^zhurnal - v.0.12

This is Volume 0.12 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.)

Seven Manes

Dreadlocks drift forward and back every stride,
   Like kelp in the ocean as seen from a pier,
     Swaying with each passing tide ...

Blonde cap explodes at a toss of the head
   Into a pale nimbus that floats and then falls
     Over a glimpse of an ear ...

Ringlets cascade like a waterfall down
   Twin ridges of shoulder blades, pouring a flood
     Into the valley below ...

Ponytail pendulum tick-tocks a beat
   That follows the jogger intent on her pace:
     Metronome cadence for feet ...

'Lectrified 'Fro forms a spherical cloud,
   Dark halo defying conventional style ---
     Natural, nappy, and proud ...

Bald rocky pate gleams through whispy gray threads;
   Yosemite dome-like, it looms over brows,
     Monument-weathered by age ...

Strands of brown dangle and sway in the breeze,
   A curtain of beads or a jungle of vines,
     Blowing a kiss to a cheek.

- Friday, February 09, 2001 at 07:09:40 (EST)


William H. Prescott in 1843 finished writing his History of the Conquest of Mexico --- the story of how a few hundred energetic adventurers disobeyed orders and took over a country. Prescott tells the tale with relatively good balance and general objectivity towards all sides.

The overarching theme (from the opening of Book I, Chapter I):

"Of all that extensive empire which once acknowledged the authority of Spain in the New World, no portion, for interest and importance, can be compared with Mexico; --- and this equally, whether we consider the variety of its soil and climate; the inexhaustible stores of its mineral wealth; its scenery, grand and picturesque beyond example; the character of its ancient inhabitants, not only far surpassing in intelligence that of the other North American races, but reminding us, by their monuments, of the primitive civilisation of Egypt and Hindostan; and lastly, the peculiar circumstances of its Conquest, adventurous and romantic as any legend devised by Norman or Italian bard of chivalry. It is the purpose of the present narrative to exhibit the history of this Conquest, and that of the remarkable man by whom it was achieved."

And part of a classic Prescott description of Aztec ritual (from Book I, Chapter III):

"Human sacrifices were adopted by the Aztecs early in the fourteenth century, about two hundred years before the Conquest. Rare at first, they became more frequent with the wider extent of their empire; till, at length, almost every festival was closed with this cruel abomination. These religious ceremonials were generally arranged in such a manner as to afford a type of the most prominent circumstances in the character or history of the deity who was the object of them. A single example will suffice.

"One of their most important festivals was that in honour of the god Tezcatlepoca, whose rank was inferior only to that of the Supreme Being. He was called 'the soul of the world,' and supposed to have been its creator. A year before the intended sacrifice, a captive, distinguished for his personal beauty, and without a blemish on his body, was selected to represent this deity. Certain tutors took charge of him, and instructed him how to perform his new part with becoming grace and dignity. He was arrayed in a splendid dress, regaled with incense, and with a profusion of sweet-scented flowers, of which the ancient Mexicans were as fond as their descendants at the present day. When he went abroad, he was attended by a train of the royal pages, and, as he halted in the streets to play some favourite melody, the crowd prostrated themselves before him, and did him homage as the representative of their good deity. In this way he led an easy, luxurious life, till within a month of his sacrifice. Four beautiful girls, bearing the names of the principal goddesses, were then selected to share the honours of his bed; and with them he continued to live in idle dalliance, feasted at the banquets of the principal nobles, who paid him all the honours of a divinity.

"At length the fatal day of sacrifice arrived. The term of his short-lived glories was at an end. He was stripped of his gaudy apparel, and bade adieu to the fair partners of his revelries. One of the royal barges transported him across the lake to a temple which rose on its margin, about a league from the city. Hither the inhabitants of the capital flocked, to witness the consummation of the ceremony. As the sad procession wound up the sides of the pyramid, the unhappy victim threw away his gay chaplet of flowers, and broke in pieces the musical instruments with which he had solaced the hours of captivity. On the summit he was received by six priests, whose long and matted locks flowed disorderly over their sable robes, covered with hieroglyphic scrolls of mystic import. They led him to the sacrificial stone, a huge block of jasper, with its upper surface somewhat convex.

"On this the prisoner was stretched. Five priests secured his head and his limbs; while the sixth, clad in a scarlet mantle, emblematic of his bloody office, dexterously opened the breast of the wretched victim with a sharp razor of itztli --- a volcanic substance hard as flint --- and, inserting his hand in the wound, tore out the palpitating heart.

