^zhurnal 0.47

Howdy, pilgrim! You're in volume 0.47 of the ^zhurnal — see ZhurnalyWiki on zhurnaly.com for a parallel "live" Wiki edition; see Zhurnal and Zhurnaly for quick clues as to what this is all about. (Briefly: it's the journal of ^z = Mark Zimmermann ... previous volume = 0.46 ... complete list at bottom of page ... send comments & suggestions to "z (at) his (dot) com" ... tnx!)

Essential Knowledge

"Continued on Next Rock" is one of the most evocative titles ever crafted; it belongs to a story by R. A. Lafferty (1914-2002). The phrase came to mind again when I got to wondering: If you had only one piece of paper on which to record the key elements of modern human knowledge for the future, what would you put on it?

To play the game one must, of course, assume a lot of context—the meanings of common English words, for starters. In one of his Lectures on Physics Richard Feynman responded to a more restricted variant with:

If, in some cataclysm, all scientific knowledge were to be destroyed, and only one sentence passed on to the next generation of creatures, what statement would contain the most information in the fewest words? I believe it is the atomic hypothesis (or atomic fact, or whatever you wish to call it) that all things are made of atoms—little particles that move around in perpetual motion, attracting each other when they are a little distance apart, but repelling upon being squeezed into one another. In that one sentence you will see an enormous amount of information about the world, if just a little imagination and thinking are applied.

But one sentence, even an unwieldy-long one, is just too short to have much fun with. Suppose you had a medium-sized stone on which to chisel your clues? Zipping across a few dozen orders of magnitude, from an admittedly idiosyncratic physicist's perspective:

Quarks interact via a strong nuclear force to form positively charged protons and neutral neutrons of sizes about 10-15 meters and masses about 10-24 grams. Protons and neutrons are bound tightly together in atomic nuclei. Electrons, negatively charged and ~2000 times lighter, are held by electromagnetic forces in quantum-mechanical orbitals around those nuclei. A different number of electrons corresponds to each chemical element. Electronic forces bind atoms to make chemical compounds, each with its own structure. Pure compounds can form crystals with shapes related to the arrangements of their constituent atoms. Mixtures of complex chemical compounds can, in the right environment, replicate themselves—life. Copies of genetic material are not always perfect, so complex lifeforms can evolve via natural selection. Larger creatures are built from specialized microscopic cells. Neurons carry electrochemical impulses which convey information and instructions from one part of an animal's body to another. Entities with ~1010 interconnected neurons can be conscious and intelligent.
Electricity and magnetism are linked through coupled differential equations. Light is a self-propagating oscillation of the electromagnetic field which travels at a constant velocity as seen by any observer. Gravitation is a long-range force between pairs of masses caused by spacetime curvature. In ordinary circumstances gravitational attraction is proportional to the products of the masses and the inverse-square of the distance between them. Aggregations of ~1027 grams of matter can form planets with enough surface gravity to retain atmospheres and sustain life. Accumulations of ~1033 grams of matter can form stars which typically shine for billions of years via fusion in their hot compressed cores, thereby transforming lighter elements into heavier ones. The products of stellar nucleosynthesis are distributed by supernova explosions and can coalesce into planets and other stars. Agglomerations of ~1010 stars form galaxies of sizes ~1021 meters across, which can in turn gather into clusters. The universe appears to be expanding in all directions from a hot, dense state ~1010 years ago.

Continued on next rock ...

(the influence of Charles and Ray Eames's Powers of Ten is perhaps obvious in the above; cf. Top Down Bottom Up (1999-05-16), Universal Knowns (2002-06-13), High Precision (2002-07-16), ...)

- Monday, June 20, 2005 at 05:48:10 (EDT)

AEI Shoes

A couple of months ago I started skimming the ULTRA list [1], a mail-forwarding LISTSERV for discussions of distance running. Alas, the signal-to-noise ratio is low and the flame-to-civility ratio rather high. But occasionally there's an excellent race report or a thoughtful bit of advice. Along those lines, worthy of note was Bud Glassberg's post (2005-04-07) describing his experience at the Umstead 100.

Bud's essay combined the three elements that always appeal to an ultrarunner's soul: humor, crude bodily functions, and shoes. That last theme in particular caught my eye, as it involved something quite exotic and beyond my ken: ultra-thin slippers with a carbon fiber sole and almost no padding. They reputedly provide an experience close to running barefoot but with protection against sharp objects. Bud tried them on a few hours into the race, and approaching the end of the event observed:

... Looking down at my feet, I noticed that I had not noticed my feet since changing to the AEI shoes at 21 miles. Here I was at 87+ miles and had no blisters, no pain at all, and only a blackened toenail developed in the first 20 miles. These slipper/shoes came in like a long reliever in baseball and took over. They did the job and deserved the win.

Well, with a national pastime metaphor on top of everything else, how could I possibly resist? I contacted Dave Schoenfeld of http://aeishoes.com/ and ordered a pair—a seriously silly transaction, since I had just injured a toe and couldn't anticipate running for many months. Never mind that!

AEI shoes are fascinating to feel, in that they flex longitudinally but are extremely stiff transversely. I've worn them around the house where they've protected my still-sore foot from further harm. Schoenfeld makes them in his basement, in a limited range of sizes. They look charmingly primitive; Dave sells them cheaply (I suspect at or below cost) since they're in a prototype/experimental phase of development.

Some day, I fantasize, I'll be able to try them out on the trail—as a small step toward the goal of complete barefoot running ...

(cf. Achieve New Balance (2002-07-17), ...)

- Sunday, June 19, 2005 at 10:06:19 (EDT)

Popularity Contest 2005

Occasionally it's amusing to analyze web server log files and look at what's hot. At the moment on http://zhurnal.net/ the favorite search strings are a heterogeneous stew:

The newer http://zhurnaly.com/ domain is attracting too few inquiries to reveal much of statistical significance, but leading the list for the past few months seem to be the literary duo:

The older http://www.his.com/~z/ realm mainly draws seekers of countless variants on the themes of:

In all cases search engine crawlers themselves account for a fair percentage of activity (perhaps 10% to 25%). On a typical day the http://zhurnal.net/ server delivers a few thousand pages, http://www.his.com/~z/ sends out several hundred, and http://zhurnaly.com/ comes in third with only a few hundred. (Counts of files/day and hits/day are higher, noiser, less interesting measures of activity.) Most non-robot visitors are using Microsoft's Internet Explorer, but ~10% appear to be Firefox fans. Windows dominates the operating system indicators, with Macintosh OS-X a few percent and LINUX plus others further behind. Non-US requests come in likewise at a few percent, led by Canada, Australia, the United Kingdom, Mexico, and Germany.

And as for internal wiki page faves, trailing behind the catch-all Action Not Defined, the gateway front page Zhurnal Wiki, and the utilitarian search tool Find Page, comes the mystical How Great Thou Art. Don't ask me why ...

(cf. Web Log Analysis (2001-06-02), Crude Metrics (2003-02-09), Visitor Stats (2003-10-17), ...)

- Friday, June 17, 2005 at 18:21:53 (EDT)

Rule One

Good rules are golden. They bring forth order from chaos and cut the chance of costly error. Well-crafted rules are:

The best rules are also extensible to meet unanticipated challenges.

Rule 1-1 for golf is a fine example of how to set out on the right foot:

The Game of Golf consists of playing a ball with a club from the teeing ground into the hole by a stroke or successive strokes in accordance with the Rules.

Golf puts chess and contract bridge to shame; their rule sets begin with disorganized prefaces and uninspirational definitions. Likewise basketball, which starts in the mundane by describing the dimensions of the court and the mandatory measurements of the ball.

