^zhurnal - v.0.11

This is Volume 0.11 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, ... 0.41, 0.42, ... Current Volume. Send comments & suggestions to "z (at) his (dot) com". Thank you! (Copyright © 1999-2004 by Mark Zimmermann.)


A person's time on Earth is spent
Not in a straight line, but a bent
Progression of trajectories.

One first is spider-silk on breeze,
Threads set adrift by parents who
Have minimal control or clue
Of what genetic forces they
Release during a roll-in-hay
Unconsciously conceptive act
Of passion, love or simple fact.
(A crass process to contemplate,
But one which ne'ertheless our fate
Condemns or blesses us to try
If our own line is not to die.)

So starts a life: a random mote,
Potential energy afloat
In seas of possibility.

But soon what seemed completely free
Has settled, put down roots, and grown
Into a pattern, flesh and bone:
A bonsai sculpture, shaped by force;
Limb, twig, and leaf pursue a course
Defined by the environment
Plus countless influences sent
From families and societies.

Now in the forest of these trees
Which constitute the living world
So many plants are crippled, curled
Into burnt matchstick shadows of
What could have flourished given love,
More tender care, and fortune kind.

Some lucky few, however, find
Themselves well-placed in soil and light
To thrive and grow in beauty bright.

Then at their death they sublimate
Into a subtle, diffuse state
Of deeds and words, or flame and air.
We breathe their thoughts and sense their care
As gifts which they have left behind ---
Crystalline structures of the mind.

- Saturday, December 09, 2000 at 11:18:44 (EST)

Personal Energy

In an essay written early in the 1900's, Arnold Bennett counsels in absentia a young woman who criticizes herself for lacking concentration and self-discipline. She says, "I want to make the best of myself. I want to stop wasting time and to perfect my 'human machine.' I want to succeed in life. I want to live properly and bring out all my faculties. Only, you see, I haven't got any resolution. I simply have not got it in me. You tell me to make up my mind, steel myself, resolve, stick to it, and so forth. Well, I just can't. And yet I do want to."

Bennett responds (belatedly, he admits) by telling the lady that she may be too harsh on herself. Perhaps she doesn't have as much of the indefinable "energy" that she thinks she should --- or perhaps she has a latent energy which will be released some day under the right circumstances. Meanwhile, Bennett advises patience and tolerance. He writes:

"Now, I do not want to defend you against yourself (for possibly you enjoy denouncing yourself and proving that you are worthless). Nevertheless, I would point out that energy is often used in ways quite unsuspected. Energy is a very various thing. Some people use energy in arranging time-tables and sticking to them, and in clenching their teeth and making terrific resolves and executing them, and in never wasting a moment, and in climbing --- climbing. And this is all very laudible. But energy can be used in other ways --- in contemplation, in self-understanding, in understanding other people, in pleasing other people, in appreciating the world, in lessening the friction of life."


"You, dear young woman, may or may not be one of these. I cannot decide. But, anyhow, if you are not one of the hard-striving, resolute, persevering, teeth-clenching, totally efficient, one-ideaed, ambitious species, you need not despair.

"Imagine what the world would be like if we were all ruthlessly set on 'succeeding'! It would be like a scene of carnage. And it is conceivable that you are, in fact, much more efficient than you think, and that you are wasting much less time than you think, and that you are employing much more energy than you think. You complained that you lacked resolution, which means that you lacked one steady desire. But perhaps your steady desire and resolution are so instinctive, so profoundly a part of you, that they function without being noticed. And if you do indeed lack one steady desire and the energy firmly to resolve --- well, you just do. And you will have to be content with your lot. Why envy others? An over-mastering desire and its accompanying energy are not necessarily to be envied.

"A dangerous doctrine, you say. You say that I am leaving the door open to sloth and slackness and other evils. You say that I am finding an excuse for every unserious person under the sun. Perhaps so; but what I have said is true, and I will not be afraid of the truth because it happens to be dangerous. Moreover, every person ought to know in his heart whether or not he is conducting his existence satisfactorily. But he must interrogate his conscience fairly. It is not fair, either to one's conscience or to oneself, to listen to it always, for example, in the desolating dark hour before the dawn, and never to listen to it, for example, after one has had a good meal or a good slice of any sort of honest pleasure."

(From "A Dangerous Lecture to a Young Woman", reprinted in Self and Self Management: Essays About Existing by Arnold Bennett. See also the ^zhurnal entries of 29 April 1999 and 5 December 1999 for further Bennett commentary.)

- Friday, December 08, 2000 at 15:35:48 (EST)

Amusing Absurdities

Some phrases from The Vicar of Wakefield, Oliver Goldsmith, 1766:

- Saturday, December 02, 2000 at 21:00:40 (EST)

So They Said

A few November 2000 quotes-without-much-context:

- Friday, December 01, 2000 at 06:00:05 (EST)

Weight of Office

A point made by Michael Grant in his history The Twelve Cæsars: being emperor of Rome took huge amounts of raw time, A conscientious ruler had to work incredibly hard just to keep up with the flood of mandatory personal activities --- hearing evidence and deciding judicial cases, presiding at religious ceremonies, conferring with visiting officials, originating and responding to state correspondence, appearing at public spectacles, etc., etc. Almost nothing could be delegated; staff assistance was minimal. A few early emperors, such as Julius Cæsar and Cæsar Augustus, had high enough personal energy levels to thrive under the pressure and do competent jobs --- more or less. Most of their successors failed, or failed even to try.

Today's bureaucracies (governmental and corporate) have evolved mechanisms to distribute the load and permit their leaders to survive --- more or less. But it's easy for a person "in charge" to attempt too much, to take on too many responsibilities. The consequences are well-known: loss of creativity, loss of focus, and loss of health, both personal and organizational.

- Thursday, November 30, 2000 at 05:47:02 (EST)


Fixed eyes reflect screen glow:
Bright pixels flicker past
As fingers twitch and mind decays
To ash.

