^zhurnal v.0.30

This is volume 0.30 of 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.)

Technical Minded

"You've always got a reason for everything," a friend said, as we walked along the shore a few days ago. He had commented, moments before, on the wind blowing toward us from the adjacent bay --- and that had set me off on a mini-lecture concerning sea breezes and why they develop. In the daytime, land heats up more quickly than a nearby body of water; land has less heat capacity, since water can convectively absorb far more solar energy without changing its temperature much. So the beach gets hotter quicker --- and hot air rises. A natural air current begins to flow shorewards as the day progresses. The situation is reversed after sunset, when the land cools more rapidly.

Simple stuff, which as a youth I must have read in an elementary school science book. But what delighted and amused my comrade was that, at the drop of a hat, I was ready not just to state the phenomenon but to explain it. I started to apologize for being pedantic, but he said no apology was needed. He enjoyed listening to me, he claimed, and was just making an observation about my personality ... which I guess might be charitably described as hyperanalytic.

I thanked my friend --- and then, without seeing what I was up to, I began to analyze out loud why I might be this way. (I didn't realize that I was doing it at the time; I only noticed my behavior in retrospect, as I began writing this note. Oops!) I blathered on about the great value of mental models, and then gave some specific examples of how having such models, however incomplete, can be of tremendous help.

For example, I said, my knowledge of automotive technology is minimal. But I do believe that (most) cars have an electrical system with various circuits and devices to make an engine turn over so it can start and then run, a fuel system to get gasoline vaporized and into the cylinders where it can burn, a transmission to move energy to the wheels, etc., etc. Several times I've been able to help people whose vehicles wouldn't start, just by leading them through a logical analysis of what the observables indicated. ("You probably aren't out of gas, and your battery isn't dead, but I don't hear any sound when you turn the key. Are you in Park? Maybe the inhibitor switch is out of whack. Try shifting to Neutral and starting from there ...")

Then I went on to talk about other things for which I have more, or less, evidence. I've never been to Cuba, I said, but there are enough reliable people who claim that it exists for me to accept it as a fact. Cuba also fits in with a lot of other things that, in turn, mesh to make a coherent story. And, to a far greater degree, modern science is a vast network of such stories. I love it --- obviously --- and I can't help but share some of that enthusiasm if anyone will listen.

There's a comic movie, The Wrong Box, which I feel most fondly about because of one particular character in it: an ancient gentleman (played by Ralph Richardson) who, given an infinitesimal excuse, reliably lurches into lecture mode on any subject one cares to name ... and proceeds to talk about it in excruciating detail and at interminable length. At one point he accepts a ride to London on a buggy with a farmer. We see him begin to declaim on Biblical translations. The camera cuts away, and when it returns to him he's climbing down from the vehicle. "Thank you!" he says, "Thirteen hours passed as if they were so many minutes..." The farmer rolls his eyes and quickly makes his escape.

Yep, that pompous old dude is me ...

(dialog quoted above is from memory, and should not be taken as literal; see also Know How And Fear Not (19 Nov 1999), Fifth Disciplinarians (10 Sep 2000), Real Genius (23 Jan 2003), ...)

- Friday, July 18, 2003 at 01:06:54 (EDT)

Awesome Prowess

(Beware! --- below begins some mildly bawdy banter. Those of a delicate sensibility will wish to avert their eyes. Trail runners, on the other hand, will be puzzled and unable to see what could possibly give offense. And do not assume that the author of this page is who it appears to be; forgery is trivial in a Wiki, as it is elsewhere on the 'Net ...)

Turning to the reverse (or, more precisely, obverse) side of the coin scrutinized in Rear Admiral Lower Half (1 July 2003):

Keith Laumer has long been one of my favorite science fiction writers (R.I.P. --- he passed away a decade ago) because in addition to imagination and heroic verve he often adds a sauce of humor to his stories --- ranging from sheer slapstick to biting, irreverent, iconoclastic wit. (Ron Goulart's comic sf stories come close to Laumerian levels, but tend to cross the line into outright crudity a bit too often for my taste.) For an archetypal example, witness Laumer's report (in The Castle of Light) of an exchange between a couple of humans and a cold-blooded alien observer:

"You mammals are all alike," the Groaci whispered. "But it's pointless to flaunt those ugly udders at me, my girl . . ." Two more Groaci had followed the first, who signaled. "To make fast its arms," he snapped. "Mind its talons ---"
Miss Braswell jumped up and swung an open-handed slap that sent the flimsy alien reeling back; Retief stepped quickly behind the other two, cracked their heads together sharply, thrust them aside and chopped a hand across the leader's neck.
"Time to go," he breathed. At the window, he glanced out, then swung a leg over the sill. ...

... followed a few paragraphs later, as the Earthlings pause to catch their breath during their escape:

"Mr. Retief," she said from above, "do you think I flaunt my ah . . ."
"Certainly not, Miss Braswell. They flaunt themselves."

Precisely. From an objective viewpoint, what could be more outlandish than the reactions of (approximately) half of humanity to the distribution of adipose tissue and modified sweat glands of the other (approximately) half? And yet, for varied evolutionary and/or divinely decreed reasons, those reactions exist.

(An aside, especially for any who may feel underendowed or who have lost appurtances to age or tragic illness: size doesn't matter. Nor does shape. To quote mathematician Paul Erdös in a tangentially related context, "It's what they stand for." And, to a sufficiently enlightened perception, "they" don't even have to be there in order to represent something lovely. Trust me --- it's a ^zen thing.)

When dog-tired out-of-breath joggers meet one another on the trail, any positive distraction is a blessing. I occasionally imagine that my old bald pate and soggy gray beard might offer some slight encouragement to passers-by who encounter me in the throes of my exhaustion. "If he can slog along in his piteous state, maybe I can too," they could say to themselves.

A fast, effortless strider can prove even more heartening to see. "I could be like that, in a few more years," one might fantasize. But to really raise the spirit, witness an oncoming runner with a beautiful, well-developed upper body.

The "prow" of a boat is the structure that juts out front, the bow of the vessel. Append the common feminine linguistic suffix "-ess", and you get the marvelously apropos word prowess to name what's on display. Delightful, inspirational, uplifting prowess. Not flaunted. Simply there --- by the grace of nature.

Or should the term perchance be "prowesses"? ...

(when finished groaning, see also Memory Support (31 Oct 2002), Rear Admiral Lower Half (1 Jul 2003), ...)

- Thursday, July 17, 2003 at 04:11:17 (EDT)

More Tbolt Snapshots

Baseball is a game of situations ... and during the past few weeks, between far too much rain, I've enjoyed seeing the Silver Spring-Takoma Thunderbolts [1] in quite a few wonderful situations:

Lovely memories of outdoor summer evening ballets ...

