Monthly Archives: February 2006

Public Access

I’ve been rather torn about whether to write in this space about some very sad things that have been happening lately. My staid British upbringing tends to make me think that airing one’s personal sorrows in public is somehow ill-mannered, but weighing against that is my feeling that it is perfectly in keeping with the aim of this weblog to discuss universal human experiences, especially in the context of our struggle for inner growth and our wish to find meaning and harmony in our lives.

Last Friday I learned that my mother, who had been afflicted by nausea for a couple of weeks, has been diagnosed with advanced stomach cancer, and that the prognosis is very grim.

Hollow Man

Here’s another example of the bizarre lengths that people will go to to construct a personality worthy of that precious commodity, other people’s attention.

In this article from the Rocky Mountain News we meet on David “Race” Bannon, Ph.D., who has written a book detailing his dashing exploits as a covert enforcer for Interpol. If the name sounds familiar, it means that you remember the cartoon series “Jonny Quest”, in which Race Bannon was a tow-headed he-man who was assigned to the protection of the adventurous and peripatetic Quest family.

Dark Days

Again, waka waka waka was dark yesterday. In fact there may be several quiet days coming up this week, as a family medical crisis has diverted my attention, and requires that I travel to California.

I’ll try to post as the opportunity arises, but frankly it might be several weeks before normal operations resume.

But Seriously…

You’ve heard this a million times: Life is short. Live every moment.

But I’m going to say it again, myself, and I really, really mean it:

Life is short. Live every moment.

De Gustibus

One difficulty in developing a coherent philosophical account of consciousness is that the foundation upon which it rests – our subjective experience itself – is not as solid as we take it to be. We tend to think that the features of our inner life – our representation of the world, and the qualia that compose it – are stable and beyond dispute, and that our conscious “now” is a definite, pointlike event – as if there is an inner screen upon which consciouness plays, with Us as the viewer, and that whatever goes up on that screen is a matter of unambiguous fact.

Watch Your Back

The practice of inner work begins with an attempt to observe ourselves. As I have discussed in earlier posts (here and here), it is very difficult for us to notice the edges of our conscious awareness. The more it ebbs, the less we realize it. Most of the time, we do not remember ourselves.

Harboring the Enemy

I have been a bit cut off the past few days – I’ve been out of town, and have lost my Internet connection at home. I missed the papers for a couple of days. So I am rather poorly informed as regards a story that seems to be all over the place – the impending takeover of major port facilities by a corporation based in the United Arab Emirates.

With Regrets

It’s almost eleven PM, and we’ve just got back to Brooklyn from our dacha in the remotest East, only to find that our Internet access is down. I am currently connected using the only available telephone connection, which is a short wire in an inconvenient corner of the room, and I do not propose to linger. Yes, I could draft a post offline, and connect briefly to upload it, but the fact is that I’m rather weary anyway, and so will just offer a bit of shameless filler tonight to keep up appearances.

Far East

I’m in Wellfleet, Massachussets this weekend, with my wife and son. Wellfleet is a picturesque fishing village on the narrow end of Cape Cod, and is a very popular spot in the summertime. In the winter, though, it is almost deserted. The beaches are empty, the restaurants are closed, the beautiful freshwater ponds are rimmed with ice, and the low forests of scrub oak are forlorn and leafless. The pleasure boats that usually dot the beautiful harbor are gone, and the whale-watch crews have relocated to Baja for the season.

Political Suicide

There has been quite a stew about how to deal with the fact that the terrorist organization Hamas is now the democratically elected leadership of Palestine. Many are suggesting that they should be starved out; Palestine’s economy is so utterly barren that a cessation of foreign aid would have a devastating effect. Indeed, why on earth should Israel and its allies feed a virulent enemy who is sworn to its annihilation?

Quite predictably the Left, who have tilted a long way toward outright antipathy toward Israel in recent years (as witness the late Rachel Corrie, who died defending a Palestinian arms-smuggling tunnel), have delighted in the discomfiture of the West at this unfortunate outcome of the nascent democratic process. If we are going to engage in something as arrogant as trying to increase the number of people in the world who can live in free and democratic societies instead of brutal tyrannies, then it serves us right when the whole thing backfires. How dare we?

