightforward, and maybe it could help reveal the interest levels and emotional/logical reactions associated with various topics. Of course a few irate wikiheads could get energetic with their mice and overwhelm the statistics. A cleverer system on the server side could track visitors' net addresses and prevent multiple voting from the same virtual location, at least within a brief interval. Some still cleverer hacks could then in turn get around that and automate the ballot-box stuffing enterprise. An arms race of further countermeasures and counter-countermeasures would follow. (All this assumes that anyone would even bother to vote.)

But far better, I've come to believe, than a binary 1 - 0 choice would be an open-ended feedback system --- something that could convey nuances of judgment and enable a critic to fully explain her or his points of disagreement, or a supporter to improve and expand upon a theme deemed important. (Hmmm --- sounds like the "Comment" box that these pages already have, eh?!)

And maybe the same applies to larger social issues? A winner-takes-all electoral vote transmits far fewer bits than a letter to the mayor. Even a couple of words blurted out en passant to a campaigning political candidate provide more information than a mark on a ballot. A few months ago, when I shook the hand of erstwhile Representative Chris Van Hollen before a local amateur baseball game and said "I like your support of libraries --- libraries are good!", that probably did more to help the world than when I stood in line at the polling place in November ....

(see also Cheap Shots (14 Mar 2000), An Lab (7 Mar 2002), Summer Ball 2002 (3 Sep 2002), Make Money Whisper (9 Nov 2002), ...)

- Wednesday, December 11, 2002 at 08:43:18 (EST)

Speakers to Machines

Different folks have different talents. Some are astoundingly articulate: ask one a simple question about a random topic, and you'll get back a fascinating dissertation. (John McPhee comes to mind as an archetypal member of this category; see his books about oranges, geology, fishing, ....) Others, just as intelligent, can do amazing stuff but can't for the life of them explain how. Some people can volunteer to "rustle up a bit of grub" and turn an almost-bare larder into a cordon bleu meal. Others can't boil water without spoiling it. Some seem to have an innate sense of direction; others could get lost in their own back yards. And so forth.

The rise of technology has revealed a new species: humanoid-shaped creatures with an unnatural affinity for gadgets. It's easy to recognize them. They instinctively find their way through the twistiest voicemail mazes. Their computer systems are always customized to the Nth degree; they can perform any data transformation with a minimum number of keystrokes or mouse clicks. And their digital clocks never flash "12:00".

These individuals have a reputation for obnoxious helpfulness on any complex software problem. They're great to have around when a crash has erased a day's worth of your work --- but they're a burr under the saddle when you want to get a job done and they insist on demonstrating dozens of shortcut alternative paths. Enough already --- get back to your home planet!

- Tuesday, December 10, 2002 at 06:03:50 (EST)

Invisible Web

Every so often I suddenly see a new set of connections ... a network that hitherto has totally escaped my attention. The walking/jogging/biking trails that criss-cross my neighborhood didn't exist for me --- until I started using one of them, which led me to another, then yet another, fanning out for dozens of miles across the county. Rivers were merely blue lines on a map, and their tributary streams were just excuses for little scenic bridges --- until a geology lecture explained how water carves the landscape, how creeks carry away the contents of valleys. Scientific publications were isolated flashes of creative insight --- until I learned to crawl the linkage graph back through cross-references and inverse citation databases, and saw the foundations of current discoveries.

And most recently, my eyes were abruptly opened to a microcosm of society, the bureaucracy within which I work. It was just a hierarchical org chart to me --- until, after serving there for over 20 years, I realized abruptly that what really makes things function are not the chains of command but rather the delicate web of friendships, personal obligations, collaborative relationships, small favors, and other interpersonal connections.

All invisible, and all essential ....

(see Global Wisdom (22 Jul 1999), Expanding Contexts (15 Oct 1999), Science Versus Stamp Collecting (20 Jun 2000), Zen Geology (9 May 2001), ...)

- Sunday, December 08, 2002 at 09:23:35 (EST)

Low Profile

Pandering --- catering to the lowest common denominator --- can occasionally work quite well, if all you want is to get page hits, mind share, brand recognition, or coverage on the evening news. The alternative? Quiet consistency, infinite patience, and a willingness to be overlooked. The reward? Only the choice itself.

(see also Optimist Creed (16 Apr 1999), Bluffing Versus Humility (22 Apr 1999), Education Versus Eduction (30 Apr 1999), Cardinal Newman (4 Oct 2001), Our One Ring (18 Dec 2001), ...)

- Saturday, December 07, 2002 at 06:44:08 (EST)

Millennium Math

Keith Devlin, mathematician, has written another fine book: The Millennium Problems: The Seven Greatest Unsolved Mathematical Puzzles of Our Time (Basic Books, 2002). It's a popularization that's not likely to be very "popular", alas. Devlin is above all honest. He remarks in his preface:

... I knew from the start that no matter how hard I tried, I could not make this book an easy read. The Millennium Problems are the hardest and most important unsolved mathematics problems in the world; they have resisted numerous attempts at solution, over many years, by the best mathematical minds around. Even achieving a layperson's appreciation of what they are about takes considerable effort. ...

