^zhurnal v.0.31

This is volume 0.31 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.)

Silver Anniversary

 O Wind! Caress my love:
    Be thou my fingers as they brush
    Her hair, my lips upon her cheek.
    Whisper my name into her ear.
    Bring her the scent of juniper
    From canyon paths where first we walked ...
 O Light! Gleam for my love:
    Shine in my tears of dew upon
    The rose, and twinkle stars for her
    That smiled on us as we held hands.
    And later, let her glimpse once more
    My shadow on the rumpled bed ...
 Beside her.
 O Word! Speak to my love:
    Echo the quiet songs we sang,
    In chorus, nestled two as one.
    Retell my silly jokes to her.
    Unfold the letters that I wrote
    And read them to her yet again ...
 Remind her.
 O Wind, O Light, O Word! Comfort my love:
    Assure her each day that, although
    Death's door has closed between us now,
    I loved --- and love --- her only, still ...

( ... to Paulette Dickerson, on our 25th wedding anniversary, 6 September 2003 ... see also Valentine Wish (14 Feb 2002), For Us (31 Dec 2002), ... )

- Saturday, September 06, 2003 at 10:20:07 (EDT)

Catfight Club

Indian movies --- in Hindi with English subtitles --- have become the craze at our house for the past month, due to our recent discovery of a charming snacks-trinkets-and-DVD-rental shop in the basement of a converted house a few miles from here. The tiny store is run by a nice young woman, clearly a cinematiste, who has taken Paulette under her wing and given great advice on which shows to watch in various sub-genres. As for the films themselves, the plots are striking, the costumes exotic, and the dance sequences superb. Weekly rental fees are astoundingly low. What a deal!

And there's a feature of some Bollywood movies shared by many Western flicks that has provoked considerable mirth in our family dinner-table analyses: the tendency to promise, but not often deliver, hand-to-hand unarmed combat between female characters. Back-of-the-box blurbs in particular seem to exaggerate the amount and violence of this filmic feature.

But of course "cat fights" have been crowd-pleasers for quite a long time ... as witness this excerpt from yet another classic book that I need to read some day, The History of Tom Jones by Henry Fielding (1749):

... Having thus said, she flew at Molly Seagrim, and easily wrenched the thigh-bone from her hand, at the same time clawing off her cap from her head. Then laying hold of the hair of Molly with her left hand, she attacked her so furiously in the face with the right, that the blood soon began to trickle from her nose. Molly was not idle this while. She soon removed the clout from the head of Goody Brown, and then fastening on her hair with one hand, with the other she caused another bloody stream to issue forth from the nostrils of the enemy.
When each of the combatants had borne off sufficient spoils of hair from the head of her antagonist, the next rage was against the garments. In this attack they exerted so much violence, that in a very few minutes they were both naked to the middle.
It is lucky for the women that the seat of fistycuff war is not the same with them as among men; but though they may seem a little to deviate from their sex, when they go forth to battle, yet I have observed, they never so far forget, as to assail the bosoms of each other; where a few blows would be fatal to most of them. This, I know, some derive from their being of a more bloody inclination than the males. On which account they apply to the nose, as to the part whence blood may most easily be drawn; but this seems a far-fetched as well as ill-natured supposition.
Goody Brown had great advantage of Molly in this particular; for the former had indeed no breasts, her bosom (if it may be so called), as well in colour as in many other properties, exactly resembling an antient piece of parchment, upon which any one might have drummed a considerable while without doing her any great damage.
Molly, beside her present unhappy condition, was differently formed in those parts, and might, perhaps, have tempted the envy of Brown to give her a fatal blow, had not the lucky arrival of Tom Jones at this instant put an immediate end to the bloody scene. ...

... from Book IV, Chapter viii, "A battle sung by the muse in the Homerican style, and which none but the classical reader can taste."

(see also Fight Club (15 June 2003), ...)

- Friday, September 05, 2003 at 06:09:05 (EDT)

Madhouse Death

A Book of One's Own: Developing Literacy Through Making Books by Paul Johnson (1992) argues, persuasively, that small handmade books can be perfect steppingstones to all sorts of writing experiences, especially for young people who are often intimidated by an expanse of blank paper. "Concertina books", "Origami books", and others of simple design are straightforward to fold. They offer a finite framework for creativity, and when finished are easy to store and retrieve, unlike many other art projects.

Johnson gives detailed instructions for bookmaking, and showcases a variety of books which his students have crafted. One in particular grabbed my attention both because of its clever structure and its name. Madhouse Death is an illustrated horror story in a handful of pages. Its author ("David", age 9) added another dimension to his house-book by using cut-out fold-open windows and doors through one layer of paper to reveal interior rooms --- scenes and messages in the normally-hidden inner layers of paper. Brilliant!

Paul Johnson's later book, Literacy Through the Book Arts, continues the saga. Besides displaying lovely examples of children's book projects, the author philosophizes about book, art, and mind:

But the book is where we discover most about ourselves. The journal, diary, notebook, sketchbook are all systems that make meaning possible. Some people write; others draw; some do both. The diaries and letters of the literati reveal some of the most perceptive observations of their time. The sketchbooks of Turner and Picasso are illuminating in showing the visual journey they made in arriving at their seminal work. The notebook sketchbook is a great liberator of the imagination because it falls outside the hierarchy of "Art." One is permitted to produce lesser-art in them, to be adventurous and capricious, and in doing so the freedom to be oneself can produce visionary statements that would otherwise not be made in the more conscious pursuit of excellence. But most importantly, it is the psychology of making a book that is so compelling. The organization and development of ideas through the discipline of paginated sequence of writing and/or visual statements has produced some of the greatest achievements of civilization. Yet all it is, is a bundle of papers joined together.

Perhaps Wiki has some of that bookish creativity-liberating quality too?! As do other journaling-authoring-blogging systems?

(see also Johnson On Anecdotes (19 Apr 1999), ...)

- Wednesday, September 03, 2003 at 20:42:05 (EDT)

Reversal of Fortune

A wonderful euphemism is revealed in " 'That Stomach Is Going to Make You Money Someday' ", an article about the sport of competitive eating (by Chris Ballard in the 31 Aug 2003 New York Times Sunday magazine). When a participant in a gorging contest is overcome by nausea and vomits, the term of art is to say that s/he has suffered a ( ... drum roll ... ) "reversal of fortune".

(see also Free Rides (12 Feb 2002), ...)

- Monday, September 01, 2003 at 16:28:11 (EDT)

Ephraim Francis Baldwin

"The world is full of history!" according to idiots savant William S. Preston and Ted "Theodore" Logan (in the movie Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure ... yes, they're dumbbells, but they mean well). Yesterday, after I had started to write this note, I took a break to go out running. Randomly I headed north instead of south from the end of my driveway. A few minutes later I crossed a bridge over the Beltway and found myself with a serious historic decision to make: turn left, or right?

To explain, back up 21 years. That's when Carlos Avery and I first met, an encounter in which he corrected, politely but firmly, a couple of inaccuracies in a draft memo I had written --- and by the way made it significantly better. Since then, bureaucratic reorganizations and internal transfers have crossed our paths time and again. I won't get into much more personal detail about Carlos, since: (1) he knows where I live, and (2) he has an extraordinarily creative sense of humor. Suffice it to say that Dr. Avery began his own distance running regime on his 50th birthday, and his gentle, persistent nagging of me was a major factor in my hitting the trails during my 50th year.