Anyway, I had myself been leaning toward ostracization of the Hamas government, as the idea of offering any support to their poisonous ideology seemed completely wrong. But Thomas Friedman, writing in today’s Times, has led me to rethink my position.

The Bard of Bucks County

I wonder how many of you have ever read any S. J. Perelman, or even know the name. He was pretty much a household world, at least in New York and Hollywood, in his heyday, but fewer and fewer people that I mention him to even seem to know who he was.

Stop Making Sense

Bill Vallicella, the Maverick Philosopher, wrote a post today called Nirvana as Asphyxiation. He’s been reading Emil Cioran, whom he quoted as having written:

In the Benares sermon, Buddha cites, among the causes of pain, the thirst to become and the thirst not to become. The first thirst we understand, but why the second?

Bill goes on to examine the question of salvation. What lies at the end of the path? Annihilation of self? Why should we desire that? But if not that, then what? Some sort of “life of Riley” upgrade? A fluffy cloudscape, and an eternity of harps and halos? Might wear thin after the first million years or so. An endless carnal romp with a half-gross of raven-haired virgins? Not bad for a weekend in Vegas, but as a reentrant “lockout groove” for aeons without end? I’d rather play the record again. So Bill has set himself, and the rest of us, a philosophical problem. I quote from his post:

It is the problem of elaborating a conception of salvation that avoids both annihilationism and reduplicationism.

But is this, in fact, a philosophical problem at all?

Sea Monkeys

Quite a few years ago I ran across a book – I can’t recall where – called The Descent of Woman, by Elaine Morgan. It puts forward a most unusual idea about human evolution, and it’s worth a mention here. I’m curious to know if any of you are familiar with it.

Les Neiges d’Antan

As it turns out, Sunday’s snowfall was the biggest in Gotham’s history: 26.9″, topping the previous record of 26.4″, set back in 1947. Most of us are a little taken aback; it was a good solid snowstorm, and no question about it, but it didn’t feel like the biggest ever.

Snow Day

Well, after one of the mildest winters I can recall, we are now at the tail end of what our local news-radio meterologist has declared the “second greatest snowstorm in the city’s history”. The greatest was the blizzard of December 26-27th, 1947, which deposited 26.1 inches. The records, of course, only go back so far; if we were to include the Pleistocene, a snow-cover of 26.1 inches would probably fall short of the all-time record by several thousand feet. But such quibbles aside, this is a pretty impressive snowfall. As of ten this morning, the accumulation in Central Park was up to 22.8 inches, and it’s still snowing hard. Here’s a peek out of my back window, taken a few minutes ago:

I’ve always loved dramatic weather, and blizzards are my favorite of all. I’m sure some of this is due to boyhood excitement at the prospect of a day off from school, but I’ve shed many of my other childhood enthusiasms – such as orange soda and Tom Swift books – without any noticeable abatement of my fondness for snowstorms. Of course, here in Gotham we can enjoy all the positive aspects of a blizzard – the muffling of the city’s din, the softening of its angular contours by a wind-sculpted mantle of white, the spontaneous grins and greetings exchanged by down-swaddled pedestrians – without having to put up with any of the inconveniences borne by our ancestors, like having to resort to cannibalism.

Let it Snow

It’s not easy being a dedicated blogger. I think it is important to put something up every day; as Bill Vallicella says, paraphrasing Kierkegaard, Nulla dies sine posta. But the fact is that not every day offers sufficient opportunity or inspiration. Today, for example.

So I’ll just keep it simple and declarative.

