^zhurnal v.0.38

Howdy, pilgrim! You're in volume 0.38 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.)

Touching the Void

Joe Simpson in Touching the Void (1988) tells of an amazing mountaineering experience. With Simon Yates, his climbing partner, Simpson ascended the west face of 21,000 foot Siula Grande in the Peruvian Andes. Weather was horrible; ice and snow were unstable; food and water ran out. During the descent Simpson fell and broke his right leg. By herculean efforts Yates was able to lower him many thousands of feet toward safety. But during the last stage Simpson slipped over another cliff and dangled in free space. Yates had to cut the rope between them to keep them both from dying. He was sure that Simpson was dead.

But Simpson miraculously survived. He fell into a crevasse, a huge crack in the glacier on the mountainside. Alone, he managed to escape from it. Over the next three days he crawled the miles back to base camp. In Chapter 9 ("In the Far Distance") Simpson describes the most critical moment, early in his painful journey, as he begins lowering himself on a rope from the ice bridge where he first landed inside the crevasse:

When I recovered my wits I looked more carefully at the carpet of snow above which I was dangling. My jubilation was quickly tempered when I spotted dark menacing holes in the surface. It wasn't a floor after all. The crevasse opened up into a pear-shaped dome, its sides curving away from me to a width of fifty feet before narrowing again. The snow floor cut through the flat end of this cavern, while the walls above me tapered in to form the thin end of the pear barely ten feet across and nearly 100 feet high. Small fragments of crusty snow pattered down from the roof.
I looked round the enclosed vault of snow and ice, familiarising myself with its shape and size. The walls opposite closed in but didn't meet. A narrow gap had been filled with snow from above to form a cone which rose all the way to the roof. It was about fifteen feet wide at the base and as little as four or five feet across at the top.
A pillar of gold light beamed diagonally from a small hole in the roof, spraying bright reflections off the far wall of the crevasse. I was mesmerised by this beam of sunlight burning through the vaulted ceiling from the real world outside. It had me so fixated that I forgot about the uncertain floor below and let myself slide down the rest of the rope. I was going to reach that sunbeam. I knew it then with absolute certainty. How I would do it, and when I would reach it were not considered. I just knew.
In seconds my whole outlook had changed. The weary frightened hours of night were forgotten, and the abseil which had filled me with such claustrophobic dread had been swept away. The twelve despairing hours I had spent in the unnatural hush of this awesome place seemed suddenly to have been nothing like the nightmare I had imagined. I could do something positive. I could crawl and climb, and keep on doing so until I had escaped from this grave. Before, there had been nothing for me to do except lie on the bridge trying not to feel scared and lonely, and that helplessness had been my worst enemy. Now I had a plan.
The change in me was astonishing. I felt invigorated, full of energy and optimism. I could see possible dangers, very real risks that could destroy my hopes, but somehow I knew I could overcome them. It was as if I had been given this one blessed chance to get out and I was grasping it with every ounce of strength left in me. A powerful feeling of confidence and pride swept over me as I realised how right I had been to leave the bridge. I had made the right decision against the worst of my fears. I had done it, and I was sure that nothing now could be worse than those hours of torture on the bridge.

The power of the plan ...

(see also Plans And Situations (13 Aug 1999), Too Slow And Too Fast (25 Sep 1999), California Sherpa (27 May 2000), The Belay (10 Apr 2004), ... )

- Wednesday, June 02, 2004 at 06:27:06 (EDT)

Tilt Theory of History

Thomas Friedman, op-ed essayist, is often caught spectacularly off base --- but sometimes (to push the baseball metaphor) he steals home. In his 30 May 2004 New York Times column Friedman comments:

I have a "Tilt Theory of History." The Tilt Theory states that countries and cultures do not change by sudden transformations. They change when, by wise diplomacy and leadership, you take a country, a culture or a region that has been tilted in the wrong direction and tilt it in the right direction, so that the process of gradual internal transformation can take place over a generation.
... My definition of a country tilted in the right direction is a country where there is enough free market, enough rule of law, enough free press, speech and exchange of ideas that the true agent of change in history --- which is something that takes nine months and 21 years to develop, i.e. a generation --- can grow up, plan its future and realize its potential.

(see also Barbarism Tomorrow (29 Jul 1999), Common Understanding (8 Oct 1999), Anti Learning (30 Jun 2000), Deus Ex Machina (30 Oct 1999), Social Robustness (17 May 2000), Culture Memory Progress (28 Sep 2000), Looming Disaster (6 Aug 2001), Kaplan On Globalization (18 Aug 2001), Invisible Culture (24 Nov 2001), Education Of The Youth (1 Dec 2001), Learning And Losing (23 Dec 2001), Knowledge And Society (25 Mar 2002), Invest In Peace (9 Jul 2002), Century Hence (1 Sep 2002), Freedom Peace Commerce Education (13 Sep 2002), Personal Responsibility (9 Oct 2002), Knowledge And Public Happiness (29 Jul 2003), National Wealth (17 Jan 2004), Big Secret Of Prosperity (14 Mar 2004), Sheep May Safely Graze (23 Mar 2004), ... )

- Tuesday, June 01, 2004 at 05:23:50 (EDT)

Long Walk

The Long Walk (1956, with Ronald Downing) by Slavomir Rawicz (1915-2004) is presented as the "true story" of a 4,000 mile trek in 1941-42: an escape from a Siberian prison camp in the USSR, southward across frozen wastelands, the Gobi Desert, and the Himalayan Mountains to reach India. Parts of the book ring true --- but there is no independent confirmation for large sections of the narrative. Many of the author's claims are hard to believe: survival for long periods of time with no water, extreme ice-cliff climbing without equipment or training, and the purported observation of Yeti-like creatures. Hmmmm!

Nonetheless, The Long Walk is reasonably well-written and at times quite inspirational. For example, from Chapter VII ("Life in Camp 303"), a Solzhenitsyn-like description:

I used to lie on my bunk in the long evenings looking up to the smoke vent twenty feet above me and think about it all. There would be men talking quietly, some of them visitors from other huts. Words and disconnected sentences would reach me ... names of places, and prisons and Army regiments. ... "She said, 'Darling, don't worry, it will be all over soon, and I will still be here'." ... A snippet of conversation about the guard who didn't get out of the way as the tree groaned and broke and fell the wrong way. ... "Poor bastard, he won't get any real treatment for that smashed leg of his." ... There was talk of somebody who had got his ribs bruised. "He's doing all right for himself --- light duties cleaning out the officers' mess and plenty of tobacco to be picked up." ... It would flow around me, a half-noticed background to my own thoughts. The pine smell and the warmth and the movement of men clanging open the tops of the stoves to stoke up with bright-burning wood. And all the time my mind juggling with pictures of the stockaded camp and Ushakov and the Politruk and the soldiers (how many of them died?) and always the men about me, the young ones like me who were resilient and quick to recover, the forty-year-olds who surprisingly (to me, then) moved slowly but with great reserves of courage and strength, and the over-fifties who fought to stay young, to work, to live, the men who had lived leisured lives and now, marvelously, displayed the guts to face a cruel new life very bravely. They should have been telling tales to their devoted grandchildren, these oldsters. Instead they spent their days straining and lifting at the great fallen trees, working alongside men who were often half their age. There is a courage which flourishes in the worst kind of adversity and it is quite unspectacular. These men had it in full.

(see also Single Digit Run (15 Jan 2004), In Search Of The Fulcrum (19 Mar 2004), ... )

- Monday, May 31, 2004 at 10:32:37 (EDT)

Good Beyond Hope

Most blurbs on the backs of books are worthless; a cynic might say that they're one author pimping for another, in hopes of getting a similar favor in return some day. But one endorsement has stuck in my mind since I first saw it ~1966 on a Ballantine paperback edition of J. R. R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings. It was by C. S. Lewis and rang with poetic truth:

"Here are beauties which pierce like swords or burn like cold iron; here is a book that will break your heart ... good beyond hope."

(see also Dangerous Selves (2 Jun 1999), Ingenious Devices (6 Jun 1999), Just Desserts (20 Sep 1999), No Time For That (29 May 2001), Our One Ring (18 Dec 2001), Laughing At Oneself (14 Jan 2002), Walk About (9 Mar 2002), Five Oh (29 Sep 2002), Two Towers (29 Dec 2002), Enchanted Landscapes (7 Jan 2003), Expanding Universe (26 Jun 2003), ... )

- Sunday, May 30, 2004 at 08:22:56 (EDT)

Prophetic Uncertainty Principle

Quantum mechanics is the science of the small. More precisely, QM deals with the details of systems at a level of precision such that the mere act of observing is itself recognized, quantitatively, as disturbing what's being observed. That's the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle in a nutshell.

