^zhurnal v.0.39

Howdy, pilgrim! You're in volume 0.39 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.)

Sustaining Delusion

A colleague (PM) reports that, if he gets despondent, his wife lectures him on her cynical-funny philosophy: Everyone needs a "sustaining delusion". You have to have something to take heart from when work is overwhelming, when relationships are breaking down, when life seems meaningless.

Of course that doesn't stop the same colleague, a few minutes later in that same conversation, from snorting and challenging an optimistic comrade (DB) with the sarcastic:

Bang this against your "sustaining delusion": if you are as successful as it is humanly possible to be, how will that make any difference?

Apparently his wife's wisdom hasn't been fully internalized yet! The point of the word "delusion" is that it preempts, zen-like, all further questioning.

My own sustaining delusion? It's a simpleminded subatomic one: that tiny acts of kindness, each one infinitesimal, will somehow add up to significance --- and will make the world a wee bit better ...

(see George Eliot's Middlemarch, and Albert Schweitzer's autobiography Out of My Life and Thought; see also Optimist Creed (16 Apr 1999), Remember Me (21 May 1999), Underappreciated Ideas (6 Jul 1999), Foam On The Ocean (23 Jul 2000), My Religion (6 Nov 2000), ... )


- Wednesday, July 21, 2004 at 06:08:46 (EDT)


Interracial Checkmate

One of the most addictive of human activities is list making, and among the most entertaining of lists is the famous "S*** List" that various folks maintain for various reasons. One person close to me has a log-of-contempt devoted to famous men who have divorced their long-time wives and caroused with girls a generation (or more) younger. Other list-makers track political enemies, or manufacturers of defective automobiles, or a host of other annoyances.

But on a more socially serious front, perhaps, are those who monitor the race of celebrity spouses. Several weeks ago in Amherst I acquired a copy of Randall Kennedy's excellent (2003) book Interracial Intimacies: Sex, Marriage, Identity, and Adoption. It's meditative, balanced, and highly readable, but not lightweight; I'm currently crawling along in it and enjoying the journey. In Chapter Three ("From Black-Power Backlash to the New Amalgamationism") Kennedy writes:

By and large, African Americans fall into three camps with respect to white-black interracial marriage. One camp views it as a positive good that decreases social segregation; encourages racial open-mindedness; increases blacks' access to enriching social networks; elevates their status; and empowers black women in their interactions with black men. A second camp is agnostic, seeing interracial marriage simply as a private choice that individuals should have the right to make. ... A third camp repudiates interracial marriage on the ground that black participation in it constitutes an expression of racial disloyalty; implies disapproval of fellow blacks; impedes the perpetuation of black culture; weakens the African American marriage market; and fuels racist mythologies, especially the fiction that blacks lack pride of race.

Kennedy goes on to explain and expand upon those themes in an extended and thought-provoking discussion. My attention was caught along the way by quotations and footnotes about the many people who "... look for the litmus test of loyalty to the race: the photo of the person's spouse or significant other ..." and who "... kept a mental s*** list of black celebrities who had white wives or girlfriends ...". Lists again!

And at the bottom of that page in Kennedy's book my eye chanced to spy a footnote which quoted Professor Halford Fairchild --- a name that struck a sharp resonance in my personal subconscious. Why?

Looking back in the ^zhurnal at one of my own lists (!) --- of postal chess opponents --- I discovered that in 1992 I played a pair of games by mail against one Halford H. Fairchild of Los Angeles, undoubtedly the same gentleman cited in Interracial Intimacies. Dr. Fairchild is a professor of Psychology and Black Studies at Pitzer College, as well as an active chess player [1]. Small universe, eh?!

And, as per the rules of tournament chess, in our two contests we took turns being White and Black. (groan!)

(see also Posta Lite (16 Aug 2000), Interracial Intimacies (24 Feb 2003), Racial Relationships (10 Jan 2004), ...)


- Tuesday, July 20, 2004 at 05:42:15 (EDT)


Proximity Effect

Why is it that every political contest is always "the most important election of our lifetimes", according to the candidates involved? Sure, they're trying to get out the vote (on their side), and exaggeration is one way to attract attention.

But another reason is a peculiar human nearsightedness, a natural fixation on what's close at hand. Hence, the universal tendency to care more about one's self and immediate family than one's neighbors ... more about one's neighbors than distant countrymen ... more about one's countrymen than people elsewhere ... and more about people than members of other species. This often makes good sense: it's usually easier to Do Good locally than it is to influence faraway events for the better. But there also needs to be some balance, some attention paid to important things that happen to be farther away in space and time than the next election ...

(see also Changing Selves (20 May 1999), What Counts (24 Nov 1999), Century Hence (1 Sep 2002), Compassionate Carnivorism (19 Nov 2002), ... )


- Monday, July 19, 2004 at 05:51:15 (EDT)


Blind Faith

Children are arrows, shot into the dark night of the future.

(see also Life Lines (9 Dec 2000), ... )


- Saturday, July 17, 2004 at 16:48:00 (EDT)


Pumping Iron

Yesterday Paulette and I watched (on DVD) the quarter-century-old bodybuilding movie Pumping Iron. It holds up well and the people in it (particularly the current Governor of California, Arnold Schwarzenegger) are charming in their naïveté and enthusaism.

Alas, less charming in retrospect is the obvious heavy juicing --- steroid use --- that the protagonists have undergone. Their distorted musculature is startling and at times bizarrely attractive, just as grossly-augumented mammary tissue can become an awesome technological spectacle (or should I say "spectacles"?!). Clearly unhealthy.

But suddenly during the movie I realized what the knotted biceps and deltoids and pectorals in Pumping Iron reminded me of: bags full of canteloupes!

And that in turn brought to mind one of the most all-time scathing (and hilarious) sculptural critiques, by the sixteenth-century artist Benvenuto Cellini in his famously-blunt and self-serving autobiography. Speaking of a statue by arch-rival Baccio Bandinello, an irate Cellini rants:

"Well, then, this virtuous school says that if one were to shave the hair of your Hercules, there would not be skull enough left to hold his brain; it says that it is impossible to distinguish whether his features are those of a man or of something between a lion and an ox; the face too is turned away from the action of the figure, and is so badly set upon the neck, with such poverty of art and so ill a grace, that nothing worse was ever seen; his sprawling shoulders are like the two pommels of an ass' pack-saddle; his breasts and all the muscles of the body are not portrayed from a man, but from a big sack full of melons set upright against a wall. The loins seem to be modelled from a bag of lanky pumpkins; nobody can tell how his two legs are attached to that vile trunk; it is impossible to say on which leg he stands, or which he uses to exert his strength; nor does he seem to be resting upon both, as sculptors who know something of their art have occasionally set the figure. It is obvious that the body is leaning forward more than one-third of a cubit, which alone is the greatest and most insupportable fault committed by vulgar commonplace pretenders. Concerning the arms, they say that these are both stretched out without one touch of grace or one real spark of artistic talents, just as if you had never seen a naked model. Again, the right leg of Hercules and that of Cacus have got one mass of flesh between them, so that if they were to be separated, not only one of them, but both together, would be left without a calf at the point where they are touching. They say, too, that Hercules has one of his feet underground, while the other seems to be resting on hot coals."

From the Autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini, translated by John Addington Symonds, chapter LXX.

(see also Memory Support (31 Oct 2002), Awesome Prowess (17 July 2003), Professional Juicers (28 Jan 2004), ... )


- Friday, July 16, 2004 at 06:29:18 (EDT)


Round and Rounder

A long slow jog, especially in the summer months, can result in significant water loss as well as energy depletion. I'm not much of a drinker of alcohol --- I get dizzy after one beer --- but I find that Negra Modelo serves well to rehydrate, especially when accompanied by a big bowl of newly-reconstituted instant mashed potatoes as part of Operation Refuel. Recent log entries:

Amherst Yassos

(3 July) - 6 miles, 64 minutes --- late afternoon, last day in Amherst MA before the 500-mile drive home ... no baseball to watch [1] so it's time to train ... I'm fantasizing about doing a 4-hour marathon some day, so at the local high school track (a nice one, fancy resilient brown surface) for what I laughingly term "speedwork" I do eight "Yasso 800's" (actually 880 yards, two laps, since I presume this isn't a metric loop) ... average of 3:56 each, walking a ~4-minute lap to recover between ... there's a brilliant sunset and high luministic clouds ...