"The minister of death, first holding this up towards the sun, an object of worship throughout Anahuac, cast it at the feet of the deity to whom the temple was devoted, while the multitudes below prostrated themselves in humble adoration. The tragic story of this prisoner was expounded by the priests as the type of human destiny, which, brilliant in its commencement, too often closes in sorrow and disaster. Such was the form of human sacrifice usually practised by the Aztecs."

- Thursday, February 08, 2001 at 08:55:36 (EST)

Knowledge & Consistency

Doing science, a teacher (David Ost) argues, is like a solving a crossword puzzle: where words interlock and cohere, one's confidence grows that the emerging answers are correct ... but when crossing words clash and contradict it's necessary to erase, backtrack, give up on otherwise-cherished hypotheses, try alternatives ... until things click and one suddenly sees the unanticipated meaning of subtle clues. Nature is like that. Simple theories explain many phenomena, but as those theories are stretched they begin to break down. Newtonian physics works amazingly well --- until at high speeds or in microscopic realms or near strong gravitational fields it begins to crumble. The same goes for knowledge in every area.

- Wednesday, February 07, 2001 at 07:28:25 (EST)

Undivided Attention

Andre Weil, mathematician at the Institute for Advanced Study, was asked for his Department's budgetary needs. He replied, "Give us enough chalk!"

Sometimes (maybe more often than we realize) what we really need is not a large amount of physical resources --- but simply quiet focused time to think about a subject, plus occasional "noisy time" to talk with others about our work and to listen to them tell of their activities. Modern life tends toward the opposite. Phones ring, computers beep as new email arrives, pagers buzz, voicemail lights flash, and then "whoops, gotta run!" to the next scheduled meeting. Attention is divided into finer and finer slices; it's a luxury to spend more than 10 minutes on a single task. Mobile phones ensure that no one is ever far from interruption. "Brevity - Variety - Fragmentation" is how a teacher (David Ost) recently described it. Who has time to read serious books any more? The trend is towards the shallow and the diffuse.

At home, at the top of the stairs, my wife has a print titled "Undivided Attention" made by a friend and art teacher of hers, Katja Oxman. Amongst other things it shows people regarding each other and steadily looking out of the picture plane....

- Tuesday, February 06, 2001 at 07:40:37 (EST)

Stupidity & Conspiracy

Last week (27 Jan 2001) the New York Times quoted California energy czar S. David Freeman: "The stupidity theory explains most things; the conspiracy theory doesn't." Similarly, at a recent Philosophy Breakfast a comrade (GdM) noted: "Never attribute to malevolence what you can explain by simple stupidity." (GdM speculates that this aphorism comes from some ancient source, but thus far I have not been able to find it on the 'Net - ^z) And in Vol. 1, Book 1, Chapter 10 of The Wealth of Nations (1776) Adam Smith observed: "People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices."

- Monday, February 05, 2001 at 20:11:20 (EST)

Building --> Book --> Web?

Will the Web fundamentally change human civilization? Or is almost-free publishing (for those who have something to say, who have time and skill to write, and who have network facilities) plus almost-instantaneous access to information (for those who know how, and where, to find it) merely a quantitative, not a qualitative, shift --- important on the margin, but not radically new? Did the real earthquake happen more than 500 years ago?

In Victor Hugo's Hunchback of Notre Dame Book V Chapter 2 is titled "This Will Destroy That". Hugo tells how human history, pre-Gutenberg, was written in its buildings: huts and temples, pyramids and pagodas, tombs and towers. Now (as of the Fifteenth Century) he argues that the printing press and its products have taken over the rôle of recording knowledge. Faster, cheaper, more democratic --- and, with widespread proliferation of books, far more imperishable than architecture. Hugo says, "The invention of printing is the greatest event of history." True? Chapter 2 concludes with a summary of his thesis:

"Thus, to put it shortly, mankind has two books, two registers, two testaments: Architecture and Printing; the Bible of stone and the Bible of paper. Doubtless, in contemplating these two Bibles, spread open wide through the centuries, one is fain to regret the visible majesty of the granite writing, those gigantic alphabets in the shape of colonnades, porches, and obelisks; these mountains, as it were, the work of man's hand spread over the whole world and filling the past, from the pyramid to the steeple, from Cheops to Strassburg. The past should be read in these marble pages; the books written by architecture can be read and reread, with never-diminishing interest; but one cannot deny the grandeur of the edifice which printing has raised in its turn.
"That edifice is colossal. I do not know what statistician it was who calculated that by piling one upon another all the volumes issued from the press since Gutenberg, you would bridge the space between the earth and the moon --- but it is not to that kind of greatness we allude. Nevertheless, if we try to form a collective picture of the combined results of printing down to our own times, does it not appear as a huge structure, having the whole world for foundation, and the whole human race for its ceaselessly active workmen, and whose pinnacles tower up into the impenetrable mist of the future? It is the swarming ant-hill of intellectual forces; the hive to which all the golden-winged messengers of the imagination return, laden with honey. This prodigious edifice has a thousand storeys, and remains forever incomplete. The press, that giant engine, incessantly absorbing all the intellectual forces of society, disgorges, as incessantly, new materials for its work. The entire human race is on the scaffolding; every mind is a mason. Even the humblest can fill up a gap, or lay another brick. Each day another layer is put on. Independently of the individual contribution, there are certain collective donations. The eighteenth century presents the Encyclopædia, the Revolution the Moniteur. Undoubtedly this, too, is a structure, growing and piling itself up in endless spiral lines; here, too, there is confusion of tongues, incessant activity, indefatigable labour, a furious contest between the whole of mankind, an ark of refuge for the intelligence against another deluge, against another influx of barbarism.
"It is the second Tower of Babel."