After we had known each other for a while Carlos revealed another of his passions: the work of E. Francis Baldwin (1837-1916). Baldwin was a prominent Maryland architect who designed hundreds of train stations, churches, and other structures during his career. For the past quarter century Avery has been pursuing Baldwin across space and time: interviewing descendants, scouring microfilmed newspapers, searching the countryside for Baldwin buildings and photographing those that still stand, gathering historical records, and analyzing the surviving notebooks and ledger-journals of Baldwin himself.

This month, thanks to the Baltimore Architecture Foundation, the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad Museum, and members of the Baldwin family, the results of Carlos's research have been published as E. Francis Baldwin, Architect: The B&O, Baltimore, and Beyond. It's a lovely book, well-illustrated and highly readable. (To get my sole criticism out of the way: I sure would have appreciated a few maps. Maybe in the next edition?)

Francis Baldwin as an engineer of structures paid meticulous attention to detail --- a character trait that Carlos Avery shares. Baldwin exhibited a quiet competence in his work, as Professor Michael J. Lewis discusses in his introduction to Avery's book. In his foreword railroad expert Herbert H. Harwood, Jr. provides insight as to the historical context of Baldwin's era. It was a time when railroads served as the dot-com-equivalent economic vehicle for rapid growth, large cash flows, bad accounting practices, extravagant spending, and hubris out the wazoo. Baldwin, as the house architect for the B&O, rode both the boom and the bust of that business cycle. He did superb low-key design work on a large number of "commercial, industrial, religious, educational, governmental, and residential buildings" especially in the Baltimore area.

Besides my personal connection to Baldwin via Carlos, as I read the book I was pleasantly surprised to discover that I had several other linkages:

And that gets us back to the "historic decision" that faced me on yesterday's evening run. My home is almost adjacent to the B&O's Metropolitan Branch, along which Baldwin crafted numerous stations and other railroad structures. I paused at the corner where usually I go west to cross the train tracks. As Carlos informed me, this is the former location of the unique station on the Metropolitan Branch that was not designed by Baldwin. (A ^zen connection?)

Then I remembered Plate 13, "Church of St. John the Evangelist, Forest Glen, Maryland" --- a photo of a red stone chapel that I've passed by many times with scarcely a glance. It's a fraction of a mile to the east of the grade crossing where I hesitated. The structure was built 1892-94, according to Avery, who observes "Baldwin gave personal attention to this church; his notebooks show that he visited the construction site at least six times in the latter half of 1893. The church was completed and dedicated in April 1894. It is still standing, its appearance virtually unchanged."

So I turned right to see for myself. A few minutes later my watch beeped, reminding me to take a walk break ... and there I was. I walked around the tiny building. I stopped to touch a stone at one corner with a sweaty hand. This world really is full of history.

Carlos, may your book last as long as Baldwin's creations, or --- given the destruction of so many edifices by decay, vandalism, and rebuilding --- may it last a bit longer.

For information on E. Francis Baldwin, Architect by Carlos P. Avery, see http://www.baltimorearchitecture.org or write to the Baltimore Architecture Foundation, 1016 Morton Street, Baltimore, MD 21201, USA.

(see also Building Book Web, 2 Feb 2001, for musings about the tension between architecture and printing, via Victor Hugo (Hunchback of Notre Dame), ...)

- Sunday, August 31, 2003 at 16:18:08 (EDT)

Event Insurance

Organizing a medium- to large-scale "happening" --- like a footrace, or a concert, or a convention --- can involve a lot of uncertainty. The weather may turn bad and force a cancellation. Sponsors may drop out. Suppliers may fail to deliver. Entry fees may be set too low to cover up-front costs, or not enough participants may sign up in advance.

So events get cancelled, sometimes at or near the last minute. Two contrasting examples from this year's local running calendar:

The answer to this sort of problem is straightforward. First, full disclosure: announce on the entry forms specifically who will bear the costs of nonperformance and what will happen if, for any reason, an event doesn't take place as scheduled. Second, offer event insurance: as a surcharge, or as part of the basic price, collect an appropriate amount to go into an escrow fund (or to a third party) for use in making everybody whole in case something goes awry. Reliable organizers with a history of good performance will be able to charge a low fee for this service. New events, or those set to occur at a weather-wise delicate time of year, likely must ask for more up front.

Simple stuff --- but making risk explicit, and shifting it to those who can manage it efficiently, helps everybody make better decisions.

- Thursday, August 28, 2003 at 06:37:46 (EDT)

Fearless Leaders

After spending more than a score of years in a big bureaucracy I'm starting to see an increasing number of friends and acquaintances move up into middle-management and even, in a few cases, to rather senior rôles. To put it gently, not all of these individuals are the highest peaks in the mountain range. As cynical colleagues have put it, "They must have pictures!" (i.e., be blackmailing somebody above them) ...

Contrariwise, at the working level I notice a wide variety of brilliance --- ranging from narrow best-in-their-field specialists to diversely helpful-and-creative generalists. In most cases they work extraordinarily hard with virtually no recognition by their bosses. In many shops even their close colleagues don't realize what gems they're sitting next to.

Sometimes all this starts to bug me ... but then I remind myself:

(see also Remember Me (21 May 1999), Just Desserts (20 Sep 1999), Idiocy Amelioration (18 Apr 2000), Fifth Disciplinarians (10 Sep 2000), Some Good (16 Sep 2000), Boss Jobs (24 Jul 2001), Stages Of Work (28 Jul 2001), ... )

- Wednesday, August 27, 2003 at 06:38:46 (EDT)

White Teeth

Zadie Smith's White Teeth is a hilarious, well-written, overstuffed comic-book of a novel: episodic and picaresque, by turns heartbreaking and heartening. The plot is tortuous, the science absurd on which the climax hangs --- but no matter. Smith's dizzy white-water ride of people and cultures carries one along quite briskly enough, thank you, without time to criticize or think about inconsistencies.

No need to even attempt to describe the events that take place in White Teeth; they're utterly unimportant. The melange of sub-societies --- Jamaican and British and Bangladeshi-Moslem, analytic and religious and mystical-nihilist --- come together with Smith's ear for dialect and mindset to make a tasty stew. Yes, the book could have been better. There's too much foul language, drugs, raunchiness, violence, coincidence, pain, and greasy food. The caricatures often push the characters offstage. The ending is over-the-top silly, an unnecessary exercise in knot-tying.

So what? It's the journey that counts: the rhythmic rattling of the train, the scenery scrolling by the window, the chatter of one's fellow passengers, and the helter-skelter chaos of arrival/departure that every station-stop throws the carriage into. Getting off at one's destination is anticlimactic. So is the conclusion of White Teeth.

- Monday, August 25, 2003 at 20:42:40 (EDT)

Loop Course

A few years ago I commenced a sporadic regime of jogging around the neighborhood behind son Rad Rob, mainly in support of some Boy Scout fitness activities. The initial path we panted along was a circuit roughly two miles in length. It meandered up and down a few gentle hills (see Global Positioning System Runs, 16 Feb 2002, for details). Perhaps two or three times a week Robin and I would go around our orbit, depending on weather and mood. We often would stop after twenty minutes to reward ourselves at a soda vending machine. Robin was a lot faster than I was. I remember feeling quite proud when I eventually got into good enough shape to finish the route without collapsing.

Since then a distance running virus has taken over my system. The motivation at first was to lose weight and get permission to stop taking some unpleasant high blood pressure medication. After a few months, however, the activity became its own reward --- as anything worthwhile should be.

