^zhurnal v.20

This is volume 0.20 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.)

^Zhurnal Three

Three years later, what is the ^zhurnal?

What will that picture be?

(see Zhurnal Zero (4 Apr 1999), Annals Of Journals (4 Apr 2000), Zhurnal Anniversary2 (4 Apr 2001))

- Thursday, April 04, 2002 at 15:24:35 (EST)

Personal Programming History

Computer languages aren't important, in one sense: what you can do with one, you can do with any of them. (within limits; see Turing Complete (10 Oct 2001)) But like human languages, computer ones do guide and influence thought processes. They make some things easier to say, and other things more obscure. They also provide a nice hook for reminiscences about past coding projects. The earliest software development efforts that ^z did are, like childhood "art", lost to the mists of memory. Over the decades he dabbled with dozens of programming environments, and actually used a few for semi-productive purposes. Some fragments from along the trail, in rough chronological order:

Common threads? A great book clearly helps raise the standing of any language. But that's not enough; to succeed, a language seems to need to be extensible, responsive, and widely available. And it also needs to have a solid foundation, probably a mathematical one. (see Thinking Environments (7 Apr 1999))

Most important, a programming system should be fun. And cute doesn't hurt either. Hmmm --- these sound like criteria for a good date ....

- Tuesday, April 02, 2002 at 20:57:47 (EST)

Precision Living

There are automobile schools that teach classes in high-performance "Precision Driving". There's the "Precision System" of bidding in the card game Bridge, designed to maximize information transfer between partners. There's multiple-precision arithmetic in computers, crafted to maintain accuracy during intensive calculations.

So is there an art (or technology) of Precision Living? What might it involve? Perhaps efficiency, economy of means? Perhaps achievement, performing up to one's fullest potential? Perhaps balance, optimization of choices over multiple conflicting goals?

(see also Knowing Choosing Doing, 29 May 1999)

- Sunday, March 31, 2002 at 18:23:05 (EST)

Lyric Notes

Songs mystify me. There's something in the combination of words and music that cuts through logic and moves mind ... a most puzzling experience for an ultra-rationalist such as Yours Truly. In isolation, the poetry seems banal, as do the tunes. Put them together and magic happens. Take a few lines from one of my recent faves, Breathless (by R. J. Lange & Andrea Corr):

 And if there's no tomorrow
   And all we have is here and now
 I'm happy just to have you
   You're all the love I need somehow

It lies dead on the page, means next to nothing, until you hear it sung. The same holds true for so many other songs ... from classic ... through classic rock ... to today's latest ditty.

What's the source of this powerful phenomenon? Chronic wiring weaknesses in human neural networks?

- Friday, March 29, 2002 at 08:05:42 (EST)

Metastable Weights

Everybody knows how hard it is, after one hits "a certain age", to keep one's weight under control. A happy marriage is another legendary prescription for adding poundage. I was commiserating about this sort of thing with a friend who, like me, carries around a few extra kilos ... and it occurred to me that a physical phenomenon (at least metaphorically) might cast light on the problem.

Envision a golf course, a terrain of gently rolling hills and dales. Life is good: a ball can roll and come to rest in the middle of the fairway, or if it gets sliced or hooked into the rough it's no big deal to knock it back on track. Eat a huge dinner and the weight comes off naturally, as you feel less hungry and eat a bit less for a few days. Miss a meal, and contrariwise catch up on the calories a little later.

But then there are sandtraps --- local minima that are devilish hard to get out of. These are metastable states, like the diamond form of crystallized carbon. Fall into one and there's a big barrier to overcome before you can get out again.

And unlike the gravitational potential on the surface of the earth, in the case of people there aren't just two parameters that control weight, there are myriads. Think of all the biochemical feedback loops in the body ... all the metabolic pathways ... all the psychological and physiological drivers that affect eating. This is a high-dimensional space, and the valleys don't stay in the same places either --- they move around over time. No surprise that few weight-loss methods work in the long run; everybody is different, changeably so.

(for musings on some tangentially-related themes see In Stability (20 Aug 1999), Strange Attractors (1 Sep 1999), and Multidimensional Mountaineering (13 Dec 1999)

- Wednesday, March 27, 2002 at 14:56:13 (EST)

Knowledge and Society

David Baltimore, President of Caltech, writes in the Institute's annual report:
The year 2001 will be forever marked by the September 11 terrorist attacks that left horror in our hearts. The Caltech community found solace in the thought that we work for something terrorism cannot touch: the enlightenment produced by discovery and learning. We were profoundly reminded that it is our charge to serve humanity by expanding the knowledge that conquers ignorance.

(see also Fragile Beauty, 15 Sep 2001)

Later in his commentary Baltimore reports that he searched but could find no "mission statement" for the Institute, or any other brief description of its core business. In consultation with colleagues, therefore, he came up with:

The mission of the California Institute of Technology is to expand human knowledge and benefit society through research integrated with education. We investigate the most challenging, fundamental problems in science and technology in a singularly collegial, interdisciplinary atmosphere, while educating outstanding students to become creative members of society.

(see also Some Good, 16 Dec 2000, and Pursuit Of Excellence, 22 Feb 2002)

- Monday, March 25, 2002 at 07:51:50 (EST)


^zhurnal posts haven't been as frequent as perhaps they should have been for the past few months. Sorry! I have plenty of explanations to offer, though perhaps they don't quite add up to one excuse. Office hours have lengthened, for good reasons. Correspondence (with several excellent and deserving individuals) has become heavier, and thus time and creative energy have been taken away from public writing. Family duties have called; I have answered. Moreover, I've found myself doing longer-than-usual essays ... often working on delicately crafted ^zhurnal items that have hours of thought and polishing hidden inside them. (I hope that the quality improvement is worth the investment, at least in some cases. Has anyone noticed? Will I be able to see a difference myself, a few years from now?)