So does that put the Web into a better context? Is what we're now experiencing just a step or two more along the road that Victor Hugo identified in the move from the building to the book? And is the noise of the 'Net only an increment (though perhaps an order-of-magnitude worse) to the pandemonium that the printing press has already brought us?

- Friday, February 02, 2001 at 14:42:32 (EST)

Visible Symbols of Thought

Hit in the eye by a thrown bread crust, William H. Prescott (1796-1859) was blinded during a food fight while an undergrad at Harvard University. He turned from law to history, learned Spanish, hired readers, acquired reference books, and began to write. From his History of the Conquest of Peru, Book I, Chapter 4, on the critical link between writing and thinking:
"It is impossible to contemplate without interest the struggles made by different nations, as they emerge from barbarism, to supply themselves with some visible symbol of thought --- that mysterious agency by which the mind of the individual may be put in communication with the minds of a whole community. The want of such a symbol is itself the greatest impediment to the progress of civilization. For what is it but to imprison the thought, which has the elements of immortality, within the bosom of its author, or of the small circle who come in contact with him, instead of sending it abroad to give light to thousands and to generations yet unborn! Not only is such a symbol an essential element of civilization, but it may be assumed as the very criterion of civilization; for the intellectual advancement of a people will keep pace pretty nearly with its facilities for intellectual communication."

Cf. Edward Gibbon's remark in Chapter 9 of History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire:

"The Germans, in the age of Tacitus, were unacquainted with the use of letters; and the use of letters is the principal circumstance that distinguishes a civilised people from a herd of savages incapable of knowledge or reflection. Without that artificial help, the human memory soon dissipates or corrupts the ideas intrusted to her charge; and the nobler faculties of the mind, no longer supplied with models or with materials, gradually forget their powers; the judgment becomes feeble and lethargic, the imagination languid or irregular."

- Tuesday, January 30, 2001 at 08:24:26 (EST)

Awesomely Simple

Charlie Mingus, jazz pianist and composer, reputedly said:
"Creativity is more than just being different. Anybody can play weird --- that's easy. What's hard is to be as simple as Bach. Making the simple complicated is commonplace --- making the complicated simple, awesomely simple --- that's creativity."

(Cf. Æsthetics and Embarrassed Libertarian, ^zhurnal entries of 26 Aug 1999 and 28 May 2000 respectively.)

- Friday, January 26, 2001 at 11:50:15 (EST)

<Bra| & |Ket>

On the theme of appropriate notation and how it empowers good thinking, an example from quantum mechanical circles: P. A. M. Dirac's "bra-ket" symbolism. A Dirac "bra" looks like <a| and a "ket" is written |b> --- put them together to get a bracket, <a|b> which compactly symbolizes the overlap between quantum systems "a" and "b". An experiment "E" is a transformation operator. Put it in a bracket, <a|E|b> and you've got the chance that E turns state "b" into "a". The bra-ket notation keeps track of the nasty algebra and resolves ambiguity ... making it easy to derive and solve the right equations. (There's a mountain of powerful mathematical machinery behind the bra-ket stage: complex numbers, vectors and matrices, integrals, Hilbert spaces, etc.) Like Feynman diagrams, or the upstairs-downstairs tensor subscript convention, or Leibnitz's method of writing derivatives and integrals in calculus, or the Arabic invention of the zero for place-value representation of numbers --- nice notation, an efficient language for simplifying the complex.

(Cf. "Good Notation", the ^zhurnal entry of 6 January 2001.)

