^zhurnal v.0.32

This is volume 0.32 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.)

Harmonic Motel

Anagrams live at the delightful hyperdimensional intersection of mathematics, language, whimsy, and art. Lodged in my mind for almost a decade has been the phrase "Harmonic Motel" --- a scrambled version of the letters that compose "Michael Morton", who also calls himself "Mr. Machine Tool". What great nicknames!

Long ago Morton implemented a clever algorithm to generate plausible permutations of letters for a human, who can then scan and select good anagrammatic possibilities. It's a wonderful example of IA: Intelligence Augmentation, productive man-machine collaboration to attack fierce combinatorial problems.

My (or more precisely, "our") best anagram discovery using Morton's program? Take "Supreme Court" and transform it into the topical message: "Corrupt? Sue me!"

(see also Intelligence Augmentation (25 Aug 2001), Ars Magna (27 Sep 2002), ... )

- Thursday, October 23, 2003 at 08:02:47 (EDT)

Netfree Programming

FORTH is a magical programming language, my favorite in many ways even though I hardly use it any more. FORTH is tiny yet huge, feeble yet powerful, hyper-efficient yet woefully wasteful. A functional FORTH system can fit into a few thousand bytes of computer memory and be totally understood by a single person after a few hours of study. What other language comes close to that crystalline perfection?

The foundation of FORTH is infinite extensibility. The language works, at an atomic level, simply by defining new "words" in terms of older ones. And so it grows, from a tiny seed into whatever structure the programmer directs it to become. FORTH is utterly malleable, a perfect clay in its sculptor's hands.

Marvelous enough. But like a small bird fascinated by a snake's gaze, what really fascinates me about FORTH (in its original and purest form) is its utter lack of a safety net. FORTH resembles a machine shop with no protective shields around the equipment. One slip, and you can cut yourself in two. But if you work with care and know your tools, your productivity is awesome.

In a classic FORTH implementation you can literally, with two keystrokes, crash your entire computer. (Sure, you could protect yourself against that, but no real FORTH programmer would deign to do so --- that would slow down the execution speed of the software, and who wants that?)

The incantation for system suicide?


... a single exclamation mark, followed by an invisible <enter> that tells the machine to do it.

To explain: ! --- pronounced "bang" --- is the FORTH command to take the address on the top of the program's stack and store the second value from the stack into it. But if the stack isn't properly set up that single instruction will overwrite some area of memory, a critical area, and thereby trigger instant catastrophe (at least, in an operating system that doesn't have solid firewalls between program execution spaces).

So FORTH makes it trivial to say, "Bang! I'm dead!"

(see also Crystals Mud And Life (19 Apr 1999), Scripting Languages (29 Jun 1999), Snip Pattern (6 Sep 2001), Turing Complete (10 Oct 2001), Personal Computer History (25 Feb 2002), Personal Programming History (2 Apr 2002), Mind Children (17 Apr 2003), ... )

- Tuesday, October 21, 2003 at 18:54:06 (EDT)

Plumbing the Depths

Often the simplest things can be most worrisome. When the human body's "plumbing" goes awry, for instance, it probably causes more long-term grief than any other type of physiological malfunction.

A sixty-year old house, like a primate of similar age, has various subsystems that are coming to the end of their design life. Electrical wiring corrodes. A stove, original equipment, becomes fragile; the oven door falls off its hinges. Louvers to control airflow can no longer be opened and closed. The hatch into the attic is best left undisturbed. Cracks appear in the plaster. Floorboards creek. Stairs groan. And, more terrifying to the homeowner than any other sound: drip, drip, drip ...

Thus it was that earlier this year somebody venturing barefoot into the basement suddenly got wet feet. Had recent rains seeped in through the walls or risen up through the floor? There was no obvious source. The pool dried up, and we set it aside as yet another inexplicable mystery.

Then, weeks later, a stack of books and papers downstairs was found to be soaking wet. The rafters above seemed to be leaking. How, and why? Our basement has an unfinished ceiling, and the answer was near at hand: a horizontal copper pipe that carries cold water from one side of the house to the other.

Close inspection revealed a hair-thin jet of water shooting upwards at an acute angle from the pipe. It wet the ceiling and then dripped down at a steady pace, like a highly localized rain shower. Of course, this phenomenon was discovered on a weekend evening. The universal solution, duct tape, failed to stop the high-pressure flow. A bucket placed underneath seemed likely to overflow every few hours.

Fortunately a resourceful neighbor suggested a short-term fix: take a short segment of hose, slit it longitudinally and slide it over the pipe, then apply a clamp to squeeze it against the leak. Miraculously, it worked. A frenzy of phone calls to various plumbers confirmed that this was a good thing to do until the pipe segment could be replaced. Crisis averted.

During the following days research revealed that many other houses in our county had suffered from the same phenomenon: pinhole leaks in horizontal-run copper pipes. Apparently a change in water composition within the past decade accelerated the corrosion of that type of piping. Jets of water appear and, sometimes, seal themselves off after hours or days.

When two more tiny leaks appeared in the same area of the basement I was ready and put hose plus clamps over them without major trouble. Eventually a plumber came, cut out that segment of pipe, and soldered in a new replacement. We relaxed.

All this came to mind again last weekend, when another small and shallow lake materialized in the basement. The source this time was different and thankfully evident: leakage around the main shut-off valve where all water enters the house. A small drip-pan, emptied every 8-12 hours, sufficed to channel the flow. The plumber arrived early on Monday morning, replaced the valve, and left with our grateful contribution toward his retirement fund. Until next time ...

(see also Basement Worries (15 Jun 2002), ... )

- Monday, October 20, 2003 at 17:51:21 (EDT)

Modern Phrenology

What are the pseudosciences of today? What will folks look at a century hence and ask "How could they have taken that seriously?" Three perhaps-related candidates that have crossed and recrossed my path:

Common features of these disciplines: big headlines, simple explanations of complex phenonema, and a near-invulnerability to quantitative testing. Where are the real double-blind experiments, the validated test cases? Instead, all one sees are just-so stories.

I hope that I'm wrong and there really is a pony in the barn ... but meanwhile, I'm awaiting solid evidence. Which reminds me of a med-school aphorism:

"The plural of anecdote is bullsh*t!"

(see also Science Versus Stamp Collecting (20 Jun 2000), Logic And Information (1 Aug 2001), ... )

- Sunday, October 19, 2003 at 11:01:40 (EDT)

In the Good Old Days

Video games? When I was growing up, young fellow, all I had to play with was a pair of rocks ... and when Mom wanted to punish me she would take one away!

- Saturday, October 18, 2003 at 09:16:09 (EDT)

Visitor Stats

Every once in a while I like to look at information about those who are visiting the Zhurnal Wiki and the ^zhurnal, http://zhurnaly.com/. Browsing the logs helps me separate issues worth worrying about from topics to ignore. A snapshot based on the first half of October 2003 offers some semi-surprising (to me) statistics.

But before zooming in on any details, at top-level what does it all mean? Tough to say. My tentative conclusions include:

Now for some slightly gory minutae. The total Zhurnal Wiki hit count is averaging ~1,000/day, plus or minus 50%, as it has been for most of the past year. This corresponds to ~300 or so "visits" daily, each of which averages 3-4 pages fetched. But that average is deceptive, since "visitors" include many search engine robots which fetch lots of pages during their crawling activities.

What are people and 'bots fetching? The main Zhurnal Wiki page is the big winner here, followed by Find Page (which snags many misformed URL requests), Crypto Quip, an "Action Not Defined" catch-all bin, and then the ever-popular Recent Changes.

