journal
1990s

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This is my 1990s journal.
Also available: 2003 2002 2001 2000 1980s

Everything on this page:
Copyright 1985-2002 by Thane Plambeck, except where obviously not.

26 June 1999
Wonderful Feller

I've always had a lot of admiration for William Feller's An Introduction to Probability Theory and Its Applications, Vol I.

On the title page, the author is listed as

WILLIAM FELLER (1906 - 1970)
Eugene Higgins Professor of Mathematics
Princeton University


The odd precision of this title, providing exactly the data needed to verify that indeed
1) Feller is dead, and
2) Feller lived (about) 64 years,
is entirely in keeping with spirit of the book: If it's known, and of interest, put it in. It certainly will stop any nonsense, such as unwise efforts to contact the author.

More precisely: the title page serves as an excellent example. Feller died. Maybe you should get your own papers in order.

Feller's book is full of excellent examples and exercises in probability. There is the bit of the urchin in the selection of problems and topics, and Feller tips his hand in the introduction:

Chapter III stands by itself. Its contents are appealing in their own right, but the chapter is also highly illustrative for new insights and new methods in probability theory. The results concerning fluctuations in coin tossing show that widely held beliefs about the law of large numbers are fallacious. They are so amazing and so at variance with common intuition that even sophisticated colleages doubted that coins actually misbehave as theory predicts...
Right on. So what are some of these examples?

How about section III.5, Changes of Sign. Feller writes:

The theoretical study of chance fluctuations confronts us with many paradoxes. For example, one should expect naively that in a prolonged coin-tossing game the observed number of changes of lead shoud increase roughly in proportion to the duration of the game. In a game that lasts about twice as long, Peter should lead about twice as often. This intuitive reasoning is false. We shall show that, in a sense to be made precise, the number of changes of lead in n trials increases only as the square root of n, in 100n trials one should expect only 10 times as many changes of lead as in n trials. This proves once more that the waiting times between successive equalizations are fantastically long.
Then on to section 6, where Feller presents an "Experimental Illustration" in which a coin is tossed 10,000 times, and writes

When looking at the graph most people feel surprised by the length of the intervals between successive crossings of the axis. As a matter of fact, the graph represents a rather mild case history and was chosen as the mildest among three available records....the probability that in 10,000 tosses of a coin the lead is at one side for more than 9930 trials and at the other for fewer than 70 exceeds 1/10. In other words, on average one record out of ten will look worse than the one just described...if [this] seems startling, this is due to our faulty intuition and to our having been exposed to too many vague references to a mysterious `law of averages'.

Fall 1998
Cupertino, California

Where to take the job when you need quality prting.




1997
The West 70th Street Schema

Piet Hut's little diagram [PDF] from the New York Times illustrates

1) The objective world,
2) The subjective experience of the world,
3) The empirical understanding of world, and
4) The empirical understanding of subjective experience, including psychology.

It made a lot of sense to me when I first saw it.

Or does confusion reign?


1991
The Santayana Corollaries

"Those of us who forget the past are condemned to repeat it." (George Santayana)

George Santayana

"Those of us who remember that it was Santayana who said, 'those of us who forget the past are condemned to repeat it,' are condemned to repeat it." (Plambeck)

And: By the G.S. principle itself, even those of us who forget that it was George Santayana who said, "those of us who forget the past are condemned to repeat it," are condemned to repeat it. (Plambeck)


1991
Kidney

The word "kidney" may make a resurgence in 1991. You may try it out for yourself in sentences such as

"I don't care for Saddam Hussein, or other rulers of his kidney"

Saddam Hussein

Webster offers (and note especially the usage 3):

kid.ney n, pl kidneys (14c)

[ME] 1a: One of a pair of vertebrate organs situated in the body cavity near the spinal column that excrete waste products of metabolism. In man they are bean-shaped organs about 4 1/2 inches long lying behind the peritoneum in a mass of fatty tissue, and consist chiefly of nephrons by which urine is secreted, collected, and discharged into a main cavity whence it is conveyed by the ureter to the bladder.

1b: Any of various excretory organs of invertebrate animals.

2: The kidney of an animal eaten as food.