- Wednesday, January 24, 2001 at 12:58:21 (EST)

5th Gen X

Last week while browsing the library's shelves for something on Perl programming I found a real pearl, deeply flawed but nonetheless thought-provoking: The Fifth Generation Fallacy Why Japan Is Betting Its Future on Artificial Intelligence by J. Marshall Unger of the University of Hawaii (Oxford, 1987). This mistitled book offers a plausible socio-economic-linguistic explanation of the (much touted at the time) Fifth Generation Project. Unger argues that the Japanese writing system --- an æsthetic mix of Chinese ideograms and phonetic symbols --- is woefully inefficient and in fact causes low productivity and impaired literacy throughout Japan. The 5th Gen was, Unger contends, born of a vain and confused hope to overcome that linguistic handicap via computer magic.

One may enjoy this tome and still believe (as I do) in the long-term possibility of "strong AI", that is, machine consciousness. Professor Unger disbelieves, for various reasons --- but no matter. He's a linguist, not a mathematician. The best part of his book is a fascinating discussion of the written Japanese language. He notes, "Human beings learn to live with this large, open-ended set of characters, with their countless variations, even though they do so in, by computer standards, highly unsystematic and unreliable ways. People are adept at perceiving contexts and guessing at the meaning of unfamiliar characters without the guidance of hard and fast rules; they easily tolerate ambiguity in both language and writing...."

Unger talks about the common confusion between sound, symbol, and meaning:

On the social front, Prof. Unger discusses the serious challenges of alphabetization, filing, and indexing in Japanese. He observes that Japan has relatively few public libraries, and that the apparent widespread availability of books and magazines and newspapers is quite deceptive, since most of those are comic books and sports- or scandal-mongering tabloids. He identifies a key cultural issue: "... the Japanese attachment to kanji is intimately tied to the shared experience of mastering a complex body of knowledge that defines group membership. Whether kanji facilitate communication or not is a secondary consideration."

The real moral of Unger's book is perhaps stated at the end of his Introduction: "The Japanese have no monopoly on woolly thinking. If we cannot see how covert cultural biases interfere with the advance of presumably objective science in another, markedly different culture, how can we hope to diagnose our own failings?"

So, stepping back and coming home, let's ask what are the most significant sources of inefficiency in our society? The non-metric system of weights and measures (in the US) is a problem; so is the non-decimal system of timekeeping (clocks and calend ars). English spelling is non-phonetic, and many verb conjugations are irregular. Our postal service is arguably a joke; the banking and finance sectors are similarly silly. Are these frictional forces worth fixing?

Perhaps a much larger effect to ponder is the widespread squandering of human intelligence --- due to, among other things:

Can we do something about these?

- Friday, January 19, 2001 at 07:24:30 (EST)


The makings of a mind are threads of thought
That weave a web --- coherent consciousness ---
To conjure and control the fire of soul.
By day the bonds are stout, the spirit pale;
Sure spells confine the flame within her cage
Of reason, logic, memory, and fact ...

Until soft darkness comes to cut the cords
That bind the bright beast tight. See how she turns,
Unfolds and spreads her wings, and grows, and glows!
She leaps to flight and joins the shining flock:
Dark dreams that dance the sky and sing the songs
Of creativity and life and love.

- Tuesday, January 16, 2001 at 08:22:57 (EST)


One word still has the power to strike terror in my soul: molybdenum. Back in 1969 my Mother drove me to Houston, Texas --- the nearest exam site where the Federal Communications Commission offered a chance to earn a ham radio license. Multiple-choice tests of electronics theory and FCC regs were easy. Morse at 13 words per minute was tougher. I had practiced and felt I was ready ... but when the dits and dahs of the international radiotelegraph code began to flow past, I choked. I tried reading words as they were spelled out, guessing to fill in gaps when I missed a character. Big mistake! I only needed to get one minute solid out of the five minute transmission. But then, letter by letter, I heard the dread sequence that would forever haunt my nightmares: M - O - L - Y - B - D - .... Huh? What's that? Arggghhhhhh! My concentration shattered like a dropped vacuum tube.

I settled for a lowly Technician Class license that day; it only demanded 5 words/minute of code. A few months later I tried again and passed the General (13 wpm) amateur radio exam. Advanced and finally Extra Class (20 wpm) followed a year or two later. N6WX became my call sign: "WX" means weather in Morse, and my brother the meteorologist got K5WX. We both eventually were ARRL certified at code speeds of 30 wpm or so, far above any official requirement. But don't ask me to spell "molybdenum"!

- Wednesday, January 10, 2001 at 05:58:42 (EST)


The ^zhurnal entry of 11 April 2000 described a 1979 publication of mine: "It was rather a dull paper in my opinion, without any fundamental or exciting new insights. Boring work, but somebody had to do it." That occurs a lot, in research as well as in everyday life. Most of the time the feedback loops don't close; the happy consequences of quiet labors go unrecognized.

