^zhurnal v.0.34

Howdy, pilgrim! You're in Volume 0.34 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.)

Lincoln Memorial

"Dopé!" I say to myself in French early on a Sunday morning, as I finish my second cup of coffee and go upstairs to pop a couple of ibuprofen. Dopé is a taunt shouted at Lance Armstrong during the Tour de France by skeptical spectators who can't believe he has gotten to where he is without chemical assistance. In my case caffeine is a wake-up call, a voluntary addiction. Anti-inflammatory medication is a temporary crutch for my ankle, which aches after a too-abrupt ramp-up of mileage during the past few weeks. Legal drugs, to be sure, but I'd much rather do without. Sometimes I ask myself whether I should give up fancy padded socks and high-tech cushioned shoes. Then I come to my senses. "Dopé!"

"You dope!" I say to myself in English an hour later. I've arrived at the starting point for a much-anticipated 20 mile race and find myself the only one there. A quick phone call confirms that the event was held yesterday, on Saturday. I simply misread the schedule. "You dope!"

What next? Pre-race butterflies magically leave my stomach as soon as I discovered my mistake; I'm now ready to stretch my legs. Another call, and friend KS agrees to go jogging with me. He leads me at a brisk pace along a course in his neighborhood, a couple of laps around a huge open field where local TV/radio transmitter antennas tower adjacent to a conjunction of freeways. We do ~4 miles together, plus warm-up and cool-down walks, chatting all the while.

I drive home, still in the mood for motion. Hmmm --- there's a gap on my route map between the origin of the Anacostia River and the National Mall. I've been thinking about filling it, some day. Today? A check of the charts suggests that the missing link is maybe half a dozen miles along city streets; add a few more for zig-zags. It will take me a similar trek to reach the starting point if I follow some nice paths I know along tributary streams. Total 15-20 miles, assuming I ride the subway home. Sounds both feasible and fun, especially since there are a couple of obvious opportunities to bail along the way and take public transit back to Che^z. And some solo time might be refreshing.

I change socks; feetsies feel fine. I fill a water bottle, tuck a few dollars and some change into a pouch along with a cellphone and an energy bar. Plans A through Z are available to me if necessary. I grab a GPS receiver and set off.

It's a lovely day, unseasonably warm for early January, with scattered clouds, light breezes and damp roads from earlier showers. I'm dressed in my usual summer attire of thin mesh shirt and dayglo fluorescent orange-pink shorts. High visibility helps when crossing busy streets. I take it slow and give myself generous walk breaks every 5 minutes, plus occasional bonus walks on uphill segments. Average pace is a comfortable 11-12 minutes/mile.

After half an hour along local streets I join Sligo Creek Trail. I greet joggers headed upstream and wave at babies being pushed along in their perambulators. Cyclists blast past --- how can they see enough to enjoy themselves at such a speed? Wooden bridges escort the trail across water that riffles and ripples on the rocks below. Squirrels dart away at my fearsome approach. I cross from Montgomery into Prince George's County and pause at a neighborhood store to buy something sugary to drink. Then I juggle GPS, water, and cherry cola for the next few miles until I finish the bottle and find a trash can to discard it in.

I reach the end of Sligo Creek and continue down the Northwest Branch Trail. Stairs to the West Hyattsville metro station beckon --- but I resist the temptation to stop. A dog-walker confirms that Rhode Island Avenue is the next major street, just before the railroad bridges. I leave the footpath and climb an embankment. I'm on US Route 1.

Now instead of flowing waters, sidewalks lead me beside parked cars and bus stops, fire stations and pawn shops, garages and liquor stores. At the two hour mark I cross Eastern Avenue and enter the District of Columbia. Kids on an apartment balcony shout greetings down at me. I catch a fragment of a Sunday afternoon sermon through a half-open church door. Several passers-by smile at me and say "Happy New Year!" I thank them and return the benediction.

The weather remains warm, almost uncomfortably so. My shorts start to chafe; my shirt is sweat-soaked; my pace slows. I take advantage of DONT WALK signs to catch my breath --- wisely, given the number of cars that speed through red lights in front of me. But the old legs still feel good. I don't even think about punching out as the route takes me by another metro stop.

Approaching downtown I turn onto 7th Street NW, thread my way around construction projects, and pass the DC Convention Center. There's an automobile expo. Attendees carry away big logo-marked plastic bags of loot. They look happy.

I slant down New York Avenue to the White House. Guards guard the entrances. Concrete barriers and spiked fences form a backdrop for people taking pictures of one another. Street vendors block half the sidewalks with souvenir t-shirt displays.

Then the Mall, where geese honk and tourists attempt to refold maps. The high density of landmarks overwhelms my little GPS receiver's screen and I give up trying to consult it. I proceed west past the long black walls of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. There's a water fountain that I remember from last winter, the first functional one along the route today. I refill my squeeze bottle.

The Lincoln Memorial rises in front of me. I climb the slippery-wet marble steps and pause to read an inscription where Martin Luther King Jr. spoke, then turn to look back at the Washington Monument. The obelisk blocks the view of the Capitol building, but the Library of Congress dome peeks around on the right. In the foreground the Reflecting Pond doesn't reflect; it's drained.

I enter the shadows inside the memorial. Abraham Lincoln's statue broods above a few dozen people who speak in hushed tones or not at all. I join a handful standing to one side. We read the Gettysburg Address carved on the wall. My eyes go misty, as they did when I saw the same words on a plaque at Gettysburg Cemetery.

198 minutes elapsed time. I stop my watch in the quiet space there at Lincoln's feet. Journey over.

(see Gettysburg Coordinates (27 Feb 2002), Anacostia Tributaries (28 Jan 2003), Ten League Ley Lines (23 Nov 2003), Turkey Burnoff 2003 (30 Nov 2003), ... )

- Tuesday, January 06, 2004 at 06:26:54 (EST)

Close to the Pin

A couple of years ago when I remarked that some random annoyance was driving me crazy, a comrade (WD) short-circuited my parser with the reply:

"In my case it's not a drive --- it's a short putt!"

- Monday, January 05, 2004 at 06:04:28 (EST)

Prime Obsession

John Derbyshire's Prime Obsession: Bernhard Riemann and the Greatest Unsolved Problem in Mathematics is a wonderous and eye-opening book --- if you've already taken a class in number theory, that is. If you haven't, your faith will be tested repeatedly. Derbyshire is brutally honest when he writes: " ... I shall skip nimbly over the really difficult parts ...", "... I am going to vault over to the following fact ...", "... I can explain this, but only in outline ...", etc.

Yep, as Parappa the Rapper says, "You gotta believe!" [1] Why? The focus of Derbyshire's book, that "Greatest Unsolved Problem" alluded to in the subtitle, is the Riemann Hypothesis, aka the "RH". It dates back to the mid-1800s and has been the focus of a huge amount of work by some of the smartest mathematicians in the world.

What's the RH all about? To paraphrase Richard Feynman's comment, if it were easy to explain then it wouldn't be a great problem --- and Derbyshire's book wouldn't be the tour de force that it is.

