Monthly Archives: January 2006

We Meet Monsieur Gurdjieff

I’ve alluded rather obliquely in some of my posts to various schools of inner development, without going into a lot of detail. I’d like to begin to talk about one such system with which I have had various levels of contact all of my life. The ideas in question are those brought to the West by the Greek/Armenian teacher G.I. Gurdjieff.

Looks Like It’s Clearing Up

Here’s an image I ran across this morning. All that’s missing are Dorothy and her little dog.

twister and rainbow

Wretched Refuse

Here in New York City the Sanitation Department will pick up pretty much anything you leave out for them. Unwanted furniture, old stoves, Christmas trees, paint cans, wooden planks, TV sets, you name it – just leave it at curbside and it’s gone the next day, gobbled up by the big white truck’s insatiable hydraulic maw. But a while back I managed to find the one thing that the system chokes on:

Gung Hey Fa Choy

Tonight is the beginning of the Year of the Dog, lunar year 4703. It is called “bingxu” in the “Stem-Branch” system, which repeats a name every 60 years.

Congratulations, and may you prosper.

Vino et Veritas

Having written a post earlier about James Frey’s book A Million Little Pieces, I probably should remark on the recent brouhaha, which you would have had to have been in a persistent vegetative state not to have noticed.

It turns out that Mr. Frey’s story of his recovery from multiple addictions was perhaps as much fiction as fact. Among other things, he wrote of jail time that he never in fact served. He fabricated an excruciatingly convincing account of undergoing multiple root-canal procedures without anaesthesia. He concocted a tragic backstory about being responsible for an adolescent girlfriend’s death. In other words, he made a lot of stuff up and passed it off as the truth. A lot of people are pretty upset, not least of whom is his principal benefactor, the towering Oprah Winfrey, who dressed him down before the Entire World yesterday.

Dog Tired

It being Chinese New Year this weekend, it is a bit of a busy time for kung fu schools, and mine is no exception. Tonight we had a lion dance to do in Manhattan; I’ve only just got home to my Park Slope château, and it’s after 11.

I’m just too worn out to write much tonight, but I certainly don’t want you all to go away empty-handed. So, as we ring in the Year of the Dog, I offer some exceptionally beautiful – I mean really outstanding – photographs of Cathay’s exotic landscape.

Lighten Up Already

Well, after last night’s gloomy post, redolent with the odor of the crypt, I think it is time for comic relief. This comes by way of comedian Kip Addotta, who sends me little tidbits from time to time.

… to Dust

I am haunted tonight by a link sent to me by my friend and coworker Eugene Jen. I had decided earlier this evening not to mention it here, because I thought it might have the same rather harrowing effect on some readers that it has had on me. But that left me still having to write this evening’s post, and try as I might I couldn’t deflect my thoughts. So if you don’t want to read a disturbing item, just amuse yourself in some other way tonight, perhaps by browsing our fascinating archives. waka waka waka will be back to its usual cheery self again tomorrow, I promise.

The Moving Finger

It wasn’t until I began blogging that I realized how different it, and journalism generally, is from what one usually has in mind when one contemplates taking up writing. We have a mental image of the writer toiling in solitude to leave his brilliant existential mark; one thinks of the words, once set down, as going up on permanent display, for the delight of the ages, and certainly this is the case for the successful author of books. But the journalist’s or blogger’s work is more like the chef’s – meant to be consumed as soon it is prepared, it is served up in single portions, with a new dish offered every day. There is, though, a certain sadness at seeing a favorite post work its way down, and eventually off, the screen.

But for those who seek inner enlightenment, blogging is the perfect avocation – like the elaborate sand mandalas prepared by Tibetan monks, it teaches us that life is a process, not a destination, and helps train us to avoid the attachment to results that is such a spiritual trap.

On the other hand, if you are Oprah Winfrey, and think that The Best of waka waka waka has a nice ring to it, do get in touch. To really train oneself to avoid attachments, it’s good to have something substantial to work with.

Network News

My friend Salim Ismail has written a good post about the evolution of the Internet (in fact, it’s called “Evolution of the Internet”) over at his excellently titled blog, You’ve Got Ismail! In it he talks about the three kinds of uses to which the Internet has been put. The first was messaging, which just involves transmitting a packet of data from one place to another. This was the underpinning of the first big-time Internet application: email, which got rolling in the 1980′s. The second was request-response which is what HTTP is all about, and which made possible the explosive growth of the World Wide Web in the 1990′s. The third, which is just getting underway, is publish-subscribe, in which information on the Internet, which so far has had to be actively fetched by the user, now will tell interested parties about itself.

Salim gives a clear and cogent account of it all. He has also added a post today, I see, in which he explains the important distinction between prospective and retrospective search.

