^zhurnal - v.0.13

This is Volume 0.13 of the ^zhurnal --- musings on mind, method, metaphor, and matters miscellaneous ... a rather cluttered set of sporadic Good Mistakes. What's it all about? Maybe "... to create moments of philosophy --- that is, to pass from opinion to thought ...." It's also the journal of ^z = Mark Zimmermann. See the ZhurnalyWiki on zhurnaly.com for a parallel "live" Wiki experiment. For back issues of the ^zhurnal see Volumes 0.01, 0.02, ... 0.40, 0.41, ... Current Volume. Send comments & suggestions to "z (at) his (dot) com". Thank you! (Copyright © 1999-2004 by Mark Zimmermann.)

Physics Envy

In an April 1996 online conversation a thoughtful friend (CD) wrote:
"... It has amazed me how many of these writers --- who don't apparently know each other --- resort to the world of physics, which I don't understand, to explain these phenomena: physical theories of quantum mechanics, the uncertainty principle, and chaos theory. Perhaps we have some physicists among us who would be willing to help out with the strategic planning effort, or join us in some Forecasting in the Db. ..."
I replied iconoclastically:
I was once a physicist (actually, I was a half-astrophysicist; see ^zhurnal 14 May 2000) and obviously would be happy to volunteer to translate techno-dweeb metaphors and otherwise assist in any way I can ... but personally, I think that a lot of the physics-related language one sees is just a convenient way to:
  1. appear smart if you can't come up with any relevant allusions to literature or history (^_^); and
  2. try to jog people into thinking in different ways about a situation, perhaps a bit more quantitatively or experimentally oriented than we usually do.

Most of the organizational and human issues that we've been discussing aren't amenable to hard-science-style solutions ... but S&T stuff can, occasionally, shed light via loose analogies (as can quotes from Shakespeare and Gibbon). Reading around in math and physics and biology and so forth sometimes helps put things in perspective (on a cosmological scale, our problems are rather minor), and there are probably relevant parts of evolution-by-natural-selection that can apply to some issues we face. See, for instance, Richard Dawkins's book The Selfish Gene, Paul Colinvaux's Why Big Fierce Animals Are Rare, and the Daniel Dennett tome Darwin's Dangerous Idea.

Check out these sorts of books, plus some Scientific American figure captions, and you too can throw "impedance mismatch" and "ultraviolet catastrophe" into your writings, win friends, influence people, and get big advances from publishers! (^_^)

(slightly edited from the original; cf. ^zhurnal 3 January 2000)

- Wednesday, April 11, 2001 at 05:50:47 (EDT)

Proof Negative

It's often said, "You can't prove a negative." Ha! For starters, that statement itself is a negative --- so if it's true then it must itself be unproveable. But no such luck ... it's simply false. There are plenty of easily-proved negatives ranging from the quasi-definitional ("There are no odd numbers divisible by 2") to the finite-specific ("This deck of cards has no Queen of Hearts").

When somebody sensible says "You can't prove a negative" what s/he really means, most of the time, is "This is a complicated open-ended problem and you can't claim complete knowledge of all possibilities." That's reasonable. To demonstrate rigorously that "There are no white crows" would require examining every crow in the universe and confirming that not one of them is white. Not an easy task.

- Tuesday, April 10, 2001 at 05:52:40 (EDT)

Philo B'fast Q's

Back on 2 April 1998 the New York Times ran an article about "Philosophy Cafes" in France. That story, like a seed crystal falling into a supersaturated solution, triggered the formation of a "Philosophy Breakfast" table every Friday morning. We meet at 7:45am not-so-sharp. Usually half a dozen people, plus or minus half a dozen, show up to scratch their heads together for forty-five minutes. Questions that came up during our February and March 2001 round-tables:

(Thanks for ideas & comments to JB, JC, BD, GdM, JJ, KM, AP, LR, BW, and others. See also ^zhurnal 6 October 2000, 2 & 1 August 2000, and 27, 25, 22, 18, 12, & 11 July 2000.)

- Monday, April 09, 2001 at 06:01:59 (EDT)


"In CypherSpace, no one can read your screen...."

(as seen on the "CypherPunks" discussion group, ca. 1996)

- Sunday, April 08, 2001 at 10:34:42 (EDT)

Bossy Questions

A few years ago when a new and Very Senior Manager had just been installed in our organization, a colleague assigned to interview him for the company newsletter invited various of us to suggest questions. Some of my proposals, slightly edited (to protect the less-than-innocent!):

- Friday, April 06, 2001 at 05:47:19 (EDT)