Recently the HUP came to mind in a rather unusual context. In Book III of The Aeneid (which I'm reading for the first time --- yeah, I'm slow) Virgil describes the cave of the Sibyl of Cumae. From the 1965 translation by Frank O. Copley:

 Once set down there, move on to Cumae's town,
 her hallowed pools, Avernus' rustling groves.
 There you'll find a prophetess: under a cliff
 she sings of fate and writes her runes on leaves.
 The leaves, with their recorded songs, she lays
 in order and stores them deep within her cave;
 they stay in place and never change their sequence.
 But when some door is opened and a breeze,
 the merest whisper, stirs the fragile leaves,
 they flutter all over the cave. She never tries
 to catch them, sort them out, or match the lines.
 Men leave no wiser, and curse the Sibyl's see.

That's such a wonderful image of the chaos that a tiny disturbance can produce, and how it can grow to make the future unknowable.

My copy of The Aeneid came from the local library's used-book sale. Before I chose it I browsed several editions and checked the style of translation on a random passage, to find a version that seemed readable and in harmony with my preferences. In the classic 1697 John Dryden translation, for example, the same verses as above are rendered:

 Arriv'd at Cumae, when you view the flood
 Of black Avernus, and the sounding wood,
 The mad prophetic Sibyl you shall find,
 Dark in a cave, and on a rock reclin'd.
 She sings the fates, and, in her frantic fits,
 The notes and names, inscrib'd, to leafs commits.
 What she commits to leafs, in order laid,
 Before the cavern's entrance are display'd:
 Unmov'd they lie; but, if a blast of wind
 Without, or vapors issue from behind,
 The leafs are borne aloft in liquid air,
 And she resumes no more her museful care,
 Nor gathers from the rocks her scatter'd verse,
 Nor sets in order what the winds disperse.

More "poetic", but probably a bit farther from what Virgil (aka "Vergil") wrote; my Latin is negligible, but here are the lines:

 Huc ubi delatus Cumaeam accesseris urbem,
 divinosque lacus, et Averna sonantia silvis,
 insanam vatem aspicies, quae rupe sub ima
 fata canit, foliisque notas et nomina mandat. 
 Quaecumque in foliis descripsit carmina virgo,
 digerit in numerum, atque antro seclusa relinquit. 
 Illa manent immota locis, neque ab ordine cedunt;
 verum eadem, verso tenuis cum cardine ventus
 impulit et teneras turbavit ianua frondes,
 numquam deinde cavo volitantia prendere saxo,
 nec revocare situs aut iungere carmina curat: 
 inconsulti abeunt, sedemque odere Sibyllae. 

(see also Aligned Minds (9 May 1999), Quantum Nondemolition (5 Feb 2000), ... )

- Saturday, May 29, 2004 at 15:18:54 (EDT)

Lucky Me

A sad accident occurs early this week: an excursion bus full of gamblers, on a return trip from Louisiana to Texas, runs into the back of a big tractor-trailer truck. One passenger is killed, an older lady who was at the front of the bus.

We happen to be visiting family in the area, and chance to see on the local TV news an interview with shaken survivors of the tragedy. A young man ultra-unselfconsciously says of the victim, "She had a hard time moving back in the bus, so I traded seats with her --- Thank the Lord!"

- Friday, May 28, 2004 at 17:24:16 (EDT)

Artistic Bequests

The Art Newspaper [1] of April 2004 (No. 146, p. 4) shares a few "Shock revelations in artist's wills" (article by Agnes Day) from the newly-online British National Archives [2]. Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723-1792), for instance, asked for one friend to receive "... my Netherlandish tulip bulbs, the which I have secreted in the fastness of the cellars of the Royal Academy, far distant from the jealous eyes of those who would seek to possess them ...". More outré, however, is the final testament of impressionist John Constable (1776-1837), which includes:

I request that facsimilies of my various works be turned into jigsaw puzzles, thereby ensuring a mixture of both pleasure and pain for future generations. It is also my will that my heirs produce sous-platters, fashioned from stout card and decorated with such images of mine as they deem appropriate to ensure that artistic discussion assumes its rightful place at the heart of the supper party. I leave the sum of 200 guineas to purchase the freehold of the cottage known as that of William Lott, yeoman, of Flatford in the County of Suffolk, as formerly agreed to in a memorandum signed and notarised of 3rd September, 1823. I request that my friend Augustus Trammel, gentleman, should burn the accurst building to the ground and to him I leave a further sum of £5/2/6 to purchase all necessary flammatory stuffs and devices.

(see also Art Newspaper (4 Aug 2001), ... )

- Wednesday, May 26, 2004 at 10:52:56 (EDT)

An Hour Before Daylight

Jimmy Carter's autobiography, An Hour Before Daylight: Memories of a Rural Boyhood is quiet and moving, particularly in its clear-eyed description of life in the American South in the first half of the Twentieth Century. Poverty and hard work are central to the picture that Carter paints. So is racism --- but in an extraordinarily intimate form.

In Chapter 4, "My Life as a Young Pup", Carter recounts:

From the first day we moved to the farm in Archery, my primary playmate was Alonzo Davis, always known as A.D., who lived on our farm with his uncle and aunt. During my first four years in Plains I had known only white children, and it must have been quite a change for me to meet this very timid little black boy with kinky hair, big eyes, and a tendency to mumble when he talked. I soon learned that A.D.'s bashfulness evaporated as soon as we were out of the presence of adults and on our own together, and it took me about an hour to forget, once and for all, about any racial differences between us. Since our other playmates on the farm were also black, it was only natural for me to consider myself the outsider and to strive to emulate their habits and language. It never seemed to me that A.D. tried to change, except when one of my parents was present. Then he just became much quieter, watched what was going on with vigilance, and waited until we were alone again to resume his more carefree and exuberant ways.
I was soon spending most of my waking hours on the farm with him, except when I was alongside Daddy or Jack Clark. Although his surrogate parents didn't know exactly when he was born, A.D. was close to my age, and it was not long after we met that he and his aunt adopted my birthday as his own, so we could share whatever celebrations there might be. A.D. was slightly larger and stronger than I, but not quite as fast or agile, so we were almost equal in our constant wrestling, running, and other contests. I was perfectly at ease in his house, and minded his uncle and aunt as though they were my own parents. At least during our younger years, I believe that he felt equally comfortable in our house; he and I didn't think it was anything out of the ordinary in our eating together in the kitchen, rather than at the table where my family assembled for meals.

and later in that same chapter:

On a few occasions when fieldwork was slack, Daddy let A.D. and me go to Americus to see a movie by ourselves. We had to walk up the railroad to Archery, find the little red leather flag left for the purpose, and stick it upright in a hole in the end of a crosstie. The engineer would see the signal and stop so we could board in front of the section foreman's house. It cost fifteen cents each, and we parted company during the ride to sit in the seats marked "white" and "colored." When we arrived in Americus, we walked together to the Rylander Theater and separated again, A.D. paying his dime at a back entrance and sitting in the high third level while I went in to sit either downstairs or in the first balcony. Afterward, we would go back home, united in friendship though physically divided on the segregated train. Our only strong feeling was one of gratitude for our wonderful excursion; I don't remember ever questioning the mandatory racial separation, which we accepted like breathing or waking up in Archery every morning.

In the concluding pages of his book, Jimmy Carter looks back over the past eight decades and writes:

But in the dramatic changes we have witnessed, something has been lost as well as gained. My own life was shaped by a degree of personal intimacy between black and white people that is now almost completely unknown and largely forgotten. Except for my own parents, the people who most deeply affected my early life were Bishop Johnson, Rachel Clark, my Uncle Buddy, Julia Coleman, and Willis Wright. Two of them were white.

(see also On The Subjection Of (21 Aug 1999), Human Nature (5 Dec 1999), Learning To See (28 Feb 2000), Interracial Intimacies (24 Feb 2003), ... )

- Tuesday, May 25, 2004 at 09:54:30 (EDT)

Philosophical Bumpersticker

My Other Car is a Metaphor

- Sunday, May 23, 2004 at 04:44:44 (EDT)

Extraterrestrial Whirr

"Brood X" of the 17-year locust (cicada) population is now emerging in our neighborhood. Every morning the thumb-sized critters creep out of the earth where they've been slumbering, shed their larval husks, climb into the trees, and start buzzing --- loudly enough to make it hard to hold a conversation. The enthusiastic cicada males generate a noise like that made by flying saucers in sci-fi movies of the 1940's. They mate and die, or are eaten by birds, dogs, or anything else that has a hankering for them. Big buggy corpses litter the paths along which I've been ambulatory for the past week. Notes on those jogs, from Brian Tresp's running blog [1]:

Dawn Jog

(14 May) 44 minutes, around my "classic" 4 mile loop, starting at 0530: it's already warm (my shirt is sweat-soaked within 20 minutes) --- an old crescent moon stands low in the east, almost on edge --- three foot fog floats over the meadows --- deer scat and tree florets lie scattered on the pavement --- diesel tractor-trailer trucks idle their engines to keep their cabs air-conditioned --- there's a whiff of skunk-scent on Rock Creek Trail ...

