^zhurnal v.0.28

This is volume 0.28 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.)

Proud Signage

A wonderful thing to see at a freeway offramp: signs that offer, in addition to streets and towns and tourist attractions, the names of colleges or universities to be found nearby. What a splendid symbol of the value that a community puts on learning!

Now if there could only be similar markers directing travelers to local libraries ...


- Wednesday, April 23, 2003 at 06:01:05 (EDT)


Piano Recital

 Young girl does Mendelssohn: fluid arpeggio
     Rivers of music cascade from the keys.
 Dreamy she sways while soft ripples of melody
     Rise and subside in the musical seas.
 Next it's a grudge-match: Tchaikovsky meets pianist!
     Violent struggles, attacks and decays.
 Snap-tendon snake-strike blows pummel the ivories,
     Hammer-clavier fights for each note he plays.


- Tuesday, April 22, 2003 at 05:48:36 (EDT)


Dangerous Phrase

The slipperiest sentence fragment in the English language? I nominate:

" ________ seems bad, but if used for good could ..."

How often have has this and its variants been said about extraordinarily unsafe technologies? About ill-considered economic proposals? About profoundly immoral social systems? You can make your own preferred list of words to fill in the blank: communism, capitalism, a nuclear weapon, genetic profiling, state-sponsored assassination, ubiquitous video surveillance, government-enforced monopoly, selective abortion, compulsory military service, preemptive war, ...

The hypothesis behind that phrase? That something fundamentally evil can be harnessed, controlled, and used for positive ends. Sure --- in the right hands, for a while, under some circumstances. But the bigger, harder questions revolve around how to keep the power in those hands, over long periods of time, as conditions change ...

(see also Our One Ring (18 Dec 2001), ...)


- Monday, April 21, 2003 at 08:21:52 (EDT)


Jog Log Fog 4

Time for another trot down Memory Lane --- ^z mileage from the beginning of 2003 through 19 April. But first, fragments from a few noteworthy jaunts:

As for the uncooked data (1 Jan 2003 falls on Wednesday of the first line; 20 April is the final Sunday):

M T W T F S S Total
(4+) 4+ 16+ 20
5+ 4+ 8+ 8 12+ 1+ 34
14 2+ 10+ 5 1 32
14+ 8 8+ 10 40
10+ 17+ 27
5 9 14
7 7
9 9
18+ 18
7+ 8 15
10+ 8+ 7+ 7+ 32
10 6 18+ 34
8+ 6 4+ 18
12 23+ 11+ 46
7+ 10+ 4+ 21
6+ 14 20

Thumbnail comments on some specific runs:

And looking back (at Jog Log Fog, Jog Log Fog 2, Jog Log Fog 3), it's funny now to see how proud I was of doing 7 (count 'em, seven!) miles a year ago .


- Sunday, April 20, 2003 at 06:29:46 (EDT)


Department of Redundancy Department

Apologies, but I've gotta vent. There's a local radio announcer who can't give the time without saying something like:

"It's six twenty-one --- twenty one after six."

And he does it again and again, whenever he looks at the clock, always in the same maniacal voice and always using the same template:

"It's H:M --- M after H."

Why the waste of bandwidth? Doesn't he have anything to say? This mannerism is driving me batty; batty it's driving me ...


- Friday, April 18, 2003 at 06:16:55 (EDT)


Mind Children

Unlike most computer books, Hans Moravec's Mind Children: the Future of Robot and Human Intelligence has legs; it's still readable and relevant today, 15 years after it first appeared. Moravec's book is so good because, at its best, it focuses not on narrow computational specifics --- all ephemeral and essentially uninteresting --- but on key ideas associated with computer science and artificial intelligence (AI).

Moravec asserts several critical points:

These notions are all debatable, of course ... but Moravec puts forth strong arguments for his side. On the robot research front he's admittedly self-interested, as head of a robotics lab at Carnegie Mellon University. His theories go back many years and show the fingerprints of collaborators including Vernor Vinge and Robert Forward, as he is happy to acknowledge. The book throughout is infused with contagious energy and enthusiasm.

A personal footnote: back around 1976, when some essays that form parts of Mind Children were taking shape, I met Hans --- in a peripheral and virtual way. He was a seasoned graduate student at Stanford; I was a relatively new grad student at Caltech. Somehow (details forgotten) we began to correspond via email over the Arpanet. This was rather unusual at the time, given the small universe of people on the network and the barriers to finding one another. On a DECwriter terminal in the high energy physics building I dialed in on a few-hundred-baud line, typed commands to a remote computer, and read the results on dot-matrix paper printout. Most of what I did was ostensibly related to my dissertation work, but in between checking my equations on MACSYMA I also managed to find time to study FORTH compiler/interpreter architecture and, sporadically, exchange a few letters with a few other ur-netizens. Moravec was one such. He was tolerant of my naïve questions and kind enough to send me a copy of his early article on how a living, thinking brain could, neuron by neuron, be transferred into a computer. Heady bedtime reading; thanks, Hans!

Moravec does a fine job in Mind Children of sketching out advanced algorithms and then exploring their philosophical implications. One striking example from his final chapter: "Hashlife" (or "Hash Life"), a brilliant approach developed by Bill Gosper for running Conway's cellular automaton ("Life") at hyper speed. It's a bit too hairy to describe here; as Richard P. Feynman said to some newspaper reporters about his Nobel-winning work, if it were simple enough to explain in a few sentences then it wouldn't be worth a prize. Moravec covers Hashlife at a general level in four pages with a couple of apropos diagrams, just enough to get the key ideas across. Then, as compactly, he applies the Hashlife metaphor to our universe. Mind-expanding ...

But how does Moravec's central thesis --- that we'll see human-like machine intelligence by 2030 --- stand up today, over a third of the way down his timeline? Perhaps it's too early to say, but my hunch is that Hans's hubris is showing. Even an exponential curve, which starts off slow as it accelerates at an ever-accelerating pace, should have made at least a bit of significant improvement by now. We've gotten bigger, faster hardware aplenty, along with high-resolution video games galore. But where's the fundamental software progress? I remain a short-term skeptic, even if I'm a long-term believer in strong AI.

(see also Genius And Complexity (25 May 1999), Intelligence Augmentation (25 Aug 2001), Vernor Vinge (17 Sep 2001), Fast Forward (21 Feb 2002), Faster Forward (26 Sep 2002), Dead Beginnings (28 Sep 2002), ...)


- Thursday, April 17, 2003 at 07:59:16 (EDT)


Team Work

"There's no I in the word TEAM" is a cliché of coaches and organizational psychologists hired to direct so-called "teambuilding exercises".

"Yeah," responds one of my colleagues (RW), "but there is ME !

(and there's also the anagram META --- see Meta Man (14 Nov 2001), Four Pi Feedback (27 Jan 2003), ...)


- Wednesday, April 16, 2003 at 06:14:57 (EDT)


Sir Jonathan

 Sir Jonathan yclept yon knight.
 The House of Steel his castle hight,
 Tasmania, his pastures green,
 Sturmsoft.com, his fair demesne.
 Upon his shield a mermaid plays,
 Presenting She whom he obeys.
 Beneath, upon a scroll is writ:
 "Ephemerides --- Pompous Git!"