In the various zhurnal.net subsites my daughter's pages at http://zhurnal.net/~violconey/ of photos from her summer music camps are relatively popular, presumably with folks trying to decide where to go next year. My wife's pages at http://zhurnal.net/~pdickerson/ of library-related speeches and other talks are likewise strong. Her presentation titled "Magic Wands" leads the list, doubtless via its allure for Harry Potter fans and the like.

And what sorts of specific searches point people to the ^zhurnal? Leading the pack, as it has month after month, is "cryptoquip" (~9%) --- a simple-substitution cipher puzzle that appears in various newspapers, mostly in North America. The Zhurnal Wiki page Crypto Quip, which Google seems to enjoy, has nothing to do with such puzzles; it's a cypherpunk aphorism that I read many years ago and posted in April 2001. Second place among Zhurnal-linked search strings is the run-together phrase "allyourbasearebelongtous" (~3%) which leads to All Your Base Are Belong To Us. Coming in third (~2%) is the similarly concatenated "worldtradecenter" (see World Trade Center). It briefly outshone the cryptoquip-seekers a month ago during the September 11 anniversary timeframe.

Where do folks arrive from? Google as expected leads the pack, with twice as many referrals as Yahoo, which in turn outpaces MSN and AOL by a similar ratio. Cross-linkages from the ^zhurnal and other http://www.his.com/~z/ pages are smaller but not insignificant, led by my various Edward Gibbon quotation-collection pages.

Google's "Googlebot" leads the list of Zhurnal watchers, with ~12% of all ops to its credit. Slightly behind it at ~11% is a crawler from the French "serveur.com" apparently associated with Art-Online.com and artmarket.com. This robot is possibly seeking email addresses for art-related mass mailings, at least according to one recent post on webmasterworld.com. That hypothesis correlates with my experience: I received some advertising email from Art-Online many months ago. But I don't believe that these folks are truly evil spammers; when I asked, they immediately dropped me from their mailing lists and I have seen nothing from them since.

Following in the standings at ~10% is an automated crawler from inktomi.com. Further down the charts are 'bots from search.msn.com (~3%) and FAST aka alltheweb.com aka fastsearch.net (~1%). And there are hits from looksmart.com and turnitin.com --- that last being a plagiarism-catching service for teachers. Watch out, students, if you hope to take a ^zhurnal essay and submit it as your own work ...

Other crawlers in recent weeks include active agents of almaden.ibm.com, learninglab.uni-hannover.de, openfind.com.tw, av.com (Altavista), directhit.com, teoma.com, and numerous unidentified IP addresses. And there are doubtless downloading programs that I've overlooked, or that are disguising themselves, or that didn't happen to pass by during the date range of the logs I have glanced at. But the bottom line total of likely robotic Zhurnal activity adds up to ~40% --- much higher than I anticipated, but still a minority.

As for human readers of the Zhurnal Wiki, the mass of Microsoft Internet Explorer users compose at least ~20%-30% of all hits. I would have expected more, and perhaps some of their browsers aren't being properly logged. Macintosh visitors are ~3%, but I suspect that half of those are my own activities. Other browsers and platforms come in at ~1%. These numbers leave perhaps a quarter of all activity uncounted; I don't know why.

Looking back at the original ^zhurnal on his.com, although it gets ~30 hits per day its activity is dwarfed in the logs by the "Best of" Gibbon's Decline and Fall collection of quotations --- http://www.his.com/~z/gibbon.html --- which sees 10 times as many passers-by, including not a few in search of cheap filler for their term papers. In terms of total his.com traffic the mass of ^z pages sit in a virtual tie for first place with a collection of local area realtor image files, at ~10%. That number has crept up in recent years as more individuals graduate to their own domains and therefore drop out of the his.com user home page list.

And there's heaps o' more data in them there logs yet to be mined ... but I think the above pretty well captures the largest nuggets at this time.

(see also Web Log Analysis (2 Jun 2001). Crude Metrics (9 Feb 2003), Got Library (17 Sep 2003), ... )

- Friday, October 17, 2003 at 17:37:58 (EDT)

True Names

One of the reasons I like my doctor so much is that she tells me such great names for things! "Dyshidrotic eczema", "Koebner effect", "actinic keratosis", and most recently "deQuervain's tenosynovitis", a kind of tendinitis that at the moment seems to be afflicting my left wrist.

Names comfort me. Once I know the name of something I seem to gain at least some measure of control over it ... as said best in the opening words of Vernor Vinge's 1980 ur-cyberpunk novel True Names:

In the once upon a time days of the First Age of Magic, the prudent sorcerer regarded his own true name as his most valued possession but also the greatest threat to his continued good health, for --- the stories go --- once an enemy, even a weak unskilled enemy, learned the sorcerer's true name, then routine and widely known spells could destroy or enslave even the most powerful. As times passed, and we graduated to the Age of Reason and thence to the first and second industrial revolutions, such notions were discredited. Now it seems that the Wheel has turned full circle (even if there never really was a First Age) and we are back to worrying about true names again ...

(see also Naming Names (10 Oct 1999), Vernor Vinge (17 Sep 2001), ... )

- Thursday, October 16, 2003 at 06:07:45 (EDT)

Cross Words

Our "House Rules" for solving crossword puzzles work well to promote friendly collaboration while preserving the challenge of the sport. The primary restriction is on reference materials: they're simply not allowed. If you can remember something (e.g., the capital of Burkina Faso, or the meaning of "ort") that's fine. But it's no fair opening a gazeteer or dictionary to look things up. Research-oriented web-surfing is likewise verboten.

On the other hand, if something is in plain sight, say an author's name on the spine of a book, then it's ok to take advantage of it. Likewise it's acceptable to ask another person for an answer --- though that individual is then bound by the House Rules and cannot consult any external resources before replying. If chance should bring a clue into your field of view you are free to use that information without penalty.

Usually whoever gets to the newspaper first has the honor of doing the initial pass through the puzzle. When that person is stuck s/he passes the section along to the next victim, or leaves the paper folded open to that page for a passerby to attack. The New York Times crosswords, our favorites, start easy on Monday and get progressively more difficult as the week goes by, climaxing with a Saturday killer. (Sunday's is about at the Thursday level of effort but is larger and thus takes longer.) The Dickerson-Zimmerman group mind can generally do the first half of the week with relative ease; the later half often gets dicey and takes all day.

My inclination is to declare "moral victory" over a puzzle when its key motif has been discovered, especially once all the long thematic words have been filled in. Others in the crew want to finish off every last cell before they set it aside. Sometimes when a crucigram is deemed "unfair" we begin to alter it --- perhaps coloring in squares which are at the intersection of impossible-to-guess clues. We also scorn puzzles which rely too much on "popular" knowledge which none of us can supply, like names of TV characters or obscure foreign-language words.

When a crossword pulls a sneaky trick, such as squeezing multiple letters into a single cell, we sometimes get irate --- though if it's done with enough cleverness we temper our ire with admiration for the designer. Certain clues and answers are too cliched to garner much respect from us, like the vowel-rich "agar" or "eerie". But the worst sin, in our family book, is when a puzzle stoops to using what we call "crossword-words": cheap coinages that string together prefixes and suffixes to make a forced fit with intersecting terms. "Former moray hunter" = "exeeler"? Uggggghhhhh-ly!

(see also Ars Magna (27 Sep 2002), Zen Scrabble (7 Oct 2002), ... )

- Wednesday, October 15, 2003 at 17:15:13 (EDT)


Some idealistic homeschooling friends of ours moved out of the urban/suburban ratrace zone several years ago. They rented a house in the hill country but dreamed of more: an ecological commune of small hut-like structures in the woods, set up so that the inhabitants could live in a more relaxed fashion, in greater harmony with Nature, sharing and collaborating with one another. They called their design an "Eco-Village" and tried for a while to raise money to construct one.