Though today my pace today is scarcely any different than it was in 2001, the disease has now reached a point where I rarely bother to put on my shoes for less than a 45 minute outing. My weekly mileage is stabilized in a comfortable 20-25 zone. I take things slowly, with interludes of walking every 5-10 minutes as suits my fancy and the local scenery. If another runner (especially a younger one) is nearby, for instance, I may delay or skip a walk break; if heat, humidity, hills, or fatigue weigh me down I may extend an interval of strolling. I've become a bit less obsessive about measuring times and distances and speeds.

It remains to be seen how long my knees can hold up to this unnatural but enjoyable battering. Meanwhile, in a series of foolish fits I've signed up to do the Marathon in the Parks [1] this November and the Marine Corps Marathon [2] in October 2004. Depending on winter weather perhaps I'll try for the George Washington's Birthday Marathon [3] in February; it was preempted in 2002 by a record-setting blizzard. Hubris, thy worshipful servant's name is ^z ...

At first as my distances increased I was happy just to extend my jaunts along Rock Creek Trail, a lovely local pathway. I would go out and back along a section of the course, taking advantage of mile markers and water fountains. Eventually that got old, wanderlust set in, and I began to venture farther afield. Sometimes I would drive to a new point along a trail and do an out-and-back from there. Sometimes I would ask Paulette to drop me off and I would jog home, and other days I would arrange to rendezvous with her at a remote point and get a ride back. Those one-way runs were great fun.

But now my favorite courses are loops. There's a pleasant sense of progress in going around a circuit that one doesn't get from to-and-fro along a route. The scenery is different. There's a chance to meet new people at every spot along the way. And unlike a point-to-point excursion, a loop course means never having to impose on anybody else for a ride.

Loops also offer almost infinite variety. Last week I made up a new course: I headed west along the Georgetown Branch and Capital Crescent trails through Bethesda to River Road, then followed city streets --- River to Western to Military Road through northwest DC --- to Beach Drive in the middle of Rock Creek Park. From there I meandered back to home base almost three hours after I had started.

Yesterday I discovered another new route. I followed Sligo Creek trail southeast, cut over on Piney Branch Avenue to the Northwest Branch trail, and found my way along it north under the Beltway to Colesville Road, from which I circled south to my starting point. Along the way I passed the ill-fated rocks where I slipped and fell into the Northwest Branch three months back. (See Forest Primeval Pedestrian, 9 May 2003, for gory details.) That tumble produced a blood-bruise under my left index fingernail that now has almost crept out to the end of the nail ... a daily reminder of the experience, soon to be gone, like my purple toenails from the 2002 Marine Corps Marathon.

Loops are like life. Most days --- most years --- you go out, and you come back. Work, school, relationships. You're the same person you were, and yet you're changed by what you've seen and done.

Two years ago, when Robin and I started off on a little neighborhood jog of at most a couple of miles in circumference, I could not have conceived of circumnavigating loops 5-10 times longer. Four years ago when this ^zhurnal began I had no real idea of what it would grow into. Twenty-five years ago, when Paulette and I got married ...

(see Ragged Runner (23 Mar 2002), Rock Creek Trail (31 May 2002), Bless The Leathernecks (28 Oct 2002), Rocky Run {17 Nov 2002), Healthy Trails (24 Nov 2002), Anacostia Tributaries (28 Jan 2003), ...)

- Sunday, August 24, 2003 at 12:35:48 (EDT)

Mountains of Things

A rule of thumb (originally from the numismatic world) for those who tend to accumulate too much "stuff":

If you can't remember what you have, then it's not a collection, it's a hoard!

- Saturday, August 23, 2003 at 17:30:06 (EDT)

Writer's Almanac

Garrison Keillor performs a daily labor of love called "The Writer's Almanac" --- http://www.writersalmanac.org/ --- a little early-morning poetry reading, supplemented by factoids about various literary figures born on that date. More than 90% of the time I don't think much of the poem he chooses or the people he mini-profiles. And his heavy-breathing style of speech is, alas, a major distraction from the content of what he reads. (Sorry, I gotta calls 'em as I hears 'em.)

Yet still somehow Almanac is a stunning success. Once or twice a month there's something so knife-sharply right in a verse that Keillor (or his staff) picks --- a sliver of just so that stabs through the mundane muddled prose of the rest of my morning. And likewise, every so often there's a bit of biographical trivia that kicks an author forward in my consciousness and gives me a "So that's why s/he wrote it!" moment.

And the email version of the show appears reliably in my inbox on the days (which, sad to say, are frequent) when I miss hearing it on the radio. Thanks, GK & Co. ...

(see also Lying Verses (15 Mar 2001), Iambic Honesty 2 (27 Apr 2001), Iambic Honesty 3 (6 May 2001), Nimbus Halo Glory Aureole (15 Nov 2001), Poetic Processes (3 Mar 2002), ...)

- Friday, August 22, 2003 at 06:37:02 (EDT)

Projectile Precision

Why is it that giant meteor impacts in the movies always strike major urban areas? And not just any city, either --- disaster always homes in on highly recognizable international landmarks. The odds against that are astronomical. (pun intended!)

In the same vein, why does a hero, down to a single bullet in a pistol, always hit the target perfectly --- while villains armed with machine-guns can spray a room full of people and not injure anyone? And broadening the question, how can all the principal characters in a story come together with exquisite timing at the climax --- when the slightest perturbation at a thousand earlier moments would inevitably destroy that synchronization?

Yeah, maybe you've gotta grant the author some Suspension Of Disbelief (see ^zhurnal 20 May 2000) ... but how much? The classic science-fictional guideline is that a tale is allowed one impossible assumption. Everything else has to follow logically, based on known laws of nature. Too many impossibilities and you've got fantasy, not science fiction. But are there degrees of "impossibility"? If so, how to quantify them?

- Wednesday, August 20, 2003 at 06:36:58 (EDT)

Flaxen Aphorisms

"Flax" is the name of a line of women's clothing favored by my wife. Amazingly enough, most "Flax" garments are actually made out of flax --- they're linen. Another pleasant surprise: "Flax" outfits aren't manufactured in slave-labor nations.

But best of all, "Flax" brand clothes include wonderful little proverbs on small labels sewn inside them, and since I do the laundry in our family I get to read them. They tend toward the distaff-inspirational-mystical self-actualization genre, though I must admit some just cause me to scratch my head. A few examples:

(The above are doubtless copyrighted/trademarked, and are quoted here under Fair Use exemption --- don't shoot, IPR Cops!)

- Sunday, August 17, 2003 at 22:04:46 (EDT)

What Is It Worth?

Recent dramatic events --- which are of course utterly predictable recurrences of similar past events --- have provoked the usual post-traumatic feeding-frenzy in the press and over the airwaves:

... and so forth.

We'll get the usual governmental investigations, technical fact-finding committees, and bureaucratic "solutions". Ho-hum ...

The question that doesn't get asked remains:

How much are you willing to pay?

Cost is key, and hardly anybody wants to discuss it ... since there's no fun in thinking about higher taxes, greater inconveniences, and lost opportunities. (Cost isn't just measured in dollars or euros or ...) Much more exciting to point fingers and scold!

An honest analysis of cost also requires a wee bit of mathematics --- elementary probability, some statistics, maybe even a derivative or two --- which unfortunately rules out >99% of the producers and audiences for "news". A simple answer makes a good headline; a multidimensional trade-off curve doesn't.

