The first course of our marriage feast was served On paper plates. Over the chips and dip You watched me watching you. At last I nerved Myself to speak ... and so began a trip That took us both beyond the wildest dreams We dared imagine possible before Good fortune crossed our paths that night. It seems Uncouth and selfish now to ask for more, When here we find ourselves so richly blessed --- With lovely children, health, a happy home --- These twenty-four years after we first kissed. But put aside what has already come To us, and steel your soul with mine to pray: That we, two dozen years hence, shall discover Despite the ups and downs, and come what may, The best was yet to be, O Friend and Lover!
- Thursday, February 14, 2002 at 21:58:45 (EST)
The mini-amusement-park attractions had catchy names: "The Salt and Pepper Shakers", "The Gravitron", etc. When we got home we came up with more accurate appelations, such as:
(thanks to PD, MMcKDZ, GEZD, and RHDZ for their contributions)
- Tuesday, February 12, 2002 at 06:08:32 (EST)
... I think my problem is that I'm not at 30,000 feet and I'm not at ground level, and as a librarian roamer-of-the-web, I see interconnections and tend to cross pollinate between groups with little contact.
It's critical to do this kind of bridge-building among sundered clusters of people; that was probably one of the key reasons why Paul Erdös, for example, was such a glorious gift to mathematics. It's also a vital service to move fluidly between levels --- to go from a worms-eye view of details up to metaphysical heights where one can espy new relationships across vast distances of space, time, and topic. (see also Top Down Bottom Up, 16 May 1999, and Creative Devices, 1 Jan 2001)
In a completely independent discussion, EM (responding to a rant of mine about folks who try to diagnose and fix systemic problems without ever bothering to understand them) wrote:
... it's an attempt to treat this as a 50's style black box. We have to take time to open up the black box (like open source) and figure out how the box works, how to make a box (get beyond the black box), and make other black boxes ...
People want to "think outside the box." They are outside the box; the trick is to figure out what's inside. No one is willing.
What delighted me here was EM's inversion of a common cliché, and his observation that the real goal often should be to get into a box. (minor typo corrections and added emphasis; see also Mandatory Inversion, 2 Sep 1999, and Kenning Construction Kit, 17 Nov 1999)
- Sunday, February 10, 2002 at 19:21:58 (EST)
Then Charles Lamb muses upon Death, and along the way sings a hymn of praise for Life:
... But now, shall I confess a truth? I feel these audits but too powerfully. I begin to count the probabilities of my duration, and to grudge at the expenditure of moments and shortest periods, like misers' farthings. In proportion as the years both lessen and shorten, I set more count upon their periods, and would fain lay my ineffectual finger upon the spoke of the great wheel. I am not content to pass away 'like a weavers's shuttle.' Those metaphors solace me not, nor sweeten the unpalatable draught of mortality. I care not to be carried with the tide, that smoothly bears human life to eternity; and reluct at the inevitable course of destiny. I am in love with this green earth; the face of town and country; the unspeakable rural solitudes, and the sweet security of streets. I would set up my tabernacle here. I am content to stand still at the age to which I am arrived at; I, and my friends: to be no younger, no richer, no handsomer. I do not want to be weaned by age; or drop, like mellow fruit, as they say, into the grave. Any alteration, on this earth of mine, in diet or in lodging, puzzles or decomposes me. My household gods plant a terrible fixed foot, and are not rooted up without blood. They do not willingly seek Lavinian shores. A new state of being staggers me.
Sun, and sky, and breeze, and solitary walks, and summer holidays, and the greenness of fields, and the delicious juices of meats, and fishes, and society, and the cheerful glass, and candle-light, and fireside conversations, and innocent vanities, and jests, and irony itself --- do these things go out with life?
Can a ghost laugh, or shake his gaunt sides, when you are pleasant with him?
And you, my midnight darlings, my Folios; must I part with the intense delight of having you (huge armfuls) in my embraces? Must knowledge come to me, if it come at all, by some awkward experiment of intuition, and no longer by this familiar process of reading?
Shall I enjoy friendships there, wanting the smiling infications which point me to them here --- the recognizable face --- the 'sweet assurance of a look'?
Lamb then turns his back on death, and closes his essay with a poem, then a final toast:
... And now another cup of the generous! and a merry New Year, and many of them to you all, my masters!
(see also Charles Lambiana, 24 Oct 2000)
- Thursday, February 07, 2002 at 17:29:00 (EST)
But a few exceptional writers deserve praise for taking a long-term view and holding to it --- even as their colleagues were trumpeting a fantastical New Era wherein an economy's productivity could grow at over 10% annually without effort. Floyd Norris of the New York Times kept his honor (and his sense of humor) throughout the mania. Going farther back, Andrew Tobias (author of The Only Investment Guide You'll Ever Need) spoke truth to hype for decades. Still earlier, Benjamin Graham (The Intelligent Investor) exemplified reason and good sense in the financial sphere. And see Money Wisdom (20 May 2001) for an excerpt from a 1885 issue of Harpers Bazar --- advice which, if followed today, would preserve and protect wealth far better than any legislation or regulation.
