^zhurnal v.0.27

This is volume 0.27 of 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.)

Right to Interfere

When may somebody, or somebody-writ-large in the guise of "Society", meddle in somebody else's affairs? That's a complex question. One should always be skeptical of purported simple answers to it.

On 7 May 1773 during a Friday evening conversation about toleration (quoted in Boswell's Life of Johnson) the Reverend Dr. Mayo got into an argument with Samuel Johnson. The same debate still resonates today:

MAYO: "I think the magistrate has no right to interfere till there is some overt act."
BOSWELL: "So, Sir, though he sees an enemy to the state charging a blunderbuss, he is not to interfere till it is fired off?"
MAYO: "He must be sure of its direction against the state."
JOHNSON: "The magistrate is to judge of that. --- He has no right to restrain your thinking, because the evil centers in yourself. If a man were sitting at this table, and chopping off his fingers, the magistrate, as guardian of the community, has no authority to restrain him, however he might do it from kindness as a parent. --- Though, indeed, upon more consideration, I think he may; as it is probable, that he who is chopping off his own fingers, may soon proceed to chop off those of other people. If I think it right to steal Mr. Dilly's plate, I am a bad man; but he can say nothing to me. If I make an open declaration that I think so, he will keep me out of his house. If I put forth my hand, I shall be sent to Newgate. This is the gradation of thinking, preaching, and acting: if a man thinks erroneously, he may keep his thoughts to himself, and nobody will trouble him; if he preaches erroneous doctrine, society may expel him; if he acts in consequence of it, the law takes place, and he is hanged."

(but see also Simple Answers (4 May 1999), Mere Anarchy (6 Oct 1999), ...)

- Saturday, February 22, 2003 at 10:24:12 (EST)

Thinking Out Loud

Andrius Kulikauskas recently posed 20 questions concerning what he calls "Thinking Out Loud". His survey is like an intellectual Rohrschach inkblot test, one that I couldn't resist trying to answer. (See Orchard Of Thoughts for an earlier ^zhurnal item re my glimpse of Andrius's online activity as of a couple of years ago. These survey questions appeared in Andrius's blog [1] entry of 28 Jan 2003.)

My incomplete, idiosyncratic, and momentary reactions follow.

 1. Name:
Mark Zimmermann ... aka ^z
 2. Email (and/or other ways to contact you):
z at zhurnal.net or z at his.com are the best current addresses. For paper mail, try Mark Zimmermann, P.O. Box 598, Kensington, MD 20895-0598, USA.
 3. In what forms do you think out loud?
Mostly via the act of writing ^zhurnal items (http://zhurnaly.com/ or http://zhurnal.net/). Some ideas occur in conversation with family and colleagues, and are captured in little scribbled notes to myself on bits of paper ... occasionally thoughts surface in the course of composing letters (usually email) to friends ... sporadically I snag passing thoughts as tiny voice-notes on a cellphone/recorder that I sometimes carry ... but most of these forms are rather ephemeral unless/until I turn them into journal entries. During the past year, since I've taken up distance running I find that every few leagues or so I'll get a notion. And reading provides more frequent spurs to thought.
 4. What do you think out loud about?
See http://zhurnal.net/ for samples --- just about anything that amuses me. The most common "worthwhile" topics involve people, social issues, idiosyncratic experiences, science, language, mind, art/literature, etc. The page Topic Index and associated Zhurnal Wiki topic pages offer a rather unsatisfactory and incomplete categorization schema.
 5. Who do you consider your audience when you think out loud?
Mostly myself, though sometimes it's my imagined future self, and always there's the pleasant fantasy that other folks might occasionally find something worth thinking about in what I write --- though I estimate that the ^zhurnal attracts at most a dozen or so semi-regular readers and perhaps a few hundred random passers-by per month. That's far more than I deserve, no doubt!
 6. Please describe any tools, such as software, that you use,
    and why you find them helpful.
Wiki (aka Wiki Wiki Web) is valuable in that it permits me to capture and cross-link fragmentary thoughts without spending a distracting amount of mental energy on HTML or other formatting/markup. I run a stand-alone Wiki on a laptop (Mac iBook at the moment) on which I do most of my writing. (The software is adapted from Bo Leuf and Ward Cunningham's code in their book The Wiki Way.) I try to finish and upload a page every day or two to the ^zhurnal (http://zhurnaly.com/ and to http://zhurnal.net/) for sharing and archival purposes. At any given time I have between zero and a few score fragments that I'm thinking about developing into ^zhurnal entries. I keep them locally in the stand-alone Zhurnal Wiki and mess around with them when I have time. The original ^zhurnal uses a trivially-modified Perl "guestbook" to post new items. I use command-line plain-vanilla UNIX "ftp" to download pages for editing and archiving, and likewise for uploading changes, images, etc. Among the key non-software "tools" that I value most are pencil/pen, scraps of paper, and a simple shorthand (see Hand Of Ones Own) that helps me jot down quotations, memorable comments, bits of thought, and the like.
 7. How does thinking out loud fit into your schedule?
I have a "job" so there are only a few minutes most days for this sort of thing --- hence, the strategy of seizing fragments as they pass by, buffering them on notecards, and working on them later. Usually the longer writing episodes happen if I've taken a child to a music lesson and have half an hour or more to type by myself; occasionally I get up early or stay up late and do a little writing when the household is quiet. Reading is an essential part of thinking, and I definitely need to make more time for reading worthwhile material. Perhaps in a decade or so, if I can retire to cultivate my (mental) garden ...
 8. What kind of listeners do you find helpful?
Most helpful to me seems to be email correspondence with remote friends; it provides a strong and highly pleasurable incentive to organize my thoughts. In person, from 1998 to 2001 on most Friday mornings a few colleagues and I would gather for a "Philosophy Breakfast" from 7:45am until 8:30am in the office cafeteria. It was great fun and extraordinarily inspirational --- but unfortunately we haven't been able to do it very often for the past year or more. (see Philosophy Breakfasts and associated pages) Really, the best "listeners" are myselves (^_^) --- at various times, in various moods, in various contexts. But the best sources of inspiration and provocation are other people, books, newspapers, magazines, web pages, etc.
 9. How do you find and keep listeners?
Really, the words "keep" and "listeners" don't seem to me to be at all the right ones, at least not for the kind of thinking out loud that I (try to) do. It's not easy to be sincerely happy talking to oneself, but I'm attempting to work in that direction. True confession: mostly I fake contentment with soliloquizing ... but there are brief moments when the fakery becomes real, and I'm trying to extend those. (see Missed Manners and Cardinal Newman perhaps)
 10. How do you make use of your listener's reactions,
     state-of-mind, moods, tangents?
The best reactions are ones which show me new sides of issues --- things I've overlooked, emotions that I've been insensitive to, etc. I try when possible to jot down phrases and then springboard off of them in my own further ^zhurnal musings on topics.
 11. How do you prioritize your thoughts?
Not very well. The urgent and immediate tends to drive out the long-term important in my life. On the other hand, I think that it's essential to answer a friend's cry for help, comfort a hurt child, pick up a ringing phone, etc. --- so I am trying to become happy while doing that even when it interrupts an attempt to work on "big picture" priorities. No easy answer to this question. I keep a to-do list with letters by items --- "A" means "do it today", "B" means "within a few days", and "C" means "maybe this week" --- and sometimes this category method helps me avoid mental stack-overflow. In the stand-alone Zhurnal Wiki that I keep there are bins labeled "Ready ..." and "... or Not" which hold Wiki pointers to items that are or aren't mature enough to post to the ^zhurnal. And then there's a long unsorted bulletized list of stuff. Every so often I try to go through the list and weed out things that are too far below-threshold. I don't do a good job of that either.
 12. What do you do when you're having trouble formulating your thought?
If I'm sensible, I attempt to write down what I can, even if it's only a tiny subset of the whole. (see Johnson On Anecdotes) Sometimes I tell myself that it's ok to leave an item unresolved and post it as a question. Sometimes I try to pop up a level and turn an ill-posed thought into a metaquestion. It doesn't often work, but when it does it's magical --- as Z. A. Melzak quotes Tolstoy, "He would transfer a question to metaphysical heights, pass on to definitions of space, time, and thought, and having deduced the refutation he needed, would again descend to the level of the original discussion." (see Creative Devices)
 13. Are you able to "think out loud" while you do other things?
Mostly no. Sometimes yes, a little, if doing things that aren't too "mental" --- slow running, driving along a familiar road with the radio turned off, washing the dishes, etc. But usually those sorts of events only provide the seeds of ideas. To grow them into something worthwhile takes time and typing.
 14. In what ways do you or others come back to your thoughts?
Constantly, via cross-references to past ^zhurnal items.
 15. When do you let others share your thoughts freely,
     and when do you require that they ask for your permission?
I like for people to ask permission, to which I always reply "yes" --- feedback is sweet nectar to an author! --- but of course I can't (and won't) stop anybody from taking anything I post and doing what they will with it. I'm not terribly interested in legalisms of copyright and intellectual property, except as a symptom of deeper social disease. (see Public Domain etc.) I have far too little time to spend on that subject, and really have to focus my energies on my own reading & thinking & writing. It seems to me essential to give credit, as much as possible, to the origins of my ideas if I can, and I try to do so --- but of course, some things come from the conjunction of so many concepts that I can't finger a source. Browsing my server logs I see that, besides the Googlebot/Fastsearch/Inktomisearch/etc. web harvesters hitting my pages, there are recently a fair number of robots crawls from plagiarism-detection services. Perhaps students are taking ^zhurnal entries and turning them in as their own work? Sad if so; happy if the kids are taking things they find in the ^zhurnal and getting inspired thereby, or quoting with acknowledgment and then critiquing. Many years ago I pulled together a "Best of..." collection of excerpts from Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, accumulated as I slowly read through the volumes. (see Gibbon Table of Contents etc.) I used to get a couple of letters per month from kids asking for help with their term papers ("What caused the Punic War?" and so forth) and I tried to reply courteously and helpfully whenever I could. But for the past few years I haven't received any such correspondence. Is it true, as per media reports, that many students think nothing of plagiarism nowadays? Not good for our future, I fear ....
 16. In your opinion, why should people think out loud?
To improve their own ideas, to be happier, to help other people, ...
 17. How would you like your thoughts to affect others?
It would be pleasant if my thoughts could assist other people in their lives --- aid them in being more productive and happier and kinder to each other.
 18. What kind of help or tools would you like there to be for thinking out loud?
I think that the standalone Wiki that I now use is quite good, especially in assisting hyperlinking among ideas and string-search to find half-remembered fragments from the past. I wish that I had better information retrieval tools (see Ir Wishes) --- esp. better fuzzy string search and better automatic cross-correlation to autolink Zhurnal Wiki pages. And on the more mundane side, it would be nice if this iBook laptop had a longer battery life and weighed somewhat less; ~2 hours and ~5 pounds isn't half bad, but I can always dream. A voice recorder that could transcribe my verbal mutterings into text would be neat too.
 19. Other comments or wishes?
Tnx for asking, Andrius --- yours are good questions. I hope that this scatterbrained response helps you a wee bit, perhaps induces some new notions in your cranium, or at least is mildly amusing for a few moments. I suspect that by writing this to you, as usual, I've helped myself far more than I've helped anybody else. C'est la vie ...
 20. May we share your answers with others? In particular,
     do you retain copyright to your answers above, or do you
     place them in the public domain? (Your placing them in
     the public domain makes it feasible for us to share them
     with others.)
Of course! --- though as noted above, it would be a courtesy, at least, to keep my name associated with the above until the ideas and their representations have transmuted themselves into airier and nobler forms, beyond anything I deserve credit or blame for ....