(see also Plans And Situations (13 Aug 1999), Tbolt Monkeys On My Back (19 Jul 2002), Summer Ball 2002 (3 Sep 2002), Keeping Score (13 June 2003), ...))

- Saturday, July 12, 2003 at 14:58:03 (EDT)

Bovine Mind

The word "vacation" always makes me think of "vaca" --- "cow" in Spanish --- accompanied by an image of the archetypal vacant stare of that noble ruminant.

Or so I ruminate ... and so, for the past week and the next several weeks, posts to the ^zhurnal are likely to be shorter and less frequent ... as travel takes me away from home base ... and as I nestle down, away from 'Net access ... perhaps to read and write and draw and think a wee smidgeon ... or perhaps to just relax and experiment with a bit of ^zen nevermindedness ...

More anon!

(see also Light Mind (22 Aug 2002), ...)

- Wednesday, July 09, 2003 at 14:39:56 (EDT)

Haggard Riders

Three huge golden carp make a bright /// pattern at the bottom of the water as our train crosses a bridge above the Connecticut River. Then we slow to a crawl, click-clack across a rusty old switch, and curve sharply onto a side track. A sign on the nearby street says "Depot Village". We stop, toot, and lurch forward past parking lots, industrial buildings, and the unkempt back yards of little houses. We stop again. A freight train waiting on the adjacent track creeps out. Then we reverse out of our siding and cross another set of switches. Now we're going onto the main line --- traveling backwards past the town of Palmer Massachusetts, toward New York City.

It's my trip homeward on "The Vermonter", heading south from Amherst. Paulette [1] & I have taken our daughter Gray [2] to summer music camp, for the fourth year running. This time it's Musicorda [3] on the Mount Holyoke College campus. The trip up from the Washington DC area is a wee bit too exciting: after an eight-hour drive, alas, one of the brakes on our "new" car (an '87 Mercury Topaz) overheats in a freeway traffic jam on a hot Friday afternoon in the hills of Connecticut.

Fortunately Paulette is driving and pulls off the highway in time; had I been behind the wheel, the damage would have been far worse. The left front brake rotor gets so hot that the wheel's hubcap fittings melt. The hubcap itself falls off and spins away as we turn a corner to park in a local service station. A kind elderly couple behind us stops and tells us where they saw it roll; I walk back and find it, reduced to a bizarre and useless artifact. The gas station has no real mechanical facilities, just pumps and a mini-mart where people stand in line to buy candy and lottery tickets. We phone the auto club and they send help.

A few hours later, a 90+ mile tow gets the car to Amherst. Along the way, riding in the truck I meet a fascinating fellow: "Kev", the driver, who has lost ~120 pounds in the past year (and still weighs 300+), and who has cut back to smoking only half a pack of cigarettes daily. He's a genuinely decent guy ... a family man with a six-year-old son, a wife whom he clearly loves, and a job that keeps him busy with its constant variety. Kev tells me of the $65 ticket that he got recently when he failed to pull in to a truck weigh station (the cop could have hit him for over $200), of the latest accident he was in (his back still hurts; he has a lawyer who is suing the teenager who pulled out in front of him), and of the crazy states that people get into when their cars break down. It's almost 11pm when we arrive; Kev unloads our car and heads back to his home, where he has to get up for an early shift the next morning.

Meanwhile, the family friends who are hosting our visit overwhelm us as they go far beyond all conceivable calls of duty. Husband drives down to pick up Paulette and Gray, while wife stays up late to give Kev and me directions to their neighborhood mechanic's garage. Then they put us up for the night, feed us, lend us their car, and in general go so far out of their way and are so extraordinarily nice that we unable to thank them enough. (But thanks again anyway, Michael & Ruthie & Caleb!)

Saturday morning things continue to improve: the Merc appears likely fixable within a few days, and Paulette finds a rental car (seemingly the last one available in the region) so that she can continue on her planned journey to visit other friends who have retired to Maine. I take Gray to check in at Musicorda, 10 miles down the road in South Hadley. The little town is filled with signs announcing its 250th anniversary celebration to come on the 4th of July this year. Mount Holyoke's campus is lovely, Gray's dorm room is excellent, and so by midday we've deposited her gear and are back in Amherst. We eat some good Indian food, shop a bit in the town's bookstores, and at 4pm I'm on a train heading home, as per previous design.

The rail trip is long but rather pleasant. The route winds through thick woods and past open fields decorated with decaying farm machinery. It crosses a wooden bridge where a young couple sits near the tracks, looking down at a stream below and leaning on one another. We pass Bridgeport and see a baseball game in progress; the score is 0-0 in the bottom of the second inning. The sun makes a vertical streak of light as it sets behind high cirrus clouds. A girl in the seat behind me (or in front of me, since we're still going backwards) talks on her cellphone, sometimes cheerily, sometimes crying about a broken relationship. A pair of girls in front (or back?) chat together as they prepare to get off at Stamford, having ridden all the way from Montreal. One of them speaks politely with a boy who is trying to convert her to his religion. She's a thoughtful listener who raises some good questions; he's rather predictable and doctrinaire in his proselytizing.

Our train changes from diesel engine to an electric locomotive when we get to the main Northeast Corridor line, and progress is faster. We pass more dirty derelict warehouses: empty shells, their broken windows symbolic of economic change and malinvestment. I ponder the parallel situation in information space --- forsaken business models, unmaintained web sites, bankrupt dot-coms and their abandoned domains ...

I read a bit of Rider Haggard's She (so far, not as good as King Solomon's Mines), try to learn a few letters of the Arabic alphabet, write a few notes to myself, and nap. Saturday winds to its close between Baltimore and Washington. A little after midnight "The Vermonter" arrives at Union Station. I take the subway to my neighborhood, walk three quarters of a mile home with my pack on my back, and find the boys still awake and playing video games. Then for me it's bedtime, and up early Sunday morning to don running clothes and try my old legs in a 5k race, the new "Burning Tree" event in Bethesda. The course is hilly and I'm slow, but it feels great. So does the amateur baseball game that I watch Sunday evening.

And this Friday morning, less than a week later, I'm up before dawn to get back to Union Station and catch "The Vermonter" for the eight-hour ride north to Amherst, where I'll meet Paulette on her way back from Maine. We'll visit friends and daughter, then drive home --- uneventfully, touch wood.

(see also Rail Web (3 Jan 2001), Pop Goes (19 Jun 2001), This Space For (17 Feb 2003), Rider Haggard (27 Jun 2003), ...)

- Friday, July 04, 2003 at 03:56:18 (EDT)

Freedom Evolves

Daniel Dennett's Freedom Evolves is a wonderfully fun yet woefully frustrating book. The author's prose is delightful; he's a master musician-magician of metaphor. (I'm just an amateur alliterator.)