(see also The Cancer Ideology (19 May 1999), Just The Job (4 Dec 1999), Food Net (9 Jun 2000), Rail Web (3 Jan 2001), Pop Goes (19 Jun 2001) & Hopeful Rejoinders (23 Jun 2001), Looming Disaster (6 Aug 2001), ...)
- Wednesday, February 06, 2002 at 06:04:17 (EST)
I disagree --- authors should always have the last word in a debate, especially against their more biased, obnoxious, or ignorant critics!
But if the authors err?
- Monday, February 04, 2002 at 17:44:24 (EST)
We can illuminate the status and implications of moral side constraints by considering living beings for whom such stringent side constraints (or any at all) usually are not considered appropriate: namely, nonhuman animals. Are there any limits to what we may do to animals? Have animals the moral status of mere objects? Do some purposes fail to entitle us to impose great costs on animals? What entitles us to use them at all?
Animals count for something. Some higher animals, at least, ought to be given some weight in people's deliberations about what to do. It is difficult to prove this. (It is also difficult to prove that people count for something!) We shall first adduce particular examples, and then arguments. If you felt like snapping your fingers, perhaps to the beat of some music, and you knew that by some strange causal connection your snapping your fingers would cause 10,000 contented, unowned cows to die after great pain and suffering, or even painlessly and instantaneously, would it be perfectly all right to snap your fingers? Is there some reason why it would be morally wrong to do so?
(from Chapter 3, "Moral Constraints and the State"; see also What Counts, 24 Nov 1999, and Suffer The Animals, 11 June 2000)
Nozick goes on to explore other delightfully improbable situations, with occasional digressions into reality. Thinking back, I suspect that his parables were a major influence in the mid-1990s on my decision to become a vegetarian.
In a rather different vein, the New York Times obituary by Christopher Lehmann-Haupt tells of zigzags over the years in Nozick's personal political positions --- and the sensibility, as he argued, of such variation in local and national government. It's a matter of taking turns. No single party or posture can cover all the range of human aspirations. Best in Real Life to pursue what in game theory is called a "mixed strategy". Eschew doctrine ...
(see also Learning And Losing, 23 Dec 2001)
- Saturday, February 02, 2002 at 15:48:29 (EST)
- Thursday, January 31, 2002 at 07:55:20 (EST)
But unfortunately the Law, as currently implemented, is quite an ass when uncertainty is involved. Consider a situation where there's a small probability of something horrible happening. Is it legitimate to impose sanctions or penalties right now, preemptively, to prevent that bad thing? Contrariwise, how fair is it to retroactively fine someone for damages that were unforeseeable, based on information available at that time?
Some cases are more straightforward than others. If your state-of-the-art explosives factory blows up on the average every N years and does X amount of damage, then most people would agree that it's only fair to ask you to pay (at least) X/N each year into a fund to compensate future victims. It certainly feels unjust to let you run an operation naked, without any cushion, and then see you go bankrupt when there's a disaster --- even though you make more money in the short run.
Well and good ... but that was an easy case. Consider other dimensions of uncertainty. Suppose it is somehow known, to a certainty, that among a list of 500 people there are 20 who plan to do something that will surely kill 3000 innocent victims. Can 500 suspects, 480 of whom are perfectly innocent, be inconvenienced to save the lives of 3000? How much inconvenience may be imposed? What kind of compensation should the 480 receive? Nobody (maybe!) would want to murder 500 human beings to save 3000 --- but many would agree to annoy 500 slightly. What's the right balance point?
And more interestingly: what if there's only a 10% chance of such an evil plot? Or less than a 0.01% chance, making the likely lives saved less than 1? What's "justice" now? And getting into still murkier situations, suppose that the very act of aggressive investigation causes the plot to be cancelled --- a self-negating prophecy? Now there are not, and never were, any "guilty" parties.
Or to broaden the field of scenarios, think about the fuzzy trade-offs between widespread ownership of guns (and the associated direct risks of injury) ... versus unknown indirect reductions in the rates of burglary, rape, etc. ... versus even-less-knowable changes in national defense odds against hypothetical invaders? Or consider the visible deaths from automobile accidents, versus the invisible lives saved from economic efficiencies by lower transportation costs. What's the right trade-off there?
Different societies, and different groups in a single society, can come to quite different conclusions. And in a sense, in order to respond to probabilistic hazards we already accept many annoyances every day. We carry drivers' licenses and passports to prove who we are. We allow law enforcement officers to ask us questions even when we're not guilty of any crime. These (usually) minor hassles are accepted as part of the cost of living together.
Now add public policy into the mix, for an even stranger brew. Sometimes a society may absolutely refuse to even consider certain important inputs to a correlation function. For instance, females and males seem to have different mortality rates. An actuary would deduce that a life insurance policy should cost less for the sex with the longer life expectancy, but that contrariwise an annuity should cost more. Is that OK, or discriminatory? How about slicing the risk pool along other dimensions such as race or religion? Unfair, even if statistics say otherwise? Yet it's (almost) universally accepted that, for instance, age is a legitimate differentiator. A teenager doesn't pay as much for term life as a centenarian, for instance. Automobile liability insurance is biased the other way. If the Law demanded equal insurance rates for all, how many policies would get written?