Begin with prime numbers: 2, 3, 5, 7, 11, 13, 17, 19, 23, 29, etc. Primes are positive integers that aren't divisible by any other positive integer (except 1). The primes are the building-blocks of huge chunks of mathematics. They're like atoms, important in much the same way that the elements --- hydrogen, helium, lithium, beryllium, boron, carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, ... --- form the foundations of chemistry. Any positive integer can be written as a unique product of primes multiplied together. And there are infinitely many primes.

So primes are important. How are they scattered amongst the other numbers? The sequence looks like a ragged mess. Primes start out appearing close together, but then bigger and bigger gaps show up. Yet every so often, there's another cluster of primes near one another. They seem to be "random" in some ways, but highly patterned in others.

That's where the RH comes in. Derbyshire explains, in beautiful and lucid prose, the mathematical-historical meaning of the RH. As Enrico Bombieri observes in a (highly technical) essay for the Clay Mathematics Institute [2]: "The failure of the Riemann hypothesis would create havoc in the distribution of prime numbers. This fact alone singles out the Riemann hypothesis as the main open question of prime number theory." And that's why reading a book like Derbyshire's, and getting a glimpse of the RH, is worth the investment of time for a person who wants to be acquainted with the central questions of our age.

John Derbyshire himself is a fascinating fellow --- articulate columnist for National Review, entertaining and idiosyncratic writer, born in England, resident of New York, married to a lovely Chinese lady, father of some beautiful kids. I find much to disagree with in his commentary as well as much to salute. For instance, Derbyshire muses on life in an interview by Bernard Chapin in Enter Stage Right [3]:

It is highly unlikely that any one of us is a uniquely talented individual with a precious gift to offer the world. It is vastly more probable that we are mere atoms in the mass of humanity, who must find fulfillment in a lifetime of performing humdrum tasks on behalf of our family, neighbors, and fellow-citizens, while we each explore our individuality in small rewarding hobbies and private devotions.

Maybe so. At least, that's how things have been for most folks throughout most of history. But perhaps there has been progress, in the past several millennia, as an increasing fraction of the world has climbed a few steps up from cruelty and illness, ignorance and hunger. "Please, sir, I want some more."

(see also Human Nature (5 Dec 1999), Analysis And Algebra (15 Dec 1999), Severe Privilege (7 Jun 2000), My Religion (6 Nov 2000), We Happy Few (11 Mar 2001), Readings On Thinking And Living (1 Nov 2001), Millennium Math (5 Dec 2002), ... )

- Sunday, January 04, 2004 at 06:18:30 (EST)

Ocular Migraines

Fascinating physiological phenomenon: a handful of times during the past few years I've seen bright glowing patches of afterimage-like blobs in my visual field while running. It happened in the 2002 Marathon in the Parks around mile 16, for instance, and again a month ago when I was jogging at night around the track at an old neighborhood high school. The effect is rather like looking through a few big phosphorescent clouds, randomly placed, like one might see after a sudden flash of light. It lasts maybe 10 minutes or so and then fades away.

The blobs don't change shape, or grow slowly, or have zig-zaggy edges --- unlike the classic visual hallucinations associated with migraine headaches, which I've witnessed a few times ~25 years ago. The blobs just interfere a bit with vision, especially in the shade or after dark. I don't know whether they're in the brain or in the eyes or somewhere in between. (They do seem to invert in hue when one blinks; is that a clue?) They're not associated with great physical effort or excessive speed (as anybody who knows my wimpiness can testify!).

I asked about this topic in the Montgomery County Road Runners online discussion group, and got a variety of helpful responses: some thought that I was in big trouble and should see an ophthalmologist immediately ... some explained it as veins, always present in the eye but usually unnoticed ... some proposed an oxygen deficit or brain dehydration or ... etc.

The most plausible hypothesis, though, came from a person who had experienced similar visions and whose eye doctor diagnosed them as "ocular migraine" illusions. Such neural network disturbances could indeed be correlated with dehydration, stress, and other factors. And best of all, this theory doesn't mean that I have to stop running!

(see also Migraine Visions (29 Nov 2001), Dream Data (22 Mar 2002), ... )

- Saturday, January 03, 2004 at 11:18:50 (EST)

Ignorant Authors

What does it take to write well about a topic? Some arch observations from The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling by Henry Fielding, Book XIV, Chapter i ("An essay to prove that an author will write the better for having some knowledge of the subject on which he writes."):

As several gentlemen in these times, by the wonderful force of genius only, without the least assistance of learning, perhaps, without being well able to read, have made a considerable figure in the republic of letters; the modern critics, I am told, have lately begun to assert, that all kind of learning is entirely useless to a writer; and, indeed, no other than a kind of fetters on the natural sprightliness and activity of the imagination, which is thus weighed down, and prevented from soaring to those high flights which otherwise it would be able to reach.
This doctrine, I am afraid, is at present carried much too far: for why should writing differ so much from all other arts? The nimbleness of a dancing-master is not at all prejudiced by being taught to move; nor doth any mechanic, I believe, exercise his tools the worse by having learnt to use them. For my own part, I cannot conceive that Homer or Virgil would have writ with more fire, if instead of being masters of all the learning of their times, they had been as ignorant as most of the authors of the present age. Nor do I believe that all the imagination, fire, and judgment of Pitt, could have produced those orations that have made the senate of England, in these our times, a rival in eloquence to Greece and Rome, if he had not been so well read in the writings of Demosthenes and Cicero, as to have transferred their whole spirit into his speeches, and, with their spirit, their knowledge too.

- Friday, January 02, 2004 at 04:10:21 (EST)

Cgao Coma

N!xau, Gcao Coma, Gcau, #oma, Nixau, G!kau, N!gau, ...

He was a man of many names (or rather, many transliterations) --- a Kalahari Bushman who chanced to star in a few movies: the touchingly sweet Gods Must Be Crazy, its equally delightful sequel, plus some forgettably minor films. Among the celebrity profiles in the final 2003 issue of the New York Times Sunday magazine, David Rakoff's short note about N!xau stands out in stark contrast to the obits of big name headliner-seekers who died last year. Rakoff writes:

There is an old joke about Mother Teresa being asked her hopes and dreams for the future. She answers, "What I'd really like to do is direct." Media stardom has become perhaps the great existential answer to the question "Why are we here?" It would seem only natural that one would parlay the extremity of one's physical exoticism, difficult-to-pronounce name and nontraditional camera presence into fame and fortune. ...

Instead, in 1994 N!xau quietly stopped acting. Eventually he gave up his palatial (in context) brick house to move back into a normal village home. He suffered from drug-resistant tuberculosis in his later years. Tangeni Amupadhi in The Namibian [1] (11 July 2003) describes Coma's cheerful retirement:

His wealth consisted of 21 cattle, 11 sheep, two horses, two bicycles, two spades, two rakes and five axes, including three traditional ones that he made himself.

... and his final end:

On Monday last week, he woke up at 06h00 as usual, collected firewood and made tea that he sipped with his father-in-law. He took his bird traps, bow and arrow and a hunting pouch and set off to hunt, his main target being guinea fowl. He did not come back that day. Coma's father-in-law tracked his spoor the next morning and found him on a path back home, bow and arrow still strapped to his shoulder.

Modest and wise, with a wonderful laugh. Cgao Coma, 1944-2003, R.I.P.