- Wednesday, November 29, 2000 at 05:49:09 (EST)

How to Write

Arnold Bennett in The Author's Craft (a long essay first published in 1913) wrestles with a variety of important issues. He begins with questions of seeing, thinking, and motivation:

Arnold Bennett goes on to discuss the differences between plays and novels. He finds plays much easier to write than novels --- plays are shorter, more limited, less subtle vehicles. A dramatic production also has a unique advantage of immediacy: the audience sees events happen, and does not need to be persuaded that the improbable is probable. But the fundamental distinction between the novel and the play, Bennett contends, is the fact that the dramatist only "... begins the work of creation, which is finished either by creative interpreters on the stage, or by the creative imagination of the reader in the study. It is as if he carried an immense weight to the landing at the turn of a flight of stairs, and that then upward the lifting had to be done by other people." Bennett sketches out the collaborative process, involving theatrical manager, producer, director, actors, and audience. (Along the way, he notes that "... a rehearsal is like a battle --- certain persons are theoretically in control, but in fact the thing principally fights itself.")

Bennett continues his essay with a discussion of the tension between art and popularity. He counsels compromise: "The truth is that an artist who demands appreciation from the public on his own terms, and on none but his own terms, is either a god or a conceited and impractical fool. And he is somewhat more likely to be the latter than the former." Bennett feels that a real artist, in order to succeed in creating, communicating, and making a living, must respect the limitations and prejudices of the audience. "You can only go a very little further than is quite safe. You can only do one man's modest share in the education of the public." Quoting from Valery Larbaud's novel A. O. Barnabooth Bennett cites "... a phrase of deep wisdom about women: 'La femme est une grande réalité, comme la guerre.' It might be applied to the public. The public is a great actuality, like war. If you are a creative and creating artist, you cannot ignore it, though it can ignore you. There it is! You can do something with it, but not much. And what you do not do with it, it must do with you, if there is to be the contact which is essential to the artistic function." A successful artist with something important to say, in Bennett's judgment, will manage to get the message across even within the constraints of a "potboiler" novel written merely to pay the rent.

And speaking of which, Arnold Bennett (himself a financially successful author) argues next that a great writer must attend to the selling of a work once it is completed. "In other words, when he lays down the pen he ought to become a merchant, for the mere reason that he has an article to sell, and the more skilfully he sells it the better will be the result, not only for the public appreciation of his message, but for himself as a private individual and as an artist with further activities in front of him." Bennett tells horror stories of the exploitation of naïve authors by publishers: "The ordinary merchant deals with other merchants --- his equals in business skill. The publisher and the theatrical manager deal with what amounts to a race of children, of whom even archangels could not refrain from taking advantage." Hence, the need for literary agents.

Finally, Arnold Bennett concludes The Author's Craft with a call for the artist to live within the world --- not to repudiate life or to have contempt for reality. "Nobody has any right to be ashamed of human nature. Is one ashamed of one's mother? Is one ashamed of the cosmic process of evolution? Human nature is. And the more deeply the creative artist, by frank contacts, absorbs that supreme fact into his brain, the better for his work."

"The Author's Craft" (1913) is reprinted in "The Author's Craft and Other Critical Writings of Arnold Bennett", edited by Samuel Hynes, University of Nebraska Press, 1968.

- Tuesday, November 28, 2000 at 05:50:44 (EST)

Xref Development: A Parable

Two years ago, according to my diary, I was working on a small but interesting programming project. It turned out quite well --- the results are still in use --- and perhaps the tale in retrospect is inspirational enough to be worth telling.

A smart and diligent colleague, AP, had performed a "tool inventory" of information resources and computer programs used in various offices. She organized the material into a structured database, with fields for attributes such as tool name, category, date of development, cost, size, operating system, hardware requirements, etc. The challenge: how to make the tool inventory accessible to everyone, so people could easily look up what was available and avoid reinventing wheels?

In November 1998 the tool inventory was a remote island. It lived on an isolated server, reachable by only a few privileged souls, hidden behind the fog of a hostile user interface. AP and I needed to figure out a way to put it on the shared network in a simple enough format that anybody could find what they needed quickly. The "obvious" solution, according to the professional software developers who looked at the task, was to write routines to perform database queries and translate the results into web pages. The folks involved happened to be learning Java at the time, and so they proposed to spend some months building the interfaces in that language.

AP and I were skeptical. The developers, we felt, didn't understand what real end users wanted to do with the tools inventory. Worse, the dynamic interface that they proposed to build sounded likely to be slow, ugly, and limited in its capabilities. And we lacked confidence that they could actually deliver something on time that would work, even in a minimal fashion. Their learning experience, we feared, would teach them how hard their approach was without resulting in a functional product.

But what did we know? We knew that the tools inventory database was relatively static, with many hundreds but not thousands of entries and with a slow rate of growth, maybe a few percent per month. We also knew that most users, most of the time, would want to look up a tool by name (if they already knew what it was called and just needed a few details) or by category (if they wanted to browse and identify candidate solutions to their problems).

This sounded tailor-made for a simple flat structure of static HTML pages, one per tool, plus simple index pages with links to each tool page sorted alphabetically by name or category. By avoiding dynamic server-side fancy database interfaces, we thought we could get quick response and high reliability. We figured that a standard web search engine would be able to spider our pages and build a free-text retrieval system to find any of the words in the tool descriptions --- so we would get that feature for free. We knew we could build æsthetically pleasing pages that demanding users would enjoy the look and feel of. And we could see how to do all this by hand. The only remaining challenge was to automate the process, so that whenever the tools inventory database changed (every few weeks or so) we could painlessly rebuild the tool description pages and the cross-reference ("Xref") index pages.

In a sense, then, our solution was to take a snapshot of a slowly-changing database and then publish that photograph. We didn't get permission; we just did it, as a two-person mini-skunk-works, during odd chunks of time we found between other jobs. AP already knew how to export crude HTML from the database, so she took on the task of cleaning that process up and making nice web pages come out of it.