But an eagle-eyed auditor of my time sheet might note another, bigger change which has occurred since January: I'm exercising more, a lot more, than hitherto. To be explicit, I've been jogging around neighborhood trails and pathways, pacing off roughly 300 furlongs per fortnight (I've always wanted to measure something in those units!). At my sluggardly ~10 minute/mile pace that comes to over 3 hours of potential journalizing time burned every week. It's an order of magnitude increase over what I was doing last year, and a significant step up even since I last wrote about running. (see Global Positioning System Runs, 16 Feb 2002)

Why this sudden swing to fitness? Well, the prime mover was my physician, who in January 2002 put her foot down about my marginally high blood pressure and prescribed some medication to attack the problem. I am not enjoying the side effects of those pills, sad to say, and hope that by exercise I can lose some weight, improve my cardiovascular health, and get off the drug. Coincidentally I discovered that two close colleagues at work (CM and SA) are stealthy marathon men, training for the First DC Marathon (24 March 2002). My conversations with them provided further motivation: they're not proselytizers for distance racing, but the gentle example that they set helped get me moving. So did correspondence with my brother (another experienced marathon runner) and other fit friends.

And a surprising development to report: running has started to become fun again, as it was in my youth when I first read Kenneth Cooper's classic book Aerobics and could dash off a string of sub-eight-minute miles without breathing (very) hard or breaking into (much of) a sweat. We'll see how long this new ^z lifestyle lasts. I'm likely to get overenthusiastic and injure a knee, or become slovenly and slack off when the weather becomes hot and humid, or come to my senses when I turn 50 years old in September. Watch this space for further developments....

- Saturday, March 23, 2002 at 17:22:56 (EST)

Dream Data

Not long ago I had a dream: I answered the front door, and three strangers stood there. Their faces were rotating swirls and whorls, like petroglyphs or crop circles --- but dynamic, constantly turning, incomprehensible gray-on-gray fractal spirals. Then I looked at a printed page. The text was a crawling quiver-flicker binary speckle --- like TV picture noise between stations, or the jitter-chaos that comes from closing one's eyes and pushing on the eyeballs.

Then I awoke, and began to wonder. Had I glimpsed, for a few moments, pure information? In a temporary dream-state breakdown of sensory processing, could I have seen a slice of raw low-level brain activity?

Similar hallucinations (though more abstract) sometimes precede migraine headaches, and may provide clues as to neural structures in the brain. (see Migraine Visions, 29 Nov 2001) Marvin Minsky speculated many years ago (Society of Mind) about the emergence of consciousness from the interrelationships of simpler subroutines. Douglas Hofstadter wrote analogously (Gödel, Escher, Bach); so did Daniel Dennett (Consciousness Explained).

Still earlier David Marr (Vision) wrestled with the processes that might convert bits of optic nerve stimulation into coherent images. And more recently in the science fictional sphere Neal Stephenson (Snowcrash) painted fantastic patterns that could tap directly into deep mental states. Decades ago A. E. van Vogt (The War Against the Rull) sketched similar pictures. And in antiquity there were creatures like the Medusa or the Basilisk that could change men to stone with a glare.

Probably what I saw, as usual, was "only a dream". Perhaps my techno-interpretation of the vision was driven by the too-many books I've read on computational notions in neurophysiology. Most likely there's nothing worth reporting here. Move on, eh?

But maybe, just maybe, I had a peek behind the scenes into the low-level machinery of the mind --- processes that function pre-consciously when we glance at a person and say "Joe", or at a word and read "dream" without perceptible thought. Did I catch sight of some raw data processing, unfiltered, not yet organized into faces and features, letters and words, lines and curves and edges? I wonder ....

- Friday, March 22, 2002 at 04:20:27 (EST)

Read Aloud

Gratuitous childrearing advice? I can't help but give it, especially when I meet somebody with a new kid, or one on the way. My mantra? In two words, Read aloud.

It doesn't matter much what you read to a child, but do it often --- daily or almost so. Start in the earliest weeks of infancy (though it's literally never too late to begin). Build those associations between symbols and sounds and stories, between books and ideas and entertainment. Let your baby hear the enjoyment you feel when reading. Do silly voices for the characters. Drop out of the text to offer parenthetical asides, explanations of obscure words, and parental commentary (e.g., "This is bad behavior; don't you dare do it!"). Edit out inappropriate material; this is your performance of the work, your interpretation, not a slavish transcription. Make reading a part of family life, like eating and sleeping.

And as long as you're investing the time, pick books that you and the kid(s) will be proud to recall reading together. Go to the library and check out classics that you never got around to when you were growing up. Dust off your own juvenile favorites from the basement bookshelves. Choose something long and difficult, and turn it into a serial, 10-20 minute episodes every evening for a month or more. Recap the situation with an "As you remember last time ..." synopsis, and end the segment with a quick peek ahead at what's going to come next.

And be flexible. If a story isn't working, can it and go on to something better. Mix in short fiction with long novels, humor with nonfiction discussions of nature, history, biography, or other topics.

Specifics? Every child and every parent is different, so our experience may not be appropriate for others. In brief, we started out with little books, like Arnold Lobel's Frog and Toad series of gentle zen-like parables. Eventually we worked up to full-length works that took weeks or months to do. A sampling of memorable examples:

On the flip side, some things simply didn't work. The Three Musketeers, for instance, seemed pointless; we eventually gave it up. Several modern books (mercifully unnamed here) had unæsthetic violence or raunchiness which I preferred not to get into. (Over the years I've done most of the reading; PD typically sings bedtime songs. My vocal range is limited, but perhaps I've improved with practice.)

We've wound down the readings in recent months, with our eldest gone off to college and the twins almost 17 years old. But maybe we'll have a chance to start again someday, as Peter Falk did in the delightful movie framing device for The Princess Bride....

- Wednesday, March 20, 2002 at 11:14:39 (EST)

Facts From Figures

The 1951 paperback Facts From Figures by M. J. Moroney surfaced again the other day at home. Probably we found it long ago, outside the local library used-book sale, among heaps of chaff in the giveaway pre-dumpster bin. For the first time I opened it ... and to my surprise discovered a delightful "tour of the statistician's workshop", as the author put it.