Baseball, by contrast, has a brilliant constitutional framework. Rule 1.01 reads:

Baseball is a game between two teams of nine players each, under direction of a manager, played on an enclosed field in accordance with these rules, under jurisdiction of one or more umpires.

Note that both golf and baseball properly commence their fundamental frameworks with a metarule—as does the United States of America:

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

Sound statements of goals can help the players keep their eyes on the ball.

(cf. Rules Versus Principles (1999-06-23), Mission Statement (2001-11-02), The Metagame (2003-02-18), Action Movie Rules (2003-08-10), Hardy Littlewood Rules (2004-06-14), ...)

- Thursday, June 16, 2005 at 05:22:42 (EDT)

Fall Short

In his review of the biography American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer (by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin) James Gleick captures in superb fashion the fate of many angst-ridden human beings:

When he returned to become a professor at Berkeley, he was already known as America's most brilliant young physicist. He became the first to predict the existence of antimatter, which he realized by dint of imagination and calculation should exist; and he did groundbreaking work on neutron stars decades before astronomers were actually able to observe any. Somehow, though, he always managed to fall short of solving the greatest problems. Bird and Sherwin aptly describe him as "a productive dilettante." His near-contemporary, the physicist I.I. Rabi (whose strong, moral voice runs throughout this book), once said, "God knows I'm not the simplest person, but compared to Oppenheimer, I'm very, very simple." Oppenheimer was the sort of person who studied the Bhagavad Gita in the original Sanskrit and gave clever names to his automobiles (Gamaliel, Garuda and later Bombsight). He had strong social and political convictions, identified himself with communists and communism, supported labor organizers and contributed money to Spanish republicans fighting the fascists.
He never did win a Nobel Prize. The authors suggest that his role as bomb-maker may have been weighed against him, but perhaps Rabi's judgment—that the very greatest achievement in physics eluded him—is more to the point: "His interest in religion . . . resulted in a feeling for the mystery of the universe that surrounded him almost like a fog. He saw physics clearly . . . but at the border he tended to feel that there was much more of the mysterious and the novel than there actually was. He was insufficiently confident of the power of the intellectual tools he already possessed and did not drive his thought to the very end." He finished other physicists' papers when they were stuck. He possessed exquisite taste in selecting problems. With hindsight, we can see that he was meant to be an inspirer, organizer and perfecter of scientists—and a leader.

In a nutshell: "to fall short" because of feeling "insufficiently confident". One doesn't have to be a scientist, or a genius, or an academic to feel that way about one's life. (At an infinitely less exalted level, I certainly see myself there.) Perhaps it's part of the explanation for the relative dearth of certain genders (or racial groups, or other subcultures) in a variety of endeavors.

Or maybe the diagnosis itself is wrong, and the key constraint on many careers is not insufficient self-confidence but rather sensible realism about one's chances to do something off-the-charts—and thus a rational decision not to gamble and, most probably, waste one's time on earth in pursuit of a dramatic long-shot triumph?

(Gleick's essay titled "Fallout" appeared in the Washington Post "Book World" on 2005-04-10; cf. Jon Mathews (1999-04-25), Shoot The Moon (1999-12-29), Prodesse Quam Conspici (2005-05-23), ... )

- Tuesday, June 14, 2005 at 05:34:57 (EDT)

Observe the Masses

T-shirts are fine places on which to display quotations, but sometimes the message that an aphorism conveys is context-dependent, and not quite what the shirt-maker or wearer anticipates. Not long ago I spy a tee that reads:


on the front, and on the back:


Various sources attribute that advice to actor James Caan, or to lyricist Carley Coma of the urban/fusion/hardcore/meta-metal band Candiria. The saying presumably is meant to encourage a healthy contrarian attitude, an anti-madness-of-crowds skepticism.

For me, however, what comes to mind when I see the tee is a physics textbook—Theory of Elasticity. It's Volume 7 in the classic "Course of Theoretical Physics" by L. D. Landau and E. M. Lifshitz of the USSR. Lev Landau was a demigod; his Nobel prize was awarded for work on the theory of superfluidity, one area among many he advanced. Lifshitz was brilliant but a mere mortal by comparison, an amanuensis who translated notes from Landau's lectures into organized teaching materials.

Long ago I took a class on the laws that govern elastic media—stress and strain tensors, shear, torsion, Young's modulus, Poisson's ratio, and so forth. The equations for how nonrigid bodies respond to force are complex; I found the subject challenging. We used Theory of Elasticity as our text.

All that returns to me when I read the command "OBSERVE THE MASSES". And yes: the shirt is worn by a lady ...

(cf. Need For Speed (2002-08-10), Memory Support (2002-10-31), Awesome Prowess (2003-07-17), Brainy Jogbra (2004-05-07), ...)

- Monday, June 13, 2005 at 05:34:04 (EDT)

Steady State Economy

Ecological Economics by Herman Daly and Joshua Farley is a textbook that I've only just begun to read, but already while browsing it I've found much to ponder, much to disagree with, and much to applaud. Chapter 3 ("Ends, Means, and Policy") quotes my hero John Stuart Mill's Principles of Political Economy—another classic tome that I must add to my too-long and ever-expanding reading list. Mill discusses (in his Book 4, Chapter 6) the "Stationary State" of an economy, where expansion has ceased for both total population and overall production of goods. Mill concurs with Andrew Carnegie's "Gospel of Wealth" that huge fortunes should not be passed down from generation to generation, but should be used instead for the greater social good:

... We may suppose, for instance (according to the suggestion thrown out in a former chapter), a limitation of the sum which any one person may acquire by gift or inheritance, to the amount sufficient to constitute a moderate independence. Under this twofold influence, society would exhibit these leading features: a well-paid and affluent body of labourers; no enormous fortunes, except what were earned and accumulated during a single lifetime; but a much larger body of persons than at present, not only exempt from the coarser toils, but with sufficient leisure, both physical and mental, from mechanical details, to cultivate freely the graces of life, and afford examples of them to the classes less favourably circumstanced for their growth. ...

J. S. Mill also argues in favor of the preservation of Nature and against unending growth in the number of people on the planet:

A population may be too crowded, though all be amply supplied with food and raiment. It is not good for man to be kept perforce at all times in the presence of his species. A world from which solitude is extirpated, is a very poor ideal. Solitude, in the sense of being often alone, is essential to any depth of meditation or of character; and solitude in the presence of natural beauty and grandeur, is the cradle of thoughts and aspirations which are not only good for the individual, but which society could ill do without. Nor is there much satisfaction in contemplating the world with nothing left to the spontaneous activity of nature; with every rood of land brought into cultivation, which is capable of growing food for human beings; every flowery waste or natural pasture ploughed up, all quadrupeds or birds which are not domesticated for man's use exterminated as his rivals for food, every hedgerow or superfluous tree rooted out, and scarcely a place left where a wild shrub or flower could grow without being eradicated as a weed in the name of improved agriculture. If the earth must lose that great portion of its pleasantness which it owes to things that the unlimited increase of wealth and population would extirpate from it, for the mere purpose of enabling it to support a larger, but not a better or a happier population, I sincerely hope, for the sake of posterity, that they will be content to be stationary, long before necessity compels them to it.

