Company Theme Song

About 1990, the CSX railroad and American Airlines found that they were handling multi-modal shipments together. They each had their individual electronic tracking and tracing systems. It was a natural move to link those systems together. To do so, they formed a joint venture called Global Logistics Venture (GLV). Over the years, it had its ups and downs, and changed its name to Encompass and later BridgePoint. We linked to other carriers, including ocean and trucking.

I was one of the first employees, doing programming and analysis. I was part of a skunk works project. We put together a large database showing all the movements of goods that any of the carriers in the project was able to perform, and used it to generate an itinerary for any shipment.

For the 1994 annual company meeting, my boss, Rick Poff, wanted to put on a dog and pony show.He asked me to write a theme song for it. I said sure, if I could do it on company time.Rick loved it, and asked me for the sheet music again and again. For the  show, he cobbled me a container costume. It was a big box hanging from my shoulders on suspenders.About a dozen of us sang this song:



  1. I’ve got a load of freight to move across the state.If it’s not there tomorrow, There’s  a fine. I’ve got to move this crate, and it can’t get there late, or else my job will lay right on the line. Encompass, tell me where my cargo’s gone, Is it en route or is it on my lawn? Please say it’s almost there, ’cause if it’s not, I’m in a pot of water and it’s getting hot.
  2. . I’ve got a full truck load that should be on the road. It’s due in North Dakota in a week. I sent a brand-new chair to Singapore by air, And when the chair got there it was antique. Encompass, let me see your crystal ball. Let me say, “Mirror, mirror on my wall.” Encompass, let me rub your magic lamp. I’m not a chump if you can help me be a champ.
  3. I’ve got a full container bound for Transylvania on the Lusitania, and I hope She doesn’t hit a reef, she doesn’t come to grief; it’s full of iron bars, not Ivory Soap. Encompass, help me pick which goods to ship, and find the route that’s fastest for the trip.Each carrier summon to a rendezvous, and track and trace and see how good a job they do. If you can do all these, Logistics is a breeze. I want all this and more in ninety-four!
    For the 1995 company meeting, we reprised the song, updating the last line, to go “We’ve got the basics down, it’s time to go to town–the future will arrive in ninety-five!”

The Failure of “Candide”

Voltaire’s Candide is one of the most celebrated philosophical novels of all time. It is generally understood as an attempted refutation of Leibnitz’s optimism. Leibnitz’s position is usually summarized, “All is for the best in this best of all possible worlds.”
We all know there’s a lot wrong with the world, so what Leibnitz is saying can only mean that if you adjusted something to fix one problem, that very adjustment would cause other problems that might be even worse. In other words, that alternate world is not even as good as this world.

Any debate on this question can only be speculative. We can’t perform experiments. We don’t have the power to make marginal changes to the world that fix specific problems. If we did, and new problems popped up, how would we know whether they were consequences of the changes we made?

Voltaire’s response is not much more than a flat-out contradiction, without supporting evidence. He shows us some truly awful things happening in this world. He expects us to conclude that there must be a possibility of a better world somehow. He just doesn’t give us any details on how that could come about. A world without devastating earthquakes would be an improvement. Is that really possible? (Spike Jones and his City Slickers did a cover of Ghost Riders in the Sky, where they sang “On horses snorting fire!” Slicker: “Is that possible?” Jones: “How would I know?”) Same here. Earthquakes seem to be a consequence of plate tectonics. Is it possible to have a planet teeming with diverse forms of life with a solid unitary crust over a long time span? How would Voltaire or Leibnitz know?
The progressive   mindset is influenced by Darwinism and is based on the assumption that things get better and better over time. That mistakes don’t last long. They die out by natural selection. Candide doesn’t even make that argument. Voltaire seems to make it an article of faith. And I don’t see how natural selection could cause earthquakes to die out.


A Lecture by H.S.M. Coxeter

The eminent geometer H.S.M. Coxeter (not to be confused with a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta) gave a colloquium at Caltech on Feb. 8, 1977. I attended it, and while it was fresh in my mind, I wrote the following account. Coxeter came into the lecture hall amid a bunch of students. They had probably just had a departmental tea. The students were grungier than I expected. At Johns Hopkins, male students were expected to wear a tie to colloquia.

Coxeter looked at the usual empty seats in the front rows, and invited anyone to come closer and get a better view of the blackboard. He was bald on top, fringed with cute curly white hair, not large in stature, and continually grinned in an engaging way. As he paused, no one came forward. He repeated the invitation. One student got up and moved to the front, and the rest all applauded.

He spoke about certain patterns of numbers and their geometric relationships. It was all very easy to follow; he’s a good teacher, as I heard some of the students comment after the lecture. He did absent-mindedly make a few mistakes. He caught some of them. I never correct anyone else’s slip of the chalk, because it doesn’t impede my own understanding, and if it did impede another listener’s, it was up to that other to ask. Nit-picking just slows down the lecture.

At one point he had us all laughing. There is a number that crops up in innumerable ways. It’s φ=(1 +5)/2, about 1.618. It’s called the golden section, mainly because if you take a rectangle whose sides are φ and 1, and cut off a 1×1 square, the remaining piece is the same shape as the original rectangle. That is, (φ-1):1 :: 1:φ.


Φ appears again in the Fibonacci series-the numbers 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, …, where each number is the sum of the previous two. The Fibonacci series developed from the question, if one pair of rabbits produces another pair of (baby) rabbits every month, and baby rabbits are ready to breed in their turn after two months have gone by, how many pairs of rabbits will there be after so many months? But Fibonacci numbers crop up in all sorts of unexpected ways. The number of seeds in one spiral of a sunflower or the number of spines around a pineapple is almost always a Fibonacci number, for instance. Now, it turns out that the ratio between consecutive Fibonacci (“fee-bone-otchy”) numbers approaches φ. The first few ratios are 1/1, 2/1, 3/2, 5/3, 8/5, 13/8, …, which as decimal numbers are 1, 2, 1.5, 1.66666…, 1.6, 1.625, …; the farther on you go, the closer you get to 1.618.