Rock Creek + Sligo Loop

(16 May) 14+ miles, 161 minutes: a never-before-attempted circuit, from home to Rock Creek Trail, then 6 miles upstream to Randolph Road, east through Wheaton via Veirs Mill & University, south on Sligo Creek Trail to Forest Glen, and west again to Che^z ... an unanticipated journey, made pleasant by relatively cool weather and good conversation along the way. The emerging "Brood X" of cicadas make an extraterrestrial whirr as I pass by the woods.

I plan to do only half a dozen miles, carrying Paulette's digital camera and taking more photos of trail mileposts --- but it starts raining at 8am as I prepare to set out, so I abandon that scheme, grab a water bottle, and just go jogging without a goal. After joining RCT I meet half a dozen packs of MCRRC [2] members on their Sunday morning long run, and am too embarrassed to take most of my early walk breaks while they can see me. Approaching Connecticut Avenue I catch up with Ruth (a young cancer surgeon, in training for her fourth marathon, Vermont in a few weeks) and we chat for the last half hour as she finishes her ~13 miler at Ken-Gar Park ... about speedwork, nutrition (Ruth eats kiwi fruit before her long runs), and in her words, the "privilege that it is to run a marathon" ...

I'm feeling good now, so I carry on rather than turn back for home. In the woods of north Kensington ultrarunner Ron Ely catches up with me and we talk as he finishes his ~20 miler (he's preparing for a hundred mile run soon) ... he was at the 50k HAT Run [3] in late March (and finished ~2.5 hours ahead of me there) ...

After Ron turns back at RCT milepost #8 I'm on my own. The sun comes out so I try to find the shadier side of the street as I climb to Wheaton and cross from the Rock Creek (Potomac) watershed to the Sligo (Anacostia River) drainage basin. A water fountain at Wheaton Forest Park provides a welcome refill (and head-dousing to cool my fevered brow). The return jog down Sligo Creek is uneventful.

At home I reward myself with a breakfast of champions: a bottle of beer and a bowl of instant mashed potatoes ...

Two Brisk Miles

(19 May) 5+ miles, 57 minutes --- evening jog, cicadas whirring, humid but slightly cooler after rain earlier today --- Georgetown Branch for ~20 minutes, then in the middle, two measured segments along the MitP [4] route: mile 24-23 in 9:43 feels good, so I accelerate and do mile 23-22 in an amazing-for-me 9:01 ... and then the slices of pizza that I ate for dinner begin to weigh me down and I take it slowly the rest of the way home via Walter Reed Annex ...

Lavender Skies

(20 May) 11+ miles, 130 minutes in the evening ... perhaps a little too fast for the warmth and humidity, and given yesterday’s brisk run --- from home along Rock Creek Trail, then via sidewalks (Cedar / Old Georgetown / Arlington / Bethesda) to Georgetown Branch Trail and thence home again ... feel quite tired during the final miles. As the sun sets the sky briefly turns a bright purple-pink ...

Paint Branch Buzz

(22 May) ~5 miles, ~51 minutes: cicadas hum in the trees, sunlight dances on the water, and I swelter --- four miles along Paint Branch Trail from the University of Maryland north toward the Beltway + return (mileposts 1.5 - 3.5 - 1.5) with short jogs before & after ... average pace between markers ~10:15 min/mi ... I try to take walk breaks in the shade, speed through UV-exposted areas, and turn back in the zone devastated by the 2001 tornado where there are too few trees left to provide much cover ... am leaving for Texas on Sunday morning with Paulette and Gray to visit family, seek a violin, and maybe watch some minor-league baseball ... back later in the week ...

- Saturday, May 22, 2004 at 17:55:46 (EDT)

Peace and Affirmation

An aphorism from Hegel, quoted by Z. A. Melzak near the end of his autobiography In Search Of The Fulcrum:

When a man has finally reached the point where he does not think he knows it better than others --- that is, when he has become indifferent to what they have done badly and he is interested only in what they have done right --- then peace and affirmation have come to him.

(see also Education Versus Eduction (30 Apr 1999), Personal Positivism (16 Nov 2002), In Search Of The Fulcrum (19 Mar 2004), ... )

- Friday, May 21, 2004 at 06:26:40 (EDT)

Gateways to Mathematics

A comrade asks whether to learn math. My first reaction is, "Sure!" --- but then I have to stop and think.

Learning math --- or rather, learning about math --- is much like learning (about) music, history, language, art, literature, etc. It broadens one's base of human cultural knowledge, an Extremely Good Thing. It can be great fun. It might even lead to a new discovery or a new career.

But where to begin? My route commences with popularizations and broad surveys (if possible from a local public library). There are countless candidates; a few I've enjoyed include:

Another approach is via focusing on an area of mathematics that has special appeal to you. Again, the list of possibilities is long: number theory ... probability and statistics ... complex analysis ... calculus ... differential equations ... game theory ... real analysis ... cellular automata ... set theory ... logic ... numerical methods ... combinatorics ... geometry ... topology ...

As a math dilettante over the years I've taken classes in some of the above, read bits and pieces about others, and worked on problems in still more. In all cases, the prime strategy that succeeds for me is to start with fun aspects of the subject: historical anecdotes, paradoxical concepts, subtle connections, or counterintuitive truths, and startling applications to real-world phenomena. Find a well-written essay or book and read it like a novel, skimming past the equations. Then and only then, if appropriate, go back and dig into the details, work on the exercises, and struggle through the harder parts.

Your mileage will definitely vary ...

- Thursday, May 20, 2004 at 05:15:44 (EDT)

Amiga Check

The megaprofitable shoe company Nike has its ubiquitous "swoosh" logo plastered on every exposed surface of every superstar athlete nowadays who will accept its cash. (It's unclear what connection this has with making good footwear, but no matter.)

The other day that curvy corporate icon reminded me suddenly of another one-time omnipresent commercial symbol: the Amiga check. It's the symbol of a much-beloved but now virtually-defunct computer system, arguably far ahead of its time. For a while the Amiga logo was ubiquitous in ".sig" (signature) lines at the ends of emails and USENET newsgroup postings. It was often rendered something like:

                                      / // /
        /  //  /                     / // /
       /  //  /                     / // /
  __ _/_ //  /       or            / // /
 \  \\  \/  /              __ __  / // /
  \   \    /               \ \\ \/ // /
   \__/\__/                 \ \\/ // /
                             \ V /V /

These examples of the Amiga logo in turn brought to mind "alt.fan.warlord", a meta-newsgroup focused on " ... the discussion and critisism of signatures over four lines long ...". Years ago I liked to lurk on AFW just to see the amazing ASCII art that some people developed for the sign-off portions of their posts.

(see also Personal Computer History (25 Feb 2002), ... )

- Wednesday, May 19, 2004 at 05:42:06 (EDT)

Chat Turing Test

I've got certain characteristic words that I over-use, as everybody unfortunate enough to know me has doubtless observed. While typing back and forth with a remote comrade recently I challenged her to tell me something to prove that it was really her at the other end of the "chat" --- and in turn, I suggested:

"And to prove who I am, would you like me to use 'disambiguate' in a sentence?"

She replied that the mere offer was more than enough to convince her!

(see also Meta Turing Tests (20 Mar 2003), ... )

- Tuesday, May 18, 2004 at 06:22:21 (EDT)

Gaming the System

Human nature remains the same, despite technological and social change. The Brave New World of the 'Net, for instance, is moving with breathtaking speed from idyllic frontier --- leave your front door wide open, trust all your neighbors, work hard and play hard together --- to gated urban community. Besides the carcinomas of spam and virus/worm/denial-of-service attacks, consider the proliferation of:

Sure, equivalents to all of the above exist commonplace in the non-electronic universe. They're also quite annoying and in some cases, when egregious enough, have led to legislation and real-world punishments.

