^zhurnal v.0.35

Howdy, pilgrim! You're in volume 0.35 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.)

Pyramid Building

Zooming is vital. Focus on a specific narrow case. Then step back and look at the big picture. Return to a close-up, and now cut even tighter to a microscopic level of tactical detail. Next pull away to consider the wide-angle strategic overview.

A computer map-making program pauses to "build pyramids" --- precomputed snapshots at varying resolutions --- so a user can zoom quickly and efficiently. The HashLIFE algorithm constructs pyramids in an artificial spacetime, to leap with blazing speed across billions of generations in Conway's LIFE cellular automaton. An experimental "zoomable user interface" called PAD++ is designed to let a person navigate gracefully through complex information spaces (descendant projects, still struggling to escape from the lab, are "Jazz" and "Piccolo"). And fractals, those fascinating wiggles, show infinite detail at all degrees of magnification.

Reality: a never-ending series of scale changes ...

(see also Top Down Bottom Up (16 May 1999), Focus And Fanout (11 Dec 1999), Tufte Thoughts (18 Dec 2000), Hint Hint (12 Dec 2001), Fractal Feynman (30 Jan 2003), Mind Children (17 Apr 2003), ... )

- Saturday, February 21, 2004 at 07:51:31 (EST)

Age-Weighted Voting

On matters of family concern --- such as what kind of carry-out food to pick up on a given evening --- long ago we (ok, it was the parents) settled on a simple system: everybody gets as many votes as they are years old. When the kids were young this meant that they could tip the balance, if Mom and Dad were in disagreement. In fact, if nobody else had a strong opinion any individual child might well have the deciding vote. But if both parents were in harmony then they formed a strong age-weighted majority, and no amount of youthful exuberance could overrule them --- even though there were three of them and only two of us.

This seemed fair and reasonable (at least to those who paid the bills!). As the kids got older they got an increasing amount of influence on the final decision.

Looking at the problems of current politics, in this and many other countries around the world, age-weighted voting might not be a bad method to try in the larger public arena. In principle, citizens should keep learning as they grow older. They certainly should acquire personal experience over the years, and should be better-equipped to see through outrageous lies on the part of politicians. As they mature, voters might well be less subject to influence by advertisements and other political propagandizing --- thereby lessening the influence of big money on the electoral process. And ideally, people nearing the final years of their lives should bring a broader perspective to events. They should be better able to think about not just the immediate and local effect of governmental policies, but rather the long-term multigenerational impact.

We already have a crude form of age-weighted voting: anyone younger than 18 gets zero votes. A linearly increasing voice in the public arena makes far more sense than an arbitrary step-function!

(see also Make Money Whisper (9 Nov 2002), Campaign Reform (30 Dec 2003), ... )

- Friday, February 20, 2004 at 05:37:26 (EST)

Brewster Angle

Zero loss? Shine light on a clear piece of glass at just the right angle and none of it reflects? It can happen ...

Light is polarized. Electromagnetic waves vibrate: some up/down, some left/right. When light encounters a transparent medium, like a window or the surface of a lake, part of the light bounces off and part goes through, following a bent path. Both polarizations take the same route.

But the two polarizations don't need to act alike as far as how much light gets reflected and how much gets transmitted --- and they don't. One polarization (the one that's left-right relative to the surface) reflects increasingly well as the light meets the medium at a flatter and flatter angle, until at a grazing incidence it almost all bounces away, like a stone skipping off a pond. The other polarization acts similarly at extreme angles (0 and 90 degrees) but in between its fractional reflectivity takes a strange dip.

There's a magic angle --- called Brewster's Angle --- where the dipping reflectivity curve touches zero. No light of the up/down polarization reflects from a surface at that angle. (For water or glass that angle is ~55 degrees away from the vertical.) If you want to make a window that's perfectly transparent (to one polarization, anyway), slant it at the Brewster Angle. Some lasers have a kind of a skewed end for precisely that reason: maximum efficiency. And if you want to cut glare, the way "polaroid" sunglasses do, align the polarizers to block out the type of light that mostly reflects toward you.

But why does light behave like this? One way to understand it is to tunnel down to the atomic level and think about the details of reflection there. Look closely at the front surface of a pane of glass. Light doesn't "bounce" like a rubber ball. In reality, the light (or rather, its electric field) shakes billions of tiny charged particles, electrons, inside the glass. Shake a charge and it must radiate: those electrons in turn produce new electromagnetic waves. The freshly-minted waves interfere with each other, in exquisite harmony, to make "reflected" and "transmitted" rays of light that we're used to seeing on a larger scale.

But a shaken charge doesn't radiate equally in all directions. Just like a radio antenna which can't pick up signals from certain orientations, an accelerated charge can't give off any electromagnetic waves along its motion. One of the two polarizations of light shakes the electrons in the glass so that, at the Brewster Angle, those shaken electrons simply cannot emit any energy in the outward, reflected direction. They've got no choice --- they simply must pour all of their energy into the transmitted wave.

And thus, a perfect window ...

(The same sort of microscopic explanation works at the quantum level, where wavefunctions of photons and electrons interact with varying probabilities. See also Fringe Of Things (25 Jun 1999), Coherent Interference (28 Dec 1999), ... )

- Thursday, February 19, 2004 at 06:08:19 (EST)

Genius Barn

The expert-advice-counter at the back of the local Apple Store is called the "Genius Bar". Its decor features pictures of famously brilliant savants. The place is a well-meaning attempt to provide free, fast tips to those who come in confounded by Macintosh-related problems.

But alas, the quality of help there varies. And to put it bluntly, none of it comes close to the real "genius" level. (Sorry, but I've met Richard Feynman and a few others who are often put in that category --- and I haven't seen their ilk in a retail outlet.)

A less-pretentious and objectively better name? I recommend "Genius Barn". The setting could include hay strewn on the floor and unfinished wood rafters. The staff could wear overalls and wield pitchforks. The folksy atmosphere might calm irate customers and help lower their expectations.

And --- given the amount of bovine and equine excrement which tends to be produced and dispensed at any help-desk facility --- "Genius Barn" might be appropriate for another reason! (^_^)

(see also Genius And Complexity (25 May 1999), Real Genius (23 Jan 2003), ... )

- Wednesday, February 18, 2004 at 06:24:34 (EST)

Slow Run Summaries

Illness and icy conditions have kept me from jogging as much as I hoped to do for the past month, but I've managed to get out for a semi-longish ramble every week or two. Herewith, snippets from my entries thus far on Brian Tresp's shared space [1] (see Running Blogs):

Comic Relief (13 Jan 2004)

Brian invited me to post some logbook entries here, but since I'm 50% slower than everybody else I presume that it’s meant to provide some chuckles, or maybe "There but for the grace of [insert favorite deity] go I" cautionary notes to those who don’t train enough ... but in any event, on Tuesday I took a few hours off work to schlep my daughter to U.Md. for a violin lesson and had a nice 5+ mile jog along Paint Branch trail ... 56 minutes, walk breaks ~1/10, from the College Park campus northward to Cherry Hill Road and back ... between mileposts 2.5 and 3.5 on the trail I went “fast” (for me!) and achieved a 9:54 mile outbound and an incredible 8:19 coming back ... the wind made it quite chilly compared to Saturday at Hillandale (which I'll report on later, knock on wood) ... desolate lunar landscape after the tornado of two years ago ... scared a heron (or crane? --- blue-gray, long-legs) which took flight at my approach ...