(see also Fan Fare (26 Apr 2003), ...)

- Thursday, January 01, 2004 at 13:12:23 (EST)

Incomprehensible Phenomena

New Year's Eve is a good time to peer, Janus-fashion, backwards and forwards. During recent weeks I've been watching the skies and have seen some fine "Iridium flares" --- sudden glints of light from comm satellites in low orbits.

What would smart people a few centuries ago have thought if they glimpsed an Iridium flare? Are there analogous events being observed right now that are equally far beyond our current understanding?

(see also Iridium Flares (30 Dec 2001), ... )

- Wednesday, December 31, 2003 at 05:45:27 (EST)

Campaign Reform

On Sunday morning at the local grocery store I shook hands with Sid Altman, an 80 year old retired history teacher who is running for the US Senate in Maryland. In 2000 when he last sought office Altman got 31,000 votes, about ~7% of the total number cast in the Democratic primary. His campaign cost only ~$850.

That amazing ratio --- less than 3 cents/ballot! --- suggests a simple, modest approach to political reform: divide each candidate's votes by the amount of money s/he spent.

Since we're talking about politics there are, of course, plenty of devils in the details --- but with a little effort they can be exorcised (probably more easily than the current system's infestation of imps). For starters, it makes sense to grant each candidate a tiny amount of credit at taxpayer expense, perhaps $0.01 per registered voter in the region. Then no office-seekers will get infinite ratios by spending zero and voting for themselves. Public funding could be applied to setting up web sites, printing pamphlets, and the like ... but not buying beer for one's frat brothers or lattés for one's sororal sisters. Audits would be necessary, as with today's system.

How to handle "outside" or "independent" spending? It would generally have to be credited to a candidate's account, as is done to some degree already. That raises the fascinating possibility of buying commercials on behalf of other contenders, in order to hurt their vote/$ ratios!

Probably the best solution is to round all expenditures to one significant digit, and thereby short-circuit arguments over unimportant details. When two vote/$ ratios are within a statistical uncertainty band of one another, hold a run-off.

A quick check of vote/$ ratios in recent elections suggests that quite a few results would have been different under this new system --- and that, to put it delicately, in many cases the spending of more money has not resulted in the better candidate winning office ...

(see also Month Of Questions (11 Jul 2000), Make Money Whisper (9 Nov 2002), ...)

- Tuesday, December 30, 2003 at 06:29:18 (EST)

Street Songs

Songs s-s-s-sung with stuttering or featuring stormy weather have a powerful appeal to me (see My Generation, 2 Oct 2001). Now I've identified another strange attractor in my musical-aesthetic universe: streets. Two recent examples are "Free Fallin'" by Tom Petty and Jeff Lynne (which mentions Ventura Boulevard and Mulholland Drive in Los Angeles) and "Walking in Memphis" by Marc Cohn (Beale Street).

Roads, without moving, have power to bind a land. Simply invoking an avenue can conjure upon that magic. Name the right road, and suddenly there appear images ... faces ... sounds ... ideas ... layers of history made visible ... a whole culture, encapsulated in a word.

(see also Walk About (9 Mar 2002), Invisible Web (8 Dec 2002), Two Towers (29 Dec 2002), Expanding Universe (26 Jun 2003), Ten League Ley Lines (23 Nov 2003), ... )

- Monday, December 29, 2003 at 07:00:55 (EST)

Deceleration Parameter

The universe is expanding, at a rate called the "Hubble Constant". But that rate of expansion (probably) changes over time --- i.e., the Hubble Constant isn't constant! The name for that cosmological slowing-down is the "Deceleration Parameter".

I have my own personal Deceleration Parameter, however, rather more physical than astrophysical. In running (as in living!) pace is crucial. The most efficient racing tactic, in theory and as confirmed by general experience, is to maintain a constant speed. In practice this is extraordinarily difficult. The almost irrestible temptation is to go out fast near the beginning of an event --- "Hey, I feel fresh ... I can get ahead of schedule and put some time in the bank!" But almost always that early enthusiasm leads to a much worse slow-down later. (Again, as in life?)

Quanto-freak that I am, after a big race I like to take the mile-by-mile times (splits) that I've captured in my watch and then run them through a least-squares (linear regression) calculation (using the trusty old HP-11C that has served me well since 1980 --- talk about overdesign!). The resulting slope of the curve is my "Deceleration Parameter" for that event.

But in truth, this approach may be massive overkill. A simple approximation gives almost the same answer: take your time at the halfway point of the race, double it, and subtract that from your finishing time. (Or equivalently, subtract your first-half-of-the-race time from your second-half time.) Then divide the result by the square of the length of the race and multiply by 4. That's roughly the average amount of deceleration that you have experienced during the event. In symbols:

d = 4*(T - 2*T1/2)/L2

... where d = deceleration, T = total time, T1/2 = halfway-point time, and L = length. (The derivation is straightforward, based on the assumption that each half of the race is run at a constant rate.) If d comes out less than zero then you've done the second half of the race faster than the first and have achieved "negative splits" ... and I envy you!

For quick reference, here's what the formula simplifies into for various distances when you calculate the split-difference S = T - 2*T1/2 in minutes and ask for the deceleration parameter d(S) in units of seconds/mile2:

race distance approximate d(S)
5 k 25*S
8 k or (5 mile) 10*S
10 miles 2.4*S
half marathon 1.4*S
marathon 0.35*S

So an even simpler rule of thumb for the marathon deceleration is "take the difference in minutes between the second half and the first half, and divide by three". Testing this against my three marathonic experiences yields:

event approximate d(S) least-squares d(S)
Marine Corps Marathon 2002 7 sec/mi2 6.6 sec/mi2
Marathon in the Parks 2002 12 11.3
Marathon in the Parks 2003 5 4.2

Not bad, much faster and simpler to compute, and perhaps as accurate as the data justify.

( ... but note that when I did preliminary tests for shorter distances the errors were apparently much larger, for reasons which remain unclear to me ... see also Bless The Leathernecks (28 Oct 2002), Marine Corps Ordnance (1 Nov 2002), Rocky Run (17 Nov 2002), Marathon In The Parks 2003 (11 Nov 2003), Marathon Graphs (17 Nov 2003), ... )

- Sunday, December 28, 2003 at 07:26:01 (EST)

Hennie Schneider

Our family friend Hennie Schneider passed away on 24 December 2003, from a stroke a few days earlier. She was in her 80s. Her death notice began:

... HENNIE SCHNEIDER (nee Rand), beloved wife of the late Saul Schneider; loving mother of James Schneider of Highland Park, Ill.; dear mother-in-law of Dr. Shana Weiss; beloved sister of Abby Rand of NY, NY; loving grandmother of Chloe and Bryn Schneider. ...

But that, of course, doesn't begin to suggest the web of connections that Hennie forged. She was a sweet person: funny and persistent, thoughtful and caring, cynical and gracious. We met Hennie a decade ago, when Paulette served with her on the Montgomery County Library Board. We continued to visit Hennie when she retired from the Board and moved to a nursing home a few miles from here. Hennie loved to take the five of us to the Parkway Deli nearby, where she would toy with her food and then insist on paying the check and sending us home with a gargantuan turtle cheesecake. Such a lady!