A possibility: in areas where there's a need to discriminate but a deep social aversion to it, could help come from an opaque algorithm --- a procedure (like some neural nets) where inputs are linked to outputs via inscrutably complex black-box relationships? No human sets the algorithm's parameters. They evolve from a set of training examples and include random elements. If the outcome seems to have a statistical bias in one direction or another it's just a consequence of the inputs and the luck of the draw ... not a deliberate act of human prejudice.
Such opaque systems are already used, to some extent, in picking tax returns for audit, airline passengers for inspection, or loan applications for approval. Should that be stopped? Must all such choices be made in broad daylight via transparent sets of rules? Even if exposing the rules to inspection promotes gross evasion by cheaters?
Tough questions, when utilitarian principles clash with other civilized values. What's the best answer?
- Tuesday, January 29, 2002 at 05:47:18 (EST)
And in response to a question about why to write, my opinion: It's better to write for love and do something else for a living, than vice versa.
- Sunday, January 27, 2002 at 21:16:24 (EST)
But in real medicine, as in all fields of knowledge, a deep understanding of fundamental processes is the first step toward doing something useful. Case in point: a couple of paragraphs from an article on the history behind Viagra (in Modern Drug Discovery, Nov/Dec 1998, by Jim Kling --- see http://pubs.acs.org/hotartcl/mdd/98/novdec/viagra.html). Jump straight into the deep end of the swimming pool and skim the following:
Rather than trying to administer ANP or an ANP mimetic, Campbell and Roberts proposed augmenting ANP activity with a drug that would manipulate the secondary intracellular signals that occur when ANP binds its receptor. ANP receptor binding activates guanylate cyclase, allowing it to convert guanosine triphosphate (GTP) to cyclic guanosine monophosphate (cGMP). The general cellular response to a buildup of cGMP levels is to reduce the amount of free intracellular calcium, either by flushing it from the cell or sequestering it within. The physiological consequence of decreased calcium depends on the location and function of the cell. In platelets, which cause blood clots, the result is platelet deactivation. In the kidney, the result is smooth muscle cell relaxation and release of sodium. Elsewhere, vascular muscles relax and allow blood vessels to fill with more blood, lowering overall blood pressure.
Levels of cGMP are held in balance by enzymes known as phosphodiesterases (PDEs), which convert cGMP into GMP by breaking the cGMP's cyclic phosphate ring. GMP is subsequently converted to GTP by another enzyme, completing a cycle: from GTP to cGMP, then GMP, and finally back to GTP. It was the PDEs that Terrett and his team decided to target for drug develpment, reasoning that a PDE inhibitor could prevent the breakdown of cGMP created in response to ANP. cGMP concentations would then increase, thanks to PDE inhibition, and if in response smooth muscle cells in the kidney and blood vessels did their part and relaxed, blood pressure would drop. And Pfizer might have a winner in the hypertension market.
Whew! Are your eyes glazed over yet? (Biochemists in the audience are excused.) I don't follow the acronym-jargon either --- but the guts of what the above excerpt describes is much more general, and important. It's a beautiful, intricate clockwork mechanism with springs and balance-wheels and gears and regulators ... or in the steam-engine metaphor world, a contraption with valves and flywheels and governors and pressure gauges and reservoirs.
This is a system, in other words, with positive and negative feedback loops. It maps into a mathematical set of coupled differential equations. And that means that the situation can be understood, predicted, and controlled. We've got ~400 years of experience with this kind of thing. It's comfortable, like a familiar path through the forest or a well-worn pair of shoes. (for earlier comments on "systems thinking" see Transient Behavior, 11 May 1999, and Fifth Disciplinarians, 10 Sep 2000)
The cGMP --> GMP --> CTP --> GTP cycle is one piece of a gigantic multidimensional jigsaw puzzle. It fits, almost perfectly, with thousands of other quantitative chunks of knowledge. Together these puzzle pieces form an amazingly resilient network, a coherent theory. The data --- accumulated by hosts of careful researchers, critiqued by their expert colleagues, and published in selective journals --- hang together. (see Webs Of Evidence, 15 Feb 2000)
Contrast this, to be blunt, with the quality of evidence for most "Alternative Medicine" hypotheses. (I won't name names here, to protect the not-so-innocent and to avoid hurting too many feelings among True Believers.) It's the difference between a child's sand castle and a gothic fortress, between a lightning bug and a lightning bolt.
Sure, most real-world day-to-day physicians --- overworked, overspecialized, overwhelmed --- don't have a vision of anything like the matrix of biochemistry and clinical medical knowledge. Most patients don't have a single well-defined problem; they display a thicket of conflicting symptoms. And then Money pushes it way into the halls of Science, in the persona of bottom-line-driven pharmaceutical companies, for-profit health care providers, and hungry professors who bend their principles to get grants.
It's not perfect; nothing human is. But it's a lot better than the Alternative....