(an early birthday present --- ~355 days early --- to Jonathan Sturm [1])


- Monday, April 14, 2003 at 17:26:14 (EDT)


Edward's Folly

Fifty-some-odd (some very odd, if you've seen me!) runners are on a Saturday morning 17 kilometer stroll through the Maryland countryside. We proceed along a winding network of lane-and-a-half roads ... pant past fields of sod, corn stubble, and curious horses ... crawl up and zoom down gentle hills ... and thread the edges of small woods and wide meadows. Pop-pop gunfire greets us as we near a farm owned by the Bethesda-Chevy Chase chapter of the Izaak Walton League --- the sounds of skeet and target shooting. (A decade ago son Merle and I went there with a friend (JB) and remotely punched holes in paper using his Glock.) Our route takes us into the McKee-Beshers Wildlife Management Area on the Potomac River floodplain.

Pick-up trucks with small boats in tow swerve by. Cyclists blast past and shout encouragement at us. Wood-chipping machinery chews away noisily behind a veil of trees. Puddles and potholes make for minor water hazards at low points of the course. Signs nailed to every other tree announce "POSTED - Private Property - No Trespassing!". Buzzards circle in the distance, hoping for roadkill. A few too many empty beer bottles on the grassy shoulders of the asphalt suggest that rural drivers may need to work on their environmental consciousness, as well as cut back on alcohol consumption while cruising.

Yes, it's another ^z race report. "Edward's Folly" is a 17km (~10.56 mile) contest held on 12 April 2003. Conditions are lovely for a long run: cool and somewhat breezy, with clear skies after a week of intermittent showers. The race is well-organized and well-managed by Lyman Jordan and a crew of helpful volunteers of the Montgomery County Road Runners Club. The finish line lies at Edward's Ferry, a cute but tiny and somewhat hard-to-locate riparian park. It was the site of several important river crossings during the Civil War, and sits 30.8 miles up the Potomac along the C&O Canal, near Lock 25.

I don't allow quite enough lead time, take a couple of wrong turns, and arrive only 10 minutes before the official commencement. With a few other late-comers I drive along a gravel byway, partially flooded and aptly named "River Road". I park my '72 Dodge Dart behind several dozen cars and trot to the registration desk. Sign-up is fast and efficient: I grab my number, jog about a mile to the starting line, and have time to pin the bib in place and catch my breath before the "G-O Word" triggers a gentle stampede.

Back of the pack in last place is where I begin, a deliberate choice to match my deliberate pace. I set my watch to beep every 5 minutes to remind me to take frequent walking breaks. I also carry a GPS receiver and record waypoints at each kilometer marker (see table below). My plan? Simply to hold myself back for the first half of the race and retain some energy reserves --- as per the philosophy of Two Great Secrets (9 Nov 2001) and in sharp contrast to most of my previous outings which start off too fast and end with me in a thoroughly exhausted state, e.g., as described in Rocky Run (17 Nov 2002).

After the first few kilometers my knee isn't troubling me much, so I begin to cut back a bit on the walk breaks. I overtake a few people who started off fast and are beginning to flag. We chat briefly en passant; everybody seems to be having a great day. Water stops are several miles apart, but cool weather makes that no problem. In a spirit of semi-independence I haul my own drinking bottle along and refill it a couple of times. I take a few swallows every kilometer but don't eat during the run itself. (I make up for that by pigging out at the post-race feast --- excellent strawberries, bagels, and other fine fare.) During the final downhill dash to the end I catch up with one runner who jokingly asks me to please pass his friend up ahead. "Is he over 50 years old?" I ask. "Maybe," is the answer. "Then I'll try," I reply, fantasizing about improving my age-group standing. Surprisingly, I succeed.

The bottom line? Net time according to my watch is 1:36:43, for an average pace of 5:41 minutes/km = 9:08 minutes/mile, a little better than my going-in goal of ~9:30 min/mi. A linear least-squares fit indicates that my pace accelerates by ~3.4 seconds/km/km over the duration --- so-called "negative splits" as I had hoped to achieve.

The winner of "Edward's Folly" finishes in slightly over an hour. Faster runners perhaps have burned their candles at last week's Cherry Blossom 10-miler, or are saving themselves for the soon-to-come Boston Marathon. The official clock shows me as 1:36:49, in 41st place overall, behind 26 men and 14 women, 3rd of 5 in the 50-55 year old cohort. I feel good for the final four kilometers, as my times reflect. And best of all, the old joints seem to survive the experience without noticeable damage. Good race! Many thanks to the volunteers who make it all possible.

For data freaks, below are my GPS-measured coordinates and elapsed times for each kilometer. (The 4km split is suspiciously large, and the 5km suspiciously small --- is a marker out of place, or does a subtle hill intercede?)

km Latitude Longitude Pace
0 39:06:29 077:27:59 starting line
1 39:06:54 077:27:33 6:37 minutes/km
2 39:06:46 077:27:00 6:00
3 39:06:25 077:26:47 5:30
4 39:05:54 077:26:45 6:50
5 39:05:23 077:26:44 4:45
6 39:05:11 077:26:06 5:56
7 39:05:05 077:25:27 5:34
8 39:05:22 077:25:05 5:55
9 39:05:51 077:25:04 5:39
10 39:06:22 077:25:19 6:17
11 39:06:50 077:25:17 5:35
12 39:06:58 077:25:39 5:11
13 39:06:47 077:26:17 5:52
14 39:06:49 077:26:53 5:23
15 39:06:55 077:27:27 5:23
16 39:06:38 077:27:51 5:23
17 39:06:14 077:28:20 4:54 --- finish line


- Sunday, April 13, 2003 at 18:56:03 (EDT)


Dog Star Rising

A bit before 5am one brisk September morn, walking toward my workplace, I catch a glimpse of Sirius low in the eastern sky above the dawn's glow --- and feel a sudden connection to the Egyptian astronomers who watched for the heliacal rising of that same star to predict the flooding of the Nile more than five thousand years ago ...

(see also Seeing Stars 3 (14 Jan 2000), Leonid Sightings (18 Nov 2001), College Collage 3 (29 Sep 2001), Leonid Sightings 2 (20 Nov 2002), Einsteinian Advice (25 Nov 2002), ... )


- Saturday, April 12, 2003 at 05:59:48 (EDT)


Inspiration Prayer

 Make me thy field of words, O Muse:
    Tonight plough down my soul!
 Tear roots and stems into a loose
    And fertile verbal loam.
 Strike symbol-sounds to clash and splash
    Within heart's darkest groove.
 Cleave thou my thought like knife through flesh;
    Inflict upon me truth.
 Embrace me, clasp me, conjugate
    Thy magic with me, till
 My mind and thine as one share fate,
    And wit, and soul, and will.
 Give tongue to my unspoke desire;
    Sow straight my furrow bent.
 Blast now my sodden earth with fire:
    Seize me, thy instrument.


- Thursday, April 10, 2003 at 21:53:48 (EDT)


Dependent Variables

An independent variable is under your control, like a knob that you can twist. A dependent variable is what results, the output of a system. If you say "y is a function of x" then you're implying that x has free will and y just follows orders.