Alas, I fear that (like the famous jar in the Wallace Stevens poem about an artifact placed on a hilltop in Tennessee) such a cluster of homes would be likely to disrupt the surrounding wilderness, and result in rather less bucolic magic than my friends imagined. I hope I'm wrong.

The other day, however, I noticed that a slight modification of their concept-word generates a neat new term: E-Covillage. What does it mean? "E" implies "electronic", obviously, and "Co" means "with". An E-Covillage is thus a small online community that emphasizes working together.

Maybe that describes a successful Wiki!

(see also Meta Forestry (28 Jun 1999), Nuclear Accident (1 Aug 2003), ... )

- Tuesday, October 14, 2003 at 05:40:30 (EDT)

No Dogs or Philosophers Allowed

"And remember, I'm a philosopher, and that means that I'm ignorant. But it also means that I'm trying to do something about it."

So says Ken Knisley, host of No Dogs Or Philosophers Allowed, a delightful TV "talk show" that will never be popular and that is infinitely more important than just about anything else on the air. (Game 7 of a Yankees-Bosox series? Don't ask; some things are simply incommensurable!)

A Philosophy Breakfast comrade (GdM) recommended No Dogs to me several years ago, after he saw it by chance on a local cable system. Recently I rediscovered its web site: http://www.nodogs.org . It offers a variety of entertaining materials including streaming videos of past episodes and MP3 audio clips of John Cleese waxing philosophical chariots of thought. (Don't blame me for that Pythonesque groaner; my free will called in sick today and I'm not responsible.)

A No Dogs show tends to feature several guests (aka "symposers"?!) who chat with Knisley about a chosen topic: animal rights, terrorism, beauty, tolerance, love, whatever. Ken tosses questions, juggles issues, and frames the conversation with thoughtful comments. Near the end of "Got Rights?", for instance, he summarizes some of the issues raised by observing:

"... It reminds you that you're an ongoing project. How should one ongoing project, like me or like you, think of and deeply regard this panoply of other ongoing projects, peculiar living creatures that they are? The old answers don't appear to be as good as I thought they were. The new answers appear to be a little bit odd and frighteningly expensive. The decision's up to you ..."

- Monday, October 13, 2003 at 08:19:59 (EDT)

Brake Tax

Highway contstruction in the USA is tied to a gasoline tax. That's a good thing, since it's economically efficient and socially appropriate to make the linkage as close as possible between the demand for something and the revenue to pay for it. Probably the gas tax should be significantly higher, in fact, to cover neighborhood effects from our society's heavy reliance on automobiles and other hydrocarbon-based transportation systems.

But a huge problem remains: aggressive driving that endangers the more responsible users of the roads. Higher insurance premiums apply to some bad drivers --- but only after they have done their damage to others, and only if they deign to buy insurance. Fines for traffic violations are given out too sporadically and clearly lack enough deterrent effect. Many wild drivers trigger accidents while escaping unscathed; often they don't realize what mayhem they've caused.

How to fix? The Brake Tax: a heavy levy applied to all brake linings, shoes, discs, and drums. Lanechangers and tailgaters who habitually zoom and swerve will get hit where it counts, in their pocketbooks. Gentle drivers will contrariwise be rewarded. Who could object to that?

- Sunday, October 12, 2003 at 08:04:44 (EDT)

Key Problems

I'm a sucker for lists. Who isn't? They're fun and, at their best, highly educational. They encapsulate a lot of knowledge in a small space. Lists are also a fine source of material for late-night beer-fueled debate.

And speaking of lists: circa 1975 pure chance led me to a little book on the physics shelf of the Caltech campus bookstore. It was a shockingly inexpensive hardback, a product of the subsidized Soviet publishing industry, and I bought it. The title was Key Problems of Physics and Astrophysics, and at its core was a list. The author was V. L. Ginzburg --- who this year was awarded a share of the Nobel Prize in physics for his work on superconductivity and superfluidity.

Alas, Vitaly Ginzburg's little book is no longer with me. In 1988 or thereabouts I lent it to a visitor who needed something to read during an imminent transcontinental flight. He promised to return it, but somehow never did. I think he was a semi-famous engineer, a senior member of some high-level S&T advisory committee, an aerospace industry executive ... far far above my pay grade, needless to say. Over the years I've entirely forgotten his name. Sic transit ...

But I still remember Key Problems clearly, including its cheap paper and hip-pocket-sized format. A week or two ago I happened to search online and discovered http://www.physics.rutgers.edu/colloq/ginzburg.pdf --- a copy of Ginzburg's more recent essay, "What problems of physics and astrophysics seem now to be especially important and interesting (thirty years later, already on the verge of XXI century)?" Yes, it's a rather unliterary translation, but the substance of the article shines through. (It appeared in the original Russian in Uspekhi Fizicheskikh Nauk in 1999.)

Ginzburg brings to his list a lifetime of experience, a superb instinct for what's critical, and a fountain of creative energy. His current set of thirty key problems, slightly edited and abridged:

  1. controlled nuclear fusion
  2. high-temperature superconductivity
  3. metallic hydrogen and other exotic substances
  4. two-dimensional electron liquids
  5. solid-state physics questions including heterostructures and mesoscopics
  6. second-order phase transitions and Bose-Einstein condensation of gases
  7. surface physics
  8. liquid crystals and ferroelectrics
  9. fullerenes and nanotubes
  10. behavior of matter in superstrong magnetic fields
  11. nonlinear physics, including turbulence, solitons, chaos, and strange attractors
  12. X-ray lasers, gamma-ray lasers, and superhigh-power lasers
  13. superheavy elements and exotic nuclei
  14. mass spectrum of fundamental particles; quarks, gluons, quantum chromodynamics
  15. unified theory of weak and electromagnetic interactions
  16. Standard Model, Grand Unification, proton decay, neutrino mass, and magnetic monopoles
  17. fundamental length, and particle interactions at superhigh energies
  18. nonconservation of CP-invariance
  19. nonlinear phenomena in vacuum and superstrong magnetic fields, and vacuum phase transitions
  20. strings and M-theory
  21. experimental verification of General Relativity
  22. gravitational waves and their detection
  23. cosmology, inflation, the cosmological constant, and connections between cosmology and high-energy physics
  24. neutron stars, pulsars, and supernovae
  25. black holes and cosmic strings
  26. quasars and galactic nuclei, and the formation of galaxies
  27. dark matter (hidden mass) and its detection
  28. origin of superhigh-energy cosmic rays
  29. gamma-ray bursts and hypernovae
  30. neutrino physics and astronomy, and neutrino oscillations

Ginzburg explains, at a moderate level of technical detail, what these labels mean and why he deems each topic both important and approachable. I find it heartening that I can more or less understand what perhaps two-thirds of these problems are about. Perhaps drinking Potomac River water hasn't utterly fogged my wits ... yet.

(see also Books To Consider (16 Apr 1999), Worth Remembering 1 (28 Dec 2000), Worth Remembering 2 (31 Dec 2000), Millennium Math (5 Dec 2002), ... )

- Saturday, October 11, 2003 at 15:28:44 (EDT)

Circus Sponsorus

A recent unfortunate experience brought home, yet again, one of the endemic illnesses in our society: the commercialization of everything. At a scholarship award ceremony one might naïvely think that the prime goals would be to:

  1. encourage young scholars
  2. give out scholarships

Alas, instead of those, the singular focus of the event I witnessed was to:

  1. encourage sponsors

Several of the speakers said, "It's about the children." They lied. It was all about the donors and the organizers. The kids were just props; money given to them was small potatoes compared to the sums contributed by those who were called to the podium, three for every child, to "present the awards". Their names and corporate affiliations were repeatedly announced as well as featured prominently in the handout materials. The show was simply a means to raise cash to pay for itself, to support its producers, and to enable its sequel next year.