Paulette, Merle, and I were fortunate to be able to attend Hennie's funeral on the 26th, where the cantor spoke and sang with amazing spiritual power, and where Hennie's sister gave a moving, heartfelt eulogy. The interment was equally memorable, on a windy winter afternoon in an old, small cemetery on the eastern side of Baltimore. Hennie's body rests now next to her husband's.

I tried once to sketch, in iambic pentameter, a fragment of a conversation with Hennie; see Dear Hennie (29 Apr 2001) for the result. It's not too successful, but reading it now I can still hear, rather distantly, Hennie's voice ...

(see also Johnson Condolences = [1], Deep Sympathies (30 May 2001), ... )

- Saturday, December 27, 2003 at 05:52:24 (EST)

Final Lesson

Seen on the bookshelf of a music teacher's studio, a small urn labeled:


(and see Corporal Incentivization (12 May 2002) for another anecdote about the same instructor ... )

- Friday, December 26, 2003 at 09:09:02 (EST)

Charlotte Haven Lord Hayes

Merry Christmas! This year the 'Net has given me one of the best gifts ever, closed a century-long loop, and made a mother happy.

Specifically, begin with an 1892 present from a brother to a sister, mentioned in the 24 October 2000 ^zhurnal entry Charles Lambiana:

In the "Philosophy" area of a local used-book sale recently there appeared The Wit and Wisdom of Charles Lamb, edited by Ernest Dressel North. This tiny volume was published in 1892 by The Knickerbocker Press, G. P. Putnam's Sons. It is inscribed "From your Affect. Broth. J. A. Blake Dec. 25, '92" and bears a yellowed bookplate: "Charlotte Haven Lord Hayes, Blake". (Its original price was apparently $1, and it again sold for that sum --- in a currency depreciated by at least an order of magnitude. What path did it take, across 108 years, to arrive on the shelf where I found it?) ...

Now fast forward to last month, when an email with the enigmatic subject line " zhurnal...Datetag 20001024" was flagged for deletion by my spam filter. Something about it caught my eye; at the last moment I rescued the file and opened it to discover a beautiful letter from a night-shift nurse at a major university hospital in an old city of the northeastern USA. The author, JT, wrote:

... While 'googling' on a slow Saturday night in the CCU, I had put in the term "Charlotte Haven Lord Hayes" and received back your web site 'zhurnal.net'. I found this of particular interest because under the topic 'Charles Lambiana' the lead entry was about a book that had belonged to my great-great-grandmother, the aforementioned Charlotte Haven Lord Hayes Blake. ...

JT went on to comment "My mother has been seriously involved in genealogy for over 40 years ..." and asked about the possibility of locating the book I had mentioned.

Whoa! Needless to say, I was floored --- and delighted --- to get the message. Then I began to worry. At least two years had passed since I had last seen the little lost Lamb book, and I feared that it was irretrievably buried in the basement of Che^z , loaned out and never returned, or donated back to the local library's charity used-book sale.

But luck was with me: the tiny tome was unearthed and, after some delay, forwarded to JT (who sent in turn a princely reward, which I passed along to today's much-deserving birthday girl, Paulette).

And thus, on Christmas Day --- exactly 111 years after J. A. Blake first gave the gift to his sister --- The Wit and Wisdom of Charles Lamb is in the hands of the great-granddaughter of Charlotte Haven Lord Hayes, Blake. It's a small, and wonderful, world ...

- Thursday, December 25, 2003 at 06:17:05 (EST)


Warning signs:

You may be a victim of a new secret society: the SUVexators. These self-righteous ecofreaks delight in driving (no pun intended!) to distraction any modern human who has spent a few years of disposable income on a prestigiously profligate transportation machine. SUVexators are shameless, even proud, in their retrograde thinking. They are never happier than when inconveniencing those whom they see as treading too heavily on the Earth. A vast, clandestine conspiracy, clothed in apparent innocence, aimed squarely at you.

Or maybe it's all in your imagination ...

- Wednesday, December 24, 2003 at 06:40:46 (EST)


Bruce Schneier is one of those rare birds who writes sensibly about complicated technical issues --- in his case, issues revolving around information security and larger questions of security in general. Schneier's monthly "Crypto-Gram" newsletter (see http://www.schneier.com/crypto-gram.html) offers thoughtful, precise remarks on current infosec developments as well as delightful balloon-pricking of the far too frequent hype and promo-bogosity that the field is prone to.

The 15 December 2003 "Crypto-Gram" is a good example. Schneier punctures quantum cryptography:

"I don't have any hope for this sort of product. I don't have any hope for the commercialization of quantum cryptography in general; I don't believe it solves any security problem that needs solving. ..."

and explains how to make electronic voting technology work:

"All computerized voting machines need a paper audit trail. Build any computerized machine you want. Have it work any way you want. The voter votes on it, and when he's done the machine prints out a paper receipt, much like an ATM does. The receipt is the voter's real ballot. ..."

Smart, accurate commentary.

The best thing about Bruce Schneier, though, is the way he has grown over the years. His perspective on security has broadened, and he admits it. It's encouraging to see somebody that honest get at least part of the recognition he deserves.

(Full Disclosure: Though he probably doesn't recollect it I've met Bruce once, at a so-called "Hackers Conference" in northern California held in 1996. See Nice Hackers (20 Dec 2000), for thumbnail sketches of a few of the other people there.)

- Tuesday, December 23, 2003 at 05:31:03 (EST)

Concering Charity

Some wry words on giving, as seen from two perspectives, in The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling by Henry Fielding, Book XIII, Chapter viii ("Containing a scene of distress, which will appear very extraordinary to most of our readers."):

I have, in truth, observed, and shall never have a better opportunity than at present to communicate my observation, that the world are in general divided into two opinions concerning charity, which are the very reverse of each other. One party seems to hold, that all acts of this kind are to be esteemed as voluntary gifts, and, however little you give (if indeed no more than your good wishes), you acquire a great degree of merit in so doing. Others, on the contrary, appear to be as firmly persuaded, that beneficence is a positive duty, and that whenever the rich fall greatly short of their ability in relieving the distresses of the poor, their pitiful largesses are so far from being meritorious, that they have only performed their duty by halves, and are in some sense more contemptible than those who have entirely neglected it.
To reconcile these different opinions is not in my power. I shall only add, that the givers are generally of the former sentiment, and the receivers are almost universally inclined to the latter.

(see also My Business (30 May 1999), Good Will (25 Dec 1999), No Glory (11 Jan 2000), My Religion (6 Nov 2000), ... )

- Monday, December 22, 2003 at 06:11:24 (EST)

Top Band

The electromagnetic spectrum extends from arbitrarily long wavelengths to arbitrarily short ones. Amateur radio operators can, and do, experiment and communicate in HF (100-10 meters = 3-30 MHz), VHF (10-1 m = 30-300 MHz), UHF (1-0.1m = 300 MHz-3 GHz), and onward, to millimeter waves and beyond.

Radio technology began, however, at much lower frequencies. Today there's only one ham band left down there, a relic from the early 1900s, still in use by a pack of hard-core loyalists. It's at a wavelength of 160 meters, ~1.8 MHz, just beyond the end of the AM dial. Hams call it Top Band, a lovely crisp name steeped in a century of tradition.