But many weeks after finishing DD's tome I'm still struggling to say something coherent about it. Maybe it's about "free will"? Maybe free will is intrinsically a complicated, messy, incoherent phenomenon? Maybe free will is the result of a large number of interacting factors, and for fundamental reasons can't be simplified into an easily synopsized argument? Maybe I'm just fuzzy-minded and need to drink more coffee?

In the spirit of my profound befuddlement, what follows is a basketful of pretty pebbles that have lodged under my mental mattress and kept me awake, or at least tossing (grenades) and turning (pages). Note that some are my own interpretative-impressionistic leaps inspired by Dennett, for which he obviously is not (much) responsible.

Toss into the stewpot:

Head swimming deep waters ...

(see also Bits Per Life (3 May 1999), Mean Meaners (3 Jul 1999), The Mysterians (2 Aug 1999), Bits Of Consciousness (21 Jan 2000), Free Action (3 Apr 2000), Thoughtful Metaphors (8 Nov 2000), ...)

- Thursday, July 03, 2003 at 05:54:30 (EDT)

Rear Admiral Lower Half

[Caveat: what follows includes mildly bawdy banter and low allusion, appropriate only for those who are either highly enlightened or extraordinarily unenlightened. Those in the middle of the sensibility spectrum are advised to avert their gaze.]

Intense mental or physical exercise is a good way to get in touch with one's animal nature. Of course, that nature often isn't pretty --- e.g., consider my purple toenails after a too-long jog in too-tight shoes. But part of animal awareness involves an instinctive appreciation of the finer æsthetic characteristics possessed by other animals of one's species.

At Caltech in the 1970s second-year physics graduate students were impelled to strenuous cerebral effort via eight hours of compulsory written tests that covered classical mechanics, electromagnetism, thermodynamics, quantum mechanics, mathematical methods, and a variety of topics in "modern physics" such as nuclear, high-energy, and gravitational theory. Those comprehensive exams were a deliberate ordeal, an initiation ritual designed to knock the hubris out of the victim's sails and prepare the now-humbled student for several years of dogged thesis work.

A common method of therapy for those who survived the comp experience was to take time off for total mindlessness. One comrade (name elided to protect the guilty) told me that he went to Disneyland, an hour's drive away, where he rode the silliest little-kid rides that he could find. He reported that while waiting in one line he was privileged to witness the most beautiful vision that he had seen in his lifetime ... or so it seemed, in his stressed-out state of mind.

"A stern chase is a long chase", the old naval proverb says. When one ship pursues another the gap between them closes slowly, at a rate based on the difference in speeds. This is in sharp contrast to a bows-on encounter, where the sum of the speeds governs.

But when standing in line, or when pursuing someone during a long distance run, a stern chase can be a subjectively short and fast one --- and pleasant to boot. Experienced marathoners have recommended this experiment to me: find an attractive runner, one who is going slightly faster than you're comfortable with, and tail him or her. The callipygian view is guaranteed to make the miles fly past. Likewise for the minutes spent waiting one's turn in a queue.

Hmmm ... perhaps it's no coincidence that "hind" is an ancient word for a deer --- since that's the side of the animal that one sees most often, as it speedily bounds away?

(see also Appropriate Units (2 Feb 2000), Geo Memory (17 May 2001), Lens Manic (16 Jul 2001), College Collage 3 (29 Sep 2001), Parkway Delay (28 Dec 2001), Bottom Power (14 Jun 2002), ...)

- Tuesday, July 01, 2003 at 05:42:07 (EDT)

Universities and Race

A pair of op-ed pieces in this Sunday's New York Times (29 Jun 2003) offer insightful, memorable analyses of the US Supreme Court's recent decision on race and university admission policy.

In "Fixing the Race Gap in 25 Years or Less" Steven A. Holmes and Greg Winter quote Freeman Hrabowski, president of the University of Maryland at Baltimore County, who pierces the bullseye on the micro scale of individual family responsibility when he observes:

"The gap persists across all income levels ... We're talking about generations of habits in too many homes ... Unfortunately, reading is not the No. 1 priority as a habit. There is much more emphasis on television watching."

Precisely. And on the macro level, in "A Decision That Universities Can Relate To" Nicholas Lemann similarly hits the target with a social-psychoanalysis of one of the primary rôles of higher education in our civilization:

... universities consider themselves to be rarefied autonomous institutions, oddly combining fragility and durability. (Remember that universities in recognizable form predate both democracy and capitalism.) Their total commitment to something that seems impractical --- the pursuit and dissemination of knowledge --- gives them an unlikely authority, independence and allure.
The reason that so many people want to (or should want to) study at great universities is to imbibe the university culture; schools, including elite public ones like the University of Michigan, pick among their applicants to strengthen the culture as much as possible. The idea that they should be forced, in the name of fairness to the individual applicant, to populate themselves via externally dictated quantitative measures deeply violates their self-concept.


... selective universities are partly in the business of training a leadership corps for society, and a society with racial and ethnic tensions can benefit tremendously from having an integrated leadership.
Correlation is not causation, but during the affirmative action era, the United States has created a multiracial authority structure in realm after realm, something few, if any, societies in the world have ever accomplished, and race relations have plainly improved. ...

A key part of Justice Sandra Day O'Connor's opinion on the case, Lemann suggests, is that "... legal close calls, so to speak, should go to universities because they deserve the honor of being left alone. She justified affirmative action not in terms of righting a past wrong, but of providing operating latitude to a category of institutions."

I'm reminded of baseball umpires and their true goal: not mechanical interpretation of rules, but simple basic fairness in resolving conflicts, so that a good game can take place.

For our civilization writ large, that "good game" is extraordinarily important ...

(see also Unseen University (7 Aug 1999), Deschooling Demythologized (29 May 2000), Summa Cum Laude (27 May 2001),Cardinal Newman (4 Oct 2001), Education Of The Youth (1 Dec 2001), Pursuit Of Excellence (22 Feb 2002), Interracial Intimacies (24 Sep 2003), Liberal Arts (13 Mar 2003), Proud Signage (23 Apr 2003), ...)

- Sunday, June 29, 2003 at 17:16:30 (EDT)

Rider Haggard

After reading a few League of Extraordinary Gentlemen comic book episodes I began to wonder: "Who is this Allan Quartermain dude, anyway?"

So at the local used-book sale a week ago I snagged a tattered 50 cent ex-library copy of King Solomon's Mines, and soon was aboard a roller-coaster ride by H. Rider Haggard. The prose isn't stratospheric, but it gets the job done. Characterization is decent; imagery is quite good, particularly in its description of native exotica. The plot is a bit transparent at times --- perhaps because so many of Haggard's devices have since been used, often less adroitly, by countless other writers and filmmakers:

... plus much much more. (But which of these did Haggard invent, and which did he adapt from earlier stories?)