So whether the dramatic event is a natural disaster, a technological collapse, an act of terrorism, or whatever, we can expect the same result: blamestorming, political posturing, eye-candy magazine cover stories ... and perhaps, in a few years when the media have moved on to another fad, the gradual implementation of improved engineering standards and practices --- at least, to the extent that customers are willing to pay for.

Until the next catastrophe ...

(see also Retrospective History (7 Mar 2003), Probabilistic Tragedy (12 Mar 2003), ...)

- Saturday, August 16, 2003 at 21:32:58 (EDT)

Tricounty League

Manny's TV and Appliance Centers versus Peoples Bank --- the final play-offs for the championship of western Massachusetts. Duck! It's a beanball coming straight at the noggin of those who thought they had escaped the scourge of baseball reportage in the ^zhurnal. No such luck ...

Sunday, 10 Aug 2003: the last day of our visit to Amherst. We're ready to bring daughter Gray home from summer music camp. Our bags are packed, and we plan to set out early Monday morning on the ~500 mile drive. Heavy rains earlier have been replaced by cool breezes. It's 6 p.m.

I've been reading the local newspapers where Garry Brown (The Republican [1]) and George Miller (The Recorder [2]) have written about the Tri-County League --- more than half a century old, strictly amateur, a mix of players ranging from youngsters of high school age up to veterans with over 20 years in the TCL under their belts. Now the season is almost over. In the best-of-three match Manny's of Greenfield has taken the first contest, 6-4, over Peoples of Holyoke. Game Two has been twice delayed by rains. It's scheduled to start at 7 o'clock tonight.

A few days earlier I made some phone calls and did some 'Net research, looking for local baseball games to attend. The athletic department at the University of Massachusetts has nothing going during this part of the summer break. No other games seem to exist within reasonable driving distance. I consider going on Thursday, Friday, Saturday ... but afternoon and evening showers tip the odds against seeing any action.

Tonight the weather seems more propitious. I find online directions to Mackenzie Stadium where the game is to take place, get permission from Paulette, and drive south. Twenty miles later I park in front of Holyoke High School and follow a few stragglers to the field. I'm just in time to see the teams line up for group cheers, then take their places for the first pitch.

This is baseball at its purest: no admission fee, no concession stand, no programs, no announcer. (OK, I confess --- I miss my peanuts in their shells.) Both teams wear black uniforms, so telling who's who is tricky at times. Aluminum bats produce unęsthetic clangs as they make contact. And there are errors.

But there are also fine plays. The scoreboard works, and the crowd of ~150 is enthusiastic. Little kids of all colors scamper to retrieve foul balls. Teenage girls eye teenage boys, and vice versa. Young couples carry babies and chase toddlers. Old men lecture on the finer points of the sport to anyone nearby who will lend an ear.

I make an impromptu scorecard using sticky-notes and record the progress of the game. All's quiet on the batting front for the first inning as both sides go down 1-2-3. Then in the bottom of the second Peoples Bank catches fire: a double, a walk, a successful bunt (thanks to a defensive error), another walk, a magnificent bases-loaded double arching to deep right center that brings in three, a hit batsman, a third double, and a single. Seven score as eleven men visit the plate.

Subsequent innings ice the Peoples' cake more thickly with two more singles and three more doubles for a total of a dozen runs. Manny's TV retaliates, starting with a memorable round-the-bases circuit in the top of the fifth: a hard-hit grounder to third base is thrown past first; the batter advances to second and pushes his luck; the retrieved ball is hastily cast back past third and, alas, ricochets out of the park. Oopsie! But it's not nearly enough.

The final tally:

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 R H E
Manny's 0 0 0 0 1 1 0 2 2 1
Peoples 0 7 3 2 0 0 x 12 9 3

Seven innings, two hours later, and I'm on the road back to the motel --- my baseball hunger assuaged. The Tri-County League championship is tied now at one all.

Two days later (after another rain cancellation on Monday evening) it's ultimate decision time. As reported by Bill Wells in The Republican the game is deadlocked 3-3 coming into the last inning. Peoples Bank scores; Manny's in turn loads the bases but can't quite bring home the run it needs to stay alive. Peoples claims the TCL title.

A big thank-you! and bravo! to both teams ...

(see also Keeping Score (13 Jun 2003), More Tbolt Snapshots (12 Jul 2003), Tbolt Signoff 2003 (3 Aug 2003), ...)

- Thursday, August 14, 2003 at 05:39:10 (EDT)

Action Movie Rules

After recently experiencing the films League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and Terminator 3 --- both of which fell woefully short of their potential --- a few simple guidelines for those who wish to write and direct such fantasies:

And most important of all:

In other words, cut the clichés and make suspension of disbelief less of an embarrassment for the viewers.

(see also Extraordinary Gentlemen (29 Apr 2003), ...)

- Sunday, August 10, 2003 at 18:12:11 (EDT)

Norwottuck Rail Trail

The hawk spreads its gray-orange wings and lumbers into the air as I jog along the tree-lined path toward it. It flaps its way ponderously toward my head, gaining altitude slowly, looming larger every moment. At last it banks to avoid me and sails eastward down the trail. Probably I interrupted its breakfast of fresh chipmunk.

I'm on an abandoned railroad right-of-way, paved and converted now into a biking/hiking/skating/skiing/jogging route: the Norwottuck Rail Trail (NRT), part of the Connecticut River Greenway State Park in Massachusetts. Paulette [1] & I are staying at a motel in Amherst, getting ready to pick up daughter Gray [2] from six weeks of intensive summer music camp [3] at Mount Holyoke College nearby.

In between activities with family and friends I slip away on two mornings to stagger for a few hours along the NRT at my customary glacial pace of ~10-11 minutes/mile, including walk breaks for about 20% of the time. Summer heat and humidity make the runs rather sweat-o-matic experiences. Once I get out of town I take my shirt off and wrap it around one wrist, where I use it to wipe my brow. Thursday I head southeast, Saturday southwest.

Adjacent to the trail I see weathered gray concrete pillars marked with a big "W". They're whistle posts, reminders to locomotive engineers who should toot their whistles as they approach grade crossings. In honor of that tradition I whistle whenever I see one --- which reminds me of Lauren Bacall's famous "You know how to whistle, don't you, Steve? You just put your lips together and blow." from To Have and Have Not. I also remember my custom of saying ping as I pass a Marathon in the Parks mile mark. (I say gnip when I cross an MitP marker backwards on the return trip.)

Besides the aforementioned hawk, and not counting cyclists, dogs and dog-walkers, inline-skaters, and other pedestrians, there's quite a bit of wildlife on the NRT. I see rabbits big and small, chipmunks, wrens, sparrows and less identifiable birds. I hear ker-plunks and spy ripples in pools of water as unknown entities --- frogs? toads? turtles? --- immerse themselves to avoid the pleasure of my company. I smell the aroma of rotting vegetation in nearby swamps.

And I feel the stings of small black flies as they settle on me and drill for blood. At intervals I slap the top of my head in hopes of interrupting the flies' feast, and occasionally I'm rewarded with a smashed corpse. I try self-flagellation, using the sweaty shirt I removed to whack myself on the back. But the attempt at insect feeding-frenzy disruption is feckless.

After the zero-mile start of the NRT there's an extension trail named for Catherine Arnold. It parallels the New England Central Railroad tracks along which I rode last month in my journeys to and from Washington DC. I proceed to its end, ritualistically touch the rails that cross the access road, and then turn back, swatting bugs the while.