This wasn't supposed to be an amateur hour production, either --- it took place in a prominent facility and featured the name of a world-famous business establishment. (The name is deliberately obfuscated here, to avoid further embarrassment to that company. If its executives didn't feel mortified by what happened at the ceremony they are truly clueless.) The sound was overamplified and grossly misengineered, to the point of destroying loudspeakers and damaging eardrums of some in the audience. The families who attended were treated as second-class citizens, herded around like cattle while celebrities and monied "VIPs" were stroked before and after the affair.

Worst of all, most of the young students who attended were sent home empty-handed. Pious declarations by some speakers that "You're all winners" were obvious untruths. (Note: I do not write from personal bitterness about that; one of my children was among the few exceptions.)

The presentation itself was made to seem like a mock Academy Awards spectacular: "May I have the envelope please?" ... "And the winner is" ... etc. Much overt audience manipulation accompanied this process: "Let's have a round of applause for ...", "Stand up now for ...", and the like. Low.

Perhaps nowadays in order to get resources for good causes one must pander shamelessly? If so, shame on us.

(see also Our One Ring (18 Dec 2001), Something To Sell (14 Apr 2002), For Themselves (8 Jun 2003), ... )

- Friday, October 10, 2003 at 07:24:34 (EDT)

Mechanical Advantage

"Give me a lever long enough and I will move the Earth," said Archimedes.

True ... but you won't move it very far, and you sure won't do it very fast! As with some areas of mathematics or logic programming, you can get something for (almost) nothing --- but only if you're willing to wait (almost) forever to get it.

But on the brighter side, if you're patient enough then you can win, and win big. Which brings to mind a lovely extended essay that I first saw a few decades ago by Freeman J. Dyson: Time Without End: Physics and Biology in an Open Universe (in Rev. Mod. Phys., v.51, n.3, July 1979). Dyson takes simple but plausible models of the cosmos and the laws of nature, and then extrapolates them --- far beyond their known realms of validity, as he himself admits, but hey, that's ok. It's a "take your best shot" approach to looking deep into the future, and he does it brilliantly.

Dyson's bottom-line conclusions? To put infinite space into a nutshell: even if the universe is open and expands into an ever-colder ever-thinner soup, nonetheless life and mind and communication can go on forever --- though at an ever-slower pace.

The mainspring of thought winds down, but the gears never come to a stop. It's like the harmonic series 1/1 + 1/2 + 1/3 + 1/4 + 1/5 + ... . Given enough time there's no upper bound to the total accumulation. Mind is like that. (Maybe!)

And as Freeman Dyson concludes, this is a profoundly optimistic vision: "... a universe growing without limit in richness and complexity, a universe of life surviving forever and making itself known to its neighbors across unimaginable gulfs of space and time."

(see http://www.aleph.se/Trans/Global/Omega/dyson.txt for Dyson (1979); see also Resolution And Unification (11 Nov 1999), Cosmic Context (10 Nov 2000), Universal Knowns (13 Jun 2002), ... )

- Thursday, October 09, 2003 at 05:30:31 (EDT)

Handicap Jogging

Based on some theory, some experience, and some modeling, I've come up with a simple formula to scale running results and allow a fair comparison among people of diverse ages, sizes, and shapes:

age + body mass index - 50 + 10 (if you're female)

The result is a percentage adjustment. Take that much off your time in a race, and you've got your scaled result. For example, with a BMI of 24 and an age of 51, my current handicap is 24+51-50 = 25%. So when I run a 10 minute mile I get to subtract 25% from my finishing time, or equivalently add 25% to my speed. It's like doing a 7:30 mile when I was half this age --- which makes sense and feels about right.

The logic, in brief:

One certainly could design a much more complex equation, and likewise could quibble over various of the terms in the formula --- but age+BMI-50+10 (if female) is probably about as accurate as the uncertainties in the input factors allow, and it has the singular advantage of being trivial enough to compute, just barely, during the final stages of exhaustion during a long run.

(see also Need For Speed (10 Aug 2002), Logbook Tyrannicide (17 Oct 2002), ... )

- Wednesday, October 08, 2003 at 05:39:59 (EDT)

Magna Fortuna

Luck didn't seem important when I was young and everything was simple. In principle, with enough foresight, life was fully controllable. Or so I thought.

No more! I've seen enough examples of good people laid low, and good plans that came crashing down. Now I understand why Fortuna, the goddess of luck, appears so frequently on ancient Roman coins. As usually depicted she holds a cornucopia of wealth in one hand and steers the world's course with her other hand resting on a rudder.

Maybe Fortuna should also be adopted as the goddess of computer science. The term cybernetics comes from the Greek word for steersman. And information technology certainly has become the cornucopia of modern times --- immensely valuable, yet hugely vulnerable to random events ...

(see also Just Desserts (20 Sep 1999), Ultra Man (8 May 2002), ... )

- Tuesday, October 07, 2003 at 05:39:28 (EDT)

Study Break

It seems backwards, but when my kids take an hour off from their schoolwork they call it a "study break" --- not a "play video games break" or a "fix a snack break" or a "surf the web break". It sounds a lot better to label the time by what one is not doing, eh?!

- Sunday, October 05, 2003 at 17:37:56 (EDT)

Worn Off

When somebody is trying to sell you a used car and the brake pedal is excessively worn, that's a possible danger sign ... the vehicle may have been driven a lot more harshly stop-and-go than the average. (And if the brake pedal is brand-new, ask yourself why it was changed so recently.)

Wear-indicators exist elsewhere too. The soles of a runner's shoes are a superb diagnostic tool in identifying stride problems. Blisters on the feet are similarly significant. The Koebner Phenomenon --- where minor skin abrasion triggers a local flare-up of psoriasis or other dermatitis --- troubled me some years ago until I understood it and learned to learn from it. And in the mass transport world, modern automobile tires have tread-wear markers that give warning when the rubber is getting dangerously thin.

In another realm, recently I noticed that the buttons on my car radio are quite worn --- and I've gotta admit that they're telling me the truth about myself. I'm impatient. When there's a commercial break or when a song comes along that doesn't grab me right off, typically I'll click to another station, then another and another --- seeking not just good enough but zow! So I flit along and rarely listen to anything that doesn't appeal to me from the start. And because I've wandered off I frequently don't get to hear the beginning of something I would have enjoyed.

I'm working on this, but for me it's a tough habit to change. Sure, I avoid getting stuck with a dull song for a few minutes --- but the net result is to miss a lot more that would have turned out to be worthwhile and pleasurable.

The same hurrisome behavior applies in other areas of my life. I blitz through newspapers and magazines, rather than settle down to read longer articles or books. Web browsing for me is the same, but on steroids. Maybe it's an archetypal "male" tactic? That's no excuse!

And on my computer keyboard the letters "A" and "I" are almost illegible, the paint mostly scraped off the tops of those two keys by my frenzied typing. Wonder what that means?