Haggard's tale has strong echoes of Prescott's History of the Conquest of Mexico. And as I read King Solomon's Mines I am often reminded of "Akuji the Heartless", a Mesoamerican-themed video game, and also the "Tarot of the Ages" deck, my favorite set of tarot cards with its lovely and fierce Aztecs (Cups), Africans (Batons), Vikings (Swords), and East Indians (Coins). Most surprisingly pleasant of all, to me: Rider Haggard manages to avoid ~98% of the customary racism of his times. That leaves ~2%, alas, which a modern reader must charitably overlook or forgive; not too bad, given the climate within which Haggard wrote.

As for philosophy, witness a couple of striking comments. In a statement by a tribesman in Chapter 5, "Our March into the Desert":

'What is life? Tell me, O white men, who are wise, who know the secrets of the world, and the world of stars, and the world that lies above and around the stars; who flash their words from afar without a voice; tell me, white men, the secret of our life --- whither it goes and whence it comes!
'Ye cannot answer; ye know not. Listen, I will answer. Out of the dark we came, into the dark we go. Like a storm-driven bird at night we fly out of the Nowhere; for a moment our wings are seen in the light of the fire, and, lo! we are gone again into the Nowhere. Life is nothing. Life is all. It is the hand with which we hold off Death. It is the glow-worm that shines in the night-time and is black in the morning; it is the white breath of the oxen in the winter; it is the little shadow that runs across the grass and loses itself at sunset.'

Then much later, in Chapter 12, "Before the Battle", some musings by Allan Quartermain himself:

I shook my head and looked again at the sleeping men, and to my tired and yet excited imagination it seemed as though death had already touched them. My mind's eye singled out those who were sealed to slaughter, and there rushed in upon my heart a great sense of the mystery of human life, and an overwhelming sorrow at its futility and sadness. Tonight these thousands slept their healthy sleep, tomorrow they, and many others with them, ourselves perhaps among them, would be stiffening in the cold; their wives would be widows, their children fatherless, and their place know them no more for ever. Only the old moon would shine serenly on, the night wind would stir the grasses, and the wide earth would take its happy rest, even as it did aeons before these were, and will do aeons after they have been forgotten.
All sorts of reflections of this sort passed through my mind --- for as I get older I regret to say that a detestable habit of thinking seems to be getting a hold of me --- while I stood and stared at those grim yet fantastic lines of warriors sleeping, as the saying goes, 'upon their spears'.

(see also Los Conquistadores (8 Feb 2001), Extraordinary Gentlemen (29 Apr 2003), ...)

- Friday, June 27, 2003 at 00:32:55 (EDT)

Expanding Universe

You can't really own land until you've paced it off, stride by stride, on foot. Flying above or driving across just doesn't hack it. Without slow, direct contact there's no proper sense of scale, no depth of perception, no personal connection. You may have a deed, a title to a property --- but in a subtle way it's still not yours until you touch it. On the other hand, somebody who has no legal claim to a piece of earth can nevertheless "own" it, far more than any absentee landlord, simply by walking it often enough.

In that mystical sense, then, during the past year my cosmos has suddenly grown by a factor of more than a hundred. I never used to stroll more than a mile from home. I would venture out to a park or a grocery store or some other well-defined local goal. Along the way I tended not to pay attention to my surroundings. The endpoint was what counted, not the journey to get there. A decade ago when a friend's husband (FH) walked to our house one day from his home about six miles away, I was dumbfounded. Such a trek was beyond my comprehension.

Now, thanks to four seasons of jogging, there's an invisible spiderweb that binds the extended neighborhood to me, out to a radius of a dozen miles in most directions. As I drive along I'm constantly crossing threads of that web and getting startled by the geo-memories: "we're at the midpoint of the Marathon in the Parks"; "there's the path to the old Georgetown Branch railway trestle"; "my legs really cramped up right here last November"; "see that trail between those two trees? --- take it about five miles south and you're at the music school, then a little farther downhill and you join the Marine Corps Marathon route, which gets you to ..."; and so forth.

It's like the poems at the end of J. R. R. Tolkien's The Hobbit and the beginning of The Lord of the Rings:

  Roads go ever ever on,
     Over rock and under tree,
  By caves where never sun has shone,
     By streams that never find the sea;
  Over snow by winter sown,
     And through the merry flowers of June,
  Over grass and over stone,
     And under mountains in the moon.

Note that JRRT's "roads" are pathways, to be traversed not by motor vehicles but by pedestrians.

And besides a web to bind the land to me, and expand my boundaries, the footsore plodding that I've done has rather effectively helped me begin to bind my self. It's given me a healthier attitude about stress, and has started to break me free of some bad habits --- especially certain severe impatiences, obsessions, and the like. I've got a long way to go yet on those trails ...

(see also Geo Memory (17 May 2001), Walk About (9 Mar 2002), Invisible Web (8 Dec 2002), Anacostia Tributaries (28 Jan 2003), Forest Primeval Pedestrian (9 May 2003), Welcome To The Club (11 Jun 2003), ...)

- Thursday, June 26, 2003 at 09:17:02 (EDT)

Blog and Wiki

A friend (tnx, Steve!) forwarded me an article from Searcher magazine, April 2003, by David Mattison. It's titled "Quickiwiki, Swiki, Twiki, Zwiki and the Plone Wars: Wiki as a PIM and Collaborative Content Tool" [1] and is a good overview, reference-rich and oriented toward librarians, of what Wikis are all about. It also includes a thoughtful interview with Bo Leuf (hi Bo!).

Along the way Mattison makes the insightful point:

While both wikis and blogs are extensible to the point that they become indistinguishable, the general design principles of wikis and blogs remain unchanged: wikis promote content over form, blogs promote form (temporal organization) over content.

That's a nice distinction, but in real-life substantive terms there are larger differences to note. Blogs have quickly evolved toward an eye-candy cutesy-one-liner configuration, with a strong focus on ephemeral news of the day and politically polarized rant. Blog culture also exhibits an exaggerated level of you-link-me-I-link-you mutual back-patting (or insert a less polite metaphor here if you have a naughty imagination). That's a good way to improve one's standing via today's search engine relevance rankings, but it likely won't last. Blogs demonstrate how much easier it is to quote and point than it is to think and write.

Wikis, to be equally critical, trend toward zit-ugly supersaturated but uncrystallized stewpots of information salted with opinion. When an argument breaks out, a wiki can turn into something like a cross between ballroom dancing and mud-wrestling. Wikis too often are miniature models of the Web itself --- in Steve Cisler's image, "... like a library where somebody has taken all the books off the shelves, torn all their covers off, and then thrown them randomly on the floor".

Meanwhile, independent of technology and invisible on the seismographs of hit-count popularity, there remains the millennia-old concept of diary: a place to record things worth remembering from one's daily meanderings on this planet, including signs and sighs, fears and failures, dreams and discoveries. When both blog and wiki are long-forgot, there will yet be journals ...