Working Top Band is tough. Free electrons produced in the upper atmosphere by solar radiation soak up low-frequency energy, so to get any sort of distance you have to stay up late at night when atoms in the ionosphere recombine. Equipment is bulky (no mass-market handitalkies!) since the laws of Nature force resonators to be large. Antennas likewise are monstrously long, in proportion to the waves themselves. And there's heavy interference from long-range navigation beacons and other users of the spectrum. So the challenges of operating on 160 meters are nontrivial. So are the rewards.

I fell in love with Top Band in 1973. Rice University, my alma mater, had a well-endowed amateur radio station but a dearth of operators. With my license (WB5CMQ, later N6WX) I was welcomed aboard. Besides some powerful gear the club had a superb 160 meter antenna: a gigantic inverted-V of wire that slanted down from either side of The Campanile, an old bell tower and campus landmark.

Several Rice ham club members were enthusiastic contesters. They loved the hurly-burly race to make the most contacts with the most distant stations in the shortest possible time. I didn't care much for fighting through pile-ups and shouting into a microphone, so I volunteered to fill odd gaps in the schedule and to do CW (radiotelegraph code). It was fun and zero pressure. Any points that I racked up were pure gravy for the club's score. My kind of job.

Thus it was that 30 years ago I found myself the only human soul awake in the neighborhood of the electrical engineering building, pulling the coldest of graveyard shifts, a mid-winter all-nighter ... crouched over an antique receiver ... headphones pressed against ears ... tuning slowly up and down ... listening to every static crackle ... hunting for the whispy-faint Morse signal of another station --- then pouncing on it, exchanging call signs, logging the contact, and moving on.

Midnight to dawn, alone, prowling Top Band ...

(see also College Collage 2 (3 Oct 2000), ... )

- Saturday, December 20, 2003 at 05:41:48 (EST)

Inconspicuous Nightclothes

In a hazardous duty zone, soldiers wear camo outfits. When they want to sleep comfy, their pajamas should likewise be camouflage-patterned. What to call such garments?

Cammie jammies!

- Friday, December 19, 2003 at 05:51:24 (EST)

Dickerson Zimmermann 2003

For those who might not get to see it on paper, here's a web version of the 2003 Dickerson Zimmermann annual report that we're sending out with our Xmas cards to family and friends:

Robin is doing well at Montgomery College and is preparing to transfer to a university, where he hopes to study civil engineering. He aced the SATs and achieved the rank of Eagle Scout this year. Robin continues to take piano and voice lessons. He tutors fellow students in mathematics and serves as Assistant Scoutmaster in Boy Scout Troop 439, Kensington.

Gray is still studying violin with David Salness. She has won honors in several violin competitions this year including the Frederick Orchestra Young Artistís Competition and the Washington Post Dance and Music Awards. She attended the Musicorda summer music program at Mount Holyoke College. Gray is in two chamber music groups and plays 1st violin in the Prince Georgeís Philharmonic Orchestra and in the Washington Youth Chamber Orchestra. She hopes to study at a music conservatory in 2004.

In our general family news: Indian movies (from "Bollywood") are the big new craze at home. We have a "new" car, a 1987 Mercury Topaz. It joins the '92 Honda Civic and the '72 Dodge Dart as part of the Gwyndale Drive fleet that we and our neighbors maintain on our block. Grayís rabbit continues to be a source of amusement to us all, with her sweet begging ways.

Merle is finishing his Chemistry undergraduate work at the University of Maryland (College Park) and hopes to continue on to graduate study next year in that field. He continues to play the organ for church services at Knollwood Memorial Chapel. Merle also has more new gadgets than anyone else, and his affinity for electronic machinery keeps him in great demand fixing computers and other equipment.

Paulette continues as Chair this year of the Chevy Chase Library Advisory Committee, and likewise continues her work on behalf of libraries and other public services. She still teaches Appalachian dulcimer but spends most of her time driving people hither and yon and, lately, helping them fill out college application forms and producing the CDs to go along with the music applications.

Mark is long-distance running to help push his weight and blood pressure down. He ran his slowest and most comfortable marathon yet, and has gone over 1,000 miles in his training jogs along Rock Creek, Sligo Creek, and other neighborhood trails. Mark has also added over 300 wiki pages to his web domain http://zhurnal.net/ this year.

(see also Dickerson Zimmermann 2002 for last year's family bulletin, plus individual pages at http://zhurnal.net/~pdickerson/ --- http://www.wam.umd.edu/~merle/New_Website/ --- http://zhurnal.net/~violconey/ --- http://radrobin.tripod.com/ --- http://zhurnal.net/~z/ --- http://www.his.com/~z/ )

- Thursday, December 18, 2003 at 05:39:55 (EST)

Perversity Principle

Murphy's Law has numerous extensions and corollaries. The most important in my experience is:

"If it can't hurt you by going wrong, then it won't!"

Thus if you've backed up your files recently, your disk won't crash. If you've printed out a good-enough-to-turn-in draft of a term paper then your printer won't run out of ink when you ask it to produce the final version. If you arrange your travel schedule to arrive early for an appointment then the bus won't be late, there will be plenty of taxis, your flight won't be cancelled, traffic will be exceptionally light, and so forth. If you hang on to your receipts, you won't need them. And if you buy insurance, you'll never collect.

- Wednesday, December 17, 2003 at 06:35:00 (EST)

Year in Ideas

In December 2002 I got irate but restrained myself. I wrote a few notes in my private wiki but never got around to cleaning them up for Zhurnal Wiki exposure --- or perhaps I came to my senses in time and self-preempted the rant?

This year I just can't take it any more! The New York Times, otherwise a great newspaper, shot itself in the (unmentionable) again with its Sunday magazine "Year in Ideas" theme issue (14 December 2003). How many trees died to perpetrate this flapdoodle? As a wanna-be thinking person, I am embarrassed to admit that I read it.

The problems with both 2002's and 2003's "Year in Ideas" are manifold --- and, alas, the disease is shared (often in more virulent forms) by most major media coverage of new concepts. Among the worst sins that literate, well-meaning, but naive journalists have committed, time and again:

What's the right way to write about ideas in an annual popular forum? The real need is to identify news developments involving the best old notions, and not get swept away by transient novelty. To do that is tough work. It demands critical thought plus expert advice, and probably takes months of study. It also can't easily be turned into a big glossy magazine full of ads for expensive new products. Too bad ...

- Tuesday, December 16, 2003 at 05:35:05 (EST)


Following up on The Ugly Fallacy (7 Dec 2003), a Zhurnal Wiki visitor (CA) observed:

There are (at least) two ways to interpret the virtue-beauty link. The view which is ridiculous is something like a link between beauty and traits like skin color or symmetry of facial features.
A view that is not so ridiculous is that one's facial expressions tend to reflect one's character. For example, a "good" person might smile with a "radiant" beauty, while a "bad" person might have an ugly sneer of contempt or hatred. (If one sees a sneer (or another negative expression) as an expression of emotional pain rather than a consciously chosen attack, then the expression may evoke compassion rather than disgust.)
Unfortunately, many people are fooled by those who know how to act good/beautiful (smiling, laughing, etc.) while hiding less noble intentions.