Paint Fumes

(7 July) - 8 miles, 87 minutes --- from Che^z to Bethesda and back via the Georgetown Branch on a warm early evening after a set of thunderstorms pass ... I stupidly sprint between batallions of cars to cross busy Connecticut Avenue during mile six (at 9:55, my fastest) and survive, but really shouldn't do that ever again ... for first and final miles the paint fumes are heavy behind the auto body shops near mile 0.5 of the GB --- EPA measurement machinery is needed there, perhaps, to see if those solvents are legal to vent in such large quantities ...

Bethesda Loop

(10 July) - 11+ miles, 126 minutes --- warm and humid (I know, it's summer, get used to it dude!) but generally pleasant ... I take the usual widdershins circuit (from home past the WRx mermaidelovely fountain to RCT, northwest to Cedar Lane, along which past Stone Ridge School and NIH to Old Georgetown Road, south to Bethesda and the GBT and thence home again) ... cobwebs veil the lights on the underside of the Beltway ca. mile 2.6 of the RCT ... dump liters of water over my head at every opportunity ... meet Wayne Phyillaier [2] for the first time in person at the Bethesda GBT fountain, and (after pouring more water over my head, so that I look like a drowned rat) chat with him and thank him for his fine efforts on behalf of the Coalition for the Capital Crescent Trail [3], and in turn Wayne thanks me for my attempt at balanced coverage of some controversial trail issues in Rail Trail Politics (24 Oct 2003) ... Wayne is installing free bells on bicycles for all passers-by who will accept them ... slightly rested now, I achieve a marginally sub-10-minute pace for miles #8 and #9 on the homeward bound stretch ...

Sligo Creek + Northwest Branch Evening Loop

(14 July) - 11+ miles, 138 minutes --- incredibly cute baby on her mother's lap, and half a block later incredibly cute bunny rabbit hopping across a suburban front lawn ... set out at 6:35pm, inspired by an email from fast young ultrarunner Morgan Windram [4] in which she suggests the possiblility of doing the Tussey Mountainback 50 miler [5] this fall ... air has been cleared and cooled somewhat by afternoon thunderstorms and the passage of a cold front ... from home I jog to Sligo Creek near the Beltway, head north a mile and refill the water bottle at the park fountain ... then east on Dennis & Lockridge to join the Northwest Branch Trail --- a real trail, rugged and uncivilized, which scares me as I have to sit to avoid a tumble while clambering down boulders made slippery by earlier rains ... I twice nearly twist an ankle ... recognize the place where I fell into the stream back in May 2003 [6] ... visions intrude of breaking a leg and crawling out, a la the mountain-climbing book/movie Touching The Void --- nobody else is on the pathway this evening ... I proceed cautiously until a couple of miles downstream when Iím on the paved part of the NWB Trail ... and by then Iím clearly not going to make it home by sunset, but I estimate that I should still get back slightly before 9pm and total darkness, which turns out to be accurate ... return route is via Piney Branch, Sligo Creek Trail, Colesville Road & Dale Drive ... sightings include poison ivy vines, multiple black butterflies (swallowtails?), and fireflies seeking their mates at dusk ...


- Thursday, July 15, 2004 at 06:00:09 (EDT)


Oblivious Ace

One of the more unusual parent-teenager conversations took place in this household some time ago; names and details have been omitted to slightly protect the guilty:

"You took the SATs last month --- did you get your scores back yet?"
"Uh, I think I got an envelope in the mail, but I didn't open it and now I've lost it."
"Why don't you look on their web site? They post the numbers there, don't they?"
"OK ..." (and after the passage of time) "... hmmm ... it says I got an 800."
"Is that the total score?"
"Um, no, it's just for the math part ... looks like I got an 800 on the verbal half too."
"Do you know what that means?"
"Uh, is it good?"
"Yeah, pretty good."

The best thing, however, was not the score. It was not caring too much about the score ...

(Brief background: the SATs, formerly "Scholastic Aptitude Tests", are a sort of college entrance exam. 1600 is a perfect result.)


- Wednesday, July 14, 2004 at 05:44:27 (EDT)


Foul is Fair

I invited a colleague to visit me at home, but warned her not to be shocked by the cluttery mess she would likely encounter there if she showed up unannounced. She laughed and told me of an old proverb:

"If you want to see me, just drop on by. If you want to see my house, you'll have to make an appointment!"

The words reminded me of an exchange in J. R. R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, from the scene at the inn where Frodo says of the Enemy's minions, "I think one of his spies would --- well, seem fairer and feel fouler, if you understand." "I see," laughed Strider. "I look foul and feel fair. Is that it?" (And that in turn is reminiscent of the witches' chant near the beginning of Macbeth: "Fair is foul, and foul is fair.")

The punch line, of course, is that appearance doesn't matter nearly as much as people commonly think it does ... and that the almost-universal convention of movies and comic books (and, come to think of it, art throughout the ages) --- ugly villains, beautiful heroes --- is quite bogus.

And with that observation now made, let's await the collapse of the plastic surgery "industry" ...

(see also The Ugly Fallacy (7 Dec 2003), Beautiful Virtue (15 Dec 2003), ... )


- Tuesday, July 13, 2004 at 06:25:58 (EDT)


Uproarious Amateurishness

One of Ultra Man Paul Amman's web pages has a wonderful quotation about amateurism attributed to British writer G. K. Chesterton:

The word amateur has come by the thousand oddities of language to convey an idea of tepidity; whereas the word itself has the meaning of passion. Nor is this peculiarity confined to the mere form of the word; the actual characteristic of these nameless dilettanti is a genuine fire and reality. A man must love a thing very much if he not only practices it without any hope of fame or money, but even practices it without any hope of doing it well. Such a man must love the toils of the work more than any other man can love the rewards of it.

That led me in turn to Chesterton's cranky-funny 1910 book What's Wrong with the World, where in Part Four, Section XIV the author rhapsodizes about the vital role of a mother (then, and perhaps still) in raising a child:

There was a time when you and I and all of us were all very close to God; so that even now the color of a pebble (or a paint), the smell of a flower (or a firework), comes to our hearts with a kind of authority and certainty; as if they were fragments of a muddled message, or features of a forgotten face. To pour that fiery simplicity upon the whole of life is the only real aim of education; and closest to the child comes the woman --- she understands. To say what she understands is beyond me; save only this, that it is not a solemnity. Rather it is a towering levity, an uproarious amateurishness of the universe, such as we felt when we were little, and would as soon sing as garden, as soon paint as run. To smatter the tongues of men and angels, to dabble in the dreadful sciences, to juggle with pillars and pyramids and toss up the planets like balls, this is that inner audacity and indifference which the human soul, like a conjurer catching oranges, must keep up forever. This is that insanely frivolous thing we call sanity. ...

At least, I think Chesterton is waxing lyric about early childhood education --- but perhaps I'm confused, and in any event it doesn't matter. The passage concludes with the resounding Motto of the True Amateur, who does what s/he does out of pure love for the act itself: "... if a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing badly."

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


- Monday, July 12, 2004 at 06:13:33 (EDT)


Drawing the Line

Steven M. Wise's book Drawing the Line: Science and the Case for Animal Rights (2002) could have been an important book. It is profoundly good-hearted but, alas, profoundly muddle-headed. The author's conclusions are right on target: for a host of reasons, nonhuman animals deserve far more legal protection than they now have against cruelty. But his arguments for that thesis are undercut and eventually eviscerated by his own scientific illiteracy.

Wise is a Harvard lawyer and a fine writer. The biggest problem that he suffers from is number-worship. He doesn't appear to grasp the concepts of accuracy, error propagation, or significant digits --- or if he does, evidence of it was edited out of the book. Hence, there's the distracting attempt to assign pseudo-precise (to two decimal places, no less!) "autonomy values" to various creatures --- when the obvious uncertainties and variances within and between species are much huger. When a scientist gives an estimated range of numbers, Wise latches immediately onto the arithmetic midpoint of that range. When he sees a number in print, he accepts every digit, as in "... polar bear brains, which grow [between birth and maturity] by an astonishing 4,510 percent ..." and "... Orangutan brains average about 335 cubic centimerters and weigh about 333 grams ...". (pps. 133-4)

I'm reminded, unfortunately, of the sign I saw many years ago on a baseball outfield fence, which showed "350 feet" (two significant digits) above "106.68 meters" (five significant digits). No! No! No! It's both numerically right and totally wrong.