- Thursday, February 20, 2003 at 16:45:24 (EST)

The Metagame

My family used to spend a fair amount of time playing Magic: the Gathering (aka MtG), an engaging collectible trading-card game invented by Richard Garfield. (An aside: I met Garfield once at a rather bizarre technology conference where both of us were severely out of place. We chatted about our graduate school research, his in mathematics, mine in physics. He autographed some MtG cards for my kids. I gave him an old US coin, a two-cent piece --- "just my two cents". See Nice Hackers, 20 Dec 2000 ...) At our house we still play the occasional round of MtG, especially when in a nostalgic mood or, as during the past few days, when confined by bad weather.

In the MtG world there are rules for individual games. Then there's "The Metagame" --- the overall cosmos of MtG cards, players, and interactions amongst them. Sometimes a card is fine by itself but horribly disruptive to the Metagame. It may be too powerful (e.g., too likely to cause an instant win), or it may slow down a competition too much (e.g., something that invokes a sub-game within a game, Arabian Nights storytelling fashion). Or it may be too goofy, too complex to interpret, or simply too random.

It's tough to strike the right balance between luck and skill, between playability and realism, between social interaction and serious competition. Many games have have come and gone over the years as they failed to keep their metagames healthy. Others have tried to adapt via rules changes. Is chess the same today, played at sudden-death game-in-30-minutes pace, as it was when only 40 moves had to be completed in 2.5 hours and adjournments could stretch overnight? Have composite materials transmuted pole vaulting into a completely different sport? Are steroids destroying baseball as they are baseball players' bodies? Tough questions.

Which brings to mind the metagame of computer operating systems. Jonathan Sturm (http://www.sturmsoft.com) recently commented on some "glaring deficiencies" in the Apple Macintosh user interface, and opined "What a pity BeOS never bore fruit."

Maybe, maybe not. The fault, I am convinced, lies not in the operating system but in the metagame, the universe of users and software surrounding the OS. As I wrote to Jonathan:

... virtually everything depends on the savvy of an application's programmers and their consistency in following the standard Apple/Mac user interface guidelines. Those guidelines have evolved over the years and they're pretty decent most of the time ... but like everything, one can get into religious arguments over various design decisions. For example, a big war has broken out recently, I hear, between those who want to have visible file "extensions" (e.g., .txt, .jpeg, etc.) versus those who want to keep the invisible Mac four-letter codes that identify file type and creator (long long ago, in the mid-1980's, I registered the letters "CTLZ" for my little software development efforts --- are those letters still mine? I don't know ....). And should file names be case-sensitive or case-insensitive? Should they be limited to six capital letters plus a three capital letter extension? Who can say ....

And as for "glaring deficiencies", well:

... like everything, there are reasons for those choices ... sometimes historical reasons (insufficient processor power or memory size, for instance, or insufficient foresight re what users will be doing in a few years) ... sometimes philosophical choices (like the difference between the Awk and Perl programming languages --- Swiss army knife vs. fully-equipped machine shop). And I agree about the virtues of the BeOS, based on the little I have seen of it --- but I would say the real pity is that it has taken Apple more than a decade to finally change to UNIX as the underlying operating system engine (in OS-X). Back in 1989, I had a Mac running A/UX (Apple's UNIX) --- it was sluggish and buggy as all get-out --- but if A/UX had been properly developed then, maybe history would have been different ....

Or then again, maybe some unforeseen interaction in The Metagame would have caused a meltdown, and we'd all be back to inscribing clay tablets and painting on cave walls ...

- Tuesday, February 18, 2003 at 13:05:57 (EST)

This Space For

Yesterday morning, as I was riding the metro home through a blizzard, I suddenly realized what the non-corporate Web has become.

A couple of feet of snow descended here over the past few days, which naturally enough disrupted most routine activities. My wife and daughter had tickets to go to Manhattan via rail on Sunday morning, so that our daughter could audition for a summer music program. Thus it was that before dawn we found ourselves slip-sliding down the road to Union Station through the overture to a monster storm. In spite of some (d)icy moments we made it and abandoned our car in a covered garage. After the train for New York City departed I took local mass transit back home.

Thus it was that when the subway emerged for an aboveground section of its run, through the white-noise static of falling snowflakes I spied the spray paint on the wall and had a tiny epiphany: the Web is a surface for graffiti.