For my contribution, I wrote a tiny "compiler" --- a program to take a directory full of individual tool listing HTML files, scan through them, pull out tool names and categories, and then build index pages full of links sorted by those attributes. I wrote the "compiler" in JavaScript, an interpreted language with several critical advantages:

So I crafted the "compiler" in JavaScript. Like many programming efforts, it took only a few hours to do the core routines, but an order of magnitude longer to debug, tweak, generalize, rewrite, document, and explain.

But when we were done, in just a couple of weeks of part-time coding, AP and I had a prototype solution that really worked! It was simple, easy to understand, straightforward to maintain, and extensible to solve new problems or add new features. It was adequately fast: it indexed half a dozen tool pages per second, so a complete rebuild of the cross-reference pages took only a few minutes.

And the fancy solution that the professional software developers were attempting? Somehow it never got finished. They moved on to other tasks, and real people used our quick-and-dirty program.

What were the secrets of our success? Perhaps:

Bottom line: both AP and I had fun, learned a lot, and helped our fellow creatures. Who could ask for more?

- Sunday, November 26, 2000 at 06:39:30 (EST)

Fayaway Sail

An image from Chapter XVIII of Herman Melville's first book, Typee --- the story of some months in 1842 he spent with natives on a South Sea island:

Returning health and peace of mind gave a new interest to everything around me. I sought to diversify my time by as many enjoyments as lay within reach. Bathing in company with troops of girls formed one of my chief amusements. We sometimes enjoyed the recreation in the waters of a miniature lake, into which the central stream of the valley expanded. This lovely sheet of water was almost circular in figure, and about three hundred yards across. Its beauty was indescribable. All around its banks waved luxuriant masses of tropical foliage, soaring high above which were to be seen, here and there, the symmetrical shaft of the coconut tree, surmounted by its tuft of graceful branches, drooping in the air like so many waving ostrich plumes.


This lovely piece of water was the coolest spot in all the valley, and I now made it a place of continual resort during the hottest period of the day. One side of it lay near the termination of a long gradually expanding gorge, which mounted to the heights that environed the vale. The strong trade wind, met in its course by these elevations, circled and eddied about their summits, and was sometimes driven down the steep ravine and swept across the valley, ruffling in its passage the otherwise tranquil surface of the lake.

One day, after we had been paddling about for some time, I disembarked Kory-Kory, and paddled the canoe to the windward side of the lake. As I turned the canoe, Fayaway, who was with me, seemed all at once to be struck with some happy idea. With a wild exclamation of delight, she disengaged from her person the ample robe of tapa which was knotted over her shoulder (for the purpose of shielding her from the sun), and spreading it out like a sail, stood erect with upraised arms in the head of the canoe. We American sailors pride ourselves upon our straight clean spars, but a prettier little mast than Fayaway made was never shipped aboard of any craft.

In a moment the tapa was distended by the breeze --- the long brown tresses of Fayaway streamed in the air --- and the canoe glided rapidly through the water, and shot towards the shore. Seated in the stern, I directed its course with my paddle until it dashed up the soft sloping bank, and Fayaway, with a light spring, alighted on the ground; whilst Kory-Kory, who had watched our maneuvers with admiration, now clapped his hands in transport, and shouted like a madman. Many a time afterwards was this feat repeated.

If the reader have not observed ere this that I was the declared admirer of Miss Fayaway, all I can say is that he is little conversant with affairs of the heart, and I certainly shall not trouble myself to enlighten him any farther....

- Thursday, November 23, 2000 at 08:46:07 (EST)

Five Doors to Discovery

What does a good research project need? Five things: What are the challenges that research projects must overcome in each of these categories? Many, including:

- Tuesday, November 21, 2000 at 20:48:22 (EST)


Three schoolgirls trudge along the street
Encumbered both by summer heat
And weight of bookbags on their backs.
They wedge their hands under the packs
In fantasy that some stray breeze
Will circulate to slightly ease
The burden. None arrives. They cast
A glance at standers-by, feign vast
Contempt for boys who swerve to see
The passing female scenery.
Young women toss their ponytails,
Converse until the pretense fails,
Then turn to look back at the same
Young men who must now play the game
And act as though they fail to spy
The girls' inspection. Both sides try
To nonchalantly disengage.
But sweat and sun and summer's rage
Have melted coyness, softened will,
Dissolved the mating ritual,
Left neither party strength to pose.
A shrug and 'See ya' serve to close
The interaction. So they go.

- Sunday, November 19, 2000 at 13:48:11 (EST)

Terrible Obstacles

'Oh, it is hard!' said Dorothea. 'I understand the difficulty there is in your vindicating yourself. And that all this should have come to you who had meant to lead a higher life than the common, and to find out better ways --- I cannot bear to rest in this as unchangeable. I know you meant that. I remember what you said to me when you first spoke to me about the Hospital. There is no sorrow I have thought more about than that --- to love what is great, and try to reach it, and yet to fail.'

'Yes,' said Lydgate, feeling that here he had found room for the full meaning of his grief. 'I had some ambition. I meant everything to be different with me. I thought I had more strength and mastery. But the most terrible obstacles are such as nobody can see except oneself.'

From Chapter 76 of George Eliot's Middlemarch (1871-1872). (See also "Remember Me?", ^zhurnal entry of 21 May 1999.)

- Friday, November 17, 2000 at 18:45:11 (EST)


Chill silence broods
Stars shiver in the skies
All Nature holds her breath until

- Tuesday, November 14, 2000 at 05:56:53 (EST)

Incalculable Wealth

We live in the midst of a diamond field. Riches beyond measure lie strewn on the ground, free for the taking. The sun rises, and like excited children we scamper from one pretty glint to another, filling our tiny hands. But then we become bored with what we hold and drop a fortune as a new sparkle catches our eyes. The day passes. We tire ... and too often end up with pockets full of sand.