As for probabilities, Wise's naivete is showing already in Chapter Three (p. 35):

... The more certain we are that the answer to any of these questions is "yes," the closer the probability is to 1.0. If "no" is certain, the probability is 0.0. If we think the answer impossible to know, or that it's possible but we just don't know anything, the probability is exactly 0.5. ...

No! No! No! If we don't know, we don't know.

Wise's biased authority-worship is almost as bad as his innumeracy. He can scarcely write a paragraph without multiple footnotes, but he doesn't distinguish between reasonable and unreasonable sources, credible or incredible claims, and validated versus idiosyncratic observations. He relies far too much on the anecdote-out-of-context method of argumentation. But, as the joke goes, "The plural of anecdote is bullsh*t!"

And, a more minor nit: Drawing the Line is sloppily edited. The most egregious example is that I happened to spot occurs on page 59:

Piaget compared Christopher's early mental images to a slow-motion movie. He might understand each frame, but couldn't figure out the movie.86 Cognitive scientists don't agree (of course) how to define "representation." ...

and on page 69:

Piaget compared Christopher's early mental images to a slow-motion movie. Christopher might understand each frame, but not the whole movie. Damasio says the core self is created in pulsing scenes that follow each other so quickly they appear continuous.181 ...

Perhaps this is a mere copy/paste hiccough --- but the fact that nobody noticed it is bothersome and reduces the book's credibility another notch.

On a more substantive front, at multiple points (most notably in his commentary on honeybees, where he also fails to differentiate between individual and group "thinking") Steven Wise is far too quick to anthropomorphize and see animal behavior through human eyes. I can only imagine what he would believe about the mental level of computers if, without prior experience, he encountered one programmed to appear interactive and intelligent. The 1980 Vernor Vinge novel True Names made the point in the context of fiction: "... there is nothing new about this situation. Even a poor writer --- if he has a sympathetic reader and an engaging plot --- can evoke complete internal imagery with a few dozen words of description. ...". The same applies, in trumps, to interactions with software, or nonhuman animals. (Remember Clever Hans!)

On the positive side, Wise is clearly a nice guy, on the side of the angels. He tries to be honest and fair, even to those whom he clearly mistrusts. He apologizes in a lengthy footnote (p. 274) for an earlier disagreement with Daniel Dennett, apparently based on a misunderstanding of Dennett's writings. And in a chapter on dolphins Wise quotes (pps. 131-2) from a letter he received from Louis Herman of the University of Hawaii:

You seem to wonder and to be sorely pained about my prior reluctance to communicate with you. I hope I am mistaken, but your prior communications to me suggested that you had a strong anti-captivity bias and consequent agenda to use my work to bolster your case, and in doing so, to misuse me. If so, how sad that you would use the knowledge we have gained through our laboratory studies to obviate any future knowledge we might gain. It is sad, also, that those who are so against captivity of the few scarcely raise a voice or take the necessary action to protect wild dolphins from the immense harassment and slaughter they suffer as a result of human activities, intentional or not. It must be reinforcing, I suppose, to pontificate, to possess a moral stance superior to others, and to see the world as dichotomous --- good guys and bad guys, but no complex guys or complex issues. ...

Bottom line: "Science" doesn't simply consist of citing authority, footnoting assertions, and marshalling stories. Science is organized knowledge. It demands judgment and critical thinking. Dennett's Kinds of Minds (1997) offers much more of that, and thereby makes a better case for animal rights than Drawing the Line.

(see also Suffer The Animals (11 Jun 2000), Compassionate Carnivorism (19 Nov 2002), Modern Phrenology (19 0ct 2003), ... )


- Sunday, July 11, 2004 at 06:48:38 (EDT)


Let Trucks Be Trucks

Yet Another Modest Proposal: if "sport utility vehicles" (SUVs) and other poor-maneuverability, high-weight, low-gas-mileage cars are officially defined as "trucks" --- for purposes of fuel economy and pollution control regulations (and therefore don't have to meet the normal automotive standards) --- well, let's be consistent and likewise deem them trucks when it comes to:

... and every other limitation that the rules apply to "trucks". Maybe this would slightly lessen the attractiveness of these inefficient vehicles for those folks who really should consider a subcompact for their most common suburban missions: commuting (alone!) to work, picking up a bag of groceries on the way home, etc. Maybe taking the bus or subway, or even walking, would become plausible alternatives.

Of course when gasoline prices rise by an order of magnitude, as they should and will, some of these artificial incentives toward social responsibility will become moot ...

(see also Big Bad Boxes (3 Dec 2002), Su Vexation (24 Dec 2003), Weight Of Evidence (21 Mar 2004)... )


- Friday, July 09, 2004 at 06:34:31 (EDT)


Site Suggestions

In recent correspondence I offered some advice to a person working on a relatively new web site. (After five years the ^zhurnal is roughly at the half-million-word mark, so fogeyism is setting in, eh?) A few thoughts, all rather obvious:

Things always sound better in Latin. As Ovid wrote, "Adde parvum parvo manus acervus erit." --- which is to say, "Add little to little and there will be a big pile."

(see also Annals Of Journals (4 Apr 2000), Wiki Quick Start (13 Oct 2001), Practical Productivity (20 Jan 2004), ... )


- Thursday, July 08, 2004 at 05:51:39 (EDT)


iPod MINI Cooper Accessory

A new feature of the MINI Cooper (automobile) is a docking port in the glove compartment for an Apple iPod (pocket music device). Not yet widely known, however, is the fact that the interface has been designed to be fully symmetric. The iPod can be controlled by buttons mounted on the car's steering wheel ... and the car can likewise be controlled by the iPod.

Acceleration, steering, brakes, etc. --- all are taken over by the iPod's front panel. In addition, the iPod display shows a continuously-updated low-res image representation of the road ahead, generated by acoustic reflection (sonar). The car can thus be driven entirely without reference to the outside world, even in conditions of total darkness or extreme fog.

Apple's iTunes online music store will soon offer "AI" downloads of expert race-car drivers, so for $0.99 a MINI Cooper iPod owner can go motoring in the style of Juan-Manuel Fangio, Sir Stirling Moss, Bill Elliott, et al. An optional wireless interface will permit sharing drivers as well as music with similarly-equipped MINI Coopers in the vicinity.


- Tuesday, July 06, 2004 at 05:40:54 (EDT)


Static Actors

A couple of idioms caught my ear recently because they suggest an unnatural amount of dynamism on the part of a geographic locale:

Other examples? Is there a linguistic term for this sort of metaphor?


- Monday, July 05, 2004 at 10:52:24 (EDT)


Draft as Taxation

What is it called when a nation takes by law (and under threat of punishment for disobedience) something of value from a person in order to spend it for the general good? Answer: a tax!

Taxes can be allocated in various ways, but a principle of fairness governs (or at least arguably should govern) a good system of taxation. People should pay their fair share: people in similar circumstances should pay similar amounts, and those who can afford more should pay more, especially if they benefit more from social services. One can debate the details, but the general framework is pretty generally understood and agreed upon.

So what kind of tax would it be that selected some individuals to contribute huge amounts --- but only if they met certain criteria of age, physical fitness, sex, and inability to afford good advice on how to escape from donating? On top of that, include an element of pure chance: only take a randomly selected subset of those eligible.

That's the classical military "Draft", in a nutshell. Quite convenient, for those who don't have to pay ...

(see also On Delegation (17 Oct 2000), For Great Justice (1 Dec 2002), ... )


- Sunday, July 04, 2004 at 06:13:00 (EDT)


Official Scorekeeper

Baseball, like jogging, is great for me right now for a multitude of reasons. It gets me out of the house and away from electronic doohickies. It's a relaxing way to spend a few good hours. It offers a chance to eat and drink sans guilt. It lets me meet real people, a cross-section of the world outside my usual narrow circle. It provides a rich realm of spacetime events --- balls & strikes, hits & errors, runs & outs (or in the case of jogging, distances and times) --- a host of numbers that I can gather, organize, and analyze to my heart's content.

But most importantly: baseball, like jogging, gives me an opportunity to be irresponsible. That's why I felt nervous last month when Ed Sharp of the Silver Spring - Takoma Thunderbolts [1] asked me to serve as official scorekeeper for a game when the usual recorders were going to all be out of town.

My fear was well-founded. Thankfully, I had a stay of execution when the Thursday game I was needed for (on 17 June) was rained out. Good fortune again smiled when I came on Saturday to serve at the make-up date: an experienced statistician from the other team was present, and then Ed arrived back from his travels just in time to sit with me.