But it's often convenient --- and mathematically/philosophically powerful --- to flip a relationship around and view master as slave, and vice versa.

So when I hear that running pace inexorably declines by 1% per year of age, I prefer to invert that equation and think:

If I go 1% slower then I'm a year younger!

(see also Mandatory Inversion (2 Sep 1999), Need For Speed (10 Aug 2002), ...)
- Wednesday, April 09, 2003 at 05:47:56 (EDT)


Umber Love

 Ebony eyes
   Sepia skin
     Chocolate kiss
       Midnight moon grin!


- Tuesday, April 08, 2003 at 12:42:47 (EDT)


Tool Fight

Some tasks are incredibly difficult and stressful for certain people --- and it's not because those folks are stupid or lazy. Other individuals, obviously less talented, can perform the same jobs with grace and ease. Why?

In many cases, it's because the struggling folks aren't into the spirit of the tools that they're using. It's not that they have a hammer and insist on treating every screw as a nail --- rather, it's that they think they have a screwdriver, but they're really holding a chisel.

When computers are involved, the principle applies with peculiar vengeance. Look at all the web sites that struggle to present information, and fail; read all the complaints that webmasters post about the inadequacies of the software that they're using. Contrast that situation with domains where everything works so smoothly that the machinery is forgotten, transparent like air.

Bo Leuf flattered me when he commented in a letter, "You seem to be managing your site very well." He was wrong to use the word "managing"; the site essentially runs itself. I've given up on trying to do hard things and have settled into a simple and mostly happy, harmonious mode of operation with the Zhurnal Wiki system and the ^zhurnal archive. If it's not obvious how to make something happen, I don't struggle to force it. (Sporadically I ask Bo or others for advice, however, as it does on occasion turn out that a slight tweak makes the difficult suddenly trivial.)

J. S. Bach reputedly said, of the piano, "There is nothing to it. You only have to hit the right note at the right time, and the instrument plays itself." That sounds suspiciously apocryphal --- JSB was an organist and harpsichordist, for one thing --- but the principle is too apropos to ignore:

Don't fight the tool!

(see also Seeing And Forgetting (15 Jul 1999), Speakers To Machines (10 Dec 2002), ...)


- Monday, April 07, 2003 at 06:13:32 (EDT)


This Side

Any day is a good day if you're on this side of the grass!

(from an exchange with a somewhat-military colleague, HV ... see also Mission Statement (2 Nov 2001), Good Day (25 Jun 2002), ...)


- Sunday, April 06, 2003 at 13:14:42 (EDT)


^Zhurnal Themes

Happy 4th Anniversary, ^zhurnal!

A critical look back suggests that entries here tend to fall into a handful of overlapping categories. Five types are arguably healthy in their motivation:

Then there are two forms of ^zhurnal item that seem significantly less noble:

What other pigeonholes can posts be sorted into? Should the Topic Index list be expanded? (Recent additions have included "Language" and "Recreation".) Which themes deserve more (or less) attention? Is it time to can this project, or change it radically? What other questions should be asked?

(see also Zhurnal Zero (4 Apr 1999), Annals Of Journals (4 Apr 2000), Zhurnal Anniversary 2 (4 Apr 2001), Zhurnal Three (4 Apr 2002), ...)


- Friday, April 04, 2003 at 06:51:34 (EST)


Graffiti Zone

Bo Leuf commented recently on the deafening silence of most visitors to an open Wiki space such as his Daynotes [1], or the Zhurnal Wiki . He noted, "There should be more active involvement by readers, but that aspect is remarkably elusive, or perhaps that should be written illusive?"

I agree. Perhaps most folks find the idea of adding to a web site in real time too scary, too unconventional? It's like seeing a big wall, mostly blank, with a rack of brushes and a row of open paint buckets sitting in front of it, along with an engraved invitation to spalaver on your comments. How many passers-by would dare add to any artwork-in-progress? I suspect far fewer than 1%.

Why? There's the shyness factor, the fear of sounding dumb or pretentious. There's a prim and proper respect for other people's property, tied in with a natural wish to avoid inadvertently smudging somebody else's creation. There's the association that wall-writing has with juvenile vandalism. There's the cautious desire not to expose oneself to withering counter-thrust or snide criticism by provoking a disagreement.

With all those barriers in the way, it's amazing that anyone works up the chutzpah to add their words to a Wiki. Nevertheless, please do feel free to write what you wish throughout this ^zhurnal. Whether or not I agree, I promise not to bite --- and I will strive to protect your thoughts from pot-shots by later pilgrims ...

(see also Wiki Quick Start (13 Nov 2001), This Space For (17 Feb 2003), ...)


- Thursday, April 03, 2003 at 05:59:40 (EST)


My Job

Belatedly, I've come to realize that my real niche, at the office (and elsewhere!) is to supply lubrication --- reducing the friction among people and between groups, thereby increasing the efficiency of the overall system.

It sounds simple, but to do it well takes a lot of experience (and I'm still learning, after 20+ years), plus a conscious attention to sometimes-subtle human factors. "Little things" like personal idiosyncracies or misunderstandings can cause the whole machinery to grind to a halt.

But when it's working right, the lubricant absorbs stress so that the rest of the apparatus lasts longer and functions better.

Engine oil gradually leaks out or is burned up, graphite powder is ground to dust, etc. Sometimes that's tough to take, especially when everybody is screaming at me ...

(see also On Friction (14 Aug 1999), Human Nature (5 Dec 1999), One Per Score (6 Feb 2000), Fifth Disciplinarians (10 Sep 2000), Personal Energy (8 Dec 2000), My Ob (18 Aug 2002), Simply Difficult (28 Feb 2003), ...)


- Wednesday, April 02, 2003 at 05:47:53 (EST)


White Noise

 Between melting trickles
   That ripple the windowpane
 Staticky snowstripes 
   Cascade like a picket fence


- Tuesday, April 01, 2003 at 05:45:17 (EST)


Wright Flight

Son Merle finds a scrap of 35mm film on the ground in the driveway early one morning, a Kodachrome slide minus its holder, fallen out of a wastebasket on the way to the trash can. On the film is an image of a poster. Merle's sharp eyes spy a quotation by Wilbur Wright: "It is possible to fly without motors, but not without knowledge and skill." Next to the words, a dove soars into the air.

I snapped that photograph at an exhibit in the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum, 20+ years ago. The original Wright Flyer hangs there from the rafters --- paradoxically overhead yet beneath notice for an army of visitors who ignore it. They gawk instead at the massive machinery of aviation and rocketry that fills the hall.

So it is that even now, the mere memory of standing there and looking up at that first powered aircraft mists my vision. A tiny contraption of wires and cloth, product of a couple of Ohio bicycle mechanics who realized that balance and control were infinitely more important than power.

As a teenager I read Stick and Rudder, the classic book of flight instruction by Wolfgang Langewiesche ... studied Flying magazine, especially the analyses of small-plane accidents and their causes ... soared with Richard Bach's rhapsodic Jonathan Livingston Seagull ...