(see also Undivided Attention (6 Feb 2001), Women And Men (20 Nov 2001), Read Through (16 Feb 2003), ... )

- Saturday, October 04, 2003 at 16:51:10 (EDT)

Final Element

Hydrogen is about as far as physicists can get when they try to do chemistry, at least if they stick to the traditional physics philosophy of precision. Heavier elements are just too complicated to calculate without unrealistically severe simplification of the equations (though admittedly one can do helium fairly well, given herculean effort). Even ignoring the effects of subnuclear structure, all those electrons whizz-banging about and pushing against each other make for impossible-to-solve hyper-messy nonlinear formulas.

Nonetheless, without an exact solution one can still say interesting and important things. In particular, with each step down the periodic table the nuclear charge gets one unit stronger and the innermost electrons are pulled into tighter and tighter "orbits" (to speak in classical metaphors about an intrinsically quantum phenomenon). That's why knocking an inner electron out of place in tungsten produces X-rays, photons far more energetic than the infrared or visible wavelengths that lighter elements give off in the same circumstances.

But there's a limit to that process. Keep cranking up the nuclear charge, on past uranium (atomic number Z = 92) and plutonium (Z = 94), and the innermost electrons must move faster and faster --- until, for Z greater than 137, they would have to go faster than light. That's not allowed!

Relativistic corrections to classical quantum mechanics push that limit up a bit. So does the fact that atomic nuclei aren't infinitely tiny (though they are exceedingly small compared to the "normal" size of electron orbits). But even allowing for those factors there's a hard ceiling on Z, probably in the ~150-200 area. Beyond that the electric fields near such a superheavy nucleus become so powerful that they tear the fabric of space itself apart into electron-positron pairs. The positrons are expelled and the electrons get pulled inward to neutralize the excessively positive nuclear charge. Nature doesn't abhor a vacuum, but apparently she does abhor putting too many eggs in one basket.

Or so the theoreticians think ... until somebody demonstrates otherwise. Then they will slap palms to foreheads, exclaim "How obvious!", and start publishing explanations for what they've hitherto overlooked.

(see also Appropriate Units (2 Feb 2000), Islands Of Stability (28 Apr 2002), Coincidental Taxonomy 2 (14 May 2002), High Precision (16 Jul 2002), Essential Elements (4 Feb 2003), ... )

- Friday, October 03, 2003 at 20:16:26 (EDT)

Running Advice

Two years ago I needed information on how to ramp up to distance running with a maximum of fun and a minimum of pain. Some things friends told me, some things I read, and some things I learned only from achy experience. Here are a few suggestions that I now offer, in turn, from my limited and idiosyncratic perspective:

And maybe most important:

(see also Jog Log Fog (9 Jun 2002), Slower Runners Guide (30 Oct 2002), Lose Track (11 Nov 2002), ... )

- Thursday, October 02, 2003 at 21:30:52 (EDT)

Crip Heard

"Race movies" were a major genre some decades ago during an era of severe segregation and discrimination. Like the Negro Leagues in baseball, race movies starred blacks who (with extraordinarily rare and limited exceptions) couldn't get work in the mainstream industry. Some of these actors and actresses were quite good, though the films they appeared in were often low-budget and rather predictable in their plots.

Parallel to Bollywood productions of today, many race movies included spectacular song and dance routines. One such came to mind today when I overheard someone describe a frustrating situation with the simile "... like a one-legged man at an ass-kicking contest" (possibly a ruder variant of "... like a one-armed paper-hanger").

The classic 1948 film Boarding House Blues featured a performance by "Crip" Heard. The emcee for a vaudeville show-within-the-movie introduced Crip as " ... a sensation and an inspiration to us all" --- and he was! Crip's softshoe routine was breathtaking. He began on crutches and then, even more amazingly, tossed away all artificial support and continued with moves that most two-legged and two-armed breakdancers couldn't begin to accomplish. No need for pity; the feeling that his act produced was genuine admiration --- applause for human triumph, talent, and ingenuity.

Bravo, Mr. Heard!

(see also Passing Inspiration (7 Apr 2002), ... )

- Wednesday, October 01, 2003 at 18:31:42 (EDT)

Junk DNA

Hacking the Zhurnal Wiki is simple: find the "Edit This Page" option in the popup menu next to the "Page Action:" button. Then monkey with entries by hand, or if that's too slow craft a simple script to do it wholesale. But why bother? There's no glory, and somebody else will quietly repair any significant damage. (e.g., see http://www.c2.com/cgi/wiki?WikiVandalsHistory for examples from a large Wiki community)

Classical Wikis have no security to speak of. It's rather like leaving your doors unlocked at home. Neighbors can come in to help if there's a fire, or if you fall down and can't get up. You can enter quickly if you forget your keys. Life is simpler and more efficient. (Yeah, stuff can get stolen --- but should one be so attached to one's stuff? I dunno ... )

DNA sequences in real life biological systems tend to accumulate "junk" --- sections that don't seem to represent useful information for building proteins or doing anything else important in a cell. Maybe a Wiki is analogous. Material builds up over time that doesn't seem to represent useful information: silly cross-links, typographical errors, mistakes of fact, self-promotional hype, etc. But it doesn't really harm anything and the cost to carry it along is less than the cost to cut it out. And maybe someday the seeming-junk will turn out to be valuable in an unanticipated context.

(see also Fragile Beauty (15 Sep 2001), ... )

- Tuesday, September 30, 2003 at 22:31:10 (EDT)

It Usually Begins With Ayn Rand

There's a scene in the offbeat movie Airheads where embarrassed characters confess their various youthful indiscretions: "I played Dungeons and Dragons", "I used to masturbate constantly", "I was the editor of the school newspaper", "My real name isn't Chaz, it's Clarence", and so forth.

Well, I admit it --- in my teenage years I read some Ayn Rand novels. I wasn't too doctrinaire about Objectivism, Libertarianism, or any other Capitalized -Ism ... unlike some folks with severe cases of the disease (and whom Jerome Tucille depicted in his humorous 1972 analytic history It Usually Begins With Ayn Rand). But I dabbled, agreed in parts, disagreed elsewhere. It's great to have simple answers to complicated questions, especially when one is young.

And I still remember the interminable speech by John Galt in Atlas Shrugged. It comes to mind when somebody asks me what I think about a given issue and I reply instinctively with a pointer to a Zhurnal Wiki item ... and then begin to fear that the ^zhurnal is turning into an endless chaotic ^z screed.

Who is John Galt? Don't ask me, please!

(see also Embarrassed Libertarian (28 May 2000), Traditarians Vs Libertitionists (3 Aug 2000), ... )

- Monday, September 29, 2003 at 18:57:26 (EDT)

Voiced Postalveolar Fricative

Linguistic terminology is so spiffy! There are plosives and flaps, approximants and glides, fricatives and affricatives, nasals and trills. Consonsonants can be velars, alveolars, labials, labiovelars, bilabials, labiodentals, palatals, uvulars, pharyngeals, or glottals. They can be voiced or unvoiced. And more ... all of which I am incompetent to address.

But, like the person who was delighted to learn that for his whole life he had been speaking prose without knowing it, I just love the sound of the words that describe the sounds of human language. And, in the context of the word zhurnal, that initial "zh" (the eighth letter of the Russian alphabet) is, I recently learned, a voiced postalveolar fricative.

What a mouthful!

(for pronunciation see Treasure Knowledge (26 Oct 2002), ...)

- Saturday, September 27, 2003 at 14:42:07 (EDT)

Counter Bean Counters

To help reduce his stress level at the office a friend recently posted two signs on the upper left and right corners of his computer screen:

I D N M ... and ... I D N C

... which he translated for me: "It Does Not Matter" and "I Do Not Care".

Independently that same day another colleague quoted her newest sanity-maintenance mantra to me:

Everything counts, but nothing matters.