3: Sort or kind esp. with regard to temperament. A nice helpful guy, of a different kidney entirely from the ubiquitous Secret Police (Paula Lecler)

Now who (women excepted) wouldn't want to be described as a Nice Helpful Guy, of a different kidney entirely than the ubiquitous Secret Police? Paula Lecler has captured the nuances of the word in a helpful and nice way. We live in a wasteful age in which these bean-shaped organs, even if crouched behind the peritoneum and consisting chiefly of nephrons, nevertheless stand tall as cathartic symbol. It's fine word that apparently chips right on back to the 14th century.


20 September 1996
Anagram Antonym Puzzles
Liz Noerdlinger told me about the SHOUT DANGER puzzle after she heard it on National Public Radio. We generated the rest of them using computer software. The shorter ones are easier to solve than the longer ones. Several of the longer ones are actually quite difficult, not because the solution words used are uncommon, but because of the large number of words that can be constructed.

So here they are: for each pair of words, rearrange their combined letters to form a pair of antonyms.

For example, SHOUT DANGER becomes DAUGHTER SON.

pool scene port fossil
stood dense pint remedy
hotel script strange wok
bleak witch accuse field
andes fount fare lake
woven primrose thrift leg
henderson text vail legend
attic coffin forge midsection
barrier peak sweater ire
desultory bid reagan sleep
fatty divorcee enter palace
adorn specimen convey pint
evade dial seminole surgery

(Note added 9 Jan 2002): The Internet Anagram Server is useful in solving (and creating!) these puzzles.

(Note added 10 Jan 2002) Good God! SEMINOLE SURGERY recombines into an antonym-like pair in two ways: MISERLY GENEROUS and EULOGY MERRINESS.


1991
Confirmation Hearing vs. Hearing Confirmation


The Senators seem to have a hard time remembering that nominee's name. Frequently someone will start out a sentence with something like
"The nominee's lack of a stand on abortion disturbs me. I think Clarence..."

(Now a long pause: the speaker is puzzled that "Clarence" is not his last name—)

"...uh, Thomas should clarify his position."
A variation on the theme: the solon starts off with "Thomas," then blunders about, trying to figure out the now illusory surname it is to be mated up with.


Also: what is all this talk about “Harrisment.” As with “hunkering down,” language and pronunciation seem to have taken a somewhat unexpected turn. I think they are trying to take the ass out of a perfectly good pronunciation, no?

As Gidi Avrahami just said, “Sexual Harr_ass_ment was good enough for my grandfather, it was good enough for my father, and it's good enough for me...”


1990
Wearing Words



I think it's time that we all reconsidered the practice of wearing words.

I'm not talking exclusively about T-shirts and sweatshirts, although this is as good a starting point as any. Reviewing my clothing a few days ago, I calculated that around 30% of my clothing has some type of word appearing prominently on it, and that of these, almost all of these words are essentially some sort of advertisement.

Remember the sandwich man? Supporting two attached placards on his shoulders, he would drift in front of the furniture store or delicatessen, shifting his weight despondently: “Loans now lower than ever—hideaways 35% off” or “Going out of business: bagels $1.00/dozen!” He had no use for his hands—they were invisible behind the placards. He had no voice, no good job, no livelihood. The image is one of humiliation.

The T-shirt is more comfortable, but the pay is worse, and the humiliation, voluntary.

In junior high school Physical Education, we all had to wear white T-shirts with our names on the back. It made it easier to distinguish your shirt from the next boy's in the locker room. We were a sort of junior Marine Corps, every man clearly identified. Inevitably fashion took a grip, and kids would wear colored T-shirts with their first names in decal on the back. Walking down the hall, you might see “Bob” in a green T-shirt, or “Kevin” in yellow.

My mother asked me if I wanted one, and I said I didn't.

Mixing in adult society, one cannot get far before he is asked to wear a name tag. In fact, one is usually stopped at the entrance. If a gathering is large, there will be more than one receptionist, and the tags will be there on the table in front of you. Would you take one and fill it out please? Here is a pen. It is impossible to refuse; you have just surrendered your coat, they are seated, you are standing. You look, and yes, they are already wearing their own infernal tags. You are reluctant; you would escape it—but they are smiling, the tags are smiling, and one cannot be difficult.