The diamonds are ideas. Honest teachers are eager to share what they know with honest students. Libraries are full of worthwhile books. The more we learn the more we can learn, as new concepts build upon the foundations laid by earlier studies. But there's a twist: deep knowledge takes time, effort, and steadiness. Flitting from topic to topic doesn't pay off. Neither does a foolish pursuit of novelty. There aren't many short-cuts to discovery, though there are lots of dead-ends and by-roads that lead nowhere: pseudo-science, false revisionism, the latest mystic fads, ....

Far better to focus, persist, and grow in understanding of important subjects. That path is its own reward. It also offers the hope of making new contributions to human knowledge --- an enduring gift to the future. Few are fortunate enough to do that, but many more could try.

(See also a ^zhurnal entry of 30 April 1999, "What is my Life?", a poem by Richard Ropiquet.)

- Sunday, November 12, 2000 at 20:06:18 (EST)

Cosmic Context

Anonymous, a star glows in the void
Ignored among the billions of its kin:
Galactic trash, detritus on the fringe
Of spiral arms, it slowly wheels about
The distant core where cataclysmic blasts
From violent collisions generate
Raw pandemonium of radio
And infrared and ultraviolet flares ---
Dramatic entertainment for remote
Observers' instruments that scan the skies.

But what of that unnoticed, obscure star?
It shines in peace, unchanging, stable, calm.
Around it orbit scraps of the dark cloud
From which it formed. Those negligible bits
Have since condensed into some balls of gas,
Too small to merit notice from afar.
And lesser still, a few scant leftovers ---
Poor remnants, near-invisible --- remain
Like dust motes in an ocean, eddying
About a bubble as it rides the waves.

Upon one speck, a thousand million years
Of nothing happens: random jostlings
By atoms that link up and then dissolve
Into the brew that percolates the crust.
So meaningless millennia pass by.
At last, alignment clicks: a pattern gels,
Persists, and makes a template that now builds
Self-replicating molecule machines.
Wee engines harness energy to clone
Themselves, and thereby propagate their form.

This flurry of activity is yet
Unseen at any distance from the globe:
Mere rearrangements of the building blocks
Without a ghost of purpose or intent;
A thoughtless copy-cattish crystal growth.
But over time, the simple pattern spreads.
And as it does, it fails. Mistakes are made
Resulting in flawed copies, most of which
Are hopeless failures at the repro-game.
They wither and then die, that never lived.

But of the garbled versions, a few thrive:
Machines that out-compete their ancestors.
Efficient, accurate, precise, controlled,
They manage resources with thrift and grace.
Increasingly they spread, until they fall
Themselves as victims to still lustier foes,
Fortuitously optimized designs
Which somehow find the trick of partnership,
Alliances among the replicants,
Whereby more complex structures then emerge.

And after countless microscopic wars
Across the surface of a puny world
(Inconsequential flotsam circling
A sun entirely forgettable,
The suburbs of an average galaxy)
A change occurs: configurations bloom
That think, first crudely, then with greater power.
These patterns can manipulate themselves,
Communicate, discover, teach, and love.
--- So mind appears to shake the universe.

- Friday, November 10, 2000 at 15:48:41 (EST)

Thoughtful Metaphors

Daniel C. Dennett concludes:
"My explanation of consciousness is far from complete. One might even say that it was just a beginning, but it is a beginning, because it breaks the spell of the enchanted circle of ideas that made explaining consciousness seem impossible. I haven't replaced a metaphorical theory, the Cartesian Theater, with a nonmetaphorical ('literal, scientific') theory. All I have done, really, is to replace one family of metaphors with another, trading in the Theater, the Witness, the Central Meaner, the Figment, for Software, Virtual Machines, Multiple Drafts, a Pandemonium of Homunculi. It's just a war of metaphors, you say --- but metaphors are not 'just' metaphors; metaphors are the tools of thought. No one can think about consciousness without them, so it is important to equip yourself with the best set of tools available. Look what we have built with our tools. Could you have imagined it without them?"
--- Consciousness Explained (1991)

- Wednesday, November 08, 2000 at 17:15:43 (EST)


(from Chapter 39 of Middlemarch, by "George Eliot")

'Oh, my life is very simple,' said Dorothea, her lips curling with an exquisite smile, which irradiated her melancholy. 'I am always at Lowick.'

'That is a dreadful imprisonment,' said Will, impetuously.

'No, don't think that,' said Dorothea. 'I have no longings.'

He did not speak, but she replied to some change in his expression. 'I mean, for myself. Except that I should like not to have so much more than my share without doing anything for others. But I have a belief of my own, and it comforts me.'

'What is that?' said Will, rather jealous of the belief.

'That by desiring what is perfectly good, even when we don't quite know what it is and cannot do what we would, we are part of the divine power against evil --- widening the skirts of light and making the struggle with darkness narrower.'

'That is a beautiful mysticism --- it is a ---'

'Please not to call it by any name,' said Dorothea, putting out her hands entreatingly. 'You will say it is Persian, or something else geographical. It is my life. I have found it out, and cannot part with it. I have always been finding out my religion since I was a little girl. I used to pray so much --- now I hardly ever pray. I try not to have desires merely for myself, because they may not be good for others, and I have too much already. I only told you, that you might know quite well how my days go at Lowick.'

'God bless you for telling me!' said Will, ardently, and rather wondering at himself. They were looking at each other like two fond children who were talking confidentially of birds.

'What is your religion?' said Dorothea. 'I mean --- not what you know about religion, but the belief that helps you most?'