And I remember riding out to "Bird's Nest" and other long-extinct little airfields near Austin Texas ... clambering into open-cockpit fabric-winged Piper Cubs and similar machines ... sitting in the front seat while a private pilot high-school friend advanced the throttle ... shouting over the engine roar and through the prop wash as we climbed a few thousand feet ... taking the stick and feeling the plane bank in response to ailerons, slow with the application of elevators, skid with a kick of the rudder pedals ... cruising along creeks and ridges across the countryside ... sharing the rental expense in order to fly to an arbitrary town and back ... watching cars pass us on the highway below as we struggled against a stiff headwind ... sacrificing half a mile of altitude in a handful of seconds via a controlled spin that stalled one wing while the other kept flying ... and, one time only, steering the little craft along the flight pattern, lining up with the runway, and coming in to my single landing (under the watchful eye of the real pilot, hands hovering near the controls) --- a little hard, but on the centerline and without any ill results to airframe or occupants.

Quite a thrill --- but I wasn't (and still am not) much of a thrill-seeker. And there was the cost to consider: ground school was simply too pricey for my adolescent budget; aircraft hourly charges plus fees for flight training came to even more. A crusty old instructor at one of the little air parks told me, "If you really want to learn to fly, you'll find the money." I guess I didn't.

So I became a theoretical aviator, a vicarious pilot, now decades out of touch with modern airspace rules and technology. But the bits of flying that I did taught me countless lessons, both general and specific, human and aerodynamic. It all snaps into focus when I see that little Wright Flyer, hanging from the ceiling ... and in the same way, when I glimpse that most miraculous of images, taken at the perfect moment on the first day of powered aviation, with Wilbur and Orville Wright, one running alongside a wing tip, the other lying stretched out along the fuselage as the first airplane takes off.

... knowledge ... skill ... balance ... control ...

(see also Bookhouse Boy (29 Sep 1999), Know How And Fear Not (19 Nov 1999), High Glider (8 Oct 2000), ... )


- Sunday, March 30, 2003 at 18:41:36 (EST)


Coarse Correction

Q: What do you call a GPS-equipped marching band?

A: Precision guided musicians!

(inspired by a recently misheard reference to "precision guided munitions" = "PGMs", in conjunction with a recent re-sighting of the classic musical comedy The Music Man; GPS = Global Positioning System, a satellite-based navigation technology; see also Coordinate Collection (19 May 2002), Marine Corps Ordnance (1 Nov 2002), ...)


- Saturday, March 29, 2003 at 11:02:42 (EST)


Russian Journal

A couple of decades ago Andrea Lee wrote Russian Journal, a book about her experiences in the (then) Soviet Union; parts of it were serialized in The New Yorker. Lee writes well and I enjoyed her book, as I did Bruce Chatwin's In Patagonia and Paul Theroux's Great Railway Bazaar. Perhaps my reading was going through a travelogue phase at the time? Hard to say; copies of all three books are now lost in the basement, though they may variously bob to the surface at any moment, as all things seem to do around our house and in my mind. Which reminds me of the swimming-pool blind-man's-bluff game Marco Polo, named after another famous traveler. But I digress ...

Circa 1982 I had a conversation about Russian Journal with a colleague, JT. He had grown up in the USSR, the child of an American engineer working there. JT suspected that Lee, a black woman writer not fluent in the local language, failed to realize the extent to which she moved in sheltered intellectual circles. She wasn't exposed to the racism and poverty that JT saw as endemic to Russian society at the time.

But all cultures have their shameful undersides; one can only hope that things improve over the generations. And according to JT (and others) there is a peculiar and largely-invisible ocean of good will toward the USA among the Russian people --- a feeling of camaraderie based on historic parallelism, of amity between one big diverse country and another.

That's a neat notion, especially if it's still true. Spiritual-cultural connections among nations are extraordinarily valuable; they should be cherished and cultivated, so that in times of need the wellsprings of comradeship don't run dry. Friends are good to have ...

(see also Conflict Aversion (22 Feb 2000), Soviet Survival (4 Aug 2001), Peasant Wishes (8 Aug 2001), Treasure Knowledge (26 Oct 2002), ...)


- Friday, March 28, 2003 at 05:44:30 (EST)


Self-absorption

pompodacity --- (pam-pa-DASS-i-ti, noun) --- the quality of being excessively full of oneself, overly proud and formal, as in: "He's got a bad case of pompodacity." (from "pompous ass", misheard by ^z in conversation, March 2003; tnx to MRDK)


- Thursday, March 27, 2003 at 06:00:31 (EST)


Distaff Hall

If they are to survive, organizations must evolve. A tiny example: the military retirement home where my son Merle plays music for Sunday services in the chapel. It's now called "Knollwood", a fine name for a big house on a wooded hill. But a couple of decades ago it was "Distaff Hall" and only admitted widows of Army officers. As they grew fewer in number the place had to open its doors to non-Army and non-female applicants ... or it would have gone bankrupt and closed its doors forever. Hence, the change in charter and in name. Knollwood is prosperous now. But it's a different place than it once was.

The balancing act is tough. How can one preserve the "specialness" of an outfit without narrowing its base so much that it topples? As coin collecting or amateur radio become less popular, for instance, should clubs fade away peacefully or struggle to redefine themselves? Is it still numismatics if it includes tokens or medallions? What about collectable trading cards or MP3 files? And is it ham radio if it's communication via moonbounced lasers? Optical fiber? Over the Internet?

The answers aren't obvious. What's crucial isn't physical and technical --- it's stylistic and historic.

And the same challenge is faced by cultures and subcultures as they strive to define and redefine themselves over generations ...

(see also Numismatic Ramblings (7 Aug 2000), Organ Lessons (24 Jun 2001), Script Kiddies Everywhere (18 Sep 2002), Hamming It Up (10 Jan 2003), ...)


- Tuesday, March 25, 2003 at 05:57:23 (EST)


Going Solo

An image, for the past two decades lodged in my mind: during a televised mass-spectacle fundraiser rock concert, after a sequence of loud mega-groups of musicians performed (or lip-synched) songs that other people wrote for them, aided by hordes of assistants, gaffers, sound engineers, and hangers-on --- after their pyrotechnics burned out and all their equipment was finally slid offstage --- after the crowd of 100,000 or so at Wembley Stadium quieted down and the TV announcers ended their voice-overs --- out comes Tracey Chapman, by herself, in an old white t-shirt with her guitar hanging on its strap, there to sing a few songs that she herself composed.

One person, alone on stage...


- Monday, March 24, 2003 at 06:05:38 (EST)


Freudian Paralysis

Describing a multiprocessor computer program, someone recently said, "This algorithm paralyzes really well."

Surely s/he meant to say "... parallelizes ..." --- or did the tongue-twist inadvertently reveal some deep wisdom? So many much-ballyhooed parallel computing systems fail on so many important real-world tasks --- can it be coincidental?

Or has Nature arranged things to literally "paralyze" simpleminded attempts to factor problems into discrete, non-interacting, independent chunks? Is the world literally non-parallelizable in its most crucial aspects?

(see also Polygon Power (19 Jun 1999), Global Wisdom (22 Jul 1999), Take Time (27 Oct 1999), Fabulo Tech (15 May 2001), Triple Think (25 Jul 2002), ...)