Just as email has turned into a vehicle for bulk advertising, the bulk of the Web (not including most commercial sites) is now a quasi-public place on which people scrawl their messages. Like graffiti: some are artistic; quite a lot are obscene; many express political statements. Like graffiti: most Web pages are driven by a "look at me!" individual urge to garner attention. Like graffiti: the Internet's underlying infrastructure --- the plane on which pigment is spread --- had an industrial-commercial original intent. And like graffiti: all of it is ephemeral, liable to be overwritten or erased at any moment.

And in a wiki, even more so. Enjoy it while it's there ...

(see also Rail Web (3 Jan 2001), ...)

- Monday, February 17, 2003 at 21:10:50 (EST)

Read Through

From Boswell's Life of Johnson, a conversation that took place on 19 Apr 1773:

Mr. Elphinston talked of a new book that was much admired, and asked Dr. Johnson if he had read it. Johnson said, "I have looked into it."
"What?" said Elphinston, "Have you not read it through?"
Johnson, offended at being thus pressed, and so obliged to own his cursory mode of reading, answered tartly, "No, Sir, do you read books through?"

Dr. Johnson was right --- mostly. Life's too short, and there's too much written. A slavish devotion to finishing each tome means greater delay before starting the next. Browsing, scanning, skimming, and selective study are essential tools of the competent, efficient reader.

But it's easy to go overboard in the other direction and become a serial dilettante. I've spent hours flipping through newspapers and magazines .. clicking hyperlinks ... looking up a few words in the index at the back of a book and glancing over a few pages. Wasted effort, in the vain hope of finding a juicy bit of information. No, it's not an effective strategy; I realize it, yet I still can't resist. Most of what I spend my time on is obviously ephemeral stuff, with an abysmal probability of long-term value.

Yep, I confess: I'm a literary channel-surfer.

What I should be doing, of course, is investing energy in good books --- books that are not worth reading, but worth rereading ...

(see also Books To Consider (16 Apr 1999), Johnson On Anecdotes (19 Apr 1999), Write Many Read Once (25 Nov 1999), Book Houses (14 December 1999), Learning Investment (11 February 2000), Building Book Web (2 Feb 2001), Undivided Attention (6 Feb 2001), Readings On Thinking And Living (1 October 2001), Read Aloud (20 Mar 2002), ... and especially Read Well And Remember (31 Aug 2002))

- Sunday, February 16, 2003 at 13:22:06 (EST)

Ross Holland Memorial Award

A plaque in the display case is titled Ross W. Holland Memorial Award. It bears the inscription "For outstanding outdoor leadership and camping skills while serving with the Boy Scouts of America - Troop 439."

Below those words are recorded the names of the honorees, one per year beginning in 1984. Then is written, under the subtitle "Who was Ross W. Holland?":

He was big and blond, friendly and kind, and full of devilment. He was adventurous and loved the outdoors. He was a tenderfoot, an SPL, and a leader who inspired others. He admired, respected his leaders, and sometimes tested their patience. He could be counted on and you would want him with you if you were lost in the woods. He did some things great and he did some things wrong. Sometimes you are only allowed a few mistakes. He died at age twenty.
Some of the scout events Ross would be most remembered for are the Tote N Chip program, the Lenhocksin Trail at Goshen, the apple sale fund raiser, the ranger ride at the fair grounds, almost every campout, and the memorable backpacker up Mathews Arm on the Big Blue Trail.

Ross's mother and brother come every year to a BSA Troop 439 meeting in order to make the presentation in person. Robin Zimmermann (aka Rad Rob) was surprised and honored to receive the Ross Holland award this year. Congratulations!

(see also The Pax (6 Mar 2000), Ein Ben Stein (19 Sep 2002), Paramilitary Organization (12 Dec 2002), ...)

- Saturday, February 15, 2003 at 10:16:32 (EST)

Short Run

On Saturday morning at 8am I set a new personal record for the shortest official training run ever. In brief (which it was), I started my stopwatch, took three steps from the end of my driveway into the street, slipped on a patch of ice, and fell flat.

Fortunately I landed on my face, so nothing important was damaged. I climbed slowly to my feet, felt my nose to make sure it was still there, and (wisely) decided that this was a bad portent for the day ... particularly since I hope to participate in the Washington's Birthday Marathon next Sunday. There's no need to seek out injury before that; the race itself will doubtless do sufficient damage.

So I turned back, crossed my finish line, and stopped the clock. Elapsed time: 27.83 seconds.

(see also Seeing Stars 1 (10 Jan 2000), ...)

- Friday, February 14, 2003 at 15:02:32 (EST)

Public Domain

Tom the Dancing Bug is a comic strip series by Ruben Bolling. At times it strikes me as pointless, or incomprehensible, or utterly predictable cant. But at its best --- perhaps 20% of the time --- Tom offers a delightful blend of political commentary and wicked humor.

In late January 2003 Bolling struck a resonant chord as he caricatured current US intellectual property law. The strip begins as Superman TM is lured into a trap --- along with Mickey Mouse TM, Popeye TM, Bugs Bunny TM, Woody Woodpecker TM, and a crowd of other classic cartoon characters.

The villain chortles, "Ha-ha! Welcome to my domain, Superman! My public domain where I am your master!"

Then the evil one continues, "That's because when Congress's endless extensions of copyright terms are declared unconstitutional, you'll all be my --- or anyone's --- helpless playthings!"

The Man of Steel TM starts to slump. "Copyright ... fading!" he mumbles. "Can't ... resist ... unauthorized ... use!"

But then --- ta-da! -- the Supreme Court comes to the rescue: a black-robed judge ("... who fights a never-ending battle to protect the powerful and wealthy") crashes through a window, frees the copyrighted characters ("Go! Run back to your corporations!"), and trounces the rascal who wanted to do something creative and new with these cultural icons.

It's funny, but of course it's also serious --- especially if one cares about the general welfare of society. In Eldred v. Ashcroft Justices Breyer and Stevens dissented from the majority decision. Their statements are both witty and inspirational to read; their reasoning is, I believe, incontrovertible. Justice Stevens argues that that an essential symmetry in rights must exist:

It would be manifestly unfair if, after issuing a patent, the Government as a representative of the public sought to modify the bargain by shortening the term of the patent in order to accelerate public access to the invention. The fairness considerations that underlie the constitutional protections against ex post facto laws and laws impairing the obligation of contracts would presumably disable Congress from making such a retroactive change in the public's bargain with an inventor without providing compensation for the taking. Those same considerations should protect members of the public who make plans to exploit an invention as soon as it enters the public domain from a retroactive modification of the bargain that extends the term of the patent monopoly. ... Neither the purpose of encouraging new inventions nor the overriding interest in advancing progress by adding knowledge to the public domain is served by retroactively increasing the inventor's compensation for a completed invention and frustrating the legitimate expectations of members of the public who want to make use of it in a free market. Because these twin purposes provide the only avenue for congressional action under the Copyright/Patent Clause of the Constitution, any other action is manifestly unconstitutional.

And Justice Breyer offers a tour de force quantitative analysis of the costs to society of the recent copyright extension (conservatively, several billion extra dollars transferred from the public to winning copyright holders) and the miniscule extra payment to authors. After computing the net present expectation payoff of the new law for the average writer --- "less than seven cents today" --- Breyer asks:

What potential Shakespeare, Wharton, or Hemingway would be moved by such a sum? What monetarily motivated Melville would not realize that he could do better for his grandchildren by putting a few dollars into an interest-bearing bank account? ... How will extension help today's Noah Webster create new works 50 years after his death? Or is that hypothetical Webster supposed to support himself with the extension's present discounted value, i.e., a few pennies? Or (to change the metaphor) is the argument that Dumas fils would have written more books had Dumas père's Three Musketeers earned more royalties?

Breyer goes on to point out that, mathematically and economically, there is no significant difference between a copyright term of ~95 years and infinity. The discounted present value of the one is more than 99.8% of the other.