On Saturday stinging flies are far less troublesome as I follow the segment of the NRT that runs westward from Amherst to Northampton. The route proceeds along a tree-lined corridor past a golf course, over creeks, through short tunnels below highways, behind shopping malls, near corn fields, and across neighborhood streets. It intersects Hadley Common, a mile-long open space where a trailside marker describes the historic palisade that protected the region from native attack some centuries ago.

Shortly past milepost 8 the trail crosses the Connecticut River on a quarter-mile-long iron trestle bridge built in 1887. Graffiti artists have painted "All Your Base Are Belong To Us" on the side, along with more mundane inscriptions. Boys swim in the river below the bridge next to Elwell Island, and boats bob in the water at a marina. I pick up maps at a small park on the western shore, catch my breath, and turn around for the return trip. On the way back I thank "Saturn of Hadley" which charitably provides a drinking fountain by the path. The NRT is nice (modulo black flies) but would be far more hospitable in summer months if there were more water available for dessicated runners.

For the ^z logbook, some time & distance data:

7 Aug 2003
12:24 from the motel to the trail on South Pleasant Street (on the Amherst College campus, under Route 116 to South Hadley) + 5:14 to milepost 2 + 10:12 to milepost 1 + 9:42 to the start of the NRT + 16:02 to the NECRR tracks at the end of the extension trail + 16:17 back to NRT 0 mile + 9:44 to mile 1 + 10:23 to mile 2 + 10:33 to mile 3 + 22:37 branching off the trail and meandering back to the motel via the University of Massachusetts and downtown Amherst --- total ~123 minutes = ~11 miles
9 Aug 2003
10:21 motel to trail entrance at Amherst College + 4:40 to milepost 3 + 9:46 to mile 4 + 9:58 to mile 5 + 10:03 to mile 6 + 9:52 to mile 7 + 10:43 to mile 8 + 4:39 across the Connecticut River bridge to the Elwell Recreation Area + 2:55 catching my breath, getting some maps, and phoning a progress report back to Paulette + 4:05 recrossing the CT trestle bridge to mile 8 + 11:25 to mile 7, including a water stop + 10:09 to mile 6 + 10:40 to mile 5 + 11:03 to mile 4 + 11:00 to mile 3 + 18:45 back to the motel via Amherst College and Route 116 --- total ~150 minutes = ~14 miles

(see also http://www.hadleyonline.com/railtrail/ and Coordinate Collection (19 May 2002), Haggard Riders (4 Jul 2003), ...)

- Saturday, August 09, 2003 at 17:58:35 (EDT)

Have to Laugh

On a family trip last month to drop off daughter Gray at summer music camp, our car died in the hills of Connecticut as we took part in a Friday afternoon traffic jam. We pulled off the freeway and parked behind a service station --- one which sold gas and lottery tickets, but had no mechanics --- and waited for a tow truck. While we were there a minivan stopped next to us and a gray-haired lady extracted a crying baby for a walkabout. "He was in China a week ago," she told us. We admired her cute foster child and chatted about our automotive woes. She commiserated.

"Sometimes all you can do is laugh," she advised us.

(see also Haggard Riders (4 Jul 2003), ...)

- Thursday, August 07, 2003 at 15:45:43 (EDT)

Detectives in Togas

Among the many children's books that I've read aloud to the brood, there's one that hasn't yet been mentioned here and definitely deserves to be saluted: Detectives in Togas by Henry Winterfeld (1956), translated from the German by Richard and Clara Winston. As the author notes:

During the 1936 excavations in Pompeii a temple wall came to light on which had been scribbled, in a childish hand, the words:
That scrawl from the days of Ancient Rome was the inspiration for this book.

A polite translation of the graffiti: "Caius is a dumbbell", or in the book's original title, Caius ist ein Dummkopf.

Detectives in Togas is a mystery set in Imperial Rome and told from the viewpoint of seven young schoolboys. They're forced to solve a series of enigmatic crimes in order to rescue one of their number who has been framed and thrown in prison, and who possibly faces death. Besides fast-paced fun the book offers insight into Roman culture and daily life --- without ever lapsing into the ponderous-pedantic mold of many juvenile novels. And it has given me another of those catchphrases that I so delight in repeating, much to the annoyance of my family: Ho lukos --- the wolf!

Good entertainment for all ages ...

- Wednesday, August 06, 2003 at 09:10:48 (EDT)

Ralph Waldo Emerson

A recent John Updike essay led me to some memorable excerpts from Ralph Waldo Emerson's journals, including a brilliantly apropos meta-quote on the act of citation itself. Thanks to [1] (RWE, 1867):

Quotation --- yes, but how differently persons quote! I am as much informed of your genius by what you select, as by what you originate. I read the quotation with your eyes, & find a new & fervent sense. ... For good quoting, then, there must be originality in the quoter --- bent, bias, delight in the truth, & only valuing the author in the measure of his agreement with the truth which we see, & which he had the luck to see first. And originality, what is that? It is being; being somebody, being yourself, & reporting accurately what you see & are. If another's words describe your fact, use them as freely as you use the language & the alphabet, whose use does not impair your originality. Neither will another's sentiment or distinction impugn your sufficiency. Yet in proportion to your reality of life & perception, will be your difficulty of finding yourself expressed in others' words or deeds.

And re the act of composition itself, as given by Updike (New Yorker, 4 Aug 2003) and again via [2] (RWE, 1869):

Good Writing --- All writing should be selection in order to drop every dead word. Why do you not save out of your speech or thinking only the vital things --- the spirited mot which amused or warmed you when you spoke it --- because of its luck & newness. I have just been reading, in this careful book of a most intelligent & learned man, any number of flat conventional words & sentences. If a man would learn to read his own manuscript severely --- becoming really a third person, & search only for what interested him, he would blot to purpose --- & how every page would gain! Then all the words will be sprightly, & every sentence a surprise.

Finally, on reading materials worthy of a human mind, from Society and Solitude, from [3] (1870):

Books --- Be sure, then to read no mean books. Shun the spawn of the press on the gossip of the hour. Do not read what you shall learn, without asking, in the street and the train. Dr. Johnson said, "he always went into stately shops" and good travellers stop at the best hotels; for, though they cost more, they do not cost much more, and there is the good company and the best information. In like manner, the scholar knows that the famed books contain, first and last, the best thoughts and facts. Now and then, by rarest luck, in some foolish Grub Street is the gem we want. But in the best circles is the best information. If you should transfer the amount of your reading day by day from the newspapers to the standard authors --- But who dare speak such a thing.

(see also Johnson On Anecdotes (19 Apr 1999), Annals Of Journals (4 Apr 2000), By Heart (28 Nov 2001), Read Well And Remember (31 Jul 2002), Extract Traction (21 Oct 2002), Read Through (16 Feb 2003), ...)

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

Checking Out

Even though none of us gets out of here alive, couldn't the exit interview be less painful?

- Monday, August 04, 2003 at 05:37:33 (EDT)

Tbolt Signoff 2003

The 2003 season is over for the Silver Spring - Takoma Thunderbolts [1], my favorite local amateur baseball team. The SST Tbolts finished the season in third place and thus made it into the double-elimination tournament among the top four teams. Although the 'Bolts won their first game versus the Fauquier Gators, they then lost to the Arlington Senators and again in a rematch with Fauquier, the club whom Arlington eventually defeated to take the Clark Griffith League [2] title.