In light of recent stock market inanities, financial scandals and bookkeeping excesses, the introductory words of Chapter 3 ("The Magic Lantern Technique") are of special relevance, especially the footnote "*Most readers will be aware that skill is not infrequently used to hide the moral truth in balance sheets while obeying to the letter the laws of accountancy.". The body of the text reads:

Very few people can look at a balance sheet and get a quick idea of what it is all about --- yet a good* balance sheet is laid out in nice orderly fashion to make it as comprehensible as possible. A balance sheet is a summary drawn up to show the overall state of affairs brought about by a large number of transactions. Most people look at a balance sheet, note in amazement that it does balance, and look for the balance in hand. Beyond that they do not venture. Yet the balance sheet tells a story, if only we have the skill to bring it to life. An income tax officer, looking at a balance sheet, sees it, not as a list of figures which must be accepted as they stand, but as a story whose verisimilitude it is his duty to assess. He sees just how the various items of expense are related to each other. He asks himself whether this is a reasonable story, and whether the various items have a likely-looking magnitude, both absolutely and in relation to the other items in the statement. He seizes on doubtful-looking points and asks for explanations. He looks at the balance sheet from many points of view --- always asking the question: 'Does this make sense?'. While it is true that there is a certain amount of gift about it, it is also true that skill can be acquired by practice.

In the next paragraph Moroney turns to the key theme of how graphics can bring numerical results to life, and thereby catalyze thought:

Cold figures are uninspiring to most people. Diagrams help us to see the pattern and shape of any complex situation. Just as a map gives us a bird's-eye view of a wide stretch of country, so diagrams help us to visualize the whole meaning of a numerical complex at a single glance. Give me an undigested heap of figures and I cannot see the wood for the trees. Give me a diagram and I am positively encouraged to forget detail until I have a real grasp of the overall picture. Diagrams register a meaningful impression almost before we think.

(see Tufte Thoughts, 18 Dec 2000)

- Sunday, March 17, 2002 at 20:05:44 (EST)

Unsystematic Theology

Like many, ^z became interested in religion as a teen-ager; unlike many, his hyperanalytic persona sent him not to temples or mosques or chapels but rather to bookstores and library stacks. Four authors encountered in the 1969-1973 timeframe still surface sporadically from the swamps of his subconscious:

What more recent books should one read on modern theological themes?

(The above citations are from memory, somewhat faded over a span three decades; please forgive any garbles. See also My Religion, 6 Nov 2000, and Bearing Witness, 17 Jan 2001)

- Friday, March 15, 2002 at 09:27:37 (EST)

Tommy Burger Revenge

Chili burgers from Tommy's were a much-lusted-after commodity on campus at Caltech during the 1970s. (see College Collage3, 29 Sep 2001) In the early '90s I encountered them once more. A colleague, JB, and I had wangled a West Coast junket (oops, make that a fact-finding expedition) to visit a number of research centers and learn more about computational fluid dynamics.

The journey was productive, but also great fun. I remember how after we landed in the San Francisco area JB, who is no small fellow, had to twist his head sideways and fold his body like a contortionist in order to squeeze into the sub-sub-compact car that the rental company foisted upon a pair of naïve travelers. The model name of that vehicle --- Probe --- instantly turned into a running joke between us. Say the word and JB gets a cramp in his neck, over a decade later.

After our meetings in SF finished we flew to Los Angeles and arrived in the early afternoon with a few hours to spare. Our rental car was bigger this time. We visited my alma mater-in-law in Watts (where my wife grew up, and where her mother still lives) and my alma mater in Pasadena (where Paulette and I met). At some point I began reminiscing about the glorious cuisine served at a noble establishment in Eagle Rock, a nearby suburb in the LA basin.

JB called my bluff. We navigated to Tommy's (getting lost only once), and there it stood, unchanged by the passage of years: a tiny A-frame hut on a busy streetcorner. We waited in line, got to the window, ordered our meals, and watched as they were assembled. A few seconds later, and we found ourselves seated on a bench at one of the picnic tables by the parking lot outside, facing a couple of the infamous Tommy Burgers plus side orders of fries, jalapeños and other deadly delights.

The food was wonderful: fast, cheap, and hot, both picante and caliente. JB and I went back and ordered second courses. (I wasn't a vegetarian then.) When we finished eating we drove to our hotel, checked in, and went up to our respective rooms. I slept soundly. JB did not. As he told me the next morning, he woke at midnight in the worst pain he had ever experienced in this lifetime. He feared he was having a heart attack and almost dialed "911" for help ... but then located the source of the agony a bit lower and to one side.

As it turned out, some years later JB discovered that he had gallstones. In retrospect, therefore, perhaps the chili burgers and their accoutrements were only the catalysts for his suffering, not the primary cause. Nevertheless, no more Tommy Burgers for either of us!

- Wednesday, March 13, 2002 at 12:14:37 (EST)

No Final Answers

The marvelous thing about Science is that it never ends --- there are no "That's the way it is" carved-in-stone conclusions. It's a glorious and terrifying enterprise to take part in, kind of like high-wire walking with no safety net.

In contrast, successful founders of religions often declare the opposite: they announce "I'm the last; accept no further revelations!" That claim goes along with its corollaries "I'm infallible!" and "Everybody else is wrong!" Prophets who want to win tend to draw a line and cut off discussion.

Science takes the opposite tack. As philosopher Sir Karl Popper noted, for any statement to be "scientific", it must be falsifiable --- subject to refutation by some conceivable experiment or observation. (see Vulnerable Theories, 17 May 1999)

The infinite malleability of Science can be excruciatingly painful. It's especially rough on the human psyche when change collides with cherished belief --- as witness, for example, the general reaction to recent medical news about optimal diagnosis and treatment of breast and prostate cancers. Even the most thoughtful among the mass media have wrung hands and editorialized about mammography recommendations, and have trotted out anecdotal "evidence" in support of what they already wanted to believe.

It's funny how Aunt Mildred's idiosyncratic experiences are never used to argue for logic and against a commonsense prejudice. With few exceptions, the op-ed gang ignores the fact that (based on the best current analysis) simple inexpensive measures (e.g., losing a few ounces of excess weight, eating a more balanced mix of foods, exercising a few minutes more) could save far more lives than aggressive cancer screening programs. The same holds true in other areas, such as the case for air bags in cars. Some statistics ain't pretty.