But in August 2000 the unexpected happened. A Berkeley astrophysicist, J. Garrett Jernigan, wrote and then phoned to tell me about a new theory he had come up with, to explain Quasi-periodic Oscillations (QPO) seen from Low Mass X-ray Binary (LMXB) neutron star systems. Professor Jernigan proposed that free precession of a neutron star's crust could produce the right kind of flickering X-ray emissions --- rigid-body precession quite similar to what Eugene Szedenits and I had computed in grad school more than two decades earlier, following suggestions of Kip Thorne and Roger Blandford.

The conversation with Garrett was a thrill. Imagine: somebody actually read what Gene & I had written! And something in the real world (maybe) corresponds to our calculations! Incredible. Garrett swore me to secrecy until his paper could get further through the publications process. A few days ago, he gave me permission to write; a preprint of his draft is now on the public LANL archive. Will Jernigan's theory survive critical review and further tests against observation? It's too early to tell. The contributions that Gene and I unwittingly made to this research are minor. But nevertheless, how nice to see (as two bibliographic references out of 57) evidence of the echoes, still reverberating, from old struggles to learn, explain, and share. (Cf. the 21 May 1999 ^zhurnal item quoting from George Eliot's Middlemarch.)

- Monday, January 08, 2001 at 06:09:40 (EST)

Good Notation

"As late as the 17th Century in many European universities, only the very best students were told that they could someday hope to conquer long division if they applied themselves. ... If a bad system is chosen to represent aspects of a problem, relatively simple problems can be made quite difficult." --- P. G. Emma (IBM Journal of Research and Development, 3 May 1997, p.215)

- Saturday, January 06, 2001 at 19:58:24 (EST)

IR, I Wish

While looking through my old notebooks I found some fantasy plans for information retrieval software development projects which, as far as I know, still haven't been accomplished. I'd like to see: My resolution for the Third Millennium: get to work on implementing the above, or induce someone cleverer to do it first!

- Thursday, January 04, 2001 at 20:12:04 (EST)

Rail Web

The first big Internet bubble is now in the process of popping (it still has more deflating to do than most pundits believe) ... and already the grandiose comments of the past few years are starting to look singularly silly. "The Web is as important a discovery as Fire," comes to mind. (I'll be merciful and not identify the formerly-rich-and-famous speaker of that line.)

But another metaphor for the Internet may actually have legs: the Web boom is like the Railroad construction mania of the 19th Century. Rail transport cut the cost of moving goods and people dramatically, while speed and reliability shot up. A great thing, yes. But follow the analogy further: are railroads mega-money-makers today? No, and they haven't been for decades.

An infrastructure, once it has been built, is no cash cow. During the initial construction phase a few companies can be big winners, and we tend to remember them --- rather than the less-lucky also-rans. But real profits are made elsewhere, by overcoming new economic bottlenecks in a constantly-changing landscape. Not even monopoly-style predatory behavior can garner exorbitant returns on capital in the long run; it either attracts competition or regulation.

So, once the dust settles, whither the Web? Like the rail system, it will fade into the background ... carry the bits cheaply and quickly ... and only come to consciousness when there's a catastrophic failure: a "train wreck", so to speak. Good infrastructure is like that.

- Wednesday, January 03, 2001 at 05:43:59 (EST)

Creative Devices

Four quotes unearthed during a dig through my notebook of early 1998:

- Monday, January 01, 2001 at 20:37:43 (EST)


In reaction to "Worth Remembering" (^zhurnal, 28 Dec 2000) some Philosophy Breakfast friends suggested several other noteworthy achievements of the 20th Century: space exploration, communications technology, cheap and fast transportation, public sanitation and health initiatives, mass education, widespread literacy, etc. Good things, undoubtedly.

But one idea (tnx, BD & GdM!) was so outstanding that perhaps it deserves to win not for the century, but for the whole Second Millennium: individual worth. All human beings are precious. It's no longer acceptable for some people to enslave others. Rape is wrong. Murder is wrong. Exploitation is wrong.

We're still trying to figure this concept out. There are plenty of disagreements left, in areas such as abortion, euthanasia, capital punishment, war, wealth distribution, social justice, animal rights, racism, sexism, and intolerance in general. But over the past several hundred years, in most of the world the trend is clear --- and it's a wonderful trend. Individuals matter.

- Sunday, December 31, 2000 at 21:39:03 (EST)

Embros? Herete!

In the basement of the old Caltech physics building, circa 1975, ^z shared an office with another student: Cosmas Zachos. CKZ had been an undergrad at Princeton. He possessed a wickedly cynical sense of humor, studied high-energy physics, and took calligraphic notes in jet black ink using a broad-tipped chisel-point fountain pen. Zachos was also a central social communications node among his fellow students who came from Greece.