The penultimate contest that I witnessed was a fine pitcher's performance held on 23 July. Hosting the Baltimore Pride, the Tbolts won 4-2 on a warm and humid evening that saw Zack Clark hold the Pride to only a single hit in the course of 7 innings. Reliever Tristen Covington finished the job briskly without allowing another hit. The 'Bolts took control in the first inning when lead batter Mark Stanley drew a walk, stole second, advanced to third on a wild pitch, and then reached home comfortably on Justin McClanahan's double. Soon thereafter Matt Capece slid into the plate successfully on Dave Russell's sacrifice fly, in spite of a good throw in from deep left field. The rest of the game was similarly well-played. A brief interval of light rain in the 6th inning did not interrupt the action.

Sadly, because it was the last home game, on 26 July the Thunderbolts shut out the Vienna Mustangs 2-0. Pitcher Frank Viola Jr. handled the first 6 innings comfortably; then relievers Headrik Vandervaart and Tom Ballenger closed and locked the door. Catcher John Hodach scored the first Tbolt run in the fifth thanks to a Mark Stanley hit. Stanley in turn scored in the eighth with help from Capice and McClanahan. The shutout was preserved several times by sharp defense, most notably in the second inning when center fielder Jeremy Bellotti threw a Mustang runner out at home as he tried to score from second base, slid wide, and was tagged out by Hodach in a cloud of dust. The fourth inning saw a nice double play on a hard-hit grounder to first baseman Dave Russell. He snagged the ball, blasted it to second baseman Josh Richardson, and then received the throw back again to make the out at first. Sweet!

Until next year ...

(see also Tbolt Monkeys On My Back (29 Jul 2002), Summer Ball 2002 (3 Sep 2002), Keeping Score (13 Jun 2003), More Tbolt Snapshots (12 Jul 2003), ...)

- Sunday, August 03, 2003 at 14:11:54 (EDT)

Esse Quam Videre

At one point in Freedom Evolves Daniel Dennett quotes a description of Cato, from Sallust, that captures one of the most important and difficult goals in life:

Esse quam videri bonus malebat.

In English:

He preferred to be good rather than seem so.

It's rather like auditing a class and learning all the material but not getting any credit for it. Which is more important --- the knowledge, or the diploma? The act, or the applause?

(see also Remember Me (21 May 1999), Cardinal Newman (4 Oct 2001), Missed Manners (4 Oct 2001), Freedom Evolves (3 Jul 2003), ...)

- Saturday, August 02, 2003 at 21:49:55 (EDT)

Nuclear Accident

 I placed a jar in Tennessee,
 And round it was, upon a hill.

So begins the Wallace Stevens poem "Anecdote of the Jar". I've been trying to memorize it for quite a while, most recently during a long plane trip. It has a fascinating modest-mysterious rhythm, and is one of the few "modern" poems that appeals to my inner ear enough for me to want to learn it and make it my own. Don't ask why.

And for equally obscure neurological reasons, yesterday while driving in to the office I suddenly remembered another Tennessee anecdote, one which hasn't crossed my consciousness for decades. Circa 1976 --- that must have been the year, plus or minus one, since peripheral associations place me in the old Bridge Physics Building ground-floor shared office space with a few other Caltech grad students --- I was listening to a Los Angeles radio station as an announcer read the morning news. A wire service item told of a truck accident involving the release of unspecified "nuclear" materials somewhere in Tennessee.

My ear was caught, I know not why, so more I sought; but though I tried, there was no further news concerning this enigmatic event. I phoned the broadcaster --- an uncharacteristic ^z attempt to follow up --- and a voice confirmed that yes, they had read that piece, but no, there was nothing else on it. The next morning I checked the newspapers and likewise found nichevo there.

Was it a minor incident, unworthy of follow-up? Or a garble, a misunderstanding, a hoax, or a non-event? Nowadays, post-Chernobyl and Three Mile Island, I can't imagine such a story left hanging so. And what with the 'Net and the wonderous flood of unfiltered instant information and opinion that it offers, countless conspiracy theories would no doubt spring up and flourish around that tiny news blip.

Instead, my mind was left ajar, in Tennessee upon a hill ...

- Friday, August 01, 2003 at 06:17:16 (EDT)

Wake-Up Call

A college roommate phones to chat, as he does every six months or so, and mentions that recently he had a stroke. A colleague at the office dies of cancer; another is under treatment, in remission at the moment. A kind correspondent tells me of her infant grandchildren's congenital illnesses. A long-time family friend likely has less than a year to live.

Maybe it's time for me to set aside some of the ephemeral stuff, and focus on things that are more important?

(see also Bennett On Life (19 Mar 2000), Universal Flourishing (25 Dec 2001), My Ob (18 Aug 2002), ...)

- Thursday, July 31, 2003 at 06:01:17 (EDT)

Knowledge and Public Happiness

My wife Paulette Dickerson spoke a few months ago before the County Council in support of libraries (see [1] or [2]). In her talk she quoted an inscription on the frieze of the Boston Public Library's main building: "The Commonwealth requires the education of the people as the safeguard of order and liberty".

A staff member at the BPL, Henry Scannell, wrote to Paulette recently and sent her a wonderful quotation on a similar theme, from a speech by George Washington as reported in the [Boston] Independent Chronicle of 14 January 1790:

Knowledge is in every country the surest basis of public happiness. In one, in which the measures of government receive their impression so immediately from the sense of the community, as in our’s, it is proportionably essential. To the security of a free constitution it contributes in several ways: by convincing those, who are entrusted with the public administration, that every valuable end of government is best answered by the enlightened confidence of the people: and by teaching the people themselves to know, and to value their own rights; to discern and provide against invasions of them; to distinguish between oppression and the necessary exercise of lawful authority; between burthens proceeding from a disregard to their convenience, and those resulting from the inevitable exigencies of society; to discriminate the spirit of liberty from that of licentiousness, cherishing the first, avoiding the last, and uniting a speedy, but temperate vigilance against encroachments, with an inviolable respect to the laws.

Long long ago, politicians wrote their own speeches, which contained ideas ...

(Footnote: "happiness" in this context --- as in Thomas Jefferson's "... life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness ..." --- doesn't (just) mean joy or good feelings; it is more closely aligned with societal peace, prosperity, success, and grace. See also On Grace (10 Apr 1999), On Booklessness (18 Jul 1999), Education Of The Youth (1 Dec 2001), Pursuit Of Excellence (22 Feb 2002), Boston Public Library (20 Jun 2002), Freedom Peace Commerce Education (13 Sep 2002), ...)

- Tuesday, July 29, 2003 at 05:36:36 (EDT)

Riley's Rumble

"At first I thought that was a beer in your hand!" one runner says as he eyes the stubby antenna of a GPS receiver sticking up like the neck of a bottle from my left fist.

"I wish it were," I reply. "I could use one now!"

We're near mile 12 of Riley's Rumble: 13 miles 192.5 yards of hills, humidity, and heat --- and also of happiness, hard healthy work, and high spirits for more than 500 finishers plus the volunteers who serve as organizers, race officials, course marshals, cheerleaders, and water station managers. Our route includes challenging climbs as we follow country roads up from the Potomac River, dip back down at intervals to cross rustic streams on one-lane bridges, and wind our way upward again to ridge lines. The weather is better than it might have been. There's a lingering coolness from last night, a layer of high clouds to keep the sun under control, and intermittent light breezes. But it's nonetheless a warm and damp summer morning, and we feel it. And did I mention the hills?