Mill concludes that such a stable situation need not be anything like "an unpleasing and discouraging prospect":

It is scarcely necessary to remark that a stationary condition of capital and population implies no stationary state of human improvement. There would be as much scope as ever for all kinds of mental culture, and moral and social progress; as much room for improving the Art of Living, and much more likelihood of its being improved, when minds ceased to be engrossed by the art of getting on. Even the industrial arts might be as earnestly and as successfully cultivated, with this sole difference, that instead of serving no purpose but the increase of wealth, industrial improvements would produce their legitimate effect, that of abridging labour. Hitherto it is questionable if all the mechanical inventions yet made have lightened the day's toil of any human being. They have enabled a greater population to live the same life of drudgery and imprisonment, and an increased number of manufacturers and others to make fortunes. They have increased the comforts of the middle classes. But they have not yet begun to effect those great changes in human destiny, which it is in their nature and in their futurity to accomplish. Only when, in addition to just institutions, the increase of mankind shall be under the deliberate guidance of judicious foresight, can the conquests made from the powers of nature by the intellect and energy of scientific discoverers, become the common property of the species, and the means of improving and elevating the universal lot.

(cf. The Cancer Ideology (1999-05-19), My Religion (2000-11-06), Dark Glory (2001-03-23), Religion And Reverence (2001-07-08), Growth Assumptions (2004-04-17), Beating Expectations (2004-08-13), Feed Or Feedback (2004-09-06), Estate Tax (2005-05-06), Social Wealth (2005-05-18), ...)

- Saturday, June 11, 2005 at 08:44:04 (EDT)

How to Discredit an Unwelcome Report

From the 1988 Yes, Prime Minister Secretary of the Cabinet Sir Humphrey Appleby K.C.B "strictly confidential" diary, discovered ca. 1999 at a local library used-book sale:

How To Discredit an Unwelcome Report

Stage One: Refuse to publish in the public interest saying:

  1. There are security considerations
  2. The findings could be misinterpreted
  3. You are waiting for the results of a wider and more detailed report which is still in preparation (if there isn't one, commission it; this gives you even more time)

Stage Two: Discredit the evidence you are not publishing, saying:

  1. It leaves important questions unanswered
  2. Much of the evidence is inconclusive
  3. The figures are open to other interpretations
  4. Certain findings are contradictory
  5. Some of the main conclusions have been questioned (if they haven't, question them yourself; then they have)

Stage Three: Undermine the recommendations. Suggested phrases:

  1. 'Not really a basis for long term decisions'
  2. 'Not sufficient information on which to base a valid assessment'
  3. 'No reason for any fundamental rethink of existing policy'
  4. 'Broadly speaking, it endorses current practice'

Stage Four: Discredit the person who produced the report. Explain (off the record) that:

  1. He is harbouring a grudge against the Department
  2. He is a publicity seeker
  3. He is trying to get a Knighthood/Chair/Vice Chancellorship
  4. He used to be a consultant to a multinational
  5. He wants to be a consultant to a multinational

To suppress an internal government report, rewrite it as official advice to the Minister. Then it is against the rules to publish it, so you can leak the bits you want to friendly journalists.

- Friday, June 10, 2005 at 13:26:43 (EDT)

Unconscious Action

Leo Tolstoy, in War and Peace, Book Four, Part 1, Chapter 4, describes the Zen-like way in which the world situation is helped only by those people who don't try to do so:

We who were not living in those days, when half of Russia had been conquered, and the inhabitants of Moscow were fleeing to distant provinces, and one levy after another was being raised for the defense of the fatherland, tend to imagine that all Russians, from the least to the greatest, were engaged solely in sacrificing themselves, in saving the fatherland, or in weeping over its ruin. All the stories and descriptions of that time without exception speak only of the patriotism, self-sacrifice, despair, grief, and heroism of the Russians. But in reality it was not like that. It appears so to us because we see only the general historic issues of the period and do not see all the personal, human interests of the people of the day. And yet actually those personal interests of the moment are always so much more significant than the general issues that because of them the latter are never felt—not even noticed, in fact. The majority of the people paid no attention to the general course of events but were influenced only by their immediate personal interests. And it was just these people whose activities were of the greatest service at the time. Those who endeavored to understand the general course of events, and hoped by self-sacrifice and heroism to take part in it, were the most useless members of society; they saw everything upside down, and all they did for the common good turned out to be futile and absurd, like Pierre's and Mamonov's regiments, which looted Russian villages, or the lint prepared by young ladies, which never reached the wounded, and so on. Even those who were fond of philosophizing and expressing their feelings, when they discussed Russia's position at the time inevitably introduced into their conversations a degree either of hypocricy and falseness or of invalid condemnation and animosity toward persons accused of what could be no one's fault. The law forbidding us to taste of the fruit of the tree of knowledge is particularly manifested in historical events. Only unconscious action bears fruit, and a man who plays a part in an historical event never understands its significance. If he tries to understand it he becomes ineffectual.

(from the Ann Dunnigan translation, 1968; cf. Truth In Battle (2001-02-11), You Are Extraordinary (2002-07-07), Ooze On Verst (2004-09-22), Untutored Voice (2004-11-03), Body Mnemonic (2004-12-04), Perfect Communication (2005-02-14), Ladder Of Life (2005-04-10), Beacon Of Hope (2005-04-17), Modern Medicine (2005-04-29), National Characters (2005-05-16), ...)

- Wednesday, June 08, 2005 at 17:57:53 (EDT)

Seeing-Eye Single

Part of the charm of baseball is its vivid vocabulary, about which much has been written. Last week I heard a new (to me) term: seeing-eye hit, alternatively seeing-eye single. It describes a slowly-moving ground ball that would normally be an easy out, but which unerringly manages to find its way through a gap between infielders and thus gets a runner on base.

Is it called that because it resembles a seeing-eye dog in discerning a path? Or does the term come from the mystically omniscient "all-seeing eye" (aka "Eye of Horus" or "Eye of Providence")? Or is the actual explanation more mundane, e.g., a radio announcer groping for a new metaphor and fortuitously getting solid wood on his words?

(cf. Bronc Burnett (2004-07-21), ...)

- Tuesday, June 07, 2005 at 05:39:05 (EDT)

Silence, Not Ignorance

John Alden Williams's The Word of Islam is an unconventional book that attempts to bring (via Williams's own translations, interpretations, and commentary) Muslim holy writings to non-Arabic readers. The goal is simply "... to let Islam speak for itself." In his Introduction, Williams begins with a metaphor:

... [E]very great religion is an ocean, with many bays, inlets, and umplumbed areas; we cannot pour it into a bottle and hold it up to the light. We can only come to it, smell it, taste it, touch it, observe what thrives there, and listen to its many moods. Our apprehension of it will be incomplete, but we will not falsify it by reducing it to an image or a model.
This new book tries, with a bit more confidence than I felt with [my] first one, to let Islam's word come through. After all, I have been listening to this particular ocean for an additional thirty years. Yet I am well aware that the ocean, ever itself, is also in a process of changing its boundaries and its colors, even that living people have the power to pollute it. It will be there when they are gone, but it may not be quite the same.

The Word of Islam offers tantalizing glimpses of a alien culture almost incomprehensible in its patterns of thought. Chapter IV, on the Sufi thread within Islam, is particularly fascinating in its discussion of the Spanish pantheist Muhyi al-Din Ibn al-'Arabi. As Williams characterizes him:

He has had a profound influence on later Sufism, and doubtless on Christian and Jewish mysticism as well. His very prolific writings, filled with striking images and strange expressions, brought Sufism to a rather dangerous state of explicitness. They have remained controversial in Muslim circles until today, being regarded as sheer infidelity by some. The problem with monism for Islam is that if everything shares in one divine essence, then evil is finally an illusion, and the Law is a delusion. Such Sufism is likely to become a speculative system of metaphysics, self-indulgent and devoid of moral earnestness. Yet Ibn al-'Arabi also wrote about the mystical implications of Islamic Law; one cannot say that he is hostile to it, only that his vision transcends it. His stay in Mecca was a time of great spiritual exaltation. The Ka'ba represented for him the point of contact between the visible and invisible worlds, and a lady whom he met there represented for him all perfection. She inspired some beautiful poetry that—he wrote later—must be interpreted spiritually.