... which, as she explained, describes a bureaucracy focused on base-touching, turf-defense, nano-management, and irrelevant-metric-gathering.

- Friday, September 26, 2003 at 08:10:08 (EDT)

Two But Not Three

Illuminati -- enlightened ones --- brings to mind Robert Anton Wilson novels, conspiracy theory (and a fine Mel Gibson movie of the same name), and the intriguing card game by Steve Jackson (a fellow student at Rice University with me in the early 1970s --- coincidence?).

As I found Wilson's books virtually unreadable yet appealing, so also I found the Illuminati card game virtually unplayable. Yet it's such outrageous fun to mess around with secret interconnections! What if the Boy Sprouts were actually in charge of the Nuclear Power Companies, which in turn pulled the strings that controlled the Cycle Gangs and the Fast Food Chains? Suppose the Joggers got hold of the Ark of the Covenant and thereby could trigger a Giant Meteor Strike? Maybe the Gnomes of Zurich have taken over the Telephone Psychics and, via them, the Bank of England? The mind boggles.

As Edward Rothstein describes a new Neal Stephenson novel, Quicksilver:

Noah's Ark," reads one card. "The pharynx and its outgrowths," reads another. "Pantomime" and "Testes" say two others. And then there are "Nonsymmetrical dyadic relations," "Sunspots" and "Requirements for valid maritime insurance contracts."
The cards are stacked precariously in a cabin in Newtowne, the Massachusetts Bay Colony, in 1713 where a philosopher, Daniel Waterhouse, is trying to organize all of human knowledge. Each card is also inscribed with a number. And just as each number is a unique product of prime numbers, so, in this system, is each concept a unique product of elemental concepts. For every number there's a concept, for every concept a number.
... if all the world's knowledge could be encoded in number, then the acts of creation and invention would just be forms of calculation. And the world would reveal itself as a calculating machine, an information processor.

(see Rothstein's essay in the 20 Sep 2003 New York Times)

This echoes Stephen Wolfram's attempt to reduce all of science to cellular automata. (see Combinatorial Interference, 10 Sep 2003) But as Barry's Second Law states, "All double features work." (see Barry Laws And Precepts, 18 Aug 2001)

The mind can connect any two concepts, as a straight line connects any two points. But three arbitrary points don't in general lie on a line, and three arbitrary topics aren't likely to define a coherent theme. When they seem to, there's going to be some (perhaps subtle) linkage or pattern among them ... or human delusion.

- Wednesday, September 24, 2003 at 22:27:34 (EDT)

Hurrisome Thrustful Havering

(Current Events: Yoyo mode has recently been the status descriptor for our electrical supply. After three and a half days of no juice Che^z was back on the grid for much of yesterday starting ~3am. We regained our freedom from the mains when a cold front came through in the evening, bringing thunderstorms, heavy rains, and the abrupt loss of power again at ~9pm. After getting 120v AC back for part of the night and losing it again this morning, we seem to have seen the last of the storms ... the electromotive forces are apparently back to their normal state in our neighborhood.)

Three delightful words have yanked at my ear recently:

- Tuesday, September 23, 2003 at 18:02:39 (EDT)

Off the Grid

Current events are by choice an uncommon source of ^zhurnal themes. But the absence of alternating current in and around che^z for the past few days is perhaps an event uncommon enough to merit a mention.

Since last Thursday, when Hurricane Isabel left a large fraction of the region near Washington DC without power, life has shifted to a lower gear. So far we've seen no riots, or even much riotous behavior. Alcohol, tobacco, and firearm purchases may be slightly elevated. But ice cream consumption is up dramatically, as are board games played and books read.

The weather is mild; it's quite comfortable to sit outside on the porch (modulo mosquitos). In the extended neighborhood enough electrical service has been restored to run a majority of traffic lights and shops. People venture out in their cars to pick up supplies, then quickly return home. Perishables are bought in small quantities for today's meals. Refrigerators have become iceboxes. Folks go for afternoon walks around the block. At night most windows are dark, or flicker with candle or fluorescent lantern glow rather than the hard blue aura of TV tubes.

The lifestyle change is striking. A normal zeitgeist around here is deadline-driven multitasking hypercompetition, manifested outside the office in the 130dB chainsaw/leaf-blower school of gardening. Instead, the past three days have felt like a camping trip, a vacation at a cabin in the woods. It's a flashback to a slower-paced and gentler era, more relaxed, healthier. Will any of that attitude adjustment persist once the lights come back on?

- Sunday, September 21, 2003 at 21:40:18 (EDT)

Green Mountain

 The glade dozes. Ferns edge a pool of moss
 Fed by an ivy spring. Above, the woods
 Cascade like verdant waterfalls to splash
 Hillsides in flaming copper torrents. Cliffs
 Ascend, pine-clad, to loom and crest and break
 Into a mile-high tidal wave of life
 That at its crest erupts into a tree ---
 Kingly, triumphant, highest of them all,
 A final proudest acme --- over which
 The sky dozes.

(see also The Brink (3 Apr 2001), ... )

- Saturday, September 20, 2003 at 15:31:41 (EDT)

Flagrante Delicto Philosopher

Tropical Storm (née Hurricane) Isabel hasn't caused major damage in the area where I live --- it passed some miles to our west yesterday evening and early this morning --- but we have as expected lost electrical power. (Perhaps an hour of battery energy remains in this laptop for me to write and post. My dial-up ISP HIS.COM [1] seems, as usual, to be up and running --- thanks to the excellent work of owner Paul Heller and his colleagues.)

The sudden absence of most modern distractions has thus granted me an opportunity to read farther in The History of Tom Jones (1749). It's yet another of the classics that I overlooked in my ill-spent youth. Last night I encountered two wonderfully wry comments by author Henry Fielding on philosophic themes.

Concerning the construction of the universe and the vital importance of the smallest things:

Though this incident will probably appear of little consequence to many of our readers; yet, trifling as it was, it had so violent an effect on poor Jones, that we thought it our duty to relate it. In reality, there are many little circumstances too often omitted by injudicious historians, from which events of the utmost importance arise. The world may indeed be considered as a vast machine, in which the great wheels are originally set in motion by those which are very minute, and almost imperceptible to any but the strongest eyes.

(in Book V, Chapter iv, "A little chapter, in which is contained a little incident.")

And concerning the real-life application of theoretical doctrine, when Fielding's protagonist happens to discover, concealed behind the curtain in a lady's bedroom, a highly embarrassed philosopher:

I question not but the surprize of the reader will be here equal to that of Jones; as the suspicions which must arise from the appearance of this wise and grave man in such a place, may seem so inconsistent with that character which he hath, doubtless, maintained hitherto, in the opinion of every one.
But to confess the truth, this inconsistency is rather imaginary than real. Philosophers are composed of flesh and blood as well as other human creatures; and however sublimated and refined the theory of these may be, a little practical frailty is as incident to them as to other mortals. It is, indeed, in theory only, and not in practice, as we have before hinted, that consists the difference: for though such great beings think much better and more wisely, they always act exactly like other men. They know very well how to subdue all appetites and passions, and to despise both pain and pleasure; and this knowledge affords much delightful contemplation, and is easily acquired; but the practice would be vexatious and troublesome; and, therefore, the same wisdom which teaches them to know this, teaches them to avoid carrying it into execution.

(in Book V, Chapter v, "A very long chapter, containing a very great incident.")