Icy Semi-marathon (24 Jan)

Ten days of zero mileage, due to cough/cold/sore-throat ... winter snowstorm due to arrive tomorrow ... so today must be my day to run, in spite of residual sniffles! ... up at 5am, go to laundromat where I wash a week's worth of family dirty clothes, back home before 8 and find everybody else still abed ... put on wife’s tights, two pairs of shorts, three shirts, mittens over gloves, and a hat on top of it all, and start out at 8:30am ... temps in low-to-mid-20's, dusting of snow on ground, sporadic flurries ...

Result: comfy 13.2 mile jog along Rock Creek Trail ... total time 2:26, average pace ~11 minutes/mile (including ~15% walk breaks) ... icy patches between milepost #3 (Mormon Temple) and #7 (Ken-Gar) ... many groups of runners, a few cyclists ... followed a pretty lady in bright red tights from Cedar Lane to turnaround at Ken-Gar ... fastest splits measured along trail: my miles #8 (a blistering 9:15) and #10 (9:47) ...

Almost slipped several times but didn’t fall until shortly after the 8th mile, when during a walk break I stepped on a patch of ice and suddenly found myself on my back (no damage, thankfully) ... got quite tired after mile 11 ... found unopened package of GU ("Vanilla Bean" flavor) lying abandoned on trail and shamelessly ate it, but to no avail ... all water fountains frozen ... "birdless silence" until near end, when a flock of chirpers materialized ... my left ankle got slightly sore, otherwise no problems ...

Moustache Icicles (31 Jan)

18 miles, back and forth along Beach Drive in Rock Creek Park ... from the parking lot north of Wyndale Rd., 4.5 miles downstream to the end of the blocked-off-to-cars intersection at Beach & Broad Branch, then return ... did it twice ... pace fairly steady, elapsed time 3h35m (= ~12 min/mile) including a potty break and a pause at the midpoint to change into a dry hat, put on a windbreaker, and grab a full water bottle from my car ... residual runny nose and intermittent cough, not too troublesome ... left ankle pain after first few miles ... walked ~1 minute every 5, ate 1.5 Clif Bars, drank 2 pints H2O ... bottle contents froze after ~90 minutes ...

Temperature ~15°F at the start (0945), warmed to ~20°F by the end ... felt excellent except when the wind blew, which made things suddenly chilly ... no wildlife seen, but great winter scenery and many friendly runners plus a few cyclists and inline skaters ... met a fast walker ca. mile 13 and chatted ("Mark", in his 60’s; he did a sub-3-hour marathon once, has had knee pains for past 15 years) ...

This time I will spare everyone my splits on the segments between pavement-painted "P-P" markers (^_^) ... suffice it to say that the fastest mile was ~10:45 and the average ~11:50 ...

Excuses, Excuses (+ weekend plan) (6 Feb)

Days too short, trails too icy, cars too scary, treadmills too expensive (and unavailable, and boring) --- so no miles since 31 Jan --- hope to get out for something long & slow on Sunday, probably along Beach Drive again --- meanwhile, typed my 2002-2003 logbook into Appleworks and did a couple of quick graphs --- see Two Years Later ...

Wimp Out (8 Feb)

When my left ankle transitioned from ache (miles 3-12) into pain mode I envisioned running the GW B'day marathon feeling that way and decided to cut short the planned 20+ miler today ... so I declared victory and stopped after ~13.1 miles (152 minutes, ~ 12 min/mi pace) back and forth along Beach Drive in Rock Creek Park ... saw some good ice puddles along the way (crazed fracture patterns, starbursts and contour lines)

Anacostia Tributary Loop (13 Feb)

A chance today to do one of my favorite circuits: the 11+ mile route from the University of Maryland down Northwest Branch Trail to mile 0 where it joins Northeast Branch to form the Anacostia River ... back upstream on Northeast Branch Trail to College Park Airport, then via Paint Branch Trail to the UM campus starting point. (See "Anacostia Tributaries" for GPS coordinates of the mileposts.)

So I rise at 4am to drive wife & daughter to BWI Airport and (inspired by TRT's story of his recent Capital Crescent Trail run) take the day off work, deliver #2 Son to the Silver Spring metro, then give #1 Son a lift to his chemistry class at UM. The jog begins at 9:30am and takes me a hair over 2 hours, including 20% walk breaks ... average pace of slightly under 11 min/mi, with a fastest measured mile between markers of 10:25. I realize after half a a mile that I have forgotten my gloves, but ten minutes later I'm warmed up enough to feel comfortable. My water bottle and Clif Bar (aka Elvish Waybread) sustain me.

Some snapshots along the way:

A pleasant ramble --- particularly since for the first time in several weeks my left ankle doesn’t trouble me. See Anacostia Tributary Trail System [2] for an excellent downloadable (*.pdf) map; see Anacostia Watershed Network [3] and Anacostia Watershed Society [4] for other news of the area that the trails go through.

Corrugated Mud (15 Feb)

If covering a mile in under 10 minutes is the difference between a runner and a jogger (or between a jogger and a plodder?) then I tiptoed across the line today ... 8 miles in 78 minutes along the Georgetown Branch Trail, west to Bethesda and back. Fortuitously, my home is almost exactly a mile from the 0.5 mile marker, so it was easy to record my pace along the way. (For more information about the route see the Capital Crescent Trail pages [5].)

Ankles and knees felt good, temperature was optimal (30ish), and except for some treacherous patches of ice in shaded areas the conditions were near-perfect. Bicycle tire tracks through muddy places along the route were frozen into a washboard of ridges. There were a goodly number of other runners out, but hardly any cars at the road crossings (7:40-9:00am). The water fountain near my turnaround point was working fine, in defiance of the cold weather. Favorite sounds: the loud echoes of my footsteps as I pounded across the high wooden trestle bridge, 70 feet above Rock Creek ...

I kept a fairly steady pace, averaging 9:48/mile with a 20 s/mi standard deviation and a net (least-squares fit) deceleration of only 1 s/mi/mi. My mental eight-track tape loop kept repeating fragments of Peter Gabriel’s song "In Your Eyes" and the Ferruccio Busoni "Preludio, Fuga e Fuga figurata" arrangement of J. S. Bach’s D Major prelude and fugue from the Well Tempered Clavier (sorry, but I can't conrol the playlist very well!) ... both excellent accompaniment to encourage faster turnover.

My confidence level has gotten a big boost after the past couple of runs ... and this is an exceedingly dangerous thing for someone so undertrained for the 22 Feb marathon in Greenbelt. Caveat ^z! ...

- Tuesday, February 17, 2004 at 05:56:34 (EST)

The New Twenty

The cashier asked me what denomination of paper money I wanted to receive my bank withdrawal in. "Twenties," I said, "they're easier to spend than fifty dollar bills, aren't they?"

"But Sir," she replied, "the way prices are going up, you know what people are starting to say: Fifties are the New Twenties!"

