^zhurnal 0.46

Howdy, pilgrim! You're in volume 0.46 of the ^zhurnal — see ZhurnalyWiki on zhurnaly.com for a parallel "live" Wiki edition; see Zhurnal and Zhurnaly for quick clues as to what this is all about. (Briefly: it's the journal of ^z = Mark Zimmermann ... previous volume = 0.45 ... complete list at bottom of page ... send comments & suggestions to "z (at) his (dot) com" ... tnx!)

Torn Toe Tendon Repair

(Warning!—this page contains relatively bloodless but anatomically detailed photos of toe surgery. Those of a delicate sensibility may prefer to avert their eyes or turn off image loading. Trail runners, on the other hand, will be fascinated at a glimpse of the mechanical engineering hidden inside one of their favorite digits.)
toe tendon repair before Late in the evening of 30 March 05 I tripped in my own living room and ripped my left big toe half off. Compared to the chafing I've experienced during some long runs there wasn't much pain, but since then I've been under house arrest with my foot imprisoned in a big, hard, velcro-festooned black boot. On 11 April a new friend, my podiatric surgeon, repaired the torn extensor tendon. Dr. A. B. has a great sense of humor and a contagious enthusiasm for her work. She also takes fine photographs. (On the left, a "before" picture of the toe. On the right, fifteen minutes later, an "after" image showing the repaired tendon. Click to enlarge.) toe tendon repair after

(see also Bump In The Night (31 Mar 2005), Toe Transplant Project Zeta (1 Apr 2005), Down With The Bad (18 Apr 2005), ...)

- Thursday, May 05, 2005 at 12:38:03 (EDT)

Two Fluid Model

A decade ago I was reading a chess book, author and title now forgotten, about how to improve one's game. The writer proposed a neat mental model: skill equals the sum of two liquids with different rates of evaporation. (Envision something like water and alcohol.)

Study and practice produce these fluids; with the passage of time, they fade away. "Cramming" before a competition can improve ability, but most quick gains are also quickly lost. Different people generate these two substances at different rates. Some folks learn slowly but retain what they've picked up longer, for instance. Some have a native genius that lets them progress with explosive speed to a high level of competence, but then have a hard time adding to that talent base. Some modes of learning are biased more toward making one liquid and not the other.

This two-fluid image is a powerful, highly extensible metaphor. And the same model applies to lots of other areas in life—such as physical fitness, or studying a foreign language, or maybe even figuring out how to make a long-term relationship work ...

(cf. Learning Investment (11 Feb 2000), Ten Thousand Hours (20 Sep 2001), Way Ahead (18 Jun 2003), ...)

- Wednesday, May 04, 2005 at 07:55:18 (EDT)

Free Trope

"Who steals my metaphor steals trash ..."

(cf. Mines Of Metaphor (28 Sep 1999), Absurd Juxtaposition (21 Oct 1999), Kenning Construction Kit (17 Nov 1999), Coherent Interference (28 Dec 1999), Caissic Metaphors (8 Jan 2000), Public Domain (13 Feb 2003), Philosophical Bumpersticker (23 May 2004), ...)

- Tuesday, May 03, 2005 at 08:48:52 (EDT)

Seven Basic Plots

Michiko Kakutani reviews books for the New York Times. She's usually good—but when she's bad she's great! (By "bad", I mean tearing into something she doesn't like.) Kakutani recently critiqued The Seven Basic Plots, a thick new work by Christoper Booker that attempts to characterize all of storytelling. As a sucker for parlor-game taxonomy I must salute his list:
  1. Overcoming the Monster
  2. Rags to Riches
  3. The Quest
  4. Voyage and Return
  5. Rebirth
  6. Comedy
  7. Tragedy

... even if, as Kakutani suggests, the analysis is derivative, biased, or obtuse. At least Booker is trying to bring some order to the world of words!

Pursuing this theme further, I find that the Internet Public Library [1] offers multiple answers to the frequently asked reference question "What are the basic plots in literature?" Paraphrasing loosely, they range from the One:

  1. Conflict

... true, but less than helpful—through the Three:

  1. Happy ending
  2. Unhappy ending
  3. No ending

... but there are not "plots", in my opinion—through the Seven:

  1. man vs. nature
  2. man vs. man
  3. man vs. environment
  4. man vs. technology
  5. man vs. supernatural
  6. man vs. self
  7. man vs. god

... promising, but distressingly non-orthogonal—to the Twenty, credited to Ronald B. Tobias:

  1. Quest
  2. Adventure
  3. Pursuit
  4. Rescue
  5. Escape
  6. Revenge
  7. The Riddle
  8. Rivalry
  9. Underdog
  10. Temptation
  11. Metamorphosis
  12. Transformation
  13. Maturation
  14. Love
  15. Forbidden Love
  16. Sacrifice
  17. Discovery
  18. Wretched Excess
  19. Ascension
  20. Descension

That last is quite an excellent list, detailed enough to be useful but not overwhelming in length. (The IPL does offer one more, a rather disorganized and uninteresting set of 36 or 37—severe overkill in my judgment.)

Now, taking the initial letters of the Tobias Top Twenty Themes, can anybody make a good anagram out of QAPRERTRUTMTMLFSDWAD? ("Dr. Trump warms aft Q.E., Ltd." isn't good enough. Nor is "Mutt perqs dwarf Dr. Malt.") Or maybe better as a mnemonic would be to rearrange the 20 and add words to make a little story to connect them?

(cf. Coincidental Taxonomy (19 Oct 2001), Coincidental Taxonomy 2 (14 May 2002), Ars Magna (27 Sep 2002), Swaying Musicians (30 Apr 2003), Harmonic Motel (23 Oct 2003), ...)

- Monday, May 02, 2005 at 12:59:39 (EDT)

Director of Optimal Performance

Some years ago an enthusiastic and well-intentioned boss sent all of us in the group to a one-day motivational class entitled "Achieving Sustained High Performance". I thought it was fun—a holiday from "real work", and a chance to kick back and think about life. But understandably enough, the compulsory nature of the course irked several of my comrades. They were never able to get into the mindless touchie-feelie spirit of the game, much less philosophize.

That new-age-style training camp came to mind recently when the press reported that the New York Yankees, baseball's richest club (and reputedly the third most valuable franchise in world sports, behind Manchester United and the Washington Redskins), have hired a guru with the title "Director of Optimal Performance". His assignment: to build up the players' self-esteem and mental strength, now that steroids are illegal.

The best part of my "Sustained High Performance" class came in the afternoon, when each of us had to present a characteristic oxymoron—a pair of apparently-contradictory words that we could label ourselves with. I played it safe with the mundane and polysyllabic "dependable creativity". (Ugh!)

To focus their individual and collective mana the Yankees need personal oxymorons too. May I propose, to get the ball into play:

Given modern professional baseball salaries, the word "free" in that last pair is particularly inapposite ...

(cf. Big Bad Boxes (3 Dec 2002), Coarse Correction (29 Mar 2003), ...)