(see also Mud And Crystals (13 Nov 1999), Annals Of Journals (4 Apr 2000), Dear Diary (19 Mar 2001), ...)

- Tuesday, June 24, 2003 at 18:15:19 (EDT)

Improving My Mind

Searching for a half-remembered vignette, I found a gem: a speech by Houghton College [1] President Daniel Chamberlain [2]. Stuck in my memory banks for the past decade has been a fragment of an anecdote told by somebody (Isaac Asimov?) during an interview (with Bill Moyers?) on a PBS television series of some sort. As I (mis?)recalled it, a famous judge (Learned Hand?) was found on his deathbed studying a Latin grammar book. Why? When asked, he reputedly gave a wise answer.

The quest to find the source of that story was going nowhere until I discovered Chamberlain's presentation online. It relates:

''When Franklin D. Roosevelt went to Washington for his inauguration in 1933, he decided to visit Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes who was 92 years of age.  Holmes was in his library reading Plato.  President-elect Roosevelt asked, "What are you doing, Mr. Justice?" to which Holmes responded, "I am improving my mind."

Precisely! And the rest of Chamberlain's address is even richer. It discusses what real learning can and should aim to produce:

Liberal arts education focuses on the fundamental skills of life --- analysis, inquiry, understanding, and expression, as well as on the essential tasks of life which prepare us to use our knowledge and exercise our responsibilities in intelligent, ethical, thoughtful and flexible ways.  The first goal of the liberating arts is to free individuals from the shackles of sloth, ignorance, and prejudice while cultivating a person’s character: intelligent citizenship, social responsibility, personal integrity.  The liberal arts are those that develop the whole person --- soul, body, mind, and spirit --- to serve the wide-ranging needs of society.
A pragmatic or professional education is targeted at developing expertise that will result in employment, and talent for the specific skill area is an essential prerequisite.  But a liberal arts education develops not just the skills but the individual who possesses the skills, and it educates for character, emphasizing teamwork, achievement, modesty, good conduct.  Quite frankly, in the game of life, character supersedes talent.

Moreover, as Chamberlain jokes, "The benefit of a classical education is that it teaches you to despise the wealth that it prevents you from accumulating."

And, most fascinating and important: the college where this talk was given is a profoundly religious institution --- a religion which, in this instance at least, is dedicated to freedom of thought ...

(see also Cardinal Newman (4 Nov 2001), Pursuit Of Excellence (22 Feb 2002), Knowledge And Society (25 Mar 2002), Parting Advice (21 Jun 2002), Liberal Arts (13 Mar 2003), ...)

- Sunday, June 22, 2003 at 20:31:09 (EDT)

Nunn So Ever

Dr. John Nunn is a mathematician, a grandmaster, and a delightful writer. His Secrets of Practical Chess (1998) is particularly fine book in that many of the concepts it develops are applicable far beyond the chessboard, especially when dealing with situations of overwhelming complexity. A quick sampler:

On the more chess-specific fronts of openings, middlegame play, and endings, GM Nunn offers a wealth of useful advice, illustrated in many cases by specific examples from his own games, both good and bad. Nunn is also quite savvy with respect to computers and how they can be used to improve one's understanding of a chess situation.

Nunn's prose is a pleasure to read. For example, in concluding his discussion of how to handle a bad position, he writes:

Defending well after having made an oversight requires especially cool nerves. We have previously discussed the possible causes of oversights and the warning signs which can indicate when danger is near. Suppose, despite this advice, you nevertheless overlook a surprising and strong move by your opponent. The first piece of advice is to stay calm. It is all too easy to bash out an instinctive response, either through uncontrollable nervous agitation or in an attempt to persuade your opponent that you had foreseen his move and had a ready reply. This is a mistake. The correct approach is to spend a few minutes just calming your nerves. Don't get caught up in a mental loop of self-recrimination --- you don't have time for this while you are at the board. Try to forget about the history of the position, and just consider the current state of affairs on the board. A calm look will very often show that your opponent's move is not nearly as strong as you feared at first and that there are still fighting chances. Then you can choose one of the defensive techniques outlined above and continue the struggle.

Good advice when facing many tight spots elsewhere in life ...

- Friday, June 20, 2003 at 05:35:32 (EDT)

Way Ahead

When somebody zips past you in a race, odds are s/he's not just passing you --- s/he's lapping you. The same is true when somebody plays the piano better, or solves math problems quicker, or writes sonnets more gracefully. These people who are now stronger than you have almost always been practicing, quietly and unnoted, longer and harder and more effectively than you have. Their training has put "money in the bank" for them, and now they can draw upon their investment in times of need. You can do likewise ...

(see also Learning Investment (11 Feb 2000), Ten Thousand Hours (20 Sep 2001), Self Standardization (6 Apr 2002), ...)

- Wednesday, June 18, 2003 at 10:22:45 (EDT)

Peace Scouts

What's in a name? "Democratic People's Republic" sounds nicer than "Dictatorship of Thugs", and "Department of Defense" is easier to sell than "Department of War". But what really counts is content, not the label on the package.

At a recent Boy Scout meeting a former Scoutmaster, JS, talked about the upcoming Centennial of Scouting jamboree to be held in England. The logo for the event features a dove. "Peace Scouts," JS explained, was one of the original terms for the international movement that Lord Baden-Powell and others founded in the early twentieth century. The focus of scouting was in peaceful areas: outdoorsmanship, self-reliance, initiative, health, cooperation, and leadership.

So maybe "Peace Scouts" would have been a good name to choose for the activity --- though I note that possibly the phrase suffers somewhat from excessive sibilance ...

But returning to substance, JS's comments led me to some of the original writings of Baden-Powell. In Scouting for Boys (1908) B-P wrote:

A scout in the army, as you know, is generally a soldier who is chosen for his cleverness and pluck to go out in front to find out where the enemy is, and report to the commander all about him.
But, besides war scouts, there are also peace scouts --- men who in peace time carry out work which requires the same kind of pluck and resourcefulness.
These are the frontiersmen of the world.
The pioneers and trappers of North and South America, the hunters of Central Africa, the explorers and missionaries in all parts of the world, the bushmen and drovers of Australia --- all these are peace scouts, real men in every sense of the word, and good at scoutcraft. They understand how to live out in the jungle. They can find their way anywhere, and are able to read meanings from the smallest signs and foot tracks. They know how to look after their health when far away from doctors. They are strong and plucky, ready to face danger, and always keen to help each other. They are accustomed to take their lives in their hands, and to risk them without hesitation if they can help their country by doing so.

Rather nice sentiments, particularly in their international and multicultural aspects. And there's the radically ahead-of-his-time:

A Scout is a friend to all, and a brother to every other Scout; no matter what colour, class or creed the other may belong.

Perhaps the umbrella of inclusiveness for scouting will grow still wider in years to come ...

