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December 29, 2003

From The Young American

No one should be a governor who has not a talent for governing. Now many people have a native skill for carving out business for many hands; a genius for the disposition of affairs; and are never happier than when difficult practical questions, which embarrass other men, are to be solved. All lies in light before them; they are in their element. Could any means be contrived to appoint only those!

Ralph Waldo Emerson, ``The Young American,'' a lecture read before the Mercantile Library Association, Boston, February 7, 1844

Posted by tplambeck at 11:48 PM

No Photoshop

A digital photo of Gloria climbing stairs into the Stanford football stadium. It looks like it's been photoshopped (click it), but it wasn't.


Posted by tplambeck at 11:15 PM

December 24, 2003

Death by black hole

From Gravitation, a gigantic textbook on General Relativity by Misner, Thorne, and Wheeler, in Section 32.6, "Gore at the Singularity" (pg 860):

Consider the plight of an experimental astrophysicist who stands on the surface of a freely falling star as it collapses to R=0.

As the collapse proceeds toward R=0, the various parts of the astrophysicist's body experience different gravitational forces. His feet, which are on the surface of the star, are attracted toward the star's center by an infinitely mounting gravitational force; while his head, which is farther away, is accelerated downward by a somewhat smaller, though ever rising force. The difference between the two accelerations (tidal force) mounts higher and higher as the collapse proceeds, finally becoming infinite as R reaches zero. The astrophysicist's body, which cannot withstand such extreme forces, suffers unlimited stretching between head and foot as R drops to zero.

But this is not all. Simultaneous with this head-to-foot stretching, the astrophysicist is pulled by the gravitational field into regions of spacetime with ever-decreasing circumferential area, 4 pi r squared. In order to accomplish this, tidal gravitational forces must compress the astrophysicist on all sides as they stretch him from head to foot. The circumferential compression is actually more extreme than the longitudinal stretching; so the astrophysicist, in the limit R->0, is crushed to zero volume and indefinitely extended length.

The above discussion can be put on a mathematical footing as follows.

There are three stages in the killing of the astrophysicist: (1) in the early stage, when his body successfully resists the tidal forces; (2) the intermediate stage, when it is gradually succumbing; and (3) the final stage, when it has been completely overwhelmed.

Posted by tplambeck at 10:08 PM


Still thinking of solitaire, or history. Solitaire represents the play of chance. A good mathematician could calculate the probability of a game's working out. And if two individuals were to set themselves to solving the problem competitively, the natural result would be that they would both find the same percentage of solutions to the same game. But the point of the competition should be to determine who can find more solutions in a given time. The best player is not the one who plays the fastest, but the one who breaks off the most games at the earliest moment, as soon as he foresees their lack of solution. In the supreme art of taking advantage of chance, the superiority of a player consists in his being able to make up his mind to abandon one game in time to start another. The same goes for politics and life.

Miguel de Unamuno, "How to Make a Novel," 1926

Posted by tplambeck at 09:34 PM

December 21, 2003

From the photo archives

A pumpkin globe.

Pottery display inside an industrial kiln.

At lunch, Annie conjures a mysterious plasma (see background table), drawing the attention of a supernatural police officer (woman in red, with protective sunglasses).

A few months earlier, two other possible representatives of the supernatural police forces, (downtown Palo Alto).

Drywall still life with stepladder and Wet-Dry Vac.

Posted by tplambeck at 09:57 PM



"Thane E Plambeck" as a Code 128 barcode.

Try your own

Posted by tplambeck at 08:35 PM

December 17, 2003

Karate class


Owen had a karate ceremony [big photo] today.

Moving nearer to take a better photo, I was accosted by the sensei, who scared me a little bit. [32 second MPG video, 2.86 Mb]

"Uh, just taking a few photos, that's all," I mumbled. I thought perhaps I was disturbing the harmonic Zen of the ceremony—and no doubt I was—but as it turned out, she was simply offering to pose for me.

Posted by tplambeck at 10:03 PM

Christmas letter

The Stanford Sierra Camp photographer took a good photo of the four us this summer by impersonating a raisin, trying to talk. Everyone knows raisins can’t talk, so he squinched up his face and made a high-pitched whining noise, instead. His face turned bright red and I thought his head might possibly explode. We all thought it was funny, as you can see.

Perhaps you’ll want to try this at your next family photoshoot. I can’t guarantee you’ll have the same results.