- Sunday, May 01, 2005 at 14:15:00 (EDT)

Modern Medicine

My recent experience with the marvels of physic suggests that not much has changed since Leo Tolstoy wrote in Book III, Part One, Chapter 15 of War and Peace:
Natasha's illness was so serious that, fortunately for her and for her parents, all thought of what had caused it—her conduct and the breaking off of her engagement—faded into the background. It was impossible for them to consider how far she was to blame for what had happened while she was so ill that she could not eat or sleep, was growing visibly thinner, coughing, and, as the doctors gave them to understand, was in danger. They could think of nothing but how to make her well again. Doctors came to see her singly and in consultation, talked a great deal in French, German, and Latin, criticized one another, prescribed the most diverse remedies applicable to every disease known to them, but the very simple idea never occurred to any of them that they could not know what Natasha was suffering from, as no illness afflicting any living person can ever be known, for each living being has his own peculiarities, and whatever his ailment, it is always peculiar to himself, a new, complex malady unknown to medicine—not a disease of the lungs, liver, skin, heart, nerves, and so on, as described in medical books, but a disease consisting of one of the innumerable combinations of the disorders of these organs. This simple thought could not occur to the doctors (any more than it could occur to a sorcerer that he cannot work charms) because the practice of medicine was their lifework, they received money for it, and had spent the best years of their lives in it. But the chief reason for this thought not entering their minds was that they saw they were unquestionably useful, which in fact they were, to the whole Rostov family. Their usefulness did not consist in making the patient swallow substances for the most part harmful (the harm being scarcely perceptible as they were administered in small doses), but they were useful, necessary, indispensible, because they satisfied a moral need of the patient and of those who loved her, which is why there will always be pseudohealers, wise women, homeopaths, and allopaths. They satisfied that eternal human need for hope of relief, for sympathy, for taking action, which is felt in time of suffering. They satisfied the eternal human need that is seen in its most elementary form in children—the need to have the hurt place rubbed. A child hurts himself and at once runs to the arms of his mother or nurse to have the hurt place kissed or rubbed. He cannot believe that the strongest and wisest of his people have no remedy for his pain. And the hope of relief and the mother's expression of sympathy while she rubs the bump comforts him. The doctors were of use to Natasha because they rubbed her "bobo" and assured her that it would soon be over if the coachman went to the chemist's in the Arbat and got some powders and pills in pretty boxes for a ruble and seventy kopecks, and if, without fail, she took these powders dissolved in boiled water at intervals of two hours, neither more nor less.

(from the Ann Dunnigan translation, 1968; cf. Truth In Battle (11 Feb 2001), You Are Extraordinary (7 Jul 2002), Ooze On Verst (22 Sep 2004), Untutored Voice (3 Nov 2004), Body Mnemonic (4 Dec 2004), Perfect Communication (14 Feb 2005), Ladder Of Life (10 Apr 2005), Beacon Of Hope (17 Apr 2005), ...)

- Friday, April 29, 2005 at 06:43:10 (EDT)

Go for Baroque

Another germ of a joke, with great potential but in need of polishing:
"If it ain't baroque, don't pitz it!"

... where "pitz" is musician slang for "pizzicato", a plucking technique on the violin.

(by my daughter Gray Dickerson; cf. So Funny (10 Aug 1999), Meta Joke (18 Oct 2001), Read Likely (4 Apr 2005), Ontology Recapitulates Philology (6 Apr 2005), ...)

- Thursday, April 28, 2005 at 15:35:49 (EDT)

Intellectual Product Placement

As I was rewatching the 1985 über-nerd flick Real Genius for the Nth time recently, my eyes were drawn to a thick book that the young protagonist was studying (ok, actually he had fallen asleep with his head on it while cramming for final exams). I peered at the screen ... I wondered ... I suspected ... and finally when the slumbering scholar woke and picked it up, I knew. It was Gravitation, the 1200+ page tome by Charles Misner, Kip Thorne, and John Archibald Wheeler.

Whoa! As an undergraduate in 1973 I saved my pennies and bought a hardback copy of that Big Black Book when it first came out. I began studying it before I went to Caltech and joined Professor Thorne's research group there. It taught me huge amounts of applied math, astrophysics, and general relativity. It's one of the finest textbooks ever written. For some years it was a major part of my life. Today it rests in a place of honor on the mantel.

Almost every identifiable object in a film nowadays is put there for advertising purposes, as a paid product placement. Imagine what might happen if great books—classics of literature, science, the arts—were surreptitiously planted in the backgrounds of popular movies ...

(see also Books To Consider (16 Apr 1999), Kip The Dragon (25 Mar 2000), College Collage 3 (29 Sep 2001), Real Genius (23 Jan 2003), ...)

- Wednesday, April 27, 2005 at 08:58:11 (EDT)

Piece of Cake

My Bump In The Night torn toe tendon (30 March 2005) means there's no running for me in the near future. To review the bidding for the past season of sallies through the woods and along the creeks, see:

In late January, when I foolishly signed up for several marathons and ultramarathons, I began pursuing a strategy I called "aggressive resting" between events. I noticed that my visible bruises tended to take 2-3 weeks to heal completely—and I theorized that invisible microbruises and other damage to joints, tendons, ligaments, and muscles required a similar length of time to repair.

Therefore I cut back radically on training, and trusted that whatever semblance of fitness that I may have acquired in prior months would persist long enough to see me through this season of long-distance madness. It mostly did—until catastrophe struck less than a fortnight before the Bull Run 50 miler of 9 April.

At this point only one outing remains to be reported:

(26 Mar 05) - 6+ miles, 68 minutes — Comrade Ken Swab and I enjoy a cool, damp morning in the Seneca State Park, thanks to the Montgomery County Road Runners Club's sponsorship of the "Piece of Cake" 10k race. We arrive early and Jim Rich recruits me to help with the quarter-mile and half-mile Young Runs that take place before the main event. My job is to be the pylon that the kids turn around at the midpoint of the race; I fulfill that function nervously but adequately.

Then it's our turn to run. Ken's goal is a steady ~11 min/mi, and we almost achieve that with splits of 11:00, 10:37, 11:22, 11:23, 10:16, and 11:00. Rolling hills and a couple of water stops account for most of the variance. Ken is fast on the downhill segments of the course; for my part, I mandate walk breaks every 5 minutes or so, especially on the steeper climbs. We encourage our fellow runners as we jog with them and discuss baseball, politics, baseball, training, baseball, our families, and baseball. Near the end of the race Ken skips and dances to Jimmy Buffet music coming from a friendly volunteer's car stereo system. I finish a nanosecond behind Ken and feel some small twinges in my left knee ... perhaps a sign that I need to rest yet more aggressively for the next couple of weeks?

Michelle Price, like me, wears a HAT Run cap today with quiet pride; we speak together briefly before the start. Karen Mathias jogs for much of the distance with Ken & me, but drops back during the final hills. She reports that she hasn't been training much lately and is just starting a return to racing. In the fifth mile I encounter Patricia Rich, who laughingly calls me a "Gross Runner"—an epithet which I wrinkle my brow over, until Patricia gently reminds me that I'm wearing bib number 144 this year. Near the 6 mile point Ken & I catch up to and chat with Wanda Walters. who comes in a few seconds behind us, perhaps after setting a slightly-too-brisk earlier pace. Christina Caravoulias, ultra-active racer, finishes almost five minutes in front of us; she tells me that she and Ken had a most excellent duel last week in the MCRRC "Super Sligo" 4 miler.

We eat (I score a piece of pound cake!), drink, visit, and then drive home, getting lost briefly on the winding roads of rural Montgomery County ...

- Tuesday, April 26, 2005 at 13:53:09 (EDT)

Let It Slide

Last week I was giving unsolicited advice to somebody due to have her first baby in a few months. Rule Number One, of course, is Read aloud. But the second rule, only slightly less important, is Learn what to let slide. So many things are, or become, irrelevant when there's a new member of the human family to take care of. (Prioritization is crucial at every other point in life too.)

Coincidentally, today Paulette had the movie Fight Club on the TV, as background accompaniment to her knitting project. I was delighted to catch a quote fresh to my ears:

"No fear. No distractions. The ability to let that which does not matter truly slide."

(cf. Read Aloud (20 Mar 2002), Ein Ben Stein (19 Sep 2002), Beneath Notice (23 May 2003), Fight Club (15 Jun 2003), Cut The Volume (5 Mar 2004) ...)