- Monday, February 16, 2004 at 06:32:55 (EST)

Vocabulary Variance

It grates when the same relatively-uncommon words appear too close together in an essay or other piece of prose. One suspects that the author doesn't know enough about the topic to use precise terminology ... or can't perceive fine distinctions and nuances ... or, worst of all, just doesn't care enough to write well. If every mathematical equation is merely a "formula", or every color is a monosyllabic grunt, or every species of creature is a nondescript "animal", how much can a reader trust the accuracy of the discussion? And in contrast, if a commentary begins with "linear differential operators" and proceeds to focus on "Laplace's equation" and "second-order numerical integration methods" then even if one doesn't know the field in any detail, one can at least hope to see something with a bit of depth. Likewise when hues include mauve, taupe, and chartreuse, or when a kinkajou is also Cercoleptes caudivolvulus, aka honey bear. (Disclaimer: I have no idea what the previous sentence means!)

"Zipf's Law" postulates that the Nth most common word in a large body of text occurs roughly 1/N as often as the commonest one. Following that principle, I like to assign a tongue-in-cheek value to each word based on its general frequency of usage. "THE", "AND", "OF", "TO", "IN", "THAT", and their ilk in the top ten are dirt-cheap, less than a thousandth of a cent apiece. The top hundred words cost under a hundredth of a cent each. And so forth, with the Nth most often seen linguistic unit priced at N/100,000 dollars per use.

But if a $10 word like "sesquipedalian" gets used too much then it quickly becomes devalued ... and "too often" varies inversely with the price of the word in question. Let the writer beware!

A singular exception to this guideline was pointed out many years ago by Kip Thorne, my thesis advisor. Kip insisted that when his students wrote for publication their prose had to be well crafted, with a rich vocabulary. But clarity was even more crucial. If a particular idea was of central importance, Kip's advice was to establish a unique word or phrase for it and repeatedly use that same terminology. As he put it, establish a resonance in the reader's mind and then make it ring like a bell whenever the concept arises. Bong!

(see also Noise And Predictability (14 Sep 1999), Long Tails (14 Feb 2000), Kip The Dragon (25 Mar 2000), ... )

- Sunday, February 15, 2004 at 06:34:35 (EST)

My Valentine, 2004

 O secret-sharer, soul-singer, companion,
   Midnight eclipse, dawn-whisper, lover, wife,
 My treasure of Sierra Madre Canyon ---
   To you, Paulette, I dedicate this life.

(footnote: when we first met, Paulette was living in a cabin in the canyon above Sierra Madre, California. See also Valentine Wish (14 Feb 2002), Crane Story (2 Feb 2003), ... )

- Saturday, February 14, 2004 at 05:02:25 (EST)

Dream Songs

Richard P. Gabriel is a LISP hacker turned poet, musician, philosopher, and je ne sais quois. Along the way he's written a chaotic but intriguing mass of thoughtful commentary, tossed together in a hard-to-browse but worth-some-effort domain he calls "Dreamsongs" [1]. Among the shorter essays is RPG's Writing Broadside, a scolding directed at scientists and engineers who aren't willing to work at learning how to communicate better. I particularly salute Gabriel's advice:

"Read poetry. Nothing teaches you better the power of good writing and the skills to write compressed sentences."

Also fascinating is RPG's autobiography, a comediotragic recounting of mistakes and recoveries. And on the linguistic-technical side my eye was caught by Gabriel's observation that a programming language with fewer but more powerful constructs can, in the limit, become extraordinarily dangerous. In the chapter "Language Size" of Patterns of Software (Part II) RPG remarks:

The problem with this approach, as Scheme itself demonstrates, is that one can fall into the trap of adding a feature that, because of its power, indeed reduces the number of features but is so powerful that it cannot be used safely and programs written using it are incomprehensible. I refer, of course, to call-with-current-continuation, which essentially eliminates the possibility of knowing how many times a statement is executed unless all the code in the program is available for inspection. In the presence of side-effects (which Scheme has) this can be a disaster.

True enough --- but contrariwise, subtle-sharp instruments in the hands of a grandmaster can produce miracles. The trick is to know one's own limitations before attempting to wield such artifacts of power ...

(Many thanks to "Pascal" (you know who you are!) for pointing me toward Dreamsongs in a comment on Poetic Compression (27 Jan 2003). See also On Failure (13 Jul 1999), Parting Advice (21 Jun 2002), Mystery To Me (30 May 2003), Worse Is Better (23 Dec 2003), ... )

- Thursday, February 12, 2004 at 17:16:19 (EST)

Scones and Crumpets

Along with my fondness for certain vaguely-foreign words is an affection for British baked breakfast and tea-time pastries --- which got me into trouble the other day when a couple of neurons shorted out, and instead of saying "crumpets and scones", I asked about "strumpets" ...

(see also Oxford Commas (25 Jan 2004), ... )

- Wednesday, February 11, 2004 at 06:36:44 (EST)

Merit Scholarships

A classic 1950's-era science-fiction story tells of an alien invasion of Earth that goes horribly wrong. The invaders have highly advanced technology. They quickly knock down the terrestrial military, destroy governmental facilities, and eliminate all centrally organized resistance. But then disorganized resistance emerges: sabotage by creative, crafty humans that disrupts the alien forces and threatens to drive them away.

But this isn't your typical "Nyah, nyah, we homo sapiens are the smartest creatures in the cosmos" juvenile sf potboiler. An alien commander figures out that both sides --- human and alien --- need to work together, that each has much to offer the other. The invaders are from a slow, careful, methodical species. They built their civilization over æons, and it works. People are clearly quicker, more innovative, and more intellectually active. They're also more aggressive --- as witness the history of humanity on this planet, written in blood and scarred with injustice.

The metaphor that the story proposes is that of a nuclear reactor. Humans are like U-235, the alien protagonist explains --- they're the isotope of uranium that can split and give off extra neutrons as well as energy. The alien race is like the moderator that slows the neutrons down so they can react some more, or maybe like U-238, a nonfissionable isotope that can absorb neutrons and be slowly transformed into something active. Too little U-235 and a nuclear reactor doesn't work. Too much and it self-destructs in a runaway catastrophe.

This science-fiction story was a clever one, with a lesson that lodged in my mind for decades. Yesterday the tale surfaced as I read an op-ed piece in the local paper concerning college scholarships.

Why should somebody from a well-to-do family get subsidized to go to a university --- especially to a public institution --- just because s/he has high grades, good recommendations, intellectual brilliance, and so on? Shouldn't scholarships be allocated strictly on a need basis? Yesterday's essay in the paper argued in favor of that, based on the importance of helping poor kids move up in society, counterbalancing racism, and focusing assistance on those for whom it matters most. All good reasons, to be sure.

But there's a strong argument on the other side which the op-ed writer overlooked or chose to omit: better students make a school better. Like those atoms of U-235 in a nuclear reactor, it only takes a few percent enrichment to change the entire energy balance of the system. And good students don't simply encourage, directly and by example, better scholarship by their peers --- good students also make for better teaching as they interact with and energize their professors. Smart undergraduates and grad students help a university attract stronger faculty members, who in turn attract stronger pupils in a positive feedback loop. (Fortunately this isn't a zero-sum game; better teaching in one generation makes for better teachers in the next.)

