^zhurnal v.24

This is volume 0.24 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.)

Morning Mourning

Yesterday's dawn begins as subtle tree-silhouettes to the east, with glimpses of raggedy deep-gray-on-black cloud shapes above them. Then baby-blanket colors crawl onto the canvas, pastel pink against robin's egg tincture of sky in gradually sharpening contrast. Daybreak nears ... high clouds fade to white ... lower ones in the foreground, not yet in direct sunlight, change hue to mottled orange as they leap out in exaggerated 3-D perspective.

And all the while, like snake tongues, police car strobe lights flicker their electric red-blue glares across my windshield. It's early morning on 22 October 2002, and I'm first in line behind a roadblock. The local sniper has apparently killed another person a few miles to the north. Law enforcement hopes to trap him in the lockdown.

Everyone waits with calm patience. I comment on this to the young policeman, head shaved bald, who emerges from his patrol car to don gloves, light a flare, and walk down the line of hopeful commuter-wannabes. "People are scared around here," he replies. "They want this guy caught!" I thank him and his colleagues for being there. He nods.

No horns blow. At first engines idle, but after half an hour most are turned off; so are headlights. The radio is broken in the '72 Dodge Dart that I'm driving, so I get to hear birds chirping in the bushes by the roadside. Pedestrians are uncharacteristically law-abiding this morning. They cross only in the crosswalks, and only when the signals permit, even though no traffic flows. Perhaps the presence of dozens of underemployed cops is a factor in their risk calculus.

Cars sit still while the stoplights at the intersection go through their standard rush hour cycle: 150 seconds for Georgia Avenue, the main north-south artery in the area; 15 seconds for eastbound Forest Glen Road; 15 seconds for westbound Forest Glen; then repeat. People call each other on their cellphones. A few passengers climb out of the hospital shuttle bus and walk off toward their destination half a mile away.

After an hour word comes down to the police and they lift the blockade. Motion goes to my head --- instead of turning back toward home I zip onto the freeway onramp, proceed about 100 yards, and then find myself in a mammoth traffic jam. I spend another ninety minutes creeping along until abruptly the congestion evaporates and, like gas molecules expanding into a vacuum, cars and trucks resume their normal velocity spectrum. In ten minutes I'm at the office.

Late yesterday afternoon on the way home I chance to drive by the neighborhood gas station where a woman was killed two weeks ago, shot by the sniper while cleaning her car. Baskets of flowers frame the spot --- an ephemeral cascade of color placed there by friends.

I remember the clouds that began this day ....

(see also Sue Wen Run (29 May 2002), To Protect And To Serve (11 Sep 2001), ...)

- Wednesday, October 23, 2002 at 06:26:43 (EDT)

Somebody Else

You don't have to leave with the one you came in with!" is a proverb that applies more widely than the obvious party-time context. In fact, it's an extraordinarily interesting notion to apply to oneself. People can change; they don't have to follow a predictable trajectory.

It's not easy. If it were, the concept of "personality" would dissolve and lose its meaning. As Spinoza wrote, "All excellent things are as difficult as they are rare."

But you can emerge a different person than you went in as --- every decade ... every month ... every day ... every moment ....

- Tuesday, October 22, 2002 at 06:13:55 (EDT)

Extract Traction

To paraphrase Albert Einstein, a bit of advice for journal keepers, anthologizers, and other clippers of felicitous quotations (i.e., me):
Excerpts should be as short as possible, but no shorter!

(see also Great Ideas (3 May 1999), Zhurnal Anniversary2 (4 Apr 2001), Out Of My Way (24 May 2001), ...)

- Monday, October 21, 2002 at 06:16:07 (EDT)

Why So Bad?

When important tasks are done badly or inefficiently (e.g., hyperbureaucratically) there are several potential explanations that range across an interesting spectrum of failure:

But there's yet another reason for apparent fecklessness: misperception by the outside observer. A critic can be simply wrong --- s/he doesn't know what's really going on. It happens; I have to plead guilty myself, when I've plunged into a new field and prematurely thought that I'd gotten it all figured out. Sometimes things aren't as simple as they look; sometimes the idiots on the other side of the desk have reasons for what they're doing. What's needed, in order to help things get better, is a combination of patience, tolerance, and a willingness to learn.

Which in the context of politics reminds me of Winston Churchill's remark:

"Many forms of government have been tried and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others that have been tried from time to time."

(see also Policy Making (6 Oct 2002), ...)

- Sunday, October 20, 2002 at 09:08:10 (EDT)

Proto Protagonism

One of Paulette's theories is that everybody is the Hero of his or her own life's story.

And to extend that to other people's autobiographies: my rôle, I've decided, is to be their "plucky comic relief" ... (^_^)

(see also Five Oh (29 Sep 2002), ...)

- Saturday, October 19, 2002 at 08:41:51 (EDT)

Logbook Tyrannicide

Runners are often slaves to their logbooks, and I'm no exception. Though I try to behave rationally, guilt feelings well up inside when I see the end of a week approaching and my mileage total is less than I have hoped for. Sure, I'm injured, sick, busy; the temperature is insanely high, as is the humidity; the air quality is infernal. But no matter --- I've gotta get out there and hammer out some distance, so I can write it into the log. Stupid, eh?!

What's needed? A model: something to replace simple-minded total miles, and provide a better measure of fitness and progress toward one's goals.

Taking a moving average over many days or weeks is a good start, but it's not enough. A rest day of no running knocks the average abruptly down; conversely, when a low day (or week, or month) moves out of the averaging window the curve suddenly jumps up. The resulting graph is noisy and less useful than it could be. See the 7-day and 30-day lines in Jog Log Fog2 (10 Oct 2002), for example. Filtering out the jigglies from such charts would make them look smoother, but would also make the calculations complex without significant analytic value-added.

The right approach begins with some simple real-world knowledge about how exercise affects the body. Among the major truisms to consider:

These common observations suggest that a good running fitness measure should:

Putting these principles together, I've come up with what I not-so-modestly call the Z-rating --- a weighted moving average that's (relatively) straightforward to reckon by hand (and trivial to do on a spreadsheet). The basic formula is:

(New Z-rating) = 0.9*(Previous Z-rating) + 0.2*(10-week average) - 0.1*(last week's miles)

For the non-algebraic-minded, what this equation says is that once you're in shape, you generally stay that way for a few months (the 0.9 and 0.2 multipliers and the 10-week average) but that an abrupt increase in workload will tend to knock you down for a week or so (the -0.1 multiplier). On the other hand, taking it easy for a few weeks will push your Z-rating up, as damage heals and energy stores build. So the Z-rating formula fits nicely with the commonsense practice of "tapering" before a big race. (To start a computation, begin with Z-rating equal to a long-term average miles run per week. The starting value you assume for "previous Z-rating" won't matter after a few months.)