(See also Know How And Fear Not, 19 Nov 1999, or Science And Pseudoscience, 6 Oct 2001)
- Thursday, January 24, 2002 at 06:05:08 (EST)
- Tuesday, January 22, 2002 at 06:24:04 (EST)
When I had a chance to start reading the YAPM, however, I was both disappointed and delighted. The content was pedestrian: cookbook advice on how to keep a notebook of ideas, standard exercises in writing various forms of verse, and chirpy encouragement to keep working through inevitable frustrations. Worse, the examples of poetry that the book offered were, with a few exceptions, boring. They might as well have been prose, just typeset in short lines with ragged right margins. Most seemed to come from the author or his buddies.
But in contrast, the YAPM itself as a physical artifact was fascinating. An inscription, rubber stamped, revealed that it came from the Detention Center branch of the Library system --- the County's maximum security prison. A rough environment. And that began to explain the scars that the book bore. Two-thirds of a chapter called "Love Poetry" was ripped out. A violent act of passion, or a passionate act of violence? A page bearing a poem by reporter Terry Anderson, written while he was held hostage in Lebanon (1985-91), had vanished --- sliced neatly out at the binding. Whose knife did that mutilation? Was the blade smuggled in? Where did the missing page go? Did somebody serving hard time take comfort in Anderson's words, or sneer at them?
And on page 28 an anonymous prisoner had read and bracketed in the margin, with a single proud bold pencil stroke, the defiant lines:
Stone walls do not a prison make, Nor iron bars a cage; Minds innocent and quiet take That for an hermitage. If I have freedom in my love, And in my soul am free, Angels alone, that soar above, Enjoy such liberty.
--- a 17th Century cock-crow by Richard Lovelace titled "To Althea, from Prison".
So what seemed to me a mere YAPM had actually, in an earlier life, been an escape tunnel ... a window on the outside world ... maybe even a virtual get-out-of-jail-free card ....
- Sunday, January 20, 2002 at 14:06:11 (EST)
Richard B. Martin (Virginia) applied it in his work on Tibetan materials. (He also gave my wife and children a wonderful hoard of world postage stamps for their collections.)
By chance, a few weeks ago I saw the stamps, remembered Professor Martin, and wrote myself a note to look him up on the 'Net and express my gratitude to him again for his gift. Alas, I was far too late --- "Skip" Martin died in 1993. A brief obituary is in South Asia Library Notes & Queries, issue #29 (see http://www.lib.virginia.edu/area-studies/salnaq/1993/obit.html).
A lesson, perhaps: give thanks early and often....
- Saturday, January 19, 2002 at 18:43:30 (EST)
Some better thoughts on this theme appear in an conversation with Dr. Joseph C. Hough Jr. (president of the Union Theological Seminary, NY; interview by Gustav Niebuhr in the New York Times, 12 Jan 2002). Hough points out that an infinitely powerful, unconditionally free God shouldn't be restricted to saving people in only a single way --- and that it's a mistake "... to impose our own limits on God's redemptive action."
Hough also feels strongly the need for respect for other faiths. He distinguishes between proseletyzing and demonstrating deep belief in one's own religion:
"It's the difference between an attempt to convert and an attempt to bear witness. The attempt to bear witness is the attempt to state honestly what you have discovered in faith in Jesus Christ. This is to share the things in your life that are of highest value to you, and I think this is an act of friendship. But this is very different from saying, 'Now that I've told you this, you've got to believe as I do to experience this.' The one is an opening to conversation; the other is closing conversation."
The interview concludes with Hough's hopeful remark:
"I believe that there is ample evidence in the best of the world's religions, including our own, that God's work is effective. Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists and others have been and are being transformed by a powerful vision of God that redeems them with hope and infuses their religious practice with compassion, justice, and peace. Wherever there is peace and movement toward peace, where there is justice and movement toward justice, God is present and working."
- Thursday, January 17, 2002 at 06:47:34 (EST)
But if you're not part of the cliché, you're part of the proverb!
- Wednesday, January 16, 2002 at 05:53:28 (EST)
At best, with good data and much hard work at model-building, one might be able to do a statistical analysis of terrorist activity. Given that analysis, one might be able to estimate probabilities of events --- the chance that something could happen, averaged over a large number of places and times and alternate universes. There's a body of experience with doing this sort of thing in physics: it's called statistical mechanics (when one starts bottom-up at the fundamental low-level atomic end) or thermodynamics (when one begins top-down with the large-scale average values of pressure, temperature, density, etc. in a system).
Perhaps some wisdom could be gained by applying that metaphor to the sphere of human activity? And even if the immediate predictive power of models are minimal, at least one might be able to move the debate away from finger-pointing ("You didn't tell us that this attack was about to happen!") and toward long-term thinking about key factors that increase or decrease the odds. For a given country, focus on metrics like education and literacy, public health, social mobility, economic growth, civil liberties, minority rights, infant mortality, life expectancy, and so forth. Which contribute the most toward stability, prosperity, and peaceful individual flourishing? What are the best investments that one society can make to help another society recover from illness?