But nevertheless, even though I had plenty of help and couldn't do much damage with my mistakes, the responsibility of being official scorer took most of the fun out of the situation. I hardly remember anything of the Saturday games (a double-header) besides the frenzied scramble to log each play for the recordbooks. Fun rating (on a scale of 0-10) = 2.

That's a huge contrast with four games I've been privileged to witness since then ...

20 June --- Thunderbolts 2, Herndon 1

A cool, clear evening is made notable by strong pitching and sharp fieldwork. In the second innning Herndon shortstop Davis Stoneburner snags Tbolt Mike Epping's hard-hit grounder and throws him out at first; Stoneburner does similarly to three other Tbolts during the game. His compatriot right fielder, Richard Davis, makes a superb long throw to Herndon catcher Matt Foley to bring down Tbolt Josh Richardson on his way to the plate. In turn SST center fielder Andrew Greene makes a pair of splendid running & diving catches at critical moments in the seventh and ninth innings ...

24 June --- Thunderbolts 10, Bethesda 9

A teenage couple in front of me giggles, wrestles over a cellphone, and takes pictures of each other with its mini-camera. Little kids wearing big round glasses stay in their seats no more than 15 consecutive seconds --- then jump up and run off, hoping to snag a foul ball. The curly blond hair of one ballplayer refuses to stay confined under his batting helmet. From my seat behind home plate the curve balls are breaking sharply, but that doesn't interrupt the slug-fest under a first-quarter moon. The initial two batters on each team make it home in both halves of the first, and the middle innings continue that high-scoring pattern, with lots of solid hits rewarded appropriately.

30 June --- Amherst 5, Northampton 1

The local American Legion Post 148 team of Amherst [2] takes on its arch-rival from down the road, Northampton American Legion Post 28, aka "King & Cushman". Play is at Amherst high school's Ziomek Field (GPS coordinates 42:22:42N 072:30:51W) --- fortuitously only a 5 minute stroll from where Paulette and I are staying this week. The previous afternoon on my walk to pick up the car at the repair shop I happen to notice a sporting-goods store and tentatively peek inside. A clerk tells me that there's a special game the next evening, a make-up for one that was rained out. I buy my first real scorebook and resolve to break it in.

The ballgame, as expected, is great. A tiny set of bleachers at one side of the diamond is occupied by ardent supporters of both teams, self-segregated at opposite ends. I position myself in the middle, neutral territory, with a bag of peanuts and a bottle of soda picked up at the mini-mart down the road. Amherst's first baseman Brendan McKinney makes an outstanding catch of a pop foul ball in the fourth inning after knocking in a run in the third and then himself scoring on teammate Matt Olszewski's triple. A couple of Northampton players are ejected from the game about that time, apparently for inappropriate remarks to an umpire. Amherst pitcher Ross Hazlett is a powerhouse for the entire battle, taking out the opposition with three strikeouts in both the fifth and final innings.

2 July --- Westfield 7, Amherst 5

It's a Babe Ruth League 13-year-old championship [3], again at Ziomek Field. The energy level is high: overenthusiastic players on each team get caught in run-downs between the bases as coaches shout cautionary-but-unheeded advice. The stands are filled with parents and neighbors, all on a first-name basis with the boys and with one another. At intervals various spectators come by to ask me for the inning and the current score. An adult remarks that in his youth, three decades earlier, he remembers seeing the same umpire on the field officiating at Little League games there. Small-town America, eh?!

The weather is perfect and the boys do well, in spite of weak young arms in the outfield and a couple of errors on each side. Amherst's catcher Cameron Skelton is one of the stars, with his brilliant catch of a high pop foul in the third inning and his consistent heads-up play. The visitors from Westfield are ahead 6-0 after two innings, but then the hometown lads begin to chip away at them. The game concludes in the bottom of a tense seventh inning with two outs and the bases loaded, Amherst having already scored three runs. With a 2-2 count the batter takes a mighty swing ... and strikes out.

(see also Keeping Score (13 Jun 2003), Quiescent Thunderbolts (10 Jun 2004), ... )


- Saturday, July 03, 2004 at 19:06:07 (EDT)


Closed Window Risks

Suffocation is an obvious danger when running an automobile's ventilation system on "recirculate" with the windows rolled up. People in the car will eventually use up all the oxygen in the vehicle, and then they die. Less widely known, however, is the equally deadly hazard of setting the heating/cooling system to pull in outside air under the same circumstances. Pressure inexorably builds up --- until the auto explodes ...

(see also Desert Test (4 Sep 2002), ... )


- Friday, July 02, 2004 at 08:20:34 (EDT)


Bronc Burnett

For Father's Day this year the family gave me a wonderful baseball novel, The Three-Two Pitch: A Bronc Burnett Story by Wilfred McCormick. It's a classic 1948-vintage "boy's book", full of cheerful young men and sensible adults. Hardly anyone is mentioned who doesn't have a Y chromosome. The prose is at times pedestrian; the plot is predictable; the characters are mostly caricatures.

But the spirit of the book is solid: hard work plus good sportsmanship triumph over adversity. The baseball content is also extraordinary in its depth and technical accuracy. The Three-Two Pitch is an enjoyable, educational read.

I was absolutely mystified, however, by one facet of McCormick's novel. Virtually every one of the high-school boys have nicknames: our hero James "Bronc" Burnett, Jr.; his buddy catcher "Fat" Crompton; rival fielder "Peedink" Harrell; lead-off hitter "Bucket" Baker; first baseman "Slow Molasses" Smith; and so forth. These are all semi-plausible appellations for kids to use on each other --- with one exception. The most obnoxious lad in the book, a transparently feckless villain, is called by everyone "Fibate". His true name is "Reginald Jones".

What kind of a nickname is Fibate? How is it pronounced? Who would make it up? What could it possibly mean? It wasn't until I was more than halfway through the book that I finally caught on. Young Mr. Jones is the team statistician-scorekeeper, a glasses-wearing bookish genius-weasel who computes baseball stats in his head, who takes great personal pleasure in harassing protagonist Bronc Burnett, and who (like Eddie Haskell on the TV sitcom Leave It to Beaver) for unknown reasons is never slapped down by any of the adults who witness his misbehavior.

Fibate is thus, I belatedly deduced, a derogatory abbreviation for Phi Beta Kappa --- the academic honor society. Apparently it was risky business to be seen as too scholarly in Bronc Burnett's neck of the woods ...

(see also Education Of The Youth (1 Dec 2001), Pursuit Of Excellence (22 Feb 2002), Liberal Arts (13 Mar 2003), ... )


- Thursday, July 01, 2004 at 11:05:20 (EDT)


Norwottuck Rail Trail 2004

On Sunday 27 June 2004 Paulette & Gray & I drive a thankfully-uneventful 9 hours to western Massachusetts where Gray has a summer music camp session ... and once we're settled I take advantage of the opportunity to jog along a local rails-to-trails right-of-way conversion project, the Norwottuck Trail and its extension to the east, the Catherine Arnold Trail. GPS coordinates for the mile marker posts follow, along with brief notes on the past week's worth of pedestrianism ...

Good Form

(23 Jun) --- 11+ miles, 122 minutes --- Silver Spring, MD: GB/NIH/RC loop, but in the opposite direction to my customary route ... about half an hour out I pass a young lady, walking and carrying (but not listening to) a CD player ... I take a walk break after finishing my mile 3 and she jogs past me, but reverts to a walk again several steps ahead ... I ask how she's doing, and she shakes her head, rubs her side, and says "Cramps!" ... I try to encourage her with the safe comment, "Well, keep doing what you're doing --- your form looks good!" ... "Thanks!" she replies, and smiles ... the late day is cool, low humidity ... my first four miles fly by at an average ~10:30 pace ... I soak my head at water fountains (downtown Bethesda and on Beach Drive at Cedar Lane) to good effect ... mile 9 along Rock Creek flies by in 9:33, but I slow considerably on the hills between there and home, where I recover by inhaling a Negra Modelo beer and Taco Bell leftovers ...