When I was in school I never thought about the faculty side of the equation, much less about the institution and its long-term health. Still farther from my consciousness were larger questions of how society can encourage learning and intellectual progress. A few merit-based scholarships, to keep some of the best kids from going far afield to school, may turn out to be one of the smartest investments that a community can make in its future.

(Some research suggests that the story I remembered was an anthologized version of the novelette "Pandora's Planet" by Christopher Anvil, originally published in Astounding magazine in September 1956. See [1] for what may be the text, Chapter 1 of Pandora's Legions published by Baen Books (see Free Library (29 May 2003)). See also One Per Score (6 Feb 2000), Summa Cum Laude (27 May 2001), Universities And Race (29 Jun 2003), ... )

- Tuesday, February 10, 2004 at 07:19:41 (EST)

Running Blogs

Marathons are first-person phenomena, hard to write well about. But there are exceptions, good online journals that occasionally feature their authors' distance running experiences. Two at the top of my current reading list, full of humor plus fine prose:

- Sunday, February 08, 2004 at 14:27:16 (EST)

Tim Towtdi

In the Perl programming world there's a notorious mantra, acronymized as TIMTOWTDI (or sometimes TMTOWTDI) and pronounced in its abbreviation as "Tim Towtdi". It stands for:

There Is More Than One Way To Do It

and it encapsulates a deep philosophical choice of Perl's designers.

At the opposite end of the spectrum Awk, Scheme, and some other computer languages take as their polestar orthogonality, the mathematical idea that every linguistic feature should be independent of every other feature, so that each component makes the maximum possible contribution to the result. No redundancy, in other words. One might summarize this school of thought as TSBOOWTDI:

There Shall Be Only One Way To Do It

Good arguments abound on both sides: practicality versus beauty, flexibility versus simplicity, human efficiency versus machine efficiency, and so forth.

The challenge for the real world is to find the right balance between the two extremes. (And doesn't the same debate rage in other realms, e.g., religion and politics?)

(see Learning Inconsistency (12 Oct 1999), Mud And Crystals (13 Nov 1999), Out Of My Way (24 May 2001), Turing Complete (10 Oct 2001), Personal Programming History (2 Apr 2002), The Metagame (18 Feb 2003), Mystery To Me (30 May 2003), ...)

- Saturday, February 07, 2004 at 09:28:39 (EST)

Two Years Later

Often enough here I've said --- so let's simply take it as read --- that long-distance jogging is fine, for some people some of the time ... and instead of nattering on, cut to the data. Here are all 325 ^z excursions logged during 2002 and 2003 compressed into a few square inches:

Clear in the graphic are three 26.2 mile jaunts followed by dips for recovery. But to see some real trends through the noise consider weekly mileage figures, a 10-week moving average, and the further-smoothed and processed "Z-rating" (see Logbook Tyrannicide, 17 Oct 2002) extended through the first month of 2004:

Winter ice and snow made the lines plummet in December-January ... summer heat, humidity, and bad air produced smaller dips in July-August ... injury pushed the curves down in October 2003. Both years averaged ~20 miles/week overall. The mean distance of an individual run was ~5.2 miles in 2002 and ~8.6 miles in 2003. Maybe some day I'll do cross-correlations with temperature, rain, hills, blood pressure, weight, and so forth.

But all the quantitative data points in the world don't begin to hint at the joys that came with almost every outing --- delightful observations on the trail, general improvements to mental health, and slow-sudden moments of self-discovery. Many thanks once more for the kind encouragement of my brother Keith, colleagues at the office (esp. CA, CR, NF, and SA), the friendly members of the Montgomery County Road Runners Club (esp. BT and CC), and a variety of inspiring authors (esp. Joe Henderson and George Sheehan).

(for more gory details see various posts listed in Topic Running ...)

- Friday, February 06, 2004 at 13:42:23 (EST)

Gambling Addiction

Simple greed? Entertaining fantasy of something for nothing? Touching naïveté concerning probability theory?

Like the distinction between the social-lubricant pint of beer versus the family-destroying demon rum, there's a big difference between penny-a-point card games and pathological gambling. George Vecsey, New York Times sports columnist, wrote recently about the context surrounding the ongoing Pete Rose scandal and large-scale wagering in the US today. Something that approaches 10% of the adult population is hooked. And state governments are wholeheartedly sponsoring --- and making a profit on --- the problem. Isn't this volume of gambling more than a little scary in its long-term implications for our civilization?

The statistics that Vecsey cites (for US spending in 2002) are fascinating. In billions of dollars:

The Statistical Abstract of the United States (2002, Table No. 1213, available online) confirms these numbers and adds more fuel to the fire. Total "recreational expenditures" are ~8% of all personal consumption. Gambling comes in ahead of books, maps, magazines, and newspapers --- combined. It also beats, by a narrower margin, all spending on "nondurable toys and sport supplies". Likewise for "wheel goods, sports, and photographic equipment (including boats and pleasure aircraft)". But (sigh of relief?) the gaming industry is still behind spending on "video and audio products, computer equipment, and musical instruments". (Whew!)

Yes, the details of the numbers depend on how one slices the pie. But the bottom line is hard to deny --- there's an epidemic underway, and it's spreading even to ostensibly intellectual circles. Elite New Yorker writers have begun confessing book-length to their illness, both in casinos and via stock market speculation. (One hopes that their advances and royalties are being kept in trust for them.)

Not an encouraging sign for our society. (I'll give you 3:1 odds that hard times are on the way ... )

- Thursday, February 05, 2004 at 18:33:32 (EST)

Transcendental Meditation

Circa 1972 I saw a Frank & Ernest cartoon (though the joke is doubtless far older) in which one of the pair tells the other:

When I get my teeth worked on I don't ask for novocaine any more --- I transcend dental medication!

- Wednesday, February 04, 2004 at 05:56:14 (EST)

Worth the Cost

In the movie State and Main (by David Mamet) one character comments that a certain object is better, more special "... because it's got a story ...".

Likewise, sometimes two things are physically identical, in every respect --- but I'm happy to pay a premium for one of them because of its history. When I buy a carton of eggs I want to know they come from chickens that have enough room to stretch their wings. When I go running I hope my shoes were made in a factory where workers are treated decently. When I choose software I like to support fair, honest, creative people.

I'm purchasing those special slivers of history because I want to be proud of my partners in the economy, not embarrassed by those with whom I share my money. It's worth the extra expense ...

(see also Suffer The Animals (11 Jun 2000), Personal Positivism (16 Nov 2002), ... )

- Tuesday, February 03, 2004 at 05:53:51 (EST)

Love Winds and Fan Service

Indian movies (Bollywood productions) remain popular at Che^z, as do anime (Japanese cartoons). Two phrases for phenomena observed in many of these films, respectively:

- Monday, February 02, 2004 at 06:35:02 (EST)

Roses by Other Names

 Mere happenstance of sound has brought
   Together choruses of words
 With meanings disparate, unsought,
   Yet forced by poetry to serve
 As members of a traveling band.
   With "love" comes "dove" and "from above";
 "Command" is yoked to "understand".
   Conjoined with "moon" stiff verses shove
 Both "tune" and "June", as if they meant
   Something related; neither do.
 Instead, imagine accident
   Of language made the term for "true"
 Be spoken so it rhymed with "moose".
   Might quadrupedal herbivores
 Take center stage, along with "juice",
   As lyric praise of virtue soars
 To fancied heights? And could the hue
   Of honest color be replaced,
 So that instead of loyal blue
   The noblest tints would be puce-based?