(see also Learning And Losing, 23 December 2001)
- Tuesday, January 15, 2002 at 05:37:43 (EST)
'In one thing you have not changed, dear friend,' said Aragorn: 'you still speak in riddles.'
'What? In riddles?' said Gandalf. 'No! For I was talking aloud to myself. A habit of the old: they choose the wisest person present to speak to; the long explanations needed by the young are wearying.' He laughed, but the sound now seemed warm and kindly as a gleam of sunshine.
A witty remark ... but with all due respect, O most esteemed Gandalf, you may have misspoken. It's not the wisest person present whom one addresses --- it's the one most in need of help. (see also Dangerous Selves, 2 June 1999)
And even more important than who you talk to is who you laugh with. Healthy, appropriate laughter is such a critical component of life! How else to show joy at a new discovery, a wonderful surprise, or a delightful revelation of beauty? How better to express the depths of good cheer with a friend, or even a well-met stranger? And what could be a more perfect way to say "I love you" to one's dearest, or to the universe itself?
- Monday, January 14, 2002 at 06:06:06 (EST)
Along the extreme dimensions of time and money, many years ago I became captivated by the notion of Zaibatsu --- the ancient family-owned financial powers ("money cliques") that at their peak controlled a third or more of the Japanese economy. Mitsui ... Sumitomo ... Mitsubishi ... the names ring with the rattle of sword against woven cord armor. One Zaibatsu, I remember reading, took its name from the three wells on the original family homestead. Another traced its origins back over the centuries to a samurai who quit fighting and opened a bookstore. (And of course, there's that letter Z which never fails to resonate with me.) For a while I was, you might say, in an intellectual way a sort of Zaibatsu groupie.
Whatever happened to the Zaibatsu? Some are still around, though they don't secretly control the government of Japan any more (maybe! --- some conspiracy theorists argue that they've just become cleverer about not getting caught at it). They've lost their dominant position in banking, heavy industry, and trade (or again, perhaps they've merely become more subtle in their string-pulling). Perhaps the Zaibatsu went the way of the big industrial revolution families of the West, the barons of steel and rail, the houses of banking and finance. I suppose it's all for the good ... though without them, there's a bit less magic in the world.
- Sunday, January 13, 2002 at 05:41:41 (EST)
You see, a cloud chamber is pretty low-tech: just make a supersaturated vapor. When a high-energy subatomic charged particle blasts through, it ionizes the air molecules along its path. Those ions form centers for droplets to condense around. Voila! --- a cloud-thread magically appears, thinner than spider-silk, along the particle's path. Put a magnet nearby and the thread bends. The curvature depends on the speed and mass and charge of the particle.
You can make a cloud chamber out of a mayonnaise jar, a wet sponge, and some dry ice. Or you can get fancy with a piston in a clear cylinder, to change the pressure suddenly in a large volume all at once. Pop the cap off a bottle of cold beer and look inside; you've made an instant miniature cloud from the decompression. Naturally occurring cosmic rays can give you a track every once in a while. You can get lots more if you put the right kind of radioactive rock nearby.
Could a genius like Archimedes have discovered this millennia ago? Given the observation, what interpretation might s/he have made of it? Would the connection to tiny indivisible particles --- hypothetical "atoms" --- have come to mind? How much other work is necessary to make sense out of ephemeral lines materializing in a fog?
Might science have taken a giant step forward, centuries ahead of schedule, if the right person had looked in the right place at the right time? And today, now, very now, are there similar phenomena under our noses that we're overlooking?
(see Celebrity History, 8 May 1999, for a contrary view; see Awaiting Ness, 14 November 2000, for a slightly related poetic hack)
- Friday, January 11, 2002 at 05:58:27 (EST)
Many readers come to Three Men in a Boat via Robert A. Heinlein's superb juvenile science fiction novel Have Spacesuit, Will Travel. The father of Heinlein's protagonist had the annoying habit of constantly reading, and quoting from, Three Men. And in fact, Jerome's book is full of gentle genius, aside from the genius of laughter.
For example, in Chapter III as the trio begin to make a list of what they will bring with them, they get uncharacteristically serious for a moment:
The first list we made out had to be discarded. It was clear that the upper reaches of the Thames would not allow of the navigation of a boat sufficiently large to take the things we had set down as indispensable; so we tore the list up, and looked at one another!
George said: 'You know we are on the wrong track altogether. We must not think of the things we could do with, but only of the things that we can't do without.'
George comes out really quite sensible at times. You'd be surprised. I call that downright wisdom, not merely as regards the present case, but with reference to our trip up the river of life generally. How many people, on that voyage, load up the boat till it is ever in danger of swamping with a store of foolish things which they think essential to the pleasure and comfort of the trip, but which are really only useless lumber.
How they pile the poor little craft mast-high with fine clothes and big houses; with useless servants, and a host of swell friends that do not care twopence for them, and that they do not care three ha'pence for; with expensive entertainments that nobody enjoys, with formalities and fashions, with pretence and ostentation, and with --- oh, heaviest, maddest lumber of all! --- the dread of what will my neighbour think, with luxuries that only cloy, with pleasures that bore, with empty show that, like all the criminal's iron crown of yore, makes to bleed and swoon the aching head that wears it!