Wedding Party + Spiderweb Shadow

(26 Jun) --- 8+ miles, 98 minutes --- Silver Spring, MD: lethargic loop from home along Dale & Wayne to Sligo Creek Trail, thence upstream a few miles and home again via Dennis & Georgia & Forest Glen ... too warm in the sun, too humid in the shade; I survive by pouring liters of water over my head at the fountains ... the only measured mile (#4) takes 11:03 ... exhaustion lifts in mid-run as I pass an open field with an ivory stretch limousine parked on one edge: a glowing bride and a cluster of almost-as-radiant bridesmaids line up for the photographer, as a pair of miniature flower girls try to skip away on the green grass --- everyone with hair in topnots and deep ebony skin tones that make their dresses seem impossibly white ... and further along, a perfect but gigantic spiderweb-shadow covers the pathway --- I look up and discover the splayed-hand tree branch and leaves that create the illusion ...

Norwottuck Rail Trail (East) + Catherine Arnold Trail

(28 Jun) --- 11+ miles, 125 minutes --- Amherst, Massachusetts: on Sunday we deposit daughter at summer music camp [1], settle into an Amherst motel, and this morning the car won't start! ... so from the mechanic's shop on College Street I set off south to the Norwottuck Rail Trail (NRT) where I had some nice jogs in August 2003, armed with a GPS to collect coordinates of the mileposts ... a brilliant yellow goldfinch flits by, and shortly thereafter a New England Central freight train chugs past on the track that parallels the path ... it's warm but not unpleasant in the swampy eastern end of the journey, with only a few dozen stinging black flies to plague me ... the route is from garage to NRT mile ~1.2, southeast to 0, plus another ~1.6 miles along the Catherine Arnold Trail to turnaround, then back to NRT milepost 3, finishing the loop along town streets ... I return to find the car not yet fixed, quaff a Mountain Dew, and jog a final mile back to the motel ... NRT measured miles go by in 10:00, 10:44, 10:36, and 10:15 ...

Norwottuck Rail Trail (West)

(30 Jun) --- 14 miles, 163 minutes --- Amherst, MA: cool, slightly humid morning jog from University Lodge south a mile to the NRT, then SW half a dozen miles to the pathway's endpoint in Northampton on the far side of the Connecticut River ... I collect GPS coordinates of mileposts 3-8 along the way ... the asphalt sparkles in the sunlight with embedded glass chunks from local bottle recycling project ... outbound five measured miles average 11:32 pace, return trip slightly less glacial at 11:01, including pauses both ways to refill water bottle (thanks, Saturn of Hadley, for the fountain!) ... countless squirrels and robins, one chipmunk, one rabbit, and a variety of golfers on an adjacent course, perhaps inspired by the US Women's Open taking place a few miles away in South Hadley ... portajohn at the trail's end provides welcome "relief" (note to self: a big dinner of spicy Indian food, no matter how excellent, may be unwise the evening before a longish trek) ...

Norwottuck Rail Trail Milepost GPS Coordinates

Latitude Longitude Remarks
42:19:47 072:27:49 Catherine Arnold Trail starting point
42:20:33 072:29:15 Norwottuck Rail Trail (NRT) start
42:21:12 072:30:02 NRT milepost #1
42:21:56 072:30:39 NRT #2
42:21:59 072:31:43 NRT #3
42:21:20 072:32:25 NRT #4
42:21:05 072:33:33 NRT #5
42:20:50 072:34:40 NRT #6
42:20:35 072:35:46 NRT #7
42:20:20 072:36:55 NRT #8
42:20:06 072:37:17 NRT terminus, near exit 19 of US Interstate Hwy 91


- Wednesday, June 30, 2004 at 12:37:33 (EDT)


Challenge Grant Fiction

"Call now! --- for the next half hour all your donations will be matched by a contribution from X, so we'll get twice the money." That's a frequent refrain during fund-raisers for various charities, noble or otherwise. It's also a lie. Would X really withhold part of a voluntary gift because some anonymous person happened not to be listening, or not to be near a phone, or not to be able to get through to the switchboard? Unlikely --- in the same way that time-limited video-shopping super-sales (for the next three minutes, only $29.95!) are illusory.

Perhaps promotional gimmicks can be forgiven if done in a good cause --- but they cheapen the environment of discourse and encourage sloppy thinking among listeners ...

(see also Dishonor Among Thieves (20 Jun 2004), ... )


- Tuesday, June 29, 2004 at 13:11:27 (EDT)


Plague of Emoticons

In ordinary prose an open parenthesis is, naturally and always, accompanied by a closing one (e.g., in a parenthetical aside). The same need for symmetry holds for mathematical expressions, where "(" and ")" control the order of operations --- (y+1)/(x-3) --- and also serve to show the inputs (arguments) for a function --- sin(z)/cos(z).

But in computer programming the balancing of parentheses is infinitely more crucial. Software with unpaired brackets simply won't compile. Input-stream interpreters hang, indefinitely, while awaiting a matching paren. Parser stacks grow without limit. Systems fail.

And that, in lay terms, explains the ever-increasing slowness and unreliability of the Internet during recent years. Prior to 1982 the amount of imbalance between "(" and ")" was manageable. Then the "smiley" was invented. As its usage spread all ordinary means of restoring network integrity --- error-trapping, stack-popping, rebooting, etc. --- have become overwhelmed. The exponentially-increasing flood of ":-)" and its ilk now threatens to destroy the world-wide web and, in some scenarios, all computers which have ever been attached to it.

What can be done to halt this digital disaster? Automatic generation of opposing parentheses (by multinational supercomputer centers) won't work, according to the best simulations --- there isn't enough bandwidth. Nor will the adoption of right-to-left languages (Arabic, Hebrew, etc.), or the use of zombie denial-of-service spam-attack technology. The asymmetry is too great, and growing too rapidly.

The only answer: beginning immediately, as per orders of the International Internet Infrastructure Cabal (I3C), instead of right-handed ":-)" smileys all whimsical messaging must use left-handed "(-:" symbology. This change will be enforced at the TCP/IP router level, where all packets of the wrong handedness will be destroyed.

When balance has again been achieved --- probably within the next 18 months --- Asian-style symmetric emoticons such as "(^_^)" and "(^.^)" will be mandated. Besides preserving the world's computer systems this change will cure most cases of neck strain, which physiological analysis confirms to have been caused by tipping the head repeatedly toward the same side in order to read unbalanced smiley symbols.

Start practicing now: (-: (-; (-: (-; (-: (-; (-: (-; (-: (-; (-: ...


- Monday, June 28, 2004 at 09:04:41 (EDT)


Empty Shelves

A doctrinaire visitor from a Marxist nation is not impressed by the vast quantities of merchandise on display at a shopping mall. "Under capitalism" s/he says, "workers are exploited --- they are not paid the value of what they produce, and so the stores are full of things which they cannot afford to buy. Under communism we do not have that problem!"

(an old joke, paraphrased from something seen in Reason magazine ca. 1982 ... )


- Sunday, June 27, 2004 at 06:27:48 (EDT)


First Year, Worst Year

An encouraging thought (adapted from a comment by Larry Gassen about ultramarathon running):

Your first year is the worst possible indication of how you'll do in the long term. Your second year is the second-worst --- and so forth.

Precisely the same rule applies to education, writing a journal, learning a musical instrument, marriage, ...

(see also Ten Thousand Hours (20 Sep 2001), ... )


- Friday, June 25, 2004 at 05:58:55 (EDT)


Proofs and Refutations

Proofs and Refutations: The Logic of Mathematical Discovery by Imre Lakatos (1977) is a delightful book that I clearly need to read again (and again; many tnx to GdM for recommending it some years ago). Lakatos explores, through parable and dialog, the sources of truth in mathematics: why definitions necessarily evolve over time, which forces drive the search for theorems, and where good hypotheses come from. It's all done via a meditation on Euler's Formula, a deceptively simple relationship between the number of edges, vertices (corners), and faces (sides) for a solid polyhedron: Vertices - Edges + Faces = 2. (Try it for various examples: a cube has 8 vertices, 12 edges, and 6 faces, and 8-12+6=2; a classic pyramid has 5 vertices, 8 edges, and 5 faces, and 5-8+5=2; etc.)

But that formula breaks down sometimes --- when shapes have holes in them, for instance, or if a polyhedron is made of pieces stuck together in certain funny ways. Precisely why the theorem breaks down, and how to repair and extend it, are key themes of Lakatos's book. And the same principles of knowledge and creativity apply to areas outside of mathematics.

"Seek simplicity and distrust it," as Alfred North Whitehead famously said. And as mothers everywhere have admonished, "Clean your plate!" --- a metaphor for one of Lakatos's precepts, that one must always strive to get as much as possible from the inputs to a theorem. Waste not, want not ...