^z was always happy to answer the shared phone, but after unsuccessful attempts to help non-English-speakers he came up with a plan. He asked, and Cosmas taught him to say (phonetically) "Embrós? ... O Záchos then íne ethó ... Hérete!" --- which more or less means "Hello? ... Zachos isn't here ... Good-bye!"

Delivered with strategic pauses the script worked, perhaps too well at times. Some Greek callers complained to Zachos of the impolite office-mate who spoke with a heavy accent and wouldn't take messages or respond to questions. Belated apologies to all concerned!

(cf. the ^zhurnal entry of 10 January 2000, "Seeing Stars (1)", for another ~1975 underground office anecdote.)

- Saturday, December 30, 2000 at 17:40:10 (EST)

Worth Remembering

The end of the Twentieth Century invites a retrospective glance at humanity's accomplishments during the past hundred years. Which of our discoveries will schoolchildren (assuming there are any) study in 2101? Perhaps: Quite a lot to be proud of! But what else can we hope to be remembered for? Which novels will be read? What art will be admired? And, to our embarrassment, which "triumphs" will turn out to be far more ephemeral than we can imagine today?

See also "We Suddenly See to the Edge of the Universe", the 8 June 1999 ^zhurnal entry.)

- Thursday, December 28, 2000 at 06:19:01 (EST)


Downstairs the ceiling overhead consists
Of beams and joists and rough unfinished boards ---
The splintery skeleton of floors above
That varnish, tile, parquet, or carpet hide
From delicate perception, lest offense
Be given to the senses of the sleek
Who glide from room to room on polished tracks ...
Exchanging pleasantries ... sipping their drinks ...
Admiring the portraits on the walls
Beneath the chandeliers that sprinkle light
To mist bare maiden shoulders with a dew
Of wealth and beauty. Music now cascades
Soft in a waterfall of liquid sound.
A dozen conversations splash and fade
Like waves upon the shore of a bright bay.

But underneath the surface of the sea
A colder current flows. The denizens
Of basement chambers, servants of the house,
Can hear the creak of floorboards as new guests
Arrive and doff their cloaks. They know their job,
These underfolk: to stand, obey, and wait
Upon their betters. So they lift their eyes
To naked bulbs, stark shadows, rafters, planks,
Preparing to put on a cheerful mask
Of gracious acquiescence in their rôle.
They fix their smiles in place and go upstairs.

- Tuesday, December 26, 2000 at 07:05:51 (EST)

Christmas Faith

Almost a century ago, the British novelist Arnold Bennett, musing about the real meaning of Christmas for an era troubled by spiritual doubt, wrote:

"An age of skepticism has its faults, like any other age, though certain persons have pretended the contrary. Having been compelled to abandon its belief in various statements of alleged fact, it lumps principles and ideals with alleged facts, and hastily decides not to believe in anything at all. It gives up faith, it despises faith, in spite of the warning of its greatest philosophers, including Herbert Spencer, that faith of some sort is necessary to a satisfactory existence in a universe full of problems which science admits it can never solve. None were humbler than the foremost scientists about the narrowness of the field of knowledge, as compared with the immeasurability of the field of faith. But the warning has been ignored, as warnings nearly always are. Faith is at a discount. And the qualities which go with faith are at a discount; such as enthusiasm, spontaneity, ebullition, lyricism, and self-expression in general. Sentimentality is held in such horror that people are afraid even of sentiment. Their secret cry is: 'Give us something in which we can believe.'

"They forget, in their confusion, that the great principles, spiritual and moral, remain absolutely intact. They forget that, after all the shattering discoveries of science and conclusions of philosophy, mankind has still to live with dignity amid hostile nature, and in the presence of an unknowable power and that mankind can only succeed in this tremendous feat by the exercise of faith and of that mutual goodwill which is based in sincerity and charity. They forget that, while facts are nothing, these principles are everything. And so, at that epoch of the year which nature herself has ordained for the formal recognition of the situation of mankind in the universe and of its resulting duties to itself and to the Unknown --- at that epoch, they bewail, sadly or impatiently or cynically: 'Oh! The bottom has been knocked out of Christmas!'

"But the bottom has not been knocked out of Christmas. And people know it. Somewhere, in the most central and mysterious fastness of their hearts, they know it. If they were not, in spite of themselves, convinced of it, why should they be so pathetically anxious to keep alive in themselves, and to foster in their children, the Christmas spirit? Obviously, a profound instinct is for ever reminding them that, without the Christmas, spirit, they are lost. The forms of faith change, but the spirit of faith, which is the Christmas spirit, is immortal amid its endless vicissitudes. At a crisis of change, faith is weakened for the majority; for the majority it may seem to be dead. It is conserved, however, in the hearts of the few supremely great and in the hearts of the simple. The supremely great are hidden from the majority; but the simple are seen of all men, and them we encourage, often without knowing why, to be the depositaries of that which we cannot ourselves guard, but which we dimly feel to be indispensable to our safety."