Perhaps this echoes aspects of the Biblical "Song of Solomon", as do other writings of al-'Arabi with their delicate gender-imagery concerning what Williams translates as "... the Divine Reality in woman". (cf. [1])

And elsewhere, in a memorably anti-Socratic vein, al-'Arabi observes:

Some of us are ignorant of knowledge of God, and say, "To know that one cannot know Knowledge is knowledge." Others of us know and do not say such a word, which is the last word; to them knowing gives silence, rather than ignorance. ...

Now is the time to be quiet.

(from The Gems of Wisdom, written in 1232, title alternatively rendered as The Bezels of Wisdom; another translation, by R. W. J. Austin, reads: "Some of us there are who profess ignorance as part of their knowledge, maintaining [with Abu Bakr] that 'To realise that one cannot know [God] is to know.' There are others from among us, however, who know, but who do not say such things, their knowledge instilling in them silence rather than [professions] of ignorance. ..."; cf. Engineering Enlightenment (1999-10-19), Face To Face With God (2001-11-13), Oceans Of Notions (2001-12-10), ...)

- Sunday, June 05, 2005 at 20:01:35 (EDT)

Do Without

One of the biggest and best lessons that I've begun to learn from long slow journeys on foot through the woods is how much one can do without. After a few hours on the hoof, complex things get reduced to essentials:

It's fun to have fancy sports clothes, gigabytes of music, cushy shoes, energy gels, satellite navigation gear, etc. But in the long run, you just gotta breathe, drink, eat, and sweat (or shiver) appropriately to the circumstances. Toughness and adaptability count for a lot more than technology. Simplicity is the secret trump suit. And it helps to have a sense where you are and where you want to go.

Now, two months after a freak accident that tore up a toe, I've learned that I can do without running too ...

(... though I hope I don't have to do so forever; cf. Sense Of Where You Are (1999-06-04), Awesomely Simple (2001-01-26), Three Man Boat (2002-01-10), Less More (2005-03-14), Let It Slide (2005-04-25), Bump In The Night (2005-03-31), Toe Transplant Project Zeta (2005-04-01), Torn Toe Tendon Repair (2005-05-05), Healing Process (2005-05-15), ...)

- Saturday, June 04, 2005 at 16:25:59 (EDT)

Hare Brain, Tortoise Mind

In 1999 Adam Bryant reported in the New York Times on a lecture by John Cleese—former "Monty Python", now business/creativity consultant. Cleese recommended a then-new book, Hare Brain, Tortoise Mind by Guy Claxton. Although Claxton's subtitle is "How Intelligence Increases When You Think Less", he stands radically opposed to the still-popular notion that a crucial trait of successful people is their hard-nosed decisiveness, their ability to instantly leap to the "right" answer.

Bryant quotes Cleese at length. Among the key thoughts:

In a nutshell, [Cleese] said, Claxton describes the "hare brain" as logical, fast, machine-like thinking. The "tortoise mind," on the other hand, is slower, less focused, less articulate, much more playful, almost dreamy. In his book, Claxton says the two sides need each other to come up with not just ideas, but good ideas. He also cites a number of studies suggesting that people should trust their hunches more.
The problem in business, Cleese said, is that three forces are leaving no room for the tortoise mind—a "terribly dangerous" development that stifles creativity and innovation and inevitably leads to bad decisions.
These forces, he said, are the widely held, but misguided, beliefs that being decisive means making decisions quickly, that fast is always better and that we should think of our minds as being like computers.
. . .
The pressure on managers at all levels to act quickly is enormous, he said. "Although taking decisions very fast looks impressive, it is in fact not only show-off behavior, but actually a bit cowardly. It shows you'd rather give the impression of decisiveness than wait to substantially improve your chances of coming up with the right decision."

Those points are largely forgotten today, as froth from the dot-com era recedes and the next new wave gathers to cast itself upon the beach. Still true is Cleese's conclusion, "Sadly, most of us today believe that a computer is of more use to us than a wise person."

(from the 1999-02-07 New York Times, "A Rebuff to the Ministry of Silly Bosses" by Adam Bryant; also cf. Transient Behavior (1999-05-11), Good Ideas (1999-07-20), Triple Think (2002-07-25), Parallel Processing Paradox (2004-09-24), ...)

- Friday, June 03, 2005 at 06:09:03 (EDT)

Flashlight Freaks

One of the great things about the 'Net is the opportunity it provides for subcultures to flourish. Case in point: flashaholics, folks who go gaga about ultra-high-tech photonic hardware. I stumbled into a coven of fireflies [1] last winter when I started shopping for gear to help me on evening trail runs. Bulb buffs burn bright! They groove on custom-modified souped-up LED torches the way kids a generation ago loved to fine-tune their hot rod engines.

But along with an incandescent techno-obsession, the flashmen I found truly shone when giving advice to dim newbies like me. What kind of lantern to buy? Much depends, of course, on complex interconnected criteria: weight, battery life, toughness, beam width, water resistance, etc., etc. I needed something reliable to carry during nighttime cold-weather jogging expeditions. The flashlight fanatic forum led me to a cost-effective, rugged, non-bounce, triple-LED headlamp—already a lifesaver on dozens of murky journeys through the woods. The same strap-on serves me as a handy after-hours reading aid and a late-night security blanket as I tiptoe around the house, post-toe-tendon-reattachment surgery. And I dig the cyclops look.

Maybe there's a dark side to the community of those who live to light the night—but if so I have yet to spy it ...

(cf. Flashlight Music (2000-05-07), Cool Color Right On Rain (2004-12-02), ...)

- Wednesday, June 01, 2005 at 17:11:06 (EDT)

Exponential Mean Log

Comrade James Blodgett (with whom in 1978 I wrote my first article for Byte magazine—cf. Pet Bibli 1 (2000-05-23)) is troubled, perhaps justifiably, about the risks of particle accelerator experiments which might create tiny but world-destroying black holes. I'm rather skeptical of this threat to our civilization, for multiple reasons (see [1], where many arguments and counter-arguments are discussed). And I'm far more fretful about some high-probability high-impact challenges that loom—such as rampant human ignorance and the not-unrelated destruction of complex natural systems. More on that another time.

Meanwhile, thinking about low-probability high-impact phenomena raises the fascinating mathematical question: how may wildly divergent likelihood estimates best be combined?

Consider a trivial example: what's the chance of dealing four aces from the top of a normal shuffled deck of cards? (No fair computing the exact answer until after you make your own guess!) Suppose you survey four people and get four off-the-cuff estimates: 10-3, 10-4, 10-5, and 10-6. What's the best way to reconcile numbers that vary by orders of magnitude?

The simple arithmetic mean gives 2.8 * 10-4. But such averaging is pretty clearly a bad approach. It places entirely too much weight on a single person's opinion: whoever makes the highest guess. And if that person is wildly off-base, has an axe to grind, or otherwise wants to swing the results, s/he can certainly do so.

A better approach might be to avoid most of the math and just take the median of the estimates, the middle of the sorted list. For our toy problem that median is 5.5 * 10-5, halfway between the second and third figures. Medians are insensitive to out-of-the-ballpark extremes, since all that matters are the rank-ordering of the numbers and the value(s) of the central one(s).