We went to Stanford Sierra Camp over the week of the 4th of July. We’ll go next year too, and the year after that, if all goes according to plan, then we’ll have the opportunity to "stop out" for a year, without losing our place for the following year. The food is excellent there and the staff, accommodating. It takes place at Fallen Leaf Lake, which is close to Lake Tahoe.

We went to Hawaii in March, and back and forth to San Francisco and Yosemite various times during the year. During the summer, Cole (8) and Owen (5) were involved in day camps in Palo Alto—pirate camp, tennis camp, dragons and dinosaurs camp. Cole made a nice catch in a baseball game. He’s in a kid’s gymnastics program at Stanford. Owen started Kindergarten, played soccer, and liked to have me read Harry Potter to him, until it got too scary (midway through Volume 3, The Prisoner of Azkaban). Gloria managed all the household affairs. We got a dog, a golden retriever puppy, and named her Pearl. Thane made good progress on a math problem he was working on and created a web site about it, although it’s probably not as fascinating to you as it is to him (I take the majestic third person in recounting this). Cole had a first gymnastics meet in Petaluma. He’s in third grade at Walter Hays Elementary, with Owen. Sometimes they ride their scooters to school together.

We still have Norbert and Sophie, our cats, although we don’t see quite so much of them. They’re hiding from the dog.

We remodeled our kitchen. It turned out very nicely, although the project took a bit longer than expected (7 months) as we waited for the concrete countertops to be poured and installed. The wall dividing our kitchen from our dining room is gone, and we added a sliding glass door to the courtyard.

We got rid of our TV.

Thane’s mother died of cancer at home on 3 October 2003 in Kearney, Nebraska, cared for to the last moment by Thane’s father Vern. She was born 27 September 1935. So we continue, without her.

Thane, Gloria, Cole, and Owen
2341 Tasso Street
Palo Alto, California 94301
650 321 4816

Postscript: Gloria says this letter is “too short and choppy—you go on for three paragraphs about Stanford Sierra Camp, and then it’s just `X did this, Y did that.’ ” I replied, “why should I write something longer if I can say it in fewer words?” On the other hand, I did just go back and put in some more stuff, so this isn’t quite what she read in the first draft. What do you think?

Posted by tplambeck at 10:42 AM

December 16, 2003



On July 16, 1979, Saddam Hussein, who had been the number two man in Iraqi politics for eleven years, [wanted] to shove aside his superior, the ailing President Ahmad Hasan al-Bakar, and have himself declared President. At the time of his takeover, Saddam was convinced that at least 5 of his closest friends and colleagues in the Iraqi leadership had some reservations about his succession.

So, on the eve of his ascension, he had one of them arrested---Muhyi Abd al-Husayn al-Muashhadi, the secretary-general of the Iraqi Baath Party. Al-Mashhadi was then apparently tortured into agreeing to make a confession that he was planning to topple Saddam with some help of some other members of the leadership.

Then, on July 22, with real theatrical flair, Saddam convened an extraordinary meeting of the Iraqi Baath Party Regional Congress in order to hear al-Mashadi's confession---live. As al-Mashadi would tell his story and mention the name of someone else in the leadership involved in the bogus plot, that person would have to stand, and then a guard would drag him from the chamber. Al-Mashadi just “happened” to mention as co-conspirators the four other members of Iraq's ruling Revolutionary Command Council---Mohammed Ayish, Mohammed Mahjub, Husayn al-Hamdani, and Ghanim Abd al-Jalil---who Saddam felt were not totally supportive of him. A videotape of the confessions was then distributed to Baath Party branches across Iraq, as well as to army units; a few bootleg copies even made their way to Kuwait and Beirut.

A Lebanese friend of mine saw the video and described it as follows:

“This guy would be reciting his confession and he would come to a person and say, `And then we went to see Mohammed to ask him to join the conspiracy.' And this Mohammed would have to stand. And you could see this guy crying, his knees shaking, and he could barely stay on his feet. And then this guy would say, `But he refused to help us,' and then this Mohammed would slump back into his chair, exhausted with relief, and they would move on to the next guy. I had nightmares about this video for months...”

From Beirut to Jerusalem by Thomas Friedman, pg 97-98.
Posted by tplambeck at 01:09 AM

21 August 1911

The picture of dissatisfaction of a street, where everyone is perpetually lifting his feet to escape from the place where he stands.

Franz Kafka, Diaries, 1900-1913

Posted by tplambeck at 12:55 AM

December 14, 2003

Time machines

No one should accuse today's physicists of ignoring the problems we're all interested in. What could be more interesting than TIME TRAVEL?