(From Chapter II of Friendship and Happiness by Arnold Bennett, first published ca. 1905 under the title "The Feast of St. Friend". See also "My Business", the ^zhurnal note of 30 May 1999 quoting from Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol.)

- Saturday, December 23, 2000 at 06:27:45 (EST)

Chess 1991-1993

(See the ^zhurnal entry of 14 December 2000 for "1990-1991")

On the day before ^z's 39th birthday, his over-the-board chess career took a new turn. The Saint James School (a pre-college religious institution for boys) sits on a pleasant rural campus near the Antietam (US Civil War) Battlefield south of Hagerstown, Maryland, an hour's drive from ^z's customary turf. Michael Anders taught Spanish at St. James, and in the early 1990's he organized and ran a series of tournaments. ^z ventured to St. James a total of five times, and also took part in three other tourneys closer to home before hanging up his caissic spurs for the rest of the 20th Century. Let the record show:

The main chess changes that ^z observed after two decades of siesta? Instead of tournaments that lasted two or three days with games played at a slow pace of 2 hours (or more) per 40 moves, by the early 1990's single-day tournaments at sudden-death time controls of G/30 or G/60 had become the bill of fare. Players seemed stronger, probably because they had good computers to train against. Tournament directors were better-organized, and frequently had computer assistants to optimize pairings and scorekeeping. And there were far more players who were young and/or female and/or non-European --- many of whom were deadly opponents across the board. Overall, healthy progress for one of the world's foremost intellectual pursuits.

(See also the ^zhurnal entry of 10 December 2000 for a summary of ^z's teenage chess experiences in 1969-1971. Please send me a note if you spot your name, or the name of someone you know, in these listings --- and let me know how you're doing nowadays! I still have the record of the moves for all of these games, with the exception of those played at fast time controls.)

- Thursday, December 21, 2000 at 20:54:34 (EST)

Nice Hackers

Encounters at a 1996 wacky-computer-people conference: ... in short, a fine crew of deep, thoughtful, concerned people, worried about important issues.

But far outnumbering them, alas, were flocks of self-promoters whose agenda focused on passing out business cards and making quick spiels, in hopes of attracting money for their ventures ... plus a slightly smaller herd of megalomaniacs, each of whom was sure s/he knew The Answer --- and insisted on explaining it in detail to anyone who was polite enough to listen.

- Wednesday, December 20, 2000 at 19:53:48 (EST)

Tufte Thoughts

Some notes from a one-day lecture/course (21 March 1997) by Professor Edward Tufte on information visualization and understanding:

- Monday, December 18, 2000 at 05:49:05 (EST)


In a thoughtful interview (by Heidi Aspaturian, Caltech News vol. 24, no. 3) Professor Steve Koonin talks about the challenges of being provost (chief academic officer) of a major research institution. Those challenges are profound ones --- tough trade-offs between breadth and depth, between independence and cooperation, science and the humanities, teaching and research, business and academia, and on and on. This is the real world. Nothing is simple.

Prof. Koonin concludes: "That's one of the key things I think I've learned as provost --- that decisions are not always optimized. This job has also taught me a lot about human nature, and about how heavily it figures into science and engineering. And that has humbled me in some ways. In this kind of environment, it becomes so clear that while there are right answers, there are also good answers, and that the two are not always the same. It sure is interesting. Hope I've done some good."

Sounds like a worthy goal for everybody: "Hope I've done some good."

(See also the 4 May 1999 ^zhurnal entry, "Simple Answers", and 6 November 2000 quotation from Middlemarch by George Eliot.)

- Saturday, December 16, 2000 at 21:53:39 (EST)

Ethical Fitness

A recent talk by Dr. Rushworth Kidder discussed several important issues. Kidder is an author (How Good People Make Tough Choices and Shared Values for a Troubled World) and is also the founder of the nonprofit Institute for Global Ethics. Among the points he raised were:

(See also quotes from Albert Schweitzer in the ^zhurnal entry of 23 July 2000.)

- Friday, December 15, 2000 at 05:43:08 (EST)

Chess 1990-1991

Second childhood? Fantasies of not-yet-over-the-hill-ness? Sheer hubris? For whatever reason, after 19 years of inactivity (and a few months of practice against computers) ^z came back to the chess arena in late 1990 and played in 20 official tournaments during the next two and a half years. He met scores of nice (and similarly delusional) opponents in the course of achieving 50 wins, 34 losses, and 7 draws --- and pulling his USCF rating up into Class A, a long-time fantasy he had held since youth. (If you see your name in these notes, please drop me a line and let me know how your chess is going! But beware: I have the moves on file for all of these games, and will not hesitate to share them with you.)