- Monday, April 25, 2005 at 19:27:24 (EDT)

Where We Are

Last August one day Garrison Keillor's Writer's Almanac features a poem by Stephen Dobyns titled "Where We Are (after Bede)". It begins with a scene from 14 centuries ago:
     A man tears a chunk of bread off the brown loaf, 
     then wipes the gravy from his plate. Around him
     at the long table, friends fill their mouths
     with duck and roast pork, fill their cups from 
     pitchers of wine. Hearing a high twittering, the man
     looks to see a bird---black with a white patch
     beneath its beak---flying the length of the hall, 
     having flown in by a window over the door. As straight
     as a taut string, the bird flies beneath the roofbeams, 
     as firelight flings its shadow against the ceiling. 

That electric image drives me to find its source: a report in Bede's Ecclesiastical History of England, Book 2, Chapter XIII, on the expedition in 627 AD to Northumbria by Saint Paulinus of York. At a meeting with the King of Northumbria one of the participants says:

"The present life of man, O King, seems to me, in comparison of that time which is unknown to us, like to the swift flight of a sparrow through the room wherein you sit at supper in winter, with your commanders and ministers, and a good fire in the midst, whilst the storms of rain and snow prevail abroad; the sparrow, I say, flying in at one door, and immediately out at another, whilst he is within, is safe from the wintry storm; but after a short space of fair weather, he immediately vanishes out of your sight, into the dark winter from which he had emerged. So this life of man appears for a short space, but of what went before, or what is to follow, we are utterly ignorant. ..."

A striking metaphor—made yet more vivid by the specifics that Dobyns paints into his poetic retelling. He concludes:

     ... This is where we are in history---to think
     the table will remain full; to think the forest will
     remain where we have pushed it; to think our bubble of
     good fortune will save us from the night---a bird flies in
     from the dark, flits across a lighted hall and disappears.

(translation of Bede by L. C. Jane from the 1903 Temple Classics edition; cf. Nimbus Halo Glory Aureole (15 Nov 2001), Writers Almanac (22 Aug 2003), Poetic Compression (27 Jan 2004), In My Journal (29 Jan 2005), ...)

- Sunday, April 24, 2005 at 07:48:01 (EDT)

Power Animalia

What's your Power Animal? Somehow the question arose, and I couldn't answer. What to do? Follow the advice of some random web pages! (Where else to go for authoritative knowledge?)

So I meditated, focused, visualized, projected, and otherwise opened my mind ... and what should materialize but a great white Swan. (Did it come to me because I had recently re-read Yeats's poem "Leda and the Swan"? No matter!)

The Swan, according to several truly reliable sources, is associated with mystics and poets, dreamers and philosophers. It represents grace and innocence. The Swan lives in both physical and spiritual planes, and symbolizes the balance between body and mind. How sweet!

Of course, every Power Animal epitomizes similarly positive attributes. There aren't any mythic creatures that embody laziness, fear, uncertainty, cowardice, or doubt—the qualities that, in my most realistic moments, I must admit dominate my persona.

Those who have seen Fight Club are now wondering how my Swan will do in a grudge match versus that film's totem creature, the Penguin. Results to follow ...

(cf. Face To Face With God (13 Nov 2001), By Heart (28 Nov 2001), Fight Club (15 Jun 2003), Cut The Volume (5 Mar 2004), ...)

- Saturday, April 23, 2005 at 10:16:29 (EDT)

Vital and Negligible

A paradoxical aphorism from Mahatma Gandhi:
"Whatever you do will be insignificant, but it is most important that you do it."

(cf. On Comfort (8 Dec 1999), Change Your Life (25 Sep 2002), Be The Change (31 Oct 2003), Infinite Sky (15 Oct 2004), ...)

- Friday, April 22, 2005 at 06:30:57 (EDT)

Will in the World

"How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare" is the subtitle of Stephen Greenblatt's Will in the World, a new (2004) biography of the Immortal Bard. Greenblatt neatly explains the motivation for his book near the beginning of Chapter 4 ("Wooing, Wedding, and Repenting"):
... [T]he whole impulse to explore Shakespeare's life arises from the powerful conviction that his plays and poems spring not only from other plays and poems but from things he knew firsthand, in his body and soul.

In 1949 Marchette Chute authored a popular bio-history, Shakespeare in London. It's extraordinarily well-written; a decade or so ago I read it aloud to the kids, a few pages at a time over many evenings. In many ways Will in the World is a 21st Century update of Chute, with more sexuality but little additional data. Hard evidence of William Shakespeare's life is so scanty that of necessity an honest retrospective must be replete with speculation: "would", "might", "perhaps", "could", "may", "if", etc.

Greenblatt does a good job of sailing among those weasel-word reefs, and his prose swells to near-poetry at many stages of the journey. In Chapter 6 ("Life in the Suburbs"), for example, he theorizes how a performance of the play Tamburlaine could have influenced a young William:

The actor in Shakespeare would have perceived what was powerful in Alleyn's interpretation of Tamburlaine, but the poet in him understood something else: the magic that was drawing audiences did not reside entirely in the actor's fine voice, nor even in the hero's daring vision of the blissful object at which he lunges, the earthy crown. The hushed crowd was already tasting Tamburlaine's power in the unprecedented energy and commanding eloquence of the play's blank verse—the dynamic flow of unrhymed five-stress, ten-syllable lines—that the author, Christopher Marlowe, had mastered for the stage. This verse, like the dream of what ordinary speech would be like were human beings something greater than they are, was by no means only bombast and bragging. Its appeal lay in its own "wondrous architecture": its subtle rhythms, the way in which a succession of monosyllables suddenly flowers into the word "aspiring," the pleasure of hearing "fruit" become "fruition."
Shakespeare had never heard anything quite like this before—certainly not in the morality plays or mystery cycles he had watched back in Warwickshire. He must have said to himself something like, "You are not in Stratford anymore." ...

And later, in Chapter 8 ("Master-Mistress"), Greenblatt identifies the wellspring of some of the Bard's magical powers:

... Venus and Adonis is a spectacular display of Shakespeare's signature characteristic, his astonishing capacity to be everywhere and nowhere, to assume all positions and to slip free of all constraints. The capacity depends upon a simultaneous, deeply paradoxical achievement of proximity and distance, intimacy and detachment. How otherwise would it be possible to be in so many places at once? Shakespeare offers here in a weirdly concentrated form the sensibility that enabled him to write his plays.

(cf. Thanks Alot (27 Nov 1999), Shakespearean Ivy (22 Jan 2000), Pregnant Sails (26 Jun 2001), Crispin Crispian (25 Oct 2001), Vade Mecum (31 Jan 2002), ...)

- Wednesday, April 20, 2005 at 13:39:36 (EDT)

Dangerous Game

Nick Paumgarten writes in the current New Yorker about extreme skiing and the people who practice it. Many have been killed in attempts to plummet down chutes: "steep, narrow flumes of snow that plunge like elevator shafts through otherwise impassable terrain". Among much illogic and foolishness, some great wisdom:
"Nobody goes out to die," Jill Fredston, an avalanche specialist in Alaska, told me. "Everyone goes out in pursuit of life. We make a ton of mistakes, but we usually get away with them. Luck is negative reinforcement. And you have probability and complacency working against you."

(from "Dangerous Game" in the 18 Apr 2005 issue of the New Yorker magazine; cf. Delicate Power (12 Dec 1999), Magna Fortuna (7 Oct 2003), Good Fortune (12 Dec 2004), ...)

- Tuesday, April 19, 2005 at 09:20:45 (EDT)

Down with the Bad

Paulette gave me a swanky antique cane recently (I'm still recuperating from toe tendon reattachment surgery). In learning to use it I've discovered a delightful new mnemonic: Up with the good & down with the bad. It's a rule for how to navigate stairs on crutches or with a walking-stick. Lead with the good leg when heading upstairs, and with the bad leg going downstairs. That keeps stress off the weaker limb.