Not I

Today is the Second Anniversary of the ^zhurnal project. Looking back through the first dozen volumes I see many inadvertent howlers ... some embarrassing failures ... but also a few items that I'm happy I struggled to compose and save here. To encourage erstwhile journalizers, in the little book Mental Efficiency (published in 1911, but serialized in a newspaper a few years earlier) under "Mental Calisthenics" Arnold Bennett offered some advice:
This brings me to the department of writing. I am a writer by profession; but I do not think I have any prejudices in favour of the exercise of writing. Indeed, I say to myself every morning that if there is one exercise in the world which I hate, it is the exercise of writing. But I must assert that in my opinion the exercise of writing is an indispensable part of any genuine effort towards mental efficiency. I don't care much what you write, so long as you compose sentences and achieve continuity. There are forty ways of writing in an unprofessional manner, and they are all good. You may keep "a full diary," as Mr. Arthur Christopher Benson says he does. This is one of the least good ways. Diaries, save in experienced hands like those of Mr. Benson, are apt to get themselves done with the very minimum of mental effort. They also tend to an exaggeration of egotism, and if they are left lying about they tend to strife. Further, one never knows when one may not be compelled to produce them in a court of law. A journal is better. Do not ask me to define the difference between a journal and a diary. I will not and I cannot. It is a difference that one feels instinctively. A diary treats exclusively of one's self and one's doings; a journal roams wider, and notes whatever one has observed of interest. A diary relates that one had lobster mayonnaise for dinner and rose the next morning with a headache, doubtless attributable to mental strain. A journal relates that Mrs. -------, whom one took into dinner, had brown eyes, and an agreeable trick of throwing back her head after asking a question, and gives her account of her husband's strange adventures in Colorado, etc. A diary is
All I, I, I, I, itself I
(to quote a line of the transcendental poetry of Mary Baker G. Eddy). A journal is the large spectacle of life. A journal may be special or general. I know a man who keeps a journal of all cases of current superstition which he actually encounters. He began it without the slightest suspicion that he was beginning a document of astounding interest and real scientific value; but such was the fact. In default of a diary or a journal, one may write essays (provided one has the moral courage); or one may simply make notes on the book one reads. Or one may construct anthologies of passages which have made an individual and particular appeal to one's tastes. Anthology construction is one of the pleasantest hobbies that a person who is not mad about golf and bridge --- that is to say, a thinking person --- can possibly have; and I recommend it to those who, discreetly mistrusting their power to keep up a fast pace from start to finish, are anxious to begin their intellectual course gently and mildly. In any event, writing --- the act of writing --- is vital to almost any scheme. I would say it was vital to every scheme, without exception, were I not sure that some kind correspondent would instantly point out a scheme to which writing was obviously not vital.
Some other candidate psychoexercises from the same Arnold Bennett essay: Different disciplines for different people ... all fine ways to develop mental muscles.

(Cf. ^zhurnal 4 April 2000 for other musings on journalling, posted on the First Anniversary of this experiment, and 19 March 2001 for an Arnold Bennett comment on diaries.)

- Wednesday, April 04, 2001 at 20:51:30 (EDT)


Rib of the Earth, a granite dome protrudes
    From desert sand. Its shadow arches high
Against the night. Above it, stars exude
    Their spidery threads of light to web the sky,
Building a dome concentric with the first:
    A conjugate mirror of the curving rock.
Both shells stand parallel, but each reverse
    In substance from its twain. To interlock
These disparate realms would seem to be a feat
    Impossible. Can Heaven marry Earth?
How may Ideal consort with the Concrete?
    What child would such unnatural union birth?

To answer, look more closely at the edge
    Between the land and air. Atop this arc
One tiny figure stands upon a ledge,
    Tensing to jump. An angel? Beast? The dark
Obscures its face. In which direction will
    It leap? Upward, to add a shy new voice
Of meaning to the night? Or down the hill
    Again? A universe awaits the choice.

- Tuesday, April 03, 2001 at 05:46:36 (EDT)


Jorgen Sandberg writes engagingly in the March 2001 Harvard Business Review about "Understanding Competence at Work". (No, the HBR isn't on my normal reading list; a friendly librarian (LK) who knows what I like forwarded the article to me.) Sandberg identifies three types of people whom he terms: Customer optimizers turn out to be the most competent and effective workers ... but according to Sandberg, few people whom he interviewed could explain why that third group was so good. Sandberg then asks: "And if people don't recognize or value the attributes that really determine success, how easy will it be for them to acquire those attributes?" That's a good question --- one which applies much more widely in life than merely to one's employment.

- Sunday, April 01, 2001 at 19:09:57 (EDT)

Not Easy

From Rainer Maria Rilke's Letters to a Young Poet (1903), Chapter Four:
"But they are difficult things with which we have been charged; almost everything serious is difficult, and everything is serious."

- Saturday, March 31, 2001 at 19:21:59 (EST)

Cubism (Part 2)

A couple of decades ago I met a Founding Father of Rubik's-Cube Culture in the USA. A few days later I posted my notes on the visit to the "Cube-Lovers" list on USENET. Lest we forget, slightly edited, those notes: So what has happened in the 20+ years since that memorable visit? I haven't heard from Bela --- but given the flood of cheap imported cubes which hit the market in the early 1980's, I fear that the odds are not good that he made enough money to pay back his second mortgage ... nor to reimburse his family members for their work. Too bad; Mr. Szalai was a kind and thoughtful gentleman. (Cf. ^zhurnal of 16 March 2001 for Part 1 of "Cubism")

- Thursday, March 29, 2001 at 05:54:22 (EST)

Imperfect Storm

Walter Benjamin (Illuminations) describes the Angel of History:
"His face is turned towards the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress."

- Wednesday, March 28, 2001 at 12:06:48 (EST)


The term training suggests an imposed-by-outside-force change in a person's state of knowledge; learning, in contrast, implies a voluntary act by the student. Training is an information "push", but learning is a "pull". This is more than mere word play: note the resistance that adults (and kids, for that matter) put up to compulsory courses. For anything that's really worthwhile, learning works. Training, in the long run, doesn't.

- Tuesday, March 27, 2001 at 05:45:10 (EST)


Some quips from a "Symposium on the Future" (held 26 February 1998, organized by comrade CD):

- Monday, March 26, 2001 at 05:54:41 (EST)


Paulette Dickerson & I were wed on 6 September 1978 in our living room. I was a physics grad student; we were leasing a house from Caltech on the edge of campus, a nice old wooden structure that had real character but was only suffered to stand until the school chose to knock it down for room to expand a parking lot. Meanwhile, we lived in it at an absurdly low rent. Walt Meader, minister and head of the Caltech "Y", presided. He read an excerpt from Rainer Maria Rilke (whom Walt referred to at one point as "she" --- oops!). Comrades Craig & Dori Littell-Herrick witnessed, as their tiny kids Ray and Amy raced about. We said "I do", exchanged thrift-store-purchased rings, kissed, and shared a nice meal with our friends. The cost and formality of our marriage ceremony seem to have been inversely proportional to our happiness together so far. May that mathematical relationship persist!