(see also Great Ideas (3 May 1999), Complexity From Simplicity (5 Aug 1999), Science And Pseudoscience (6 Oct 2001), No Final Answers (11 Mar 2002), High Precision (16 Aug 2002), ... )


- Thursday, June 24, 2004 at 06:22:15 (EDT)


Late Spring Steps

My tired old Macintosh iBook is almost ready to go out to pasture (the screen intermittently goes black, the CD-ROM drive door won't latch shut, the letters are worn off of many of the keycaps, and the battery won't hold a charge for more than 20 minutes) so I'm in the process of configuring a new Mac laptop. It's more than twice as fast, has four times the disk space, and cost a bit less ... but there are now the usual incompatibilities to fix, plus the need to transfer old files and get rid of trash ... so meanwhile, some quick notes on recent runs through the woods:

Long Slow Wet Cool

(11 June) --- 19 miles, 228 minutes --- Paulette is having lunch with a friend in Rockville, so I hitch a ride to near the intersection of Randolph Road and Rock Creek and jog half a dozen miles north from there to Lake Needwood, then turn around and proceed down the trail to Che^z ... along the way I spy a medium-large cottontail bunny-rabbit, a small chipmunk, and a group of four large damp deer stomping through the brush, as well as hosts of dead and dying locusts (cicada noise level is down to "1" on my subjective scale) ... rain and cold weather help tremendously: 16 measured miles along RCT (marker posts 9-14-3) confirm the ~12 min/mi pace (including some major delays in crossing major roads) ... I slow down on the final uphill through Walter Reed Annex ... perhaps I'm too old (or too undertrained) to do this sort of impromptu long(ish) run only 2 days after an 11 miler ... but feet and knees feel fine at the end ... I celebrate with a big bowl of instant mashed potatoes ...

Thunder and Lightning Bugs

(15 June) --- 6+ miles, 64 minutes --- neighborhood loop, Georgetown Branch Trail to MitP 24 - 23 - 22, then on to Rock Creek Trail 3 and home ... early evening between lines of thunderstorms, warm and humid, only a few raindrops along the way ... both MitP measured miles 9:59 ... no walk breaks, overall a much brisker pace than I usually can manage ... many robins, one heron (or crane?), and several fireflies ...

Ritual Ablutions

(19 June) --- 11 miles, 117 minutes --- from home via WRx's mermaidelicious fountain to Rock Creek #3, then via MitP 22-26 to Bethesda, and trackback to ^zero along Georgetown Branch, ~8-10am ... measured miles average 10:42 during first part and 10:24 for the final four, including a blitz 9:27 ... no walking, but I do stop at three fountains to pour pints of water over my head, and that plus lower humidity and occasional breezes make the jog quite pleasant ... ca. mile 6 a terrified gray vole scurries across my path, granting me good luck ...

Solstice Purple Line Loop

(20 June) --- 4+ miles, 54 minutes --- from home to WRx, orbit the mermaidelightful fountain, then walk/jog a hilly zig-zag circuit along the "Inner Purple Line" trail through the woods, doing my part to keep the pathway trampled down --- the poison ivy is scary, both the little shrubs and the giant hairy vines, bigger than my arm, that climb up the old oaks ... dragonflies flit near Rock Creek ... a sudden crack! makes me look up and I glimpse a great bird, 6-foot wingspan, soar away as a head-sized chunk of bark from an ancient dead tree begins to fall from on high ... thornbushes scrape my thighs ... late-afternoon sunbeams stab through the foliage --- whenever one catches the corner of my eye, violet afterimages appear and I think that I'm glimpsing purple blazes on the trees ... navigation becomes a tricky game, as I lose the trail at intervals but always manage to rediscover it, though sometimes only after a pause to scout about ...


- Tuesday, June 22, 2004 at 20:20:48 (EDT)


Classic Corrigendum

My favorite erratum of all time: in 1977, whilst browsing the Journal of the Chinese Academy of Sciences in the Caltech library, I saw a little slip of paper tucked into one issue correcting a mistake in an earlier volume. It read as follows:

In the article "Devote Every Effort to Running Successfully Socialist Research Institutes" (Scientia Sinica, v. XIX, n. 5) the phrase "arch unrepentant capitalist-roader in the Party Teng Hsiao-ping" should read "Teng Hsiao-ping."

(Teng had been recently rehabilitated.) Alas, somebody else beat me in sending it to The New Yorker...

(many thanks to Adam Safir [1] for reminding me of this, and for teaching me the word "corrigendum" ...)


- Monday, June 21, 2004 at 21:05:55 (EDT)


Dishonor Among Thieves

When somebody makes a demand tied to a violent threat --- e.g., holds a gun to a hostage's head, says "Your money or your life", orders a kidnapping victim to cooperate, etc. --- what's the right response? Some years ago it seemed (at least) that there was a correlation between criminal words and deeds. More recently, however, that correlation seems to have vanished.

Maybe the tragic-but-optimal reaction now is:

"You say that if I do this then you won't do that --- but the connection is extremely indirect and goes through you, and you could do it anyway, as people like you often have done lately. Why should I believe you and obey you, when you've broken other promises, especially the tacit social one not to assault?"

We're in a bad situation: the old game-theoretic optimum has broken down, and "mutual assured destruction" isn't working any more ...

(see also Defensive Questions (12 May 2000), Opaque Justice (29 Jan 2002), Dangerous Phrase (21 Apr 2003), ... )


- Sunday, June 20, 2004 at 08:39:34 (EDT)


Varieties of Not Caring

Long long ago I read (probably ca. 1967 in Analog, a science-fiction 'zine) that brain-wave measurements of monks showed fascinatingly distinct responses to external stimuli. Hindu adepts deep in meditation had no mental reaction to sudden noise or a flash of light. Buddhists, in contrast, seemed to perceive a disturbance --- their EKGs spiked --- but then they immediately "let it go" and returned to a basal state of calm. Interestingly different, if true ...


- Saturday, June 19, 2004 at 12:55:32 (EDT)


Newsworthy Mathematics

Heard on a national radio network broadcast yesterday morning:

"Oil prices closed at $37 a barrel. That's still below $40 a barrel."

Imagine applying this kind of in-depth quantitative analysis to other issues --- election results, interest rates, demographic trends, or maybe even the weather forecast! (Wake me up, please, as soon as 37 begins to exceed 40 ...)

(see also Formula Story (15 Aug 2001), Dept Of Redundancy Dept (19 Apr 2003), Unimaginable Timelessness (225 Apr 2003), Semiotic Arsenal (20 Nov 2003), ... )


- Friday, June 18, 2004 at 06:17:24 (EDT)


Leet Obit

DW recently lent me his copy of Best of The Perl Journal: Games, Diversions, and Perl Culture, a charming volume edited by Jon Orwant. The chapter "TPJ Cover Art: From Camels to Spam" by Alan Blount displays the magazine's covers for issues 1-20 (Blount was the photographer/designer) accompanied by witty commentary. Issue #16, Winter 1999, featured the actual tombstone of poet e. e. cummings (carved unfortunately in all-caps by the stonemason). Blount writes:

I wonder if, with the current SMS/IM aesthetic, we'll start getting "hr li3x william denny aka b1tr00tr, once l33t, now ded. peece out beeatch."

That "... once l33t, now ded ..." made me cackle. (translation: "... once elite, now dead ...")

But reality is ever better. Looking around for other "leet" obituaries I found an entertaining mini-biography of William Leroy Norton, alias John F. Bedford (1851-1921) --- known affectionately by the nickname "Leet" (see [1]). The article is by Leet's grand-nephew, Ben N. Benson M.D., and tells a tangled tale of crime, imprisonment, escape, exile, and false identity --- the story of a 19th Century l33t haxor ...

(see also Leet Speek (10 Jun 2004), ... )


- Thursday, June 17, 2004 at 06:18:20 (EDT)


How To Fix It

Computer programs have become so complex that if one breaks it is essentially impossible to repair. An expert comrade (DW) offers the following prescription to follow when something goes wrong and software fails:

  1. Reboot the computer and try it again; if that doesn't work, then
  2. Reinstall the software, reboot, and try it again; if that doesn't work, then
  3. Reinstall the operating system, reinstall the software, reboot, and try it again.

He then observes, "The last is (almost) guaranteed to work most of the time."