But apparently logic doesn't sway the minds of lawmakers; money does. As Breyer concludes:

This statute will cause serious expression-related harm. It will likely restrict traditional dissemination of copyrighted works. It will likely inhibit new forms of dissemination through the use of new technology. It threatens to interfere with efforts to preserve our Nation's historical and cultural heritage and efforts to use that heritage, say, to educate our Nation's children. It is easy to understand how the statute might benefit the private financial interests of corporations or heirs who own existing copyrights. But I cannot find any constitutionally legitimate, copyright-related way in which the statute will benefit the public. Indeed, in respect to existing works, the serious public harm and the virtually nonexistent public benefit could not be more clear.
I have set forth the analysis upon which I rest these judgments. This analysis leads inexorably to the conclusion that the statute cannot be understood rationally to advance a constitutionally legitimate interest. The statute falls outside the scope of legislative power that the Copyright Clause, read in light of the First Amendment, grants to Congress. I would hold the statute unconstitutional.
I respectfully dissent.

(see also Trading In Ghosts (1 Oct 1999), Para Mode (9 May 2000), Art Newspaper (4 Aug 2001), Robert Nozick (2 Feb 2002), For Great Justice (1 Dec 2002), ...)

- Thursday, February 13, 2003 at 16:37:12 (EST)

Dickerson-Zimmermann 2002

For those who missed seeing it on paper, here's a web version of the Dickerson-Zimmermann 2002 Family Annual Report that Paulette wrote and sent out with our Xmas cards:

In our general family news: This year our loyal little Chevette drove its last mile after twenty years. We got a harpsichord. Merle moved into a student apartment suite in the fall. Gray’s rabbit continues to be a source of amusement to us all, with her sweet begging ways.

Mark has been working weirder hours most of this year. He ran the Marine Corps Marathon with his brother Keith (and fifteen thousand other people), and completed the Marathon in the Parks in Montgomery County three weeks later --- Paulette and Gray were there to cheer him at the finish line. Mark now has his own internet domain, http://zhurnal.net .

Paulette, alas, is still hip deep in stuff although there is somewhat less stuff this year. In fact, there are now five or six places to sit in the living room (depending on who left their coat where). She still teaches mountain dulcimer and works on behalf of libraries.

Merle is not-quite-a-senior at the University of Maryland, College Park campus. He is a Chem major who is the Episcopal organist at the Knollwood Military Officers Retirement Home (formerly Distaff Hall) and is the substitute for the general Protestant services there. Merle’s an avid collector, especially of anime, and of books.

Gray continues to play music --- piano, viola da gamba and violin. She went to the Heifetz International Music Camp in Wolfeboro, New Hampshire this past summer and is in three chamber music groups and is a 1st violinist in the Prince George’s Symphony Orchestra.

Robin is taking classes at Montgomery College in Rockville --- science, math and music. He takes voice and piano lessons and is one of the leadership group in his Scout troop. He’s finished the Life Scout rank and continues to work hard as a scout.

(see also http://www.his.com/~z/paulette/ --- http://quickbeam.tripod.com --- http://zhurnal.net/~violconey/ --- http://radrobin.tripod.com)

- Tuesday, February 11, 2003 at 16:45:27 (EST)

Brian Levetzow

Good News: he's still alive, so there's time to write to him. Bad News: he has only a week or two before lymphoma kills him. Good News: he's at home with his wife, and according to a mutual acquaintance "is still cracking jokes".

Clotho spins the thread of life, Lachesis measures it, and Atropos cuts it off. Sometimes far too soon.

Brian is a tough nut. I met him a few years ago when chance placed my office near his. He was tall, crew-cut, fortyish, and dead boring ... until you got to know him. He was head of the "Futures Team" in the information technology group. Our conversations began with advanced computing but quickly moved on to another of his loves: home beer brewing. Brian was serious when serious was needed, but he knew how to organize a party, and his good humor and high energy helped make everybody in the outfit happier and more productive.

I learned a lot from you, Brian. In memory, with pun intended:

Brian Levetzow --- Strong Spirits

P.S. Bad News: on 6 February 2003, the day that I heard of his situation and mailed him a last letter, Brian died. R.I.P.

- Monday, February 10, 2003 at 15:48:46 (EST)

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note added to ZhurnalWiki Brian Levetzow on 12 Feb 2003:

Oddly enough my cousin Bob found your comments while goofing around on the web. I, along with the rest of my family, have just returned from Maryland to bury our little brother. We are comforted by the fact that Brian was loved by so many good people in his adult home on the east coast.

Your assessment of Brian is right on the button. We in the family often commented on his amazing abililty to say so much with so few words. The rest of us are chatterboxes but Brian was wired completely different than us. We often called him "Data" (Star Trek) based on his abilities.

We will all miss him. Thanks for your kind words. He was the last born (#7) but the first to go. God bless him.

Regretfully, #6

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In Memory of Brian Levetzow - by LaNedra Wright

When I first met Brian, I thought "Oh lawd he is big." Then when he told me he was the baby of the bunch I thought, "Good lawd, they come bigger than you?" I didn't quite know what to make of Brian at first. He was a bit of a go-getter, looking for things to do and always dragging me along with him. I mean dragging, because I was happy with my routine with occasion from time to time to learn something new. I didn't like moving on to something new until I had mastered what I have just learned. But as it turns out that was just the way Brian worked. His mind needed that kind of stimulation. And let's talk about his mind for a minute. Brian had the uncanny ability to understand the seemingly most complex things, in a short period of time, and then be able to explain it to a person in terms they could understand. He would be so patient. You could ask him the same question a hundred times and still he would show the same patience as if it were your first time asking him. So every time Brian learned something new, I was learning too.

Brian was a good friend. That's a rare thing to find at a workplace. To find people at work that you would actually socialize with outside of work, people you are genuinely concerned and cared about. I will remember how enthusiastic he was about keeping the party fund for the office and planning the breakfast and birthday parties. Oh boy did we hurt ourselves eating those breakfasts. All we could do was sit there and groan "That was good." It was like being home and Brian was a part of that.

Brian loved talking about how to brew beer. He would explain the process to you and that is what Brian was about, learning the process, the whats and the whys. He would tell you the difference between an ale, lager, stout, and the regular beers and how they are made and why one is better than the other.

I remember one day walking by his and Lisa's office and I heard Parliament Funkadelic music. And anyone who knows P-Funk music knows it is music you move to or at least bob your head to. So I stuck my head in and asked Lisa if that was her music. She said no. I turned and looked at Brian with a surprised look on my face for sure, because he wasn't a bobbing one and because the fact that he would be listening to P-Funk amazed me. I asked him, "Brian, what do you know about some P-Funk?" Then to my astonishment he rattled off not only all of the song titles I knew, but several I haven't heard of. I was like, "Oh, you got the funk on you."

I could go on and on about the memories I have of Brian, like the time we sang "I Feel Pretty" to Les when he purchased some red fingernail polish. Or the time he kept me from falling when I nearly passed out at work. There was the time he didn't go to training so that he could make sure I was ok when Lisa told me she got another job.

He was always a caring, smart, patient man. He was so nice to me. He even came and visited me in my new office. He gave me a Salvador Dali art book after we had gotten back from Florida where we went to the Dali museum. You would have thought I won the lottery when he gave me that book. He asked me, "Who's your buddy?" I said, "You?" Then he gave me the book; I gave him a big scream and a hug.

I remember when he told Lisa and myself the news. My heart sank. It started to ache. It was in October 2002. He asked for our prayers. I told him he can't get sick now, I still need him. He said he would get confirmation later, but they suspected it was lymphoma. He went in to go get a persistent cough he had had for a month checked. They did an x-ray of his chest and found a mass on his lung. They did confirm it was lymphoma and treatment was to begin immediately.

I have never felt so helpless to do something. In my household, I am the fix-it person --- thing, person, or animal. I could make it better. My Mom says I have the touch. I touch people and they feel better. Her hands hurt her sometime and I will rub them, saying a prayer or thinking good thoughts or visualizing her doing what she likes to do. She always feels better. But I couldn't do this for Brian, except pray. I said to Lisa, let's make a basket for him with his favorite things, chocolate, coffee, cookies, and a M. C. Escher coloring book with crayons. We got together for lunch and Lisa and I came strolling in, late because of me, with this big basket full of his favorite things. He let out a "Oh you guys". We gave him a hug and he razzed me for being late. He didn't look any different or sick or anything. So it was hard to accept that he was sick, because he didn't look like it. Especially since he had had one treatment by that time. You have these preconceptions of how a person with cancer looks, face drawn in, frail, think, gray. It was kind of awkward. I couldn't stop looking at him. He asked me about my love life. I told him it was non-existing. We all talked about a lot of things.