- Saturday, March 24, 2001 at 13:58:38 (EST)

Dark Glory

"No credit? No problem!" sounds like a bumper-sticker advertisment for a loan shark. But it's also a fine mantra for somebody who hopes to do good in general. Don't expect to get recognition for your contributions. Noble acts are their own reward. John Stuart Mill (in his Autobiography, Chapter 3) wrote on a closely-related note:
"I learnt how to obtain the best I could when I could not obtain everything; instead of being indignant or dispirited because I could not have entirely my own way, to be pleased and encouraged when I could have the smallest part of it; and when even that could not be, to bear with complete equanimity the being overruled altogether. I have found, through life, these acquisitions to be of the greatest possible importance for personal happiness, and they are also a very necessary condition for any one, either as theorist or as practical man, to effect the greatest amount of good compatible with his opportunities."
(Cf. ^zhurnal 11 Jan 2000)

- Friday, March 23, 2001 at 19:24:31 (EST)

Shadow Casting

Who makes a difference? Who really affects the future? Maybe some scientists and statesmen, occasional parents and philosophers, a few artists and authors. But is it important to cast a visible shadow on events? (Why? Cf. ^zhurnal 21 May 1999 .)

A few years ago Jonathan Yardley (in a Delta Airlines inflight 'zine article, February 1998) wrote about our society's fixation on obscenely wealthy sports figures and the common tendency now to call them "heroes". Quite a contrast, Yardley observed, to the serious heroes of past generations: Lincoln, Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., et al. Today's idols are virtual pygmies --- "... famous for being famous..." and little more. Their shadows will soon fade.

- Thursday, March 22, 2001 at 16:43:33 (EST)


Can great progress come from playing games? It's a pleasant conceit, and forms the basis of some enjoyable fiction: a kid who seems to be wasting time turns out to be honing some deep, fortuitously critical skill ... and is selected to go forth as a hero and Save the World(s).

But it's a mere fantasy, and potentially quite a damaging one. What's more likely, based on all of human experience, is that worthwhile advances will come not from playing games --- but through dedication and extended thinking and wrestling with tough problems and creative collaboration and hard work, on timescales of many years. That's not a pretty picture for those of us who dream of magic ... but on the brighter side, take a look at all the nifty math and science and literature and engineering and art that we've got, after only a few millennia of sweat!

And there are occasional stories about the flip side, though they tend not to be best-sellers. (Wonder why?) Remember the Asimov tale about the rediscovery of long division in an over-computerized future? Or the '50s SF yarn about a kid who apparently was an utterly learning-disabled failure, got thrown out of the standard fun-and-games hypermedia-training curriculum, and had to study from books (gasp!) and work out hard problems by hand (ugh!) --- only to much later find out that he was one of the happy few who had the potential to actually discover something new? It's not easy to make such a story be dramatic and exciting. Too bad...

- Wednesday, March 21, 2001 at 05:40:34 (EST)

Psychological Undead

On 12 February 1998 during the drive in to the office I had a moving conversation with my then-carpool-mate (CD) about "Emotional Vampires". That lovely phrase was used the day before by a friend (KC) to describe certain personalities who tap into one's psyche and drain it dry ... people who demand an audience ... who latch on and won't let go ... whose suffering is the central feature of their existence --- and who insistently impose that pain upon others, sucking away energy and life. We all know such people. CD & I talked about a marriage that broke down when a manipulative and spiritually undead husband browbeat his wife into getting an abortion --- a true tragedy that drew tears from both of us. It was good cry, cathartic and happy, worth remembering.

- Tuesday, March 20, 2001 at 05:43:01 (EST)

Dear Diary

The Arnold Bennett book Self and Self Management: Essays about Existing (1918, containing articles from a decade or so earlier) has a chapter called "The Diary Habit" in which Bennett talks about the value of making near-daily notes about events in one's life. He muses about how hard it is to tell the full (often embarrassing) truth when writing, how nervous and self-critical most people get when they try to write, and how much effort (sheer will power) it takes to do diary entries regularly --- but how important it is to try. Bennett writes: "I have kept a diary for over twenty-one years, and I know a little about it. I know more than a little about the remorse --- alas, futile! --- which follows negligence. In diary-keeping negligence cannot be repaired. That which is gone is gone beyond return."

Why should one keep a diary? Part III of "The Diary Habit" advises:

Having discouraged, I now wish to encourage. Many who want to keep diaries and who ought to keep diaries do not, because they are too diffident. They say: "My life is not interesting enough." I ask: "Interesting to whom? To the world in general or to themselves?" It is necessary only that a life should be interesting to the person who lives that life. If you have a desire to keep a diary, it follows that your existence is interesting to you. Otherwise obviously you would not wish to make a record of it. The greatest diarists did not lead very palpitating lives. Ninety-five per cent. of Pepys's Diary deals with tiny daily happenings of the most banal sort --- such happenings as we all go through. If Pepys re-read his entries the day after he wrote them, he must have found them somewhat tedious. Certainly he had not the slightest notion that he was writing one of the great outstanding books of English Literature.