Well, all right then. Before meeting any person, you shall meet your tag.

As an experiment, I once tore off my tag, simply greeting everyone with the words, “Hello, my name is Thane Plambeck.” I did not find it to be an effective way to start a converation.

Later, when I sought to avoid the admission that I had forgotten someone's name by glancing at their tag in the midst of an introduction, I felt false and disingenuous.

When I see a man wearing a sweatshirt with the words “Stanford University” on it, I understand that he does not mean to communicate that he believes himself to be Stanford University. But what should I understand?


1990
Heavy Lifting



Here's a business idea.

Get some land down by Gilroy or somewhere, buy some old heavy machinery, say a bulldozer, dump truck, and front-end loader. Then charge people by the hour to move earth around.

I can testify that driving a dump truck laden with concrete and other massive objects at 35 miles per hour over uneven terrain is an empowering experience to say the least. It's like driving a small planet. Major Momentum.

Paying more, customers would be able to take the controls of one of those gigantic ball wreckers and start slamming it into old barns or silos.

If you are thinking about liability, then you are not sharing the vision.

I think it was Archimedes who said, "Give me a front-end loader and a condominium, and I'll show you some real damage."


1990
Heavy Lifting (continued)



When a windmill starts going, inside it the noise can be enough make you want to run for your life. Steam engines are also cool. They start slow and then speed up.

Today, we've got still got big machines, but nobody seems to have much contact with them anymore. As I. A. Richards observed in his excellent little book Practical Criticism [see below], the internal combustion engine destroyed what was left at the turn of the 20th century of modern man's sense of rhythm. Rock and roll is always the same pounding 4 beats per measure. Everyone used to ride horses and that was empowering. Just the phrase, "the man on horseback" is used to mean war or strife (isn't it?). Schubert could write piano music, for example a Graz Galop (D 735, D 925), that was based on the cadence of hoofbeats. Everyone would recognize the allusion.


1990
And speaking of I. A. Richards...



Karen Myers once told me the following story.

In high school she was in an English poetry class. The teacher was asking each student about the poem everyone had just read. The first student talked about a house, a farmer, and beautiful imagery. The second thought the whole thing was about a shipwreck. A third person thought it had to do with agriculture in some way. When it came to Karen, she said honestly that she thought the poem was really about a house burning down (which of course it was).

In the I. A. Richards Practical Criticism book, he takes an admirably scientific viewpoint toward this important question, whether all poetry is really garbage after all, and he throws out unlabelled works of the great and nongreat masters, unlabelled, to challenge the reader in the identification, who is who.


1990
An Academic Question


Q: Could demerit points be assessed to researchers who write stupid papers?


A: An excellent idea. As in the Jeopardy! game, a negative score would be possible. It's always better to remain silent than to say or write something idiotic. And after four or five really dumb papers are scored against you, internment in halfway house where no conference announcements or LaTex software would be available.

It's important to break pernicious habits and get started on the right path again.


1990
I got a problem with the Grab Bag
Don't like this L.M. Boyd
What's the use of having answers
The question is just a drag.

The tomato is a fruit, and not a vegetable
Oh thanks—now I'll tell my friends
Miss a question on double jeopardy
Now Alex Trebek is in my face.

Don't care much who was President
The survey said that he was wrong
Take a poll or count the voters
I'll spit up phlegm instead

1990
More Bard
"Hang not on my garment."

(Prospero, somewhere in the Tempest I think. Someone is bugging him by pulling on his magic robes.)

"If you show your face, you surely must not speak, but if you speak, you must not show your face..."

(One nun to another in Measure for Measure, advising virginal caution)

"Oh, hell."

(One of the suitors picks the wrong casket in a Monte Hall kind of situation—which play?)

"Is it so nominated in the bond? I cannot see it. It is not so nominated in the bond..."

(Shylock reviewing his pound of flesh contract with his counterparty)

"There is a world elsewhere."

(Coriolanus)

1991
A man, a plan


In the first hours after the US invaded Panama in December 1989 there was a rumor in Los Angeles that some sort of spontaneous resistance group had formed in Panama City and that not only the Panamanian Defense Force but also this impromptu organization was fighting US forces, door to door.