- Tuesday, June 15, 2004 at 21:24:49 (EDT)


Hardy-Littlewood Rules

My correspondence has been suffering lately --- I've become lazy (some might say lazier) about repying to letters, and have sadly lost touch with a number of friends. But recently I felt relieved when I saw the guidelines that mathematicians G. H. Hardy and J. E. Littlewood postulated for their extraordinarily productive collaboration during the first half of the 20th Century:

  1. When one wrote to the other, it was completely indifferent whether what he wrote was right or wrong.
  2. When one received a letter from the other, he was under no obligation to read it, let alone answer it.
  3. Although it did not really matter if they both simultaneously thought about the same detail, still it was preferable that they should not do so.
  4. It was quite indifferent if one of them had not contributed the least bit to the contents of a paper under their common name.

... good rules, the result of which is less guilt and more communication!

And maybe something similar could work for writing in a journal: don't worry about precision, don't think about readers, don't focus on a single topic, quote shamelessly, ...

(see also Writing Rewards (19 Jun 2001), Correspondence Principle (4 Mar 2003), Diary Benefits (29 Feb 2004), ... )


- Monday, June 14, 2004 at 05:37:58 (EDT)


Explorers Club

The point of publishing a scientific paper? Sure, it's to get a ticket punched, enhance a career, attract a grant, or otherwise make a personal profit. But the larger purpose is the same as that of leaving a rope on a steep mountain climb, or marking a path through the woods with cairns of rocks or a blazes on trees. It's to make the journey easier for those who follow --- so they can avoid blind alleys and themselves go farther, eventually into new territory where they in turn can establish routes to help their successors.

Back in the mid-1970's, when I was in grad school in southern California, an older gentleman invited me to a meeting of The Explorers Club [1]. I can't recall who it was, or how I met him, or why he thought I might be interested in hearing a lecture by some guy who had tramped around in some obscure wilderness. I certainly don't recollect the content of the talk. I do remember being puzzled to hear that the Club invited certain scientists to join. Now, a few decades later, it makes more sense ...


- Saturday, June 12, 2004 at 19:10:37 (EDT)


Quiescent Thunderbolts

As of today the Silver Spring - Takoma Thunderbolts [1], my extended-neighborhood amateur baseball team, hold a won-2 lost-2 record for Clark Griffith League play. A fifth encounter hangs suspended in limbo, the Tbolts leading Reston 2-0 after six innings on 9 June "... when the sprinkler system at the field came on and could not be turned off before the field became unplayable ...". That game will be concluded ("sprinklers willing") in a few days.

Alas, I haven't been privileged to witness any Thunderbolt victories this year. The three home-field contests thus far have been rather the opposite ...

Wicked Weather

(2 June 2004) In pre-season exposition play versus the Maryland Hurricanes, louring clouds are the prime attraction: gray-green and ominous, scudding overhead so fast that the stadium lights appear to be toppling. Turbulent winds make for erratic pitching on both sides. Three Hurricane hurlers garner 11 strike-outs while walking 10; the four Tbolt tossers --- Bill Konecny, Tom Ballenger, Mike Anton, and Ben Meador --- achieve an incredible 17 K's but give up 12 bases-on-balls. Rain sprinkles the players briefly during the first inning; later lightning flickers in the distance. A monster moon, nearly full, rises between cloud layers in mid-game behind center field. The lead see-saws for the first few innings but then the Hurricanes start to storm, eventually producing their 11-2 win.

Cicada Backstop

(3 June) Opening Day versus the Maryland Bombers features good pitching. The Tbolts see Matt Peterson, Justin McClanahan, and Jim Belt on the mound, who between them make 14 strikeouts and give up only 3 walks. But strong fielding by the Bombers neutralizes the Thunderbolt bats: 13 hits produce only 1 run. The visitors cluster 4 of their 6 hits in the fifth to produce 3 runs, and then score again in the ninth. Dozens of seventeen-year locusts cling to the net behind home plate until the second inning, when a foul tip blasts back to rattle them loose. The final score is 4-1 Bombers.

Senatorial Privilege

(10 June) Heavy rains soak the field and preempt play on Saturday 5 June, so the next home game occurs on a Thursday evening when the Vienna Senators come to town, and also go to town. Visiting pitcher Ryan Belanger has a perfect game for the first four innings and maintains a shutout until he leaves after six, while his teammates get good wood on the ball repeatedly and bring home 6 runs in the fourth and 4 more in the sixth. Thunderbolt fielders execute sweet double plays in the fifth and seventh innings, but closing time finds them behind 14-3.

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


- Friday, June 11, 2004 at 11:24:20 (EDT)


Leet Speek

Online slang nowadays includes quite a bit of substitution --- e.g., "x" for "k", "3" for "e" --- as well as transposition, omission, and outright misspelling. Around our house we occasionally have a good time with this sort of thing. The other day somebody-who-shall-remain-nameless announced, "I'm going upstairs to haxor my boxor!"

When someone else seemed puzzled I hazarded a translation, "Maybe he's going to change his underwear?"

(more properly: haxor my boxor = hack my box = program my computer)


- Thursday, June 10, 2004 at 06:02:19 (EDT)


Jogs and Ambles

Plantar fasciitis? Sounds like an agrarian-totalitarian political movement! But it's a painful foot condition, an inflammation of the tissues on the sole --- one of the few aches that I haven't (as far as I know) experienced after over-enthusiastic running.

For the past couple of years, though, I've had twinges on the bottom of my left foot, sort of clicky-shifts among the bones behind the lesser toes (metatarsals?). They're most noteworthy when I walk down stairs or put weight on the outside of the ball of the foot, particularly in sandals or other shoes without arch supports. So far the phenomenon hasn't interfered with my rambles around the neighborhood. Clips adapted from Brian Tresp's running blog [1] during the past fortnight:

Geese and Rainbows

(28 May 2004) 6+ miles, ~63+ minutes --- back from Texas late last night, after 5 days of no running while we visit family and buy a new violin for daughter ... orchestra rehearsal in Falls Church VA this evening gives me a chance to try some "speedwork" around the George C. Marshall High School track, alternating "fast" laps (~1:55) with half-lap recovery walks (~2:00) ... 15 geese in the infield eye me suspiciously as they forage ... thunderstorms pass by, leaving fragments of rainbows in northeast (a double) and southeast (single but brighter and taller) ...

W&OD Trail Mix

(29 May) 7 miles, 84 minutes --- daughter has Saturday morning orchestra rehearsal in Falls Church VA, so GPS-equipped I head south from Route 7 in search of the W&OD Trail ... foolishly venture through some woods near the Beltway (lots of poison ivy --- ugh!), emerge in sombody's back yard, and eventually find the trail near milepost 8.5 ... three measured miles along it and then back to the orchestra site ... I acquire latitudes and longitudes of four W&OD markers to add to my GPS coordinate collection ...

Off Road Vehicle

(30 May) 6 miles, 62 minutes --- 3 measured miles along Silgo Creek Trail at 9:45 pace ... from home, jog by Forest Glen Park where early this morning my wife reports a car ran off the road and hit a tree (the car is towed away by the time I get there at 9am, but the tree looks hurt and there is damage to the concrete drain at the roadside) ... lots of lady runners on SCT today ... male cardinal flies straight at me, like a scarlet bullet ... cicadas are relatively quiet ...

MINI Cooper Sighting

(31 May) 5+ miles, 56 minutes --- evening loop (WRx/RCT/GB) ... cicada rating "7" (loud but not deafening) on Rock Creek Trail near MitP 22.5 ... middle mile 10:02 but humidity (and running 4 days in a row) slows me down thereafter ... cute MINI Cooper "S" model on Coquelin Terrace at MitP 23.9, gray with white top ...

5k Race

(4 June) 3.1 miles, 24:30 --- a 5 km race (note: course not certified) at my office, won by some youngster in a bit over 16 minutes ... for me it was slightly faster than my 8 min/mi goal, but ~45 seconds behind last year's result ... excuses: a year older; a little heavier; absence of whip-cracking coach to push me ... followed a pretty lady most of the way (which probably explains why I wasn't slower!) ... first half 11:58, second half 12:32 ... optimal weather, cool and cloudy ...