(see also Worth Remembering 2 (31 Dec 2000), Paramilitary Organization (12 Dec 2002), ...)

- Tuesday, June 17, 2003 at 14:15:34 (EDT)

Present Tension

My best ^zhurnal scribblings about outdoor/athletic experiences seem to be those written in the present tense. Maybe that's because the here-and-now-ness of running (and of other intense physical activities) helps anchor one's consciousness more fully into the moment? It feels parallel to the zennish admonition "Be here now" --- but made real by exertion.

Or perhaps I've just rediscovered a standard literary hack to convey a sense of motion and dynamism. I do remember enjoying Kim Stanley Robinson's The Gold Coast, and Chuck Palahniuk's Fight Club, both of which are notable examples of that stylistic genre ...

(see also California Sherpa (27 May 2000), Soggy Jog (29 Apr 2002), Normanstone Trail (20 Dec 2002), Anacostia Tributaries (28 Jan 2003), Edwards Folly (13 Apr 2003), Pikes Peek 2003 (2 May 2003), Forest Primeval Pedestrian (9 May 2003), ...)

- Monday, June 16, 2003 at 21:10:08 (EDT)

Fight Club

"When he meets another man, the first thought of 99 out of 100 men is: Can I take this guy in a fight?"

So said Todd, a friendly young Marine, a few months ago as he explained his theory of male human nature to KLC and me. We got into the subject via an anecdote Todd was telling about what he would do if he were out running an errand and chanced, in passing by an alley, to see a woman struggling with a man. Todd said that he would intervene --- "Of course!" --- to rescue her, the clear assumption being that the man was the aggressor.

I asked Todd what his reaction would be if, in a similar situation, he saw two males in hand-to-hand combat? Todd thought about it and decided that, if the match seemed relatively even, he would probably ignore them and continue on his way. If one man were beating up on the other perhaps he would try to break things up.

"And what if it were two women fighting?" I then asked. That thought-experiment brought a smile to Todd's face. He told us that he would watch, or maybe take his clothes off and try to join in. Hmmmm was the reaction of KLC (a woman) and me.

I remembered that conversation with Todd when I saw Gary Shteyngart's review (in the 8 June 2003 New York Times Sunday book section) of a new collection of short stories by Benjamin Cavell. Shteyngart begins tongue-in-cheek:

Why do men hit each other? As someone who has never thrown a punch in his life, I am probably the last person to ask. But as a great deal of fist-happy recent literature can attest (not to mention our country's muscular forays abroad), I am clearly in the sissified New York minority, cowering beneath my writing desk on the wrong side of the Hudson. To the array of extreme male-on-male American violence we can now add Benjamin Cavell's collection of short stories, Rumble, Young Man, Rumble.

Then Shteyngart goes on to critique the lesser works in Cavell's anthology and to praise the better ones, in particular "Blue Yonder" and "The Ropes". Along the way he summarizes the edgy essence of one of my favorite books/movies:

... grand satire on the order of Chuck Palahniuk's Fight Club is needed; that was a novel whose cast of homicidal men concocted a testosterone-driven Newspeak out of self-mutilation, cancer support groups and, when necessary, explosives.

As a vegetarian/pacifist I find Todd's philosophy of life fascinating yet alien, distasteful yet attractive in a hypnotic fantasy fashion. The insane dark anarchy of Fight Club similarly appeals to deeply buried parts of my psyche. Why? I don't know --- but I need to work to understand it. The simple answers --- e.g., "evolution" or "id" --- don't suffice ...

- Sunday, June 15, 2003 at 18:21:26 (EDT)

Keeping Score

As in writing a biography: the big secret of baseball scorekeeping lies not in what you record, but in what you leave out. A good scoresheet tells the story of the game without getting bogged down in irrelevancies. The act of keeping score, like that of keeping a journal, focuses the mind in the present moment --- and magically stretches that moment into history.

But enough with philosophizing --- play ball! The 2003 season of the Clark Griffith League [1] has just begun, and my local team, the Silver Spring - Takoma "Thunderbolts" [2] are rumbling. They've already won their first five games. On 12 June they were getting ready to try for Number Six when a line of violent storms moved through the area tossing real thunderbolts and soaking the field.

So until the next home game, a survey of Tbolt action that I've witnessed so far this year:

I'm gradually settling into the summer spirit of baseball: long slow spells with "nothing" going on --- at least nothing obvious, just potential energy like that stored in a tightly-wound spring. Then, with the crack of the ball off the bat, there's smooth choreography as fielders shift into position to make the play while runners rocket along the basepaths.

Now if only the rains would pause long enough for the diamond to dry out ...

(see also Life Logs (25 Feb 2000), Dear Diary (19 Mar 2001), Tbolt Monkeys On My Back (19 Jul 2002), Summer Ball 2002 (3 Sep 2002), ...)

- Friday, June 13, 2003 at 19:22:13 (EDT)

Big Gulp Slurpee Makeover

7-11 is a chain of "convenience stores" that, in addition to odd-hours emergency supplies (it's midnight and we're out of toilet paper!), provides some key elements of the American liquid diet. I don't mean coffee, though theirs is quite good. No, I'm talking about mega-sized quantities of soda water --- the Big Gulp --- and ice slurry concoctions --- the Slurpee. (Doubtless both are trademarks, all rights reserved, etc. Fair Use, Mr. Copyright Cop!)

But 7-11 has an image, and it's not a pretty one. Upper-class folks, the ones who sip latte-mocha-ccino-vente drinks sold at insane markups, aren't often found standing in line with buyers of lottery tickets, phone cards, muscle-car magazines, or cheap cigarettes. And, though it hurts me to say this, the hoity-toity set prefer their non-English speakers behind the counter, not on the same side as they are.

So how can 7-11 broaden its appeal, widen its profit margins, and move up the food chain a step?

A modest proposal: rename the core product line. Made-up foreign-sounding labels sell well to the effete elite. Italian has been done, and will doubtless be passé soon if not already. Scandinavian tongues are reserved for premium ice creams.

Therefore, go Asian! "Big Gulp" rings lower-class; try Quaffsura or Sotasan instead, and then double the price per ounce. And lose the "Slurpee" monicker --- those syllables aren't making it onto any Social Register palates! --- and christen an identical product Hai Chi Tao Ming or Kamazendojo. Don't sell chewing-gum flavors, either; call the same tastes something exotic so that people will have to buy one to know what it is.

Meaning isn't important; it's the sound that counts, and the only sound that counts is that of crisp paper money sliding into the till ...

- Thursday, June 12, 2003 at 08:55:41 (EDT)

Welcome to the Club

"You will never be the same", friend Stephen told me before my first 26.2 mile run. I was skeptical. Nobody is ever the same; life means constant change, from moment to moment. What difference does doing a marathon make?