Excellent comments, and focused on the right questions. But is the "beauty" that a "good" person exhibits objectively visible, or is it really a phenomenon in the mind of an observer who knows about the "goodness"?

It seems to me that it would be a cheap and enlightening experiment to take photos (or movie clips, if that works better?) of a bunch of little-known "good" people (e.g., Nobel Peace Prize winners from several decades ago?!) and mix them in with images of "bad" people --- then let observers attempt to differentiate. Given the huge popularity of "Rate My ****" web sites, I bet somebody could pretty trivially do it online --- though the voting sample would then be rather uncontrolled and the results would be somewhat questionable, eh?! Double-blind tests are better.

If there's a genuine "beauty" effect from virtue (virtuosity?!) then how strong is the correlation? How many years of good deeds does it take to get really pretty? Do Eagle Scouts look more handsome than Tenderfoots (Tenderfeet?!)? Are supermodels who deliberately choose to wear fur less attractive than those who are devout vegetarians? Does the phenomenon cut across cultures, races, belief systems, etc.? (How about religions which differ in their definitions of "goodness"?!) And does the Beauty Effect apply to other body parts besides the face, or is there something magical-mystical (Mirror of the Soul) about that particular part of the anatomy?

There are quite a number of good psychology/philosophy experiments begging to be done here --- why haven't they already been performed? I'm just an ignorant former physicist ... please show me the data! (^_^) ... ^z

- Monday, December 15, 2003 at 05:41:17 (EST)

Missing Senses

"I smell dead people!" What's the matter with that as a movie slogan? (for those who don't get the allusion: the mantra for The Sixth Sense was "I see dead people".)

Answer: motion pictures, and television for that matter, hardly ever "do" odors. (John Waters's 1981 Polyester with its scratch-and-sniff "Odorama" was an exception.) A murder victim's body is hidden in a closet for days and nobody notices. Bread bakes unremarked. Perfume likewise lacks effect. Almost the only time that a flick succeeds with scents is when an animal picks up something that humans are oblivious to. ("Lassie, go find Timmy! Seek!")

Similarly, taste and texture tend to be absent from cinema. Stories are seen and heard --- and that's all. It's an entertaining game around our house to spot logical failures in a movie because of the general "senselessness" of the medium ...

- Sunday, December 14, 2003 at 13:01:05 (EST)

Holy Matwimony

Same-sex marriage --- a huge topic of controversy in the US today. Fundamental human right? Perversion of a sacred ceremony? Tempers rise, rhetoric flies.

Maybe there's a simple solution: grant full social, legal recognition to an identical institution --- but give it a different name. Modest suggestion: "mawidge". Anyone who has seen William Goldman's The Princess Bride will remember Peter Cook's performance as a clergyman with a distinctive speech impediment who officiates at a royal wedding. He begins his benediction:

"Mawidge ... mawidge is what bwings us togethah today ..."
"Mawidge, that bwessed awangement, that dweam within a dweam ..."

- Saturday, December 13, 2003 at 16:54:08 (EST)

Sanguine Disposition

From Book XIII, Chapter vi, of Henry Fielding's The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling, on the importance of being born with a pacific mental nature:

... As his temper therefore was naturally sanguine, he indulged it on this occasion, and his imagination worked up a thousand conceits, to favour and support his expectations of meeting his dear Sophia in the evening.
Reader, if thou hast any good wishes towards me, I will fully repay them by wishing thee to be possessed of this sanguine disposition of mind; since, after having read much and considered long on that subject of happiness which hath employed so many great pens, I am almost inclined to fix it in the possession of this temper; which puts us, in a manner, out of the reach of Fortune, and makes us happy without her assistance. Indeed, the sensations of pleasure it gives are much more constant as well as much keener, than those which that blind lady bestows; nature having wisely contrived, that some satiety and languor should be annexed to all our real enjoyments, lest we should be so taken up by them, as to be stopt from further pursuits. ...

(see also Catfight Club (5 Sep 2003), Flagrante Delicto Philosopher (19 Sep 2003), Antient Commons (3 Nov 2003), Piling On (18 Nov 2003), Professional Vs Private Life (25 Nov), Impossible Usage (4 Dec 2003), ... )

- Friday, December 12, 2003 at 16:00:28 (EST)

Running Bored

A friend (SC) who has begun to experiment with jogging writes that s/he finds it quite dull. This strikes me as fascinating --- since I never seem to experience tedium while running. Pondering why, I came up with a few hypotheses:

  1. my life is so stressful that any change is relaxing and welcome
  2. my life is so monotonous that any change is exciting and welcome
  3. pains and aches associated with exertion (at times, anyway) occupy my brain
  4. the paths along which I ramble are unusually interesting, or at least distracting
  5. exhaustion leaves me no mental energy for boredom (or other conscious thought)
  6. there's some extraordinary state of zen-like enlightenment which I enter after half an hour of pavement-pounding

I suspect that hypothesis 5 explains most of the effect, with some of 4 and maybe a dash of 1 or 2 thrown in as spice. Number 6 seems quite improbable.

During recent runs I've kept a eye out for ennui, and have yet to spot any. Perhaps my expectations are simply low, so when I see a squirrel or step on a leaf it's enough to satisfy me. Likely I need more non-intellectual time to counterbalance an excess of neural stimulation elsewhere. For sure I've been incredibly lucky during the past couple of years not to get badly injured.

And above all, it's obvious that different people resonate with different pursuits, mental and physical. Running, at the moment, works for me; I'd best enjoy it while I can.

- Thursday, December 11, 2003 at 06:12:56 (EST)

Universal Instant

"Death is the one moment shared by all of Life."

- Wednesday, December 10, 2003 at 06:28:42 (EST)

Aikido Spirit

Another used-book sale, another random encounter --- and this time into my hand leaps, with a twist and a kick, The Aikido Student Handbook by Greg O'Connor (1991, 1993). I expect to see a discussion of martial arts, perhaps plus some humorous anecdotes. Instead, I read about life, love, and peace. As Rick Stickles says in his introduction:

Aikido is a process. A martial process, yes, but more importantly, a process by which we attempt to bring about a balance between our physical, mental, and spiritual selves. Not unlike other mind/body/spirit disciplines, Aikido is merely one path an individual may choose to improve the quality of life and come to a basic understanding of the nature of being human.
Martial arts, yoga, meditation, movement, and bodyworking therapies are some of the techniques we use to bring us to a singular destination. To describe or "label" this destination is a difficult task. Some believe it to be a state of personal clarity that enables us to connect in a healthy way with others and the enviornment which surrounds us all. It is through this type of connection that we may have a positive effect on the world around us.