But that's the social job of Science: to cut through mazes of preconception and intuition, and to find, measure, explain, and report on what's really going on, regardless of how much an answer may hurt in the short run. The long-term result is a better and happier life for everyone. Knowledge is good --- and that's not a scientific statement!

(see also Science And Pseudoscience, 6 Oct 2001)

- Monday, March 11, 2002 at 22:28:43 (EST)

Walk About

The most striking feature of the recent movie Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring? No, for me it wasn't the excellent acting ... nor the glorious sound track ... nor the powerful special effects ... and certainly it wasn't the ultra-choreographed battle scenes, impressive though they were.

What hit me between the eyes was the mundane experience of distance on foot: the slow, long walks that characters take to move from place to place in Middle Earth. In this, the film is true to Tolkien's books. And in this, the film is brilliant.

People are animals. It's impossible for a human to grasp the true feel of a location --- to understand its essence --- without walking over it. Driving across or flying above can give an intellectual appreciation of a chunk of terrain: "Yep, it looks pretty rugged"; "Nope, that's not natural erosion"; and so forth. Useful for analysis and exploitation.

But to really know a land --- to grok its gestalt --- takes time and tired feet. There's no other way. And via the simple getting-there process it becomes clear that every point in between the start and end of a journey is itself a genuine, important, unique place --- not just something to clamber over or creep around. Every step is sacred; every pace is pregnant with discovery.

- Saturday, March 09, 2002 at 12:29:42 (EST)

An Lab

Analog, my favorite science-fiction magazine in that dim bygone era of my teenage years, had a clever way to get feedback from readers and convey it to authors. It was called "The Analytical Laboratory", or "An Lab" for short. Each month anyone who felt like it could mail in a postcard ranking the stories in that issue, numerically, from 1 to N. Somebody at the 'zine averaged the votes and, a few months later, the results would appear. The writer of the most popular story received a cash bonus --- as I recollect, it was one cent per word, on top of the three cent per word standard payment at that time. The second place finisher got a smaller award, half a cent per word.

I thought that the An Lab was a cute concept, so I religiously sent in my ballot. Probably a few hundred others did too, out of the 60,000 or so total Analog audience. Possessing an analytic-obsessive personality myself, I also enjoyed checking the results against my preferences and studying them in other ways. (Some might say that I should have found better things to do with my youthful energy!) It was clear from the printed An Lab scores that not all readers ranked all stories, for instance, since the total of the average point scores did not add up to 1 + 2 + ... + N. I also observed a pronounced bias toward longer fiction. Segments of serialized novels won, for instance, more often than short stories or novelettes.

And then there was a stranger phenomenon that my analysis unveiled: the shorter the title, the higher a story tended to rank. This correlation was strong, far beyond random chance, particularly when title length was defined by number of syllables rather than number of letters or words. (I didn't know about chi-square then, so I didn't compute it for my hypothesis --- sorry!) Why should the most popular stories have the shortest titles? Did authors and editors reserve the punchiest names for the most striking works? Did readers prefer not to write out lengthy titles on their ballots, or did they fail to remember them? I don't know ....

- Thursday, March 07, 2002 at 11:55:42 (EST)

The Coin

Recently I saw "The Angle" --- a corner where two old stone walls meet. It earned that name because of what happened there in 1863. (see Gettysburg Coordinates, 27 Feb 2002) Like "The Angle", there are a few other unique entities that deserve their title. One is called, by those who know it, simply "The Coin".

The Coin is an old penny, or more accurately, a cent. (Pennies are British money, not American.) What kind of cent? It's a Chain cent --- arguably the first design of the first money officially issued by the fledgling US Mint for general circulation. In early March of 1793 the Mint struck 36,103 of these large cents. Each is about the size of a modern half dollar and contains a weight of copper equal to what was then its face value. Perhaps two thousand Chain cents survive today, corroded and worn smooth by years of environmental hazards plus sheer use in early commerce.

The Coin is one such 1793 Chain cent, but with a difference: it's in virtually perfect condition, surfaces crystal-sharp and undamaged. The obverse side shows in profile a woman's head, representing Liberty. She looks forward, with her long hair flowing free behind her in the wind. The reverse is dominated by 15 links of a chain, for the 15 states of the Union, connected each to the next and forming a closed loop. The words "UNITED STATES OF AMERICA", ring the outside of the reverse. "ONE CENT" and "1/100" fill the center of the chain's circle.

It's an amazingly modern design, lovely in its minimalism and subtlety. Of course, it was wildly unpopular in its own day. The chain, people complained, reminded them of slavery; the woman looked savage and maybe afraid (or fearsome) with her unkempt hair. The Mint listened to public criticism and canned the design in favor of a less-controversial wreath motif.

Somehow, one pristine example of the 1793 Chain cent remains. It appears to be a specially-struck presentation piece, made with extraordinary care for use as a gift by the Mint. For the past two centuries it has passed from one dedicated collector to the next. It's The Coin!

- Tuesday, March 05, 2002 at 06:11:13 (EST)

Poetic Processes

Elizabeth Drew's little book Poetry: A Modern Guide to Its Understanding and Enjoyment (1959) is yet another of the many cheap paperbacks that I fell for at the local library's used-book sale. I've been carrying it around with me for a while and have only gotten a third of the way into it --- but already I've harvested enough enjoyment and insight to more than justify the time spent plowing through the occasional slow, academic parts. A few brief excerpts ...

From Chapter 1, "Poetry and the Poet":

Poetry is the earliest and remains the most concentrated and intense form of communication among the arts of language. Its uses of words are finer, richer and more powerful than those of prose, and it has played a larger part in the whole literary tradition. Today the pessimists are very gloomy about the state of poetry. They point out that, like the behavior of the younger generation and of the weather, it isn't what it used to be.