In his talk, Coxeter alluded to the golden section, which is the length of a diagonal of a pentagon whose side is 1. He called it τ (the Greek lower-case tau), even though most people call it φ (the Greek letter phi). I pronounce φ “fie,” but many equally erudite people pronounce it “fee”). The Greek letters ξπφχψ are xi, pi, phi, chi, and psi. I aim for consistency, and rhyme them all with “pie” for π, and I don’t hear anyone calling π “pee.” Coxeter explained that τ is for τομοσ, which is Greek for ‘cut.’ He joked, “People who call it φ are just making a feeble pun on Fibonacci,” and everyone laughed. I remember one other risible moment in a math colloquium. One problem in abstract algebra is the classification and enumeration of groups. The visiting professor strove mightily and concluded, “So there are exactly eleven groups of this type.” The students laughed, because they realized that it had been ages since anyone had mentioned a number lower than twenty in their classes or lectures. As a rule, math grad students don’t deal with specific numbers; they represent them with letters or other symbols. Besides, most classes of groups that we knew had infinite numbers of members: the cyclic groups of order n, for any positive integer n; similarly for the symmetric groups, or groups of permutations on n elements, again for any n.

Against Ibsen

In one of my high school classrooms, there was a motivational (?) poster with this quote from Henrik Ibsen: “I hold that man is in the right who is most closely in league with the future.” I was bothered by the implications even then. I hold that a craven attitude. If in the future a majority decides that X is OK, that makes it OK.

With that attitude, what’s the point in fighting wrong or injustice? Today is yesterday’s future. We must all acknowledge that some things are wrong in the present. Most of that wrong in today’s world is the result of someone in the past who thought he was in the right, and because the wrong was then in the future, by Ibsen’s standard, he was in the right.

Continental Drift

In a world full of uncertainty, you might hope to find indisputable facts to cling to in anything as big and solid as the continents. How many continents are there, anyway? If you went to American schools, you probably learned there were seven: Africa, Antarctica, Asia, Australia, Europe, North America, and South America. If you went to school in Europe, you may well have learned that there were six. America would have been described as one continent, encompassing both north and south.

Are islands parts of continents? Almost everyone agrees that the United Kingdom is in Europe.

And is the island of Cyprus part of Asia or of Europe? There is disagreement on that question. I suspect that Greeks would like to call it part of Europe, and Turks, part of Asia, in each case to strengthen their countries’ claims over the island. Politics also affects whether the Republic of Georgia, in the Caucasus, is considered part of Asia or of Europe. Even when a widely accepted definition of the line between Asia and Europe is used, it’s not clear whether the 2014 winter Olympics (Sochi) were held in Asia or in Europe. More details of the issues involved are presented at the Statoids site.


Envelope Art

When my fiancée was studying French in France, I wrote to her frequently. Sometimes I got artistic with the envelopes. Lots of other people have also created envelope art.


The Postal Service had issued a set of souvenir sheets for the bicentennial. Each one reproduced a painting from the American Revolution, with stamps that could be punched out. I took the one of Washington Crossing the Delaware, and clipped out the part I wanted to use, so that I could reinterpret an oarsman as a pool player.


Rally Without a Cause

I was introduced to road rallying when I was in graduate school. Motor sports enthusiasts may use the phrase “road rally” for a more specialized exercise. I don’t know of a better name for this game. Please allow me to continue calling it that for the rest of this post.

It was an activity of my church group. One of the members made up a list of directions and questions. The competitors formed two-person teams, each with a car. One person drove, and the other navigated. We drove around rural Baltimore County, following the directions on the sheet. Most of the directions were straightforward, like “Left at STOP,” but some were creative, needing judgment. As we drove, we tried to answer the questions, which were based on sights along the route. The directions took us to a park. We were judged on the number of miles on our odometer, and the number of correct answers. Only correct distance counted, not time.

It was so much fun, my friend Dave and I planned another such rally in Connecticut, and then another one. Independently of me, a student group at the college where I taught in New Hampshire organized one. Janice (later my wife) and I competed in it.

When Janice and I were living in California, we planned two rallies for our couples group at our church.

How do you plan a road rally? First, pick a starting and a finishing point. A park with picnic tables is usually good to end up at. Then drive from the start to the finish, taking careful notes as you go. You can take any promising detours you see, bearing in mind that participants may get impatient if the route is very circuitous.

Your notes will be the basis for the directions on the sheet you hand out. They should be easy to follow, because it’s no fun to get lost and maybe not even arrive at the destination. (In California, we gave out penalty envelopes that you could unseal if you needed to recalibrate your route.) It’s best to provide a direction for every STOP sign, the red octagons, even if it’s only “Straight at STOP.” Straight is the default if no direction is given. You must also take notes for questions along the way. Observe any quaint or unusual objects visible from the route. We went by a house whose owner had erected about a twelve-foot pole in the front yard, with a birdhouse at the top, and “AIR MAIL” painted on the birdhouse.

From your notes, type up a list of directions and questions. I would advise driving the whole route again, with a navigator who is not going to participate in the rally, to make sure that everything is in the right sequence, and that your directions are accurate and understandable, and that features are not going to change between now and the date of the rally. Also, it’s good to know a reasonable length of time to allow for the course, so that the rally will get to the park before it closes.

When you’re satisfied, run off about ten copies of the list, and invite a number of friends to meet at the starting point, telling them what they’re in for. Here is part of the invitation we used in California.


At around that time, there really was an incomplete freeway overpass in southern California.