But shouldn't high or low judgments have at least some non-zero influence on the outcome? That philosophy leads to my personal favorite technique: take the logarithms of the probabilities, average them, and then exponentiate. The exponential-mean-log in our example is 3.2 * 10-5, not far from the median answer. In other cases, however, an E-M-L might give a better unified group judgment.

(That is, I speculate that human estimation for rare events has an error distribution that tends to be logarithmic. True? And if anyone cares: the actual chance of dealing four aces = (4*3*2*1) / (52*51*50*49) = 3.7 * 10-6. Cf. Bigger Pictures (1999-11-22), Mortality Functions (2000-10-30), Root Mean Square Dance (2004-04-24), ...)

- Tuesday, May 31, 2005 at 18:31:33 (EDT)

Touch the Flagpole

In the big bureaucracy where I work, people who are on rotational assignments are well-advised to go back to visit their home offices occasionally, so that they aren't forgotten when annual promotion/evaluation time rolls around. This ritual appearance is commonly called "Touching the Flagpole". While reading Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina I laughed aloud to discover that the identical practice existed in Czarist Russia a century and a half ago:

Oblonsky had gone to Petersburg to fulfil a very necessary duty—which to officials seems most natural and familiar, though to laymen it is incomprehensible—that of reminding the Ministry of his existence, without the performance of which rite continuance in Government service is impossible.

(from the Maude translation, Book I, Part III, Chapter VII; cf. Cozy Zone (9 May 2005), ...)

- Monday, May 30, 2005 at 12:14:29 (EDT)

Robert Walker

Bob Walker is one of the physics profs whom I remember most fondly from my Caltech grad school days—not least for his signature silver-and-turquoise bolo ties. He was a fine instructor, patient and empathetic. The final test in the particle physics class that he taught was the first one-on-one oral exam that I ever took. In his office I sweated, stammered, and stumbled over the quark model; Bob smiled and gently led me toward the right answers via artfully-chosen questions. He wanted his students to learn.

Walker's blackboard manner was quiet, sometimes hesitant, always precise. With fellow professor Jon Mathews he took Richard Feynman's labyrinth of idiosyncratic tricks and turned them into a splendidly structured textbook, Mathematical Methods of Physics. Until I saw his obituary in the Caltech News yesterday I hadn't known that Bob was also one of the Los Alamos wunderkinder, who interrupted his own graduate studies to work on the Manhattan Project. He never mentioned it. In 1981 he retired from the California Institute of Technology, moved to the high country of New Mexico, and began to build harpsichords.

Robert Walker — 1919-2005

(cf. [1], Jon Mathews (1999-04-25), Fractal Feynman (2003-01-30), ...)

- Sunday, May 29, 2005 at 13:05:59 (EDT)

Intellectual Heirs

Following the wise advice of Andrew Carnegie's Gospel of Wealth (see Estate Tax): perhaps an author, an artist, an inventor, a programmer, or any other person who creates intellectual property should be scorned if s/he dies before putting all that s/he has done into the public domain (barring untimely accidental death). Copyrights and patents thus expire when the artisan does. The proper disposition of intangible wealth becomes precisely the same as that of an industrialist's fortune: to benefit the world, rather than produce an unearned stream of income for selfish descendants.

(But how to handle corporate IPR? I don't know—any suggestions? Meanwhile, cf. Trading In Ghosts (1 Oct 1999), Building To Last (23 Nov 2002), Public Domain (13 Feb 2003), Free Library (29 May 2003), Antient Commons (3 Nov 2003), Macaulay On Copyright (27 Jan 2004), Estate Tax (6 May 2005), ...)

- Friday, May 27, 2005 at 07:41:58 (EDT)

War and Checkers

In War and Peace, Book III, Part Two, Chapter 19, Leo Tolstoy explains a theory of exchanges that applies in chess, checkers, and warfare:

How and with what object were the battles of Shevardino and Borodino given and accepted? Why was the battle of Borodino fought? There was not the least sense in it for either the Russians or the French. Its immediate result for the Russians was, and was bound to be, that we were brought nearer to the destruction of Moscow (which we feared more than anything in the world), and for the French, that they were brought nearer to the destruction of their whole army (which they feared more than anything in the world). The result then must have been quite obvious, and yet Napoleon offered and Kutuzov accepted this battle.
If the commanders had been guided by reasonable considerations, it would seem that it must have been clear to Napoleon that, by advancing two thousand versts and giving battle with the probability of losing a quarter of his army, he was heading for certain destruction, and it must have been equally clear to Kutuzov that by accepting battle and risking the loss of a quarter of his army he would certainly lose Moscow. For Kutuzov this was mathematically clear, as clear as it is that if I have one man less in a game of checkers and go on making even exchanges, I am bound to lose, and therefore I should not make the exchanges. When my opponent has sixteen men and I have fourteen I am only one eighth weaker than he, but when I have exchanged thirteen more men he will be three times as strong as I.

(from the Ann Dunnigan translation, 1968; cf. Truth In Battle (11 Feb 2001), Ooze On Verst (22 Sep 2004), Body Mnemonic (4 Dec 2004), Perfect Communication (14 Feb 2005), Ladder Of Life (10 Apr 2005), Beacon Of Hope (17 Apr 2005), Modern Medicine (29 Apr 2005), National Characters (16 May 2005), ...)

- Wednesday, May 25, 2005 at 15:28:43 (EDT)

Technical Shirt

"It's technical—you wouldn't understand!" is the archetypal putdown used by a scientist/engineer on a less-equation-oriented victim. Of course, the opposite zinger could be equally well thrown by an artiste at a techno-dweeb: "It's nontechnical—you wouldn't understand!"

Which brings me to one of my favorite modern terms: technical clothing. It's a fancy way to describe artificial (and usually expensive) fabrics that supposedly wick away moisture and keep a heavily-exercising wearer at a better temperature than ordinary materials. Given the natural human propensity to substitute money and cachet for common sense and hard work, technical garments tend to sell well.

But as far as I can tell, on summer days my clothes soon get sweat-saturated no matter what they're made of. So for me the simplest, cheapest, lightest-weight nylon mesh soccer jersey, found for a few dollars at a thrift store, is optimal. And then, half an hour into a warm-weather run, I have to take it off.

(see also Running Advice (2 Oct 2003), ...)

- Tuesday, May 24, 2005 at 08:31:13 (EDT)

Prodesse Quam Conspici

A sparkling letter to the editor in the Spring 2005 Key Reporter [1] by W. Brent Eckhart applauds the newsletter for correctly referring to Miami University as simply "Miami University" and not Miami (Ohio), Miami of Ohio, etc. It must on occasion be frustrating to attend a venerable institution which has become so eclipsed in the public consciousness by a mammoth state school on the Atlantic coast—even though, as Eckhart notes of his alma mater, "Miami was a university when Florida still belonged to Spain."

But even more delightful than that factoid is the motto of Miami: Prodesse Quam Conspici, meaning "To accomplish rather than to be conspicuous". What an excellent goal!

(cf. No Time For That (29 May 2001), Education Of The Youth (1 Dec 2001), Pursuit Of Excellence (22 Feb 2002), Liberal Arts (13 Mar 2003), Si Monumentum Requiris (4 Apr 2004), ...)

- Monday, May 23, 2005 at 13:21:30 (EDT)

Tight Trousers

Stuck with an assignment to write a term paper analyzing Samuel Taylor Coleridge's poem "Kubla Khan"? Want to score extra points for creativity? Consider lines 17-19, which read:

     And from this chasm, with ceaseless turmoil seething,
     As if this earth in fast thick pants were breathing,
     A mighty fountain momently was forced: 

The conventional stick-in-the-Sacred-River-Alph interpretation of this imagery is that something like a geyser is being expelled upward in spurts. The very ground seems to be panting—taking shallow, rapid breaths.