History reports:

... to be continued ...

- Thursday, December 14, 2000 at 05:52:51 (EST)

Punishment & Crime

Another thought from The Vicar of Wakefield (by Oliver Goldsmith, 1766), Chapter XXVII:

"Our Saxon ancestors, fierce as they were in war, had but few executions in times of peace; and in all commencing governments that have the print of nature still strong upon them, scarce any crime is held capital.

"It is among the citizens of a refined community that penal laws, which are in the hands of the rich, are laid upon the poor. Government, while it grows older, seems to acquire the moroseness of age; and as if our possessions were become dearer in proportion as they increased, as if the more enormous our wealth, the more extensive our fears, our possessions are paled up with new edicts every day, and hung round with gibbets to scare every invader.

"Whether is it from the number of our penal laws or the licentiousness of our people that this country should show more convicts in a year than half the dominions of Europe united? Perhaps it is owing to both; for they mutually produce each other. When by indiscriminate penal laws a nation beholds the same punishment affixed to dissimilar degrees of guilt, from perceiving no distinction in the penalty, the people are led to lose all sense of distinction in the crime, and this distinction is the bulwark of all morality; thus the multitude of laws produce new vices, and new vices call for fresh restraints.

"It were to be wished then that power, instead of contriving new laws to punish vice, instead of drawing hard the cords of society till a convulsion come to burst them, instead of cutting away wretches as useless before we have tried their utility, instead of converting correction into vengeance, it were to be wished that we tried the restrictive arts of government, and made law the protector but not the tyrant of the people. We should then find that creatures whose souls are held as dross only wanted the hand of a refiner; we should then find that wretches, now stuck up for long tortures, lest luxury should feel a momentary pang, might, if properly treated, serve to sinew the state in times of danger; that, as their faces are like ours, their hearts are so too; that few minds are so base as that perseverance cannot amend; that a man may see his last crime without dying for it; and that very little blood will serve to cement our security."

(See also the ^zhurnal entry of 2 December 2000 for some other Goldsmith quotes.)

- Tuesday, December 12, 2000 at 06:09:29 (EST)


Gray sky above: a Sunday afternoon drizzle of rain, mixed with traces of sleet, drools on the US Supreme Court building. A few dozen picketers zig-zag for a few hundred cameras feeding live video to a few thousand TV stations which broadcast to a few million viewers who, with a few exceptions, ignore the show.

But go south and east ... past the tents where campers await a chance to get into the Court tomorrow ... past the Library of Congress, data warehouse to the world ... past the Folger Shakespeare Library, monument to the Bard ... to a lanky red brick structure, St. Mark's Episcopal Church. Forget politics. Today something more important is happening: a concert in memory of Rafe Ronkin. While stained-glass saints look down, fifty people sit near a small stage in the middle of the nave.

Scott Reiss introduces himself and the other two performers, Tina Chancey and Webb Wiggins. The music is from 17th century Europe --- works by Matthew Locke, Jacob Van Eyck, Johann Jacob Froberger, Marin Marais, Giovanni Battista Fontana, Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck, and Francesco Turini. Scott, Tina and Webb play, respectively, recorders, violi da gamba, and harpsichord. Notes dance counterpoint inside the church.

Rafe Ronkin, the deceased, was a biology professor who moved on to a second career at the National Science Foundation. He took up the recorder in his 50's and was one of Scott's first students. Sometimes, Scott reported, Rafe struggled in frustration to get the music to work out. But he loved making music and kept at it. With a catch in his voice, before starting to play a solo recorder piece Scott holds up his hands and says, "I'd like to dedicate this to you, Rafe --- and today, these are your fingers."

- Monday, December 11, 2000 at 06:12:54 (EST)

TX Chess 1969-1971

In late high school and early college, ^z played a little chess. His rating drifted around within Class B ... more or less average, in other words, for a semi-serious tournament player. He took part in seven competitions:

So ended ^z's teenage tournament chess career: 17 wins, 14 losses, and 6 draws. More than 60 solid hours of over-the-board sweat, building upon thousands of hours of study plus countless behind-the-scenes unrated practice games. ^z did not return to competitive play until late 1990, after a lapse of 29 years. (See Postalite 1992-96 for ^z postal chess results and commentary.)

- Sunday, December 10, 2000 at 08:05:05 (EST)

This is Volume 0.12 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!