Considerable enjoyment has also come to me from web pages devoted to La Canne de Combat, the French art of cane-fighting, plus English-language sites on related themes—many of which candidly note that the walking-stick is the only martial-arts weapon you can legally carry in controlled environments such as airplanes. I particularly love the reprints (in the online Journal of Non-lethal Combatives [1], contributed by Ralph Grasso) of articles by E. W. Barton-Wright (1860-1951) from Pearson's Magazine in 1901. A typical illustration:

cane fighting

Now if I only had a hat and a tin of moustache-wax ...

(see also Body Mnemonic (4 Dec 2004), Bump In The Night (31 Mar 2005), Toe Transplant Project Zeta (1 Apr 2005), ...)

- Monday, April 18, 2005 at 14:32:47 (EDT)

Beacon of Hope

In War and Peace, Book II, Part Five, Chapter 22, Pierre Bezukhov visits a heart-broken Natasha Rostova, reassures her that her life is not ruined, and tells her of his love for her. As he gets into his sledge Pierre's coachman asks him where he wishes to go next.
"Where to?" Pierre asked himself. "Where can I go now? Surely not to the Club or to pay calls?" All men seemed to him so pitiable, so wretched in comparison with this feeling of tenderness and love he was experiencing, in comparison with that softened, grateful last look she had given him through her tears.
"Home!" said Pierre, and despite the twenty degrees of frost he threw open the bearskin coat from his broad chest and joyously inhaled the air.
It was clear and frosty. Above the dirty, ill-lit streets, above the black roofs, stretched the dark, starry sky. Only as he gazed up at the sky did Pierre feel the humiliating pettiness of all earthly things compared with the heights to which his soul had just been raised. At the entrance to the Arbat Square an immense expanse of dark, starry sky appreared before his eyes. Almost in the center of it, above the Prechistensky Boulevard, surrounded and spangled on all sides by stars, but distinct from them by its nearness to the earth, with its white light and its long upturned tail, shone the huge, brilliant comet of the year 1812—the comet that was said to portend all kinds of horrors and the end of the world. In Pierre, however, that bright star with its long, luminous tail aroused no feeling of dread. On the contrary, he gazed joyously, his eyes moist with tears, at that radiant star which, havintg traveled in its orbit with inconceivable velocity through infinite space, seemed suddenly, like an arrow piercing the earth, to remain fixed in its chosen spot in the black firmament, tail firmly poised, shining and disporting itself with its white light amid countless other scintillating stars. It seemed to Pierre that this comet fully harmonized with what was in his own mollified and uplifted soul, now blossoming into a new life.

(from the Ann Dunnigan translation, 1968; note how she converts Leo Tolstoy's original "ten degrees of frost" from Celsius into Fahrenheit; cf. Truth In Battle (11 Feb 2001), Ooze On Verst (22 Sep 2004), Untutored Voice (3 Nov 2004), Body Mnemonic (4 Dec 2004), Perfect Communication (14 Feb 2005), Ladder Of Life (10 Apr 2005), ...)

- Sunday, April 17, 2005 at 08:25:15 (EDT)

Suck It Up

Every so often my usual persona, Dr. Sensitivity, suddenly turns into Mr. Gimme A. Break. The transformation came upon me again the other day during a flurry of media coverage on the topic of sleep—specifically, ill effects due to a chronic lack of sleep in certain ultra-busy segments of modern society.

Really! I'm so sorry that you can't get enough rest because of your high-stress highly-paid hyperkinetic career choices. But I'm a bit more sympathetic toward folks who are holding down two (or more) sub-minimum-wage jobs to make ends meet. And I'm even more concerned about people who are starving, or chronically ill, or systematically being murdered in tribal warfare ...

(cf. Kindergarten Environmentalism (28 Jan 2000), Invest In Peace (9 Jul 2002), Conspicuous Anticonsumption (17 Sep 2004), Room To Read (23 Oct 2004), ...)

- Saturday, April 16, 2005 at 11:55:16 (EDT)

Gift for Fiction

One of my favorite lines from the David Mamet movie State and Main is a character's description of how to tell a falsehood:
"It's not a lie; it's a gift for fiction!"

(see also Worth The Cost (3 Feb 2004), ...)

- Friday, April 15, 2005 at 07:27:06 (EDT)

Ultramarathon Man

Dean Karnazes has written a neat little autobiography, Ultramarathon Man, subtitled "Confessions of an All-night Runner". Like some of the long races I've experienced, it has both ups and downs. Karnazes is an astoundingly hard-working, talented, tough long-distance racer who somehow manages to write about himself with good humor and modesty. He's adroit in describing the ugly-funny side of ultrarunning, and is particularly deft in handling scenes involving unæsthetic human bodily functions—the kind of things that become matter-of-fact "Yeah, that happened" incidents during an ultra, but which aren't ordinarily mentioned in polite society.

Unfortunately, although Ultramarathon Man is a fast read Karnazes's prose is (sorry to have to use this word here) often pedestrian. A few passages dance; many more plod. Far too many events are described as the "toughest", "most extreme", "ultimate", etc. There are repetitive over-dramatizations of impossible challenges and pain-beyond-imagination. In most sections a low-key presentation of the facts would have been convincing. The cascades of superlatives that Karnazes uses, alas, tend to make his genuine adventures sound like foolish and arbitrary gambles.

But among the histrionics are some real gems. In Chapter 6, for instance, the author reflects:

I'd also come to realize that the simplicity of running was quite liberating. Modern man has virtually everything one could desire, but too often we're still not fulfilled. "Things" don't bring happiness. Some of my finest moments came while running down the open road, little more than a pair of shoes and shorts to my name. A runner doesn't need much. Thoreau once said that a man's riches are based on what he can do without. Perhaps in needing less, you're actually getting more.

The final pages of Ultramarathon Man similarly climb to near-poetic heights. Karnazes hasn't written another Touching the Void or Into Thin Air. This time he finishes behind both And Then the Vulture Eats You and Running Through the Wall. But Dean Karnazes is in his early 40's; this is his first book. Next time he will doubtless place higher.

(cf. Sense Of Where You Are (4 Jun 1999), Achieve New Balance (17 Jul 2002), More Fun Less Stuff (1 Oct 2002), The Belay (10 Apr 2004), Into Wet Air (20 Apr 2004), Long Walk (31 May 2004), Touching The Void (2 Jun 2004), Eat The Orange (28 Nov 2004), And Then The Vulture Eats You (9 Dec 2004), Running Through The Wall (23 Jan 2005), Less More (14 Mar 2005), ...)

- Thursday, April 14, 2005 at 16:22:43 (EDT)

Suspect Terrain

"Life is a walk along the edge of a fog-shrouded, crumbling cliff. When the ground suddenly gives way, faith is the confidence to leap into the abyss."

(cf. My Religion (6 Nov 2000), Christmas Faith (23 Dec 2000), Most Important (16 May 2002), Infinite Sky (15 Oct 2004), ...)

- Wednesday, April 13, 2005 at 11:26:04 (EDT)

Unreliable Narrators

Blogs are big, at least momentarily—and with faddishness comes folderol. The particular flavor of tomfoolery that's bugging me today is the thesis that mass self-published rant can serve as a useful counterweight or cross-check on the so-called Mainstream Media. I scoff.

An aphorism often attributed to Linus Pauling says that the best way to have good ideas is to have lots of ideas—but of course, it applies equally well to bad ideas. Consider a recent example (details deliberately obfuscated to avoid giving publicity to the sinners): a major newspaper's front-page article about a critical emerging medical topic. A confederacy of blogants, whose subject-matter expertise is equal to their research ability, popped up to critique that paper for quoting from Wikipedia without attribution, and for grossly exaggerating a particular technical aspect of the biological issue.