(see also Catfight Club (5 Sep 2003), ... )

- Friday, September 19, 2003 at 09:07:09 (EDT)

Power Sponge

Long runs (for me anything over ~10 miles) go better if I ingest some nourishment along the way. Hardcore racers like to suck down sugary cake-frosting-like goop with gutsy-sounding names like "GU" or "Clif Shots". But those concoctions tend to cost a penny or more per calorie (food calorie = physics kilocalorie, to the purists). That's a bit pricey for a cheapskate like me, though I'm happy to consume such fancy eats during a race if they're kindly provided by the organizers.

On my training runs, therefore, I typically carry a couple of so-called energy bars along. Favorite among those at the moment is the crunchy peanut butter variety of "Clif Bar". It combines rugged physical construction and robust flavor with a gummy stick-to-the-teeth texture --- and thus far hasn't caused any sudden ill effects on my digestion. That's an important criterion when one is far from a port-a-john on a busy semi-urban trail.

Slowly do I jog, and so also slowly do I eat. A typical pace for me nowadays is ~10-12 minutes/mile, including ~30-60 seconds of "walk break" every ~5-10 minutes, depending on distance and weather and course and mood and other conditions. I pace my noshing likewise: ~1-2 bites/mile, accompanied by a few sips of water. A single package of bar-format food thus lasts me an hour or more. That's cost-effectiveness.

But even more cheaply, I could just carry a jar of peanut butter and eat spoonfuls of that every mile. Or maybe I should fill a plastic bag with peanut butter and squeeze it into my mouth at intervals. (Hmmm ... perhaps I'll leave my GPS receiver and/or cellphone at home in order to make room for that next time.)

And maybe there's something still better. My brother Keith Zimmermann [1] reports that on his hundred-mile bicycle journeys he inhales cheap mass-produced "creme"-filled sponge-cake-like artifacts to reenergize himself. But for wider appeal these things need a sexier label. What wannabe-fast runner will deign to ask for a "Twinkie"?

Keith's suggestion: call them "Power Sponges", quadruple the price, and sell them with inspirational slogans printed on the wrappers. Even better, I speculate, might be to give them a name with Third Millennium linguistic-typographic pizzaz. How about:

Pow!r SpüngZ

- Thursday, September 18, 2003 at 10:20:26 (EDT)

Got Library?

Paulette Dickerson [1], spouse and library maven, has a variety of her speeches on behalf of the local library system available online. One of those talks is entitled "Magic Wands" (see [2] = [3]). According to server logs it seems to attract significantly more readers than all the rest ... presumably including visitors who are seekers of wiccan wisdom, Harry Potteriana, or the thaumaturgical arts. Paulette's talk doesn't have anything to do with such things. Or maybe it does --- in the real-world sense of "magic wands" as entities that can cause radical long-term transformations in individuals and societies.

Paulette and I were talking the other day about possible promotional activities, and I suggested a bumper sticker that says simply "Got Library?" following the lead of a milk industry advertising campaign. (But would its lawyers sue us for arrogating their intellectual property?) A civilization that invests in libraries has hopes for a better future.

Perhaps we should consider other bibliomantras. Several years ago Paulette used, to good advantage, the aphorism "Libraries will get you through times of no money better than money will get you through times of no libraries." But that's a bit long for a slogan, and for some it may bring to mind the earlier proverb of Gilbert Shelton's Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers underground comic of the '60s --- which substitutes the word dope for libraries. I have no problem with that, but perhaps it could distract from the message?

Best of all, in the bookhouse-consciousness-raising venue, might be another tactic that Paulette has become famous for in local government circles. Remember the classic cigarette commercial "Show us your Lark pack!" from the early days of TV? Paulette, when speaking before the County Council, has on occasion called upon those present in the audience to hold up their library cards. It tends to get a good response; several Councilmenbers clearly remember it and joke with Paulette about it when they see her.

And some day I envision throngs of enthusiastic readers, swaying, arms upstretched, like rock concert audiences with their lighter flames dancing above them in the darkness.

"Show us your library card!"

(see also Book Houses (14 Dec 1999), Boston Public Library (20 Jun 2002), Proud Signage (23 Apr 2003), Knowledge And Public Happiness (29 Jul 2003), ... )

- Wednesday, September 17, 2003 at 17:24:37 (EDT)

Ceteris Paribus

It's natural and efficient to look just one step ahead and then accept that result as "the answer". Why waste energy thinking about higher-order effects, when most of the time they can be safely ignored? In simple circumstances such effects are negligible. But when things are even slightly complicated and when feedback loops add nonlinearity, higher-order phenomena become essential in a correct analysis.

Consider, for example, a widespread electrical power outage, a paralyzing blizzard, a general strike, an Internet worm, or any other semi-extraordinary large-scale phenomenon that interrupts commerce. Factories and shops are closed for several days. Most media coverage simplemindedly takes the average dollar amount of daily business done in the affected region, multiplies it by the duration of the disruption, and calls that "The Loss".

How ridiculous! If something isn't done right now and as usual then it doesn't ever happen?

No account is taken of shifts in making and spending, of delays (or advances) in trade, or of the value of new things substituted for old, expected activities. Time spent at home with family can be precious --- and maybe a lot more important, in the long run, than shopping. So are reading, thinking, learning, resting, and a host of other nonmonetary recreations. Just because they can't (easily) be measured doesn't mean that they aren't worthwhile.

So I have to laugh when I read the staggeringly huge "cost to the economy" of whatever the latest front-page headline is in a frenzy about ...

(see also Celebrity History (8 May 1999), Fifth Disciplinarians (10 Sep 2000), ... )

- Sunday, September 14, 2003 at 18:26:07 (EDT)

Merle and Robin, by Ellen Jacobs

Sometimes the best pictures are almost unplanned. Family friend (and daughter Gray's first violin teacher, more than a decade ago) Ellen Jacobs caught this black-and-white shot of sons Merle Zimmermann and Robin (aka Rad Rob) a few months ago, just before a concert:

(click on the thumbnail to see a higher-resolution version, ~260kB)

- Saturday, September 13, 2003 at 20:08:25 (EDT)

Zimmermann Environmental

My brother Keith Zimmermann, two years my junior, over the years has raced ahead of me in diverse pursuits. He first achieved:

Now Keith has his own company, Zimmermann Environmental --- http://www.keith.zimmermann.com/ --- to do computational air pollution modeling, applied meteorology, and related services. Starting and succeeding with an enterprise like that is a courageous venture, again far beyond my imagination. Bravo, Keith!

(see also Posta Lite (16 Aug 2000), Bless The Leathernecks (28 Oct 2002), ... )

- Friday, September 12, 2003 at 21:19:19 (EDT)

Max Headroom

As if we don't have enough advertisements jumping out at us from behind every corner, or every window! As if we don't have enough commercial messages shouting at us from their soapboxes everywhere! The newest new thing, apparently, is a scheme by the local subway system to put illuminated stroboscopic billboards on the walls of the metro system tunnels. The signs are adjusted to flicker at a rate matching the speed of each passing train, so an image, possibly animated, will seem to hang in the darkness outside the subway car.

If it didn't sound so ghostly-surrealistic-and-silly I'd surely get irate about Yet Another Attempt To Make A Buck at the expense of peaceful passers-by. Our attention is constantly being stolen and offered up for sale to the highest bidder ...

Once upon a time, a decade or so ago, there was a TV show that combined witty humor, futuristic scienti-fantasy, scathing social satire, and some good cheap special effects. It was called Max Headroom, and since it was intelligent it only survived for a couple of short seasons before being canceled with extreme prejudice. Two out of three episodes of Max Headroom fell flat, radically so. But batting over .300 is nonetheless astoundingly good for television. (And I must herewith mention Amanda Pays, who was as delightful to see and hear as was Diana Rigg a couple of decades earlier in The Avengers.)