It is lumber, man --- all lumber! Throw it overboard. It makes the boat so heavy to pull, you nearly faint at the oars. It makes it so cumbersome and dangerous to manage, you never know a moment's freedom from anxiety and care, never gain a moment's rest for dreamy laziness --- no time to watch the windy shadows skimming lightly o'er the shallows, or the glittering sunbeams flitting in and out among the ripples, or the great trees by the margin looking down at their own image, or the woods all green and golden, or the lillies white and yellow, or the sombre-waving rushes, or the sedges, or the orchis, or the blue forget-me-nots.
Throw the lumber over, man! Let your boat of life be light, packed with only what you need --- a homely home and simple pleasures, one or two friends, worth the name, someone to love and someone to love you, a cat, a dog, and a pipe or two, enough to eat and enough to wear, and a little more than enough to drink; for thirst is a dangerous thing.
You will find the boat easier to pull then, and it will not be so liable to upset, and it will not matter so much if it does upset; good, plain merchandise will stand water. You will have time to think as well as to work. Time to drink in life's sunshine --- time to listen to the Aeolian music that the wind of God draws from the human heart-strings around us --- time to ---
I beg your pardon, really. I quite forgot.
Well, we left the list to George, and he began it.
'We won't take a tent,' suggested George; 'we will have a boat with a cover. It is ever so much simpler, and more comfortable.'
And on they go ... with delightful detours through the mysteries of hypochondria (and its cures), cheeses (and how to travel with them), luggage, weather forecasts, comic songs, "being towed by girls", fish stories, and banjo-playing. The boys get lost in Hampton Court maze, struggle to open a tin of pineapple sans can opener, fall into frigid waters, brew tea, encounter "one of the quietest and peacefullest dogs" ever seen, and eventually find their way home again.
Three Men in a Boat is similar in some ways to the The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame, written a few years later and often mistaken for a children's book. Both are lively, lovely, reverent riverine odysseys. Maybe a river is just the perfect metaphor?
- Thursday, January 10, 2002 at 06:00:23 (EST)
These are such arbitrary ways to slice a pie! How about an Administration for Soft Fuzzy Things? A Minister of Objects Whose Names Begin With "T"? A Sourness Department? An Agency of the Afternoon?
- Wednesday, January 09, 2002 at 06:11:50 (EST)
But was this an inadvertent programmer's slip-up? Or (conspiracy theorists take note) an act of deliberate sabotage by a parent, designed to expose the results of good scholarship or lack thereof to public scrutiny? Perhaps an inquiry is needed ....
(in this case, no harm done, since Robin's grades were fine; see Summa Cum Laude for a serious look at student life at the junior college level)
- Tuesday, January 08, 2002 at 06:00:21 (EST)
Carl was tall, quiet, somewhat shy --- a typical introverted physicist, careful and meticulous in his judgments. He also laughed a lot, especially at himself. He and his wife Teresa married late; they had their daughter Tessa Marie only a little before my eldest was born, even though Carl himself was 10 years older than me. We joked that he'd never be able to retire, what with college expenses hitting when he would turn 60.
Carl was something of a gadget man, the earliest in our group to get a videotape camera, back when they were rare, expensive, heavy hunks of machinery. He told us about his initial experience: he had gotten out of phase in toggling between "Record" and "Pause", so his first home video showed the grass as he walked into the yard ... and then cut off as soon as he pointed the camera at his little girl. The tape began again as soon as he thought he had stopped filming ... and ended just as he had the next scene set up and said, "Get ready!" to his subject. And so on, for the whole movie. We chuckled with him as he told the story.
Carl taught me what things are important and (the most important thing!) what not to fret about. He was a real "mentor", though back in 1981 nobody thought of assigning senior people to help newcomers get started, and certainly nobody told Carl to look after me. He just did the right thing. Carl was like that.
When our boss was transferred to another job, Carl moved up to lead the team. He didn't exactly jump at the opportunity; he preferred to do the work, rather than tell others to do it. But since there was nobody else around, he agreed to serve --- and did a fine job of protecting and promoting his people. At the next convenient re-organization Carl escaped from the ranks of management and went back to having fun. We didn't see each other often, over the years, but we stayed friends. I learned of his cancer in November.
Carl Miller died on 31 December 2001. He was 59 years old. On 30 November, in reply to an email I had sent him, he wrote:
I thank you and your family for your message of hope and concern. Except for a broken rib from coughing, I am doing fairly well now. Unfortunately my long term prognosis is poor. But, we are taking it one day at a time and have maintained a positive attitude regarding the future. I appreciate your offer of help, but family members have been just great and have taken care of my needs. I am hoping that the chemo treatments will allow me to get back to work within the next couple months. We will see. Hope that all is well with you and your family. Take care and thanks again for your thoughts.