After a few cycles of mutual back-patting on the part of the nanopundits some nasty reality intervened:

In this topic, as far as I can determine, only 2 of 17 comments posted on a major web log were accurate. Caveat: my count is subjective and includes multi-posts from the same individual(s).

Maybe instead of bogosity there should be a new word to describe this new phenomenon. I propose blogosity!

And come to think of it, why should anybody believe this rant either?

(cf. Good Ideas (20 Jul 1999), Bubble Busters (6 Feb 2002), Intellectual Heimlich Maneuver (29 Oct 2002), Exaggerated Certainty (16 Dec 2002), Essential Newspaper (24 Mar 2005), ...)

- Tuesday, April 12, 2005 at 08:44:55 (EDT)

Ladder of Life

In Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace, Book II, Part Two, Chapter 12, Pierre Bezukhov speaks to a despondent Prince Andrei Bolkonsky:
"You say that you cannot see a reign of truth and goodness on earth. Nor could I, and it cannot be seen if we regard our life here as the end of everything. On earth, here on this earth" (Pierre pointed to the fields) "there is no truth—all is evil and deception. But in the universe, in the whole universe, there is a kingdom of truth, and we who are now the children of the earth are, in the eternal sense, children of the universe. Do I not feel in my soul that I am part of that vast, harmonious whole? Do I not feel that I constitute one link, one step from the lower to the higher beings in this infinite multitude of beings in which the Godhead—the supreme power, if you prefer—is manifest? If I see, clearly see, the ladder leading from plant to man, then why should I suppose that this ladder, the beginning of which I cannot discern below me—why should I suppose that it breaks off with me and does not go farther and farther up to higher beings? I feel not only that I cannot vanish, since nothing in the world vanishes, but that I shall always exist, have always existed. I feel that besides myself, above me, there are spirits, and in the world there is truth."

(from the Ann Dunnigan translation, 1968; see also Truth In Battle (11 Feb 2001), Ooze On Verst (22 Sep 2004), Untutored Voice (3 Nov 2004), Body Mnemonic (4 Dec 2004), Perfect Communication (14 Feb 2005), ...)

- Sunday, April 10, 2005 at 11:37:10 (EDT)

Extra Ordinary

The best thing about going to a top-flight school is not the chance to learn from celebrity faculty members. It's not the opportunity to use fancy facilities either. And it certainly isn't the cloisonné coating that adheres to one's résumé and thereby opens doors to big-buck jobs in a subsequent career.

No, the really important lesson that a ritzy educational institution teaches—sometimes, to the luckiest of learners—is that in the right environment, ordinary can become extraordinary. A good university can be picky about who gets to attend. But a great university goes beyond inviting the obvious top candidates to join the student body. And the interaction among those students is what makes for real learning.

It has taken me decades to realize it, but my key experiences in college centered on the other kids whom I met—and not so much on the child prodigies as on the "regular" smart young people. They showed me (or maybe we showed each other?!) that it was possible to solve apparently-impossible challenges via months and years of hard work. They also showed me that lots of different talents can come together and contribute, and not in just a fuzzy-minded feel-good "we're all wonderful" platitudinous sense. Amazing things occur through sharing of knowledge, in an environment of friendly competition, and by direct observation of how much a person similar to oneself can accomplish—especially from the inspirational example of an older, more experienced student a bit farther down the road.

Those classmates raised the bar on "ordinary" to a new level. And though it may be harder to recognize outside thickly ivied walls, the same phenomenon can happen anywhere, at any time, to any one ...

(see also Genius And Complexity (15 May 1999), Classy People (1 Apr 2000), Summa Cum Laude (27 May 2001), Lens Manic (16 Jul 2001), Education Of The Youth (1 Dec 2001), Pursuit Of Excellence (22 Feb 2002), Knowledge And Society (25 Mar 2002), You Are Extraordinary (7 Jul 2002), Merit Scholarships (10 Feb 2004), ...)

- Saturday, April 09, 2005 at 18:27:48 (EDT)

Wind to Thy Wings

A splendid valediction, thanks to Rad Rob [1]:
Wind to thy wings!

(see also Flying Eagle (16 Apr 2002), Yours Truly (30 Aug 2004), ...)

- Friday, April 08, 2005 at 10:15:26 (EDT)

Cloud Atlas

David Mitchell's first two novels unfortunately lacked a solid (or even liquid) moral core. Things just seemed to happen: molecules collided, wheels spun, characters drifted rudderless. The prose was scintillating but ultimately sterile.

His latest, Cloud Atlas, fills that abyss. In an interview with the Washington Post "Book World" [1] (22 Aug 2004) Mitchell explains the sea change :

W: What, in your mind, distinguishes this book from your others?
DM: It has more of a conscience. I think this is because I am now a dad. I need the world to last another century and a half, not just see me to happy old age.

That's a profoundly good thought! (Of course, even those without their own biological progeny can share it. And next time let's try to look ahead a bit longer than 150 years, eh?)

The six novellas that nest matryoshka-fashion to make Cloud Atlas are individually brilliant experiments in storytelling. Some are quite science-fictional, with strong echoes of the best Cordwainer Smith sf stories of the 1950's and 1960's, both in social responsibility and in edgy style. (Smith's underperson C'Mell in particular resonates with Mitchell's fabricant Sonmi-451.) Other segments of Cloud Atlas are reminiscent of Spider Robinson's alternative-future Orange County tales.

Sure, there is the occasional pedestrian passage, graphically violent encounter, predictable plot device, and cosmic improbability. (And—techno-quibble warning!—that was no radio telescope on page 276 inside the dome on top of Mauna Kea.) But overall, Mitchell's combined originality and poetic finesse makes Cloud Atlas a seriously delightful read. More, please!

(see also My Religion (6 Nov 2000), Triple Think (25 Jul 2002), Ghost Written (12 Mar 2005), Number Nine Dream (30 Mar 2005), ...)

- Thursday, April 07, 2005 at 05:22:53 (EDT)

Ontology Recapitulates Philology

Add one more entry to the "There's nothing new under the sun" file: after free-associating intermittently for months on variations of Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny (a factually-inaccurate polysyllabic aphorism of biology that says embryonic development mocks evolution) a few days ago I managed to come up with Ontology recapitulates philology (which maybe says something about knowledge and language, but I don't know precisely what).

But alas, the "Ontology recapitulates philology" schtick was too good not to have been invented already. A quick search on the 'Net shows that it appeared in published papers and web pages at least several years back. When search engines get around to indexing clay tablets and cave art, no doubt the phrase will turn out to have been used millennia ago.

In a parallel case, ca. 1991 my wife Paulette Dickerson invented the proverb "Libraries will get you through times with no money better than money will get you through times with no libraries!" and used it in a library-advocacy speech she gave in 1991. It was her riff on a classic Gilbert Shelton "Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers" underground-comix line from the 1960's about how drugs can substitute for cash. And, like my ontological/philological phrase, others have used it elsewhere, with and without attribution.

That doesn't make it any less valid—particularly in an age of constant library budget cuts ...

(see also Redundancy Redundancy (23 Apr 1999), Got Library (17 Sep 2003), ...)

- Wednesday, April 06, 2005 at 08:14:26 (EDT)

Mud Dance

After my unfortunate Bump In The Night last week it's quite unlikely that I'll be able to run much any time soon ... but meanwhile, an entry to the ^z memory bank is needed for a final pre-competition training run that took place along Seneca Creek on 12 February 2005—about 16 miles in 232 minutes.

As on the past two weekends, today begins with a group training run along the Greenway Trail, thanks to organizer Ed Schultze. This time we gather on Watkins Mill Road and jog to Riffleford and back.