- Monday, November 06, 2000 at 17:06:43 (EST)

Prusak Conversation (iii/iii)

Part three, the final segment of ^z notes on Larry Prusak's recent talk; check out 13 October and 23 October for parts one and two, plus additional context. Prusak concluded:

- Saturday, November 04, 2000 at 07:33:12 (EST)

October Tablulations

Quotes-out-of-context from various round-tables and other gatherings last month:

- Friday, November 03, 2000 at 05:46:26 (EST)

Strands of Truth

Richard O'Keefe in The Craft of Prolog writes:
If I may intrude a personal element here, one of the things which distinguishes imperative programming in C, Pascal, Fortran, or whatever from declarative programming in Prolog, Scheme, ML, or whatever for me is a big difference in feeling. When I code in C, I feel that I'm on a knife-edge of "state" --- I focus on statements and what they do. I'm worried about the behaviour of a machine. But when I'm writing Prolog, the predicates feel like geometric objects and the data flow between goals feels like lines of tension holding the goals together into an integrated whole, as if the program fragment I was working were a large Rubik's cube that I could handle and move from one configuration to another without destroying it. When I fix mistakes in a Prolog program, I look for flaws in the static "spatial" configuration of the program; a mistake feels like a snapped thread in a cobweb, and I feel regret for wounding the form. When I'm coding C, I worry about "register" declarations and pointer arithmetic. When I'm coding Prolog, I worry about getting the interface of each predicate just right so that it means something and has the visible perfection of a new leaf.

Lovely images, which bring to mind the lines of force which reputedly helped Maxwell derive his equations, or the subtle threads which form the essence of magical power in some fantasy stories. Perhaps O'Keefe has also fingered one of the key differences between art and mass production, between mathematics and mere computation, or between beauty and crass manipulation. It's all about caring: the importance of every detail combined with the overall rightness of a structure. In a word, meaning. And it applies not just to programming, but throughout life.

(See also "Resolution and Unification", ^zhurnal entry of 11 November 1999, for some other ^z musings on the theme of Prolog.)

- Thursday, November 02, 2000 at 05:58:55 (EST)

Mortality Functions

Death, an old metaphor says, is an archer who shoots at you every year --- and whose aim starts out poor but becomes increasingly accurate as you get older. That image turns out to be good math. Take a life expectancy table and fit a curve to the chance of dying for each age group. You'll find (after an initial blip of infant mortality) that the probability density of bucket-kicking grows with time in the exponent, starting from a tiny number but doubling and redoubling at a steady pace. Solve the differential equation: the number of survivors shrinks like exp(-exp(t)), hyperexponentially.

Grim odds --- and there are reasons to believe the model is plausible. Many diseases involve cumulative damage, a sequence of low-probability events. The body has systems designed to spot and fix snafus before they get serious. Over time, however, repair mechanisms themselves break down, and the integrated effect is an ever-more-rapidly increasing rate of problems. Things fall apart ....

- Monday, October 30, 2000 at 05:45:54 (EST)

Green Gray Gap

During a talk recently a colleague (TH) used a lovely image to describe a problem at his organization. He called it the "Green-Gray" challenge: they have a large population of relative newbies and a similar number of folks nearing retirement, with too few people in between to maintain the corporate memory and culture. (TH also compared their situation to a snake which has swallowed one pig recently and another some time ago. The first bulge is near the snake's head, and the second is ....)

- Saturday, October 28, 2000 at 15:08:13 (EDT)

Buechner Magic

A couple of years ago in a Library of Congress chamber music hall, David Buechner (now Sara Buechner) played the piano --- or, more precisely, Buechner's fingers floated over the ivories and music materialized, like a rabbit from a hat. The effortless mix of speed and precision was breathtaking; there were blitzkrieg passages in which 'e literally did not appear to touch the keyboard. In 1995 Buechner recorded Ferruccio Busoni's arrangement of the Goldberg Variations and other J. S. Bach works.* The performance is likewise off-the-scale sleight-of-hand, combining subtle musical interpretation and jaw-dropping power. Awesome technique.

*(Connoisseur Society #CD4212, In Sync Labs, 2211 Broadway, NY, NY 10024)

- Friday, October 27, 2000 at 05:56:08 (EDT)


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?)

Charles Lamb (1775-1834) was a British writer and humorist who described himself as one who "... stammers abominably, and is therefore more apt to discharge his occasional conversation in a quaint aphorism, or a poor quibble, than in set and edifying speeches; has consequently been libelled as a person always aiming at wit; which, as he told a dull fellow who charged him with it, is at least as good as aiming at dulness. A small eater, but not drinker; confesses a partiality for the production of the juniper-berry; was a fierce smoker of tobacco, but may be resembled to a volcano burnt out, emitting only now and then an occasional puff...."

Some quotes from or about Lamb:

from a letter of Haydon to Wordsworth, October 16, 1842:

Coleridge's Monologue --- The story of Lamb, on his way to the India House, leaving Coleridge at 10 a.m. in a doorway talking with his eyes shut, and coming back at 4 p.m. to find Coleridge still there with his eyes shut, talking away, as he thought, to Lamb, I have heard my father declare, though only on Lamb's authority, to be strictly true; but then Lamb delighted in such fictions about his friends.

from Grace Before Meat:

On Saying Grace --- I own that I am disposed to say grace upon twenty other occasions in the course of the day besides my dinner. I want a form for setting out upon a pleasant walk, for a moonlight ramble, for a friendly meeting, or a solved problem. Why have we none for books, those spiritual repasts --- a grace before Milton --- a grace before Shakespeare --- a devotional exercise proper to be said before reading the Fairy Queen?

from Witches and Other Night Fears:

Credulity --- Next to making a child an infidel, is the letting him know that there are infidels at all. Credulity is the man's weakness, but the child's strength.

from Distant Correspondents:

Puns --- A pun hath a hearty kind of present ear-kissing smack with it; you can no more transmit it in its pristine flavor, than you can send a kiss. Have you not tried in some instances to palm off a yesterday's pun upon a gentleman, and has it answered? Not but it was new to his hearing, but it did not seem to come new from you. It did not hitch in. It was like picking up at a village ale-house a two days' old newspaper. You have not seen it before, but you resent the stale thing as an affront. This sort of merchandise above all requires a quick return. A pun, and its recognitory laugh, must be co-instantaneous. The one is the brisk lightning, the other the fierce thunder. A moment's interval, and the link is snapped. A pun is reflected from a friend's face as from a mirror. Who would consult his sweet visnomy, if the polished surface were two or three minutes (not to speak of twelve months, my dear F.) in giving back its copy?