Do take a look, what he is describing is the Next Big Thing.

Dust

Yesterday we had a visit from my mother-in-law, Lily Phillips. She has had quite a remarkable life – she grew up in Vienna in an educated family of Jewish heritage, and was separated from her parents just before the beginning of World War II. Although she was technically too old – she was already in her late teens – a place was found for her on the Kindertransport, and she was evacuated to England, where she worked, utterly displaced and alone, as a servant in a succession of strangers’ homes. After the war she made her way to New York City, where she was reunited with her parents, who had managed to escape the ovens as well, and where, as a talented artist, she found work as a comic-book illustrator – an extremely unusual occupation for a woman at the time. She may have been the only one. Lily is very intelligent and well-read, and has kept her mind active in her later years by taking courses in philosophy and literature at Hunter College. Widowed since 1982, she lives alone on East 72nd Street. Her late husband Randolph, himself an extraordinary man, was actually the first chairman of the Committee to Impeach Nixon, argued before the Supreme Court despite not being a member of the bar, and was the defendant in a landmark conscientious-objector case during WWII that set the precedent that objectors may refuse combat service on purely ethical, rather than religious grounds.

Endpaper

I’m fond of books. I tend to accumulate them, and at this point have between one and two thousand of them on shelves, in piles on the floor, and scattered about. But I do have to admit that they are bulky and old-fashioned. In a conversation yesterday with PubSub CEO Gus Spathis, he referred to an attachment to physical books as “quaint nostalgia”. There are few technologies – and let’s acknowledge that the printed word is a technological artifact – that have survived so long essentially unchanged. Books are large, they are heavy, and they are made at considerable cost from wood and cotton and soot. The information represented by a book is, by Information Age standards, completely sessile, and the hard drive of my laptop, which is smaller than almost any book, could easily hold the contents of even the most avid collector’s personal library.

Caught in the Web

I am increasingly aware of how different my twenty-first century life is from the world I grew up in, and in fact from the life led by anyone more than a very few years ago. When I was a young boy, color televisions were a big deal. I remember the introduction of push-button telephones, audio cassettes, digital watches, and hand-held calculators. But the real revolution, of course, is the Internet.

I work as a software developer for a company that does Web search, so perhaps my immersion is deeper than some people’s, but I am noticing that it feels more and more odd to be “offline”. My life consists more and more of being seated at a computer, managing simultaneous streams of information – email, blog posts, online chess games, instant messages, Skype calls, PubSub alerts, news bulletins, desktop weather data, and so forth. Many times a day I wish to know something or other, and immediately retrieve the datum in question from some or other online source. I can swoop down on any part of the world with Google Earth.

Although this is a natural evolution – our success as a species is due above all to our gift for communication, and the Internet might well, I think, be on its way to being the wellspring of an emergent, collective human intelligence that will begin a new chapter in the history of mankind – we have also increased our risk of losing touch with the very real world around us and inside us.

One More Thing

From my friend Steven Cohen comes comes an interesting link for those of you who tend to accumulate books: LibraryThing. It’s a Web-based system for cataloguing your personal library. You can tag your books according to subject, view other online libraries, see who has collections similar to yours, and so forth. It looks like a fantastic tool for hard-core bibliophiles.

Baked Alaska

If you hate shoveling snow, I’ve got good news. Dr. James Lovelock, who brought us the Gaia Hypothesis (a theory in which the biosphere is responsible for both the creation and regulation of Earth’s climate), has announced that our little blue orb, as a result of Mankind’s environmental rapacity, is about to enter a rapid phase of warming that he likens to a global fever. By the end of this century, according to his gloomy prognosis, the climate in temperate regions will have heated up by 8° C. (that’s 14.4° F.), most of the tropics will become scrub and desert, billions of humans will die, and “the few breeding pairs of people that survive will be in the Arctic where the climate remains tolerable.”

You can read the article here.

See you on the boardwalk in Toktoyaktuk! Don’t forget your sunscreen.

Looking Ahead

In yesterday’s post I promised to write an item explaining the difference between “retrospective” Web search, which is what conventional search engines like Google do, and “prospective search”, which is a new and complementary paradigm exemplified by services such as PubSub. As I began, though, it dawned on me that I had already written such a post back in August, on the PubSub house blog, Sandbox. So for those who are interested, here it is.

Important Note: I don’t intend to do a great deal of writing about PubSub on this blog; waka waka waka is not intended to be one of those sites where people blather about the companies they work for. I have ample outlets for that sort of thing. But the ideas mentioned in this and the previous post – structured blogging and prospective search – are, I think, important new developments, and I believe that anyone who is involved in blogging or interested in the evolution of the Web should know about them.