At 7:35am I'm ready to go, and so is Michele Mcleod, an experienced ultrarunner who claims to be slow but who nonetheless keeps me moving at a comfortable yet rapid clip. We set out half an hour ahead of everybody else. The temperature overnight was well below freezing so the ground is solid but rough where mud churned by passing boots has solidified into suspect terrain.

Fortunately I left my hat and windbreaker in the car. After half an hour I take off my outer (long-sleeved) windshirt and feel comfortable except for a few moments in the shade when the wind blows. Michele has sharp eyes: she points out half a dozen deer that I would have missed. We chat about family, running, and other entertaining topics as we make progress downstream. I almost roll my right ankle a couple of times but fortunately catch myself.

At the 90 minute point Michele turns back (she has to go pick up her young daughter) and I trot on alone. Fragments of a pop song heard on the car radio this morning, Southern Cross, replay inside my head. Approaching the turnaround some fast runners begin to pass me, and I tag along behind them. At the Riffleford Road cache I eat chips and refill my now-empty Gatorade bottle.

I'm surprised to find how different the route looks on the return trip. There are countless things that I missed when traveling the other way: rusty farm machinery, suburban back yards, branch trails and side streets, a mostly-eaten raccoon skeleton, etc. Both of my feet begin to feel "hot spots", emergent blisters on the inner edges. I pause at a park bench and change my socks—since I don't have any spares, I swap them from one foot to the other. (this seems to have absolutely no effect!) I carry both bandages and grease in my waist pouch, but the pre-blisters don't feel bad enough to be worth stopping to apply either treatment. I walk some and alter my stride to land more on my heels. The feet begin to feel better.

A huge difference on the second half of the journey (besides my fatigue) is the trail itself: with rising temperatures the formerly-firm surface has turned into a treacherous thixotropic mud. I slip, slide and almost fall multiple times. At one small side stream crossing I scramble to keep my footing and get mud on my calves and gloves.

Fast runners pass me, and I pass some hikers and then a cluster of geese standing near the path. They honk to scold me for disturing the peace.

(see also Fifteen League Ley Lines (1 Jan 2005), Winter Fantasies (17 Jan 2005), Ice Fangs (6 Feb 2005), Washington Birthday Marathon 2005 (20 Feb 2005), Seneca Creek Greenway Trail Marathon 2005 (5 Mar 2005), Hat Run 2005 (20 Mar 2005), ...)

- Tuesday, April 05, 2005 at 18:51:08 (EDT)

Read Likely

A silly riddle I'm in the process of working on—and make no mistake, it needs a lot of work:
What's red like a Russian journal?
Zhurnaly !

Weak explanation & feeble motivation:

Yeah, so if it needs that much exegesis then it isn't ever likely to be funny—but nonetheless it's my idea, hey, and I'm gonna keep messing with it until I get it right ...

(see So Funny (10 Aug 1999), Meta Joke (18 Oct 2001), ...)

- Monday, April 04, 2005 at 16:50:57 (EDT)

Fast Walker

In the mid-1960's I read a fascinating article in Boys' Life magazine about an American Indian named "Fast Walker". The piece described how Fast Walker had outdistanced a horse and rider during a multi-day competition, and included some incredible—to me, at that time—claims of distances covered on foot.

Alas, now that I'm belatedly ready to believe in ultrapedestrianism, there seems to be no information about Fast Walker on the 'Net. Boys' Life is apparently not available in searchable digital form, at least in part for copyright reasons. The only reference I've found online is in Part I, Chapter 6, of Two Men called Adam, a 1983 book about religion, creation, and evolution by Arthur C. Custance [3], which in footnote 56 says:

See story of "Fast Walker," a Sioux Indian who "out walked a horse" in 1862, The Rivermen in Old West Series, New York, Time-Life Books, 1975, p.144.

(The above occurs in a discussion of ecology and interspecies competition, specifically during an aside in praise of eating more meat. Ugh! But I digress ...) Can anyone recommend a source from which I could learn more about Fast Walker? He seems to have been a predecessor to the "Pedestrianism" fad of the late 19th century, wherein people covered hundreds of miles, typically during festive six-day events. On the seventh day, they rested ...

(see also Public Domain (13 Feb 2003), Antient Commons (3 Nov 2003), Respect The Distance (26 Nov 2003), And Then The Vulture Eats You (9 Dec 2004), Running Through The Wall (23 Jan 2005), ...)

- Sunday, April 03, 2005 at 12:05:57 (EDT)

Not Two, Not Ten, Not One-Third ...

Son Rad Rob advises on 26 March 05 in his journal [1]:
When you write a piece of music, write one piece of music! Not two, not ten, not one-third of one, but one!

He goes on to explain the need for this rule:

I particularly applaud the "Not two, not ten, not one-third ..." metaphor because it applies to countless areas other than music—including ^zhurnal entries, eh? I must try to get better at proper factoring of too-big multithreaded blobs, and contrariwise at proper development of promising-but-fragmentary ideas into maturity ...

(see also Barry Laws And Precepts (18 Aug 2001), Two But Not Three (24 Sep 2003), ...)

- Saturday, April 02, 2005 at 13:45:32 (EST)

Toe Transplant Project Zeta

frankentoe 1 Initial operation successful. Left big toe of Emil Zatopek, purchased on Ebay in January 2001, has been transplanted onto Subject Zeta. Preliminary tests indicate Subject's running speed and endurance have both increased by 0.038%—exact ratio of toe to Subject's total body mass. If fractional improvement persists as further components of Subject are replaced then Subject may be competitive in 2008 Olympics 5k, 10k, and marathon. Credit for any medals won will be divided proportionately among nations which contribute to patchwork athlete. Send all donations to Viktor Frankenstein c/o Igor, P. O. Box 666, Ingolstadt, Germany. No unsolicited materials will be returned unless accompanied by stamped self-addressed envelope. frankentoe 2

- Friday, April 01, 2005 at 15:23:54 (EST)

Bump in the Night

Important safety tip: don't try to leap barefoot over obstacles in a dark and cluttered room, especially before a long-anticipated ultramarathon!

I'm a tremendously lucky person—things last evening could have gone much worse. I foolishly tripped and ripped a toe almost half off, so I'm out of commission for any running in the immediate future. But the digit down there still has some feeling in it, and I'm told that there's hope of patching the torn tendons. Also on the happy side, I've received a flood of supportive emails from friendly ultrarunners around the world ... including serious sympathy notes as well as comic admonitions to just "Suck it up!" and hit the trails. It's yet another demonstration of the wonderful spirit of that community (as illustrated by Neal Jamison's Running Through The Wall, Eric Clifton, Paul Reese, etc.).