In Chapter 3, "Sound Patterns":

In the first quarter of this century it was the fashion to hold that poetry could dispense with any regular metrical pattern, either of rhyme or beat. ... Pound's cult of "Imagism" demanded no rhythmical stress at all, only a clear visual image in lines alleged to be in the pattern of the musical phrase. When read aloud, these patterns couldn't possibly be distinguished from prose. The result was a flood of poems such as William Carlos Williams's "Red Wheelbarrow," which proves perhaps only that words can't take the place of paint.

. . . (text of the poem here) . . .

Whether this kind of thing pleases must be a matter of personal taste, but it should not be called "verse," since that word means that the rhythm "turns" and repeats itself; just as "prose" means that it runs straight on. Eliot made a good point when he called the term "free verse" a misnomer in another sense: "no verse is free for the man who wants to do a good job."

(see also Judson Jerome's comments on a similar topic, esp. as quoted in Iambic Honesty1 (23 April 2001) and Iambic Honesty2 (27 April 2001))

Drew's Chapter 4, "Imagery", particularly tickled me because it analyzes and compares, among other fine poems, two of my all-time faves: John Donne's "Batter My Heart, Three-personed God" and William Butler Yeats's "Leda and the Swan". (see Face To Face With God (13 Nov 2001) and By Heart (28 Nov 2001)) And, putting the bottom line first, Drew in concluding her Introduction quotes Samuel Johnson's "simple and bedrock wisdom":

"The only end of writing is to enable the reader better to enjoy life, or better to endure it."

- Sunday, March 03, 2002 at 20:04:54 (EST)

Cell Spin

We live in an age of everyday marvels. Witness this recent scene: in a laundromat early one Sunday morning, while their clothes are in the wash, an immigrant family --- father, two boys, and tiny daughter --- all sit on the floor forming a circle, legs outstretched. In the middle of them is a cellphone, lying on its curved back.

The little girl reaches out and gives it a quick twist. It spins ... slows ... and finally stops, antenna stub pointing at the dad. The kids shriek in joy; the father pretends to be miffed and scoots back out of the circle, leaving the three children to close ranks and twirl the phone again. Next a boy is eliminated, and in the final round the girl goes, leaving the Grand Winner who grins to the applause of his family.

Everybody now forms a ring again, only this time the rules are modified so that it takes two picks by the cellular phone to knock out a player. Then further complexities are added: people begin to enter and leave the circle during a round, until from my vantage point nearby I can't figure out the pattern of comings and goings.

They all have a good time while their laundry is washing. Eventually the children tire of the game, so the father picks up his telephone and makes a call. He doesn't seem to speak English, but his kids are fluent in multiple languages.

What a spectacle: telecommunications technology has become so rugged and inexpensive (these don't appear to be wealthy people) that a computer-controlled voice-compression frequency-hopping transceiver unit can serve double duty as a spinner in a family pastime. Oh, technology!

- Friday, March 01, 2002 at 19:01:29 (EST)


The third most delightful thing to do on a cold winter morning is to curl up with a few fine obituaries. Until a year before his own appeared (in early 2000) Robert McG. Thomas Jr. was the grandmaster of that genre, in much the same fashion as was Richard Casement for science writing (see Edge Of The Universe, 8 Jun 1999). 52 McGs. reprints a full deck of Thomas's best from the pages of the New York Times. As Michael T. Kaufman writes (in "Robert McG. Thomas Jr., 60, Chronicler of Unsung Lives", included in the book): "Mr. Thomas saw himself as the sympathetic stranger at the wake listening to the friends and survivors of the deceased, alert for the moment when one of them would tell a memorable tale that could never have made its way into Who's Who or a résumé bit that just happened to define a life." Some samples follow.

Mason Rankin, 56, Is Dead; Founded AIDS Group in Utah

Mason Rankin, a Salt Lake City businessman who had such an abundance of compassion for people with AIDS that he kept scores of volunteer knitters furiously clicking away to supply afghans, sweaters, scarves and hats to people in Utah's H.I.V. community, died on Sept. 21 .... To some of his friends, one of the more appealing benefits of the charity was that it attracted a number of elderly volunteers for whom the familiar act of knitting or crocheting became a way to relate to a baffling world beyond their experience.

Minnesota Fats, a Real Hustler with a Pool Cue, is Dead

He certainly looked like a Minnesota Fats, or at least some Fats. ... Mr. Wanderone, who once said he never picked up anything heavier than a silver dollar, grew up with a fierce aversion to physical labor, so much so that on their cross-country trips his wife was expected to do all the driving, carry all the luggage and even change the flat tires. ... Although his frequent claim that he had never lost a game "when the cheese was on the table," was more fabrication than exaggeration, according to his first wife, Mr. Wanderone was in fact a master hustler who tended to be just as good as he needed to be when he needed to be.

Toots Barger, 85, the Queen of Duckpins' Wobbly World

Mrs. Barger ... achieved renewed prominence leading a campaign to have duckpins named the Maryland state sport. The campaign failed, perhaps because legislators felt duckpins was just too odd to be the state sport, especially when Maryland already had an official sport: jousting.

Anton Rosenberg, a Hipster Ideal, Dies at 71

Antonn Rosenberg, a storied sometime artist and occasional musician who embodied the Greenwich Village hipster ideal of 1950's cool to such a laid-back degree and with such determined detachment that he never amounted to much of anything, died on Feb. 14 ....

Maria Reiche, 95, Keeper of an Ancient Peruvian Puzzle, Dies

After almost 60 years of intense, if highly speculative, scholarly scrutiny, it is hard to tell which is the greater mystery: Why the valley-dwelling Nazcan people would decorate the surrounding desert mesas with figures so large their shapes could not even be discerned before the age of aviation 2,000 years later. Or why an adventure some German woman who came to South American on a whim to tutor a diplomat's children would abandon all other pursuits to devote her life to an almost obsessive preoccupation with the Nazca lines.