Well, Steve was right, in a big way --- it just took me a while to realize it. There's a palpable sense of quiet satisfaction that somehow comes from setting oneself an ambitious goal, planning an attack on it, working hard for a long time, and then successfully finishing the quest. One is rewarded with a feeling of confident competence --- rather like a relaxing aura. Daily troubles aren't quite as troublesome as they once were. It's easier to recognize things as the unimportant small stuff that they really are, ephemera not worth breaking into a sweat about. And I smile to myself more often now, for no reason. Maybe I'm even easier to get along with, or so I imagine. (see also Ein Ben Stein, 19 Sep 2002, and the offbeat movie Rustler's Rhapsody for humorous use of the phrase "confident heterosexual" ...)

A few weeks after my first marathon a fellow Boy Scout father, Philippe, approached me at a troop meeting. "Welcome to the club", he said quietly, as he shook my hand. I was embarrassed, not least because both Philippe and Steve are real runners --- they've done multiple marathons in less than 3 hours. If there's a club, then they're full members and I'm very much a junior associate, with my two barely-short-of-5-hour experiences. But I was also proud to shake Philippe's hand.

Thank goodness, there are plenty of other "clubs" that can produce the same healthy changes. A significant personal project doesn't have to involve physical exercise. It can be an educational experience, a journey, an artistic activity, or any of a thousand other things. A well-defined conclusion may be part of a worthy mission, but even that's not always necessary. But the task should probably require at least many months to achieve, and should offer some intermediate rewards during the process. And it's definitely wise to stay flexible, so that the path and endpoint can be redefined if circumstances change along the way.

So I've come to believe that clubs are good things. And in the most important sense, everybody is a member of a club of one ...

(see also Doctoral Envy (3 Jan 2000), Good Day (25 Jun 2002), Achieve New Balance (17 Jul 2002), Bless The Leathernecks (28 Oct 2002), Marine Corps Ordnance (1 Nov 2002), Rocky Run (17 Nov 2002), ...)

- Wednesday, June 11, 2003 at 16:54:53 (EDT)

Unintended Consequences

The "Law of Unintended Consequences" is a ringing rhetorical phrase, but what does it mean? Mostly, not much. When somebody does something, things result that weren't wished for.

And? The point? No one can foresee outcomes with perfect accuracy, particularly not in complex circumstances. "The Law" doesn't seem to have much (if any) predictive power. And it's universally applied to condemn (or poke fun at) disfavored actions, not inactions --- even though inactions are at least as likely to produce poor effects.

A less poetic but better statement of cosmic truth: "Stuff happens" ...

- Tuesday, June 10, 2003 at 06:00:32 (EDT)

Bumper Sticker Optics

"If you can't see my mirrors, I can't see you" is a common warning sign on the back of big trucks --- and it bugs me because, in fact, it's so wrong! A trucker can often see a car without the car's driver being able to see the truck's mirrors.

Simple geometric optics --- straight-line ray-tracing --- suggests the more accurate: "If you can't see my eyes in my mirrors, then I can't see your eyes in my mirrors". Yeah, I admit it --- that's far too convoluted for most tailgate-hugging motorists to appreciate or find useful. And it's not the whole story, given the fact that (most) people have two eyes. Plus which, light is a wave and diffracts (a little) around corners.

So the bottom line is, don't ask a physicist to design traffic signage. But meanwhile, maybe a better caveat to post on a big rig is something akin to "If you can't read my mind, I can't read yours" ...

- Monday, June 09, 2003 at 06:01:35 (EDT)

For Themselves

Why does everything have to involve so much money? Foot races have turned into fund-raising events for various causes, noble or otherwise. Web sites try to support themselves by spattering "sponsored links" before, beside, beneath, and between bits of content. TV and radio commercials expand to occupy an ever-larger fraction of the broadcast hour. Advertisements squeeze out the articles in newspapers and magazines. Ostensibly-noncommercial networks frame their shows with quack-like-a-duck acknowledgments of contributions, and every year devote weeks or months of airtime to beg for more audience support. Movies take payments for product placements; books are starting to do likewise. And don't even mention the so-called "music industry", or professional sports, or modern politics!

So the line between honesty and I-was-paid-to-say-this becomes increasingly blurred. Things get prostituted that are of infinite value in and for themselves: creative new ideas ... the sheer animal joy of physical activity ... the æsthetic pleasure that beauty brings ... the sense of wonder and awe and reverence at the universe ... and simple love.

Thank goodness, there are still exceptions: worthwhile acts done for their own sake ...

(see also Mind Me (24 Jun 1999), Our One Ring (18 Dec 2001), Something To Sell (14 Apr 2002), My Ob (18 Aug 2002), Make Money Whisper (9 Nov 2002), This Space For (17 Feb 2003), ...)

- Sunday, June 08, 2003 at 15:38:19 (EDT)

Strong Coffee

"Pain is the feeling of weakness leaving the body" is a mantra seen on some distance-runner t-shirts. Yes, it's horribly insensitive to to victims of torture, and to those who suffer from chronic pain.

But in the context of training for a marathon one must admit that it's quite inspirational, in the same spirit as the Nietzsche/Conan-the-Barbarian aphorism, "That which doesn't kill me, makes me stronger". The implied theory of weakness --- a fluid rather like phlogiston --- is entertaining if fantastical. Like the phlogistonic hypothesis, weakness-as-liquid gets things backwards; that's entertaining too. And of course, too much stress without enough time for recovery is a good prescription for injury.

But for fun, take another proverb (from a recent Washington Post article re Scandinavian Americans): "There is no such thing as strong coffee; there are only weak people." Combine that in a syllogism with "Pain is the feeling of weakness leaving the body".


Drink coffee until it hurts, and you'll get stronger!

(see also Body Mods (23 Dec 1999), Lose Track (11 Nov 2002), ...)

- Saturday, June 07, 2003 at 17:57:24 (EDT)

Motorcycle Maintenance

Robert Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is one of those rare novels that doubles as a philosophy text (or maybe vice versa). The author wrestles with all the great questions ... but the part I remember best, three decades or so after I first read it, is a metaphor he came up about the meaning of life: fixing a motorcycle. And his punch line, "The real cycle you’re working on is a cycle called yourself."

(see also What Is My Life (20 Apr 1999), Self Improvement (29 Jul 2002), ...)

- Friday, June 06, 2003 at 16:44:57 (EDT)

Paul Kelly Comedy

Innocently browsing backlinks to the ^zhurnal, I fell into Paul Kelly Stand-Up News (http://www.geocities.com/paulfunnykelly/index.html) --- and couldn't get out! (At least, not for a long and pleasant interlude.) Paul describes his work as "A compendium of daily nothings and incomplete meanderings" --- but it's a lot more, a rich potpourri of hilarious jokes and insightful commentary. First-class reading, compact and well-organized, with a delightful voice.