- Sunday, March 23, 2003 at 05:32:49 (EST)


Being There

Paying people by the hour is a horribly inaccurate, inefficient way to encourage good work. But is there anything better for jobs where the output is unquantifiable? How else to reward employees as they try to solve ambiguous, complex, constantly changing problems? As with tenured faculty members, so also with (some!) lifelong bureaucrats: once the right people are selected, ~80% of the mission is accomplished simply by making sure that they show up ...

(but see also Bureaucratic Immune System (9 Aug 2000), Uncivil Servants (23 Aug 2000), Why So Bad (20 Oct 2002), ...)


- Friday, March 21, 2003 at 06:29:29 (EST)


Meta Turing Tests

The famous "Turing Test" is usually misdescribed. It's not the problem of making a computer program which can, momentarily or in a narrow field of discourse, convince a nave person into thinking that s/he's interacting with another human being.

The original Alan Turing parable begins with the challenge of distinguishing a male from a female via teletype interaction: a judge has two contestants to correspond with and must try to figure out their sexes via a typed question-and-answer conversation. One of the pair tries to be helpful; the other is deliberately deceptive. After sketching out that situation, only then does Turing pose the next stage: replace one of the pair with a computer. Can a judge reliably identify which contender is a person and which an algorithm?

That in turn suggests a few other Turing-style conundrums:


- Thursday, March 20, 2003 at 06:31:26 (EST)


Optimistic Pessimism

Bo Leuf writes on 16 March 2003 with great wisdom about the current political context [1]:

... may those concerned see their way to the decisions that will, ultimately, lead to a better and more stable situation. Nothing turns out as planned, so the moment-by-moment decisions by individuals are always more crucial than credited.
I'm really disinclined to comment on much of anything these days ...

I second Bo's emotions ... as I've increasingly come to suspect that in chaotic times like this it's best to be confused, conflicted, and hesitant. Excessive certainty --- on any side of complex issues --- is risky business. Witness events, recent and in years past, local and far away, where fanaticism has taken the reins (or reigns?!) of power.

Maybe it's useful to quantize the infinite range of possible futures into a 2x2 matrix:

Short-term Long-term
Optimism Quick victories, bloodless coups, etc. Social progress, economic prosperity, increasing liberty, individual flourishing ...
Pessimism Massive death and destruction Quagmires, multi-generational hatreds, poverty, ignorance, "decline and fall" of civilizations, ...

Pick one from each column, and you've got your scenario.

My wavefunction on all this? Fuzzy! Although I wish I could believe in the "Optimism" row, I fear that things won't go smoothly, especially for the next few generations on this globe of tears. On longer timescales, beyond my personal event horizon I can feel a bit more pollyannaistic ....

(see also Underappreciated Ideas (6 Jul 1999), Mere Anarchy (6 Oct 1999), Tolerance And Pacifism (8 Oct 2001), Learning And Losing (23 Nov 2001), Invest In Peace (9 Jul 2002), Policy Making (6 Oct 2002), Thank Goodness (25 Dec 2002), Right To Interfere (22 Feb 2002), Simply Difficult (28 Feb 2003), ...)


- Wednesday, March 19, 2003 at 05:51:12 (EST)


Absence of Evidence

A popular proverb in some circles is the semi-alliterative:

Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.

This is often recited by those who dearly desire to believe in something --- a nefarious plot, a foreign conspiracy, etc. --- in spite of the total lack of supporting facts or observations.

But as a comrade (DD) points out, absence of evidence is certainly not evidence of presence --- even though True Believers might wish it were so!

(see also Webs Of Evidence (15 Feb 2000), Picky About Facts (11 Mar 2003), ...)


- Monday, March 17, 2003 at 16:57:39 (EST)


Dippy 'Zines

Diplomacy (aka "Dippy") is a multiplayer board game of deceit and treachery, of broken promises and shattered dreams --- in other words, it's a lot like real life. There are many places online to read about the hobby and its history (e.g., http://www.diplomacy-archive.com/index.html, http://ourworld.compuserve.com/homepages/DiplomacyWorld/10years.htm, http://www.badpets.net/Diplomacy/AtoZ/, etc.).

My own affair with Dippy began more than three decades ago when, through a chain of events lost in the fog of memory, a copy of Graustark fell into my hands. It consisted of half a dozen typewritten and mimeographed pages, stapled together, carefully designed to weigh a hair less than an ounce so that the bundle could be sent for minimal postage to a few hundred subscribers. On the sheets were inscribed mystic incantations: "F MAR-LYO", "A MOS-WAR", "F ENG C A LON-BRE", "A SER S TURKISH A BUL-GRE", and the like. There were also inscrutable press releases --- "The Czar has a hankering for Yorkshire pudding this spring!" for example.

You see, Graustark was a play-by-mail Diplomacy journal, lovingly called a Dippy 'zine and produced every two or three weeks by City University of New York physics professor John Boardman. On the back of every issue was the motto:

   O P E R A T I O N
 At
 Great
 Intervals
 This
 Appears
 To
 Irritate
 Optic
 Nerves

... "Operation Agitation". Why? I have no idea. But I still remember that acrostic pattern.

Although I had never seen a Diplomacy board nor read a description of the rules, by analyzing my first issue of Graustark I was able to deduce much of the core structure of the game. The board was clearly based on a map of Europe. Three-letter abbreviations corresponded to place names: BER = Berlin, SWE = Sweden, BAL = Baltic Sea, etc. There were armies and fleets, no more than one to a space, which could move to adjacent zones, attack one another, support nearby units in attack or defense, and dislodge pieces that were outnumbered.

Once I figured out that much, I was hooked. I bought a Dippy set in a local hole-in-the-wall store, sent in my entry fee to Boardman, and soon was involved in a game that he ran by mail. The pace of events was by turns glacial and frenzied: interminable waiting for the 'zine to arrive, blitzkrieg mailing of letters to allies and enemies, hours of staring at the board and planning tactics, convoluted conspiring with and against one another, and ultimately arriving at a set of moves to submit to the gamesmaster. Then, a week of breath-holding until the results arrived in the next issue. Repeat.

After a year, one contest wasn't enough --- so I began another, then another. The role-playing part of the game, including fantasy news bulletins and good-natured ribbing of other players, added to the fun. I subscribed to other Dippy 'zines, but found them less satisfactory than Graustark. The competition tended to lack Boardman's sophisticated humor, ran games with less precision, and were generally less professional in content and production.

Eventually, as do all infatuations, my obsession with Diplomacy faded. I finished up my postal games but still played occasionally over-the-board. Many years later when email became available I tried that medium, both with computerized "judges" and with human referees to run the competitions. It was entertaining, but by then I had too many other things to do with my life --- family, work, reading, thinking, and so forth. I began to feel guilty about spending the many hours per week that a game demanded in order to be well-played. I also grew to dislike the lying and manipulation of other players, even in a fantastical context.

Dippy is, I have come to believe, a younger person's passion or an older person's pastime. Over the years I've learned a lot from it, but at least for now it's not for me. Maybe again some day ...

(see especially Zar Story (16 Jan 2000), and also Game Days (26 Jul 2001), College Collage 3 (29 Sep 2001), ...)


- Sunday, March 16, 2003 at 15:50:20 (EST)


Safety First

Some hazards can strike so suddenly and with such deadly violence that, to avoid them, comparably extreme rules must be made and followed with fanatical devotion. Three of my favorite precautions:

Other safety tips?