But diaries are the opposite of novels, in that time increases instead of decreasing their interest. After a reasonable period every sentence in a diary blossoms into interest, and the diarist simply cannot be dull --- any more than a great wit such as Sidney Smith could be unfunny. If Sidney Smith asked Helen to pass him the salt, the entire table roared with laughter because it was inexplicably so funny. If the diarist writes in his diary, "I asked Helen to pass me the salt," within three years he will find the sentence inexplicably interesting to himself. In thirty years his family will be inexplicably interested to read that on a certain day he asked Helen to pass him the salt. In three hundred years a whole nation will be reading with inexplicable and passionate interest that centuries earlier he asked Helen to pass him the salt, and critics will embroider theories upon both Helen and the salt and will even earn a living by producing new annotated editions of Helen and the salt. And if the diary turns up after three thousand years, the entire world will hum with the inexplicable thrilling fact that he asked Helen to pass him the salt; which fact will be cabled round the globe as a piece of latest news; and immediately afterwards there will be cabled round the globe the views of expert scholars of all nationalities on the problem whether, when he had asked Helen to pass him the salt, Helen did actually pass him the salt, or not. Timid prospective diarists in need of encouragement should keep this great principle in mind.

You will say: "But what do I care about posterity? I would not keep a diary for the sake of posterity."

Possibly not, but some people would. Some people, if they thought their diaries would be read three hundred years hence, or even a hundred years hence, would begin diaries to-morrow and persevere with them to the day of death. Some people of course are peculiar. And I admit that I am of your opinion. The thought of posterity leaves me stone cold.

There is only one valid reason for beginning a diary --- namely, that you find pleasure in beginning it; and only one valid reason for continuing a diary --- namely, that you find pleasure in continuing it. You may find profit in doing so, but that is not the main point --- though it is a point. You will most positively experience pleasure in reading it after a long interval; but that is not the main point either --- though it is an important point. A diary should find its sufficient justification in the writing of it. If the act of writing is not its own reward, then let the diary remain for ever unwritten.

(For other Arnold Bennett items cf. ^zhurnal 29 April 1999, 5 December 1999, 22 February 2000, 19 March 2000, 28 November 2000, 8 December 2000, and , 23 December 2000.)

- Monday, March 19, 2001 at 05:45:01 (EST)

Golden Chief

In a recent online discussion about organizational health, a friend and colleague (JC) noted the importance of having the courage to tell hard truths to one's boss --- and of the boss's having the courage to hear honest criticism. My comrade described a Tom Morris anecdote (from If Aristotle Ran General Motors) about a senior manager who had a relationship of trust with a subordinate. In response to a new proposal, the leader would occasionally receive a note of feedback that began:
"Dear Jefe de Oro,

If you say so, it will be my hourly concern to make it so. But before I sally forth in service of this, your latest cause, I must tell you with deep affection and respect that you're full of it again...."

It's not easy to be that frank with somebody who can make or break your career. Some managers aren't worthy of that degree of trust; they aren't able to take a blunt statement of truth without retaliating against the bringer of bad news. But for an organization to endure and to thrive, its leaders have to be strong enough --- wise enough --- mature enough --- to hear the truth and to cherish those at lower levels who dare to speak it. Otherwise, the honest workers will find another home ... and the ones who are left will give the bosses what they deserve.

- Saturday, March 17, 2001 at 19:22:54 (EST)

Cubism (Part 1)

A small parable of knowledge discovery follows. (Spoiler Warning! --- if you have not yet independently figured out the Cube and wish to do so, skip this ^zhurnal entry!)

Back when Rubik's Cubes were a new invention, in early 1980, I got one and commenced messing around with it. (What's a Cube, you ask? The classic model, invented by Hungarian architect Erno Rubik, is a 3x3x3 block of cubelets; every face can rotate independently in 90 degree increments. The Cube begins with each side a single solid color. After a few quick twists the colors are scrambled, and it's highly nontrivial to undo the mess. Now you know enough to go on.) When they first encounter one, people react to the Cube in three disjoint ways:

I was in the last category. For two solid weeks I played with my Cube (or rather, it played with me) --- on the subway during morning and evening commutes, at the dinner table, in bed ... yes, I was obsessed ... I had a Cube Jones and couldn't shake it. There seemed to be no way to get a handle on this mysterious object. Everything I tried resulted in a horribly messy shuffling of cubelet corners, edges, and faces. Nothing stood still. How in the world could a human manage this kind of complexity?

Finally, late one night before falling asleep I had an epiphany, a tiny Aha! moment. I had so concentrated on the Cube that I started visualizing what would change if I twisted one face, then an adjacent face, then undid the twist of the first face, and finally undid the twist of the second face. Hmmm ... not much happens --- three edge cubelets move, and so do four corners. OK, says I, what if I do that same pattern of twist-twist-untwist-untwist again? Well, the same edges and corners move another step. Do it again? Now the edges are all back to exactly where they started --- but two pairs of corners are swapped. Zowie!

At that point I had to get up (sorry to disturb you, Paulette!), take my cube from the nightstand, go into another room, and turn on the light to make sure I wasn't dreaming. A brief experiment confirmed the happy hypothesis. I returned to bed confident that the Cube was now, for all practical purposes, understood. I slept well.

The fundamental insight that cracks the Cube is ridiculously obvious (in retrospect): do something, undo it, and repeat until a simple result emerges. There's a whole branch of mathematics (group theory) which deals with such things. To somebody fluent in that language, the Cube is rather trivial. It took a fortnight of near-total immersion, however, for a group-illiterate (such as I was) to discover the key.

I went on to figure out other transformations that manipulate edges and orientations of cubelets, and then to read about Cube Theory in various magazines (thanks again, Martin Gardner!), online Internet/USENET fora, and pamphlets. No books had yet been published on the subject. The best early write-up was by British mathematician David Singmaster. (I still remember the name of his colleague, knot theorist and professor Morwen Thistlethwaite.) On 20 September 1980 I took part in a Cube competition held by a local department store. The store had offered $100 gift certificates to anyone who could solve a Cube in under five minutes. I was the seventh to succeed that morning; there were a bunch of students from the University of Maryland there ahead of me. The store didn't keep its promise ... all I got was a T-shirt.