Meanwhile, two key questions remain:

Timeline Summary of Events

I put my laptop to sleep and turn out the lamp by the living-room couch where I'm sitting and doing email. In the semidarkness that follows I attempt to step over a pile of "stuff", misjudge, catch my left great toe on a sharp-edged backpack strap, and trip—twisting the toe downward at a severe angle. It snaps. I cry out rather more loudly than is usual after one of my too-frequent stumbles. Daughter Gray and wife Paulette come immediately to my aid. The big toe looks quite ugly, folded over with a mean gash in the upper surface as if it's almost torn off. But interestingly enough, there's hardly any bleeding or pain. I put the toe back in place and hold it with one hand while I hobble to a seat at the dining-room table. Maybe it's only a sprain or a dislocation, I speculate, along with some surface abrasion ...
Daughter Gray remains calm; she phones the health clinic advice line, where after a short conference we're directed to call "911" and get somebody on the scene to assess the situation. My thoughts center on the sudden improbability of doing the Bull Run Run in 10 days ...
The 911 operator promises to send an ambulance and medical technicians. Paulette applies her Girl Scout training and wraps my oozing toe in gauze, binding it to the rest of the foot so that it doesn't move. The first aid kit that we assembled a few years ago as part of a Boy Scout merit badge project comes in handy ...
There are no flashing lights or wailing sirens anywhere near our peaceful street, so I call the health clinic back and get permission to proceed to the local emergency room. I dial 911 again and cancel the ambulance request. The dispatcher wonders where the vehicle could have gone ...
Paulette is driving me to the hospital, and as we approach a near-accident occurs: a car in a great hurry swerves around us and passes on the right as we are about to turn into the emergency entrance. Fortunately, there's no collision ...
I check in, sign some unexpectedly simple paperwork, and get a plastic hospital bracelet to wear. It's surprisingly calm, not like the madhouse of an ER that I had expected. The staff is friendly and helpful. A cluster of kids are quietly carousing, and near us a few other individuals and couples await their turns. Paulette and I settle down in the corner of the outer waiting room and commence reading ...
My name is called—I'm invited into an inner treatment area and given a chair in berth #5. I describe the toe to a nurse. Ten minutes later a cheerful radiologist/technician materializes, gives me a short wheelchair ride down the hall, helps me unwrap the afflicted foot, and props it on a digital imaging surface. Three X-rays later and I'm back in my #5 slot. On the way a lady waiting with her husband in room #6 is grossed out by my newly-exposed injury ...
Not much seems to be happening, so I ask a nurse if he could get my book from Paulette. He invites her in and we sit together and read novels in our new abode ...
A nurse sees that my foot continues to ooze, and so decides to prepare a small tub of iodine + hydrogen peroxide for me to soak the ugly toe in ...
After half an hour of generating bubbles (oxygen released from the breakdown of peroxide) my toe seems clean enough, and it's getting a bit cold too. So the antiseptic soak is dumped and I dry off. Back to reading ...
Little seems to be happening, so I limp to the main desk and ask for a situation report. "There's one patient in front of you," is the reply ...
Almost two and a half hours after my arrival, the physician's assistant in charge of the ER area looks at me for the first time. Immediately my status leaps dramatically and he teaches us a new word—disarticulated—which in his judgment the toe is only a little short of. He goes off to confer with Higher Authority via telephone, and returns with firm instructions for me to go to my usual health clinic as soon as possible when it opens. We joke about how to best convince the medical system's gatekeepers that this is a serious case, and he advises which words to use during the next conversation ...
A nurse commences an intravenous drip of antibiotics, in preparation for the sutures to come. Paulette chats with a neighbor who has a sliver of metal in his eye ...
The physician's assistant returns and we discuss college baseball, digital cameras, and retirement plans. A needle's worth of lidocaine hurts going in, more than any prior event of the evening. Four big stitches later the toe is stabilized ...
Paulette and I leave the hospital, with prescriptions for oral antibiotics and painkillers plus further instructions on how to treat the injury ...
Home at last!

Half a day later, the results of this afternoon's visit to the health center are quite positive. I meet a smart (and funny) podiatrist whose examination suggests that the tendon may not be completely broken. She schedules herself to do repair work on it Monday. (Definition of "minor surgery": an operation performed on anybody other than oneself.) Also in her judgment the pain—a throbbing ache, practically a giggle compared to mile 26 of some long runs—is near its peak now, so I probably can survive without taking prescription narcotics. (My Negra Modelo and Yuengling Black & Tan consumption should thus remain unimpeded.) Full recovery is at least several months away, but that's considerably better than "never".

Salutations to Gray for her calm support in the midst of crisis, and infinite thanks, as always, to Paulette ...

(see also Patience And Time (11 Jan 2005), ...)

- Thursday, March 31, 2005 at 19:51:34 (EST)

Number 9 Dream

David Mitchell's second novel, Number 9 Dream, is quite entertaining. It's rather like a non-cyberpunkish William Gibson or Neal Stephenson roller-coaster ride, but with a higher percentage of apt poetic imagery amongst the brand names and ultraviolent encounters. Mitchell makes a few regrettable acoustic slips: a sonic boom should come before, not after, a jet's noise (p. 212); nine decibels is not at all loud (p. 332). And he uses his favorite semi-exotic word, "judder", a distracting three times (pps. 120, 297, and 369).

But overall Number 9 Dream is fascinating, fun, and worthwhile. Mitchell is a fine author who still needs to apply his gianormous (his term, p. 362—did he mean "ginormous"?) talents in a weightier theme-space. Meanwhile, I'm starting to read his third book ...

(page numbers from first US paperback edition; see also Ghost Written (12 Mar 2005), ...)

- Wednesday, March 30, 2005 at 05:58:37 (EST)

So Symbolic

One of my favorite songs—don't ask me why—is "Mr. Jones", a strangely poetic piece by Adam Duritz of the group Counting Crows. The verses:
     Gray is my favorite color
     I felt so symbolic yesterday
     If I knew Picasso
     I would buy myself a gray guitar and play ... 

... come suddenly to mind when—don't ask me why—I find myself with some traveling companions in a Habanos cigar bar in a fancy hotel. A beer costs ~$10, an astronomical figure relative to my limited terrestrial experience. Food is similarly expensive.

One of my colleagues, slightly intoxicated by the smoky ambience of the establishment, orders himself a "Punch" brand Cuban cigar—don't ask me why. The waitress, a petite Asian lady, takes it from the humidor and brings it to him along with a shot glass of aromatic cognac. At his request she performs a ritual lightyears beyond my ken, a ceremony both exotic and arcane. (It had better be, at the price he is paying!)

She takes a tiny guillotine and nips a centimeter off one end of the tightly twisted tobacco cylinder. She removes the band and dips the fresh-clipped head of the cigar into the cognac, rotating it so that the leaves are saturated with brandy. She sets the cigar aside and pours most of the remaining liquor into her cupped palm. Then she rubs her hands together, picks up the cigar, and rolls it back-and-forth between her palms until the pungent liquid has moistened its full length. She next strikes a pair of long-stick matches, waits for the flare of the phosphorus heads to die away, and carefully moves the flame up and down the sides of the cigar to dry its surface. Only then does she use a new match to light the cigar for my comrade. She smiles, bows slightly, and leaves our table.

Is this fascinating rite merely a utilitarian way to prepare a pleasant smoke? Or—don't ask me why—is it perhaps far more symbolic of something deeply Freudian? I can only observe in wonderment.

Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar ...

(see also Birdless Silence (5 Jun 2004), Freudian Half Marathon (2 Aug 2004), ...)

- Monday, March 28, 2005 at 05:30:27 (EST)

Celebration of Life

Sil Simpson writes about how he felt tackling a tough marathon, coming back from an unhappy experience the prior year when he was unable to finish it. Four miles into the event this time he reports:
At that point, I allowed myself to relax and enjoy it. I said a little prayer of thanks. I didn't pray to finish or to run a good time. I just said thanks for having the body and the mental outlook that allow me to be a part of a celebration of life as wonderful as a marathon.

(from "Redemption" in the Jan/Feb 2005 issue of Marathon & Beyond magazine; see also Eric Clifton (1 Oct 2004), Taoist State (12 Nov 2004), Paul Reese (17 Feb 2005), ...)

- Sunday, March 27, 2005 at 08:23:24 (EST)

Tools to Make the Tools to Make ...

When I was about 11 years old I chanced to read a science-fiction short story that was likely written in the 1940's or 50's. Alas, the title escapes me, as does the author. (Help me, please, if you can identify it.) All I remember is a key plot element: super-advanced extraterrestrials are spaceship-wrecked on Earth, and in order to repair their vehicle they have to teach the human engineers how to build machines to build machines to build machines ... to build the machines that the aliens need to use to fix their broken equipment.