An early Max Headroom story centered on ultra-powerful ultra-short ultra-subliminal commercials. They were called blipverts and had the potential to generate huge profits except for one unfortunate side-effect: they tended to occasionally cause viewers' heads to explode. (Can't make an omelette ...) The plot which ensued was clichéd but fun.

Blipverts came to mind again in the context of subway-tunnel signage. Why stop there? Let's set up big wire coils on highway overpasses. Generate electromagnetic fields to induce currents in the brains of humans who drive beneath, currents which stimulate the victim --- oops, I mean "potential customer" --- to crave <insert your product name here> ...

(see also Something To Sell (14 Apr 2002), For Themselves (8 Jun 2003), ... )

- Thursday, September 11, 2003 at 15:38:03 (EDT)

Combinatorial Interference

Complexity --- everybody loves it, especially:

  1. scientists, who by studying it can get big grants, set up new institutes, attend conferences in nice places, and see their names in print; and
  2. journalists, who can fill column-inches, generate illustrations that make pretty eye candy for their words, and see their bylines associated with something mysterious yet familiar to the general readership.

But setting aside (some of) the hype, it recently occurred to me that the cellular automata which appear to produce complex behavior are actually just unveiling (some of) the genuine complexity hidden in an underlying mathematical system. No magic to it --- all the bizarre patterns were already there, just hidden.

For instance, look at the famous one-dimensional cellular automata that produce spreading pyramids of colored patterns on the covers of popular science magazines every year or two. The edges of the designs are simple, like the edges of a classic Pascal's Triangle of numbers. Deeper inside the artwork there seems to be "complexity". But it's a false complexity, I speculate, corresponding simply to the multiple routes by which one can reach that point via a succession of left-turns right-turns --- precisely like all the various ways there are to partition the mathematical integers. (5 = 1+4 = 2+3 = 1+2+2 = ... = 1+1+1+1+1.) In other cases, maybe the underlying driver is related to primes vs. composite numbers and factorization issues.

Combinatorial interference patterns, one might term these pictures. They're strongly reminiscent of the sum-over-paths interference fringes that particles show as they propagate through spacetime in path-integral formulations of quantum mechanics ...

(see the pellucid Steven Weinberg discussion of Stephen Wolfram's book A New Kind of Science in v.49, n.16 (the 24 Oct 2002 issue) of the New York Review of Books at http://www.nybooks.com/articles/15762 (tnx to NF for pointing it out to me) ... and see also Natural Profligacy (20 Dec 1999), Epistemological Enginerooms (10 Aug 2000), Dead Beginnings (28 Sep 2002), Mind Children (17 Apr 2003), ...)

- Wednesday, September 10, 2003 at 06:13:48 (EDT)

Prostrate Organism

Certain words are, for whatever psychological reasons, tricky for certain people to read or say. In some cases it's just a minor impediment, perhaps a juvenile quirk that got locked down too early in the language-learning process. Pisghetti instead of spaghetti is a classic example that many have noted. And I still have to consciously push the "f" sound into sphere, lest it come out spear.

Then there are terms that are too foreign, too medical, or too closely connected to delicate issues for flawless mental parsing. Robert Anton Wilson's Illuminati über-conspiratorial yarn hypothesizes that folks may be socialized not to see particular strings of characters, e.g., the word '"fnord" <--- (this space intentionally left blank). In the movie Beetlejuice, for instance, the Handbook for the Recently Deceased explains that ghosts aren't actually invisible; most of the Living just choose not to see them. Maybe it's connected to the Edgar Allan Poe "Purloined Letter" technique of hiding something in plain sight.

In the opposite direction, a mind may insert additional letters during preconscious phases of data processing:

Wisdom suggests that one not spend too much energy attempting to correct a victim of such psycholinguistic glitches ...

- Tuesday, September 09, 2003 at 08:12:02 (EDT)

Frederick Keys Baseball 2003

How boring! It's only a game! What a waste of time! Nothing ever happens!

Yes, to all of the above ... and that's why baseball, especially in a for-the-love-of-the-sport amateur league, appeals so much to me. There are far too many stressful, deadly-serious, impossible-deadline activities in life. What a relief to sit for a few hours and watch something profoundly unimportant, an event without a clock ticking, where people strive to do their best against almost-overwhelming challenges --- and occasionally succeed, as something beautiful happens.

A month ago the Clark Griffith League season ended, and I thought 2003 baseball was finished for me. Then I got lucky and chanced to see a Tricounty League playoff game in Holyoke, Massachusetts, and I was sure that nothing more could happen this year. (I don't bother with Major League baseball --- it's too expensive, too commercial, too drug-driven, and too hyped.)

Then friend Ken phoned. Back in the springtime he had bought some advance-purchase tickets for local Minor League games and had to use them before it was too late. So without further ado Son Rad Rob and I jumped into the car --- burritos in hand, it being dinnertime. We raced to Ken's house and from there zoomed north to Frederick, where on the evening of Monday 18 August the Keys [1] were hosting the Lynchburg Hillcats [2].

Traffic delayed us; we arrived a few minutes late and missed the first few at-bats, but saw everything thereafter. The game was excellent:

And there were no errors by either side. The Keys didn't look at all like a team lodged at or near the bottom of the standings for the past couple of years.

The next day, when I mentioned that pleasant night out to a couple of friends (SA & CR) at the office, their appetites were whetted --- and I started to get hungry again too! So on Wednesday two days later a gaggle of us returned for one very last 2003 baseball experience. The Hillcats were still in town, and it was "Cheerleader Night". One comrade brought binoculars along. He offered to rent them to anybody who wanted them, $1 per look. Good news and bad news: we sat so close that naked eyes were sufficient ... but by the time we arrived, in the second inning, there were no cheerleaders on display. Sorry! But in compensation, Wednesday was also the night of $1 hotdogs and $1 sodas --- which we took happy advantage of.

And there was drama, including some histrionics. The second inning saw a noisy controversy at home when the Lynchburg catcher, trying to prevent a run from scoring, dropped a ball thrown in from center field via the second baseman's relay. But the hard-charging runner missed the plate and was called out. A heated "discussion" ensued --- resulting in the Keys' mangers's expulsion from the game. Three innings later after a called third strike the unhappy Keys batter used a naughty word in expressing his unhappiness about the umpire's decision --- and he was ejected too. Meanwhile the fans in the stands were rather less restrained in their critiques.

On the field, the Keys sparkled. There were great leaping catches --- including a brilliant one by shortstop Brandon Fahey. The pitcher, John Maine, dominated Lynchburg's bats for almost seven innings, threw at least 9 strikeouts, and by himself snagged one hard-struck drive before it could get past the mound. His reliever kept things under control; the final home team win by 6-1 was well-deserved.

As a Keys staffer noted in a conversation I overheard, a Class A manager can't always make his own decisions about who gets to play on the team. Rookies are tossed at him and he has to give them a chance to show their stuff; veterans from higher levels are sent down to recover from injury or hone their skills. So the club has to do the best it can with what it has.

And that's the bottom line for most pursuits ...

(see also Keys To The Kingdom (1 Jul 2001), Plans And Situations (13 Aug 1999), Tbolt Monkeys On My Back (19 Jul 2002), Summer Ball 2002 (3 Sep 2002), Keeping Score (13 Jun 2003), More Tbolt Snapshots (12 Jul 2003), Tbolt Signoff 2003 (3 Aug 2003), Tricounty League (14 Aug 2003), ...)

- Sunday, September 07, 2003 at 18:51:18 (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!