But nothing ever came close to that midnight flash of lightning when, after weeks of struggle, insight came. Eureka!

- Friday, March 16, 2001 at 20:59:49 (EST)

Lying Verses

Kenneth Koch in Making Your Own Days: The Pleasures of Reading and Writing Poetry (1998) tries to say "some clear and interesting things" --- a challenge when discussing that slippery subject. He builds upon a metaphor of poetry as a separate language, with distinctive rules that evolve over time. Poets make music: they pay attention to the sounds as well as the literal meanings of the words they use. Poets also tend to do a lot of comparisons. Poets personify or speak to inanimate objects. And poets tell out-and-out lies as part of their job. Koch sees these elements as coming together to create the power of poetry "... to be able to say things --- important, enhancing, and empowering things --- that can't be said without it." As a person reads and thinks about poems s/he builds a "poetry base", a meta-vocabulary that helps with the reading and understanding and writing of more and better poetry.

In an earlier book (Sleeping On the Wing, (1981)) Kenneth Koch and Kate Farrell wrote:

"Reading poetry is not a completely passive pleasure, as is sitting in the sun or watching television. It is more like the pleasure you get from playing tennis or listening to music. There is a difference between what you feel the first time you play tennis and the fiftieth time. Or between the first time you go to a concert and later on, when you know more about the music and are used to concerts. Poetry is like that. The more you know about it and the more you read it, the more at ease you'll feel with it, the better you'll get at reading it, and the more you'll like it. When you read a poem, the poet's experience becomes, in a way, your own, so you see things and think things you wouldn't see and think otherwise. It's something like traveling --- seeing new places, hearing things talked about in new ways, getting ideas of other possibilities. It can change you a little and add to what you know and are."

- Thursday, March 15, 2001 at 05:43:49 (EST)


Niels Bohr, the Danish physicist, is reputed to have once criticized a suggestion as "Crazy, but not crazy enough!" Sometimes to explain an extraordinary phenomenon one needs to throw out ordinary theories, go beyond the realm of the expected, and get rather wild --- in a way nevertheless constrained by knowledge of critical contexts. That's creativity.

(Cf. ^zhurnal of 10 July 1999 and 3 May 1999 for early ^z mumblings re another Bohrism, and 26 Jan 2001 for a perhaps-relevant Charlie Mingus quote.)

- Tuesday, March 13, 2001 at 18:00:46 (EST)


From a written journal entry of three years ago, 12 March 1998:
This morning I finished the gentle book The Use of the Margin by Edward Howard Griggs (1907) --- quite nice in its suggestions that we should pay attention to & effectively invest the little margins of time between other tasks, where we have freedom to choose. He counsels art, letters, science, etc. --- but with conscious application of [their] uplifting emotions [to] action --- kindness & courtesy, esp. to family & friends. He also suggests investing in time alone [(solitude)], and in focused study over years on a chosen topic. (This book was a reference in Hazlitt's Thinking as a Science.) Grigg's two great "open secrets" are, he says, concentration and variety in intellectual activity --- focus on one thing intensely, & then when tired rest not by passive inactivity but rather by shifting the focus to something else.

- Monday, March 12, 2001 at 20:25:26 (EST)

We Happy Few

Sometimes when things seem a bit too stressful at the office, when the hectic pace of events becomes almost overwhelming, it helps to look at a bigger picture. The sentiment expressed at the end of a David P. Stern column (Physics Today, May 1993, p. 63) is heartening:
"[This job] is a great privilege. Be worthy of it. Most of humanity spends its life doing boring repetitive tasks."
(Cf. ^zhurnal 16 April 1999)

- Sunday, March 11, 2001 at 16:54:00 (EST)


In a set of stories written a few decades ago, sf writer Frank Herbert (of Dune fame) described a government that included a "Bureau of Sabotage" --- an official agency designed to throw sand into the otherwise inhumanly-efficient clockworks of the State. Cute concept --- somewhat like the rôle of the tribunes in the Roman Empire (cf. ^zhurnal of 26 Dec 1999), or the US Presidential pardon, or aspects of the judicial systems of many nations. Escape hatches --- artificial mechanisms to disrupt a pattern which otherwise might run amok. Illogical and vital in the real world of imperfect knowledge.

- Friday, March 09, 2001 at 20:46:11 (EST)


Some recently-found notes to myself dated May 1997 mention a contemporaneous New York Times article about Yu Mi Ri --- a modern Japanese writer ethnically Korean and hugely out of step with the culture in which she lives. How much should one bend to follow the norm? Mere survival demands some amount of acquiescence to the expectations of others. So does all communication via language; an extreme non-conformist would never be able to tell anybody anything. (And as the proverb goes, naked people have little influence in society.) But on the other hand, total line-toeing produces nothing new. How to balance? Richard Hamming (cf. ^zhurnal of 7 Sep 2000) talked about this and came down on the side of picking one's battles, conforming on trivial issues in order to conserve energy for important matters. Maybe ... but give up on too many little things, and does the will to disagree atrophy?

- Thursday, March 08, 2001 at 21:42:04 (EST)

Fan Letter Feedback

Some famous writers are courteous enough to reply to messages from unknown, distant, enthusiastic, obviously-youthful admirers. Basement archæological digs have recently unearthed a few decades-old artifacts along those lines: More recently, a year or two ago I sent a simple letter of appreciation to Martin Gardner, praising him for the great good done by his Scientific American "Mathematical Games" columns over the years. The clear, eclectic, exciting coverage of advanced math discoveries in those essays certainly helped me learn and enjoy that subject. Mr. Gardner kindly wrote back to me, but alas his note is lost at the moment.