As time went by, I would see Brian on Sametime from time to time and we would chat. I would ask him how he was doing and he would always say good; he never complained or said woe is me. Then I just got used to thinking he would be there, fell back into the routine that everything is all right. Lisa called me and told me that he was in the hospital and he only had a week or two to live. I cried. Through the tears I managed to ask her when are we going to see him. She said Wednesday. We ended up seeing him the next day, Tuesday.

Lisa and I got to the hospital and to his room. The curtains were partially drawn and you could see part of the bed with these legs bent because they were too long. We could see people off in the other part of the room hugging and crying and saying comforting words to one another. We kind of stood back and watched, behind the curtain, I guess for fear of what we would see. The preconceptions popped up in my head again. I just knew for sure he would not look like himself. Like death was there ready and waiting.

Kathy came and greeted Lisa and me. She kept telling us how much he loved us. So we walked in slowly, peeping around the curtain. Lisa goes up to his right hand side and holds his hand as his wife tells him that we are there. I walk up to his left side. Brian looks at Lisa very intently, without saying anything, but as if he was trying to say something or just acknowledging that she was there. I stood on the other side, just rubbing his arm. Noticing he didn't look sick, it gave me hope that perhaps he was going to be ok, that he was going to pull through. We met one of his brothers and his daughter. We talked about stuff with Brian's brother. Brian was under heavy sedation. He was moving in slow motion and talking a little above a whisper. He managed to joke with us. I asked his daughter, Hannah, had she done any coloring. She said one, but her Dad had done a few. Brian whispered, "And they turned out better too." We were there for what seemed a long time. There was one touching moment when his wife was trying to feed him some sherbet. Brian had to sit up and rub his legs because they were getting stiff. And while he was sitting up, his wife was trying to feed him some sherbet. Brian raised his hand to push his glasses back and accidentally hit her glasses. He stopped and slowly raised his hand to touch her face and you could see how much he loved her. We were getting ready to go. I grabbed his left hand and he opened his eyes and just looked at me. Not saying a word. I would like to think he was trying to say, "LaNedra, you have learned what you needed to learn from me and you will just be fine. Don't be scared and don't spaz so much." I wanted to tell him I loved him and he was as good a friend as anyone could ask for. And I wouldn't spaz so much. But all I could manage to say was, "We will see you later." Holding on to the hope that we would.

Brian went home Wednesday. He went to his final home Thursday. I have nothing but good memories of Brian Thomas Levetzow. I still have his name on my Sametime. I look at my Salvador Dali art book from time to time and dance like no one is watching when a Parliament Funkadelic song comes on. He was as good a friend as anyone could ask for.

- LaNedra K. Wright -

Crude Metrics

A hit counter is a rather weak way to measure the popularity or impact of a web page. It includes all sorts of mindless search robot crawls in its tally, and it merrily logs multiple clicks or reloads by the same visitor. On the other hand, a hit counter will underestimate ultimate readership if a page is cached somewhere between the server and the viewer. And no amount of counting will reveal much about the actual importance of a page's contents to its audience.

But then again, a web hit counter is probably better than nothing. Maybe it's similar to another metric which a colleague likes to cite: the number of students whom he has trained in his classes. He multiplies by two and calls it "cheeks in seats" ....

(see also Write Many Read Once (25 Nov 1999), Web Log Analysis (2 Jun 2001), ...)

- Sunday, February 09, 2003 at 12:34:31 (EST)

On the Line

The morning after the latest space shuttle tragedy I chanced to be reading Chapter 60 of Herman Melville's Moby Dick, titled "The Line". It's an extraordinarily apropos bit of philosophizing about the hazards of bleeding-edge technology, disguised as an explanation of "the magical, sometimes horrible whale-line" that connects harpoon and boat. After describing the path that the line takes from the tub where it is stored to the harpoon, Melville summarizes:

Thus the whale-line folds the whole boat in its complicated coils, twisting and writhing around it in almost every direction. All the oarsmen are involved in its perilous contortions; so that to the timid eye of the landsman, they seem as Indian jugglers, with the deadliest snakes sportively festooning their limbs. Nor can any son of mortal woman, for the first time, seat himself amid those hempen intricacies, and while straining his utmost at the oar, bethink him that at any unknown instant the harpoon may be darted, and all these horrible contortions be put in play like ringed lightnings; he cannot be thus circumstanced without a shudder that makes the very marrow in his bones to quiver in him like a shaken jelly. Yet habit --- strange thing! what cannot habit accomplish? --- Gayer sallies, more merry mirth, better jokes, and brighter repartees, you never heard over your mahogany, than you will hear over the half-inch white cedar of the whaleboat, when thus hung in hangman's nooses; and, like the six burghers of Calais before King Edward, the six men composing the crew pull into the jaws of death, with a halter around every neck, as you may say.
Again: as the profound calm which only apparently precedes and prophesies of the storm, is perhaps more awful than the storm itself; for, indeed, the calm is but the wrapper and envelope of the storm; and contains it in itself, as the seemingly harmless rifle holds the fatal powder, and the ball, and the explosion; so the graceful repose of the line, as it silently serpentines about the oarsmen before being brought into actual play --- this is a thing which carries more of true terror than any other aspect of this dangerous affair. But why say more? All men live enveloped in whale-lines. All are born with halters round their necks; but it is only when caught in the swift, sudden turn of death, that mortals realize the silent, subtle, everpresent perils of life. And if you be a philosopher, though seated in the whale-boat, you would not at heart feel one whit more of terror, than though seated before your evening fire with a poker, and not a harpoon, by your side.

- Friday, February 07, 2003 at 18:29:17 (EST)

Karmic Rebalancing Act

I thought I was extraordinarily lucky last week. One morning I couldn't find my car keys; I searched everywhere before giving up and borrowing my wife's set and driving in to work in the pre-dawn darkness. I figured that if the keys didn't turn up someplace at home I would have to go through the expense and hassle of getting a new set. A bad start for the day.

But early that afternoon I received an in-house email: come to the front office and you can pick your keys! A passerby had found them lying on the trunk of my car, and that car --- a 1972 Dodge Dart, quite likely the oldest and ugliest vehicle in the lot --- led directly to me.

But how in the world could the keys have been there after a 15-mile freeway drive? As I worked out the chain of events, I must have dropped them on the trunk lid when I got home late the previous evening while fumbling with hat, gloves, etc. Overnight it rained and the temperature was fortuitously just below the freezing point. So the key ring was glued to the car by a layer of ice, which thawed shortly after sunrise.

Such good fortune can scarcely go unpunished: a few days later a policeman pulled me over. I was again driving the '72 Dart, and the officer of the law asked me, quite politely, whether I was aware that the registration had expired at the end of October 2002? "No, Sir." And was I aware that it was now February 2003? "Yes, Sir."

Politeness helps: I escaped with a (hefty) ticket, and the Dart escaped being impounded. Reminder to self: check expiration dates more often.

(see also Mujeres Frias (23 Jan 2000), ...)

- Thursday, February 06, 2003 at 05:49:15 (EST)

Essential Elements

The concept of writing a book about hydrogen --- mere hydrogen, that seemingly most trivial of atoms --- is brilliant. John Rigden did it. As he says in his acknowledgments, when one Nobel-laureate physicist heard of the plan his immediate reaction was to tease: "That's nice ... that's nice. Where did you get that idea? Did Rabi give it to you?" (Rigden had earlier written a biography of I. I. Rabi, another renowned physicist.)

The thesis of Hydrogen: The Essential Element is that deep insight comes not from complexity but from simplicity. To understand the true meaning of a theory, focus it on a well-defined system. Compare calculation with experimental evidence, and pursue any disagreement relentlessly out to as many decimal places as can be observed. Accept no approximations.