 The mind recoils. And yet, c'est vrai,
 In other tongues it's said that way!

- Sunday, February 01, 2004 at 11:34:19 (EST)

Hybrid Games

A lot of video games nowadays have much of a sameness to them --- e.g., run, aim, fire, repeat ... or drive fast, crash into something, back up, repeat ... or move through a maze, collect objects, enter next level, repeat ...

One way to make more interesting scenarios might be to take some elements of "classic" arcade games and slip them into "modern" first-person high-polygon-count animations. For example, consider:

Other possibilities?

- Saturday, January 31, 2004 at 15:45:36 (EST)

Norvig Laws

Peter Norvig is a bright fellow and a good writer; see http://norvig.com for some fine reading. Particularly enlightening are:

And there's also much thoughtful technical commentary on computer science and AI among Norvig's pages. Worth studying ...

- Friday, January 30, 2004 at 06:21:11 (EST)

Good Recovery

Mistakes happen. The important thing is what one does next. Thomas Boswell, sports columnist for the Washington Post newspaper, comments entertainingly and wisely about a recent post-hockey-game fight (or should that be "post-hockey-fight game"?! (^_^)) between a local team owner and a fan. Both sides have apologized; nobody plans to file a complaint with the police or a civil lawsuit. Boswell concludes his essay:

[They] may not be proud of their behavior last Sunday. But, since then, they've conducted themselves about as well as you can once you've made a mess of things. Everybody acts like a fool sometimes but it's what you do afterward that usually matters most. I hope my son would react as well.

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

- Thursday, January 29, 2004 at 05:54:01 (EST)

Professional Juicers

One Third Each (11 Jan 2004) shows one of my blind spots, badly. (Or is that baldly?!) The multiplicative formula I postulated in sports (or in life) --- performance = talent * training * toughness --- omits a huge factor: technology. What else to call steroids, hormones, transfusions, implants, and cork bats or other goosed-up equipment?

Well, I call them cheating, but maybe I'm an old fogey. My alma matres, Rice and Caltech, have honor systems that work. No proctors are needed to keep watch on students during tests. Papers aren't plagiarized. Closed-book limited-time take-home exams are commonplace. Nobody takes unfair advantage of fellow students by consulting reference materials or collaborating or taking extra time. Similarly, in postal chess any player who promises not to use computer assistance can be trusted not to.

What possible good is fraudulent behavior in a competition? Might as well take a short cut in a run, or tell lies to your logbook. The real point of any test is to measure your capabilities, to find out how well you can do --- not to "win" or set a "record".

Juicer is the name of a character class in some fantasy role-playing game systems. Juicers are players who rely on powerful, expensive drugs and nanotech mods to vastly enhance their physical and mental capabilities. They also have short lifespans --- a few years --- plus a tendency to psychosis.

Professional athletics seems to have turned into a less than honorable occupation, full of juicers. What's the solution? Scorn the cheaters --- and stop watching them.

(see also Tbolt Monkeys On My Back (19 Jul 2002), For Themselves (8 Jun 2003), Lincoln Memorial (6 Jan 2004), ... )

- Wednesday, January 28, 2004 at 06:43:07 (EST)

Poetic Compression

Christopher Fry, British playwright, commented (Time, 3 Apr 1950) on how verse can transfer information efficiently --- at least, if the receiver is ready to catch the pass:

Poetry ... has the virtue of being able to say twice as much as prose in half the time, and the drawback, if you do not give it your full attention, of seeming to say half as much in twice the time.

(quoted on the Writers Almanac of 18 December 2003; see also Doggerel And Caterwauls (14 Feb 2001), Lying Verses (15 Mar 2001), ... )

- Tuesday, January 27, 2004 at 18:07:16 (EST)

Captain Kangaroo

Bob Keeshan, gentle "Captain Kangaroo" of children's TV fame, died a few days ago; he was 76. The New York Times obituary of him by Richard Severo concludes:

Asked on one occasion how he could star in his own show, engage in lecturing, volunteer, study French and still spend time with his family and his hobbies of photography, fishing and sailing, Mr. Keeshan replied, "One of the big secrets of finding time is not to watch television."

(see also McGs (28 Feb 2002), Practical Productivity (20 Jan 2004), ... )

- Monday, January 26, 2004 at 05:21:57 (EST)

Oxford Commas

Obsessions, fixations, and affectations --- I've got 'em aplenty, particularly when it comes to stylistic conventions in writing. And like the fellow who was surprised to find he had been speaking in prose all his life, I only learned yesterday that there's a term for the comma that I habitually put before the conjunction in a list of three or more items. It's called the "Oxford Comma", or sometimes the "Harvard Comma". The style guides of those antique institutions mandate it.

I use the Oxford Comma because it's logically consistent and reduces ambiguity. (There are a host of funny parsing mistakes that can occur without it.) The same holds for putting punctuation outside quotation marks when that punctuation doesn't really belong to the quoted words. Yep, it's a Briticism, but it's also the most reasonable way to convey information with accuracy.

A quick string search through the ^zhurnal finds that the characters ", and" occur at least once on more than 1,000 of my entries. Looking at a sample of them in detail finds that the majority do exhibit the Oxford Comma. A similar search finds periods outside of quotes in several hundred instances, and likewise for commas outside quotes.

At least I'm (occasionally) consistent in my idiosyncracies!

( see also My Affectations (19 Jan 2003), Voiced Postalveolar Fricative (27 Sep 2003), ... )

- Sunday, January 25, 2004 at 13:44:31 (EST)

Poor Designs

Committee compromise? Dead hand of history? Aesthetic blindness? Political payoffs? How else can one explain the plague of ugliness exhibited by so many public (and private) buildings, memorials, stamps, coins, and assorted symbols?

Look at the flags of the nations of the world. There are some good ones, but they're far outnumbered by monstrosities. Worse, see the emblems of the 50 states that make up the USA. The Lone Star of Texas is one of the few powerful patterns; it's a singular counterexample to the cluttered flocks of creatures, crests, checkerboards, and mottos. Look closely at web site icons. Study the shelves of corporate logos. Try to keep your lunch down.

Designers, even genius ones, can't seem to protect their creations from frou-frou. Often it's not their fault. Much of the blame belongs to those who judge and select the winners of competitions, with a fair share left over for the implementers of the final choices, plus a bonus awarded to all the after-the-fact addenda-imposers.

Consider the Commemorative State Quarter program, which reached its halfway point in late 2003. Among the 25 coins thus far released, only two have truly outstanding designs: the simple Delaware horse-and-rider motif, and the even simpler Connecticut oak tree. The remaining 23 states chose, voluntarily and deliberately, to be represented for decades to come by outline maps, static buildings, unreadable slogans, tiny statues, blobby scenery, and crowded conglomerations of kitsch.