In 2000 the Clay Mathematics Institute put up seven prizes of $1 million each for solutions of these problems; see its web site (http://www.claymath.org) for detailed descriptions. The names of the challenges are, in Devlin's choice of ordering toward increasing abstraction:

But as Lewis Carroll observed in Alice in Wonderland, simply naming something is far from knowing what it is.

Throughout his book Keith Devlin paints an impressionistic image of these conundrums, but as he nears the end he almost runs out of pigment. He throws up his hands, however, in a most charming and forthright fashion. For example:

Thus, if you're feeling pleased with yourself for having got this far (even if you had to bail out halfway through Chapter 6), and within a page or so from now you have a sudden sinking feeling that you just aren't getting it, please don't despair. In fact --- and this is not something I say often --- if you find the going too hard, then the wise strategy might be to give up. The Hodge Conjecture ... is a highly technical question, buried deep in a forest of highly abstract advanced mathematics known to few professional mathematicians. It deals with objects that are so far removed from the intuitions of even the experts that not only is there no "smart money" on whether the conjecture will turnout to be true or false, there isn't even a consensus as to what it really says.

Whew! ... I get out of breath just reading that. But after his disclaimer Devlin goes manfully to work, beginning with a section modestly titled "The Hard Stuff, Made as Easy as I Can". First, though, he offers a lovely statement on abstraction, the essence of deep thought:

The Hodge Conjecture illustrates perhaps most clearly of all the Millennium Problems the point I raised in Chapter 0, that the nature of modern mathematics makes much of it all but impossible for the layperson to appreciate. For a century now, mathematicians have built new abstractions on top of old ones, every new step taking them further from the world of everyday experience on which, ultimately, we must base all our understanding. As I have observed before, it is not so much that the mathematician does new things; rather, the objects considered become more abstract --- abstractions from abstractions, and abstractions from abstractions from abstractions. In the case of the Hodge Conjecture, the operations of calculus play a major role (differentiation, integration, etc.). But the calculus is not done on the real numbers, as many high school students learn it, or even on the complex numbers. It's calculus done in a much more general, more abstract setting.
To the layperson, the very inaccessibility of the problem is perhaps its most interesting feature. A hundred years ago, any problem in mathematics could be explained to an interested layperson. Today, some problems cannot be explained even to most professional mathematicians.
The human brain has to work hard to achieve a new level of abstraction. Only when one new level has been mastered is it possible to abstract from that level to yet another level. ...

Heady stuff, this exploration of the high country of the mind ....

(see also Analysis And Algebra (15 Dec 1999), Principia Principia (5 Oct 2000), No Concepts At All (22 Feb 2001), Logic And Information (1 Aug 2001), ...)

- Thursday, December 05, 2002 at 07:06:17 (EST)

Annotation Punctuation

Chess games are recorded in a variety of notations --- algebraic, descriptive, etc. But in addition to the raw sequence of moves, published games also get annotations: critical comments on the positions and choices that the players have made. To save space and promote international readability some commonly-recurrent themes have acquired typographic symbols:

 !  = good
 !! = outstanding
 ?  = weak
 ?? = blunder
 ?! = dubious
 !? = risky but worth considering

Perhaps this code could be useful in ordinary writing!?

(see also Caissic Metaphors (8 Jan 2000), Chess Chow (26 Sep 2001), Haiku Chess (4 Jan 2002), Long Think (2002 Apr 9), ...)

- Wednesday, December 04, 2002 at 06:05:11 (EST)

Big Bad Boxes

The other day, on the road to the library, son Rad Rob and I saw an elegantly styled car. That observation led to a small debate over the concept of elegance, and in particular brought to us the question of whether or not elegance could ever be ostentatious --- or whether the notion of "ostentatiously elegant" is an oxymoron, a self-contradictory juxtaposition.

But then I saw a huge ugly sport utility vehicle, and suddenly the right word for that SUV popped into my head: boxymoronic!

(see also Elegant Technologies (10 Sep 1999), ...)

- Tuesday, December 03, 2002 at 06:07:32 (EST)

For Great Justice

John Rawls, philosopher, died on 24 November 2002. His book Theory of Justice (1971) is famous for its analysis of the moral and ethical issues that revolve around the question, "How should society be organized?"

Simple fairness is of central import, Rawls contended, so much so that "Justice as Fairness" became a mantra associated with him. He suggested that people, if placed in an "original position" of ignorance about where they would end up economically and politically and socially in the world, would choose a structure that would make sure the worst-off were in as good a shape as possible. This would probably involving safety-nets, social insurance, and the like.

It's an appealing notion in many ways. Perhaps it could have been presented as a novel twist on utilitarianism via minimax game-theoretic ideas. Alas, Rawls made his argument within a matrix of distractingly doctrinaire prose --- unconvincing and hard to read, at least for me. He also ignored or avoided, as far as I can tell, extensions of his concepts to nonhuman animals and their fair treatment.