On the local Zhurnal Wiki front, sporadic potty-mouth graffiti attempts aren't (yet!) a significant problem. Auto-posted advertisements and the equivalent in manually-posted commercial promotion, however, threaten to become troublesome and may some day require further gentle modification of the wiki model --- or so I anticipate. (For instance, at present images have to be located on the zhurnal.net domain before they're auto-loaded; it's an option that wikimeister Bo Leuf implemented last year after some unæsthetic antisocial behavior was observed on another wiki site.)

Maybe a trivial challenge-response system, to deter robot posts ... maybe a moderator, human or AI ... maybe a shared password or other handshake-authentication mechanism? Or maybe none of that is necessary, at least not for a while. I sure hope so! (And if you want to help, please tell me if you see something out of line here, or simply edit the appropriate Zhurnal Wiki page to fix it yourself. Thank you in advance!)

The best analogy to this problem: gardening. Sometimes you need to install a little fence to keep the bunny rabbits out of the carrot patch ... sometimes you need to pull up a few weeds ... sometimes you need to trap and exile a mole. And sometimes, to get even more technological, you need a slightly tricky bird feeder to keep the squirrels from stealing all the food ...

(see also Web Gardening (15 Apr 1999), Wouff Hong And Rettysnitch (19 Jul 2001), Fragile Beauty (15 Sep 2001), For Themselves (8 Jun 2003), ... )

- Monday, May 17, 2004 at 05:18:31 (EDT)

One Thing After Another

Some months ago a good friend wrote me a letter full of ideas, and in response I sent a note of notions that her words provoked, to which she replied with further thoughts on the topic, and that in turn triggered a reaction on my part, which she then returned, .... like a volley in tennis: the perfect kind of correspondence/conversation!

- Sunday, May 16, 2004 at 11:34:21 (EDT)

Artistic Infusion

Last year the US Mint announced a new program with a name that sounds like an herbal tea: Artistic Infusion. The goal was to improve the design of US coinage by cultivating a stable of "Master Designers" plus, with an eye toward the next generation, "Associate Designers" at the college and grad school level. The process concluded in early 2004 with the selection of 18 Master and 6 Associate Designers.

Leonard Buckley of Damascus, Maryland was picked as one of those Master Designers. He spoke to the Montgomery County Coin Club [1] on 11 May 2004.

"My life's work has been making money!" Mr. Buckley announced. Buckley is tall, wears his gray hair close-cropped, and is articulate and enthusiastic about his craft. He was born in Brooklyn, New York (which fact, when announced, drew a round of applause from compatriots in the MCCC audience) and spoke with a solid Brooklyn accent, punctuating his talk with broad gestures. Since his youth, Buckley explained, he has been interested in stamps and coins. As a teenager he submitted stamp designs to the United Nations Postal Administration. None was accepted. "You have to get joy out of doing it", Buckley said, of the artistic temperament. "It's inside and it has to come out."

After high school Mr. Buckley applied to work at the American Banknote Company, where he became an apprentice sigillographer and for seven years helped to engrave plates and manage the printing process for stock certificates. In 1967 he transferred to the US Bureau of Engraving and Printing (BEP). The following year he met his wife-to-be and told her, "I make lots of money. The trouble is, I can't keep it!"

At the BEP Mr. Buckley initially designed stamps. He displayed the drawings that he produced for the US minerals commemorative set, and explained some of the important design considerations that went into those stamps. In the 1980s Mr. Buckley began working on modern currency design. He reported that the BEP had tried to introduce multicolored paper money during the Reagan administration and was overruled by Treasury Secretary Donald Regan. "But an artist never never throws an idea away," Buckley said. "Like collectors, we keep ideas for future use."

In addition to his work at the BEP, Mr. Buckley designed First Day Covers and commemorative medals for private companies such as the Danbury Mint. He exhibited an example: the Commodore Matthew Perry medal honoring the opening (by force) of Japan to international trade. "At least half of the design process is research," Buckley noted. For example, before creating the Perry piece he had to investigate issues such as "What kind of ship did he sail to Japan on?" and "What was the shape of his epaulettes?" The results of his researches were pencil sketches --- Mr. Buckley's preferred medium --- which the Danbury Mint then used to hand-engrave the dies that struck the medal.

In the 1990s Mr. Buckley produced candidate designs for the World Cup USA (1994) coinage --- not selected --- and for the James Madison (obverse) & Montpelier (reverse) $1 coin --- not selected --- as well as the Bill of Rights $5 coin --- not selected. Buckley was good-humored about the process of coin design. "You have to understand, no matter what you do in art, it may or may not be accepted. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder."

But Mr. Buckley preserved his sketches from his early projects, and when the US Mint announced the Artistic Infusion program he sent some of them in as part of his portfolio, along with new designs. These led to his successful application for "Master Designer" status.

Mr. Buckley discussed some of the practical factors that go into stamp and coin design. The big challenge, he said, was to make something miniature and yet still "readable". Numismatists may enjoy studying coins under magnification, but most people most of the time just want to quickly and accurately recognize the denomination of a piece of money. Postage stamps likewise need to have bold, sharp designs to achieve a visual impact in a small area. Both coins and stamps also must be economical to produce.

"It does a designer no good to create something that can't be manufactured," Buckley commented. So physical constraints imposed by the minting process often affect a coin's artistic design. For instance, Mr. Buckley said, on a coin "Don't make your stars too pointed --- that will cause die cracks." Similarly, letters can't be placed too close to the rim of a coin, and some styles of lettering are vulnerable to filling-in or expansion as dies wear.

Early American coins may seem crude in some ways, but they have a "nobility of design", Mr. Buckley noted. His hope is to bring some of that nobility to modern coinage, perhaps by including traditional and classical elements in the artwork. Among the key areas to pay attention to in coin design, Mr. Buckley suggested, are balance (the relationship among features) and negative space (the empty area around and between features). Buckley also observed that the Connecticut commemorative state quarter, which "everybody loves", was successful because of the unity and readability of its design, featuring the Charter Oak. The Florida quarter, in contrast, has three separate elements which many feel "are just there --- they aren't connected to each other."

"The problem," Mr. Buckley explained, "is that some of these state quarters have a great political background" that has tended to dominate their design selection process, to the detriment of their artistic merit. Now, Buckley reported, the US Mint has decided to request a narrative description from the state governors or their designees, rather than drawings. The question "What do you want to say about your state?" may, when answered in words, result in a superior final design.

In the near future, Mr. Buckley said, he plans to travel to the western US to see some of the terrain that the Lewis and Clark expedition traveled over. The Jefferson nickel will feature on its reverse four designs during 2004 and 2005: the recently-released Louisiana Purchase motif, followed by a keelboat representation, and then two additional but not yet selected patterns. Perhaps the Mint's new stable of Master Designers can offer some inputs to those coins.

Besides being a good influence on the State Quarter design process, the Artistic Infusion Program also may eventually produce new designs for the Lincoln cent (first issued in 1909), the Jefferson nickel (produced since 1938) and the Roosevelt dime (originally minted in 1946).

(for more information on the Artistic Infusion program see [2] and other US Mint web pages; for images of coin designs by Daniel Carr, creator of the New York and Rhode Island state quarters, see [3]; for an article by Michele Orzano in Coin World re the state quarter design process see "Inconsistency dogs designer credit - Not all 'designers' of State quarters gain recognition" [4]; and see also Numismatic Ramblings (7 Aug 2000), The Coin (5 Mar 2002), Montgomery County Coin Club (20 May 2003), ... )

- Saturday, May 15, 2004 at 06:07:39 (EDT)

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes

Marilyn Monroe's character, near the end of the 1953 movie Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, delivers the ultimate utilitarian speech:

"Don't you know that a man being rich is like a girl being pretty? You may not marry a girl just because she is pretty, but, my goodness, doesn't it help? And if you had a daughter, wouldn't you rather she didn't marry a poor man? You'd want her to have the most wonderful things in the world and to be very happy. Oh, why is it wrong for me to have those things?"

(film based on the novel by Anita Loos, from a script written by Joseph Fields; see also [1] ...)