What part of "less is more" don't people understand?

(see also Numismatic Ramblings (7 Aug 2000), The Coin (5 Mar 2002), Flying Eagle (16 Apr 2002), Wright Flight (30 Mar 2003), Logo Vision (3 May 2003), ... )

- Saturday, January 24, 2004 at 16:08:07 (EST)

Worse is Better

Some years ago Richard Gabriel, a demigod in the LISP programming world, wrote a thoughtful essay on why the LISP language (mostly) has failed to catch on as a software development environment --- and why a number of similarly beautiful concepts have likewise not succeeded. Instead of mathematical correctness and completeness, the Real World seems to reward the 90% solution: unaesthetic approaches that (mostly) work and that are also cheap and fast.

Gabriel's essay is titled "Worse is Better". It came to mind recently when I found a description of the game "Advocacy" on http://www.plover.com/~mjd/advocacy/ --- which happens to be a page by Mark-Jason Dominus, author of the delightful "How Regexes Work" (see Reg Explanations, 6 Dec 2003). "Advocacy" players take a horrid situation and come up with reasons why it's actually great. Some examples from past competitions:

This also reminded me of the classic bumper sticker:

Imminetize the Eschaton!

... which (as I interpret it) is a call to make things as bad as they can get, and quickly too, so that an ultimate collapse will happen --- followed (presumably) by a transition to a far far better state than we now experience.

Or, as the Discordians might more simply say:

Hail Eris!

... as they spread chaos for its own sake.

- Friday, January 23, 2004 at 18:09:37 (EST)


  Dawnsun splashes pastel skycanvas ...
    Ploughed clouds ripple, corregated pondpink,
  As the last electric star drowns itself
    In light.

- Thursday, January 22, 2004 at 06:34:25 (EST)

Ron Bracewell

Australian astronomer ... massive governmental cover-ups ... bizarre electromagnetic phenomena ... a university library ... space aliens ... ham radio ... Fourier transforms ... science fiction ...

A few days ago they all came together. While waiting for my wife at a Tower Records store I find myself standing by the "Our Staff Recommends" magazine rack. I pick up a copy of a conspiracy-theory 'zine to browse. (Is anyone surprised at my choice of reading material?) In an article on communications from extraterrestrials, a name jumps out of the page and hits me in the eye: Ronald Bracewell.

Flashback: thirty years ago, in another coincidental encounter, Dr. Bracewell's delightful book The Fourier Transform and Its Applications chances to fall into my hands as I browse in the Caltech astronomy library. It's the perfect introduction to one of the sharpest saws in a scientist's mathematical toolbox: transform methods. Bracewell's book is full of pictures in addition to equations. The mission: develop instincts so that a person can intuit Fourier transforms instead of plodding through mazes of formulae and emerging with an answer sans understanding. (see John Tukey (31 Jul 2000) for more on the technical topic of Fourier transforms)

Ron Bracewell is an Australian radio astronomer and electrical engineer, now a professor emeritus at Stanford, over the years honored many times for his scientific work. His textbook helps jump-start my learning about a wide variety of powerful transform approaches to problem-solving. (I am especially enamoured of the "Z-transform", though I still don't properly appreciate it --- but obviously, with a name like that, eh?!)

So what is Bracewell doing in a rather wacky article about space alien attempts to communicate with earthlings? I can't answer in any detail, since I managed to refrain from buying the publication and only glanced through the article. But I went home with strong memories of nutty Analog sf magazine essays in the 1960's as well as more technically savvy but still fringe-science QST and 73 amateur radio magazine pieces.

In brief, since the days of Marconi there have been reports of "Long Delayed Echoes" (aka LDEs) --- copies of signals that come back several seconds after transmission has ceased. A full speed-of-light trip around the Earth takes only about 1/7th of a second, so it's hard to see how an echo of significant strength could take more than a small multiple of that time to return. Moonbounce echoes are well-understood; they're also incredibly weak and barely detectable in the best of circumstances. Most probably the LDE phenomenon is a conjunction of hoax, misunderstanding, confusion, and wishful thinking.

But don't let that stop you from connecting the dots! Specifically, study the patterns of dots in star maps that, combined with maybe-mysterious LDEs and other observations, suggest to some that extraterrestrials from Epsilon Bootes have sent interstellar probes to our solar system. For inscrutable reasons the alien spacecraft don't send us any clear signals, although that would be utterly trivial for them to do. Instead, they intermittently echo back a few of our own radio waves, with delays that encode messages readable by Earthlings who are sufficiently enlightened. (The appositely-named Duncan Lunan was one such investigator.)

As with UFO observations, major governments deny everything, perhaps to preserve the mundanes from panic. John W. Campbell, editor of Analog, liked to publish articles about such ideas. As a skeptical teen-ager I enjoyed disbelieving.

And Professor Bracewell? Years ago, he wrote a brief speculative article on the topic. Given his academic credentials, his work became a prime reference to cite by the True Believers. So closes the loop ...

(see also Changing Selves (20 May 1999), College Collage 3 (29 Sep 2001), Science And Pseudoscience (6 Oct 2001), Something To Say (13 Apr 2002), ... )

- Wednesday, January 21, 2004 at 18:37:38 (EST)

Practical Productivity

Last month I had a good email conversation with Darren Neimke of Regex Blog fame [1] concerning, among many other topics, personal productivity and the factors that contribute to it. Among the memorable tips and suggestions that came up in our correspondence:

Above all, don't obsess --- and in particular don't get all wound up about short-term visible "productivity" to the detriment of long-term really important things, such as health, family, wisdom, ...

(The early 20th Century books mentioned in Readings On Thinking And Living remain extraordinarily relevant, esp. Arnold Bennett's How to Live on 24 Hours a Day and Mental Efficiency, etc. --- see Bennett On Life, Bennett On Stoicism, Personal Energy, Zhurnal Anniversary 2, ... --- as well as Seneca in Life Time Management 1 and Life Time Management 2, ... )

- Tuesday, January 20, 2004 at 06:33:55 (EST)

Inverse Catch 22

As part of a long-term effort to toss a few more pebbles into the chasm of my literary ignorance I recently began reading the new Edith Grossman translation of Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes. (I finished Tom Jones a few weeks ago. Yeah, maybe they're boulders, not pebbles --- but my illiteracy remains a vast canyon. Maybe I'll try Virgil's Aeneid next; it's another one I've never looked into.)