The book itself is a delightful mix of practical advice ("Always ask permission before using the dojo phone. Please keep all calls brief.") and deep philosophy. At the end of the chapter "Training in Aikido" O'Connor summarizes:

Aikido can be practiced by many types of people for many reasons, at many levels and degrees of intensity. Whether we realize it or not we are all drawn by the real power behind Aikido --- peace.
The first thing we learn to recognize is that we can easily defeat someone with the techniques of Aikido. Realizing this and having the confidence in the simple soft power of Aikido, the next stage is to see ourselves in our attacker. We must recognize our commonality and admit that we, too, have lost our balance as this person has, and perhaps have regretfully done harm to someone. We lovingly forgive the attack and the attacker while taking care that we are not injured or unbalanced by their loss of balance.
This way of approaching interactions transforms our daily life. There is conflict only if we agree that there is conflict. If we mistreat everyone we come in contact with, especially those who put their trust in us, we will have an army of people looking to mistreat us in return. If we care for and protect those we come in contact with, we will have an army of people who will care for and protect us. Be mindful, though: if selfishness is your sole motivation, that will taint the energy involved in the interaction. You must care for and give to others without ulterior motives. You should do it because it is the right thing to do. It is the way of truly powerful, peaceful people.

Perhaps, as O'Connor suggests elsewhere in the book, everybody has to find his or her own pathways to self-awareness --- and the routes for a single individual may change radically as the years go by. At the moment my main Aikidos seem to be reading, journaling, and distance running. Your mileage will vary ...

(see also On Comfort (8 Dec 1999), My Religion (6 Nov 2000), Ultra Man (8 May 2002), Achieve New Balance (17 Jul 2002), ...)

- Tuesday, December 09, 2003 at 05:43:10 (EST)

Pitiful Losers

Tone of voice or twinkle of eye can turn insult into friendly banter, and vice versa. As the much-misquoted line from Chapter 2 of Owen Wister's The Virginian goes, "When you call me that, Smile." A friend at the office once described those of us, chained to our desks, who missed a luncheon as "Pitiful Losers". We understood. More recently a language maven in the family heard a new idiom used by a comrade to express sympathy with someone in a bad situation:

"So sucky to be you!"

- Monday, December 08, 2003 at 17:03:41 (EST)

The Ugly Fallacy

Innate human nature, or social indoctrination below the level of conscious thought? How else to explain it when an intelligent academic (whose identity will mercifully not be revealed here) writes in a recent book:

This link between goodness and beauty is often noted in regard to the human face. The face of a good person is apt to radiate the virtue within, thus acquiring a beauty it would not otherwise have; while the face of a bad person will tend to reflect the inner ugliness and be repellant to the gaze. ...

S/he goes on to qualify the above, but not enough to get out of the hole s/he's dug. And others have fallen into the same fallacy, at times from the opposite direction. In "How Mrs. Piper Bamboozled William James" (from The Encyclopedia of the Paranormal, reprinted in Are Universes Thicker Than Blackberries?) Martin Gardner catches the famous psychologist/philosopher:

Here is what I consider the most stupid remark in all of James's writings: "When a man's pursuit gradually makes his face shine and grow handsome, you may be sure it is a worthy one. Both Hodgson and Myers kept growing ever handsomer and stronger-looking."

Ugliness equals evil. Heroes are pale-skinned and pretty. Villains are dark and deformed.

Ridiculous, and utterly commonplace. Some childrens' books, using animals as anthropomorphic stand-ins, carry this to extremes that would be blatant racism if done with people. In one noteworthy example the big black apes are all bullies; the little pink chimps are the ones readers are supposed to identify with.

Is there a correlation between physical attractiveness and virtue? (And "attractiveness" as defined by whom?) Show me the data --- or admit that it's a delusion, a post hoc fantasy-justification for prejudice ...

- Sunday, December 07, 2003 at 05:16:55 (EST)

Short Skirt

Sharp pains in the upper-front muscle of my left leg are mostly gone now, but they were rather troublesome for much of September and October (and did provide a near-perfect excuse for my wimpish performance at the Marathon In The Parks 2003). What caused the damage, I do not know --- perhaps a minor muscle tear or tendon strain, unnoticed at the time, while stepping over something on the living room floor? Or perhaps excessive enthusiasm during a late-summer training run?

But whatever the origin(s), I definitely felt severe twinges while climbing out of the driver's seat of the family's youngest car, a low-to-the-ground 1992 Honda Civic. (The '87 Topaz and the '72 Dart are slightly higher and much easier to enter and exit.) After much experimentation I devised a relatively pain-free tactic: swing both legs out and plant both feet parallel on the ground, knees together, before attempting to stand. That method distributes the weight better and prevents sudden twisting-tension on the left quadriceps. (American cars have the driver on the left.)

A friend laughed when I described my technique to her recently. She told me that I had simply rediscovered the classic exit strategy for a modest lady in a miniskirt ...

- Saturday, December 06, 2003 at 09:36:25 (EST)

Army Football

Won 0, Lost 12 --- that's how Army's football team has done thus far this season. If it falls victim to Navy on Saturday then Army will ring up a perfect 0-13 tally.

Bill Pennington in the New York Times of 4 Dec 2003 profiles sophomore Rob Davis in "For a Cadet Football Player, a Typical Day Is Rough Yet Rewarding". Life at the U.S. Military Academy makes a startling contrast to that of the scholarship athlete at a typical major-sports college: no special tutors, no jelly roll courses, no under-the-table payments, no performance-enhancing drugs. Just hard work in the classroom --- philosophy, physics, calculus, economics, military science ... --- and then more hard work on the field.

Plus good humor, plus pride. Winning isn't everything, especially if you don't do it the right way, fair, square, with honor. The day of the interview, Pennington notes, isn't just any old day for Davis:

It was also his 20th birthday, something no one at the academy or around the football team seemed to know.
"Sir," Davis said to a visitor, smiling. "There is nothing to be gained by letting that get out. Not in this setting."

Note that smile ...

- Friday, December 05, 2003 at 05:52:02 (EST)

Impossible Usage

Around our house one of the most quoted lines from the movie The Princess Bride (by William Goldman) is the response of Inigo Montoya to Vizzini's trademark refrain, "Inconceivable!":

"You keep using that word --- I do not think it means what you think it means."

In a related vein a few centuries earlier, Henry Fielding in Book XII of The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling riffs on the term "impossible" (Chapter xi, "The disasters which befel Jones on his departure for Coventry; with the sage remarks of Partridge"):

Jones now declared that they must certainly have lost their way; but this the guide insisted upon was impossible; a word which, in common conversation, is often used to signify not only improbable, but often what is really very likely, and, sometimes, what hath certainly happened; an hyperbolical violence like that which is so frequently offered to the words infinite and eternal; by the former of which it is usual to express a distance of half a yard, and by the latter, a duration of five minutes. And thus it is as usual to assert the impossibility of losing what is already actually lost. This was, in fact, the case at present; for, notwithstanding all the confident assertions of the lad to the contrary, it is certain they were no more in the right road to Coventry, than the fraudulent, griping, cruel, canting miser is in the right road to heaven.

(see also Catfight Club (5 Sep 2003), Flagrante Delicto Philosopher (19 Sep 2003), Antient Commons (3 Nov 2003), Piling On (18 Nov 2003), Professional Vs Private Life (25 Nov), ... )

- Thursday, December 04, 2003 at 05:27:29 (EST)


Happy, happy happy! I've finally grokked (at least momentarily) the connection between Finite State Automata and Regular Expressions ... and at last I begin to understand why some regexps with nested quantifiers are so incredibly slow, a puzzle that has pestered me for several years now.

But first back up to get a modicum of context: what's all this about?