"Half Marathon" is a poor-stepchild second-class-citizen name for a foot race. But what else can you call a 13.1 mile run? "Mara" sounds like a little girl's name. "Thon" brings to mind beach sandals, uncomfortable underwear, or maybe a science fictional monster. "Rath", taking its half out of the middle, is far too angry in tone. Maybe there just isn't a good name for 21+ kilometers. No matter.

Riley's Lock on the C&O Canal gives this race its name and its starting point. Early morning fishermen are startled to see first a trickle, then a flood of cars that fill the parking lots and overflow onto all available space in nearby fields. Runners change clothes, double-knot shoelaces, walk to the river and along the canal towpath, quaff water and sports drinks, stalk nervously around the area, and line up for last-minute porta-john visits. Three friends join me a few minutes before the race. None of us have been training much, but we figure that we can go slow, turn around to shorten the distance if we feel like it, and generally have fun. We chat together as the throng gathers.

Then it's 7:30am and we're off. The crowd is dense; it takes us about a minute to get to the starting line. Finally we're able to break into a jog. Early this morning I changed my GPS batteries, but apparently the "new" cells I used were actually stale: a warning indicator tells me that I don't have much power left. I take waypoint coordinates and stopwatch splits at every mile marker, but have to shut the receiver down otherwise and keep my fingers crossed that it doesn't fail.

Two comrades wisely turn back after a couple of miles and steep grades, leaving one buddy and me to plod onwards. My lucky shirt is saturated with sweat half an hour into the run, so I take it off and carry it wrapped around my arm. We turn a corner at a tiny country church and cemetery, the sight of which offers opportunity for weak humor about how we are starting to feel. A rooster belatedly crows. A pair of llamas caper in a field as we run by. Their shaggy brown coats look stiflingly hot.

The course is an out-and-back one with a turnaround at the 6.5 mile point, so after forty minutes we get to cheer the leaders as they blast past us on their way back, setting a pace almost twice as fast as we can manage. Water stations every couple of miles offer welcome relief. I walk for about a minute in every ten, trying to schedule my breaks for uphill segments. A tractor-trailer truck creeps along the narrow road toward us. Some fast runners pass it.

Around mile 8 my fellow traveler's leg muscles start to cramp, so we slow our pace and experiment with brief backward walks, doubtless to the amusement of those who zip by us. I begin to feel pain on my right foot, and fear that a blister is developing.

At mile 11, after my friend insists for the tenth time that I go on ahead, I do --- and the final segment of the race is a brisk downhill jaunt, regaining all the potential energy that we stored up during our climb two hours ago. Then it's onto the dirt road that leads to the finish line on the other side of Seneca Creek from our start. I have to watch my step and avoid potholes and loose stones that could too-easily trip an exhausted runner.

Finally, the finish line ... a welcome drink of cold water ... a walk along a narrow path back to the start ... sliced watermelons ... oranges ... cookies ... more drinks ... and post-race fellowship as people share stories and stretch their legs.

I go back and meet my comrade, whose legs are already beginning to recover from their ordeal. We eat and talk together. Both of us feel pretty good, even though we've each set much faster times during the first halves of full-length marathons. When I take my shoes off I discover a lima-bean-sized bubble of blood under the skin of my right foot. Fortunately it's unbroken.

I put on sandals and capture more GPS latitude-longitude information for the start and finish points. On the way back to the car I meet another friendly runner. She and I chat about our race experiences, training programs, goals, achievements, and frustrations ... which leads us, believe it or not, into a discussion of poetry. She tells me of inspirational verses she has written about running. The conversation is a delightful end to a morning of strenuous exercise.

But for those who prefer numbers to emotions, herewith the coordinates and times recorded during Riley's Rumble, 27 July 2003:

Mile Latitude Longitude Time Pace
0 39:04:18 77:20:29 - -
1 39:04:58 77:20:40 0:10:07 10:07
2 39:05:44 77:20:58 0:20:58 10:51
3 39:06:27 77:21:10 0:30:57 09:59
4 39:06:12 77:22:10 0:40:42 09:45
5 39:05:56 77:23:04 0:51:01 10:18
6 39:06:03 77:24:15 1:01:15 10:15
6.5 39:05:41 77:24:25 1:06:30 10:28
7 39:06:03 77:24:15 1:11:34 10:09
8 39:05:56 77:23:04 1:22:21 10:47
9 39:06:12 77:22:10 1:34:22 12:01
10 39:06:27 77:21:10 1:46:47 12:25
11 39:05:44 77:20:58 1:59:55 13:08
12 39:04:58 77:20:40 2:09:56 10:01
13.1 39:04:11 77:20:37 2:20:15 09:22

From a least-squares fit to the above:

(see the Montgomery County Road Runners at http://www.mcrrc.org for official race results and additional information ...)

- Sunday, July 27, 2003 at 19:27:38 (EDT)

Hat Problem

If you think that there's no new mathematics under the sun, consider the recently discovered "Hat Problem":

A team of three people are put into a room together. A hat, either red or blue, is placed on each. You can't see the color of your own hat, only the colors of the other two people's hats. No communication is allowed among teammates once they get their hats. After seeing the other hats, the three of you are separated and each is asked "What is the color of your hat?" You can answer "red" or "blue", or you can abstain from replying. If at least one person on the team guesses the right answer and nobody guesses wrong, then your team wins.

The challenge for the team: agree, before you go into the room, on a strategy that will maximize your chance of success.

How in the world can you possibly do better than 50%? None of you knows anything about your own hat, and you can't communicate. At best, it seems, you could conspire in advance to let one team member guess (a 50-50 gamble) and the other two abstain. If more than one of you guesses, the odds only get worse.

Or so it seems. But there is a way to do better --- in fact, to increase your chance of victory to 75%! Think about it for a while if you would like to figure it out for yourself (or if you're like me and can't solve the puzzle, read about it elsewhere). It's a clever, honest, totally counterintuitive method. It's extensible to more people and more complex problems. And the winning strategy is intimately related to ideas from information and coding theory.

That's part of the magic of mathematics: it unveils truth, independent of our common-sense prejudices.

More than a decade ago a simpler puzzle akin to the Hat Problem swept across the world. It was called "The Three Doors" and similarly challenged orthodoxy. In brief:

Three closed doors are in front of you. You must pick one to open. Behind two of the doors are goats (and you don't like goats). Behind the other door is a nice car (which you will get if you choose that door). You select one of the doors and then --- before your door is opened --- your host (who knows where the car is) opens one of the remaining two doors and shows you a goat behind it. Now do you stick with the door you initially chose, or do you change to the third still-closed door?

Again, think about it; the answer is rather counter-intuitive. I remember arguing with some of my colleagues about it and even writing a tiny computer simulation to persuade them when they wouldn't believe me. The right strategy is clearer if you change the number of doors from three to a million (behind 999,999 of which are goats), and postulate that after you pick one door your host opens 999,998 of them, showing you all but one of the goats. Now do you stick or switch?

- Saturday, July 26, 2003 at 21:50:49 (EDT)

Thorn Ed

 "Cancer can't kill me," you said, "I'm too mean!"
 Perhaps --- but your anger could, and did.
 You were like the roses that you loved:
   Twisted, prickly, yet beautiful.

Rest in peace, Edward ...