Like my running, my pace through a classic book is leisurely, with plenty of pauses to admire the tulips beside the trail. In Chapter XXV ("Which tells of the strange events that befell the valiant knight of La Mancha in the Sierra Morena, and of his imitation of the penance of Beltenebros") I stopped to chuckle at the justification which the insane Quixote gives for going meta-mad in the wilderness. In response to Sancho Panza's request for a logical explanation, the Knight of the Sorrowful Face describes his win-win strategy:

"Therein lies the virtue," responded Don Quixote, "and the excellence of my enterprise, for a knight errant deserves neither glory nor thanks if he goes mad for a reason. The great achievement is to lose one's reason for no reason, and to let my lady know that if I can do this without cause, what should I not do if there were cause? Moreover, I have more than enough reason because of my long absence from her who is forever my lady, Dulcinea of Toboso; as you heard the shepherd Ambrosio say, all ills are suffered and feared by one who is absent. And so, friend Sancho, do not waste time advising me to abandon so rare, so felicitous, so extraordinary an imitation. Mad I am and mad I shall remain until you return with the reply to a letter which I intend to send with you to my lady Dulcinea; if it is such as my fidelity warrants, my madness and my penance will come to an end; if it is not, I shall truly go mad and not feel anything. Therefore, no matter her reply, I shall emerge from the struggle and travail in which you leave me, taking pleasure as a sane man in the good news you bring, or, as a madman, not suffering on account of the bad news you bear. ...

Compare Grossman's choice of words with the ("Project Gutenberg") rather archaic John Ormsby translation:

"There is the point," replied Don Quixote, "and that is the beauty of this business of mine; no thanks to a knight-errant for going mad when he has cause; the thing is to turn crazy without any provocation, and let my lady know, if I do this in the dry, what I would do in the moist; moreover I have abundant cause in the long separation I have endured from my lady till death, Dulcinea del Toboso; for as thou didst hear that shepherd Ambrosio say the other day, in absence all ills are felt and feared; and so, friend Sancho, waste no time in advising me against so rare, so happy, and so unheard-of an imitation; mad I am, and mad I must be until thou returnest with the answer to a letter that I mean to send by thee to my lady Dulcinea; and if it be such as my constancy deserves, my insanity and penance will come to an end; and if it be to the opposite effect, I shall become mad in earnest, and, being so, I shall suffer no more; thus in whatever way she may answer I shall escape from the struggle and affliction in which thou wilt leave me, enjoying in my senses the boon thou bearest me, or as a madman not feeling the evil thou bringest me. ...

The genius of Cervantes shines through both, but I do somewhat prefer the newer version ...

- Sunday, January 18, 2004 at 16:32:19 (EST)

National Wealth

M1, M2, M3 --- increasingly broad measures of the money supply in a country. Start off with currency, add to that checking accounts and other cash-like deposits, then include longer-term savings instruments, etc. Beyond M3 there's L, a still-broader measure of total "liquidity" in an economy.

But even more interesting to get a handle on is national wealth. What's a country worth? Tough to estimate. One economist a few years ago [1] suggested a total US value in 1996 of ~114 trillion dollars. Of that amount only ~2% is consumer durable goods. Real estate (land and buildings) contributes another ~8%, and financial assets (bank accounts, stocks, bonds, etc.) ~16%.

What's the rest, almost 75% of the total? Amazing, if you haven't thought about it, or maybe obvious if you have. It's the people, aka "human capital". Consider the future earnings stream of all labor income. Now calculate its net present value. That's how much you would have to invest in order to generate enough interest to pay everybody their wages. More than 80 trillion dollars --- almost half a million dollars per person. There's where the real wealth of nations is stored. Maybe it makes economic sense to spend a bit on education, on libraries, on public health, ...

(see also Musical Values (3 Nov 2001), ... )

- Saturday, January 17, 2004 at 17:20:32 (EST)

Pardon My French

So many delightfully apropos English words begin with "french". A few examples:

And, more obscurely, the french drop: a subtle sleight-of-hand maneuver to vanish a coin during its passage from one hand to another. French magic ...

(see also Hello Sailor (1 May 2003), ... )

- Friday, January 16, 2004 at 06:40:12 (EST)

Single Digit Run

I grin as I scrape the ice off my moustache. It's condensation from my breath that has frozen during the past hour.

Two caps ... two sets of mittens ... three shirts ... thick socks ... two pairs of shorts ... and my wife's old black tights to cover my legs. That's what I'm wearing this Saturday morning. When the temperature is between 5 and 10 degrees Fahrenheit (about -15 Celsius) and you're going out for a jog, dressing in layers is more important than fashion.

"Over Hillandale" is a 5 miler held on 10 January 2004 by the Montgomery County Road Runners Club. Friend KS and I take it together, chatting throughout the 53+ minutes that we spend on the course. We keep a comfortable pace and thoroughly enjoy the race, thanks to superb work by the organizers and dozens of volunteers who clearly were much colder than the runners.

At the two mile water stop there's ample ice in the cups as we arrive on the initial leg of the out-and-back route. Ten minutes later when we return past the same spot I find that the water has almost all solidified. I poke at it but can't break through to get a drink. It's colder than last winter when a water bottle in my hand froze after 4 miles of a solo jog. Antifreeze is clearly needed --- 50% ethanol, perhaps?!

As on many other frigid jaunts I take heart whenever the sun sneaks out from behind the clouds. I remember a lovely scene in the 1971 movie of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's great novel. Victims of the Gulag are building a wall in the Siberian wilderness at 20 below zero. Suddenly sunbeams emerge and splash across the prisoners, rainbow-reflecting from the ice in their beards. They turn their faces toward the light and grin.

(see also Great Writers (2 Jan 2003), Jog Log Fog 4 (20 Apr 2003), ... )

- Thursday, January 15, 2004 at 06:27:43 (EST)

Tiffin Wallah

An elaborate ballet happens every morning in Bombay India, as more than 100,000 wives put fresh home-cooked food into cylindrical lunch boxes --- "dabbas" --- and give them to carriers who wend their ways downtown to present each color-coded container to its respective husband-recipient ... reputedly with fewer than one error in millions of deliveries.

"Tiffins" are packed meals, "wallahs" are men, and thus the thousands who gather, route, and drop off the boxes are called "tiffin wallahs" (or "dabba wallahs"). The service costs the equivalent of less than $1/week. That includes a return trip home for each container in the afternoon.

Tiffin wallahs come to mind one morning as I join a hundred thousand fellow travelers on the highway to work --- accelerating, merging, changing lanes, and exiting. I also think of Gather/Scatter, a magazine published from 1992-97 by the San Diego Supercomputer Center. Its title alludes to a fundamental computer operation: the gathering of data together from diverse locations in memory, and the inverse scattering of a compact array of numbers back out to their proper residences. High-performance computers often have special hardware to gather/scatter with extraordinary efficiency. So, apparently, do societies.

- Wednesday, January 14, 2004 at 06:24:07 (EST)

Programmer Psychology

Free As In Freedom [1] by Sam Williams is an interesting biography of Richard M. Stallman, genius software developer and godfather to much of the "free software" movement. The critique of FaiF by Eric Raymond [2] is equally interesting, particularly in its catalog of common psychological traits of ace hackers: " ... driven, rigidly ethical, ruthlessly analytical, anti-authoritarian, idealistic, careless of normal social rewards, countersuggestible, ... self-analytical ..."

Some of the archetypal coming-of-age hacker traits that Raymond mentions are eerily on-target: " ... knowing what a glider gun was, and being able to sing Tom Lehrer lyrics from memory, and reading Scientific American ..." (Alas, I've gotta plead guilty to all of those!) Asperger's Syndrome? That seems much too armchair-psychoanalytic a diagnosis, though perhaps there are correlations.