Many thanks to all of the above correspondents! (And to the authors: if any of you would rather not see excerpts quoted from your letters, please let me know and I will remove them. My main reason for reprinting your words is to prevent them from being lost again!)

- Wednesday, March 07, 2001 at 06:00:59 (EST)


"Better to be refuted than forgotten!" a lecturer joked recently. No --- less funny, but better to be ignored and right (howsoever frustrating that is) than to be remembered only for one's folly.

- Tuesday, March 06, 2001 at 05:45:36 (EST)


In case it's not obvious: credit for most (if not all) of what appears in this ^zhurnal belongs to others --- thoughtful writers, kind colleagues, patient teachers, clever friends, and especially my family. In particular, time and again I find myself re-expressing ideas first heard clearly from my wife, Paulette Dickerson. I've tried to explain and expand upon themes that all of you have shared with me; apologies for inadvertent garbles and infelicitous phrasings. For the less-unsuccessful postings here, my thanks to you all --- and especially to you, Dear!

- Sunday, March 04, 2001 at 21:17:22 (EST)


In a 13 March 1998 diary entry I recorded a "marvelous (& scary) talk" with my then-boss's-boss (SG). She was Angst-ridden (as were we all) over the way that our organization didn't seem to be unleashing the creative energies of its people to anywhere near the degree that it should have. Why not? She didn't prescribe, but simply described the symptoms: nobody else ever suggested any new ideas, and things that she asked for turned into Projects-with-a-Capital-P ... which then moved at a glacial pace and showed nary a flicker of brilliance. Yet she knew that we could do so much better!

It seemed likely to me then, and still does, that the real villian in our story was time. We didn't have enough time to think; we were all over-booked on tight-scheduled tasks. As a whole, I estimate that the office took on triple the jobs that it had people to handle. So instead of kindling fires, potentially creative sparks faded and then went out entirely. We had good bureaucratic reasons for trying to do too much at once: we were a new outfit and needed to establish ourselves with some quick victories. But spread so thin, and working so hard just to keep up, we failed.

- Saturday, March 03, 2001 at 07:32:10 (EST)

Still Life in Ice

The surface of a frozen sea is torn
With rills and ridges, rimy building blocks
Cast down at random by an architect
Insane or angry, or too drunk to care
About arranging his materials
Into a semblance of an ordered room.
Auroræ play pastel beams on pale cliffs.
Crevasses hide in shadow as the sun
Scrapes the horizon. Silence shivers, stark.

But from this flotsam of chaotic floes
Twin icebergs nudge their crests into the air.
Their domes ride diffidently, soft, scarce seen
Amidst the snowy scarps. They slumber. Yet
Beneath the jumbled and distressed terrain
Inverted massifs hang, hidden and huge.
Two giants veil their faces. No one knows
The benthic currents pressing on their keels ---
The forces that will stir their souls to wake.

We are those icebergs, you and I. Great hearts
Are snagged and smothered underneath the heaps
Of daily happenstance ... tangled and trapped
By this-and-that-ness piled upon our lives ...
Held fast by icy manacles ... until
One day --- crash! crack! --- the mountains move. Two minds
Trembling together can free themselves. We sail
South, to a proud and fearsome rendezvous:
To melt into the ocean of the world.

- Wednesday, February 28, 2001 at 20:07:41 (EST)

Genomic Bookshelves

The newly-sequenced human genome is like a vast library --- with millions of books written in mostly unknown languages. People can roam the stacks of this library ... pull books from the shelves and browse them ... discover new patterns among the symbols ... recognize occasional words ... correlate phrases ... begin to decipher sentences ... and eventually learn to read and understand the contents of this great collection of information.

But it's a slow, difficult process, not likely to pay off quickly. We can make it harder on ourselves by prematurely granting monopoly rights --- patents, for instance --- on parts of the genomic library: giving ownership to early explorers who don't actually know what they're reading, but who glimpse a few key words and secretly hope to get lucky and stake out a claim to turf that will turn into a fortuitous gold mine. Yes, fencing off intellectual property encourages early investment. It also encourages misallocation of resources, general unfairness, and slower long-term progress in human understanding.

- Tuesday, February 27, 2001 at 06:05:47 (EST)

Invisible Instabilities

A semi-famous futurist paints a glowing picture of the information age soon-to-come: hyper-networked society, hyper-productive technology, and exponentially growing wealth for the next ~25 years. Nice rice bowls for all, if we can get them --- so what's wrong?

The big question to always ask with proposed new ways of life: what are we overlooking? A strongly-connected network will always exhibit new, unanticipated behaviors, due to the complex feedback loops that the network possesses ... and those feedback loops can suddenly transition from one mode to another under slight perturbation. Rare but catastrophic events will happen. These are uninsurable risks --- "once in a millennium" floods, unprecedented interest rate fluctuations, extraordinary infrastructure failures --- due to what seem to be incredible conjunctions of coincidence. By their very nature, it's impossible to gather enough data to predict such exceptional events, even in principle. They've never happened before, and by the time one could have seen the signs to anticipate them, conditions have changed. Another surprise is brewing, not the one you're watching for. Want to let your refrigerator monitor your food supply, your car decide your route to work, your software agent invest your retirement savings? Be prepared for a "whoops! - we never thought of that" meltdown.

The solution: go slow. Don't bet the farm on the newest new thing. Have a fallback strategy, suspenders and a belt, a buffer zone against surprise. Don't panic, and don't envy those who gamble and, in the short term, make big profits. This too shall pass.