But better than abstract symbols, here are some pictures of how the Z-rating works in a few simple sample situations. Begin with a hypothetical person who has never exercised but who abruptly (and foolishly) starts doing a constant 20 miles per week.

As you can see the Z-rating goes negative at first (muscle soreness, joint pain, depletion of energy resources, etc.) --- this person is hurting! But after a few weeks the Z-rating begins to move up, goes positive, and eventually asymptotes to the weekly mileage of 20. (The 10-week moving average ramps up steadily for the first ten weeks, of course, until it reaches 20 where it suddenly levels off.)

In contrast, for a person who has been steadily running 20 miles per week and suddenly quits, the effect is precisely the opposite:

The Z-rating begins at 20 miles/week and initially improves. It's actually better than its pre-quitting baseline value for 7 weeks or so ... but then the loss of fitness starts to dominate and it decays exponentially toward 0. Hence, the short-term benefit of "tapering". (This curve is actually the same as that for the previous case, just turned upside down and shifted up by 20, as it should be theoretically.)

If you are an electrical engineer and want to see the response to a transient spike (is this the so-called "Z-transform"? --- I don't know) here is the result for an off-the-vertical-scale 100 mile week that is surrounded by infinite weeks of no running:

The 10-week moving average is 0 before the 100-mile week, and it's 10 miles/week for a window of 10 weeks following that wild week, after which it reverts to 0. As expected, this hypothetical ultra-person has some severe damage for a few weeks, then recovers to a modest positive rating before the decay back to zero commences. (The peak value turns out to be ~8 miles/week, and it occurs ~8 weeks after the Big Week --- but I strongly recommend against taking those specific values seriously.)

Finally, some real data --- my own much-more-random running log of weekly miles for the first nine months of 2002:

My interpretation of this ugly picture:

A Very Good Thing about the Z-rating formula is that it smooths out fluctuations that otherwise make the graphs jump around far too much. More importantly, when a "bad" spell happens (e.g., my late July 10 mile week) I don't have to worry quite so much ... since I can tell myself that (1) it will be absorbed by the moving average, (2) it is a chance to heal, and (3) it actually raises my Z-rating (for a few weeks anyway). Psychologically, that is extremely helpful. (In fact, if I were to stop running entirely right now, my Z-rating would move up over the next few weeks from ~20 to ~27 before it begins a steady decline back toward 0.)

What comes next after the Z-rating? A more general relationship along the same lines is:

(New Z-rating) = x*(Previous Z-rating) + y*(N-week average) + z*(last M week's average)

Note that x+y+z should equal 1, so that the Z-Rating comes out in properly normalized units of miles/week. My equation just sets the parameters to x=0.9, y=0.2, N=10, z=-0.1, and M=1. One might argue for an x value closer to 1 (slower decay of fitness), for a larger N (mileage averaging time), and for a smaller z (damage from overwork). But I think that the defaults are probably in the right ballpark for most people, most of the time.

Other factors should, arguably, be folded into a super-Z-rating:

Maybe some day!

(see Richardsonian Extrapolation (18 Apr 2002), Jog Log Fog (9 Jun 2002), Jog Log Fog2 (10 Oct 2002), ...)

- Thursday, October 17, 2002 at 06:05:02 (EDT)

Inside the Inner Citadel

Pierre Hadot's book The Inner Citadel: The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius (translation by Michael Chase) is by turns pedantic and brilliant, impenetrable and pellucid, repetitious and terse. It's a scholarly work, rather heavy going in my current unenlightened and impatient state. But in between his footnotes and cross-references, Hadot wrestles with the most important questions imaginable. A few examples follow.

from Chapter 3, "The Meditations as Spiritual Exercises":

The goal is to reactualize, rekindle, and ceaselessly reawaken an inner state which is in constant danger of being numbed or extinguished. The task --- ever-renewed --- is to bring back to order an inner discourse which becomes dispersed and diluted in the futility of routine.

As he wrote the Meditations, Marcus was thus practicing Stoic spiritual exercises. He was using writing as a technique or procedure in order to influence himself, and to transform his inner discourse by meditating on the Stoic dogmas and rules of life. This was an exercise of writing day by day, ever-renewed, always taken up again and always needing to be taken up again, since the true philosopher is he who is conscious of not yet having attained wisdom.

from Chapter 5, "The Stoicism of Epictetus":

Thus, from the point of view of logic, we have here a contrary opposition between the sage and the foolish, who are unaware of their state. This opposition does, however, admit of a middle term: the non-foolish non-sages --- in other words, philosophers.

The ideal sage would thus be one who could, at each moment and definitively, make his reason coincide with that universal Reason which is the Sage that thinks and produces the world.

An unexpected consequence of this Stoic theory of the sage is that Stoic philosophy --- and I do mean Stoic philosophy; that is, the theory and the practice of training for wisdom --- allows for a great deal of uncertainty and simple probability. After all, only the Sage possesses a perfect, necessary, and unshakable knowledge of reality; the philosopher does not. The goal, project, and object of Stoic philosophy are thus to allow the philosopher to orient himself or herself within the uncertainties of daily life, by proposing probable choices which our reason can accept, even if it is not always sure it ought to. What matters are not results or efficiency, but the intention to do good. What matters is to act out of one motive alone, without any other considerations of interest or pleasure: that of the moral good. This is the only value, and the only one we need.

from the Conclusion:

In world literature one finds lots of preachers, lesson-givers, and censors, who moralize to others with complacency, irony, cynicism, or bitterness; but it is extremely rare to find a person training himself to live and to think like a human being ([Meditations] V, 1):

In the morning, when you have trouble waking up, let the following thought be present to you: "I'm getting up to do the job of a human being."

.... [W]e feel a highly particular emotion when we enter, as it were, into the spiritual intimacy of a soul's secrets, and are thus directly associated with the efforts of a man who, fascinated by the only thing necessary --- the absolute value of moral good --- is trying to do what, in the last analysis, we are all trying to do: to live in complete consciousness and lucidity; to give each of our instants its fullest intensity; and to give meaning to our entire life. Marcus is talking to himself, but we get the impression that he is talking to each one of us.

(see also Living Philosophy (12 Jun 1999), Beyond The Inner Citadel (26 Sep 1999), Headline Socrates (30 May 2000), My Religion (6 Nov 2000), Change Your Life (25 Sep 2002), ...)

- Tuesday, October 15, 2002 at 18:27:15 (EDT)

Later, Dude!