It turns out the whole thing was false. But the night of the invasion some reporter tried calling the Panamanian embassy to ask about the resistance force and he dialed the wrong number. Some unemployed guy in South L.A. picked up his phone, heard the reporter ask, “is this the Panamanian embassy?" and he had the genius to say yes, it was, and that yes, there was a resistance effort underway and if the reporter would only call back in 10 minutes, he could speak with Arturo Lopez of the People’s Organization for the Defense of Panama.

Ten minutes later the call came and in a hastily contrived accent this same unemployed man spoke passionately about the outrage of the US invasion and the current progress of the battle. He even appeared on several LA TV stations the next evening sporting a fake beard and broken English soliloquies.

Now the point of this story is simple, that if you think fast the rewards can be great and also that only real quality people ever make it into the news.

You may wish to draw other lessons.


1990
The Launch of the Hubble Space Telescope


Now that the Hubble Space telescope is up, I have a question.

In the news articles they say things like “the optics are so refined that a firefly may be distinguished at a distance of 10000 miles,” or “it could see the writing on a nickel from across the country.”

My question is this: how many fireflies and coins do they really expect to find in space? As for the writing on a nickel, isn't this already known?

It seems like these astronomers are in for some big disappointments.

I'll bet they don't find a single firefly.


1990
The Biggest Gulp

A question for the summer months: what are the fundamental physical limits (if any) that constrain the design of 7-11 soft drink cups, i.e. what is the largest possible Gulp. For example could the wax paper cup be scaled up to hold, say, 5000 gallons of Cola. If so what name would be appropriate for a Gulp of this size. Big Gulp and Super Big Gulp have already been taken. Remaining possibilites include Damn Big Gulp, One hell of a Monstrous Gulp, and Suicide Gulp. “I will have one Planetary Gulp to go please.” Sorry, it is serve yourself and the guy in front of you has only taken on 2400 of his 35000 gallons. One would have to expect such delays, also some difficult control problems on the attempt to lift a Planetary Gulp to your lips. Straws could be used but if so then they would have to be long. Also I dont think it's possible suck up more than 30 feet or so (some obvious political examples excepted) because of airpressure considerations. Trees cheat by squeezing the water up. So inevitably you would have to pick up a Planetary Gulp and the real fun would start as the liquid jostled round inside the cup. The pressure on the side of the cup at its bottom would be the real stress point and inevitably some unlucky drinkers would witness the rupture of the bottom of the cup and be swept inevitably out into the Pacific or the bay, depending on the local topography.


1990
The Great Pyramids at Kearney, Nebraska


Well over one cubic mile of the Colorado Rockies
was brought overland to this site over a 15 year period.


A massive human undertaking brought to fruition one man's dream of immortality.


10 October 1990
Explaining David Lynch's TV series, Twin Peaks

Once I took a shot at explaining the treatment of the supernatural in David Lynch's TV series Twin Peaks.

I can just hear you saying: "that sounds fascinating!" [Let me read it]


1991
TELL US ABOUT YOUR PREFERENCES

Your thoughtful completion of all of the following questions will help to provide us with initial key compatibility factors. Since all the information you provide us will be held in the strictest confidence, please answer openly and honestly.

1. What age person do you wish to meet?

I once met a person so old that he could not hear, nor see, nor speak, nor carry on conversation, nor indeed acknowledge even the strongest stimulus and it was then that I discovered: this man is dead, he is dead right here in the bed in front of me. It came as a shock you bet it did.

2. Is religion important to you? (very important, slightly important, or doesn't matter).

At Jonestown I knew a woman and we said, this man, this Jim Jones, is CRAZY and if we dont blow this Guyanan paradise we are looking the Kool-Aid right in the face. So we plunged into the jungle with loincloths and daggers saying: if we cannot emerge into civilization then we're cooked, food for Pirhana and fire ants. It was the start of a long adventure, you can believe me.

3. Do you prefer to meet someone who is:

a) Single never married
b) Divorced with no children
c) Divorced with children

Now when we decided to get married we needed a blood test and when the doctor came in with the results she said OK, everything looks OK, and that was good because we went for the AIDS test and everything. There's a law that says the doctor must ask “do you have any questions” and so I thought here's a chance to make a little joke so I said “well yes,” and then after a long pause threw out, “say we wanted to have children” pausing intentionally so as to suggest that I couldn't quite ask what I wanted. So the deal is the doctor jumped right in and told us how to do it, right there, and I thought, here is a professional, I couldnt have done that. A chastening experience.