That was Carl J. Miller ... serene, optimistic, gracious, and above all absolutely honest. I tried to express my gratitude to Carl in August 1999 (see Thanks And Acknowledgements4) but I owed him more thanks than I could possibly convey then. I still do ....
- Monday, January 07, 2002 at 07:44:07 (EST)
But a bigger part, and far more important, are sweet little stories: just-so anecdotes that offer explanations for why things are the way they are, parables that link equations to physical systems. Some abridged examples:
All these fantasies, and others like them, are gross over-simplifications. But they serve to focus the mind on key pieces of evidence and highlight the dominant processes in a given situation. Most importantly, these fables motivate the math that makes possible accurate predictions --- and thereby real understanding.
- Saturday, January 05, 2002 at 05:56:05 (EST)
I suggest Poetic Annotations --- explanatory game comments in the form of ultra-short verse. It doesn't have to be 17-syllables, but let's start with that. Consider the classic game between de la Bourdonnais and McDonnell (1834, from Tartakower & du Mont, 500 Master Games of Chess, 1952):
1 e4 e5 The peasants butt heads Quarreling over nothing --- Not unlike their kings. 2 Nf3 Nc6 3 Bc4 Bc5 4 c3 d6 Chrysanthemum buds Tantalize a dreamer's nose Until the bee stings. (4 ... Nc6 would have been more active) 5 d4 exd4 6 cxd4 Bb6 Sunlight through raindrops, Chill breezes, open windows: Prepare for the night. (not 6 ... Bb4+)
and so forth ....
(see Chess Chow for other ideas on adding levity to the Queen of Games)
- Friday, January 04, 2002 at 05:53:13 (EST)
This came to mind the other day when I went looking online for the old (mid-nineteenth century; see Numis Trivia Of1852) Roget's Thesaurus. One version I found (project name elided to protect the innocent), dated 1991, had a breathless foreword:
We produce about one million dollars for each hour we work. One hundred hours is a conservative estimate for how long it we take to get any etext selected, entered, proofread, edited, copyright searched and analyzed, the copyright letters written, etc. This projected audience is one hundred million readers. If our value per text is nominally estimated at one dollar, then we produce a million dollars per hour; next year we will have to do four text files per month, thus upping our productivity to two million/hr. The Goal of Project G-------- is to Give Away One Trillion Etext Files by the December 31, 2001. [10,000 x 100,000,000=Trillion] This is ten thousand titles each to one hundred million readers.
It's entertainingly right-justified when displayed in a monospaced font; apparently someone made an effort to tune the choice of words to pad out each line. Unfortunately, there are several ugly typos in what resulted ("... how long it we take ...", "... This projected audience ...", "... by the December 31, 2001 ...").
But getting substantive, now that January 2002 has arrived perhaps it's an appropriate time to pause and evaluate. One hates to criticize any charitable effort to do Good, but aside from poor proofreading the above paragraph shows an unfortunate amount of either megalomania or fuzzy thinking in many dimensions. Does every hypothetical member of the audience want every G-------- publication? (Even the tables of random numbers, digits of pi, or other mathematical quantities? Or the human genome sequence reprints? Or the multiple editions of various reference works, reissued every few years? Or all the non-English language publications?) Does everybody want everything at once, right now? (Any honest estimate of future value delivered really must be discounted back to present dollars.) Should free machine-readable books produced by other efforts subtract from the G-------- balance sheet? Do unproofed, amateur, error-ridden versions of important materials actually make a positive contribution, or do they mislead and add confusion to attempts at scholarship?
Don't get me wrong. I applaud Project G--------'s work to share public-domain electronic texts. I was lucky enough to meet the Project's leader, MH, at a computer conference some years go (see Nice Hackers, 20 Dec 2000) and he's a splendid fellow. MH also shows up, coincidentally, in a list of happy users of my old Free Text information retrieval software, so you know I've gotta love him. (see North American Texas History, 15 May 2000)
But in the struggle between celebrity press-release headlines and hidden goodness, I'm always reminded of the comments by George Eliot (Remember Me) and Albert Schweitzer (Foam On The Ocean), who said it better than I possibly could.
(see also Building Book Web, 2 Feb 2001, re Victor Hugo's thoughts on the invention of printing)
- Wednesday, January 02, 2002 at 06:42:58 (EST)
"I dreamed I was playing Handel's Messiah --- and then I woke up and discovered that I was!"
- Monday, December 31, 2001 at 06:11:00 (EST)
But aside from their orthodox functionality, the Iridium spacecraft play a neat trick: they flare. Each orbiter has three shiny, flat antennas on its sides, as big as a the front door of a house. What you've got, therefore, are some lovely mirrors that glide along ~500 miles above the Earth. Sunlight hitting an antenna bounces off it. When conditions are just right a satellite is exposed to daylight, it's after sunset below, and the reflected beam shines down with a dazzling brilliance. Given the dimensions of the mirrors and the angular size of the Sun in the sky, the area that a flare covers is a few tens of miles across. That illuminated spot zips along the surface of the Earth at the speed of the spacecraft, roughly five miles per second.