And on a serious self-referential psychological/philosophical note, Kelly observes:

... rather than a means of communication, this blogging might increase isolation. Each blogger pouring out the daily spew, desperate to connect. Hear me, see me, touch me, feel me. A million Tommies with nothing to do.

Lonely crowd ...

(full disclosure: as mentioned above, Paul for unknown reasons has, at least for the moment, a link to Zen Scrabble --- I'm flattered ... see also Absurd Juxtaposition (21 Oct 1999), ...)

- Thursday, June 05, 2003 at 05:43:52 (EDT)

Fast Forward Fifty Years

During the final months of his life Robert L. Forward worked on an autobiography, knowing full well that he would not have time enough to finish it before cancer killed him. Fortunately for us all, Bob Forward's family has shared the draft at http://www.robertforward.com/ (see, e.g., http://www.robertforward.com/Fast_Forward_Fifty_Years.htm). It's good reading, even in its unavoidably incomplete and unedited state.

The main areas of research that Bob Forward worked on during his highly productive career included:

All still important, all at that fertile crossroads between theory and practice where valuable discoveries tend to blossom.

And there were Dr. Forward's popular science articles and his science-fiction novels, not to mention his contagious enthusiasm and creative energy. We still miss you, Bob ...

(see also Fast Forward (21 Feb 2002), Faster Forward (26 Sep 2002), ...)

- Wednesday, June 04, 2003 at 05:39:26 (EDT)

Burnt Njal

Njal's Saga (also known as The Story of Burnt Njal) recounts a multi-generational feud that occurred in Iceland, ca. 950-1015 A.D. It reads in many places like a script for a movie or a video game, with choreographed sword- and axe-play, gory hackings-off of limbs, and dramatic confrontations among stiff-necked warriors --- interspersed with interminable lawyerly quibbling and chicanery that wouldn't be out of place in a TV courtroom today.

Magnus Magnusson (co-translator with Hermann Palsson of a 1960 edition of the saga) writes:

It is impossible to summarize briefly the 'plot' of Njal's Saga. At its core is the tragedy of the influential farmer and sage, Njal Thorgeirsson of Bergthorsknoll, who with his family is burned alive in his home by a confederacy of enemies. ... It starts on a quiet note with a group of people, neither particularly good nor particularly bad, who, because they are the way they are, clash with each other; not violently, but sufficiently hard to cause ill-feeling. This casual ill-feeling is transmitted to kinsmen and descendants, to friends and to allies. More and more people become involved, with fatal results --- first Njal's great friend, the heroic Gunnar of Hlidarend, and then Njal himself and his four sons. The early actors of the drama fade out, but the troubles they have started now seem to have a life of their own, until the action is galloping headlong, with brief tantalizing pauses where control seems to have been momentarily asserted, from minor mishap to major tragedy, until finally its inevitable impulse is exhausted in the last elegiac chapter.

And there's sex, and magic, to go with the violence. One tragic seed of the conflict sprouts when a betrothed warrior travels far to claim an inheritance, is seduced, and then bewitched when he chooses to return home --- so that he and his intended can never consummate their marriage. And then there are ghosts and "fetches", visions and prophecies, mysterious mists and portents. To give a taste of the saga, some storyboard scenes follow (taken from the 1861 translation by Sir George Webbe Dasent).

A dramatic battle takes place on a frozen river (~995 A.D), when one of Njal's sons pauses to tie his shoe, then races to catch up and slips on the ice:

Skarphedinn takes a spring into the air, and leaps over the stream between the icebanks, and does not check his course, but rushes still onwards with a slide. The sheet of ice was very slippery, and so he went as fast as a bird flies. Thrain was just about to put his helm on his head; and now Skarphedinn bore down on them, and hews at Thrain with his axe, "the ogress of war," and smote him on the head, and clove him down to the teeth, so that his jaw-teeth fell out on the ice. This feat was done with such a quick sleight that no one could get a blow at him; he glided away from them at once at full speed. Tjorvi, indeed, threw his shield before him on the ice, but he leapt over it, and still kept his feet, and slid quite to the end of the sheet of ice.

When a gang has trapped Njal and his family in their house, and is about to burn them (~1011 A.D), an artifact from that earlier battle returns in brutal vengeance:

Then Skarphedinn said, "Here now is a keepsake for thee;" and with that he took out of his purse the jaw-tooth which he had hewn out of Thrain, and threw it at Gunnar, and struck him in the eye, so that it started out and lay on his cheek.

And, decades later, another gruesome killing:

Wolf the Quarrelsome cut open his belly, and led him round and round the trunk of a tree, and so wound all his entrails out of him, and he did not die before they were all drawn out of him.

Then there are the poems and the figures of speech, kennings and metaphors like "sea stag" and "water skate" (ship), "boiling kettle" (hot spring), "helmet hewer" (sword), "rill of wolf" (stream of blood), and more. And the characters, still vibrant after 1000 years. And their speeches! As Magnusson describes them, "... these whiplash retorts, these silences, these slow deliberate formalities that are a prelude to violence."

(see also Kenning Construction Kit (17 Nov 1999), Forest Primeval Pedestrian (9 May 2003), ...)

- Tuesday, June 03, 2003 at 05:42:11 (EDT)

Permanent Portfolio

A couple of decades ago I was still in the mood to see imminent world financial catastrophe. (Since then, I've gained a better appreciation for the weight of inertia in real economic affairs.) I didn't have much money, fresh out of school as I was, but I managed to put a wee bit aside. Where to invest?

A mutual fund called "Permanent Portfolio Fund" caught my eye. It proposed to insure its owners against disaster by diversifying resources across some unconventional dimensions such as gold, silver, and long-term bonds, in additional to the more ordinary stocks of publicly-traded corporations. This would, the argument went, protect against deflation, depression, runaway inflation, and other disasteristic scenarios.

It sounded reasonable, so I sent in a minimal amount and sat back to read the quarterly reports. They were entertaining, particularly as the international economy failed to collapse --- and in fact, rather thrived --- while the PPF's price stagnated. After a few years I threw in my hand, and moved back to the usual investment universe ... savings accounts, retirement plans, etc.

But PPF still occupies a warm place in my heart because of the most bizarre financial coincidence that I have ever experienced: ca. 1983, in the big bureaucracy where I worked, one day I discovered that my immediate neighbor --- "NK", who sat at the very next desk beside mine --- was also an investor in Permanent Portfolio Fund! With only a few thousand shareholders in the world, what are the odds of that? Not astronomically against, but surely less than one chance in 10,000.

Would that I could have placed a wager on that conjunction of events; I might have made some real money ...

(see also http://www.harrybrowne.org/articles/InvestmentRules.htm for some sensible advice by one of the founders of PPF; and see Money Wisdom (20 May 2001), Silver Skepticism (29 Jul 2001), ...)

- Monday, June 02, 2003 at 05:40:14 (EDT)

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!