- Saturday, February 24, 2001 at 20:03:22 (EST)

Get Wet

Why send meat into space? What's the point of the manned spacecraft program, on which we've spent so much and achieved so little --- especially when compared with the results from unmanned space probes? Education is a poor excuse; kids can get excited about science in far better ways than by seeing celebrity-astronauts floating around on TV. (Consider hands-on experimentation, better teachers and better teacher training, etc. You can outfit lots of school labs for the cost of a single shuttle launch.) Manufacturing in microgravity has never paid off, and shows no sign of doing so ... and in any case, space industry works far better without those messy and unreliable humans in the vicinity, breathing, shedding flakes of skin, bumping into things, and otherwise disrupting a clean environment. Health? People haven't evolved to live in space, and without herculean efforts they rapidly deteriorate there. Not a good model for earth-based medical research. Remote sensing? Again, better done by robotic systems. And do we really need any more routes to becoming a politician?

Bottom line: at ~$10,000 to get a pound into orbit on a manned mission, with a ~1% risk of catastrophe per launch, it's not a smart game to be in. And don't blame NASA's bureaucracy for the failure of space to get off the ground ... it's not likely that anybody else could have done any better, given real-world constraints.

A better challenge, if we need one, would be to colonize the oceans. The sea offers a hostile environment, but not impossibly so ... a wealth of known underexploited resources ... relatively easy and cost-effective access ... huge volumes to occupy ... and plenty of opportunity for new discovery. Shall we get down?

- Friday, February 23, 2001 at 21:26:55 (EST)

No Concepts At All

In the recent article "100 Years of Quantum Mysteries" (Scientific American, February 2001) Max Tegmark and John Archibald Wheeler speak of abstraction:
" ... Theories can be crudely organized in a family tree where each might, at least in principle, be derived from more fundamental ones above it. Almost at the top of the tree lie general relativity and quantum field theory. The first level of descendents includes special relativity and quantum mechanics, which in turn spawn electromagnetism, classical mechanics, atomic physics, and so on. Disciplines such as computer science, psychology and medicine appear far down in the lineage.
"All these theories have two components: mathematical equations and words that explain how the equations are connected to what is observed in experiments. ... Crudely speaking, the ratio of equations to words decreases as one moves down the tree, dropping near zero for very applied fields such as medicine and sociology. In contrast, theories near the top are highly mathematical, and physicists are still struggling to comprehend the concepts that are encoded in the mathematics.
"The ultimate goal of physics is to find what is jocularly referred to as a theory of everything, from which all else can be derived. ...
"A theory of everything would probably have to contain no concepts at all."
This resonates with Martin Gardner's comment: "There is still a difference between something and nothing --- but it is purely geometrical, and there is nothing behind the geometry." (Cf. "Somethingness", the ^zhurnal entry of 17 January 2000.)

- Thursday, February 22, 2001 at 18:27:06 (EST)

Webby Footprints

What are the roots of the Internet? Not e-commerce or spam, but rather three simple collaborative services:

Some of the above is illustrated by ^z's checkered history on parts of the international network now loosely known as the Web. In brief:

- Wednesday, February 21, 2001 at 19:36:16 (EST)

Expertise & Science

Steve McConnell writes entertainingly (in After the Gold Rush: Creating a True Profession of Software Engineering (1999)) that, in order to be an "expert" at anything, one must learn about 50,000 items --- fundamental quanta of information about a field, important results worth remembering. That usually takes ~10 years of study, apprenticeship, work experience, and research. In some subjects, however, the topic itself isn't stable enough for bits of knowledge to last 10 years ... so in a sense, there can't be any true "experts". Video game programmers who focused on coding for the Atari VCS probably don't have a lot of currently-relevent expertise, for instance (though the smarter ones may have learned some lessons about efficient use of limited resources).

But moving from engineering to computer science, does the same rule apply? A common adage says, "Any field with 'science' in its name, isn't one!" This is usually quoted as a slur on political science, social science, etc. Does the proverb apply to the theory of computation? Donald Knuth suggests (in his essay "Computer Science and Mathematics", American Scientist 61 (1973), reprinted in Mathematics: People, Problems, Results Vol. III (1984)):

"One of my mathematician friends told me he would be willing to recognize computer science as a worthwhile field of study as soon as it contains 1,000 deep theorems. This criterion should obviously be changed to include algorithms as well as theorems --- say, 500 deep theorems and 500 deep algorithms. But even so, it is clear that computer science today doesn't measure up to such a test, if 'deep' means that a brilliant person would need many months to discover the theorem or the algorithm. Computer science is still too young for this; I can claim youth as a handicap. We still don't know the best way to describe algorithms, to understand them or prove them correct, to invent them, or to analyze their behavior, although considerable progress is being made on all these fronts. The potential for '1,000 deep results' is there, but only perhaps 50 have been discovered so far."

How much has changed during the three decades since that was written? Is CS up to 100 "deep results" now? (Who's counting?) A cynical thought: perhaps if the field moves out of the manaical money-making mode that it has been in during the 1990s, progress will be faster....

- Monday, February 19, 2001 at 18:12:38 (EST)


Celebrities have mass appeal --- partly because they somehow seem to be our friends, even though we've never met them. (In fantasy-rôle-playing jargon, they've got "18-double-zero charisma", i.e. off-the-charts charm.) They're not our friends; with rare exceptions, they neither know nor care about us; their main interest is fame/fortune/power. Better to spend time with a real friend ... a person who doesn't just sell, but who listens and shares.

- Sunday, February 18, 2001 at 16:24:24 (EST)

Big Lessons

A recent class included en passant some admirable guidelines for productive social interaction. Three candidate rules for life:

- Saturday, February 17, 2001 at 10:06:39 (EST)


So much of what passes for informative material nowadays is really infoamation: fluff ... propaganda ... commercial "speech" designed not to communicate but to convince, not to tell but to sell. Airy nothings. Like foam: low-density, ephemeral, unsatisfying.