Charles McCartney, Known for Travels with Goats, Dies at 97

You take a fellow who looks like a goat, travels around with goats, eats with goats, lies down among goats and smells like a goat and it won't be long before people will be calling him the Goat Man. Which is pretty much what Charles McCartney had in mind back in the Depression when he pulled up his Iowa stakes, put on his goatskins, hitched up his ironed-wheeled goat wagon and hit the road for what turned out to be a three-decade odyssey as one of the nation's most endearing eccentrics and by far its most pungent peripatetic roadside tourist attraction. ... A man given to gross exaggeration when simple embellishment would suffice, Mr. McCartney ...

Patsy Southgate, Who Inspired 50's Literary Paris, Dies at 70

... in a city that treasures beauty she was renowned as the most beautiful woman in Paris. A clean-cut American beauty whose finely chiseled features were set off by surprisingly full lips generally framing a dazzling, inviting smile, Miss Southgate, whose animated beauty generally confounded the camera, was blond to her eyelids and had such a steady, open gaze it was said that to look into her deep blue eyes was to fall in love. ... Miss Southgate was ahead of her time even in her vaunted beauty. In an era when the Hollywood ideal was the shapely starlet with an overflowing bosom, her trim form prefigured a later esthetic of sturdy athleticism. ... Once during the tempestuous courtship that preceded their tempestuous marriage, when a row between Miss Southgate and Mr. Matthiessen was followed by a sulking two-day silence followed by an evening phone call that failed to patch things up, Mr. Matthiessen was startled an hour or so later by a late-night banging on the door of his Paris student lodgings. When his disapproving landlady opened the door to Miss Southgate, who had thrown on her clothes and traveled halfway across Paris after the dispiriting phone call, it took her only a moment to add to her legend as a master of the inspired spontaneous gesture. "I thought you needed this," she told Mr. Matthiessen as she handed him an orange and departed, leaving him to marvel, as he still does, that it was exactly what he needed.

Howard Higman, Academic Impresario, Dies at 80

Officially, Mr. Higman was a sociology professor, but that was merely an academic cover for his role as the thinking person's Nathan Detroit, the founder and proprietor of the oldest established permanent freewheeling gabfest in academia, a weeklong extravaganza of discussion and debate that was once compared to a cross between a think tank and a fraternity party. ... A chief attraction of the conference was Mr. Higman himself, a man of such enormous intellectual range that he taught himself architecture and gardening because he could not afford to hire skilled professionals, and, for the same reason, made himself into an accomplished French Chef. For all his brilliance, Mr. Higman could also be something of an absentminded professor. During a stay with a friend in Washington, for example, he once cooked an elaborate meal for 30 guests, but forgot to invite anybody, leaving his host, John Midgley, to eat beef Wellington for three weeks.

The book 52 McGs.: The Best Obituaries from Legendary New York Times Writer Robert McG. Thomas Jr. was edited by Chris Calhoun.

- Thursday, February 28, 2002 at 13:45:01 (EST)

Gettysburg Coordinates

Boy Scout Troop 439 went to the Gettysburg National Military Park on 23-24 February 2002. We hiked ~9 miles around the battlefield, including a run (the final kilometer) over the ground where Pickett's Charge took place 139 years ago. It was much easier in the cool of winter, without anybody shooting at us.

Then we camped overnight. The temperature fell into the teens (Fahrenheit), and as usual my toes froze --- which happens no matter how many socks I wear and no matter how many sleeping bags I nest myself inside of. (Perhaps I need a hot-water bottle or a sack full of iron-oxidizer hand-warmers for my feet?) I couldn't sleep much, but I stayed semi-sane by listening to a radio between midnight and dawn ... flipping among urban rap/club music, pseudo-talk-shows that huckstered medical quack remedies, a public radio station that played and discussed Indian (Hindu) tunes, a gospel preacher, a "golden-oldies" classic-rock program, and miscellaneous country-western twanging. The hours crept by.

On Sunday, after everybody else packed up and headed for home, my son Robin and I went back into town from the camp site. We drove through some parts of the battlefield which we hadn't hiked over, and then walked into the Gettysburg National Cemetery. The poetry posted along the paths was, alas, doggerellish. But that was all forgotten when we got to the spot where Abraham Lincoln gave the Gettysburg Address, during the dedication ceremonies for the graveyard on 19 November 1863.

Gettysburg is quite an experience. It's sobering to remember all the "... brave men, living and dead, who struggled here ..." so that a nation "... dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal ..." might "... have a new birth of freedom --- and that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth." Not a cliché among those words, when one stands where Lincoln stood to say them. But thankfully, Honest Abe was wrong (or disingenuous?!) when he said, "The world will little note nor long remember what we say here ...".

Later that afternoon we went to Gettysburg College, a lovely little liberal-arts school on the north side of town. We walked around campus, saw the girls with their cigarettes and the frat boys with their lacrosse sticks, toured the little art gallery, and then listened to a concert that featured music from three centuries ago by J. S. Bach, J. K. F. Fischer, and G. Muffat. A friend (NF) played viola in the ensemble. (Her car broke down on the way there, so I drove down to get her and her husband; Robin and I gave them a ride home afterwards.)

For those quants in the audience, some GPS readings taken during the expedition (in minutes and seconds from a base of 39 degrees North and 77 degrees West, errors plus or minus a second or two of arc):
latitudelongitude comment
49'05" 13'57" Gettysburg Museum and Visitor Center
48'55" 14'04" Cyclorama Center exhibit area
48'25" 14'05" Pennsylvania Memorial on Cemetary Ridge
47'46" 14'35" The Wheatfield (>4000 dead and wounded)
47'29" 14'14" Little Round Top
47'23" 15'10" Farmhouse along horse trail near Warfield Ridge
47'59" 15'22" Observation tower south of Pitzer Woods
48'51" 15'00" Virginia Memorial, at beginning of Pickett's Charge
48'49" 14'11" "The Angle" aka the "High Water Mark" of the Confederacy
49'12' 13'53" Memorial Cemetery, site of Lincoln's Gettysburg Address
48'02" 23'29" Camp Eder ballfield, where BSA Troop 439 set up tents

- Wednesday, February 27, 2002 at 06:11:28 (EST)

Personal Computer History

Over the past quarter century I seem to have had something of a knack for betting on the wrong PC pony. Maybe I'm a contrary indicator? Perhaps I should be paid by manufacturers not to buy their systems? Or are my needs and interests and criteria too atypical for the market to fill?