from Imperfect Sympathies:

Lack of Humor in Scotchmen --- I was present not long since at a party of North Britons, where a son of Burns was expected; and happened to drop a silly expression (in my South British way), that I wished it were the father instead of the son --- when four of them started up at once to inform me, that "that was impossible, because he was dead." An impracticable wish, it seems, was more than they could conceive.

from First Fruits of Australian Poetry:

The First Pun in Otaheite [Tahiti?] --- We know a merry captain, and co-navigator with Cook, who prides himself upon having planted the first pun in Otaheite. It was in their own language, and the islanders first looked at him, then stared at one another, and all at once burst out into a genial laugh. It was a stranger, and as a stranger they gave it welcome. Many a quibble of their own growth, we doubt not, has since sprung from that well-timed exotic. Where puns flourish, there must be no inconsiderable advance in civilization.

from a letter to Wordsworth, April 9, 1816:

Borrowers of Books --- I have not bound the poems yet. I wait till people have done borrowing them. I think I shall get a chain and chain them to my shelves, more Bodleiano, and people may come and read them at chain's length. For of those who borrow, some read slow; some mean to read but don't read; and some neither read nor meant to read, but borrow to leave you an opinion of their sagacity. I must do my money-borrowing friends the justice to say that there is nothing of this caprice or wantonness of alienation in them. When they borrow my money they never fail to make use of it.

from a letter to Manning, February 26, 1808

Wordsworth and Shakespeare --- Wordsworth, the great poet, is coming to town; he is to have apartments in the Mansion House. He says he does not see much difficulty in writing like Shakespeare, if he had a mind to try it. It is clear that nothing is wanting but the mind. Even Coleridge was a little checked at this hardihood of assertion.

from The Superannuated Man:

Age Not Reckoned By Years --- I have indeed lived nominally fifty years, but deduct out of them the hours which I have lived to other people, and not to myself, and you will find me still a young fellow. For that is the only true Time, which a man can properly call his own, that which he has all to himself; the rest, though in some sense he may be said to live it, is other people's time, not his. The remnant of my poor days, long or short, is at least multiplied to me, threefold. My ten next years, if I stretch so far, will be as long as any preceding thirty. 'T is a fair rule-of-three sum.

- Tuesday, October 24, 2000 at 20:22:30 (EDT)

Prusak Conversation (ii/iii)

The second part of some notes on Larry Prusak's recent talk; see 13 October 2000 for part one and additional background: ( ... to be continued ... )

- Monday, October 23, 2000 at 05:57:10 (EDT)

Suburban Deer

Shadows slip out of the woodland
  Leap over fence behind park
Clatter their hooves on the pavement
  Prance across grass in the dark
Nibble the succulent rosebuds
  Trample the newly-mown lawn
Scatter their scat on the sidewalk
  Then fade away before dawn.

- Saturday, October 21, 2000 at 18:07:34 (EDT)


A strange change is coming, almost unnoticed in the glare of the TV spectacular, the roar of the crowd in the stadium, and the giant sloshing of cash among megacorps and politicos. The dinosaurs are beginning to feel nervous. They don't know why, but their growth is slowing; their trampling isn't echoing like it used to; their grand designs aren't unfolding quite according to plan. They're losing control. Worse for their egos, they're losing respect.

Individuals are starting to emerge. Like tiny mammals, we hide in the cracks, under the ground, and behind the bushes. We don't fight the monsters --- we avoid them and ignore them. We find each other and work together, at a pace too fast for the big guys to follow. By the time they figure out where we're going and try to position themselves in front of us to make a profit, we're long gone. We don't play by their rules.

Mass markets are shrinking, then vanishing, as individuals choose for themselves. There is no "next big thing" --- there are billions of "next little things", every one unique. Don't believe the salesmen who claim to predict the coming wave; there isn't a coming wave. Don't waste time in fantasies of wealth, fame, power. Give them up; they never were important anyway. The classic-jurassic era is ending. Make friends. Be free. Think. Live.

- Thursday, October 19, 2000 at 21:47:52 (EDT)


Some months ago Ambassador James Nolan gave the commencement address to the Class of 2000 at Saint Anselm's Abbey School in Washington, DC. Ambassador Nolan was himself a member of the St. Anselm's Class of 1950. He began by noting that, when he had started to prepare his speech, he had felt a little timidity. But then he realized that no one --- absolutely no one --- from his graduating class had the slightest recollection of the commencement address which they had all sat attentively through fifty years ago! This, the Ambassador said, gave him the courage to proceed. (^_^)

Amb. Nolan discussed a number of geopolitical issues which have emerged over the past half century, and speculated on the issues which the graduates would be facing in decades to come. He talked about the collapse of Great Powers such as the USSR, and the legitimacy of intervention in the internal affairs of other countries.

But the key question which the Ambassador raised hit much closer to home. The ranks of the US military services are increasingly filled by young recruits from the poorest segments of American society, largely members of racial and ethnic minorities. Is this right? Should a nation deliberately delegate responsibility for its national defense to what is essentially an underclass? Is it moral to pay people to risk their lives doing jobs which the rich and well-educated avoid?

We all delegate some activities. Bosses assign tasks to subordinates. General practitioners, in medicine and every other endeavor, refer customers to specialists with appropriate expertise. Division of labor is essential to economic efficiency. At a more fundamental level, almost the entire animal kingdom uses sexual differentiation to maximize reproductive success; females and males tend to pursue distinct strategies, with goals that can harmonize or conflict. And diverse species occupy different ecological niches in the web of life.