But to make your essay shine, just postulate this alternative: the Poet here is dreaming of a planet confined by plate-tectonic forces within its rigid crust. He envisions the earth as a person trapped "in fast thick pants":

Now it's obvious: Coleridge proclaims that the world is like somebody wearing too-heavy trousers who discovers the zipper stuck or the fasteners jammed—trapped, struggling to escape. Or maybe worse, the earth has its knickers in a knot, so tight that s/he can scarcely gasp for air. And as we all know, in countless double-blind controlled studies prominent scientists have found that tight underwear can kill you.

So Coleridge is actually making an ecological statement about the perilous fate of our planet, more than 200 years ahead of his time. Say that, and your paper is virtually guaranteed to get an "A'!

(with a tip o' the hat to the late John Candy's SCTV "Tight underwear can kill you" skit, ca. 1980 ...)

- Saturday, May 21, 2005 at 16:53:21 (EDT)

Marry the One

An Indian ("Bollywood") movie is on the TV, but I'm not paying much attention. Then a slice of dialogue catches my ear. A central character finds herself at the apex of an archetypal love-triangle, deeply infatuated with one boy, desperately courted by another. Her mother advises, "Don't marry the one you love; marry the one who loves you!" It reminds me of the Robert A. Heinlein Stranger in a Strange Land definition: "Love is that condition in which the happiness of another person is essential to your own." Both proverbs rather Golden-Rule-like in their reciprocity ...

- Friday, May 20, 2005 at 07:19:30 (EDT)

Social Wealth

The challenge of economics is to unveil and explore the workings of an extraordinarily complex system: the choices of people as they interact with one another and with the rest of the universe. Progress in economic science occurs as its scope grows to include larger and more important aspects of life, such as externalities beyond easily-measured commerce in material goods. Sir Partha Dasgupta, a Cambridge professor, reviews Jared Diamond's book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive in the 19 May 2005 issue of the London Review of Books [1]. In his critique Dasgupta neatly describes what we owe to our children's children:

An economy's productive base consists of its capital assets and its institutions. Ecological economists have recently shown that the correct measure of that base is wealth. They have shown, too, that in estimating wealth, not only is the value of manufactured assets to be included (buildings, machinery, roads), but also 'human' capital (knowledge, skills, health), natural capital (ecosystems, minerals, fossil fuels), and institutions (government, civil society, the rule of law). So development is sustainable as long as an economy's wealth relative to its population is maintained over time. Adjusting for changes in population size, economic development should be viewed as growth in wealth, not growth in GNP.

In his book Human Well-Being and the Natural Environment Professor Dasgupta begins with a brilliant summary of what life is all about:

The concept of a well-lived life is fraught with difficulties, but its basic features are not controversial. As regards personal growth, most people would place emphasis on being able to realise a certain type of character, one that they themselves can admire, something that is a source of self-respect, for example having a disposition towards honesty and charitability, being able to stand up for one's principles, having the patience to probe and to discover where one's innate gifts lie (and to then develop them), and being capable of displaying and receiving affection. In the related social sphere, most people would place emphasis on a successful family life, warm friendships, a meaningful job, fruitful vocational activities, an occasional trip to see other places and cultures, and at the end of it a reflective and useful old age. ...

He goes on from there to explore issues of well-being across space (different countries) and time (many generations). Quantitative measures of human progress clearly must take into account a huge range of factors. It's no good, in the long run, to make more stuff at the cost of greater environmental destruction, increasingly widespread ignorance, or an ever-thinner fabric of civilization.

(Dasgupta's book clearly belongs on my exponentially-lengthening "to read" list; cf. Celebrity History (8 May 1999), Basement Worries (15 Jun 2002), That Which Is Not Seen (5 Sep 2002), Feed Or Feedback (6 Sep 2004), ...)

- Wednesday, May 18, 2005 at 10:49:19 (EDT)

No Ads

"Don't be evil" is a fine philosophy (thanks, Google!). Maybe saying it in positive terms and an active voice—"Do good"—makes it a bit shorter and clearer. I'm not always able to implement that, and certainly not completely, but it's a constant goal.

So here: no ads, no hidden subsidies, no secret click-tracking, no search-engine gamesmanship. Pretty much just what you see, plus a little behind-the-scenes machinery to keep noise low and useful information content high.

I'll keep trying to simplify things ...

(cf. Knowing Choosing Doing (29 May 1999), My Religion (6 Nov 2000), For Themselves (8 Jun 2003), Gaming The System (17 May 2004), This Space Not For Rent (19 Dec 2004), ...)

- Tuesday, May 17, 2005 at 10:54:26 (EDT)

National Characters

In War and Peace, Book III, Part One, Chapter 10, Leo Tolstoy comments (perhaps in part with comic intent?) on the archetypal styles of people from various European countries. As Prince Andrei Bolkonsky observes:

It was obvious that Pfühl, always prone to irritability and sarcasm, was particularly exasperated that day by the fact that they had presumed to inspect and criticize his camp in his absence. Thanks to his Auserlitz experiences, Prince Andrei was able to form a clear conception of the man's character from this brief encounter. Pfühl was one of those inordinately, unshakable self-assured men—self-assured to the point of martyrdom, as only a German can be, because only a German bases his self-assurance on an abstract idea: science, that is, the supposed knowledge of absolute truth. A Frenchman's self-assurance stems from his belief that he is mentally and physically irresistably fascinating to both men and women. An Englishman's self-assurance is founded on his being a citizen of the best-organized state in the world and on the fact that, as an Englishman, he always knows what to do, and that whatever he does as an Englishman is unquestionably correct. An Italian is self-assured because he is excitable and easily forgets himself and others. A Russian is self-assured because he knows nothing and does not want to know anything, since he does not believe in the possibility of knowing anything fully. But a German's self-assurance is the worst of all, more inflexible and repellant than any other, because he imagines that he knows the truth, science, which is his own invention, but which for him is absolute truth.

(from the Ann Dunnigan translation, 1968; cf. Truth In Battle (11 Feb 2001), Ooze On Verst (22 Sep 2004), Untutored Voice (3 Nov 2004), Body Mnemonic (4 Dec 2004), Perfect Communication (14 Feb 2005), Ladder Of Life (10 Apr 2005), Beacon Of Hope (17 Apr 2005), ...)

- Monday, May 16, 2005 at 13:57:12 (EDT)

Healing Process

During tendon reattachment surgery last month my doctor installed what she called a "K-wire". An Australian vendor of rural fencing products [1] describes its K-wires as:

Diamond mesh construction, high tensile line wires, no sharp projections. K-Wire minimises the chances of stock scratching or tearing valuable hides. It is a low profile pattern which provides a pleasant appearance and is therefore ideal for around the home. A close mesh pattern means that it is appropriate for protecting valuable stock and pastures from a range of unwanted [predators.]

Well, I appreciate a pleasant appearance, and I certainly don't want my valuable hide to be torn! But in the medical context, a K-wire is what's also known as a Kirschner wire. It's an internal splint designed to immobilize bone fragments. The one that until last Wednesday was embedded in my left big toe is about 6 cm long. Before the new physician pulled it out he reassured me that the process won't hurt. "Won't hurt the wire?" I wondered to myself. "Or won't hurt you, Doc?"

OK, I must admit: the removal actually wasn't too painful. I kept the K-wire as a souvenir. It looks like a big paper-clip that was mostly straightened except for a little corner at one end, where it protruded from my toe.