Now you know enough to go on. So we've got these little mathematical machines, FSAs ... and we've got this little logical language, regexps ... hmmm! Maybe they can work together? Maybe one could be translated into the other? Maybe they can jointly be used to solve complex and important problems with great speed? Yes to all of the above!

But heretofore I had only been told that FSAs and regexps were intimately linked; I had never seen an explicit explanation of how they cohabit. Textbook assertions like "It can be demonstrated ..." failed to scratch my itch.

Then, by sheer good fortune, Darren Neimke read a Zhurnal Wiki note on a completely unrelated theme (Semiotic Arsenal, 20 Nov 2003) and posted a comment. That led me to Darren's http://regexblogs.com/ site where I found a thicket of good information on the technology of regular expressions ("regexes" to Darren, "regexen" to the affected --- but traditarian that I am, still "regexps" to me). My thirst for understanding the FSA-regexp link was aroused from its long slumber.

So I asked Darren, and he kindly pointed me to the lovely essay by Mark-Jason Dominus, "How Regexes Work" ([1]). I read MJD's words and the scales fell from my eyes --- much like the Eureka! moment of revelation that I experienced when I figured out how to solve a Rubik's Cube (see Rubik Cubism 1, 16 Mar 2001).

And the other question that had nagged me? Some regexps are woefully inefficient --- they seem to take forever to run. Why? A Perl programming book had cautioned me not to use nested wild-card quantifiers, but it didn't explain the sources of the danger. Dominus did, beautifully. It's all a matter of how Perl implements regexps as FSAs, and in particular the backtracking depth-first search strategy that Perl uses to match patterns. (see Breadth And Depth, 11 Jun 1999)

In a letter to me Darren said that "... finite state machines sit about 4 layers of abstraction below my level of competency :-) ...". Me too! But it's important to occasionally go spelunking and get a glimpse of those deeper levels, just as it's important (and fun, for a physicist's personality anyway) to have at least some vague notion of how everything works --- and thereby get a better feel for the limitations of tools that are built on those foundations. (see Know How And Fear Not, 19 Nov 1999)

And in another sense, maybe it's not down but up that the progression is going --- to greater levels of abstraction, richer and more powerful conceptual spaces. (see Creative Devices, 1 Jan 2001, and No Concepts At All, 22 Feb 2001, and Darren Neimke's "Death by Abstraction" within [2], 26 Nov 2003)

- Wednesday, December 03, 2003 at 05:42:40 (EST)

Infinite in All Directions

"It's a big universe out there --- but fortunately, we have even bigger imaginations."

(see also Edge Of The Universe (8 Jun 1999), On Quickness (12 Sep 1999), ... )

- Tuesday, December 02, 2003 at 05:45:04 (EST)

Food Fixations

After a dog or cat eats something that seemingly makes it sick, it instinctively avoids that food henceforward. Likewise human beings: Paulette and I, ca. 1978, got violently ill after consuming carry-out pastrami sandwiches from a "Lucky Boy" hamburger shop in Pasadena, California. Probably they were tainted with salmonella or some similar bacterium. It took Paulette a decade or more before she could try pastrami again; I never have (but then, I've been a vegetarian since the mid-1990s, so the clock stopped ticking then).

In the other direction, certain foodstuffs become associated with goodness for idiosyncratic and circumstantial reasons. When our kids were tiny, for instance, we would give them Gatorade (an electrolyte-replenishment drink, ostensibly for athletes) if they were sick. So Gatorade became for them an elixir of life. In my long runs during the past year Clif Bars have been my manna, ambrosia, and nectar --- particularly the crunchy peanut butter variety.

Logical? Not at all! But positive mental associations seem to help, regardless of reality. It's doubtless a placebo effect, the same as my experience with Vitamin C, which seemed to help me avoid common colds as long as Linus Pauling was alive. After he passed away, the pills lost their efficacy. Too bad ...

- Monday, December 01, 2003 at 17:50:26 (EST)

Turkey Burnoff 2003

Hooray! Yesterday at the "Turkey Burn-Off" 10 miler --- thanks to the kind help of Coin Club Comrade KS who ran the initial five with me --- I was able to achieve a heretofore elusive goal: negative splits. I actually covered the second half of the distance significantly faster than the first, and in good comfort. Instead of the usual boring (maybe to some, but not to me) tabular presentation of mile-by-mile paces and cumulative time data, here's a quick graph:

"Pace" on the vertical axis is in minutes/mile and is depicted by the red diamonds. The blue line is a least-squares fit to those ten points and shows an overall average acceleration of ~7.5 seconds/mile/mile. (Extrapolating that I should reach the speed of light after ~87 miles ... hmmmm!)

The Montgomery County Road Runners Club [1], as usual, put on a superb event. Amazingly enough there was even plenty of good food left for slowpokes like me who reached the finish line almost 2 hours after the race began. Some aides memoire re the experience:

My official results (slower than my watch times by ~15 seconds, since KS and I began that far back in the pack; note that most people chose one or the other event, not both):

5 miler
148th place, behind 83 men and 64 women, 14th of 15 males in the 50-54 year bracket --- finishing in 53:14.
10 miler
141st place, behind 89 men and 51 women, 12th out of 13 males in my age group --- total time 1:41:49.

An excellent ramble through the woods ...

(see also Edwards Folly (13 Apr 2003), Marathon In The Parks 2003 (11 Nov 2003), Marathon Graphs (17 Nov 2003), ... )

- Sunday, November 30, 2003 at 17:01:51 (EST)

No Problems

Living with brain cancer, raising three daughters during the time she has left, a family friend recently gave us a new mantra when she gently chided someone for complaining about a difficulty:

If that's the worst problem you have, then you don't have any problems!

(see also Thank Goodness (25 Dec 2002), ... )

- Saturday, November 29, 2003 at 08:09:47 (EST)

Fortress Washington

During the 1970s the University of Texas at Austin engaged in a wall-building orgy, driven by legislated restrictions on how the school's Permanent Fund could be spent. High oil prices brought in a flood of cash. Bricks and mortar were authorized expenditures; scholarships and faculty salaries weren't. This caused much merriment among students at the time (I was one) and soon led to a change in the endowment rules, much for the better.

A more serious frenzy of wall-making occurred in the Washington DC area starting in late 1861. As the Civil War began the Union's capital stood naked, vulnerable to Confederate attack. To protect the Federal city a ring of fortifications was built. This major construction project is described in the US National Park Service's web pages on "The Civil War Defenses of Washington" [1], [2], etc. Here's a sketch (thanks again to the NPS):

Even though their main purpose was deterrence some of these forts did in fact witness battle. Decayed remains of the structures can still be seen in a few places today. (Captain Toby Shandy, Tristram's uncle in Lawrence Sterne's Tristram Shandy, would be fascinated!)

Fast forward 140 years: fresh fences, tall and spikey, are springing up around various Federal establishments in Washington, DC and nearby. With these palisades are concrete walls, tank traps, pop-up barriers, and guard posts. Near my home and jogging routes I've noted major new defenses around the National Institutes of Health and the Walter Reed Annex (Army Medical Center) grounds.

Foolish waste of resources, or prudent investment to prevent terrorist disaster? Parallel to earlier building sprees, or new situation entirely? Hard to say ...

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