That philosophy, as Rigden shows in chapter after chapter, is how humble hydrogen managed to catalyze the development of spectroscopy, astrophysics, quantum mechanics, nuclear physics, quantum electrodynamics, cosmology, and low-temperature physics. The study of hydrogen also led to countless practical applications, including medical technologies such as MRI (magnetic resonance imaging).

Hydrogen is an inspirational book about the history of science, but unfortunately it falls short of greatness. The prose is often repetitive and uninspired, far below Isaac Asimov's standard for even a minor magazine essay. Many of the illustrations are fuzzy reproductions, only loosely coupled to the text. A simple timeline or quantitative depiction of precision versus time, for instance, would have saved space and made the point clearer. Tables of data are left hanging without proper explanation of apparent inconsistencies among numbers. Aggressive editing could have unleashed a much shorter, sharper volume.

And there are typos --- e.g. on page 219 where "... the 1,000 degrees from 1010K to 109K...." is off by almost seven orders of magnitude. Oops!

But enough quibbling; Hydrogen is redeemed by dozens of apt insights and lovely moments. For instance, consider the end of Chapter 13. The aforementioned I. I. Rabi invented key magnetic resonance methods in the 1930's, in order to measure the nuclear properties of hydrogen. A few months before he died in 1988 Rabi was hospitalized and underwent an MRI procedure. Rigden writes:

Once inside the apparatus, Rabi saw a distorted image of his face reflected in the shiny metal cylinder surrounding him. Rabi looked at his image. "It was eerie," said Rabi. "I could see myself in this thing. I would never have dreamed that my work would come to this."

(see also Vulnerable Theories (17 May 1999), Question Authority (18 Jan 2000), High Precision (16 Jul 2002), ...)

- Tuesday, February 04, 2003 at 05:59:44 (EST)

Crane Story

In the depths of darkness, halfway between midnight and dawn, a little girl awakens. She hears the grumble of the ocean tossing pebbles at the shore ... the drone of long-haul trucks on the highway down the hill ... the snores of her parents across the hall ... the whispers of the trees as they wave their branches at the wind. Light from the moon draws a diagonal across her bedroom wall.

It is cold. Lonely. The hour of fear. The child shivers and pulls the blankets closer around her. She listens to her own breathing for a few minutes, and tries to fall back to sleep. She fails, and frets, as a clock ticks.

Then from everywhere comes a rush, a sigh, a flicker --- and as she opens her eyes she sees a black shape begin to unfold above her. She catches her breath, shrinks, hears her heart pound in her ears as the dark thing expands.

Against the shadows before her there grows an angular form, darker even than the night. Its feathers rustle as it stretches its wings. Then it moves its head, and the faint light glints off an onyx eye and an obsidian-sharp beak. As the young girl watches a glow quickens around its edges and she sees it, dim but clear: a gigantic bird, perched on the foot of her bed, looming. She recognizes it and trembles.

"Black Crane," she whispers, "have you come for me?"

"Yes," the creature answers, as it shifts its position and folds its wings. "I am here to tell you my story." It tips its head to examine her, first with one eye, then the other. It begins:

Like you, one night I shivered --- all afraid, all alone. I was on an island. My island. My parents had carried me there the day before. They left me. They saw that my wings were too weak, would always be too weak, for me to fly on my own.
They knew that they could not forever tend me and feed me and carry me along with them, not as I grew. They knew that I could not live in a place with other birds, for among the others were those who would hurt me. I did not know then what it was to be a black crane, but they knew. My parents cried ... and then they left me.
I cried that night too. I was so small, so alone, so scared. The stars were so far away. I knew that they could not hear me or help me. No one could.

As the little girl listens to the story, her fears start to recede. Now her eyes widen and begin to fill with tears.

"How could they...?" she asks.

"They loved me," the Black Crane says.

That was the longest night of all time. Finally, as dawn came, I slept.
When I awoke it was mid-day, and I was hungry. I looked near the nest that my parents had made for me, and found nothing. I searched harder, and discovered food that they had left, concealed nearby.
As the days and weeks and months passed, I had to explore in an ever-widening circle. My parents had put many things there for me to find, things that I needed to survive --- each cache farther away and more cleverly hidden than the one before. They must have spent a long time preparing the island for me to live on before they brought me there.
Sometimes I despaired. But I knew that they loved me. And so I searched, and learned, and grew. But though I tried my wings again and again, they were never strong enough to lift me. I knew that they never would be.
After a great while I was able to live without the help of the gifts my parents had hidden. I figured out how to make and use new things from what was on the island. But I was always lonely, terribly lonely. I longed for something that I could not name.
One day the sky changed color. It became darker than I had ever seen it, and there came a storm --- but not with the ordinary rains and winds that I had known before. This was a great-grandmother of a storm that split the sky with lightning and tore trees from the ground and cast them on the ocean and vomited them back upon the land. This was a tempest that thundered its rage at the world, a cataclysm to drown all hope.
I was afraid, but suddenly my loneliness was greater than my fear. I climbed to the top of the highest hill on my island and unfolded my crippled wings.

"And you flew!" says the girl.

"No," replies the Black Crane.

With all the power of the wind, my wings were still too small and broken to carry me. I folded them over myself and lay there. I gave up, as I had never before done in all my years.
Finally, as all must, the storm passed. And finally, as all must, I got up. My island was in ruins. Nothing was left of the things I had gathered and built and arranged.
And then it was that, amidst the wreckage and the sodden mess, I saw a white feather, muddy and bent and broken.
My heart leaped inside me. I looked farther and harder, again and again, just as I had done so long ago when my parents had left me alone there to find what they had hidden. I found another feather. And then, as the red sun set, I found him, muddy and bent and broken.
All the force of the storm could not lift me --- and it could not help but lift him. His wings could not resist. Here was the White Crane that I had dreamt of in my loneliness, the one that I did not know and could never name. Here was my hope.
Since I could never go to find him, he had come to me.
And now he was almost dead. So I cleaned him. I warmed him. I covered him with my body, spread my feeble wings over him, and kept him alive with the strength of my spirit that night. It was a longer night even than the first I had spent on the island, and I was more afraid.
As the sun rose from the sea, he stirred.

The little girl has been holding her breath, and suddenly finds that she can move again. "Oh ..." she whispers.

"Yes," says the Black Crane.

I fed him and cared for him and watched over him as, day by day, he grew stronger. And we talked together, and watched the stars together, and opened our minds to one another.
He knew me and loved me and gave me all that he had, and all that I had I gave to him. We lived there in joy for years beyond numbering. And so did our children, and theirs.
And though still my wings could never lift me, yet every day I soared.

The Black Crane pauses in her story. Now as the girl wipes away tears of happiness and looks again, she suddenly sees that the great bird is changed. Instead of huge and terrible, her aspect is delicate. Her wings hang frail, like spiderwebs in the moonlight. Stars shine in her eyes, and she speaks again.

My White Crane and I grew old together. Finally, the time came for him to die. He left me then, not alone, but forever with his love. I go now to join him.

The Black Crane stands still, for a moment that seems to last an age. Then she continues, so softly that the girl must strain to hear, "On my way to him, I have come here for you. I bring you a gift."

The child's eyes open wider. She waits.

"My gift to you," the Black Crane says, "is only this: that you too shall find, beyond all hope, the joy that you have not yet dared to dream. Like me, you will pass through fear and pain and sorrow --- to discover love. This, I promise."

"Now sleep."

The little girl closes her eyes.

Moonbeams creep across her room. They gleam for a time on the wheelchair by her bedside, then move to caress the machines that keep her alive. Bellows rustle, like the wings of a bird. Motors mumble, like distant voices. Starlight scatters from glass-covered dials.

And outside her window, far above the boundless ocean, a pair of cranes fly together toward the dawn.

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... for Paulette --- Happy Valentine's Day 2003 ...

- Sunday, February 02, 2003 at 10:35:52 (EST)

Fourth Grade Twerp

Back in ~1961 an obnoxious elementary school student was arguing with his teacher. The topic? Whether "12 A.M." corresponds to noon or midnight. Who cares? Well, that precocious kid did. He had read something about it in an introductory astronomy book and was sure that he was right and his elder was wrong.