- Friday, July 25, 2003 at 06:13:04 (EDT)

Leonard Koppett

The New Thinking Fan's Guide to Baseball (1991) is another of those used books that I picked up for a song and finished reading during a recent long journey. It's a thick collection of essays by Leonard Koppett, a sports writer who began practicing his craft in the 1940's. There's a delightful amount of general wisdom in his prose --- in addition to splendid historical information on the evolution of baseball, as a game and as a business, during the past century and a half. Some sample tidbits follow.

in the Introduction:

[This book] does, in fact, reproduce one of the underlying modes of thought among baseball people: Repeat the obvious, repeat the well known, remind yourself and your teammates (or players if you are a manager or coach) what they are supposed to know anyhow and probably do. The repetition is to make sure that the appropriate thought is firmly in mind at the appropriate moment .... [Baseball's mental processes] don't involve some sort of mystical flashes of brilliance, but only the ability, willingness, and need to concentrate on perspective, context, relevance, and focused attention.

in Chapter 5, Managing --- The Art of Worrying:

[A big-league manager] cannot change the fundamental character of any player. The lazy ones remain lazy, the conscientious ones are conscientious from the beginning. Men may change their own characters, and life can affect them, and a manager can be one of many interrelated influences .... He cannot change the basic level of ability of any player. ... He cannot "inspire" anybody ... This is a profession, a livelihood, serious business engaged in by adults. ... [I]n baseball, where all vital skills are of the fine-scale, hair-trigger, reflex type, a binge of passion can do more harm than good.
[The manager] clings to three recurrent themes, themes that have infinite applications: You can't please everybody, there's always tomorrow, and in the long run the breaks even up.
[I]t's not much of a trick, to a professional, to think of the right strategic moves in a given situation; the real trick is to define the situation correctly by taking into account all the contingencies.
[There's a] difference between making the right decision and getting the right result. One doesn't guarantee the other.

in Chapter 10, The Playing Field:

These variations [in fields] help make baseball fascinating to watch, as well as to play, but they also go to the heart of the game's philosophy. The idea is to win this game, on this field, under these conditions, at this time.
Baseball is not, as we have seen, explosive physical effort aided by excessive emotional highs (which produce inevitable emotional lows). Tennis players and golfers, trying to concentrate on hitting a ball, demand --- and get --- quiet. Football players are trying to hit nothing smaller than a full-size (or outsize) human being. Basketball and hockey players are involved in nonstop frenzy while in action. But baseball players are engaged in fine skill, high-concentration, split-second movements from a standing start, amid crowd noise that is allowed and encouraged, so they have to develop their shut-out-the-distraction mechanism more than their animal-response-to-cheers mechanism.

in Chapter 11, The Media:

"Media" is the plural of medium," which means the instrumentality used to convey information. ... (You can also say, as a clever ball player told me once, that "medium" means not rare and not well done, a perfect description of the baseball writer; but there are wise guys everywhere.)

in Chapter 12, The Road:

Loneliness is the element unappreciated, or never understood, by those who know all other facets of baseball but have not lived this one. Just as conquering fear is the fundamental but rarely cited basis of hitting, handling loneliness is the fundamental unmentionable of baseball life.

in Chapter 15, Statistics:

The first thing to remember is that statistics merely count what has already happened; they say nothing about why. The second is that the standard baseball statistics count only certain selected items, ignoring the effect of other equally countable items that are obviously related. ... The third is that many statistics have self-limiting factors, or other subtle mathematical relationships, that are universally ignored .... The fourth is that statistics, by their nature, are meaningful only for a large number of cases. And the fifth, and by far the most important, is that baseball is played by human beings, whose actions cannot be described by simple numbers. A man's performance fluctuates whether or not surrounding circumstances appear unchanged.
The guiding idea is that statistics are a byproduct, not a cause; a description, not a law; and an isolation of a few, almost arbitrary, factors from dynamic reality. ... Statistics as records, however, are another story. They are not merely valid; they are the whole business, by definition.

in Chapter 17, The Owners:

All owners are surrounded by employees, assistants, and advisers whose prime interest it is to keep the owner convinced that he has an excellent staff. It is the staff that handles the day-to-day details. This is what has grown so large recently, as we saw in an earlier chapter, and like any bureaucracy, it has increased influence upward and created tremendous inertia.
Another set of factors magnifies the gap between most owners' conception of the baseball world and the real thing. Since they are already capable, successful men in their own fields, with plenty of money, they tend to refuse to accept the idea that they don't understand. Like most successful people, they come to believe that methods they know have proved successful in the past can be used in a new situation. ...
The successful industrialist, or the heir to a fortune, is usually confident of his own judgment: He has the money to prove it, and he is accustomed to having his orders followed unquestioningly. Whatever else Fitzgerald might have had in mind in the opening words of his story "The Rich Boy" --- "The very rich are different from you and me" --- he was dealing with one pertinent facet of this chapter: The habitually rich live in an environment different from ordinary people, and therefore develop different responses ...

in Chapter 22, The Post-Season:

[L]asting romance (myth, legend, tradition, nostalgia, gilded memory) is created by writers and readers, not viewers with an itchy finger on the remote-control button. In a less poetic age, less daily poetry about baseball is being produced.

in Chapter 29, The Windup, and the Pitch:

Television is a highlights medium. Baseball is not a highlights game.
In news programs, as well as specials and the replays during live telecasts, the exceptional physical-action play is shown over and over --- and all the "boring" routine stuff is edited out or glossed over. That's perfect for football and basketball, where the most significant plays also coincide with the most balletic movements --- a drive, a dunk, a touchdown pass, an interception, a long run, a blocked shot. But in baseball, the significance lies in the situation more than in the physical occurrence: A grand-slam home run or a strikeout with the tying run on third is not a pictorial climax but a conceptual one. Neither lends itself as well to highlight presentation as it does to verbal description.
But that's only the tip of the iceberg. Television is conditioning everyone, especially children, to short-attention-span, quick-action, let's-get-on-to-the-next-thing viscerally visual responses --- not just to baseball or sports, but to everything. ...

(see also World Series Lines (22 Jun 2002), Heart Of The Order (3 Jul 2002), Sparky And Sandy (24 Jul 2002), Loss Of Light (4 Nov 2002), ...)

- Wednesday, July 23, 2003 at 17:31:26 (EDT)

Two Comic Novels

Early this month, while on the journey to deliver Daughter Gray [1] to summer music camp [2], I found a couple of British paperback novels. One was on the rack at the Amherst Salvation Army Thrift Store, the other on the dollar shelf at a used book shop in South Hadley. Neither is on the menu of my usual reading fare, but with several more long trips looming I picked them up to taste. They're:

Both Wise Virgin and The Girls are rich in imagery and both are quite well-written. Wilson knows his stuff re medievalism, and his depictions of the infinitesimal teapot tempests of academia are charming, reminiscent of Lucky Jim (Kingsley Amis's first novel). Bowen, in turn, has a Tolkienesque vocabulary of garden and hedge, as well as a wry sense of situation.

Both books are raunchy in places, though not grotesquely so. Both rely on hugely improbable coincidence at key plot moments. Both also have singularly unsatisfying endings --- as though their authors were too "modern" to permit themselves a full, happy resolution of tension among their creations, and instead had to leave their readers wincing and head-scratching.

Maybe that's sophistication nowadays; I prefer to see things end on a more comfortable note. So although I enjoyed both novels and recommend them, I'm working on my own "director's cut" alternative conclusions for these stories, in the same way that Paulette [3] does for many modern movies that fail in their final scenes ...

- Sunday, July 20, 2003 at 09:59:56 (EDT)

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