- Friday, May 14, 2004 at 06:58:03 (EDT)

Presummer Sweatfests

Heat and humidity are my bêtes noires every summer, and even though it's only late spring they're already chewing on my sorry derrière when I go out jogging ... as shown by several of these quick notes on recent rambles along local trails, adapted from posts on [1]:

Slow Speedwork (28 April 2004)

An unanticipated ~90 minutes before I have to take #2 Son to his voice lesson lets me jog ~3 miles up-and-down hilly streets from home over to the track at old/former Blair High School, then do alternate fast-run-quarter-mile laps and recovery-walk half-laps --- timing for the quarter miles = 1:52 + 1:49 + 1:48 + 1:49 ... almost constant and as brisk as I can make them. The walks in between occupy 1:56 + 1:50 + 2:00 ... and since I frequently have to divert around clots of walkers, little kid soccer trainees, and perambulator-pushers, I'm actually surprised that my times are so consistent. Coming back home I follow another route, 3 miles along Sligo Creek Trail (much flatter than the hill-and-dale roadway) and a measured mile along there goes in 10:11, faster than I usually do ... so overall it's 7+ miles in 77 minutes. The cool weather helps me a lot ... I really suffer from meltdown when it's hot and humid ...

Photo Jog Experiment (2 May)

8+ miles, 101 minutes: A photo shoot interrupted by intervals of running, or a run interrupted by intervals of photography? --- hard to say which. I carry Paulette's digital camera and capture images of: Georgetown Branch mileposts 0.31 (start) and 0.5; Rock Creek Trail's "0" mile at the DC line and mileposts 1, 2, and 3; Marathon in the Park mile markers 22 and 23; the "Purple Line" southern and northern forks; and the 200-year-old mermaid sculpture (mermaidelicious? mermaidelubricious?) fountain in the middle of the Forest Glen seminary/girl's school/Walter Reed Annex. My plan is to edit/link the pictures with my collection of GPS coordinates, some day ...

More Slow Speedwork (4 May)

6+ miles, 67 minutes in the late afternoon --- a reversal of the route on 28 Apr: from home along Forest Glen to Holy Cross Hospital, then south on Sligo Creek Trail to old Blair High School, where I do 2 fast quarter-mile laps (1:48 & 1:44) before jogging back to Che^z ... a young lady in front of me on the SCT measured mile sets a brisk pace; I finish that segment in 8:41, passing her (and thanking her) after about 2/3rds of the mile; she says she is only doing 3 miles today ... weather is superb, cool and comfortable --- it can only get worse as summer looms!

Dripping (S)We(a)t (7 May)

Summer is coming, and I'm already feeling it ... today, the same route as on Tuesday (4 May), but warmth and humidity makes me suffer; I go ~10 minutes slower than last time ... 6+ miles, 76 minutes --- mile along Sligo Creek in 10:26, and two "fast" laps of "speedwork" around the old Blair track in 1:49 and 1:45, walking for a couple of minutes between ...

Cold Front Relief (8 May)

Huge contrast with yesterday's sweat-fest: today's 9+ miles in 97 minutes along the Georgetown Branch (Capital Crescent miles 2-6.5 and back, plus a bit). The delightful weather brings out flocks of cyclists, inline skaters, dog-walkers, pram-pushers, and cute birds --- and 9 segments timed between mileposts average 10:19 +/- 0:58, with the 9th and final mile at a wicked-fast 7:55 (ok, I admit it, that segment from Bethesda to Connecticut Ave. is somewhat downhill) which pulls the linear regression to yield a net least-squares acceleration of 8 seconds/mile/mile (without that terminal sprint I slowed on the average ~4 s/mi/mi)

Bug-Eyed (10 May)

6+ miles, 81 minutes --- summer is going to clobber me this year ... wish I could figure out how to begin to get acclimated to heat & humidity! Start in downtown Kensington on Monday evening, down the Kensington Parkway to Rock Creek Trail, east to the water fountain, then four measured miles along RCT (mileposts 3-7) averaging a trifle under 12 minutes/mile, suffering increasingly along the way in spite of extensive walk breaks ... especially ~8:30pm when the black flies begin to swarm and one flies into my eye, followed by others which mistake me for a bat and go for my mouth ... ugh!

- Thursday, May 13, 2004 at 06:44:09 (EDT)

Larger Inside

There's an igloo-shaped auditorium I've seen which has an extraordinary property: when you're sitting within it, the ceiling appears to float more than 100 feet above your head --- but viewed from the outside the whole hemispherical structure seems less than 30 feet tall. Somehow it's bigger on the inside than on the outside!

Maybe that illusion is related to the lack of scale when looking up at a remote surface, as opposed to the situation outdoors when one can compare with trees and other nearby buildings? Perhaps it's loosely connected to the lunar illusion wherein the rising Moon seems huge when it's close to the horizon? I don't know. Maybe there's just some magic going on, as in the old British sf TV series Dr. Who, which featured a time machine ("The Tardis") that somehow had more room inside than it did from the exterior.

And that, in turn, recently reminded me of the (in)famous Banach-Tarski Paradox in mathematics, which states that it's possible to cut up a solid ball into five pieces and then reassemble those pieces into two complete copies of the original ball --- or equivalently, cut a marble into pieces that can be reassembled into a ball the side of the planet Earth. Admittedly, as math genius Arthur Rubin tried to explain to me at Caltech many years ago, some of those pieces have to be pretty weird: they're dusty, fractal, perverse things which require an infinitely sharp knife to carve.

And reading about that recently in [1] led me to a cute meta-joke-riddle :

 Q: What's an anagram of "Banach-Tarski" ?
 A: "Banach-Tarski Banach-Tarski" !

(see also Hearing Shapes (28 Mar 2000), Ars Magna (27 Sep 2002), Fractal Feynman (30 Jan 2003), Pyramid Building (21 Feb 2004), ... )

- Tuesday, May 11, 2004 at 05:34:03 (EDT)

Beautiful Mind

Sylvia Nasar's A Beautiful Mind is subtitled "The Life of Mathematical Genius and Nobel Laureate John Nash". It's a well-written book, fast reading in spite of footnotes and detailed asides. (There's almost no math in it, however --- a disappointment, but understandable.) Coincidentally, on the day I finished it I saw multiple reviews of Mind Wide Open by Steven Johnson ("Your Brain and the Neuroscience of Everyday Life") --- which like Nasar's book reminded me strongly of Marvin Minsky's key theme in Society of Mind many years ago: introspection won't hack it. There are hardware and software levels far below those accessible to conscious thought. Brain chemistry holds some ferocious trump cards against which even the best of wills can't prevail.

But getting back to John Nash: Nasar is a serious biographer who also has a twinkle of good humor that on occasion surfaces to surprise and delight. An example from Chapter 50 ("Reawakening"):

On the afternoon of the Nobel announcement, after the press conference, a small champagne party was in progress in Fine Hall. Nash made a short speech. He was not inclined to give speeches, he said, but had three things to say. First, he hoped that getting the Nobel would improve his credit rating because he really wanted a credit card. Second, he said that one is supposed to say that one is really glad he is sharing the prize, but he wished he had won the whole thing because he really needed the money badly. Third, Nash said that he had won for game theory and that he felt that game theory was like string theory, a subject of great intrinsic intellectual interest that the world wishes to imagine can be of some utility. He said it with enough skepticism in his voice to make it funny.

(see also Mean Meaners (3 Jul 1999), Upheavals Of Thought Revisited (13 Dec 2002), Marvin Minsky Speaks (25 Mar 2004), ... )

- Monday, May 10, 2004 at 06:22:17 (EDT)

The Crack Cocaine Of ...

Sometimes a metaphor grows legs and runs away. A particular form of drug, for instance, is now eponymous for any extraordinarily dangerous addictive object or activity:

and so forth. The phrase also appears in important but somewhat less serious contexts:

etc. That, in turn, empowers the same metaphor to spread to humorous usage with a serious edge:

And, in our own household, Pocky: "the crack cocaine of candy" ...

- Sunday, May 09, 2004 at 11:59:13 (EDT)

Brainy Jogbra

Ordinary objects rely upon simple mechanics to maintain their integrity. A rock, for instance, has only intermolecular forces to hold it in shape. Squeeze it and it reacts in an obvious, predictable way: it compresses for a while, then shatters when the stresses get too extreme.

Complex artifacts can have more interesting feedback loops among their components. A bridge may use composite materials and be built with girders, braces, beams, and hinges to permit a graceful response to increasing loads, temperature changes, earthquake shocks, unanticipated windstorms, and other disturbances to its static shape. But even the cleverest such design is limited in its ability to react to perturbations.

A "smart structure" takes this concept a big step forward by adding sensors and actuators to a mechanical system. A central processor can monitor strains at various points and then react, quickly and precisely, with counter-forces --- jiu-jitsu fashion --- to neutralize any attack on the object's configuration.

The result: control and stability far beyond what a passive design could achieve. See, for example, Fast Forward Fifty Years (4 Jun 2003) for notes on Robert L. Forward's work on active feedback as applied to large space structures. Simiar systems are used to maintain the optical perfection of huge earth-based telescopes. And intelligent structures are, in a sense, what many animals already are as they move around, balance themselves, and adjust their skeletons and muscles to carry great loads.