But on the other hand Rawls was clearly kind-hearted and worked, as much as he could, to help other people. My son Merle recently told me of a phrase used in the classic video game "Zero Wing" (see All Your Base Are Belong To Us (28 Aug 2002)) --- the last words said by a character about to sacrifice his life in a noble cause. They make a fitting epitaph:

"For Great Justice" --- John Rawls, 1921-2002

(see also Minimax Strategy (5 Sep 1999), Fair For All (28 Nov 1999), Questions Without Answers 1 (18 Jul 2000), Robert Nozick (2 Feb 2002), Simply Good Hearted (25 Apr 2002), ...)

- Sunday, December 01, 2002 at 22:06:18 (EST)

True Story

In real life the most important issues are never determined by skin-of-the-teeth escapes, cosmic conjunctions of improbable coincidences, or cliff-hanger fights against impossible odds --- unlike the situation in thrillers, soap-operas, and other popular modes of entertainment.

Sorry, but if things get to the point of derring-do, then somebody has seriously failed to plan ahead. Reality works with far less drama, via the accumulation of small details. There's a continuous tapestry of choices to be made: a succession of probabilities, pushed one way or another, by human action and random chance. There are billions of individual decisions: to study and learn and teach, to marry and raise families, to work and create value. And there are societal choices: to encourage or discourage various modes of behavior, productive or destructive.

And overarching it all, there's the constant challenge that George Eliot explored in Middlemarch: "... widening the skirts of light and making the struggle with darkness narrower ...". Generation by generation, year by year, day by day, moment by moment.

But it's tough to make a best-selling novel, a blockbuster movie, or a top-rated TV show out of that sort of thing ....

(see also Celebrity History (8 May 1999), Social Robustness (17 May 2000), My Religion (6 Nov 2000), Threads Of History (6 Jun 2001), Looming Disaster (6 Aug 2001), Learning And Losing (23 Dec 2001), ...)

- Saturday, November 30, 2002 at 15:33:38 (EST)

Exceptions Rule

If the sentence "There's an exception to every rule" is itself a rule, then consider: if it's true, then there must be at least one rule to which there is no exception --- and so there isn't an exception to every rule after all. Therefore "There's an exception to every rule" is a self-contradictory statement. It has to be false.

A rule that has no exceptions is, apparently, rather exceptional ....

(Thanks to Paulette's brother Michael Lawrence Dickerson for suggesting the nucleus of the above ... see also Free Will (11 Apr 1999), Do Meta (8 May 1999), On Somethingness (17 Jan 2000), ...)

- Friday, November 29, 2002 at 06:39:30 (EST)

Strobing Tail Lights

Don't you just hate those newfangled LED-based tail-lights that are starting to show up on buses and trucks and other big vehicles nowadays? Those lights are unnaturally bright, for one thing, and seem too red --- but what's worse, they flicker many times per second so when you move your eyes there's a trail of stuttered afterimages. Ugly! ...

And speaking of which, aren't those flashing strobe lights on school buses annoying? Eye-catching they are, but only at first while they're quasi-unique novelties. Now they're appearing on Post Office vans and all sorts of other moving objects, and most of the time they're invisible, like billboards and TV commercials, because of their ubiquity. What a waste of time ...

And while I'm ranting, how about that "fire" stuff? Mighty dangerous, if you ask me --- and likely to get out of control and destroy the planet. Mark my words, young fella ....

- Thursday, November 28, 2002 at 11:15:39 (EST)

Oscillations and Echoes

Resonance is a word that, for lack of a better term, resonates with me ... perhaps because my mental ear has heard it used in technical conversation as well as in literary and psychological contexts. Set up an electrical circuit with a coil and a capacitor, and you've got a "resonator". Energy pours back and forth between the components at a magical rate, a time constant defined by inductance and capacitance. Tickle the circuit by applying a signal voltage, and when you get near the resonant frequency the amplitude becomes huge.

Precisely the same phenomenon happens with sound in a cavity of the right size and shape. A little input that repeats at the right pace will build up into a gigantic sloshing wave, an earsplitting organ pipe whistle. Or consider the Bay of Fundy, a natural resonator that almost matches the frequency of lunar tides --- and therefore amplifies that tidal signal to huge proportions.

And in the exotic subatomic realm of high energy physics, a resonance is a particle --- albeit one that's so unstable it only survives for a glimpse of an moment before it falls apart into the pieces that made it. Send two particle beams crashing into each other, and when their relative energies match a resonance they interact violently.

Just so in human conversation, when ideas mesh ....

- Wednesday, November 27, 2002 at 05:52:33 (EST)

Movie Review

My wife tells of two friends who, exhausted, fell asleep in a theater halfway through the classic film Doctor Zhivago. As they slept on and on, the last reel finished, the lights came up, and the other members of the audience all left. Finally an usher on the clean-up crew woke them and told them they had to go home.

"But what happened?" they asked in an agony of suspense. "How did it end?"

The attendant gave them perhaps the most concise and accurate synopsis in movie history: "He died. She cried."

- Tuesday, November 26, 2002 at 05:59:26 (EST)

This is volume 0.26 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!