Now, although my family has kindly been waiting on me hand and foot (!) for many weeks, it's almost time for me to start going back to work. For the record, below please find a few new digital (!) photos taken three days after the wire was yanked. Click on the thumbnails—or, may I say, toenails (!)—for larger images.

FrankenFeet ... two Franken-Feet—or rather, a Franken-Foot to compare with an undamaged version ... FrankenToe_kwire ... a close-up of the Franken-Toe, with K-wire on top indicating where it was previously embedded ...
... the foot plus shiny K-wire ... FrankenFoot_kwire ... a super-sized high-resolution (1524x2032 pixel) image of The Toe itself, suitable for desktop uglification ... FrankenToe_mega

(see also Bump In The Night (31 Mar 2005), Toe Transplant Project Zeta (1 Apr 2005), Down With The Bad (18 Apr 2005), Torn Toe Tendon Repair (5 May 2005), ...)

- Sunday, May 15, 2005 at 15:59:21 (EDT)

Danny the Dog

Unleashed is a surprisingly good movie that will probably slip, quietly and undeservedly, from theater to DVD to obscurity in short order. It's hyperviolent, with echoes of Snatch and Fight Club—but the kung fu is too intermittent to satisfy audiences who seek only mayhem. Among the central characters are a young music student and an elderly, blind piano tuner, neither of whom engage in tree-jump acrobatics or machine-gunnery. The core of the film is self-discovery: personal growth toward enlightenment. Not a lot of opportunity for product placements or spin-off action toys, but several moments of thoughtfulness ...

(the motion picture was originally titled Danny the Dog, and was written by Luc Besson; cf. Matrix Hype (31 May 2003), ...)

- Saturday, May 14, 2005 at 07:44:15 (EDT)

Square Root of Baseball

It's a constant human tendency to see evidence in anecdote and to extrapolate from insufficient data. Nowhere does this happen more than in baseball. Managers change pitchers and swap in pinch hitters for the flimsiest of reasons. Players imagine that they're on a streak (or in a slump) when they experience a few good (or bad) breaks. And after a handful of weeks and a couple dozen games, fans and sportswriters think have already identified the best teams for the year—as if one could tell which gambler is a better coin-tosser based on a handful of flips.

The simple rule remains: don't pay attention to fluctuations smaller than the square root of the number of events. (There are mathematical footnotes to sharpen that rule of thumb, but ignore them for now.) Over a 162-game season nothing less than a 13 game difference is worth taking seriously. Last year, during regular season play one club won 105 games—but fully eight teams had 92 or more wins and were statistically indistinguishable. Several more were close to that threshold. Sure, the World Series and the playoffs leading to it are great fun. But one shouldn't believe that the "winner" is the "best". There's far too little evidence to decide.

And not just in baseball ...

(cf. Human Diffusion (19 Jan 2000), ...)

- Friday, May 13, 2005 at 18:06:52 (EDT)

Break, Blow, Burn

Camille Paglia is famous, or maybe notorious, in numerous areas which don't interest me and of which I haven't read. But ignore her celebrity. She revels in language, she's smartly analytic, and in her new book Break, Blow, Burn she applies herself to unfolding 43 of her favorite poems. Throughout, her wit shines. As Clive James observes in an eloquent critique that led me to buy the volume:

... From this book you could doubt several aspects of her taste in poetry. But you couldn't doubt her love of it. She is humble enough to be enthralled by it; enthralled enough to be inspired; and inspired enough to write the sinuous and finely shaded prose that proves how a single poem can get the whole of her attention. ...

James nicely summarizes Paglia's game plan:

Working chronologically from then to now, the book starts with [Shakespeare]: Sonnet 73, Sonnet 29 and the Ghost's speech from Hamlet, each individually explicated. The Ghost's speech counts as a poem because we not only experience it as an especially intense and coherent episode, we remember it that way. A poem's demand to be held in the memory counts for a lot with Paglia. Notably sensitive to language, rhythm and technique as devices for getting meaning into your mind and making it stick, she persuades you, throughout the book, that she has her poems by heart, even if she doesn't favor the idea of memorizing them deliberately like a trainee spy scanning a room. Her readings of Shakespeare are close, fully informed by the scholarship and—a harder trick—fundamentally sane, thus auguring well for her approach to Donne, whose Holy Sonnet XIV supplies the book's title. But her sensitivity to George Herbert is the best early sign of her range of sympathy.

Paglia definitely goes over-the-top in some of her exegeses. She frequently uncovers eros in inkblots where I strongly suspect the author-poet intended nothing of the kind. Many of her explanations seem to springboard off phrases taken out of context, or depend on idiosyncracies in her personal experience. And her taste in modern verse drifts far afield from mine. After Wallace Stevens, I see little of note in the selections; her mini-essays on those modern poems are far more entertaining and powerful (and poetic) than the chosen works themselves.

But all is redeemed by her brilliant discussions of Yeats, Dickinson, Shelley, and Donne. If only Camille Paglia had riffed on Gerard Manley Hopkins!

(see Clive James's review "Well Versed" in the 27 March 2005 New York Times; see also Face To Face With God (13 Nov 2001), By Heart (28 Nov 2001), Poetic Processes (3 Mar 2002), ...)

- Wednesday, May 11, 2005 at 18:38:36 (EDT)

Maurice Ashley

Grandmaster Maurice Ashley was profiled last month in the New York Times. He's working to help public school teachers become more effective in showing their students how to learn—and he sees techniques for doing that suggested by his experience at the highest levels of chess. Among his remarks (italics added):

This is strongly reminiscent of computer pioneer Doug Engelbart's work to enhance organizational intelligence, via improvement of higher-level mechanisms that can then feed into improving fundamental lower-level processes. As Engelbart describes it, an organization's principal work is an "A-activity"; ordinary efforts at process improvement are "B-activities". Bootstrapping is a "C-activity": an improving of the improvement process. Enhancing C-activities pays off in accelerated progress—compound interest. Hence, GM Ashley's focus on teaching teachers to think better ...

(from the New York Times profile "Charlkboards? Try Using Chessboards" by Susan Saulny (12 Apr 2005); cf. Douglas Engelbart's Bootstrap Institute" [1], Caissic Metaphors (8 Jan 2000), Intelligence Augmentation (25 Aug 2001), Nunn So Ever (20 Jun 2003), ...)

- Tuesday, May 10, 2005 at 09:11:26 (EDT)

Cozy Zone

Thus far my progress in Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina has been embarrassingly glacial, but the English edition I'm reading has already taught me a delightful new word: snuggery. Its meaning is clear:

On entering Kitty's little snuggery, a pretty pink room, decorated with vieux saxe figures—as fresh, rosy and gay as Kitty herself had been two months before, Dolly remembered how light-hearted and with what love they two had arranged that room ...

(from Book 1, Part 2, Chapter III of the Louise & Aylmer Maude translation)

- Monday, May 09, 2005 at 10:11:43 (EDT)

Forbidden Substances

A recent post to the ULTRAlist led me to the World Anti-Doping Agency [1] and its table of prohibited chemicals for international sports of various types. Many steroids and other body-building drugs are catalogued, for obvious good reasons. But two entries near the end of the book of regulations made my brows wrinkle:

Good News: both caffeine and ibuprofen—termed by some ultrarunners "Vitamin I"—are perfectly fine, at all times and in all concentrations. Whew!