But orbiting laboratories, astronomical observatories, and biomechanical analyses of ants are rather too far from everyday life. Why not apply modern know-how to a more immediate challenge, one which affects a large and ever-increasing percentage of athletes? Specifically, how about using sensor/processor/actuator technology to make a better brassiere for lady athletes?

The classic "Stress Analysis of a Strapless Evening Gown" ([1] Charles E. Siem, Journal of Irreproducible Results, 1956) focused on a related issue --- but was limited to passive mechanical elements in that pre-microelectronic era, as demonstrated by this excerpt:

Effective as the strapless evening gown is in attracting attention, it presents tremendous engineering problems to the structural engineer. He is faced with the problem of designing a dress which appears as if it will fall at any moment and yet actually stays up with some small factor of safety. Some of the problems faced by the engineer readily appear from the following structural analysis of strapless evening gowns.
If a small elemental strip of cloth from a strapless evening gown is isolated as a free body in the area of plane A in Figure 1, it can be seen that the tangential force F1 is balanced by the equal and opposite tangential force F2. The downward vertical force W (weight of the dress) is balanced by the force V acting vertically upward due to the stress in the cloth above plane A. Since the algebraic summation of vertical and horizontal forces is zero and no moments are acting, the elemental strip is at equilibrium.

Support for advanced engineering development in the field of active jogging bras should, arguably, be a top governmental research thrust. The nation that succeeds will see its athletes lifted to new heights of Olympic prowess, separated in competition from the sagging fortunes of countries less well endowed with technological sophistication.

At least, until the batteries run down ...

- Friday, May 07, 2004 at 05:36:39 (EDT)

Close to the Machine

A delightful note arrived the other day (from "PG"):

I recently came across Creative Computing for January 1982, which includes your Bignum article. I first tried it on a TRS 80 model 1 and wrote a few canned Bignum programs stored on cassette! Around 1990 I did it on Hypercard, using strings instead of arrays. In the 90's I did it on QBasic for DOS, and then Power Basic for DOS, and finally Visual Basic. It fascinated me to be able to calculate pi to 100,000 places in a home-brewed program. Of course, what takes Visual Basic hours, can be done in Mathematica in seconds.

BIGNUM was simple and fun to write; I remember, ca. 1979, sitting with Volume II of Donald Knuth's Art of Computer Programming open on my lap, as I pecked away on the little square keys of the 8k Commodore PET computer and implemented the classical algorithms for multiple-precision arithmetic in the BASIC programming language.

As I commented in my reply to PG (slightly edited):

I'm glad that there's somebody (besides me) who likes the do-it-yourself aspect of knowing, at least at a certain level of abstraction, exactly what the code is doing --- rather than trusting a mysterious black-box oracle to unveil an answer via unspecified magic (^_^) ... I drive a stick shift and use a fountain pen too ...

It's like being aware of the physics (underneath the chemistry (underneath the materials (underneath the technology))) that makes possible the gadgets people use every day ... or, likewise, developing an appreciation of the science of biological systems ...

(see Know How And Fear Not (19 Nov 1999), Pet Bibli 1 (23 May 2000), Technical Minded (18 Jul 2003), ... )

- Thursday, May 06, 2004 at 06:31:59 (EDT)

Capital "J" for Jog

26 April 2004: Today Paulette picks up her Mini Cooper (thank you, Brian, for pre-purchase consultations!) and lets me ride in the back to the Levine School of Music in DC near Connecticut and Upton NW, where our daughter has rehearsals and lessons this afternoon/evening. On 17 April I did a "Big G" arc from Che^Z to Levine (see Big Gee And Other Jogs). I complete that circuit now via a "Capital J" route back to Silver Spring. The jaunt begins southbound from the music school to and along Rock Creek past the Jusserand Memorial, and shortly thereafter turns east to join the Valley Trail (blue blazes) and then heads north --- forming the shape of a dyspeptic sans-serif letter "J". (And speaking of dyspepsia, footnote to self from today's experience: don't eat more than half a dozen fried onion rings before a long run.)

Two hours after the start I knock on the door at home. A steady drip-drip-drizzle feels comfortable to trot along in. I get overheated during the first few miles and begin to see slight afterimage-style visual disturbances, so I slow down, walk on the hills, and take off my hat until I cool down. I shout "Bully!" at Pulpit Rock, where the Teddy Roosevelt Trail intersects the Valley Trail.

Rock Creek is high from heavy rains earlier in the day: turbid, turgid, and turbulent. But the pathway is surprisingly free of mud. Perhaps natural drainage does its magic more effectively along less-beaten routes such as this one? A huge fallen tree blockades the track at one point, but I detour toward the roots and manage to scramble over it, taking care to avoid poison ivy during my excursion.

Near Rolling Meadow Bridge where the Park Service has blocked off the trail I pause. On 4 April I turned aside at this point (see Inner Purple Line), but today I take courage from Adam's comments [1] about the severely eroded but nonetheless passable state of the landscape north of here. I also remember a remark in Sylvia Nasar's A Beautiful Mind, the biography of John Nash which I'm currently reading. In Chapter 4 Nasar writes of the Princeton grad student dorm:

... At one point, a seemingly unnecessary rule was handed down that residents of the Graduate College were not allowed to entertain a woman past midnight. The very few students who actually had girlfriends interpreted the rule literally to mean that a woman could be in the room, but couldn't be entertained. ...

So likewise, as I read the official sign's instruction to "Please" leave the trail and proceed on the other side of the stream, I interpret that word "Please" to mean "If you please", i.e., an option, rather than a Sigil Of Power barrier. I choose to continue. The path turns out to be quite navigable, with only a few risky-looking places, all easily handled. 87 minutes after setting out I reach the end of the Valley Trail at Boundary Bridge on the DC line. The first measured mile along Rock Creek Trail thereafter passes in a brisk 10:33. I drink at the fountain north of East-West Highway and chug along the Georgetown Branch back to home base, with a final uphill mile-plus on neighborhood streets in 11:04. Total estimated distance 9+ miles; total time 121 minutes. Fear the turtle?

(see Rock Creek Valley Trail (30 Apr 2004) for a poetic description of this same journey ...)

- Wednesday, May 05, 2004 at 06:22:16 (EDT)

Mystery Pop

A vending machine down the hall from my office was misloaded one day recently, and colleagues of mine began to get a variety of unexpected drinks when they put in their money. Daughter Gray [1] was inspired, as I recounted this story to her, to describe her invention of several years ago:

Mystery Pop!

Mystery Pop comes in a can (or opaque bottle) labeled with question-marks, cabalistic symbols, and images of befuddled customers. The contents vary --- so you'll always get a surprise when you open one. (Ingredients are simply the famous "water, sugar, and artificial flavors" that predominate in soft drinks nowadays.)

And for those conservative-yet-adventurous consumers who would like to bias the odds on what they're about to chug, the manufacturer of Mystery Pop has introduced the following unique product line:

About half the time the cans are mislabeled. The Mystery Pop quality control process, in fact, devotes great effort to measuring and maintaining an optimum level of error.

On sale soon at a super market near you!

- Tuesday, May 04, 2004 at 05:39:16 (EDT)

The Power of Small Numbers

Dan Steinberg last fortnight wrote about the charm of little marathons, as opposed to the mega-events that attract so much attention. From his article, "Race for the Pure" (Washington Post, 18 Apr 2004 --- not coincidentally the date of the Boston Marathon this year):

At the 10-mile marker of February's annual Washington's Birthday Marathon in Greenbelt, amid the faint whiff of fertilizer wafting from surrounding Department of Agriculture fields, 137 marathoners rounded a bend, dipped down a hill and trickled past exactly one spectator: Ed Boden of Oriental, N.C., perched on an abandoned yellow refrigerator.
"It's what running is about ..." said Jan Beck of Dover, Del., "It's the real essence of running, without the thousands of people and the corporate atmosphere of the big races. It's back to the basics of running."