Hint in reading the following: Roughly speaking, if there are "closed timelike curves," (CTCs), it means that in principle, time travel to the past is possible, and you could go back and shoot your grandpa. (Not that you would want to, of course).

From the conclusion to the paper
"Energy-Momentum Restrictions on the Creation of Gott Time Machines,''
by Sean M. Carroll, Edward Farhi, Alan H. Guth, and Ken D. Olum.

Complete paper:


The role played by closed timelike curves is an important issue in classical general relativity, and may be important in an ultimate quantum version of the theory. The general theorems of Tipler and Hawking are strong statements about the difficulty of creating CTC's, but incomplete in that they do not specify what will go wrong with any particular attempt at time machine construction. In this paper we have studied some specific obstacles to the creation of time machines of the type discovered by Gott [8], using the considerable simplification accorded by working in the toy model of (2+1)-dimensional gravity. These obstacles are most easily understood by considering the anti-de Sitter geometry of the 3-dimensional Lorentz group, in which we find that Gott time machines cannot lie to the past of collections of particles with timelike momentum and deficit angle less than 2 pi. We then use this fact to show that a Gott time machine cannot be created in an open universe with a timelike total momentum, essentially because there can never be enough energy in an open universe to achieve the Gott condition.
OK, I know—it sounds like a negative result. It's at least encouraging that people are working on the right problem.

further reading

Posted by tplambeck at 10:21 PM

December 13, 2003

Incomplete Bruckner

While helping me load the complete Bruckner symphonies into the first nine slots of the Volvo's 10-CD changer, Owen discovered a little problem:


"Where is number six?"

Naturally, I complained to Amazon.

Hello from Amazon.com.

I was not able to find the order you asked about using the e-mail address on your message. Please note that, for security reasons, we can only send order information to the e-mail address that is associated with the account...

Damn. They were right—I bought it at Tower Records. And I shredded the receipt.

Anyone want an extra Bruckner ninth?

Posted by tplambeck at 10:18 PM

December 12, 2003

From East Coker

So here I am, in the middle way, having had twenty years—
Twenty years largely wasted, the years of l'entre deux guerres—
Trying to learn to use words, and every attempt
Is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure
Because one has only learnt to get the better of words
For the thing one no longer has to say, or the way in which
One is no longer disposed to say it.

—T. S. Eliot, EAST COKER, 1940

Posted by tplambeck at 10:10 PM

December 10, 2003

December 09, 2003

Noxious Weed Busting


I once worked as a member of a "ground crew" whose assignment was the extermination of noxious weeds. The Nebraska State department of Agriculture has an official list of weeds it classifies as "noxious." Not every weed is noxious. For example, some familiar weeds, such as dandelions, are not.

To kill a dandelion is nothing. The noxious weed is a real opponent. You cannot kill a noxious weed with your bare hands. You need a weapon.

On my first day at work, I was introduced to Zane Roper, a seventy year-old man who had been fighting noxious weeds for decades. He gave me a terse introduction to noxious weeds and the weapons that would be at our disposal.

"We're going to spray Thistles today. You drive the jeep, and I'll walk behind with the gun. Don't get too goddamn far ahead of me. Take those jugs of 2,4-D. I'm going back for the long hoes and the keys to the loader; you fill the tank with diesel, put on these gloves, pour in two jugs and start the mixer. On the way out, remind me to tell you what Shattercane and Texas Sand Burr looks like. If Gordon comes by ask him what the hell we're going to do with the tree spade...."

I was overwhelmed by the terminology. "Long hoes?" Wasn't 2,4-D some kind of toxic chemical? The names of the weeds seemed particularly sinister. If Zane was going to carry a gun, would I be issued one too?

Every year, each of 93 Nebraska counties elects a Weed Control Deputy. The position is not one to be taken lightly—the Deputy's responsibility is nothing less than to ensure that it is people who rule in his county, and not noxious weeds. Travelling through Nebraska, one might conclude that it is entirely natural that corn should grow there. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Noxious weeds governed Nebraska for 50 million years before man arrived. The modern farmer has only recently driven the noxious weed into eclipse, and it requires all his ingenuity to keep the weed down.