But can a nation, dedicated to freedom and justice, remain thus dedicated while assigning its dirty work to an unprivileged subset of the population? Ambassador Nolan asked the graduates of St. Anselm's to think about that. Perhaps we all should.

- Tuesday, October 17, 2000 at 20:55:58 (EDT)

Usual Suspects

When the same people keep getting quoted, time and again, on a topic that doesn't require specialized knowledge and years of study: beware!

Why should a short list of names appear repeatedly as experts on fuzzy issues such as "The Internet and Society", "The Future of the Corporation", and so forth? Doubtless these pundits give good sound bites, pithy sayings to add flavor to a reporter's story --- but do they really know anything special? It's entertaining to look back at their writings from a decade ago (for those who have been active that long) and see how inaccurate their confidently-stated prognostications were. It's also fun to observe the interlocking web of cross-citations which futurati teammates give each other. Once you're a member of the club you get free referrals from your friends, and you in turn put pointers to their work in your writings. (Just like web sites trading ad banners with one another and counting that as revenue.) The wheel goes around, until external events cause the self-licking ice cream cone to melt down.

Mutual admiration communities of press-friendly quotesmiths aren't really dangerous in the long run. (How many can you remember from a generation ago?) But in the shorter term they narrow the spectrum of viewpoints that get public examination --- and thereby lower the overall quality of thinking. When you see the same people pontificating in three or more places, step back and ask: doesn't anybody else have something to say on this issue? Then look around, in the Library, on the Web, etc., for non-celebrity experts.

You'll discover persons who don't spend all their time seeking the limelight: multifaceted individuals who realize that complex problems don't have bumper-stickerizable solutions --- and who therefore can't in honesty give simplistic slogans in answer to reporters' questions. These are quiet, thoughtful people ... people who will give you new and important ideas ... good people worth knowing.

- Sunday, October 15, 2000 at 18:33:01 (EDT)

Prusak Conversation (i/iii)

Larry Prusak, Executive Director of IBM's Institute for Knowledge Management in Boston, gave a high-energy two-hour public talk recently. His speech was officially titled "Enemies and Enablers of Knowledge Management" --- but the real focus was on conversation and how critical it is to the health of large organizations. Part One of some fragments from the mosaic that Prusak built: ( ... to be continued ... )

- Friday, October 13, 2000 at 21:11:28 (EDT)

Tomorrow Singer

Edward Ferrie, an English teacher in Spain, exchanged notes with me last late year. (Hi Edward!) In passing he mentioned a splendid Spanish word that deserves to be more widely known --- like Zeitgeist, bête noir, quid pro quo, and other useful terms that have spread far beyond their original languages. The word is cantamañanas. It comes from "cantar", to sing, and "mañana", tomorrow. A cantamañanas, Edward explained to me, is a person who talks big ... someone who makes grand plans but never quite gets around to completing anything. (Like most of us!)

- Wednesday, October 11, 2000 at 05:46:38 (EDT)

High Glider

Silent satellite on the edge of space
Slides into formation as information skates
  From earth to sky and back.

Bird spreads broad its wings while swift it flies along
Gathers solar beams to pay for its soft song
  In coin of captured light.

What it will not use it scatters off its sides
Gifting fairy glints to all who scan the skies
  In envy of its flight.

When its course is run the crystal bird dives down
Into ocean air where with a flash it drowns ---
  And dark returns to night.

- Sunday, October 08, 2000 at 19:56:37 (EDT)


A light sprinkling of comments from recent round-tables (Philo B'fasts) and other conversations:

- Friday, October 06, 2000 at 05:37:31 (EDT)

Principia Principia

The title is hard to beat: Newton's Principia (or more officially, Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia) ... Russell & Whitehead's Principia Mathematica ... G. E. Moore's Principia Ethica ... etc. The list is long.

So consider Principia Principia: the fundamental principles of how to build principles! What might such principles look like? Certainly they must be assertive; nobody wants wishy-washy foundations of "probably" this or "perhaps" that. (But are there times when uncertainty is essential?) Deep principles also had better be general, abstract, and cross-cutting --- not narrow specific factoids. (But aren't facts necessary too?) And good principles should be efficient --- both necessary and sufficient --- as small a set of elements as is needed to build the superstructure, but no smaller. (On the other hand, a little redundancy adds resilience to a system, eh?)

What are some other aspects of a good Principia Principia?

- Thursday, October 05, 2000 at 05:56:17 (EDT)

College Collage (2)

( ... more autobiographical fragments ... )

After spending the summer of 1972 at home, working part-time in his Father's small business (building pick-up truck covers and campers in Pflugerville, a little town north of Austin), ^z returned to Rice University for his Junior year. He stayed in an efficiency apartment for a month or two before a vacancy in a dorm room opened up and he was able to move onto campus. A little 50cc Honda motorcycle let him putter back and forth. As proof, he still has the scars on his knee from a spill, rounding a corner on a gravel road.

Rice was loosely modeled after Cambridge: student houses were called colleges, and no fraternities were allowed. ^z was assigned to Hanszen, "The Gentleman's College". Hanszen members (all male, then) were at one time obliged to wear a tie to dinner. Many met this requirement by putting a piece of string around their necks, on top of their t-shirts. The evening meal in the early 1970s was often a hasty affair, since the original Star Trek TV series happened to air at dinner time. In that pre-VCR era, many student-fans bolted their food and raced back to their rooms to watch. Other evenings there were food fights, "Viking Table" (no utensils!), or similar sophisticated academic activities. A sign labeled the knife/fork/spoon bins, "Alphabetized by second letter of each word".

Junior year was pleasant and productive for ^z. His roommate was a prototypical petroleum engineer, Andy Arismendi --- compatibly studious and quiet. Physics and math classes were challenging but fun; work in the school library was relaxing and offered many opportunities to discover new authors worth reading. Reshelving books brought ^z's first encounters with Knuth's Art of Computer Programming and with the Horatio Hornblower series of sea stories, for instance. ^z read ravenously.