And Jeremy Eichler makes the same point for the universe of classical music, in a lovely profile of cellist Matt Haimovitz (New York Times, 2 May 2004). A couple of decades ago Haimovitz was a famous cello prodigy; now by choice he plays to tiny audiences in cafes, bars, and music clubs. Eichler's essay concludes:

But the most magical moment came after the show, when Mr. Haimovitz had started packing up and two middle-aged women came rushing into the room. They had read in the paper that he was in town, and they were crestfallen at having missed the show. Could he perhaps play something short for them? Mr. Haimovitz agreed and planted himself in a chair next to a table littered with beer bottles and an empty pack of cigarettes. The half dozen remaining audience members gathered around him in a semicircle.
Mr. Haimovitz closed his eyes, put bow to string and laid into the Prelude of Bach's First Cello Suite. He did not stop at the end of the movement but went on to play the entire work, about 20 minutes of music. It was some of the most moving and soulful playing heard by this listener in a very long time. The music seemed to pour out of his cello and wash over the huddled group, over the sea of empty tables and flimsy plastic chairs, over the bar and over the television flickering quietly in the opposite corner of the room.
What came through in that moment was the simplicity of the basic musical connection, and how it requires so little of the glittery packaging that can often pass for the concert experience itself. Ultimately, Mr. Haimovitz's tour may be proving the under-recognized value of new music in attracting new audiences. But the enraptured faces in the semicircle suggested an equally important insight into the power of smaller numbers, the richness of direct contact.
Perhaps classical music's audience problem could be solved if there were more living, breathing, palpable moments of exchange like the one that took place in this beer-drenched corner of a Mississippi pizza parlor. "It's so simple," Mr. Haimovitz said when happily back on the road, "to just take out your cello and start playing."

That's the key to the treasure in a host of areas: an individual, personal connection that dissolves the wall between "audience" and "actor" ...

(see also For Themselves (8 Jun 2003), ... )

- Monday, May 03, 2004 at 05:40:38 (EDT)

Hills of Cabin John, 2004

"Kick, maggot-breath! Pick up your feet!" shouts my newly-appointed Speed Coach, comrade Evan, as we approach the finish line of the MCRRC [1] "Hills of Cabin John" race, a 5 km cross-country event held this morning. Earlier his orders include:

Coach Evan is fast --- his normal pace is at least 2 minutes/mile brisker than mine --- and he has prescribed some beginner's speedwork in hopes of improving my lethargic performance on the roads and trails. Today's ~3.1 miler is meant to push me into the pain zone. Evan succeeds, in spite of my best efforts to start slow and finish slower. He generously permits me to walk a few steps at the water stops, where I only have time to gulp a couple of sips and dump the remaining fluid over my head. Later on the slopes I stumble over roots and stones, but manage to recover without falling down. "You're not working hard enough!" is Evan's diagnosis.

Friend Ken is at the race with me, but he's proceeding at a slightly more sane pace. From in front Evan announces, "Follow me --- I'm your rabbit!" and when I object that as a vegetarian I don't want to chase a little animal, Evan counters, "Then I'm a tofu rabbit --- the fastest kind. Keep running!"

Bottom line: a 29:15 ramble over challenging terrain, for a 113th place finish ... about 5 minutes faster than I would have done it alone. Many thanks to all the MCRRC volunteers who made "Hills of Cabin John" possible!

(see also Three New Loop Runs (16 Mar 2004), ... )

- Saturday, May 01, 2004 at 17:56:04 (EDT)

Rock Creek Valley Trail

 Turbid, turgid, flood-swollen turbulent
   Waters wrestle and shout through graygreen
 Shadow-woods: aspen, willow, maple;
   Ancient oak pregnant with burl-trunk bulge,
 Lightning-scarred; windtorn prickle-brush.
   Drip drizzle rain puddles. Musky mold
 Scent rises from fogmist. Squirrels scuttle.
   Doe and fawns freeze, flinch, flee.

 I am stream and tree, earth and sky, as I
   Splashstep, sideslip on slither-leaves,
 Leap rock, kick root, stride over stone,
   Scan for blazes to signal trail turns,
 Gasp nature-air, soar over ridgetop angle ---
   Then angel-fly downslope again to land.

- Friday, April 30, 2004 at 06:16:31 (EDT)

Arsenal vs. Manchester United

(caveat: double entendre ahead ... those who are not trail runners may wish to avert their eyes)

An atypical lunch table conversation earlier this week: Dr. G (philosophy) recounts that his daughter is a soccer aficionado and recently was privileged to see Manchester United play Arsenal. Dr. A (medieval history) expresses her hope that the daughter is not a Man U fan; alas, Dr. G replies, the young lady is. Dr. A then confesses that she herself has been an Arsenal supporter for many years, having followed the football team when she was a graduate student in England. The North London fans of Arsenal, Dr. A recounts, have a rather memorable cheer for their club: Up the Arse!

- Thursday, April 29, 2004 at 06:31:29 (EDT)

Fort Worth Money Museum

Eileen Russell is a vivacious and engaging speaker. She's also young: her mere presence pulled down the average age at the 13 April 2004 meeting of the Montgomery County Coin Club [1] by a significant factor. Eileen is the daughter of long-time MCCC members Ed and Jonetta Russell; her talk was an exploration the soon-to-be-opening Money Museum in Fort Worth, Texas. Ms. Russell is an artist and graphic designer whose company, Quatrefoil Associates [2], was awarded the contract to plan the visitor's center and exhibition hall associated with the Western Printing Facility of the US Bureau of Engraving and Printing [3]. The BEP is essentially a factory for paper money production.

This was a challenging project for several reasons. The work needed to be completed on an extremely tight schedule, and the security requirements imposed by the BEP were intense. Aspects of the exhibit associated with the new US $20 bill, for instance, had to be done without ever being given even a glimpse of that changed design. Other facets of Ms. Russell's assignment are still under a non-disclosure agreement and so she could not discuss them. Eileen did reveal that some of her working documents had to be kept on an encrypted CD-ROM in a combination safe in a locked closet.

The Money Museum will be open to the public at the end of April 2004, so Ms. Russell's talk gave the MCCC members a "sneak preview" of the layout and exhibits. The museum's configuration includes a glassed-in catwalk to permit tourists to view the printing presses on the plant floor as they produce actual currency. It also features displays on the history of money and the details of the printing process, including hands-on and multimedia exhibits. In addition, there are computer-based touch-screens and a movie theater for educational programs.

The Western Printing Facility is home to a vault that typically holds eight billion dollars in currency. During her tours of the plant, Ms. Russell reported, she was under constant observation; her digital camera attracted particularly close scrutiny. She reported that (in instances of repeated shop humor) Bureau officials dismissed the risk of cost-overruns with the comment, "We're the BEP --- we'll just print more money!"

Ms. Russell thanked members of the Texas Numismatic Association [4] for their help in the research phases of her project, and for their generous volunteer work as docents in the museum. She reported on the location of the Money Museum, its hours of operation, and the 14 April preview opening of the museum for families of BEP employees.

In response to questions from her audience, Ms. Russell sketched out her own background --- from high school in Montgomery County to the University of North Carolina where she graduated with a degree in journalism, to her current job at Quatrefoil Associates and her work on a masters degree in museum education at George Washington University.

(see also Montgomery County Coin Club (20 May 2003), ... )

- Wednesday, April 28, 2004 at 05:37:19 (EDT)

Big Gee and Other Jogs

Continuing an experiment of fewer-but-longer outings (see Root Mean Square Dance) I undertake three rambles during the past 10 days. Adapted from my reports in http://sprintbare.com/run:

Big Gee (17 Apr 2004)

"Big G" in freshman physics class is the Gravitational Constant ( = 6.67 x 10-11 meters3kg/s2, if anybody cares) --- but when I go running "Big G" is the shape made by following the Capital Crescent Trail from where it begins in Silver Spring, around in a semicircle to near the Kennedy Center, and then turning north on Rock Creek Trail (RCT) to Pierce Mill where I finish the capital "G" with a short crossbar to the Levine School of Music on Upton Street. My daughter's recital there today provides a good excuse to arrive on foot. (An unfortunate "Bump in the Night" traffic accident --- I was rear-ended on the Beltway, coming home from a Friday evening orchestra rehearsal --- has put one car out of commission and keeps me from attempting the MCRRC cross country race in Great Falls this Saturday morning.)

The result: ~16 miles in ~178 minutes; weather is warm, and the trail gets quite congested in places. The first 9 miles pass by at an average pace of 10:47, rather faster than I had planned in spite of walk breaks every 5 minutes or so. No mileposts are visible for quite a distance along the Potomac, but P-P markers on RCT give me a 3-mile average pace of 10:42 past the National Zoo. I'm tired and walk much of the final quarter mile, an uphill stretch to the music school.

Amusingly enough, the only other time I tried this route was almost a year ago, 28 April 2003 --- and my average pace that time was 10:39 for the measured mile segments. Not much change, but I think I feel better today than I did then!