The Structure of Things To Come

Here’s something you bloggers should all know about: Structured Blogging. Here’s what it is, and why it’s good.

Your Attention, Please

One of the things that people like to do is “boil down” the staggering complexity of the world into comprehensive rules and principles. Surprisingly, the world itself often cooperates by revealing itself to be, in fact, a rather orderly place that does indeed seem to behave according to laws that are simple enough for us to ferret out.

Some of the rules we have worked out are abstruse, detailed and complicated, yet have held up well under critical examination – quantum mechanics and general relativity come to mind – while others are vague generalities like “there’s a sucker born every minute” and “faint heart ne’er won fair lady”. Some are obviously wrong, like “a watched pot never boils”.

Sometimes we pick one thing and make it the central orgainizing principle of the world. My friend Bob Wyman, for example, has worked out a plausible system of ethics entirely based upon the idea of resisting entropy. Another friend, songwriter Larry Mcnally has written that “Love is everything – everything else is nothing.” He’s not the first to take that stance, but it’s a good song.

Well, I’m not immune to this temptation either, and sometimes I think that the fundamental currency in human affairs – the fungible coin in which the business of mankind is transacted – is attention.

Thin Skins

Today the Washington Redskins are visiting the Seattle Seahawks for an NFL playoff game. The contest has been attended with the usual hype, but the sportswriters covering the game for the Seattle Times have faced a peculiar challenge – the paper has decided not to allow them to use the name “Redskins” more than once in their stories. The difficulty is compounded by the fact that the only other obvious token by which to refer to the team is the name of their hometown, Washington, which happens also to be the the home state of the home team.

OK, That Was Fun

All right, maybe pondering arcane numerical sequences, even the really unusual and interesting ones, isn’t everybody’s idea of a rollicking good time. If you would like an explanation of the one I offered in the previous post, click here.

And for a final – I promise! – note on this topic, here is a really nifty website, where such sequences are studied, catalogued, and explained, and where you can enter a sequence andlook up the underlying rule.

You’re Not Trying

I few days back I inked a post about Douglas Hofstadter’s fascinating book Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, in which I showed a little item from the chapter Figure and Ground, which is about recursively enumerable systems. The tidbit I offered was a most unusual number series. Here it is again, for those of you who didn’t see it the first time around, or who just passed it by without really thinking about it:

1   3   7   12   18   26   35   45   56   69 …

I admit it takes a minute or two to make sense of it, but it is worth the effort. It is wonderfully strange, and is typical of the little jewels that are everywhere in that amazing book.

Mind Over Matter, Part II

A recurring theme in here, and in some of the blogs I’m fond of visiting, is the mystery of consciousness. How is it that “mere” matter can become self-aware? Canmatter be the engine of consciousness at all, or does it merely serve as a temporary and intermittent host?

There seem to be three avenues by which people approach this mystery – philosophy, science, and mysticism. I have the intuitive conviction that they will, ultimately, give consistent answers – in other words they are all three digging toward the same hidden truth, though from different directions, and with different tools. My wish is to try to follow the progress on all three fronts, and to participate actively where I can.

The Death of Each Day’s Life

If you have an interest in science (readers may by now have guessed that I do), may I recommend that you subscribe to the daily email newsletter published by PhysOrg.com. It’s a quick read – just headlines with links – and there is always something interesting. Today’s number, though, was a tad dispiriting.

Never a Moment’s Peace

In case you were wondering why your dishes were rattling, it turns out that the Milky Way is “flapping in the breeze”. Apparently the Magellanic Clouds, who I always knew were up to no good, have grabbed our galaxy by the dark matter, and are generally disturbing the peace.

Learn more here.

The Cause Of, and Solution To,
All of Life’s Problems

Here’s an excellent sentence – a coruscating little gem of pith and understatement – from Wikipedia’s entry Alcoholic Beverage:

People under the influence of alcohol sometimes find themselves in dangerous or compromising situations where they would not be had they remained sober.

Don’t know what made me think of that this morning, but there it is.