Of course it's simply a matter of definition, quite arbitrary and unimportant. The little twit didn't realize that.

Yep, you guessed it: I was that child. Belated apologies ...

- Saturday, February 01, 2003 at 16:56:58 (EST)

Fractal Feynman

Richard P. Feynman taught an undergraduate class that I sporadically sat in on circa 1975-76. Maybe the subject was advanced quantum mechanics; I don't really remember. I do remember the teacher.

Dick Feynman was an extraordinary physicist, and his passion for science was contagious --- but he was also an extraordinary entertainer. He loved to perform before an audience of Caltech kids as much as the students loved to learn from him. His Brooklyn accent was so pure and undiluted that we speculated he must listen to language tapes, to keep it fresh.

Once during a lecture Feynman appeared to get stuck during a derivation. He excused himself, moved over to one corner of the blackboard, and drew some small mysterious diagrams. After looking at them for a few moments he smiled, winked at us, erased his scribbles, and went back to continue solving the main equations. Did he really reinvent the math on the fly, in real time? Or was it a planned stage trick, a visual play on the Feynman Diagrams that were part of his Nobel prize-winning research many years before? No matter --- we all laughed together with him at the physical comedy. (pun intended!)

Four Pi Feedback (27 Jan 2003) brought to mind another Feynmanesque moment. Dick was in the process of doing some surface integrals for the crowd, and as often happened he paused to reminisce. "You know the circumference of a circle and the surface area of a sphere," he said. Then he quickly demonstrated the general case, the formula for the boundary of a hypersphere in N dimensions. "See that factorial there? If you write it as a gamma function you get the surface area of a sphere in X dimensions. Notice that X doesn't have to be an integer. I did that a long time ago, and then I worked out a few other properties of objects in fractional dimensions. What the hell good are they? I have no idea!"

(above quotes are from memory, not verbatim; see also Thinking Tools Examples (8 Apr 1999), Jon Mathews (25 Apr 1999), Bra Ket (24 Jan 2001), College Collage 3 (29 Sep 2001), ...)

- Thursday, January 30, 2003 at 21:04:07 (EST)

It Is Important

Enigma is an ultimately disappointing movie. Somehow it takes the fascinating story of Alan Turing at Bletchley Park, and turns it into a conventional love tale plus spy caper. And it completely omits the spirit of joy and discovery that deep mathematics embodies. Perhaps the writer and director were colorblind to those wavelengths and failed to realize what they left out.

Yet buried within the film Enigma is an extraordinarily touching scene --- a gem of an encounter that brings tears to the eyes of anyone who has ever worked on a small, incomprehensible fragment of a big collaborative project ... and for anyone who looks back at her life and dreams of a chance to speak to her younger self, to explain the meaning of what at the time seemed senseless.

First, a bit of context: the protagonist quasi-Turing character, for various weak plot reasons, has traveled to a remote radio listening post where rows of female uniformed officers copy encrypted German telegraphic morse-code transmissions. Their transcripts of gibberish are raw material for the Ultra decipherment process. A visitor from Bletchley Park is a Big Deal. As the tour concludes, one of the shy women takes off her headphones and works up enough courage to speak to the VIP.

She, hesitantly:

I don't mean to bother you, Sir ... but it is important, isn't it? I know we shouldn't ask, but I mean, no one ever tells us. You are making sense of it? It is important?

He, after a pause:


She, with emotion:

This is our only war, you see, in here --- beep, beep, bloody beep. And it's always nonsense, nonsense, nonsense.

He, slowly and quietly:

Yes. We are making sense of it ... and it is important.

She smiles, nods, and turns back to put on her headphones and return to work.

As do we all ...

- Wednesday, January 29, 2003 at 22:50:55 (EST)

Anacostia Tributaries

In front of me on the ridge line is a flock of crows, feeding and socializing and soaking up the warmth of the late afternoon sun. At my approach the small black sea parts. Some merely hop aside, while their more cautious brethren lumber into flight and make an escape toward the farther shore of the icy stream below. The wind begins to gust. I put on my knit cap and jog. About every half mile I slow to a walk, take a time hack, capture a GPS coordinate pair, and then resume running.

The trails I'm following are along the waters that feed the Anacostia River. First there's Sligo Creek, then Northwest Branch, followed by Northeast Branch, and finally Paint Branch. A narrow paved hiker/biker path parallels the streams. It's a mid-January Monday holiday, in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Today is another tiny experiment in personal horizon-expansion, this time between Chez ^z and the University of Maryland where #1 Son Merle lives. He came home this weekend to play the organ at the local chapel and to let me do his dirty laundry --- every parent's thrill. Now the rest of the family is driving him back to the dorm. I set out two hours ago to try the journey on foot, via a more circuitous but more entertaining route than the street system.

Aside from a few near-miss experiences at road crossings, the run is sweet, cool, and uneventful. I nibble a candy bar, sip from my water bottle, flex my fingers, and trot through neighborhoods of little brick houses and big apartment complexes, interrupted by woodsy areas and industrial zones, flood control berms and railroad overpasses, playgrounds and power-line rights-of-way, fenced-off antenna farms and unkempt baseball fields.

It's the backside of the town, so to speak ... and it's not an unattractive view. No glass-facade skyscrapers or public monuments. Just places where real people work, play, and live.

For the record, and to help anybody else who may wish to find the way:

Latitude Longitude Remarks
39:00:58 077:01:58 Sligo Creek Trail (SC) marker "2.5 mile", just north of Forest Glen Road near Holy Cross Hospital
39:00:39 077:01:42 SC "3.0 mile" post, inside the Beltway, not far from a golf course
39:00:28 077:01:14 SC "3.5 mile" post
39:00:13 077:00:53 SC "4.0 mile" post
38:59:59 077:00:39 SC crossing of Wayne Avenue
38:59:45 077:00:21 SC crossing of Piney Branch Road
38:59:43 077:00:22 SC "5.0 mile" (stripe on path)
38:59:09 077:00:15 SC street crossing near back entrance to Washington Adventist Hospital in Takoma Park
38:58:51 076:59:22 SC crossing of New Hampshire Avenue
38:58:37 076:59:13 SC crossing of line (painted on path) between Montgomery County and Prince George's County
38:58:25 076:58:57 SC crossing of East-West Highway
38:58:17 076:58:49 SC crossing of Riggs Road
38:57:50 076:58:43 SC "0.5 mile" marker, near Green Meadows Community Recreation Center
38:57:32 076:58:23 Junction of Sligo Creek Trail ("0 mile") and Northwest Branch Trail (NW)
38:57:18 076:58:19 NW "2.0 mile" post
38:57:12 076:57:58 NW crossing of Queen's Chapel Road
38:57:10 076:57:51 NW "1.5 mile" post
38:56:59 076:57:26 NW "1.0 mile" post
38:56:49 076:56:57 NW "0.5 mile" post
38:56:47 076:56:45 NW crossing of Rhode Island Avenue
38:56:43 076:56:31 Junction of Northwest Branch Trail and Northeast Branch Trail (NE) ("0 mile")
38:56:58 076:56:06 NE "0.5 mile" post
38:57:19 076:55:48 NE "1.0 mile" post
38:57:42 076:55:33 NE "1.5 mile" post
38:58:03 076:55:18 NE "2.0 mile" post
38:58:27 076:55:13 NE "2.5 mile" post
38:58:55 076:55:13 Junction of Northeast Branch Trail and Paint Branch Trail (PB) ("0 mile")
38:59:07 076:55:34 PB "0.5 mile" post
38:59:19 076:55:52 PB "1.0 mile" post

Apologies for inadvertent errors in the above. All coordinates are in WGS84 datum; latitudes are North, longitudes are West. Don't use this information for life-critical medical applications, nuclear reactor control, ICBM targeting, or anything else untoward, please ....

(see also Coordinate Collection (19 May 2002), Rock Creek Trail (31 May 2002), Marathon Coordinates (3 Oct 2002), Marine Corps Ordnance (1 Nov 2002), ...)