- Friday, February 16, 2001 at 20:37:23 (EST)

Money, Mechanism, Meaning

What's important? What do real people spend most of their time and effort on? What are the critical categories of our lives? Consider: That's what we care about --- what we strive to achieve with our lives.

- Thursday, February 15, 2001 at 07:44:38 (EST)

Doggerel & Caterwauls

Looking back over the past nine months of ^zhurnalling reveals some eighteen occasional ^z attempts at verse (see links below). Why would an (ex)physicist write a poem? Perhaps because among other things poetry offers: ... or maybe it's just fun to try, and fail, in new ways.

The individual works exhibit a variety of styles and themes; an asterisk in the listing indicates an exceptionally short piece (often humorous), and a plus is a longer one. (I tend to like the more recent efforts better, but I'm biased.) In chronological order, they are:

Or see them all in volume 0.01 of ^z's collected poems. Happy Valentine's Day!

- Wednesday, February 14, 2001 at 07:42:19 (EST)

Will the Real ...

"Mark Zimmermann" is not a common name, but it's far from rare. Last year, for instance, during an air trip I met a flight attendant bearing that handle --- but his family was all from Ohio, with no likely links to my folks in Texas for many generations. Other Mark Zimmermanns have contacted me via email. A high school friend and correspondent, Dr. Suzanne Schoener Burnham, ran across yet another unrelated MZ in the course of tracking me down in 1999.

But now I've discovered a famous (more or less) Mark Zimmermann, via search engine. Last year, web pages began to appear in ever-increasing numbers for a professional soccer player: Mark Zimmermann, Stürmer for the Stuttgart Kickers. Compared to me, the German native MZ is about 21 years younger, less hairy, a little taller, significantly lighter, doubtless in far better shape, likes to eat Bratwurst (I'm a vegetarian), and clearly makes more money and has more numerous fans. But a career in sports is always risky --- so my advice, Mark, is to save every pfennig for the future. Viel Gluck, Herr Zimmermann!

- Tuesday, February 13, 2001 at 07:48:04 (EST)

Power Distortion

Near a black hole gravitational fields become so intense that time and space themselves are twisted --- until at the event horizon, the point-of-no-return Schwarzschild radius, escape velocity reaches the speed of light. Time becomes a spacelike direction; the radial space dimension in turn becomes timelike. Inside a black hole one can no more avoid moving toward the central singularity than one can go backward in time. You're trapped ... doomed.

Near a power center, judgment similarly becomes twisted. Even with the noblest of intentions one loses the ability to reason, to choose wisely, to act with justice. As Lord Acton said, "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely." It becomes impossible to release the reins of control. Thomas Jefferson wrote concerning slavery (in a letter to John Holmes, 22 April 1820) "... as it is, we have the wolf by the ear, and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go. Justice is in one scale, and self-preservation in the other." A nation was trapped ... doomed to eventual Civil War.

(Cf. ^zhurnal entry of 21 February 2000, "For Your Own Good".)

- Monday, February 12, 2001 at 20:54:16 (EST)

Truth in Battle

In "Stupidity & Conspiracy", the ^zhurnal entry of 5 February 2001, I quoted a friend's quotation of the aphorism "Never attribute to malevolence what you can explain by simple stupidity." A few days later I received a kind note from Bo Leuf, a writer and Wiki Master(more on Wiki, a fascinatingly anarchistic group-mind-tool, another time!). Bo observed that "Translations vary. The likely correct attribution is to Napoleon Bonaparte. (Some attribute it to Clausewitz.) My version is, 'Never ascribe to malice that which is adequately explained by incompetence.'"

Alas, my further digging has not yet been able to confirm Napoleon as a source of any version of this sentiment. Some trails lead to Robert A. Heinlein, and others to fragments of War and Peace --- which reminded me of a striking comment by Leo Tolstoy in Book I, Part 3, Chapter 7. (I'm slowly making progress through the excellent Ann Dunnigan translation of the novel, but still have ~80% to go.) It's hard to tell the truth, especially about complex events. As Tolstoy says:

"But Boris noticed that Rostov was on the point of making fun of Berg, and adroitly changed the subject. He asked Rostov to tell them where and how he had received his wound. This pleased Rostov and he began telling them about it, growing more and more impassioned as he talked. He described the Schöngraben action exactly as men who have taken part in battles generally do describe them, that is, as they would like them to have been, as they have heard them described by others, and making them sound more glorious, and quite unlike what they actually were. Rostov was a truthful young man and would on no account have told a deliberate lie. He began with the intention of relating everything exactly as it happened, but imperceptibly, unconsciously, and inevitably, he slipped into falsehood. If he had told the truth to his listeners, who, like himself, had heard numerous stories of cavalry attacks, had formed a definite idea of what an attack was, and were expecting to hear just such a story, either they would not have believed him, or, still worse, they would have thought that Rostov himself was at fault, since what generally happened to those taking part in a cavalry charge had not happened to him. He could not tell them simply that everyone had set out at a trot, that he had fallen from his horse, sprained his arm, and then had run from a Frenchman into the woods as fast as his legs would carry him. Besides, to describe everything as it was, telling only what had really happened, would have required great self-control. To tell the truth is very difficult, and young people are rarely capable of it. His listeners expected to hear how, fired with excitement and beside himself, he had swept down on the enemy's square like a tempest, cut his way in, slashing right and left, and how his saber had tasted blood and he had fallen exhausted, and so on. And these are the things he told them."

- Sunday, February 11, 2001 at 20:31:57 (EST)

This is Volume 0.13 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!