Undergraduate social life? Next to none ... no dates, though much admiration of local feminine pulchritude from afar. In spite of its participation in Southwest Conference football, Rice was a serious school. The acronym TRG = "Typical Rice Girl" was frequently used to suggest that the brainy women there lacked normal beauty. This was unfair.

But on the techno-social side, the amateur radio club had equipment which was free to use for hams. ^z got his license, advanced to Extra class (WB5CMQ, later N6WX), exchanged telegraphic messages with his Brother in Austin, and took the graveyard shift for on-the-air contests which the club participated in.

Rice's excellent computer facilities were the major source of nerdy entertainment. The main campus CPU was a monster IBM mainframe, programmed in FORTRAN on punch-cards and in BASIC or APL via hard-wired paper teletypes, Decwriters, and Selectric typeball printers. Processor time was expensive, a tightly budgeted commodity. But between midnight and dawn the machines were under-utilized, and some genius in the computer center declared free access during those dark hours --- the "Night-Owls" service. (An Athenian owl was Rice's mascot.) It became a local geekish tradition to get to bed early, set the alarm, and then hike in the darkness across campus to get a few hours of computer time for experiments in recreational programming before breakfast.

For his Senior year at Rice, ^z joined a small consortium with fellow physics majors Ed Biegert and Bert Wallace plus a younger student named Dean Coleman to capture a prime suite of rooms in Hanszen College: the top floor of the Tower. (Rooms were allocated by seniority in a bidding system.) Bert was a short West Texan with big boots and a bold personality --- scrupulously honest, wealthy but modest. (He returned home after graduation to run the family ranch.) Ed was loud and funny, hard working and hard playing, a natural ringleader. When ^z first encountered him Ed was telling a joke: "The car companies have a conspiracy ... they know perfectly well how to build tires that last forever, but they choose not to. The secret? Make tires out of steel!" (^_^) Well, perhaps one had to hear Ed tell it, from two rows back before math class started, in order to appreciate the humor. (Ed got his Ph.D. in physics at Rice, married a TRG, and has been working in and around the geophysical side of the petroleum industry in the Houston area.)

The Hanszen dorm Tower was five storeys tall, with no elevator --- which made the penthouse suite nicely isolated from frivolous visitors. The top floor that Ed, Bert, Dean, and ^z took over consisted of a pair of bedrooms, a shared living/study space, and a bathroom/shower. The crew soon had moved all the bunks into one bedroom, the desks into the other, and had the place quite liveable. Dean build the first digital clock that ^z had ever seen, a Heathkit with bright red LED display. Everybody stayed up until 11:11:11 the first night it was plugged in, to marvel at the symmetry of the time. Dean also wired a neon bulb to the phone line, so he and his friends could see it flicker and answer the phone before the first ring, often much to the consternation of the calling party.

The Hanszen penthouse team had a singular close call: they were on the sun-deck outside their tower suite when a Houston thunderstorm approached. No rain, just gusts of wind and distant rumblings. Then suddenly --- blinding flash and tingle of corona discharge! The gang was terrified and ran inside to cower. Moments later, friends from the floors below raced up the stairs to ask what had happened; they had seen the lightning and heard an almost-simultaneous boom of thunder. Neither ^z nor his roommates remembered any sound whatsoever. Apparently the thunderbolt had passed nearby; the building and foolish balcony occupants were protected by a lightning rod on the roof a few feet above them.

The senior year went smoothly for ^z; he missed getting a double major in math + physics by a couple of credits, but no matter. He studied hard, got good grades, and graduated summa cum laude, albeit in absentia --- he went home to Austin instead of hanging around for the final ceremony. He had been inducted into Phi Beta Kappa the previous year, since his excess transfer credits from UT/Austin put him over the threshold then. None of these honors meant much to him, however. He continued to practice the quasi-stoic oblivious-to-externals attitude that he had slid into in his youth. Zen? Mr. Spock? Or just indifference? Life was good, learning was fun, and other more complex things could wait.

^z applied to Caltech and was admitted to graduate study in physics there. He flew to California for the first time in his life in late August of 1974.

( ... to be continued ... )

- Tuesday, October 03, 2000 at 06:03:43 (EDT)

This is Volume 0.11 of the journal of ^z = Mark Zimmermann ... musings on mind, matter, method, and metaphor ... new posts every few days, since April 1999. See ZhurnalyWiki on zhurnaly.com for a parallel "live" Wiki experiment in shared thought. For back issues of the ^zhurnal see Volumes v.01 (April-May 1999), v.02 (May-July 1999), v.03 (July-September 1999), v.04 (September-November 1999), v.05 (November 1999 - January 2000), v.06 (January-March 2000), v.07 (March-May 2000), v.08 (May-June 2000), v.09 (June-July 2000), v.10 (August-October 2000), v.11 (October-December 2000), v.12 (December 2000 - February 2001), v.13 (February-April 2001), v.14 (April-June 2001), 0.15 (June-August 2001), 0.16 (August-September 2001), 0.17 (September-November 2001), 0.18 (November-December 2001), 0.19 (December 2001 - February 2002), 0.20 (February-April 2002), 0.21 (April-May 2002), 0.22 (May-July 2002), 0.23 (July-September 2002), 0.24 (September-October 2002), 0.25 (October-November 2002), 0.26 (November 2002 - January 2003), 0.27 (January-February 2003), 0.28 (February-April 2003), 0.29 (April-June 2003), 0.30 (June-July 2003), 0.31 (July-September 2003), 0.32 (September-October 2003), 0.33 (October-November 2003), 0.34 (November 2003 - January 2004), 0.35 (January-February 2004), 0.36 (February-March 2004), 0.37 (March-April 2004), 0.38 (April-June 2004), 0.39 (June-July 2004), 0.40 (July-August 2004), 0.41 (August-September 2004), 0.42 (September-November 2004), ... Current Volume. Send comments and suggestions to z (at) his.com. Thank you!