But the real hand-grenade that Eric Raymond's essay tosses into the room is his identification of the path that many heavyweight programmers seem to have taken --- failure in hard-core technical disciplines. Raymond notes:

The parallelisms go beyond just psychology or attitudes, though. It was pretty normal for us to fling ourselves prodigy-like at mathematics or science, find we lacked either the discipline and maturity or some other quality needed to make it there at the level of our aspirations, and fall back on programming instead. Like Richard, I aspired to be a mathematician — gave a research paper at an AMS conference before I graduated high school, took grad-level courses as a college freshman — but burned out. Others in our cohort could doubtless tell similar stories. But like Richard, we have all tended, then and now, to pass over failure lightly in telling our histories. We, even more than most people, because we were afflicted by the sense that we should not have failed.

A crucial observation. But is it true? Or does the social-misfit failed-theoretical-physicist model of software developer overlook a host of creative coders who got there without crashing and burning during their undergraduate years ... but who don't tend to be articulate cover-story subjects? (Of course, pausing to gather statistics and analyze that would destroy the flow of the essay for most readers.)

Maybe "failure", especially for those who set themselves extraordinarily high goals, is the real life-defining experience. The grade on the test is based on how one reacts to it ...

(see also Terrible Obstacles (17 Nov 2000), Expertise And Science (19 Feb 2001), ... )

- Tuesday, January 13, 2004 at 06:35:14 (EST)

Paper Work

Forms --- is there a more despised feature of our society? "Fill this out!" ... "In triplicate!" ... "Your papers are not in order!" ... "Go stand in line 17 to get schedule 41-B, have it approved at window 3, and come back here when you're done with it!" ... "Not in blue ink; you have to use black!" ...

Forms --- great fun to make fun of. But seriously, forms are simply a structured way to gather and exchange information. They're the price of large-scale collaboration and efficiency. Like software documentation: unnecessary in tiny projects where everybody knows everybody else, but vital when work has to go beyond an individual's horizons in space or time.

Forms --- tools for data complexity management.

(se also Encapsulation And Trust (25 Jul 1999), Common Understanding (8 Oct 1999), ... )

- Monday, January 12, 2004 at 06:23:41 (EST)

One Third Each

A lot of complicated analysis has gone into the study of running --- but I've come to believe that there are only three really important factors, each of which accounts for about a third of one's ultimate performance:

Think of them as numbers between 0 and 1. Multiply them all together to get the result.

And in slightly modified versions, these three factors apply to ultimate performance in every aspect of life!

(see also Ages Of Work (23 May 2001), Stages Of Work (28 Jul 2001), Slower Runners Guide (30 Oct 2002), Running Advice (2 Oct 2003), ... )

- Sunday, January 11, 2004 at 11:16:26 (EST)

Racial Relationships

The recently unveiled Strom Thurmond + Carrie Butler "affair", like the centuries-earlier Thomas Jefferson + Sally Hemings "affair", shines a bright light on a multidimensional fractal landscape of tribalism in human culture. Emotions are strong and reactions are instinctive for many people on all sides of the situation. Focus now on one Thurmond relative, who told a reporter, "For the first time in my life, I felt shame." (New York Times, 20 Dec 2003, "Thurmond Family Struggles With Difficult Truth" by Jeffrey Gettleman)

Shame? Pride would perhaps be more appropriate. To be bluntly practical: in the long run, interracial relationships are one of the best hopes for societal health. They blur boundaries. They defy categorization. They demonstrate, publicly and undeniably, the humanity of everyone involved. Look at the worst conflicts in the world today, the clashes that have persisted longest and that have destroyed the most lives. Tribal warfare, writ huge in blood and horror.

Shame? There are those who might disagree. The Statistical Abstract of the United States (2002 edition, Section "Population", Table 47 "Married Couples of Same or Mixed Races and Origins, 1980-2000") reveals steady progress over the decades. As of the latest census the array of marriages between various data bins shows an increasing amount of proudly off-diagonal mixing. With husbands on the rows and wives in the columns, for instance:

M \ F white black
white 87% 0.2%
black 0.5% 7.1%

The remaining ~5% involve other races and show similar hopeful signs. And marriages are only the officially-recognized iceberg-tip of a wider web of connections. (Full disclosure: the Dickerson Zimmermann family is a member of that most exotic upper-right cell of the matrix --- although we happen to have chosen not to answer the racial identification questions on the 2000 US census survey form.)

Shame? Henry Fielding makes a wise observation in The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling, in Book XIV, Chapter v ("A short account of the history of Mrs Miller.") where he discusses his protagonist's own socially-unsanctioned circumstance:

" ... You need not be ashamed, sir, of what you are; I promise you no good person will esteem you the less on that account. No, Mr Jones, the words 'dishonourable birth' are nonsense, as my dear, dear husband used to say, unless the word 'dishonourable' be applied to the parents; for the children can derive no real dishonour from an act of which they are entirely innocent."

Shame? Only in hiding the truth. There's pure honor in cleaving to one's true love, openly and proudly, in the face of tribal pressures. Future generations will salute in gratitude.

(see also On The Subjection Of (21 Aug 1999), Worth Remembering 2 (31 Dec 2000), Uncloseted Skeletons (11 May 2001), Barrett And Browning (11 Nov 2001), Interracial Intimacies (24 Feb 2003), Holy Matwimony (13 Dec 2003), ... )

- Saturday, January 10, 2004 at 11:07:54 (EST)

Criminal Behavior

An army is not a criminal organization --- at least, it shouldn't be, and in a civilized nation there is a clear distinction. Likewise, war isn't the same as police activity. The difference isn't simply a matter of scale.

Does the current "war on terrorism" therefore miss the mark? How would public policy be altered if terrorists were treated as perpetrators of crimes rather than as enemy soldiers? And if the whole "war" metaphor were discarded would people then, on both sides of the conflict, think and react differently?

(see also Social Robustness (17 May 2000), To Protect And To Serve (11 Sep 2001), ... )

- Thursday, January 08, 2004 at 20:06:49 (EST)

Prayers of Comfort

The funeral home where we attended last month's services for Hennie Schneider --- Sol Levinson & Bros. of Baltimore [1] --- offers a variety of information for mourners, presented in a sensitive, thoughtful fashion. This was extraordinarily helpful for me, particularly given the depths of my ignorance concerning Jewish custom and practice in these circumstances. And I deeply respect any institution that includes a Bereavement Library within its facilities, "... open to the public for education and grief support".

As we waited in the foyer before Hennie's ceremony I picked up a small booklet titled Prayers of Comfort and found it to be full of wise advice. In the section "How to Console":

Your visit to the mourner at home is more than a courtesy call. In Jewish tradition, the moment is too critical for mere courtesy. It calls for consolation. During this brief visit you could bring comfort to someone in need, or you could act as just another spectator to tragedy. The mandate of our humanity and of our religion is that we bring sensitivity and empathy to those who mourn. ...

This is followed by suggestions that resonate in many contexts:

(see Johnson Condolences = [2], Deep Sympathies (30 May 2001), Hennie Schneider (27 Dec 2003), ... )

- Wednesday, January 07, 2004 at 06:25:33 (EST)

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!