Wilting in the Heat (20 Apr)

9+ miles, 106 minutes: I'm not ready for summer --- I'm not even ready for spring, apparently! In late afternoon I set out from home via back streets ... pass the little neighborhood church in Forest Glen designed by E. Francis Baldwin ca. 1893 ... zig-zag by a school, a pool, and a retirement home ... and slant through Kensington to the Post Office where at the 2.5 mile mark I check our P. O. Box. It's empty, so I cross Connecticut Ave. and go through the Ken-Gar neighborhood to the park at mile 7 of Rock Creek Trail. I witness three trains on the Metropolitan Branch of the C&O: a MARC commuter, an Amtrak bound for Chicago, and a slow freight heading toward DC.

By then I'm melting in the heat, and even dousing my head with cold water from the Ken-Gar Park fountain has no effect. I cover miles 7 to 3 on RCT at an average of 10:54 pace, but suffer. Coming back uphill through Walter Reed Annex I follow a leg of the Inner Purple Line trail, with a generous amount of walking. Maybe I'm still recovering from Saturday's 16 miler? If this is my performance on a slightly warm day, I fear to contemplate what the Washington area summer will do to me ...

Tidy Bird Day (24 Apr)

11+ miles, 120 minutes: an orbit from home to Bethesda via the Georgetown Branch Trail, then north and east along sidewalks (Arlington Rd., Old Georgetown Rd., Cedar La.) to join Rock Creek Trail, thence home again --- the reversal of a route I took on 10 March (see Three New Loop Runs). Average pace on the first four miles is ~10:20.

Thunderstorms yesterday evening bequeath big puddles to a cool and clear spring morning, along with plenty of cyclists, strolling couples, dog-walkers, and --- most eye-opening --- a variety of seriously fit birds, some traveling solo, others in small flocks (see a dictionary of British slang for further explanation). I consume a Clif Bar during the first 50 minutes of the outing, one bite per walk break, and that energizes me to fartlek dashes along Rock Creek, including blitzy splits of 9:07 and 9:38 for miles 7.5-9.5 of the jog.

(see also Inner Purple Line (13 Apr 2004), ... )

- Tuesday, April 27, 2004 at 05:36:07 (EDT)

Promethea and Metafiction

While casting about the 'Net for usages of "The key to the treasure is the treasure" I chanced to discover a fascinating extended discussion of stories about stories. Its title is "Promethea and Metafiction" and it appears to be a university thesis by "Brian", who is a friend of "Eroom Nala", who in turn ran an online essay contest in late 2003 on the theme of Promethea, which itself is a graphic novel series by Alan Moore, author of League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and a writer of whom "Eroom" seems to be a devoted fan. (Whew! See [*] for the full text of Brian's essay; it was awarded Second Prize among all of the entries. Note also the reversed spelling of "Eroom Nala".)

With such a self-referential topic at its core "Promethea and Metafiction" is obviously something that I need to read. Brian's dissertation wrestles with symbology and postmodernism, yet manages to only use the word "semiotic" once --- a big point in its favor. It also contains razor-sharp barbs at clichés of comic-book artwork, e.g.:

While they fight their way to a confrontation Moore, through Promethea/Grace, derides the talent of the writers of the pulp novels, especially the sexist approach to her. For instance, Promethea/Grace remarks "All that drivel he wrote about my taut thighs and heaving bosom ... I mean, I don't think I can remember my bosom ever having heaved, has yours?" At this point, Promethea/Grace feels she is being watched, and in a little piece of breaking the fourth wall, Moore has her yell directly at the comic reader, "Who do you think you're spying on, you grubby little adolescent?" Of course, Moore works it into the story that she is actually speaking to Kenneth, the aforementioned surrogate reader, but the sentiment remains there. The writer that Moore just derided for his sexist approach to pulp novels partially writes that way because that is what his or her audience wants, and that continues on to the comic book audience. The skimpy costume for heroines has been a given ever since Wonder Woman first made her appearance in 1940. Moore took his little shot at that mentality by yelling at the audience who constantly asked for this kind of titillation.

Amanda Williams [*] has, coincidentally, mused on this and related topics recently in her public writings and in private correspondence. Brian's essay also reminds me of Arnold Schwarzenegger's brilliant box-office-bomblet metamovie The Last Action Hero ... and, on a more literary-historic plane, the intimately related metaquestion "How Did You Know What You Were Reading?" which Harriet Nowell Smith focused on in her 1996 comparative-lit dissertation re fictional elements in Edward Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.

More than anything else, however, "Promethea and Metafiction" brings to mind the fire-hazard-high stacks of graphic novels, anime posters, and rôle-playing paraphernalia at Barbarian Books, a notorious local used-book-and-gaming store that is also a popular hangout for a peculiar subculture of adolescent males. Whilst browsing at The Barb some years ago, my wife reports, she overheard the loud lament "Women: you can't live with 'em, and you can't kill 'em!" --- quickly followed by an embarrassed "No offense meant!" disclaimer as the young man who said it belatedly spied her ...

(see also Gibbon Nowell Smith Thesis (14 Sep 2001), Extraordinary Gentlemen (29 Apr 2003), Rider Haggard (27 Jun 2003), Key To The Treasure (23 Apr 2004), ... )

- Monday, April 26, 2004 at 06:09:46 (EDT)

Sigil of Power

In "Moria" (a classic computerized fantasy-role-playing game) there's a magical spell called Glyph of Warding. When cast, this enchantment puts a symbol on the dungeon floor which monsters can't cross over. It's a purely defensive bit of trickery that only works in a narrow corridor; eventually the glyph can be broken by a persistent attack. But in the meantime such a barrier may give a hard-pressed adventurer a chance to retreat, recover from injuries, or in some cases launch a counterattack using a distance weapon.

The Glyph of Warding concept --- a sign that says Stop! and really means it --- appeals to me ... and not just because of the rampant tendency around here of drivers to roll through ordinary stop signs. It's another display of the magic of language, as alluded to in Key To The Treasure (23 Apr 2004). I thought of it again recently when I saw an article in The Numismatist titled "They Shall Not Pass: A Medal for Verdun" by Marilyn Reback (November 2003). In French the medallion quotes the words of General Petain: "Ils ne passeront pas". Halt!

(see also The Veto (26 Dec 1999), Free Action (3 Apr 2000), Here Be Dragons (22 Sep 2000), ... )

- Sunday, April 25, 2004 at 16:18:01 (EDT)

Root Mean Square Dance

How to quantify exercise? The most common numerical measurement for runners is simple mileage, averaged perhaps over a week or a month. That obviously ignores a host of significant factors: speed, hills, temperature, humidity, altitude, etc. It also leaves out the constellation of personal parameters: age, sex, weight, illness, and so on.

But nevertheless average mileage is a popular metric, for good reason. It offers a straightforward and decently objective first-order way to characterize a training program. But what's the next step? My modest suggestion: RMSDM = Root Mean Square Daily Miles (or any other distance measure that you prefer).

"Root Mean Square" is a simple mathematical process. An ordinary "Mean" is an average; to do a Root Mean Square just square each of the numbers before you average them, and then take the square root of the result. That process emphasizes the largest of the input values --- precisely what a good distance-running metric should do. (Long runs are crucial to the development of endurance.) The RMS value equals the simple average only when all data points are equal. Otherwise, RMS is always a larger number. (Makes for better boasting rights, eh?!)

Consider a specific low-mileage example. Someone who does precisely 3 miles every day has a mean daily mileage (MDM) of 3, the same as the RMSDM value. (Pretty dull as a regime, and not likely to be either fun or effective.) But skip the junk miles on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, jog 10 on Saturday, then take Sunday off to recover --- and the result is an RMSDM of 4.1 --- a 37% increase over the flat-rate training program yet with 24% fewer average miles!

Take a look at the ^z personal logbooks for 2002 and 2003. In the first year I covered 1015 miles in training and races, giving a mean daily result of 2.8 miles, slightly under 20 miles/week. My RMS daily mileage was 4.7, reflecting a preponderance of short jogs around the neighborhood. In 2003 I managed 1110 miles, for a MDM of 3.0, less than 10% greater than the previous year --- but my RMSDM increased a dramatic 23% to 5.8 miles.

Here's a quick graph of that record:

This shows the power of the long run on the root mean square --- similar to the long run's power to improve stamina. (I can hardly wait to see this year's data; with the 50 kilometer Hat Run 2004 to pump up that RMSDM I don't need no stinkin' steroids!)

(see also Need For Speed (10 Aug 2002), Logbook Tyrannicide (17 Oct 2002), Handicap Jogging (8 Oct 2003), Two Years Later (6 Feb 2004), ...)

- Saturday, April 24, 2004 at 14:29:17 (EDT)

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