An Iridium glint is hundreds of times brighter than the brightest stars or planets. In astronomical language, flares can be as much as -7 or -8 magnitude, comparable to a half-moon. (see Log Scales, 23 Feb 2000, for more details of how stellar magnitudes work) The phenomenon is dramatic: starting from invisibility, a spark begins to glow high in the night sky. It creeps along, growing stronger and stronger, until in a few seconds it gleams like a powerful airplane landing light ... and then it fades again, and vanishes.
In 1997 Iridium flares were discovered, by amateur space enthusiasts. There are several score satellites, enough to give a number of nice flares every week at any given point on the ground. Some have even been seen in the daytime, by those who know just where to look. Because the spacecrafts' locations and orientations are well-defined, flares are quite predictable --- given enough orbital mechanics and cleverness with equations. One handy online service, http://www.heavens-above.com in Munich Germany, will compute forecasts a week ahead for any latitude and longitude.
A friend told me about Iridium glints in 1998, and for a spell I was seriously enraptured by them. I would print out tables of locally-visible flares, synchronize my watch with the Naval Observatory, and set an alarm. Then when the time came I rushed out into the front yard to look. I knocked on my neighbors' doors and dragged them out too. Even while driving my kids to their music lessons, if a flare was scheduled I pulled over to the side of the road, jumped from the car, and stared up at the sky. Whenever I go past a place where I saw a good Iridium flare that way, I still remember it ... in front of a mini-mansion on Old Military Road in northern Virginia ... at a corner on New Hampshire Avenue in Takoma Park Maryland ... in the parking lot of Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda ....
Yep, I had a bad flare jones. But I'm better now. Really.
(for more information, see http://www.satobs.org/iridium.html or http://users.skynet.be/sky56407/htmleng/iridium.htm etc.; in the Zhurnal Wiki see also Geo Memory (17 May 2001) re spatially-linked recollections, and High Glider (8 Oct 2000) for an effort to versify about this sort of thing)
- Sunday, December 30, 2001 at 19:59:31 (EST)
Hunched over handlebars, Rush hour bicyclist Forms an impediment Cars pause to pass;
Head down she pedals and Shows all who follow her Steatopygian Spandex-clad ...
- Friday, December 28, 2001 at 06:18:50 (EST)
Proving the Falco thesis, however, is nontrivial. The best evidence comes from precise quantitative measurements of paintings that show slight errors in convergent lines, tiny mismatches of scale, and inexplicable depth-of-field problems or other aberrations. These are subtle phenomena, easily overlooked. And when the optics is done correctly, it leaves nary a clue. As Falco commented, "The people who made no mistakes can hide the fact that they used a lens." And he noted that in spite of close examination, he found not a hint of optical chicanery in one famous artist's works which he examined: "Leonardo da Vinci was such a genius that, if he used this, he was able to hide it."
Falco stopped far short of claiming that everyone used artificial assistance all the time, or even most of the time. "The good painters used the lens where they needed it," he said. He was also meticulous in expressing his respect for the great artists of the past. "This takes nothing away from masters like van Eyck or Bellini. These were truly Renaissance Men --- who produced their paintings with the aid of lenses."
Much of the case for early art image technology is mathematical. It's not deep math; virtually all of it can be derived with a bit of high school algebra and geometry. But here's where the "Two Cultures" abyss between science and the humanities really bites. How many art historians have taken freshman physics? Not a lot. "This discovery might have been made decades ago if art history students were routinely educated in selected aspects of the science of optics," Falco suggested. On the other hand, "If you didn't understand that 1/f = 1/d1 + 1/d2, that's just a magical set of symbols. ... It's like you're speaking Bulgarian..." (see also Mary Midgley's comments in Education Culture And Blame, 1 June 2000)
The result: an understandable skepticism about this radical proposal, at least in some circles. As Prof. Falco explained it, "The Press likes controversy. There has been an overwhelmingly positive response. Artists believe it. Art historians --- some believe it and some don't believe it. I'm a scientist. It's like if someone from the Classics came and proved that everything about Bose Einstein Condensation is wrong, based on Medieval scholarship --- you wouldn't accept it!" And quoting from a symposium on the subject in New York, Falco reported "Susan Sontag said that there are three reactions: (1) It's wrong. (2) We knew it all along. (3) It's irrelevant. What was interesting to me is that several times we heard all three from the same person!"
Some other quotes from Charles Falco's talk:
Yes, some of Falco's terminology was a bit sloppy (e.g., the use of "lens" to describe a curved mirror, because "Outside of the scientific community, people don't know that curved mirrors can make images."). But his enthusiastic and fact-based presentation was persuasive.
And it was a joy to witness --- like some of the fabled lectures given to general audiences by Michael Faraday, Richard Feynman, and other great scientific communicators of years past. Perhaps if enough such engaging discussions could be arranged, a bit of the Two Cultures gap might begin to close. As a society dependent on advances in technology, we could do much worse. And as a society in search of meaning, in which many scientists and engineers are virtually illiterate in the humanities, the bridge-building could proceed from both sides of the chasm....
- Thursday, December 27, 2001 at 06:28:32 (EST)