Regardless and nevertheless, here's a brief chronology of my twisted path through the thickets of home computer systems:

My favorite Iron today? I'm almost afraid to reveal the answer, since so far things are going well ... maybe too well, as the horror movie cliché goes. For most of the past year I've been using an Apple iBook. It's a constant delight --- the perfect combination of affordability, portability, reliability, processing power, and buck-naked beauty. The UNIX under the hood of Mac OS-X is a real operating system; no more need be said.

- Monday, February 25, 2002 at 20:23:44 (EST)

Poeming Around

How do I come up with the verses that appear on occasion here? Good question! There are several answers:

and what follows. First, a big disclaimer: I'm not even a journeyman yet in this discipline --- I am still (I hope!) learning --- so what you see in this note-for-the-record is just a snapshot of my current state of ignorance. But perhaps bringing it to conscious awareness will help me do better next time. And maybe some of these techniques will help other proto-poets, or will provoke the more experienced among us to advise on other useful approaches to try.

For me, a less-unsuccessful poetic effort often begins with a notion that grips, gripes, gropes, grinds, grabs, galls, calls me. Maybe it's a a sound that startles ... or a phrase, a silly string of words that resonate together to my inner ear ... or an image, like the toss of a head that makes hair fly up and then settle down ... or some seeming similarities between a couple of disparate things, like a meal and a marriage.

Whatever the trigger concept, it's no good if it's forgotten. A big win, therefore is to catch candidate poetic wisps of thought whenever they float past. Usually that's when I'm on the road, or in the shower, or stuck in a boring meeting. A scrap of paper and a pencil stub is enough. A notebook is nicer, as long as it is always near to hand. I've been thinking about getting a little voice recorder; the late Bill Burke (physicist, outdoorsman, and creative genius; more memories of him another time) told me ca. 1978 that he kept a tape machine at the ready on the seat by him during long solo drives. Good idea.

Perspiration follows inspiration. It usually takes me several hours of work, spread out over days or weeks, to turn a concept into a draft that's not too shameful to share. Most of that time is spent on false starts: writing candidate lines, striking them out, moving them around, varying words, experimenting with images, and so forth. The real trick here is to be both patient and alert, like a cat watching a mouse hole --- so that when a fortuitous combination starts to crystallize it isn't allowed to dissolve away again.

Let felicity dictate form. When a lucky phrase appears, I try to take the design it implies and grow it. If a chunk of words suggests a particular meter or rhyme scheme, can that shape be spread? Can nearby lines be rewritten to propagate the pattern further? Or can the template be varied in a progressive and attractive way? Here seems to be where some of the best results emerge, and on particularly golden occasions there's a flash-bang that makes the whole structure come together. On the other hand, when a pattern fails to thrive it's vital to set it aside and experiment with other things; perhaps it can be used another time, in a different context.

When is a poem finished? I don't know --- but after a while the sequence of drafts reaches a point of diminishing returns, at which stage it's time to say "Enough!" to the work and freeze it, publish it, and move on to something else. One can always come back for version 2.0 later.

There are other poetizing principles percolating around in my brain, but I haven't yet had enough experience to sort out the Good from the Bad among them. Or should I pun, in a pseudo-Teutonic accent, and say that I can't yet tell the Better from the Verse?!

(see also comments by Robert Pinsky (Rules Versus Principles, 23 June 1999), Kenneth Koch (Lying Verses, 15 March 2001), and Judson Jerome(Iambic Honesty1, 23 Apr2001; Iambic Honesty2, 27 Apr 2001; Iambic Honesty3, 6 May 2001) ...)

- Saturday, February 23, 2002 at 06:35:35 (EST)

Pursuit of Excellence

The word excellence jumped out at me from a couple of items in the Winter 2002 Phi Beta Kappa newsletter The Key Reporter. Maybe I'm getting old; until recent years I had never thought much about "honor societies" and their functions. They seemed like irrelevant clubs, exclusionary outfits set up to promote mutual back-patting among members. Why bother?

But perhaps there are legitimate reasons for such organizations to exist --- particularly if they can help kindle the fires of thought in otherwise dark cultures.

In the latest PBK bulletin, for example, President Joseph Gordon is quoted as saying (at a 225th anniversary meeting) that the Society's mission has historically been:

... to recognize and foster excellence in all fields, among all types of people. Our traditional long-term commitment to liberal education in higher education --- in itself a noble goal that must remain an essential part of our mission --- is no longer enough. We must reach out into our communities for programs and resources to support these values throughout our society.

In the same issue Secretary John Churchill writes in his column:

We are an organization whose motto became its name: The love of wisdom is the guide of life. Our purpose, to recognize and promote excellence in liberal learning, is our deep agreement. It is, indeed, the commitment that animates our society. This is not to say that we hold settled answers to the questions "What is liberal learning?" and "What is its good?" Rather, we recognize that Phi Beta Kappa must continually examine the purpose it serves. Pursuing our purposes while continuing to deliberate about them, we mirror the genius of participatory, democratic societies.

Fine sentiments, worthy of applause ... particularly in these times where violence and ignorance seem so dominant in many parts of the world (including even the most wealthy nations) ... and in an age where so many smart people seem satisfied with narrow training to get them into a trade, instead of taking part in a shared quest for discovery across the breadth of human knowledge.

(see also Summa Cum Laude (27 May 2001) and Education Of The Youth (1 Dec 2001))

- Friday, February 22, 2002 at 06:03:47 (EST)

Fast Forward

Robert Forward was one of Joe Weber's students in the physics department at the University of Maryland, back in the 1960s when he did his thesis on gravitational wave detectors. He was a force behind the early development of "Weber bars", those multi-ton masses of aluminum that, when suspended on threads and coupled to ultra-sensitive strain gauges, have a chance to pick up the vibrations in spacetime caused by collapsing black holes or other extreme astrophysical phenomena. (see Quantum Nondemolition (5 Feb 2000), Relativity Plus Astrophysics (29 Mar 2000), Ni And Me (27 Apr 2000), etc.)