Dry Wet Ramble

(5 June) 11+ miles, 123 minutes --- nice rainy run, cool and comfortable ... Daughter is starting in the National Orchestral Institute [2] at the University of Maryland, so I ride with Wife to College Park on a mission to deliver some forgotten items, then jog home via Northwest Branch and Sligo Creek trails ... my water bottle is inadvertently left behind in Wife's MINI Cooper, so I have nothing to drink for the first hour other than suck on my moustache ... after ~6 miles I find a fountain in the park on SCT upstream of New Hampshire, and half an hour later get another drink at the tennis courts near SCT and Colesville Rd. ... in Parklawn Park just south of East-West Highway I startle a pair of long-necked birds and they lumber into flight --- perhaps they are juvenile Great Blue Herons? --- they have skinny gray bodies, long necks, long legs, and mostly black heads with white stripes ... the paths today are littered with the aftermath of cicadasex and treesex: thousands of locust corpses, plus bushels of fallen stamens/pistils/anthers/etc. ... wooden bridges over the streams are especially slippery/slimy ... Brood X of the 17-year cicada is now on the decline: the volume of chirping is down to ~4 on my subjective scale of loudness, even in the most woodsy areas ...

Cap Cres 5k

(6 June) 3.1 miles, 30:30 --- Comrade KS and I have a good time at today's MCRRC [3] Capital Crescent 5 km ... we average a hair under 10 min/mi pace, a PR for KS and particularly strong since he did a 5k "Race for the Cure" only yesterday. Cool weather, superb organization, great post-race food ... bravo! to the organizers & volunteers ...

Too Wet and Too Warm

(9 June) 11+ miles, 127 minutes --- RCT/NIH/GB circuit (see Three New Loop Runs) 7:30-9:30am on an already-too-humid morning ... survived only by pouring a liter of cold water over my head every ~3 miles and soaking my shirt before setting off to the next fountain ... measured miles included a 9:46 (#3) and a 9:50 (#8) but final three miles were at a wilted ~12 minute pace ...


- Wednesday, June 09, 2004 at 15:38:27 (EDT)


Money Ball

Moneyball: the Art of Winning an Unfair Game is Michael Lewis's thoughtful 2003 exploration of why the Oakland Athletics have done so well in spite of spending less money on players than almost any other team in major league baseball. It's a highly readable book (I must thank my nephew Luke and brother Keith for recommending it to me recently) but it suffers from a severe shortage of equations. Nevertheless, Moneyball includes many words of great wisdom.

... from Chapter Two ("How to Find a Ballplayer") on the practical value of rational behavior:

Paul [DePodesta] wanted to look at stats because the stats offered him new ways of understanding amateur players. He had graduated from college with distinction in economics, but his interest, discouraged by the Harvard economics department, had been on the uneasy border between psychology and economics. He was fascinated by irrationality, and the opportunities it created in human affairs for anyone who resisted it. He was just the sort of person who might have made an easy fortune in finance, but the market for baseball players, in Paul's view, was far more interesting than anything Wall Street offered. There was, for starters, the tendency of everyone who actually played the game to generalize wildly from his own experience. People always thought their own experience was typical when it wasn't. There was also a tendency to be overly influenced by a guy's most recent performance: what he did last was not necessarily what he would do next. Thirdly --- but not lastly --- there was the bias toward what people saw with their own eyes, or thought they had seen. The human mind played tricks on itself when it relied exclusively on what it saw, and every trick it played was a financial opportunity for someone who saw through the illusion to the reality. There was a lot you couldn't see when you watched a baseball game.

... from Chapter Five ("The Jeremy Brown Blue Plate Special") on the cost of prejudice:

... The inability to envision a certain kind of person doing a certain kind of thing because you've never seen someone who looks like him do it before is not just a vice. It's a luxury. What begins as a failure of the imagination ends as a market inefficiency: when you rule out an entire class of people from doing a job simply by their appearance, you are less likely to find the best person for the job.

... from Chapter Seven ("Giambi's Hole") on the importance of objectivity in understanding evidence:

... I'm watching the whole game, and responding the way an ordinary fan responds. I'm looking for story lines and dramatic events and other fuel for my emotions. They're watching fragments --- not the game itself but derivatives of the game --- and responding, so far as I can tell, not at all. Finally, I say something about it.
"It's looking at process rather than outcomes," Paul says. "Too many people make decisions based on outcomes rather than process."

(see also Science Versus Stamp Collecting (20 Jun 2000), No Final Answers (11 Mar 2002), Facts From Figures (17 Mar 2002), Basement Worries (15 Jun 2002), Leonard Koppett (23 Jul 2003), Modern Phrenology (19 Oct 2003), Bad Arithmetic (24 Feb 2004), ... )


- Monday, June 07, 2004 at 06:06:47 (EDT)


Idea Gardening

In many fields the challenge nowadays is not coming up with good hypotheses; they're straightforward to generate, and can even be produced automatically (e.g., via "data mining" algorithms and analyses). The trick is to prune the unnecessary, suboptimal, and distracting --- so that really good ideas can stand out and be studied. As in horticulture ...

(see also Good Ideas (20 Jul 1999), ... )


- Sunday, June 06, 2004 at 06:21:20 (EDT)


Birdless Silence

Certain phrases resonate for me with unnatural force. A current fave: "birdless silence" --- originally perhaps from Philip Larkin's poem "Next, Please" (1951) which concludes:

     Only one ship is seeking us, a black-
     Sailed unfamiliar, towing at her back
     A huge and birdless silence. In her wake
     No waters breed or break.

The phrase later appears in a Bob Geldof song ("Huge Birdless Silence", 1992), and echoes mythic-indirectly in a Counting Crows lyric ("Rain King", 1993, Adam Duritz):

     When I think of heaven
     Deliver me in a black-winged bird
     I think of flying down into a sea of pens and feathers
     And all other instruments of faith and sex and God
          in the belly of a black-winged bird.

Last week, delighted was I to spy in Frank Copley's translation of Vergil's Æneid (Book VI):

     There was a cave, deep, huge, and gaping wide,
     rocky, guarded by night-black pools and woods;
     above it hardly a bird could wing its way
     safely, such were the vapors that poured forth
     from that black throat, and rose toward a heaven's vault
     (and hence the Greeks have named it "Birdless Cavern").

The cave is called Avernus, in Greek Aornum --- meaning "birdless" ...

(see also Slow Run Summaries (17 Feb 2004) ... )


- Saturday, June 05, 2004 at 09:53:14 (EDT)


Round Rock Express

Nolan Ryan, one of the greatest pitchers of all time, owns a minor league team: the Round Rock Express. It's the AA affiliate of the Houston Astros (and will be a AAA team next year). Last week when Paulette & Gray & I were visiting family in Texas, my brother Keith and his son Luke took my mother and me to see an Express game --- the first baseball that I've been privileged to watch this year. But first, a recipe from the experience:

Fried Twinkies --- take a pair of creme-filled sponge cakes, skewer them longitudinally on a stick, freeze them, dip them in corn-dog batter, and deep-fat fry them ... zowie!

Coming back to Earth (while waiting for the arteries to unclog): the game was a fine one, though it didn't start out that way for the home team. Play commenced shortly after 7pm on a warm spring evening, with a first-quarter moon hanging high overhead. The second batter for the visiting San Antonio Missions, Hunter Brown, homered to knock in his predecessor who had walked to first base. Another San Antonio run followed in the third inning, and two more in the fifth. At that point several spectators near us left, perhaps figuring that the Round Rock seven-game winning streak was about to be broken.

That's when the Express began to roll. They batted completely around plus one, scoring six runs thanks to sharp play including a perfectly executed bunt by bottom-of-the-lineup center fielder Charlton Jimerson. When the dust from sliding into the various bases had settled Round Rock was in the lead; the team added another run to its total in the seventh. San Antonio had no luck during the final four innings, in spite of some sharply hit balls --- including a line drive by John Lindsey in the eighth, caught brilliantly by Express third baseman Junior Zamora.

And meanwhile, besides Fried Twinkies we entertained ourselves with peanuts, funnel cake, pizza, sandwiches, sodas, and a shave ice (aka snow cone). Ah, baseball season has begun ...

(see also Keys To The Kingdom (1 Jul 2001), Tbolt Monkeys On My Back (19 Jul 2002), Summer Ball 2002 (3 Sep 2002), Keeping Score (13 Jun 2003), More Tbolt Snapshots (12 Jul 2003), Tbolt Signoff 2003 (3 Aug 2003), Tricounty League (14 Aug 2003),Frederick Keys Baseball 2003 (7 Sep 2003), ... )


- Friday, June 04, 2004 at 05:39:19 (EDT)



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!