- Saturday, March 15, 2003 at 16:02:52 (EST)


Prepetition and Prepeating

A new word for an old phenomenon: prepeat --- to say an exact "copy" of something before another person has said it.

Prepetition is thus a time-reversal of the usual "repetition". It's particularly common in a long-term relationship with a partner who knows in advance what you're going to say, and vice versa. You begin to state a thought and pause to grope for the right word; your comrade interjects it; you say it, then continue. You didn't consciously repeat; more precisely, the other person prepeated you.

Sometimes, in fact, a conversation can occur in backwards order between close acquaintances. It's extraordinarily confusing to an outside observer, but entirely comprehensible to those involved ...


- Friday, March 14, 2003 at 05:53:34 (EST)


Liberal Arts

A lovely thought appears in the Winter 2003 issue of The Key Reporter (see http://www.pbk.org/) where Gary Langer highlights a comment by Charles Adams from the Fall 2002 issue:

To think critically and creatively, to express one's ideas clearly, to learn to interpret ideas from a rich intellectual and cultural context: These are inextricable from the development of a sense of individual dignity and respect for the rights of others.

And that, suggests Langer, is the social value of the "liberal arts".

(see also No Time For That (29 May 2001), Pursuit Of Excellence (22 Feb 2002), ...)


- Thursday, March 13, 2003 at 05:49:54 (EST)


Probabilistic Tragedy

The right question to ask about a space shuttle failure --- or any other horrendously complex catastrophe-in-the-making --- is not "What should you do if (or when) you know something has just gone wrong?" That's innately deceptive in its Manichean good-bad world view.

No, the actual challenge is to answer "What should you do when the probability of disaster has just gone from 2% to 20%?" Or even more honestly: "What should you do when your estimate of the probability of disaster has just gone from between 0.5% and 5% to between 5% and 50%?"

These questions --- full of caveats and impossible to turn into bumper stickers --- are the real quandries that need to be addressed. One (almost) never can know that there's a problem, with certainty, until no time is left to act.

The same applies, in trumps, to geopolitical train wrecks. Is Oceania about to attack us? If so, will Eurasia come to our aid, or join in the onslaught, or simply stand by laughing while we combatants destroy each other? There's literally no way to tell until too late to do any good. The best that anyone can do is to make informed guesses as to the odds of various events --- and then put error bars on those odds.

False precision is no friend of the military planner, or the civilian policymaker. Early action is essential in a crisis --- but constant panic is costly and counterproductive. There are no easy answers, regardless of what op-ed pundits claim ...

(see also In Stability (20 Aug 1999), Predicting Versus Understanding (27 Aug 1999), No Grand Designers (13 Jan 2000), Epistemological Enginerooms (10 Aug 2000), Thermodynamics Of Terrorism (15 Jan 2002), Opaque Justice (29 Jan 2002), Retrospective History (7 Mar 2003), ...)


- Wednesday, March 12, 2003 at 05:55:13 (EST)


Picky about Facts

A habit of mine which some (ok, many!) find annoying is my skepticism. It's a "show me" attitude that apparently has been inherited by at least one son (Rad Rob). I think of it as just a healthy form of critical thinking, perhaps taken slightly to excess. But others are troubled to no end when they say that it's raining and I instinctively look out the window, instead of taking their word for it.

Nonetheless, I try to apply a heaping measure of disbelief to any claims, both ones which don't fit in with the rest of my experience, and ones toward which I'm prejudiced in favor. Alas, I don't always succeed. I was therefore heartened to spy a comment about Samuel Johnson's critical attitude, reported from an encounter on 7 May 1773 by James Boswell (emphasis added):

He did not give me full credit when I mentioned that I had carried on a short conversation by signs with some Esquimaux who were then in London, particularly with one of them who was a priest. He thought I could not make them understand me. No man was more incredulous as to particular facts, which were at all extraordinary; and therefore no man was more scrupulously inquisitive, in order to discover the truth.

Would that I could be so consistently healthy in my skeptical outlook ...

(in Boswell's Life of Johnson; see also Negative Results (2 Nov 1999), Silver Skepticism (29 July 2001), Science And Pseudoscience (6 Oct 2001), Think Again (29 Aug 2002), Net Works (20 Jan 2003), ...)


- Tuesday, March 11, 2003 at 06:20:40 (EST)


Repo Man

The family saw the decades-old movie Repo Man (written and directed by Alex Cox) again the other day. We were struck by the similarities to one of our more recent favorites, Fight Club: the dark nihilism, the stiletto-sharp humor, the techno-literary hybrid vigor, and the delightfully dense dialog. One of our favorite quotes out of context:

An ordinary person spends his life avoiding tense situations. A Repo Man spends his life getting into tense situations.

If gauged by my stress level, in recent years my attempts to be an ordinary person have been increasingly unsuccessful ...

(see also Dialogue Density (21 May 2002), Real Genius (23 Jan 2003), It Is Important (29 Jan 2003), ...)


- Monday, March 10, 2003 at 05:50:26 (EST)


Alphabetic Self-Description

A few years ago (Bookhouse Boy, 29 Sep 1999) in a fit of abcdarianism I referred to a younger ^z as "amiable, bookish, and clever", or at least so-perceived by his peers. Can the same game press farther through the alphabet? How about "distracted, eclectic, and forgetful"? Apt adjectives, particularly as I advance in age. Some major life-long goals include "generous, honest, and inventive", though I'm far from successful at those. "Irresponsible" is a better "i" word, as is "incorrigible".

But next, upon entering the exotic terrain of "j" and "k" my wit weakens: "joking, keen, and lazy" are by turns jejune and kinda lacking in bite. Maybe next October prolonged, quiet reflection shall turn up valid words ...

(see also Thanks For (22 Nov 2001), ...)


- Sunday, March 09, 2003 at 08:40:30 (EST)


Time to Read

There's a time to write, and a time to read; a time to teach, and a time to learn. Samuel Johnson, in February 1767, was doing research in a library at the Queen's house when the King encountered him:

His Majesty enquired if he was then writing any thing. He answered, he was not, for he had pretty well told the world what he knew, and must now read to acquire more knowledge.

Maybe it's time for me to do the same --- to cut back on the blathering and undertake some serious study? Obviously, yes ... but am I wise enough to do so? Doubtful ...

(from James Boswell's Life of Johnson; see also Global Wisdom (22 Jul 1999), Bookhouse Boy (29 Sep 1999), Cave Time Party Time (5 May 2000), ...)


- Saturday, March 08, 2003 at 11:18:26 (EST)


Retrospective History

Everything looks so simple in the rear view mirror! As Malcolm Gladwell notes in a New Yorker essay (10 March 2003 issue; see http://www.gladwell.com and/or http://www.newyorker.com esp. [1]), people have a natural tendency to make up stories that purport to explain past events. They focus their attention on bits of evidence that, after the fact, make the pseudo-explanation seem obvious. People also have a strong propensity to remember that they "always knew" something would happen, even when they actually held the opposite belief beforehand.

How trivial it all seems, to a post-hoc-ist! How could anyone fail to connect the dots? Mere child's play!