Son Robin Zimmermann (aka Rad Rob) asked me whether I had yet written a ^zhurnal entry on the distinction between perspicacity and perspicuity --- two words which I find entertainingly confusing. (In fact, to this day I can't remember the details of the difference; maybe one term has something to do with clarity, and the other with sharpness? But if so, which is which, and how can one possibly remember?)

In riposte to his question, I suggested to Robin that he create a Zhurnal Wiki page on the theme of procrastination (a dig at his tendency, inherited doubtless from me, to put things off).

"Sure!" he replied. "I'll do that tomorrow!"

- Monday, October 14, 2002 at 18:06:55 (EDT)

Nobel Neutrinos

Raymond Davis Jr. shared in a long-deserved Nobel Prize in Physics this year. He won it for a lovely experiment which detected subatomic particles coming from the Sun --- and which also demonstrated how real-world science makes progress, step by step, via patient and meticulous work.

Davis began his big project in the 1960's. A decade later, at Caltech, I remember a colloquium that he gave for the physics department. He described the phenomena he hoped to observe, the details of his apparatus, and the puzzling results that it had already yielded. Then the fun began, as he and his audience began discussing what those measurements might mean and how they could, or couldn't, be reconciled with previously-known physics and astrophysics.

But begin at the beginning, in the center of the Sun. Every second the Sun radiates ~4*1033 ergs of energy from its surface, a tiny fraction of which reaches the Earth and is responsible for essentially all life on this planet. (But ignore that for now.) If the Sun is to keep shining at an almost constant rate for billions of years, as it seems to have done, then it somehow needs to generate that same amount of energy. Chemical reactions can't do the job; nor can gravitational contraction. As far as any reasonable stellar models can determine, the only way to make a star like the Sun function is to have a hot, dense core where hydrogen atoms combine slowly to make helium and, along the way, liberate plenty of nuclear energy.

You can't, however, just stick protons (hydrogen nuclei) together and expect to get helium. A stable helium nucleus needs neutrons to bind it. And converting protons to neutrons is a tricky task, not something to be done quickly via strong nuclear forces. The various pathways that stars use to fuse hydrogen involve weak nuclear interactions, and those interactions give off weakly interacting particles called neutrinos. (Technical quibble: they're antineutrinos in this case, but ignore that for now.)

For electromagnetic radiation the center of the sun is quite opaque; a photon can only move a tiny distance before it gets absorbed or scattered, and so it takes millions of years for heat to diffuse to the solar surface. For a neutrino, on the other hand, the Sun is virtually transparent. So a detector that senses neutrinos could see straight to the core of the sun, and thereby measure temperatures and densities and otherwise-unknowable details of events taking place there.

Aye, there's a rub: if the Sun is transparent to a neutrino then so is the Earth, and so is an erstwhile neutrino observatory. The only ways known to detect solar neutrinos involve having lots of matter and lots of time and lots of sensitivity. You also need lots of shielding, to keep cosmic rays and other non-neutrino noise from swamping the signal you're trying to pick up.

So that's where Ray Davis and colleagues began. They knew roughly the number of neutrinos that should be emitted by the Sun. They also knew how energetic the neutrinos should be and how strongly (or rather, weakly) they should react with various types of nuclei. A few hundred tons of chlorine, for instance, would be enough to absorb a few neutrinos every month. The right kind of chlorine atom hit by a neutrino would turn into an argon atom, of a slightly radioactive isotope. And maybe, just maybe, since argon is an almost inert noble gas element, those few argon atoms could be flushed out of the mass of chlorine and counted.

Not easy ... but hey, if it were, then somebody would have done it long ago. Ray Davis was a careful but aggressive experimenter. He got permission from the owners of the Homestake gold mine in Lead, South Dakota, to put a boxcar-sized tank of perchlorethylene in a chamber almost a mile underground. Perchlorethylene is a dry-cleaning fluid that contains lots of chlorine atoms; working in a deep mine provides good protection against stray radiation from the skies. Once their equipment was up and running, every month or so Davis's team would bubble helium through the tank to extract dissolved atoms of argon. Then they would freeze those atoms out, put them into a sensitive radiation detector, and watch for them to decay.

The bottom line? Davis's experiment found solar neutrinos, but only about a third as many as "should" have been seen. Why? That's where, as I said some time ago, the fun began. There are several good possibilities, in three major categories:

  1. Stellar structure --- the Sun isn't emitting as many neutrinos as expected
  2. Particle physics --- something is happening to the neutrinos on the way to the Earth
  3. Experimental error --- the detector isn't picking up the neutrinos the way it should be

Explanation #1 was conceivable but a bit tough to accept. The rates for nuclear reactions that should be going on in the solar core are pretty well measured in terrestrial labs. There's more uncertainty in the conditions at the center of the Sun, so if the temperature could be a few million degrees lower then that might account for the reduced neutrino emission. But then the composition of the core would have to be weird, radically different in heavy elements from what the spectrum of visible light emitted by the solar surface indicates the Sun is made of. Or alternatively, perhaps the Sun's center could temporarily be cooler than the standard models predict because the Sun is pulsating, and we happen to be living during a low-temperature era. But there's no good reason for that either, and strong historical/biological/geological evidence to the contrary.

Explanation #2, that neutrinos were getting lost in transit between the Sun and the Earth, seemed more plausible. Perhaps there are multiple varieties of neutrino, and the standard "electron" neutrinos are turning into undetectable muon neutrinos or other types? Maybe --- but for that to happen neutrinos can't be massless, which almost everybody thought at the time was the case. Overall, a definite maybe.

Explanation #3, problems with the apparatus or the data processing, was always a possibility. But Ray Davis, in the best tradition of experimental physics, was a master at checking his work. Among many other tests Davis & Co. introduced tiny amounts of radioactive gases into their apparatus and measured what fraction of them were picked up. They also varied other parameters and confirmed that the equipment was functioning correctly. They compared measurements with detectors of non-solar neutrinos set up near nuclear power reactors. They watched for seasonal variations in the detected neutrino flux and correlated them with the changing distance between the Earth and the Sun, due to the ellipticity of the Earth's orbit. And Davis was always open to suggestions for improvements in his work, open to visiting inspectors, and open in describing the details of his set-up. Thus, error on the part of the experimenter didn't seem likely.

Nobody at that long-ago research conference in the Caltech physics building had a simple answer. So Davis just kept on running his detector, improving its accuracy, and building a solid set of data. In time other experiments came along and corroborated his results using different methods. One of the people who shared the Nobel Prize with Davis this year, Masatoshi Koshiba, set up huge tanks of ultrapure water deep underground, surrounded them with sensitive photon detectors, and picked up faint flashes of light from rare neutrino interactions. His measurements confirmed and extended Ray Davis's. And over the decades other experiments on high-energy particles have come to suggest strongly that Hypothesis #2 is the right one, and that neutrinos can transmute from one form to another during the 8-minute trip between the Sun and the Earth.