1990
Area Crimes & Suspicious Circumstances

In various newspapers of record (whatever that means), for example, the San Francisco Examiner, itself inferior to the SF Chronicle in its premature use of color, yet superior in that it spells the word “cigarette” correctly (the Chronicle's “cigaret” being the kind of sacrifice on the altar of efficiency and wood-pulp conservation at which one has to draw the line)—now let's get a grip—in some newspapers, they have a section in which "Area Crimes" are summarized.

"Area Crimes" is a damn fine newspaper section, in my opinion. When I lived in England, I had a one-time Physics tutor, Eton-Cambridge-Coldstream Guards, who used to pop out with an abrupt "SPOT ON!" at favorable events and otherwise likable things. The Area Crimes summary, were he ever to have seen it, would surely have qualified.

The Area Crimes teach lessons, for example—the difference between robbery and burglary is that in the former, the victim is confronted—but more interesting are the catchalls used for misdeeds in the "none of the above" category.

For example, in today's Examiner, the Menlo Park police report 6 cases of "Suspicious Circumstances." There is no further explanation—one simply knows that six times, the police found something suspicious.

Maybe you are dining at a fine Menlo Park establishment, Su Hong or something more proletarian. Just as you are about to pay, an unfamiliar man in spats appears and offers to pick up your tab. Say it happens again the next night at Star Pizza maybe. Anyway, you get the idea—this is the kind of thing that pops into my head—"Suspicious Circumstances." It's only one possibility of course, and perhaps it's not a crime, but the police should probably be looking into it.

The Menlo Park and Palo Alto police are not too busy anyway. I called them because I heard scratching noises outside our apartment one time, and before you could say "Possum" the dispatcher assured me that she had "Three Units Responding." There were spotlights moving up and down the far side of the building and the critter was turned up soon enough.

Imprisoned with hardened lawbreakers, that animal will never be the same again.


1990
News reporting



Thoreau explained why it is pointless to read newspapers, because the new news is the same as the old news. If you have read one account of the shipwrecked sailboat adrift in the Pacific, or one account of a big fire at a warehouse say, or a train wreck or a bus plunge, anyway you get the idea, you have read them all, Thoreau said, and he summarized by saying, “the last real piece of news was the French Revolution.”

Now that was the last century. But it still applies. And Political philosophy doesn't seemed to have advanced much either. For example, if you've read Malthus or David Ricardo you could be quite the spin doctor on say, the David Brinkley show, or whatever the hell that show is called.

While we are on the subject, I would like to ask, what the hell is the deal with Brinkley's lip. Is it old age, or what is that crease anyway. Clearly it's not your typical cosmetic deal—if they could cover it up with a spackle of cream or something I think they would go for it.


Wed 12 December 1990
Sprog, Double Sprog, Triple Sprog

A sprog is an error.

The double sprog:
1) A man approaches a set of double doors, both labelled “Pull.” He does not know that the left door is locked. Reaching them, he first pulls on the left door (a sprog, but not scored against him). Sprog #1: He pushes on the right door. Sprog #2: He returns to the left door, and tries pushing it.

2) In basketball, a turnover followed by a foul.
I witnessed the following triple sprog in Lincoln, NE:

A man driving a 1984 Brown Buick Electra approaches a railroad intersection just after the automatic guard bar has descended.
Sprog #1: He fails to notice that there is a police car behind him, and makes the decision to circumnavigate the bar.
Sprog #2: As he moves into the intersection he realizes that traffic is stopped just beyond the crossing so he cannot get across. Shifting the car rapidly into reverse, he slams into the police car (now immediately behind him).
Sprog #3: Not realizing that the approaching train is on another track, he brings the car sharply forward so as to make a U-turn on the tracks. But as he is turning the wheels drop perfectly into the tracks of the oncoming train.
At this point I had to leave my own car (two behind the police car) to run for cover, so I missed any of the additional sprogs that may have taken place between his abandoning the car and the impact.