It's a neat conceit—and it underscores the pyramid of technology that hides behind the sophisticated systems that we all use every day. To send an email with the click of a mouse requires an almost-inconceivable conjunction of events, from the physical growing of ultrapure silicon crystals and insertion of infinitesimal amounts of impurities to make transistors ... to the laying out of the components that form logic circuit elements ... to the interconnection of those elements in the construction of electronic devices such as processors ... to the writing of machine-language instructions that command the processors to perform specific actions ... to the crafting of compilers that can translate higher-level specifications into more elementary operations ... to the building of operating systems that open window-like areas on a screen by flipping voltages applied to appropriate pixels ... to the creation of applications that can take "To:" and "Subject:" and "Body:" and cause them to vanish from my inbox and appear in somebody else's halfway around the world. (And that's a grossly oversimplified caricature.)

Which reminds me of the delightful parable told more than four decades ago by Leonard Read in his essay "I, Pencil" [1]. Read points out that to fabricate even the simplest lead pencil is something no human being knows how to do. It takes the combined talents of thousands of individuals plus a thicket of technology, scattered around the world, all guided into cooperation by the metaphorical "invisible hand" of Adam Smith's marketplace.

Speaking of which, Smith himself at the beginning of An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (1776) describes in charming fashion the magic that comes from collaboration and application of appropriate tools:

To take an example, therefore, from a very trifling manufacture; but one in which the division of labour has been very often taken notice of, the trade of the pin-maker; a workman not educated to this business (which the division of labour has rendered a distinct trade), nor acquainted with the use of the machinery employed in it (to the invention of which the same division of labour has probably given occasion), could scarce, perhaps, with his utmost industry, make one pin in a day, and certainly could not make twenty. But in the way in which this business is now carried on, not only the whole work is a peculiar trade, but it is divided into a number of branches, of which the greater part are likewise peculiar trades. One man draws out the wire, another straights it, a third cuts it, a fourth points it, a fifth grinds it at the top for receiving the head; to make the head requires two or three distinct operations; to put it on is a peculiar business, to whiten the pins is another; it is even a trade by itself to put them into the paper; and the important business of making a pin is, in this manner, divided into about eighteen distinct operations, which, in some manufactories, are all performed by distinct hands, though in others the same man will sometimes perform two or three of them. I have seen a small manufactory of this kind where ten men only were employed, and where some of them consequently performed two or three distinct operations. But though they were very poor, and therefore but indifferently accommodated with the necessary machinery, they could, when they exerted themselves, make among them about twelve pounds of pins in a day. There are in a pound upwards of four thousand pins of a middling size. Those ten persons, therefore, could make among them upwards of forty-eight thousand pins in a day. Each person, therefore, making a tenth part of forty-eight thousand pins, might be considered as making four thousand eight hundred pins in a day. But if they had all wrought separately and independently, and without any of them having been educated to this peculiar business, they certainly could not each of them have made twenty, perhaps not one pin in a day; that is, certainly, not the two hundred and fortieth, perhaps not the four thousand eight hundredth part of what they are at present capable of performing, in consequence of a proper division and combination of their different operations.

That's an increase in productivity by two or three orders of magnitude—and Smith doesn't even mention all the processes upstream of the pin factory, where metals are refined, wire is made, tools to cut and grind it are fashioned, ...

(see also Education Versus Eduction (30 Apr 1999), In The Name (19 Aug 1999), Pyramid Building (21 Feb 2004), Third Normal Form (28 Feb 2004), Key To The Treasure (23 Apr 2004), ...)

- Saturday, March 26, 2005 at 13:10:14 (EST)

Essential Newspaper

On 27 February 2005 Michael Getler, Washington Post ombudsman, wrote about the decline of newspapers in our society. Circulation totals have been going down for decades; many people are happy getting their daily dose of gossip and commentary from TV, radio, web sites, and so forth. These are low-density media, fluffy in comparison to the printed words of reporters who have worked hard to gather and organize information, and whose conclusions have been filtered and sharpened under experienced editorial supervision. Getler concludes:
My guess is that the circulation decline will level off at what will amount to The Post's truly hard-core readership plus some newcomers. These are my kind of people. I'm one who has always been grateful to newspapers. I think they give people an edge, an advantage, no matter what it is people do. To me, the printed paper remains more naturally compatible with our history and habits, with reading and discussion, and with a sense of community and of discovery that often comes just by turning the page.
The blogosphere is a wonderful thing, also in keeping with who we are. But it doesn't seem so new to me because it does what readers have always done: read, write, analyze, complain, correct. It has always been true that if you make a mistake on even the most arcane matter in a newspaper, someone out there will catch it and let you know. The Web and the explosion of personal blogs, or Web logs and journals, have tapped into and greatly expanded that public reservoir of knowledge and understanding in important ways by challenging the accuracy of reporting and adding analysis.
On the other hand, nothing out there is going to supply you with the extraordinary daily content of The Post, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Wall Street Journal or other fine newspapers.
Bloggers were the first to uncover some things recently, but that doesn't mean that traditional news organizations would not have come to those facts as well. The difference between newspapers and some of today's instant-delivery alternatives is that newspapers make use of time—time for trained and experienced journalists to report, time for editors to get between reporters and the public, time to think a little longer about things.

That's key: the vital importance of making, and taking, time to think.

(see also Memorial Day (28 May 2002), ...)

- Thursday, March 24, 2005 at 05:07:59 (EST)

Debutante Dance

In Book II, Part Three, Chapter 16 of War and Peace young Natasha Rostova is nervously attending her first grand ball. Tolstoy paints a memorable picture of the interaction as she is asked to take the floor by Prince Andrei Bolkonsky:
Turning to Natasha, he started to put his arm around her waist before he had completed his invitation to her to dance. He suggested they should take a turn of the waltz. Natasha's face, with its tremulous expression, looking as if she were on the brink of rapture or despair, instantly lighted up with a joyous, grateful, childlike smile.
"I have been waiting so long for you!" the frightened, happy little girl seemed to be saying as she raised her hand to Prince Andrei's shoulder with a smile that shone through imminent tears. They were the second couple to enter the circle. Prince Andrei was one of the best dancers of his day and Natasha danced exquisitely. Her little feet in their satin dancing slippers moved swiftly, lightly, as if they had wings, and her face beamed with ecstatic happiness. Her bare arms and neck were not beautiful—compared to Ellen's her shoulders looked thin and her bosom undeveloped. But Ellen seemed coated with a lacquer left by the thousands of eyes that had glanced over her body, while Natasha was a young girl appearing décolletée for the first time and who would have felt very much ashamed had she not been assured that this was quite proper.
Prince Andrei danced because he enjoyed dancing and because he was anxious to escape as quickly as possible from the political and intellectual talk that everyone addressed to him; he also wished to break through the irksome barrier of constraint arising from the Tsar's presence. He had chosen Natasha for his partner because Pierre had pointed her out to him and because she was the first pretty girl who caught his eye, but he had no sooner put his arm around that slender, supple, quivering waist and felt her stirring so close to him and smiling up into his face, that her charm went to his head like wine: he felt animated and rejuvenated when, drawing a deep breath, he left her and stood watching the other dancers.

And in the next chapter, as the party draws to a close and Prince Andrei is unknowingly falling in love with Natasha, she in turn is incandescent from the experience of that joyous evening:

Natasha had never been so happy. She was in that heightened state of bliss when one becomes wholly good and kind and cannot believe in the possibility of evil, unhappiness, or sorrow.

(from the Ann Dunnigan translation, 1968; see also Untutored Voice (3 Nov 2004), Body Mnemonic (4 Dec 2004), Perfect Communication (14 Feb 2005), ...)

- Tuesday, March 22, 2005 at 17:10:27 (EST)

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