Ray Davis's labors are an example of Good Science. You need patience to do it; you also need to know what has gone before, so you can build upon what works and chip away at what doesn't. Above all, you need to be open-minded, and open to sharing new ideas with others.

(see Negative Results (2 Nov 1999), Question Authority (18 Jan 2000), Soft Outside Crunchy Center (1 May 2000), Science And Pseudoscience (6 Oct 2001), No Final Answers (11 Mar 2002), High Precision (16 July 2002), Scientific Revolutions (16 Aug 2002), ...)

- Sunday, October 13, 2002 at 20:46:09 (EDT)

Hail Atheses

An ancient manuscript has fortuitously fallen into my hands. It appears to be a translation into Linear B of some now-lost clay tablets that were written in an still-more-antique language. The inscriptions on the original tablets are dedicated to a hitherto-unknown goddess --- named Atheses --- who is referred to variously as "Destroyer of Trees", "Scourge of the Untenured", and "Delayer of Graduation". She is depicted in a few surviving line drawings with a disheveled hair style, inky black fingers, and a vacant stare.

I have thus deduced that Atheses was the patroness of unfinished dissertations.

- Saturday, October 12, 2002 at 19:45:54 (EDT)

Jog Log Fog 2

Continuing the 31 Dec 2001 - 9 Jun 2002 log of ^z weekly (weakly!) miles in Jog Log Fog (9 Jun 2002), the scorecard for 10 Jun - 6 Oct 2002 in raw form looks like:

M + T + W + T + F + S + S = Total
4 9 6 5 24
11 5 5 4 10 35
4 9 4 6 23
5 7 9 6 27
4 9 13 26
4 5 9
5 8 4 6 8 31
4 4 5 8 21
12 5 4 21
7 4 5 16
15 5 5 25
13 4 10 27
4 9 15 28
4 8 20 32
8 8 8 8 32
6 10 20 36
3 7 6 4 20

... a forest of digits, of minimal interest except perhaps to the person who pounded the pavement for those distances. But put into a graphical form it becomes a bit more comprehensible. Here are the ^z daily runs (inverted red triangles) along with weekly totals shown as 7-day (green) and 30-day (blue) lagged moving averages.

There are some interesting phenomena visible, including troughs in May (muscle & joint soreness, perhaps from running too far too soon) and July-August (sultry weather & bad air quality), as well as a steady trend upward in peak distance covered during jaunts.

But much more can and should be done to process these data, remove "noise", and analyze "signal". This is a splendid example of a filtering problem, for which science has developed powerful technologies over the years. But pending that discussion, a fistful of memories from ^z runs of the past four months:

- Friday, October 11, 2002 at 06:33:13 (EDT)

Personal Responsibility

"'Moonlight' and Mendelssohn in the West Bank" is the title of an article (labeled "Ramallah Journal") by Serge Schmemann in the 11 September 2002 New York Times (page A4). It tells of a musical performance, controversial in the local political context, that Daniel Barenboim gave on an old piano for a few hundred Palestinian students the day before.

This clipping has followed me around for the past month because of two simple, brilliant, thoughtful comments that it contains. Schmemann quotes Barenboim:

"Each one of us has a responsibility to do what is right, and not to wait for others to do it. My way is music. What I can do is play music for you, and maybe this way, in a very small way for these few moments, we are able to build down the hatred that is so much in the region."


"I'm not a politician. I don't have a plan to end the conflict. But I think the lesson we have to learn from the 20th century is that every human being --- small, young as you or older like I --- has to think of his responsibility as a human being and not always depend on the politicians and the governments."

(see also perhaps Blame Storming (15 May 1999), Free Action (3 Apr 2000), Simply Good Hearted (25 Apr 2002), Five Oh (29 Sep 2002), ...)

- Wednesday, October 09, 2002 at 17:41:17 (EDT)

Common Comp Sci Sense

It's funny how, when "obvious" techniques in various parts of day-to-day life are (re)discovered in computer science, they often become Big News. Think about object orientation, structured programming, pattern languages, and a host of user interface ideas. All well-known decades ago (in some cases millennia ago), developed by forgotten individuals who had to organize large numbers of people to perform complex tasks.

So what other commonplace organizational ideas could add value to computer software?

(see also Common Understanding (8 Oct 1999), ...)

- Tuesday, October 08, 2002 at 06:00:10 (EDT)

^Zen Scrabble

You saw it here first! A new variant of the word game "Scrabble" --- call it ^Zen Scrabble, or maybe ScrabBLANK --- invented by your obedient servant ^z. Simply play using all the standard rules but with 100 blank tiles instead of the normal mix of letters. (For those who have forgotten, a blank tile is a wild card that can stand for any letter, but has zero point value.)

To make your own ^Zen Scrabble set you can buy 50 normal Scrabble sets and from each discard the 98 lettered tiles, keeping only the two blanks. (You will also need to discard 49 of the 50 boards.) Or you can play with the 100 tiles in a regular set turned face-down. (Note to computers: if you draw a normal blank you must be careful not to get caught in an infinite loop of turning it over repeatedly in order to orient it "face-down".)

^Zen Scrabble is a unique advance in that:

Like chess, go, checkers, etc., ^Zen Scrabble is a game of perfect information --- there are no hidden secrets or random elements. The mathematics of Game Theory thus guarantees that there is an optimal strategy, though no one yet knows what it may be.

Coming soon, to a game store near you ... ^Zen Scrabble!

(Doubtless "Scrabble" is a trademark of whoever has most recently bought the rights to that crossword-forming board game. For further commentary see Stefan Fatsis's book Word Freak as well as Ars Magna (27 Sep 2002), ...)

- Monday, October 07, 2002 at 16:59:30 (EDT)

Policy Making

Consistency, knowledge, and depth of thought are not required to criticize a government policy --- but all three are needed in order to craft a policy and to design a process to implement it, over time, in the real world, following instructions (however ambiguous and incomplete) from the elected representatives of the people.

- Sunday, October 06, 2002 at 19:15:02 (EDT)

Tone Woods

Today Paulette and Merle and I visited the shop of Mark Adler, a builder of keyboard musical instruments. (http://www.cembaloworks.com points to his web pages) We were there to see a modest harpsichord that he had kindly reconditioned for us. After Merle played it, Adler took us on a tour of his domain: a small module in an industrial park on the north side of Gaithersburg, Maryland. He discussed the stresses imposed by strings on a soundboard --- thousands of pounds of tension --- and explained some of the structural design features necessitated by the battle against those forces.