(cr. Professional Juicers (28 Jan 2004), Pumping Iron (16 Aug 2004), Money Olympics (29 Aug 2004), ... )

- Sunday, May 08, 2005 at 10:33:01 (EDT)

Estate Tax

Andrew Carnegie in 1889 wrote a remarkable essay titled "The Gospel of Wealth". It shines a spotlight on the responsibilities of those who acquire great riches. In Carnegie's eyes a person who dies with a vast fortune is a loser. Inheritance taxes should be high:

The growing disposition to tax more and more heavily large estates left at death is a cheering indication of the growth of a salutary change in public opinion. The State of Pennsylvania now takes—subject to some exceptions—one tenth of the property left by its citizens. The budget presented in the British Parliament the other day proposes to increase the death duties; and, most significant of all, the new tax is to be a graduated one. Of all forms of taxation this seems the wisest. Men who continue hoarding great sums all their lives, the proper use of which for public ends would work good to the community from which it chiefly came, should be made to feel that the community, in the form of the State, cannot thus be deprived of its proper share. By taxing estates heavily at death the State marks its condemnation of the selfish millionaire's unworthy life.

The wealthy have a simple obligation to society:

Poor and restricted are our opportunities in this life, narrow our horizon, our best work most imperfect; but rich men should be thankful for one inestimable boon. They have it in their power during their lives to busy themselves in organizing benefactions from which the masses of their fellows will derive lasting advantage, and thus dignify their own lives. ...
This, then, is held to be the duty of the man of wealth: To set an example of modest, unostentatious living, shunning display or extravagance; to provide moderately for the legitimate wants of those dependent upon him; and, after doing so, to consider all surplus revenues which come to him simply as trust funds, which he is called upon to administer, and strictly bound as a matter of duty to administer in the manner which, in his judgment, is best calculated to produce the most beneficial results for the community—the man of wealth thus becoming the mere trustee and agent for his poorer brethren, bringing to their service his superior wisdom, experience, and ability to administer, doing for them better than they would or could do for themselves.

Getting down to specifics, in Part II of his essay Carnegie discusses seven areas worthy of philanthropy:

First. Standing apart by itself there is the founding of a university by men enormously rich, such men as must necessarily be few in any country. Perhaps the greatest sum ever given by an individual for any purpose is the gift of Senator Stanford, who undertakes to establish a complete university upon the Pacific coast, where he amassed his enormous fortune, which is said to involve the expenditure of ten millions of dollars, and upon which he may be expected to bestow twenty millions of his surplus. He is to be envied. ...
We cannot think of the Pacific coast without recalling another important work of a different character which has recently been established there—the Lick Observatory. If any millionaire be interested in the ennobling study of astronomy—and there should be and would be such if they but gave the subject the slightest attention—here is an example which could well be followed, for the progress made in astronomical instruments and appliances is so great and continuous that every few years a new telescope might be judiciously given to one of the observatories upon this continent, the last being always the largest and the best, and certain to carry further and further the knowledge of the universe and of our relation to it here upon the earth. ...
It is reserved for very few to found universities, and, indeed, the use for many, or perhaps any, new universities does not exist. More good is henceforth to be accomplished by adding to and extending those in existence. But in this department a wide field remains for the millionaire as distinguished from the Croesus among millionaires. ... If any millionaire be at a loss to know how to accomplish great and indisputable good with his surplus, here is a field which can never be fully occupied, for the wants of our universities increase with the development of the country.
Second. The result of my own study of the question, What is the best gift which can be given to a community? is that a free library occupies the first place, provided the community will accept and maintain it as a public institution, as much a part of the city property as its public schools, and, indeed, an adjunct to these. It is, no doubt, possible that my own personal experience may have led me to value a free library beyond all other forms of beneficence. ...
No millionaire will go far wrong in his search for one of the best forms for the use of his surplus who chooses to establish a free library in any community that is willing to maintain and develop it. John Bright's words should ring in his ear: "It is impossible for any man to bestow a greater benefit upon a young man than to give him access to books in a free library." Closely allied to the library, and, where possible, attached to it, there should be rooms for an art-gallery and museum, and a hall for such lectures and instruction as are provided in the Cooper Union. ...
Third. We have another most important department in which great sums can be worthily used—the founding or extension of hospitals, medical colleges, laboratories, and other institutions connected with the alleviation of human suffering, and especially with the prevention rather than with the cure of human ills. There is no danger in pauperizing a community in giving for such purposes, because such institutions relieve temporary ailments or shelter only those who are hopeless invalids. What better gift than a hospital can be given to a community that is without one—the gift being conditioned upon its proper maintenance by the community in its corporate capacity. If hospital accommodation already exists, no better method for using surplus wealth can be found than in making additions to it. ...
Fourth. In the very front rank of benefactions public parks should be placed, always provided that the community undertakes to maintain, beautify, and preserve them inviolate. No more useful or more beautiful monument can be left by any man than a park for the city in which he was born or in which he has long lived, nor can the community pay a more graceful tribute to the citizen who presents it than to give his name to the gift. ...
Fifth. We have another good use for surplus wealth in providing our cities with halls suitable for meetings of all kinds, and for concerts of elevating music. ...
Sixth. In another respect we are still much behind Europe. A form of beneficence which is not uncommon there is providing swimming-baths for the people. ...
Seventh. Churches as fields for the use of surplus wealth have purposely been reserved until the last, because, these being sectarian, every man will be governed in his action in regard to them by his own attachments; therefore gifts to churches, it may be said, are not, in one sense, gifts to the community at large, but to special classes. Nevertheless every millionaire may know of a district where the little cheap, uncomfortable, and altogether unworthy wooden structure stands at the cross-roads, in which the whole neighborhood gathers on Sunday, and which, independently of the form of the doctrines taught, is the center of social life and source of neighborly feeling. The administrator of wealth makes a good use of a part of his surplus if he replaces that building with a permanent structure of brick, stone, or granite, up whose sides the honeysuckle and columbine may climb, and from whose tower the sweet-tolling bell may sound. The millionaire should not figure how cheaply this structure can be built, but how perfect it can be made. If he has the money, it should be made a gem, for the educating influence of a pure and noble specimen of architecture, built, as the pyramids were built, to stand for ages, is not to be measured by dollars. Every farmer's home, heart and mind in the district will be influenced by the beauty and grandeur of the church; and many a bright boy, gazing enraptured upon its richly colored windows and entranced by the celestial voice of the organ, will there receive his first message from and in spirit be carried away to the beautiful and enchanting realm which lies far from the material and prosaic conditions which surround him in this workaday world—a real world, this new realm, vague and undefined though its boundaries be. Once within its magic circle, its denizens live there an inner life more precious than the external, and all their days and all their ways, their triumphs and their trials, and all they see, and all they hear, and all they think, and all they do, are hallowed by the radiance which shines from afar upon this inner life, glorifying everything, and keeping all right within. But having given the building, the donor should stop there; the support of the church should be upon its own people. There is not much genuine religion in the congregation or much good to come from the church which is not supported at home.

Andrew Carnegie then concludes:

Besides this, there is room and need for all kinds of wise benefactions for the common weal. The man who builds a university, library, or laboratory performs no more useful work than he who elects to devote himself and his surplus means to the adornment of a park, the gathering together of a collection of pictures for the public, or the building of a memorial arch. These are all true laborers in the vineyard. The only point required by the gospel of wealth is that the surplus which accrues from time to time in the hands of a man should be administered by him in his own lifetime for that purpose which is seen by him, as trustee, to be best for the good of the people. To leave at death what he cannot take away, and place upon others the burden of the work which it was his own duty to perform, is to do nothing worthy. This requires no sacrifice, nor any sense of duty to his fellows. ...

(many thanks to Paulette for showing me Carnegie's essay; cf. My Religion (6 Nov 2000), Boston Public Library (20 Jun 2002), Room To Read (23 Oct 2004), ...)

- Friday, May 06, 2005 at 08:44:04 (EDT)

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