Thursday, March 31, 2005

Tow the line

The other day at Obsidian Wings someone wrote "tow the line" instead of the slightly-mysterious phrase "toe the line". I said that since lines are massless, they're easy to tow.

Now having actually putting in a second's thought, I realize this isn't right. First off, one can (if I remember any math) smoothly deform a cube into a line by approaching the limits correctly, so a line could have any mass. And that's based on the incorrect model that matter is like pudding - continuous instead of made of discrete elements of perhaps zero volume - points or curves.

And massless objects move at the speed of light. (Not that "mass" here means "rest mass", the mass the object has when measured in a frame in which it's not moving.) The reason for this is that, as Einstein realized 100 years ago, you move at the speed of light or somebody can see you sitting still (by going as fast as you are) - and if your rest mass is zero and someone sees you in that state, you vanish in a puff of vacuum. Massless object are the sharks of physics - they can't stop moving or they die. Or the birds of physics - you can fly or you can have a big brain, but not both. Or whatever.

(The fact that light moves at the speed of light falls out of electromagnetism - c can be calculated from two other constants which appear in some I guess old formulations of Maxwell's equations; one of the constants is called "the permeability of free space" unless I'm making stuff up. Maxwell's equations don't care about which non-accelerating frame of reference you live in, so the speed of light is the same no matter how you look at it.)

As far as I know it would be a real pain to tow something moving at the speed of light.

A thousand simulated seasons, summarized

In physics, especially in high energy particle physics, one does a lot of Monte Carlo simulations, so I was delighted to see this 1000-event projection of the 2005 baseball season using two different models. SG sent me the Diamond Mind projection system data from which I extracted the following:

The Gaussian fit has a good chi-squared per degree of freedom and has the Yankees over Boston by about 2 games on average. There's a little spike at Boston winning by 20 games, but somehow I suspect the Boss would throw money at the problem if NY got that far behind. On the other hand the Yankees are a, well, mature team - Crosby apparently will be the youngest guy on the 25-man roster at age 28.

In the same spirit, this would be an exciting season. The actual thing is just around the corner - what could be better than real data?


Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Er voll der Marmorschale Rund

A Lesson From Michelangelo by James Fenton is the first essay in his collection The Strength of Poetry, which is drawn from his Oxford lectures. It's one of the best essays I've ever read. Fenton, a war reporter, poet, and critic, talks in the most sympathetic way possible about human failings and triumphs in the context of artistic influence.

Here's how the essay starts:
In old age, Giambologna used to tell his friends the story of how, as a young man, a Flemish sculptor newly arrived in Rome, he made a model to his own original design, finished it coll'alito, "with his breath"—that is to say, with the utmost care, bringing it to the very peak of finish—and went to show it to the great Michelangelo. And Michelangelo took the model in his hands and completely destroyed it, and then remodeled it according to his way of thinking, and did so with marvelous skill, so that the outcome was quite the opposite of what the young man had done. And then Michelangelo said to Giambologna: Now go and learn the art of modeling before you learn the art of finishing.

Here's a random wonderful paragraph:
It's not enough to fail. You have to come to feel your failure, to live it through, to turn it over in your hand, like a stone with strange markings. You have to wake up in the middle of the night and hear it whistling around the roof, or chomping in the field below, like some loyal horse—My failure, my very own failure, I thought I'd left it behind in Florence, but look, it's followed me here to Rome. And the horse looks up at you in the moonlight and you feel its melancholy reproach. This is after all the failure for which you were responsible. Why are you neglecting your failure?

Well, read the whole thing. Fenton has pithy, hilarious things to say about relationships between Renaissance sculptors, about Wordsworth and Keats, about the Wordsworths and "Kubla Khan". He describes Flaubert reading The Temptation of St. Anthony to two friends for thirty-two hours then asking what they thought, upon which one looked at the other and said, We think you should throw it in the fire and never speak of it again.

In fact it turns out in fact that the essay is not exactly about artistic influence, it's about artistic influence and friendship. It ends with Giambologna having a dialogue with himself and then a companion that's too true to life to be false, e.g.,
And Giambologna says: "Michelangelo's idea of modeling, I mean, his idea of modeling, is sticking a couple of breasts on a bloke to make a woman. That's his idea of modeling!"

And the friend says: "Yes, Jean, yes, come and have a drink."

But Giambologna says: "He talks about learning to model before you learn to finish. I mean—what does he know about finishing? When was the last time he ever finished anything? Tell me! When?"

"Sistine Chapel?" says the friend, but Giambologna doesn't hear.

If the NY Review of Books link doesn't work for you - I can see it today, yesterday I couldn't - you can find the essay in The Strength of Poetry (the rest of which is good but not scintillating for the most part - well, there's excellent stuff about Auden) or in The Best American Essays 1996.

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und fallend giesst

My arches have started to fall, a reminder that the patient Earth will reclaim her own. Actually it's just a touch of plantar fasciitis, probably as much due to my nightly attempts to get my hamstrings to stretch as to gravity. I got a bit of advice off the web and plan to pick up a pair of running shoes less neutral than my old pair.

After I stretched my calves the other night, I felt a tendency in them to cramp after I got into bed. The pulling-apart pain of plantar fasciitis is like that of cramp. I lay motionless, trying to relax the muscles by force of will, and imagined what it would be like to be unable to move due to shackles or injury. It brought the suffering of detainees in stress positions more clearly into focus.

I've heard that one of the consequences of being long bedridden is deformation of the ankles and feet (which would explain Uma Thurman's in Kill Bill II). It's currently slightly uncomfortable for me to sleep flat on my back - our bed is not long, and my feet end up at the tightly-tucked-in foot of the bed. I would guess this is in part the cause of the above problem for people in PVSs. Thinking about this made me feel even more pity for Terri Schiavo, though it's just a tear in a sea of troubles. Sometimes one can only understand something awful through a small detail. Of all the horrible facts reported in The Gulag Archipelago (another fallen arch), one of the most affecting was the proscription of sleeping with one's hands under the blanket - the guards had learned that trying to sleep with one's hands out in the cold was a small but special torment.

I guess that in the future we'll all dehydrate to death thanks to medical advances. We need to come up with the appropriate equivalent of "starve". It'll be sad to no longer be able to cry, to feel a drop of salty water fall down one's cheek on its way back to the sea.

Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Aufsteigt der Strahl

This is not a blog about German poetry, though I love a number of German poems. I chose the title because I comment as "rilkefan", principally at Obsidian Wings. The url refers to a poem by guess who.

This blog may perhaps be about English poetry eventually, but for the moment I just want to have a place to direct people to my wedding page.