Then Adler let Merle try a lovely bentside harpsichord, modeled after an English model of the 18th Century. Although the body of the instrument is mahogany, Adler chose to make the top of American cherry --- because, he said, in the 1760s when the original instrument had been built British trade laws required the use of wood from the Colonies. He speculated about mysterious material factors that contribute to the tone of an instrument: type of wood, use of various lacquers, effects of aging and vibration, and so forth.

As we walked through his workshop Adler pointed to lumber stored high up across the rafters near the ceiling --- thousands of dollars worth of Sitka spruce, quarter cut for maximum musical quality, only available now from Alaska and the Baltic nations (Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania). Such material sells for ten times the price of lesser wood. Adler let us handle a $90 stick of ebony, dense and black. He showed us a bundle of Turkish boxwood slats that he acquired a few decades ago from Keuffel & Esser, the old slide-rule company, when they stopped making slipsticks. Mark Adler lives with wood, works with it, and clearly loves it.

Turning to an old harpsichord in the back of the room, Adler described why early instruments of that type had only four octaves of notes: metallurgy. Specifically, he said, the tensile strength of brass was too low to make strings for a wider range. He then gave us another mathematical-musical-technology lesson, focusing on the spacing between the keys on a chromatic keyboard. They have to be made in different widths, he pointed out, because of the incommensurability of the numbers 5 (black notes), 7 (white notes), and 12 (the octave). (More on that another time, if and when I understand it properly.)

On the way to our car in the parking lot I spotted Mark Adler's vehicle. It bore the bumper sticker (with the usual "heart" symbol for {LOVE}):

I {LOVE} A = 415.3

... an allusion to the gradual historic rise in standard concert pitch to today's A of 440 Hz.

- Saturday, October 05, 2002 at 20:15:43 (EDT)

Looking Back

What's worthwhile? The answer involves both introspection and retrospection: looking inward, and looking backward.

Accomplishments that people remember with pleasure and pride tend to be extraordinarily simple, and yet cast long shadows. Reading a good book ... persevering through difficulties to complete a significant project ... building a successful relationship ... studying hard, practicing conscientiously, and learning something new ...

(see also Unseen University (7 Aug 1999), Check Your Mirrors (17 Sep 1999), Shadow Casting (22 Mar 2001), Good Day (25 Jun 2002), ...)

- Friday, October 04, 2002 at 06:23:25 (EDT)


The Old Coordinate Collector is still at it, accumulating GPS (Global Posistioning System) latitudes and longitudes for various places of note as he visits them.

On the afternoon of 20 June 2002 at one of the holiest of holies, the finish line of the Boston Marathon, ^z took four readings during a period of hours and attempted to average them. The measurements fluctuated by several seconds of arc, perhaps due to multipath and reflections from nearby skyscrapers. His best estimate for that much-revered site:
Lat. Long.
42:21:00 N 71:04:41 W

Closer to home, a few months ago Son Rad Rob and ^z drove along the first third of the "Marathon in the Parks" route (to be run next on 17 Nov 2002; see http://www.marathonintheparks.com). Their findings:
Mile Lat. Long.
0 39:06:59 77:09:57
1 39:07:32 77:09:55
2 39:08:06 77:09:22
3 39:08:51 77:08:55
4 39:08:10 77:08:43
5 39:07:28 77:09:14
6 39:07:17 77:08:26
7 39:07:38 77:07:36
8 39:06:55 77:07:36
9 39:07:04 77:06:57

(see also Coordinate Collection (15 May 2002) for data taken on foot for mile markers 10 through 26.2 of the MitP)

Finally, with distance running comrades CR and SA, ^z undertook a couple of training jogs along the "Washington and Old Dominion" (W&OD) trail in northern Virginia. On 8 Sep the trio did ~15 miles from CR's home out to milepost 18.5 and then returned to consume an extreme breakfast (^z had 6 eggs) and quaff countless cups of coffee. (A blood test the following day found all parameters within normal ranges except for one anomalous but unimportant liver enzyme.)

On 29 Sep the merry men proceeded in the opposite direction from approximately mile 11.7 to 0 and back. During that jaunt ^z suffered knee pain after ~20 miles and, having developed some slight discretion with age (it being his 50th birthday), walked much of the last hour to avoid further damage.

The net results for his W&OD survey:
Mile Lat. Long.
0 38:50:39 77:05:08
1 38:51:03 77:06:06
2 38:51:49 77:06:40
3 38:52:07 77:07:45
4 38:52:46 77:08:22
5 38:52:57 77:09:22
6 38:53:20 77:10:05
7 38:53:31 77:11:10
8 38:53:25 77:12:17
9 38:53:28 77:13:16
10 38:53:45 77:14:19
11 38:54:04 77:15:18
12 38:54:25 77:16:12
13 38:55:03 77:16:59
14 38:55:44 77:17:38
15 38:56:06 77:18:36
16 38:56:36 77:19:28
17 38:57:05 77:20:21
18 38:57:22 77:21:20

Note that all of these coordinates, respectively North of the Equator and West of Greenwich, are in the standard WGS84 datum. They may include errors of transcription as well as fluctuations caused by suboptimal GPS satellite configurations, local interference, etc., etc. Do not use these data to control nuclear reactors, aircraft, heart pacemakers, or any other life-threatening devices. Your position may vary ....

(see also Global Positioning System Runs (16 Feb 2002), Gettysburg Coordinates (27 Feb 2002), Rock Creek Trail (31 May 2002), Boston Public Library (20 Jun 2002), ...)

- Thursday, October 03, 2002 at 06:09:03 (EDT)

Clever Twists

A recent headline caught my eye. It proposed that Buffy the Vampire Slayer (a currently popular TV show) has deep philosophical implications along the lines of profound role-reversal, social deconstruction, or some such buzzwords.

Sorry, but don't ask me any more; I couldn't bear to read further, just as I can't (often) find the will to plow through reportage about the fashion (clothing) styles worn by politicians ... or corporate takeovers and mega-mergers ... or marriages and divorces and relationships of media "stars" ... or the woes of the X "industry" (where X equals gambling, entertainment, major-league sports, and similar non-industrial fluff). When I do read that sort of thing it's with an aura of guilt at my voyerism and time-wasting behavior.

But getting back to the point: the philo-Buffy article's title raises another issue, perhaps a legitimate one. If having an (arguably) clever twist away from the ordinary is enough to qualify a television series as "philosophical", then what is philosophy?

Socrates made a living (and a death) out of turning questions back at his questioners --- befuddling them by challenging their conventional beliefs. His ancient (and modern) heirs have done much the same.

Is philosophy in essence a series of clever twists? Hairpin turns in the road of common sense? Warped tracks that can derail a normal train of thought? Kinks in a hose that carries the stream of consciousness smoothly along?