The first Europeans, hoping to find arable land in the American west, had experienced weeds before: so they thought. They had given names to their European weeds to indicate their qualities—Shepherd's Hat, Dandelion, Mock Carrot. Finding a weed in his field, the farmer simply reached down and pulled it out. But when these weed-naive farmers arrived in the Great American high plains, they found the way completely blocked by weeds so horribly unfamiliar that a new genre of hellish names was invented for their description: Binding Grass, Witches Bristle, Shattercane, Musk Thistle, Texas Sand Burr. The agricultural journals kept at the time are filled with long passages about the horrible weeds. Farmers went bankrupt and starved, unable to conquer them.

Nebraska law requires farmers to keep their land free of noxious weeds. Although most succeed, there are inevitable delinquencies and pockets of weeds where even the diligent farmer is overwhelmed. Noxious weed control boards, governed by their deputies, are formed as a sort of agricultural Special Weapons and Tactics team.

Zane and I were just a small part of one team, working in one county, concentrating on one principal opponent: the Musk Thistle.

A stand of Musk Thistle may be briefly described as a cornfield in hell. Where sweet corn stands straight, green, neatly arranged in rows and wafting in the breeze, the Musk Thistle stands twisted, densely packed, spiky and rigid, with a hideous purplish eye at the top. A corn stalk may grow to nine feet; Musk Thistles can stand twelve. A naked man, standing amongst a few hundred Musk Thistles, could hardly hope to escape alive. He would be cut into fine slices in the attempt. It is a fertile weed: where 200 Thistles stood on Monday, 1000 might stand on Wednesday. There is no animal that can eat a noxious weed. Insects are repelled by them. All of modern agricultural technology is required to defeat just one.

To kill a Musk Thistle, I was to learn, one burns, poisons, and uproots it. All three operations are necessary. A burnt and poisoned thistle will recover. An uprooted thistle will reroot itself. One does not hope for victory over the Thistles. The best satisfaction comes in knowing that you have at least delivered them a blow.

Zane had been fighting them his entire adult life.

After we had loaded all the equipment, Zane paused for a moment and pointed at the ground beneath us. "Do you see that? That's a goddamn watermelon sprout. Looks the world like Witches Bristle, but it isn't. It's the sort of thing we're up against. Try to figure out what's a weed, and what isn't. It looks like a hot day. We'll have the miserable bitches curling by lunch."

I started the jeep and we pulled away from the Weed Shed, pulling 100 gallons of a highly toxic mixture of diesel fuel and 2,4-D. Zane had a crude map drawn on the back of a Malathion advertisement which was to direct us to the site of our first engagement with the Thistles. We had barely driven half a mile into the rolling ranch land when Zane raised his hand. It was his signal to stop the jeep.

"There's a Thistle," he said in a cool tone. He pointed ahead over the hood of the jeep. I saw a five-foot high stalk with the purple eye fixed on us, and was momentarily transfixed. Still, I gathered my courage and began to get out of the jeep.

"Where are you going?" Zane asked. "Run it over with the jeep, then I'll finish it off."

There were to be many times when I would turn to Zane in the jeep, admiring him; this was a man who knew how to kill a weed. I put the jeep into gear and plowed over the Thistle. Pausing triumphantly, I looked to him for my next orders. But Zane was already out of the jeep, standing silently over the now horizontal thistle. He held a freshly-sharpened long hoe in his hand. By the time I had gotten out of the jeep, Zane was working violently over Thistle, in apparent victory yet striking at it sharply with the honed edge of the long hoe, splitting its stalk into dozens of fragments. The original plant was unrecognizable in the pulp of stalk, ooze and thistle-points. Still Zane seemed unsatisfied, and he pointed to the 100 gallon trailer we pulled behind the jeep.

"Damn serious," Zane said quietly, "and about to go to seed. Start the sprayer." He pointed at the tank we pulled behind the jeep. It fed a special spraying gun that was pressurized by an additional engine at the back of the jeep. On Zane's signal I threw a lever, and he sprayed the near-dead Thistle. Later, on larger stands of weeds, I would move in his perimeter, striking as many thistles as possible near their roots with a machete. Diesel fuel will kill a less hardy plant almost immediately. To kill a thistle, a hot day is also required-"to bake them miserable bitches good," as Zane would often say.

On a good day we could hope to significantly slow the advance of a few thousand thistles on an acre or two.

Posted by tplambeck at 11:09 AM

December 08, 2003

IQ Zoo

A mysterious token from a garage sale.



Posted by tplambeck at 12:44 PM

December 07, 2003

Movable Type

I'm trying to get MovableType to work on this machine.

If all goes well, this will be the first entry.

Posted by tplambeck at 10:44 PM

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