But in reality, the right dots are stars, indistinguishable from a galaxy of other points that wipe out any signal until events --- unpredictable in principle as much as in practice --- crystalize into historical fact. The best that one can do beforehand? Estimate uncertainties, explore alternative scenarios, prepare for a range of possibilities ... and then plan to change course when the storm hits.

(see also Plans And Situations (13 Aug 1999), Anti Anthropism (26 May 2000), Epistemological Enginerooms (10 Aug 2000), Imperfect Storm (28 May 2001), Thermodynamics Of Terrorism (15 Jan 2002), Opaque Justice (29 Jan 2002), Muddling Through (21 Aug 2002), Dead Beginnings (28 Sep 2002), ...)


- Friday, March 07, 2003 at 06:03:11 (EST)


Arpa Network

Among the best moments for me are those when a connection suddenly appears between two formerly-disparate realms, like an electrical arc leaping into brilliance across the final gap in a circuit. Fortunately, since my ignorance is huge such happy instants of discovery happen all the time. A tiny one came the other day when, as we listened to some classical music on the car radio during an early morning drive to his school, Rad Rob happened to mention that the musical term arpeggio comes from the word arpa --- the root of harp. Blatantly obvious in hindsight: racing fingers across a harp's strings make an instant arpeggio of notes. Had I only known sooner ...

(see also Edge Of The Universe (8 Jun 1999), Knowledge And Consistency (7 Feb 2001), ...)


- Thursday, March 06, 2003 at 06:51:41 (EST)


Correspondence Principle

In physics the so-called Correspondence Principle, put forth by Niels Bohr, says that the quantum world has to mesh smoothly with the universe of everyday experience. Anything you figure out using quantum mechanics eventually needs to correspond to ordinarily observed properties of macroscopic bodies.

Electrons and protons can act weird, for instance --- they're tiny and they don't know any better. But if you get enough of them together to approach the "classical limit" then they've gotta start doing what we know bulk matter normally does. At ultralow temperatures or ultrahigh densities it's all right for strange activities like superfluidity and superconductivity to occur. Just don't let it happen in the streets, please! In the same way, relativistic phenomena are hunky-dory for things going near the speed of light, or for supermassive astrophysical objects. But at slower velocities and for commonplace materials the laws of relativity need to produce the results that we all know and love.

In other words, an exotic environment can evoke exotic events --- but theories that explain such exotic events must nevertheless work in ordinary surroundings, where our prejudices from daily life remain valid.

And turning now to the topic of interpersonal interaction, some free-association on Bohr's Correspondence Principle leads me to concoct a not-altogether-unrelated but much-more-mundane rule of thumb: when exchanging letters with a friend, write twice for every reply you hope to get.

Sure, you shouldn't need to; a decent party at the other end of the pipeline ought to respond whenever you send out a ping. But messages get lost or misplaced, and daily distractions cause many return notes to remain forever unwritten. Extraordinary events excuse many sins. People do have a princely side. They mean to do well, but sometimes you need to tug at them a bit to make that inner nobility surface.

So give your correspondent's prince a pull ...

(see also Tit For Tat (31 Oct 1999), Invisible Differences (8 Nov 1999), Quantum Nondemolition (5 Feb 2000), Two Faces (10 Feb 2000), No Concepts At All (22 Feb 2001), Scientific Revolutions (16 Aug 2002), ...)


- Tuesday, March 04, 2003 at 06:42:42 (EST)


Hardest Possible

What to work on? As I've often advised my kids (and anybody else polite enough to listen), you should always take on the most severe challenges that you can handle. If feasible try to find something that's tough for you but even tougher for other folks. In any event don't go for areas with low barriers to entry. So will everybody else; the resulting competition will kill you and reduce the ultimate payoff. The world is full of video gamers and garage bands (and blogs, and advice on self-improvement, eh?!).

I was amused recently to encounter a comment by Samuel Johnson on the topic of music --- specifically the violin, a notoriously hard instrument --- that lined up with my notions of comparative advantage. From Boswell's Life of Johnson, a fragment of a conversation held on 15 April 1773:

GOLDSMITH: "The greatest musical performers have but small emoluments. Giardini, I am told, does not get above seven hundred a year."
JOHNSON: "That is indeed but little for a man to get, who does best that which so many endeavour to do. There is nothing, I think, in which the power of art is shown so much as in playing on the fiddle. In all other things we can do something at first. Any man will forge a bar of iron, if you give him a hammer; not so well as a smith, but tolerably. A man will saw a piece of wood, and make a box, though a clumsy one; but give him a fiddle and a fiddle-stick, and he can do nothing."

If you invest the time and effort to climb a steep learning curve, eventually you can do extraordinary things. And even if monetary rewards are small, there's tremendous psychic profit from doing the difficult well ...

(see also Shotguns And Rifles (6 Nov 1999), Zhurnal Anniversary 2 (4 Apr 2001), Advant Edge (15 Apr 2001), Ten Thousand Hours (20 Sep 2001), Self Standardization (6 Apr 2002), My Ob (18 Aug 2002), Millennium Math (5 Dec 2002), ...)


- Sunday, March 02, 2003 at 14:20:03 (EST)


Simply Difficult

A few years ago a ^zhurnal note mentioned Clausewitz's famous image of "friction" in the context of conflict and day-to-day situations (On Friction, 14 Aug 1999). Arnold Bennett in The Human Machine sketches a similar picture (Human Nature, 5 Dec 1999). Recently I've begun to realize that the frictional analogy applies even more aptly to civilization writ large.

Everything seems simple to the social theorist. It's trivial to envision a utopia far superior to the situation we find ourselves in. The perfect policy is obvious to the op-ed pundit. But real life is not so easy.

From Clausewitz's On War, an extended metaphor:

As long as we have no personal knowledge of war, we cannot conceive where these difficulties lie of which so much is said, and what that genius and those extraordinary mental powers required in a general have really to do. All appears so simple, all the requisite branches of knowledge appear so plain, all the combinations so unimportant, that in comparison with them the easiest problem in higher mathematics impresses us with a certain scientific dignity. But if we have seen war, all becomes intelligible; and still, after all, it is extremely difficult to describe what it is which brings about this change, to specify this invisible and completely efficient factor.
Everything is very simple in war, but the simplest thing is difficult. These difficulties accumulate and produce a friction which no man can imagine exactly who has not seen war. Suppose now a traveller, who towards evening expects to accomplish the two stages at the end of his days journey, four or five leagues, with post-horses, on the high road --- it is nothing. He arrives now at the last station but one, finds no horses, or very bad ones; then a hilly country, bad roads; it is a dark night, and he is glad when, after a great deal of trouble, he reaches the next station, and finds there some miserable accommodation. So in war, through the influence of an infinity of petty circumstances, which cannot properly be described on paper, things disappoint us, and we fall short of the mark. A powerful iron will overcomes this friction; it crushes the obstacles, but certainly the machine along with them. We shall often meet with this result. Like an obelisk towards which the principal streets of a town converge, the strong will of a proud spirit stands prominent and commanding in the middle of the art of war.
Friction is the only conception which in a general way corresponds to that which distinguishes real war from war on paper. The military machine, the army and all belonging to it, is in fact simple, and appears on this account easy to manage. But let us reflect that no part of it is in one piece, that it is composed entirely of individuals, each of which keeps up its own friction in all directions. Theoretically all sounds very well: the commander of a battalion is responsible for the execution of the order given; and as the battalion by its discipline is glued together into one piece, and the chief must be a man of acknowledged zeal, the beam turns on an iron pin with little friction. But it is not so in reality, and all that is exaggerated and false in such a conception manifests itself at once in war. The battalion always remains composed of a number of men, of whom, if chance so wills, the most insignificant is able to occasion delay and even irregularity. The danger which war brings with it, the bodily exertions which it requires, augment this evil so much that they may be regarded as the greatest causes of it.
This enormous friction, which is not concentrated, as in mechanics, at a few points, is therefore everywhere brought into contact with chance, and thus incidents take place upon which it was impossible to calculate, their chief origin being chance. As an instance of one such chance take the weather. Here the fog prevents the enemy from being discovered in time, a battery from firing at the right moment, a report from reaching the general; there the rain prevents a battalion from arriving at the right time, because instead of for three it had to march perhaps eight hours; the cavalry from charging effectively because it is stuck fast in heavy ground.
These are only a few incidents of detail by way of elucidation, that the reader may be able to follow the author, for whole volumes might be written on these difficulties. To avoid this and still to give a clear conception of the host of small difficulties to be contended with in war, we might go on heaping up illustrations, if we were not afraid of being tiresome. But those who have already comprehended us will permit us to add a few more.
Activity in war is movement in a resistant medium. Just as a man immersed in water is unable to perform with ease and regularity the most natural and simplest movement, that of walking, so in war, with ordinary powers, one cannot keep even the line of mediocrity. This is the reason that the correct theorist is like a swimming master, who teaches on dry land movements which are required in the water, which must appear grotesque and ludicrous to those who forget about the water. This is also why theorists, who have never plunged in themselves, or who cannot deduce any generalities from their experience, are unpractical and even absurd, because they only teach what everyone knows --- how to walk.

(Carl von Clausewitz, ~1827; trans. J. J. Graham)


- Friday, February 28, 2003 at 22:11:56 (EST)


Stations of the Beltway

When we were commuting together ~15 years ago, my carpoolmate Charlie had a stoical way to handle the inevitable traffic jams. As we approached the first chokepoint on our route and saw the thicket of cars lined up to merge ahead of us he would calmly announce: "Station Number One". After working our way through that, racing a couple more miles at speed, then encountering the next slowdown, Charles-Auguste would solemnly declare: "Station Number Two". And so forth and so on, as we crawled the Washington DC Beltway toward home.

I've belatedly figured out what he was alluding to (maybe!): the Catholic Church's Stations of the Cross. And reading about that ritual led me back to a Victorian name that I met long ago: John Henry Cardinal Newman (1801-1890), author of one version of the Stations as well as lectures and articles including The Idea of a University. That extended essay in turn contains Newman's "Definition of a Gentleman" --- a musing which impressed me enough that in 1996 I typed it into one of my web pages (http://www.his.com/~z/gentleman.html). Small world ...

(see Cardinal Newman (4 Oct 2001), ...)


- Thursday, February 27, 2003 at 19:07:22 (EST)


Judith Krummeck Fan Club

Rainy night, Shennandoah National Park, ~1997: after hiking half a dozen miles down trail, crisscrossing countless streams, and surveying Camp Hoover (a cabin retreat once used by a US President), a troopful of footsore Boy Scouts set up their tents in a soggy, stony field. Sleep comes slowly --- and when you awaken at 3am what is there to do in the chill hours of darkness that remain before dawn?

Good answer: listen to the radio. It was at that campout that Son Merle found a commercial-free classical station that ventured beyond the usual top-40 mix of Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, et al. for its playlist. Through some freak of electromagnetic propagation, on that Appalachian mountainside his little receiver picked up WBJC in Baltimore, more than 100 miles away.

When we got home, we kept listening. WBJC is the descendant of a station founded in 1951 at Baltimore Junior College, a school that no longer exists (at least under that name). The WBJC signal is often weak, but the music is good and the announcers are great. One in particular has captured my ear and, from afar, my heart: Judith Krummeck. Her delicate South African accent is delightful, and her knowledge of the arts plus her idiosyncratic dry sense of humor make her show a unique pleasure: when the music pauses, I turn the volume up rather than down to make sure that I can hear her voice clearly. Go Judith!

(see http://www.wbjc.com/ and especially http://www.wbjc.com/judith.html --- plus Country Sights And Sounds (7 Aug 2001), Gettysburg Coordinates (27 Feb 2002), ...)


- Wednesday, February 26, 2003 at 20:27:49 (EST)


Slip Away

"Stickiness" is a commonly used metric to gauge the attractiveness of a web site; it's based on the length of time visitors tend to hang about. What a horrid idea! The best measure of a page's worth is precisely the opposite, slipperiness: how quickly and efficiently a reader can get what s/he needs and move along. "Sticky" in real life is a negative adjective, as witness jar lids, chewing gum underfoot, wickets, etc. (OK, maybe not flypaper --- though from the viewpoint of the fly?!) "Slippery", on the other hand, is often quite pleasant; cf. "lubricity" ....


- Tuesday, February 25, 2003 at 13:54:43 (EST)


Interracial Intimacies

A review of Interracial Intimacies: Love in Black and White got me thinking again about the next-to-impossible-to-discuss issue of race in our society. Nina Bernstein in the 26 Jan 2003 New York Times writes of Randall Kennedy's book:

Doubling and tripling back through time thematically, he manages to cover centuries of racial tragedy and sexual coercion while remaining buoyantly optimistic. Through old wills and burial arrangements, he finds evidence of interracial love blooming in the stony ground of slavery. In stories of racial passing, he sees the triumph of self-determination more than the burden of secret shame. And he showcases a six-fold increase in black-white married couples between 1960 and 2000 --- before conceding that what the statistics actually show is the persistent rarity of such unions.

"Buoyantly optimistic" is a marvelous phrase that captures what I (have to) feel, in the long run. There's hope --- in spite of millennia of bigotry, intolerance, fear, and orchestrated cruelty. As individuals, most people find it easy to transcend the tribal blindness that possesses us when we're in groups. And the trends are generally in the right direction.

But it will still take generations to heal this illness. Those who haven't experienced the weight of racism can't easily understand how destructive it is to the spirit. "Why don't they just get over it and move on?" is easy to say. (Note the they in that question.) And those who live in monochromatic countries should hesitate before patting themselves on the back and dismissing this all as somebody else's problem.

Reality, as always, is infinitely complex. My own family, white and black as it is, lives in a sub-universe --- highly intellectual, moderately well-to-do --- which shelters us from many hassles. As polyracial families become more widespread, things will be easier for all. The Gaussian distributions will grow wider, less sharply peaked; racial labels will blur.

Maybe I need to find some poems on this theme, or try to write some ...

(see also Underappreciated Ideas (6 Jul 1999), On The Subjection Of (21 Aug 1999), Human Nature (5 Dec 1999), Learning To See (28 Feb 2000), ...)


- Monday, February 24, 2003 at 08:13:51 (EST)



This is 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!