(see also Underappreciated Ideas (6 Jul 1999), Think Again (29 Aug 2002), ... )

- Wednesday, October 02, 2002 at 06:44:34 (EDT)

More Fun Less Stuff

Several times recently I've caught sight of a cute bumper sticker on some cars in my town. It reads:

The sign includes a pointer to the web site (http://www.newdream.org) of an outfit, "The Center for a New American Dream", that strives to help people break out of the overcommercialization of holidays and relationships. (The organization is aimed at "America" but I suspect is relevant throughout the (over)developed world.)

What a wonderful social movement this could become! I hope that it spreads --- so that friends and families can rediscover how to have richer lives together ... with less expense, less stress, and more simple joy.

Our family has been trying, in various small ways over the years, to recover from the "more stuff, less fun" syndrome. We give the kids modest gifts spread out over "Twelve Days of Christmas" rather than stage a one-night mega-blowout extravaganza. We hand-make cards for each other instead of buying them in stores. On birthdays we bake a simple cake at home and celebrate quietly with a few friends. It's a start, and it feels kinda nice ....

- Tuesday, October 01, 2002 at 06:10:55 (EDT)

Five Oh

Birthdays are bad days on which to dispense advice; but then, so are all other days. As J. R. R. Tolkien wrote (LotR, Chapter 3):

'And it is also said,' answered Frodo: 'Go not to the Elves for counsel, for they will say both no and yes.'

'Is it indeed?' laughed Gildor. 'Elves seldom give unguarded advice, for advice is a dangerous gift, even from the wise to the wise, and all courses may run ill. ...'

But since today I turn 50 years old, unwise as I remain, may I be excused for sharing a suggestion, albeit not a profound one?

Over the years I've often been bestirred, frustrated, angry at times, over other people's words and actions that I disagreed with. It has taken me a long while to figure out that most people, most of the time, try to do what they think is right. Admittedly their conception of "right" may be narrow, short-sighted, or based on incomplete information. But they usually mean well nonetheless; they're doing the best they can, under the circumstances.

So there's little good to be achieved by getting mad, or even irked, at those with whom I differ. This applies to politicians, corporations, and nations. It also applies to the individuals I encounter every day: at home, on the road, at work, and at play. It makes more sense to offer them help (if they're willing to accept it) --- ideas, new data, possible paths toward a wider perspective --- than to argue with them.

And even better than that, it makes infinite sense to work on improving myself --- the only person I have any direct control over (if I have any of that!)....

(see also Optimist Creed (16 Apr 1999), What Is My Life (20 Apr 1999), Education Versus Eduction (30 Apr 1999), Blame Storming (15 May 1999), Changing Selves (20 May 1999), Eating Ones Own Cooking (17 Jun 1999), Bennett On Life (19 Mar 2000), Exempli Gratia (22 Apr 2000), Self Improvement (29 Jul 2002), ...)

- Sunday, September 29, 2002 at 15:35:57 (EDT)

Dead Beginnings

There's a genre of chess problems called "retrograde analysis" tasks wherein the goal is to figure out how an apparently-impossible position might appear in a legal game. As in chess, some real-life situations can never occur because there's no way to reach them from a previously existing state. They're the opposite of dead ends, which lead to extinction in the next generation. In Conway's cellular automaton Life such patterns are called "Garden of Eden" configurations; like that idyllic site, they can't evolve but have to be created.

Thinking backwards, with consistency, is a special skill that's not easy to develop. Science fiction writers are, alas, prone to conjure up self-contradictory worlds when they fail to consider how a key plot element might have arisen. Consider mystical patterns that, upon viewing, cause a brain to lock up ... or societies that lack any infrastructure for raising children ... or giant creatures that somehow live without any ecosystem to meet their immense energy requirements (as Paulette noted long ago concerning the sandworms in Dune; see also Why Big Fierce Animals Are Rare by Paul Colinvaux).

Such a place can't happen in Nature. You can't get here from there!

- Saturday, September 28, 2002 at 19:36:14 (EDT)

Ars Magna

Scrabble, the crossword-building board game, has for some months been a blooming craze around the Dickerson-Zimmermann household. We play for fun and art, not for score-maximization (most of the time!), and our house rules are both stricter and more lenient than that of "Official" Scrabble. So we all enjoy ourselves, win or lose.

Recent family games have reminded the graying among us of past over-the-board triumphs. Paulette in particular recalls with relish her once-in-a-lifetime laydown of RHODODENDRON --- throwing down seven tiles across a picket fence of preexisting words in a mano-a-mano game with her oldest and dearest friend Debbie a few decades ago. And Paulette's description of her jaw-dropping Scrabble play brought to mind various chess combinations that I managed to pull off in tournaments during my ill-spent (relative) youth.

And those reminisces of beautiful quasi-mathematical configurations and their discovery led memory in turn to a yet more astounding pattern described in Stefan Fatsis's Word Freak, an entertaining book about the bizarre world of hard-core Scrabble players. At one point (in Chapter 3) Fatsis and some of his buddies are working on anagrams. These are letter-rearrangements: PRESBYTERIANS can be anagrammed into BEST IN PRAYERS (or BRITNEY SPEARS), for example; SUPREME COURT!? permutes to CORRUPT? SUE ME! And the word ANAGRAMS itself transmogrifies into ARS MAGNA, meaning "Great Art" in Latin.

After some heated anagramming competition Eric Chaikin, a Scrabblemanic comrade of the author, reveals what has to be the most amazing mathematico-linguistic relationship in the known universe:

11 + 2 = 12 + 1

or, in words:


"God put that there," Eric says. "There is no other explanation."

(see also Posta Lite (16 Aug 2000), Texas Chess (10 Dec 2000), Chess1990 To1991 (14 Dec 2000), Chess1991 To1993 (21 Dec 2000), Chess Chow (26 Sep 2001), ...)

- Friday, September 27, 2002 at 06:15:42 (EDT)

Faster Forward

Dr. Robert L. Forward died on 21 September 2002, of brain cancer, at the age of 70. Bob was a scholar, a writer, and a gentleman: infinitely gracious to junior colleagues, boldly generous with ideas, stiletto-sharp in serious creativity, yet always quick to cast his jolly-old-elfin light onto any situation.

That last, for me, was the most memorable facet of Bob. For a gravitational physicist he had a unique levitas, an anti-gravity field that surrounded him and lifted the spirits of everyone he met.

Bob Forward, you are no grave man. We miss you ....