- Tuesday, January 28, 2003 at 07:40:27 (EST)

Four Pi Feedback

The classical mode of interpersonal interaction in a big organization is via orders from the Boss ("it all flows downhill", to allude to a crude common proverb). New-age management espouses "upward feedback", wherein the indians comment on their chiefs' activities. Even more trendy today is "360 evaluation", which encourages workers to critique their colleagues. With each increase in dimensionality the opportunity for gamesmanship increases. So does the chance to generate ill-will within a workgroup.

So what comes next? I fearlessly forecast that some clever consultant, any moment now, will flip through a solid geometry textbook, discover that a sphere has a an angular surface area of ~12.56637 steradadians, and thereby be inspired to invent --- drum roll, please --- Four Pi Feedback. (You saw it here first.)

What does it mean? Don't worry! Meaning isn't required to create a best-selling doctrine in corporate psychology. All you really need is a novel metaphor ....

(see also Power As Perception (5 Jan 2000), ...)

- Monday, January 27, 2003 at 07:53:47 (EST)

Runs in the Family

Every race should really be thought of as a training run, an effort done not merely for itself but for the long-term benefits: the development of strength, endurance, character, willpower ... the overall self-improvement ... the memories that this action will some day become. Today's race is for the future.

And contrariwise, every training run should really be thought of as a race, performed not for some fuzzy indefinite payoff but for the immediate reward: a striving for excellence in the moment ... a personal best effort to overcome all barriers ... a total immersion in the human struggle to unify body, mind, and spirit. Today's training run is for the now.

And so it is with every peak experience of life, and every quiet hour in between ....

(see also Bennett On Stoicism (29 Apr 1999), Most Important (16 May 2002), Self Improvement (29 Jul 2002), My Ob (18 Aug 2002), ...)

- Saturday, January 25, 2003 at 07:42:08 (EST)

Real Genius

The movie Real Genius (1985, written by Neal Isreal & Pat Proft, directed by Martha Coolidge) is a flawed but funny romp through some of the idiosyncracies of life in an intellectual pressure-cooker environment modeled on that at Caltech. It's a silly flick, largely forgotten ... except around our house where it provides material for countless out-of-context quotes and jokes, as well as comforting reassurance in times of stress. One of the memorable lines of serious dialog, for instance, is spoken by "Chris" (Val Kilmer): "When you're smart, people need you."

Although the protagonists necessarily occupy center stage in the plot of Real Genius, I find myself identifying strongly with a couple of the peripheral characters. "Lazlo Hollyfeld", for instance, is the naïve über-brainiac who lives in the warren of steam tunnels under campus. I won't spoil the film's conclusion by revealing where he ends up. (Suffice it to say that it's close to the archetypal 'Techer's fantasy dream.)

But far more charming than anybody else in Real Genius is young "Jordan" (played by Michelle Meyrink). She's a nerdy hyperkinetic insomniac girl who chatters along at the speed of light, is oblivious to most social norms, juggles far too many simultaneous impossible projects, and suffers from innumerable insecurities. Her introductory self-description:

I never sleep, I don't know why. I had a roomate and I drove her nuts, I mean really nuts, they had to take her away in an ambulance and everything. But she's okay now, but she had to transfer to an easier school, but I don't know if that had anything to do with being my fault. But listen, if you ever need to talk or you need help studying just let me know, 'cause I'm just a couple doors down from you guys and I never sleep, okay?

Hey, that's me!

(see also Seeing Stars 1 (10 Jan 2000), Final Exams (3 May 2002), Uncloseted Skeletons (11 May 2001), Lens Manic (16 Jul 2001), College Collage 3 (29 Sep 2001), ...)

- Thursday, January 23, 2003 at 05:57:28 (EST)

Big Picture Fallacy

The Grand Design --- it's such a tantalizing ideal, especially for scientists who like to speculate. If only we could look a little farther out into the universe, a little deeper into the nucleus, a little harder into the mathematics. One more discovery, and we'll understand it all. Maybe we've already got the key element of The Grand Design, but haven't realized it yet. Maybe this paper that I've recently written is It, but nobody (else) appreciates the fact (yet).

Hmmm ... stated so bald-facedly that sounds pretty megalomaniac, eh?! Yet that's the recurring theme of so many (erstwhile) popular science books.

But perhaps there is no Grand Design --- just an infinite wealth of jigsaw-puzzle pieces that fit together in countless ways without ever making a larger picture. Perhaps the most important things don't simplify down to a few elegant principles.

And perhaps an open-ended world like that wouldn't be a bad place to live.

(see also Edge Of The Universe (8 Jun 1999), On Somethingness (17 Jan 2000), No Concepts At All (22 Feb 2001), ...)

- Wednesday, January 22, 2003 at 05:40:33 (EST)

Forest Dialect

As I was jogging through the woods I chanced to pass a group of walkers. A storm a few days earlier had blown down a huge oak which lay fallen across the path, and the tourists were marveling at it.

One remarked, "That's a truly venerable tree --- but it's treely dead now!"

- Tuesday, January 21, 2003 at 17:05:04 (EST)

Net Works

A good popular science book is hard to write. Linked by Albert-László Barabási exemplifies some of the common pitfalls. Its subtitle is "The New Science of Networks" and the front cover states its thesis as "How Everything is Connected to Everything Else and What it Means for Science, Business and Everyday Life".

A towering order, one which nobody short of a Feynman on a good day could deliver. Alas, although Linked is fast-paced and highly readable, its lack of technical justification for its biggest claims makes it ultimately unpersuasive. Does the published scientific literature cited in its footnotes prove the case? Impossible to tell. Barabási is clearly a smart researcher, as well as a good writer (setting aside distracting episodes of ethnocentrism --- did everything important originate in Hungary?). But his book would have been more illuminating if it had focused its light on a more modest set of goals, and if it had included more quantitative evidence and fewer hand-waving just-so stories.

Coincidentally, on 17 Jan 2002 Michiko Kakutani in the New York Times reviewed a different yet similar popularization, Predicting New Words: The Secrets of Their Success by Allan Metcalf. Like Linked, in Kakutani's judgment Predicting overreaches in its attempt to explain complex phenomena using a tiny set of principles. She finds its examples unconvincing and occasionally contradictory, and concludes "... the book as a whole is full of holes and flawed by a dogmatic and not always logical thesis."

Barabási's and others' research on networks has turned up some interesting, perhaps important, relationships, such as scale invariance and logarithmically "small worlds". But to leap from linkage statistics among web pages to grand postulates about physics, chemistry, biology, economics, society, and the universe? With only a handful of equations and even fewer graphs of real data? And with no discussion of the limitations and weaknesses of key hypotheses?

I'm skeptical --- as I try to be with all freshly minted theories-of-everything.

(see also Vulnerable Theories (17 May 1999), Science Versus Stamp Collecting (20 Jun 2000), Science And Pseudoscience (6 Oct 2001), Erdos Numberz (13 Jul 2002), ...)

- Monday, January 20, 2003 at 07:45:09 (EST)

My Affectations

Distracting mannerisms? I've got 'em aplenty. Influenza is 'flu, for instance, and 'tis similar for other words with leading apostrophes. Ligatures like those in æsthetic, Cæsar, and encyclopædia tend to obtrude. So do inflected letters as in rôle, naïveté, etc.

Then there's the overuse of interjections, alas, as well as parenthetical asides (really?!). Don't forget the folksy dialect schtick --- aw, shucks, Ma'am, wouldn't wanna sound too lit'ry here, ya know? It contrasts with ponderous polysyllabic prose, wherever possible involving heavy alliteration and foreign phrases ad nauseam. Sprinkle liberally with metaphors, allude to something that by any other name would smell as sweet, and try to steal home when the reader isn't looking.

Have I mentioned self-referential whimsy yet?

And when there's nothing more to say I have a propensity to end with a dangling ellipsis, often combined with a cliché from an old TV show. Sorry about that ...

- Sunday, January 19, 2003 at 13:20:32 (EST)

This is volume 0.27 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!