Bob Forward was also quite a character. As a poor young scientist he couldn't afford much of a wardrobe --- but his wife sewed him a closet full of eye-searing polychromatic vests, and he made them his trademark. His oblate spheroidal profile helped display them to maximum advantage. So did his habit of slipping away and changing vests during the day, particularly at conventions and conferences.

After a career at Hughes Research Laboratories Forward moved on to write science fiction, both for fun and to help pay his daughters' college tuition bills. His stories, as he himself admitted, were weak on character development; Bob's trump cards were in the physics. His early work Dragon's Egg remains one of my favorite sf novels. It's much like Hal Clement's classic Mission of Gravity, but on steroids --- a tale of aliens who live on the surface of a neutron star, and who age and evolve millions of times faster than humans. (re Clement, see also Fan Letter Feedback, 7 Mar 2001)

I was lucky enough to meet Bob in the mid-1970s. We sat next to each other in a basement Caltech conference room during one afternoon departmental seminar when a small earthquake rippled by. Our eyes met as we tried to decide whether to run for the door or sit it out. (The ground stopped shaking after a moment, and the lecture continued uneventfully.) Bob was a constant source of encouragement to grad students in their thesis work on general relativity, particularly concerning "practical" aspects related to sensors.

A few years later, when I was married and moved to the East Coast, Bob Forward's path and mine crossed again. He kindly visited at my invitation and gave gratis seminars on his work for my co-workers --- high-energy talks on exotic technologies including light valves, atomic refrigerators, and antimatter rocket propulsion.

Bob's enthusiasm for new ideas in science was contagious. But just as impressive, on a more personal scale, was his graciousness and courtesy toward a young fellow physicist (i.e., me!) and family. Bob told stories of going to junior high not far from our neighborhood ... he sang the school song ("By the banks of bounteous Sligo ...") ... he took us out to dinner and insisted on paying ... and he went out of his way to acknowledge minor contributions and suggestions that I gave him on some of his manuscripts. Thanks, Bob.

I haven't heard from Bob now for almost a decade. I hope that he's happily retired, cultivating his garden and enjoying his grandchildren. Well-deserved pleasures.

Robert L. Forward, gentleman and scholar ....

- Thursday, February 21, 2002 at 05:57:00 (EST)

Sound Biters

After restraining myself for over a year, I can't resist: time for another mini-rant about the exposure some broadcasts give to articulate, shallow know-it-alls. Yes, on the radio this morning ... yes, the same quick-fix, but with a witty new turn of phrase (wish I had thought to say that!) ... yes, s/he knew less about the subject than I happen to ... and yes, this evening I've completely forgotten the name of the commentator and the topic. So when s/he is featured again in a month, I'll again be annoyed.

But why fret? There's no real harm done; nobody of any sense pays attention to this sort of airtime filler. It would take longer to rebut than it's worth thinking about. The only lessons to learn are perhaps to avoid that station, perhaps to avoid that program, perhaps to avoid taking that pundit seriously --- and most importantly, for sure to avoid getting riled by ephemera. (That last bit sounds like something Marcus Aurelius told himself to do, eh?!)

(see On Hubris (27 Dec 1999), Big Names (13 Jun 2000), Usual Suspects (15 Oct 2000) for earlier ^z gripes about pseudo-expertise and the media)

- Wednesday, February 20, 2002 at 05:52:09 (EST)

Half-Remembered Worlds

Certain science fiction stories, read far too long ago, still stick in my mind. Two examples follow; deep gratitude to anyone who can help identify and locate tales of:

Not high art, but interesting twists on the usual clichés ....

- Monday, February 18, 2002 at 23:25:16 (EST)

Global Positioning System Runs

A couple of years ago my eldest son, Merle, bought a GPS receiver. GPS, the Global Positioning System, uses signals from atomic clocks on satellites to compute locations. It's a matter of geometry plus clever math, including Kalman Filtering. (More on that another time; meanwhile, see Subbook Keeping, 21 June 2000.)

I have something of an attachment to GPS, intellectually, since when I was finishing up graduate school (ca. 1979) among the places that I interviewed for possible jobs was a smallish high-tech company (whose name now escapes me, alas) involved in setting up and running the system. (There are several bits of tricky physics in GPS including some relativity, my field. Nerdy pun intended!)

But coming down to Earth and back to the present: Merle sold me his GPS receiver and I've been carrying it along when I go jogging around the neighborhood, mostly with my younger son, Robin. It's a pleasant distraction. I take data points every minute or so, and when I get home I enter them into a simple spreadsheet. Then I can plot them on a little chart. Goofy, I know, and a waste of time ... but it's the kind of thing that certain analytical personalities (like mine) groove on.

The fun really began when I used Mapquest (http://www.mapquest.com with thanks to Globexplorer and Airphoto USA) to grab some aerial photos of the route. I put the pictures together and superposed my GPS measurements. Yes, it's crude --- I merely scaled the raw data graph by eye to match a few major landmarks. But it's amusing to look at a bird's eye view of where I've been puffing and sweating so hard. Here's the image (all processing done in Apple Works):

My customary path is a couple of miles long. It leads me northwest from home, across a bridge above a major highway (Interstate 495, aka the Capital Beltway, a ring road that circles Washington DC). Then I go over a railroad grade crossing, south via another freeway bridge, and enter the US Army's Walter Reed Annex, an area that was a resort and a girls' finishing school a century ago. From there it's down a pleasant forest trail and back up a (steep!) hill, to the buildings that comprise the Post Exchange. Then east across the train tracks, down a few residential streets, and back to my house from the other side.

As you can see, I didn't get the locations quite aligned, on top of which there are random GPS errors of plus or minus a second or so of arc in latitude and longitude. But overall, it's a kinda cute result for a first hike into satellite-based mapping and precision navigation on shoestrings and shoe leather ...

- Saturday, February 16, 2002 at 05:43:40 (EST)

This is Volume 0.20 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!