(see Fast Forward (21 Feb 2002) and Robert Forward's own web site at http://www.forwardunlimited.com)

- Thursday, September 26, 2002 at 06:05:05 (EDT)

Change Your Life

Last month Pierre Hadot's new book What Is Ancient Philosophy? was reviewed by Barry Gewen, who writes of Hadot's thesis:
"... that philosophy is a lived experience, not a set of doctrines; that philosophers consequently should be judged by how they live their lives, what they do, not what they say; that philosophy is best pursued orally, in dialogue and community, not through written texts and lectures; that philosophy as it is taught in universities today is for the most part a distortion of its original, therapeutic impulse ...."

The original goal of philosophy, Hadot argues, is simply: "... to train people for careers as human beings ...."

Strong words --- and Gewen concludes his commentary by quoting even stronger words from "Archaic Torso of Apollo" by Rainer Maria Rilke --- words which echo in the final pages of Hadot's book. Rilke's poem ends with the blunt philosophical imperative, "You must change your life."

(see "The Second-Oldest Profession" by Barry Gewen, a review of What Is Ancient Philosophy by Pierre Hadot, translated by Michael Chase; "Archaischer Torso Apollos" by R. M. Rilke, available in various translations on the Web; see also Living Philosophy (12 Jun 1999), Headline Socrates (20 May 2000), ...)

- Wednesday, September 25, 2002 at 06:12:57 (EDT)

Rainposts and Godrays

Sometimes Nature throws beauty like a pie into my face, so I can't miss it no matter how oblivious I am. (Thank you!) Two recent examples:

- Monday, September 23, 2002 at 20:09:53 (EDT)

Philadelphia Inquirer

Lest they be forgotten, excerpts from four articles appearing on page 10, section A, of the Sunday morning Philadelphia Inquirer newspaper dated 22 February 1928:

Scouts Distribute Baskets to Needy --- Lincoln's Spirit of Generosity Demonstrated by District No. 4 Boys --- Wreath to Be Placed on Statue Today; Churches to Honor Anniversary Week

In memory of the spirit of generosity evinced by Abraham Lincoln, Philadelphia Boy Scouts sought yesterday to follow in the footsteps of the "Great Emancipator" when they distributed baskets among the needy. The presentation of provisions was a part of the closing ceremonies of Boy Scout Anniversary Week. ...

New Hair Mode Seen in New York

The most beautiful girls in New York are doing their hair the new way. It's so lovely, but so simple. That's why it appeals to popular girls, who need to save time wherever they can. One of the busiest of them is attractive Mary Chandler, for three seasons a member of "George White's Scandals" and now appearing in "Artists and Models." She says: "I am so busy. I don't know how I'd take care of my hair, if I hadn't learned the new way so many of my girl friends are doing theirs.

"All I do now is put a few dashes of Danderine on my brush each time I use it. This wonderful preparation keeps my hair looking so lovely that many friends want to touch it. I set my waves with Danderine, too, and it holds them ever so much longer. All dandruff disappeared with a few applications .... "

... All drug stores have the 35c bottles ...

Man Forced to Keep His Crippled Wife --- Wrote Invalid Asking Divorce, Cheltenham Police Say --- Must Pay $17.50 Weekly to Maintain Her and Son, 3, Norristown Judge Rules

"It's nicer to be single again, and I'd appreciate it if you'd get a divorce or permit me to get one."

This, according to Chief of Police Hallowell, of the Cheltenham station, was the purport of letters which William Kelly, an Elkins Park pharmacist, living in Ashbourne road, sent to his wife, Alberta Kelly, weeks after he had gone to Pittsburgh.

Mrs. Kelly, an invalid and crippled, though still a young woman, did not share her husband's viewpoint, particularly because there was a three-year-old child to be supported. ...

Refuses to Shed Blood --- Storekeeper, Pistol in Hand, Lets Thieves Escape With Loot

Although he stood with a pistol in his hand as three men fled with a bundle of silk umbrellas from his store, Edward Barr, of 2422 North Tenth street, refused to fire at the escaping thieves yesterday.

"I would not like to spend the rest of my life thinking that I had taken a fellow man's life for the theft of a few umbrellas," Barr told detectives in reporting the robbery. "I saw them clearly as they left the store but I knew they could not have stolen much as there was no money in the cash register and most of the stock was too cumbersome for them to move, so I let them go."

According to Barr, who occupies an apartment above his store, he was awakened by the noise the burglars made in his shop. The intruders apparently heard the proprietor's footsteps as he leaped from bed and they hurried to the street. As Barr snatched his pistol and glanced from his bedroom window he saw the three men board a large touring car and speed away.

(This page of the newspaper, yellowed with age, surfaced as part of a large bound volume that Paulette picked up some time ago at a thrift store. She shared it with the rest of the family, and we were all charmed by its quaintness, good humor, and excellent use of language.)

- Sunday, September 22, 2002 at 18:28:17 (EDT)

Type V

Marseilles, France, 21 September: At the annual meeting of the French Royal Academy of Medicine today Henri Ecolier, spokesman for the Institute of Cryptocytology, announced the revolutionary discovery of a hitherto unknown blood type by Institute researcher Dr. Jacques leMond. This finding may lead to new medical treatments of a diverse range of diseases, a possible cure for cancer, and potentially significant extensions of the human lifespan, up to and including practical immortality.

The molecular configuration of Type V para-hemoglobin appears to be similar to that of prions, intricately folded proteins which can reproduce themselves and which are believed by some to be responsible for Kuru, Creutzfeld-Jakob Disease (CJD), Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE, aka "Mad Cow"), and other slowly developing syndromes. In contrast to the one-dimensionality of prion molecules, however, Dr. leMond's nano-scale analysis of Type V blood atomic arrangements indicates that they most closely resemble origami folded paper structures, based on two-dimensional lattices.

Common blood types O, A, B, or AB are accompanied by few if any external visible indications. In contast, explained M. Ecolier, those individuals possessing Type V have remarkable and distinctive characteristics, including amazingly rapid recovery from injury, pronounced overdevelopment of the canine teeth, and a strong involuntary photophobia. Along with other personality quirks they have an aversion to donating blood, accepting medical treatment, or serving in the military. These and other predispositions have tended to keep Type V blood from being detected until now.

In response to questions from an audience of biochemists, geneticists, physicians, and reporters, M. Ecolier admitted that the mechanisms of inheritance of Type V blood remain mysterious. It does not appear to be either a dominant or a recessive gene, for example, and possibly is transmitted by some completely different path than the usual Mendelian ones. "We are, frankly, befuddled!" he apologized, with a Gallic shrug of his shoulders. When asked why the scientist who did the research was not present to discuss his own work, the Institute spokesman stated that it was because Dr. leMond is dedicating all his energies to advancing his experiments and is unable to leave his laboratory during daylight hours.

Details of Dr. leMond's studies will be published in a forthcoming issue of Meta Luna, the prestigious journal of the Institute of Cryptocytology.