Miller Time

Tonight, I must confess, I am suffused with a mellow glow of self-satisfaction. I have described, in an earlier post, my interest in southern Chinese kung fu. I began in 1976, at the age of 19, to study the Lam Sai Wing Hung Gar system under the tutelage of the formidable William Chung, and was awarded a black belt in 1982 or so. But due to various circumstances, which are beyond the scope of this post, I was forced to withdraw from my study with him a few years later, and spent the next nine years practicing on my own, teaching a bit, and attending to life’s other clamant demands, which included establishing both a career and a family. By 1993, however, I was yearning to refocus my martial-arts studies under the guidance of a qualified master, and was lucky enough to meet, in my own neighborhood of Park Slope, Brooklyn, one Peter Berman, a Hung-style expert who had learned the Tang Fung Hung Ga system under the renowned master Frank Yee, and I began to reapply myself to the demands of this fierce fighting style. Although the two systems are very similar – Lam Sai Wing and Tang Fung were “training brothers” under the legendary Wong Fei Hung, a hundred years ago or so – they have diverged a bit, and I began “from scratch”. My progress was slowed by the many demands placed on my time by work and family, as well as by several nasty orthopedic injuries, and by the difficulty of the style itself. But my previous training was a great help, and I made my way slowly through the system’s lengthy and complex empty-hand and weapons forms.

Today, at age 49, after more than twelve years with Sifu Berman, and with knees creaking, I completed my final test – the Ng Lung Ba Gwa Cheung Spear Form – and attained the rank of Jo Gow, my second black belt, twenty-five years after the first.

The Ravel’d Sleave

I never get enough sleep. I get up between 7:30 and 8:30 a.m., get to PubSub’s Lower Manhattan nerve center at about 10, toil at the “bleeding edge” of Internet technology until 7 p.m. or so, then head home.

There are things to do in the evening. Dinner must be prepared and consumed. Often I will train a bit, and one night a week I teach class. There are books clamoring for my attention. My guitar, a winsome Taylor 310, beckons. There are chess games at RedHotPawn to which attention must be paid. Of course, as a husband and father, I spend time with Nina and Nick (and Chloë, when she is home from college). Most of the time there are other lingering details: mail and telephone calls to answer, or little chores to do. Then there are blogs to be read, upon which perhaps to leave pithy and thought-provoking comments. Finally, I must confect the day’s post for waka waka waka.

Chaff

I’m just too worn out tonight to do any writing, so I will offer some entertaining fluff for my legions of readers – two links from my friend Eugene at the PubSub command center:

First, an amusing little diversion. Can you work out the simple trick?

Next, some perplexing scientific questions.

Remembering the Fallen

I found a note in the mail the other day announcing the demise of yet another outstanding recording studio. This time the decedent was O’Henry Studios (this link might not be good for long, so click it now), in North Hollywood, California. It was one of my favorites, and one of the best.

When I started out in the recording business, back in the late 70′s, things were very different. There were no desktop PCs with digital audio software, there was no MIDI, no samplers, no digital reverbs – pretty much no digital anything. When people wanted to make a record, they had to come to a studio, and they actually had to play musical instruments. In order for the sound from the instruments to get onto the tape (yes, we used 2″ 24-track analog tape back then), the services of an engineer were required. That was my job. I worked at a studio called Power Station, on West 53rd Street in Manhattan, where I worked my way up through the ranks to become a staff engineer.

Beyond Words

Have you a recording of Chopin’s Preludes? I listened to them today for the first time in quite a while. They are a strange collection, not preludes to anything really, despite the name, but each a unique meditation. About them, Liszt said:

“Chopin’s Preludes are compositions of an order entirely apart. They are not only, as the title might make one think, pieces destined to be played in the guise of introductions to other pieces; they are poetic preludes, analogous to those of a great contemporary poet, who cradles the soul in golden dreams, and elevates it to the regions of the ideal.”

and Schumann:

“I would term the Preludes strange. They are sketches, beginnings of Etudes, or, so to speak, ruins, individual eagle pinions, all disorder and wild confusions.”

Theological Semolina

It suddenly dawned on me this evening that I had not yet written a post formally introducing my readers to The Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. The world first learned of the Flying Spaghetti Monster’s role in the creation of all that is when one Bobby Henderson, a “concerned citizen”, wrote an open letter to the Kansas School Board in which he explained that humans received the spark of life from His Noodly Appendage, and described the teachings of Spaghetti Monsterism. Mr. Henderson quite reasonably requests that the Pastafarian account of the origin of life be taught along with Intelligent Design and Darwinism:

One third time for Intelligent Design, one third time for Flying Spaghetti Monsterism, and one third time for logical conjecture based on overwhelming observable evidence.

Figure and Ground

One of my favorite books is the astonishingly imaginative Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, by Douglas R. Hofstadter. This Pulitzer-Prize-winning book, published in 1979, is an extended meditation upon the underlying connections between the work of the three men mentioned in the title – Johann Sebastian Bach (who needs no introduction), the Dutch graphic artist M.C. Escher, and mathematician Kurt Gödel. It is hard to describe the tone and content of the book – it is at times witty and playful, at times dense and didactic, but always unflaggingly, utterly brilliant. Really, and I mean this, GEB is so startlingly clever and original that at times it quite literally – and I do not ever misuse the word “literally” – took my breath away.