- Saturday, September 21, 2002 at 20:24:35 (EDT)

Catching On

"When will Wiki become popular?" the aficionados groan.

Better to ask, "When will confluent hypergeometric functions become popular?"

Maybe never. Or maybe both are already quite popular --- but hardly anyone notices. Confluent hypergeometric functions, like Wiki, are tools for solving particular classes of problems. They can be used by novices, cookbook-fashion, to get a standard job done ... or by masters, with creative insight, in startling and fruitful ways.

Really powerful tools don't have to be on the top-ten list in this week's newspaper. They don't have to be a source of brand-name cash flow either.

Like knitting needles ... welding torches ... pencils ... horses ... metaphors ...

(see also Thinking Environments (7 Apr 1999), Wiki Is It (31 Oct 2001), ...)

- Friday, September 20, 2002 at 20:32:01 (EDT)

Ein Ben Stein

The October 2002 issue of Boys' Life includes a marvelous mini-profile of Benjamin Stein, written by Kristin Baird Rattini. Stein grew up a few miles from here in Silver Spring, Maryland and --- home boy makes good --- has been variously a lawyer, Presidential speech-writer, professor, author, and most recently an actor on film and TV. He also has a powerful deadpan sense of humor.

Ben Stein offers advice to young people (and everybody else --- but note that he is addressing a Boy Scout audience in the USA, and translate as appropriate):

"One, develop good study habits. They're incredibly, unbelievably valuable. Two, respect and appreciate all your parents do for you. The amount that parents do for children is unimaginable. It's overwhelming. Three, be extremely grateful to live in America. There is no gift that the world can provide quite like being an American. Four, have God in your life at the earliest possible stage. You aren't the center of the universe."

Regardless of what it's called, I applaud Stein's final, Copernican principle. And elsewhere in the article he makes another wise long-term suggestion that I for one should pay attention to every day: "Don't take anything as seriously as it seems at the time."

(see also Independence Day (4 Jul 2001), ...)

- Thursday, September 19, 2002 at 06:39:15 (EDT)

Script Kiddies Everywhere

"What's the word for those pseudo-hacker-types who just run programs that other people have written?" my wife, Paulette, asked me not long ago.

"Script kiddies?" I suggested.

"Yeah! They're everywhere nowadays!" declared PD.

Then she told me what she really meant. There's a proliferation, she has observed, of incredibly shallow persons in all sorts of formerly-artistic fields --- endeavors that used to require talent and creativity and years of practice to learn the fundamentals. Now just about anybody who pays the entry fee can plunge in, using canned routines and pre-designed templates. These folks crank out flashy presentations, custom web sites, video special effects, promotional posters, etc. And they have not a clue as to what's going on behind the scenes.

What drives Paulette really crazy is that not only do ersatz artists fool lots of customers --- they also fool themselves. They imagine that they are "just as good as" somebody who has invested the time and thought and study to know a subject from the ground up. And they can do all right ... for a while, if they're lucky enough not to go beyond the (unknown to them) limits of their tools.

It's not a new phenomenon. In classical ham radio parlance such people are called "Appliance Operators". Fine fellows, in ordinary times ... but not much use in a real emergency.

- Wednesday, September 18, 2002 at 17:55:08 (EDT)

From: ^z

Probability Pushing

Big organizations --- like governments, or armies, or transnational corporations --- are not known for their agility or creativity (to put it mildly!). That's a source of frustration for many people, particularly those who have activist leanings and who want to promote social change for the better.

But on the other hand, look at all the truly horrid things that a big organization can do if it falls into the hands of bad people. There are good reasons to put handcuffs on government (e.g., as the Framers of the US Constitution did) to keep it under control. Some of the same sorts of checks and balances are necessary for big businesses and are typically provided by outside accounting, oversight, and audit services.

So what good can a big organization do? If it's well-designed and successful, it can alter the odds in favor of or against things happening. A government can push probabilities around --- for example, so that crime is less profitable (and less frequent) ... or so that international aggression is less likely ... or so that more people spend more of their time learning and working productively. Similarly, a big company can channel resources toward long-term R&D, to raise the chances that useful new goods and services will be developed.

The process won't be pretty, much less efficient. Bureaucracies work slowly and redundantly. And perfection is impossible; one can't expect to eliminate violent human behavior, for instance, only to limit it. But with a bit of probability pushing, things can improve, generation by generation, until the result is rather amazing progress.

The grand old man of Austrian-school economic theory, Ludwig von Mises, once wrote a book titled Bureaucracy. I scanned it, hastily, about 25 years ago. It wrestled with some of the questions surrounding large slow-moving social organizations and why they work (or don't work) the way they do. Maybe I'm almost ready to read that book now ....

(see also The Veto (26 Dec 1999), One Per Score (6 Feb 2000), For Your Own Good (21 Feb 2000), ...)

- Tuesday, September 17, 2002 at 06:33:05 (EDT)

From: ^z

Dog Work

An image of our society's incalculable wealth (and consumerism): Sara Corbett in the Sunday New York Times magazine of 1 Apr 2001 wrote about the "Lost Boys", young orphan refugees from Sudan. They survived years of war, animal attack, starvation, thirst, and disease during their thousand-mile trek to Ethiopia and Kenya in search of safety. Finally a few of them found their way to a new life in the United States.

Corbett described the amazement with which one of the boys observed the mountains of things to eat in a modern supermarket, and in particular his reaction to an aisle of pet supplies. He held up a can of dog food and asked, quite logically, "Tell me, what is the work of dogs in this country?"

- Monday, September 16, 2002 at 07:02:06 (EDT)

From: ^z

Score of Miles

The first 20 mile run that I essayed, on 14 September 2002, was memorable for several reasons besides mere length and my survival:

But much more significant than any of the above: during the homeward journey near mile 13 an angel joined me, in the person of an elderly but fast-moving gentleman named Dennis W. He lifted my spirits immensely by chatting about his various calf and knee problems, his racing experiences, and a unique athletic competition that he held via email with his brother and sister every summer.

Dennis described the scoring system he designed for his family: each 1/8th of a mile covered is worth 1 point if bicycling, 4 if running, and 9 if swimming. On top of that, he introduced distribution bonuses: doing an Olympic triathalon within a week gets you 100 extra points, and finishing an Ironman triathalon during the week is worth 1000.

DW set a brisk pace as we talked; I was surprised when I checked my watch to discover that we had run my fifteenth mile in only 10 minutes. (My average rate for the entire trip was ~11 minutes/mile.) At the next trail marker he turned around and bid me adieu. I slowed down and made it home in relative comfort. Thanks, Dennis!

- Sunday, September 15, 2002 at 06:16:23 (EDT)

This is volume 0.24 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!