It is snowing hard, finally, here in Brooklyn. We’ve had an exceptionally mild winter so far, and most people are glad of that. The city has saved millions on snow removal, and generally everyone’s life has been a bit easier. I’ve enjoyed it too; I won’t deny that it has been nice to be able to gad about in a sweater in mid-January. But tonight we have a real blizzard upon us, a classic midwinter Nor’easter. The wind is howling, the visibility is down, the airports are closed, and the plows are out. This won’t be one for the record books, but for the time being it is snowing mighty hard out there, and I have to say it feels pretty good. We had a little party at the kung fu school to celebrate all the hard work everyone did for New Year’s, and it was a nice example of the simple pleasure of being together with friends in a warm sheltered place while the elements rage. For all that we live in a fast-paced, ever-changing world of sophisticated technological marvels, there is still something profoundly gratifying in satisfying the ancient human needs of community and shelter, and there is nothing that reminds us of this so well as a snowstorm.

One Way Out

When the ear hears, observe the mind. Does it get caught up and make a story out of the sound? Is it disturbed? You can know this, stay with it, be aware. At times you may want to escape from the sounds, but that is not the way out. You must escape through awareness.

-Ajahn Chah, “Still Forest Pool”

Brooklyn Heights

I live in Park Slope, Brooklyn, only about half a block from Prospect Park. Park Slope is aptly named – the land ascends smoothly from the harbor to the park, rising about 150 feet over a couple of miles. There is a low ridge connecting several little hills; the highest of them, and the summit of King’s County, is the vertiginous Battle Hill, about a mile away in Green-Wood Cemetery, piercing the clouds at 220 feet. Brooklyn cannot, however, boast the highest point in New York City – that distinction belongs to the otherwise lowly borough of Staten Island, where the Todt Hill massif soars to a breathtaking 420 feet, an irresistible lure to every Alpinist from the Kill van Kull to Perth Amboy.

Steady Those Nerves

My friend Jon Mandell has sent along a link to an amusing, if slightly stressful, little game. You can try it here.

Prophet and Laws

Tonight, it being quite late (and I must rise far too early in the morning tomorrow), rather than attempting to whip up anything worthwhile of my own I will poach an interesting piece from the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal. It points out that, contrary to the impression most people have of the strictures of Islam, there is in fact in Islamic doctrine no absolute prohibition of depictions of Mohammed. Apparently this was simply a custom that was adopted as a result of Jewish and Christian influences in Islam’s earlier days. To buttress his point the author, the well-known writer and editor Amir Taheri cites many examples of paintings of the Prophet, including this:

Peace be upon him, unlike his short-tempered followers

Haiku for an Open Grave

Weary child comes home
Mother waits with open arms
Rest now, play is done

Blue Note

From Chapter 5 of Rumi’s Masnavi-ye Manavi:

Melancholy may enter your soul, and ambush your happiness; but it will prepare you for true joy. Melancholy drives out all other emotions and feelings, so the source of all goodness may occupy the whole house. It shakes the yellow leaves from the tree, allowing fresh leaves to grow. It pulls up old bodily pleasures by the roots, allowing divine spiritual pleasures to be planted. Melancholy takes many things from the soul, in order to bring better things in return.

Red Crescent

Once again we are treated to an incendiary example of Muslim outrage. I refer, of course, to the “Danish Cartoon Riots” that have dominated world news for a few days now. The leaders of nations such as Iran and Syria are no doubt happily fanning the flames; nothing serves an autocratic leader so well as an angry mob and an external enemy. The reaction of the “blogosphere” has been predictable; everyone quite fairly points out that Muslims apparently can dish it out, but can’t take it. References to Jews as snakes, pigs and apes in the Muslim press go unremarked, Western culture is denounced as the work of Satan, and nobody seems to mind. And far, far worse, of course, the deliberate slaughter of civilians is not merely tolerated but applauded. The world would like very much to see some resistance to this extremism coming from within the Muslim community itself, but it is awfully hard to find. I’ve seen one example, though – a website called, which consists of a page of text and a guestbook. The statement begins:

In the middle of all the mayhem surrounding the Danish cartoons controversy, a group of Arab and Muslim youth have set up this website to express their honest opinion, as a small attempt to show the world that the images shown of Arab and Muslim anger around the world are not representative of the opinions of all Arabs. We whole-heartedly apologize to the people of Denmark, Norway and all the European Union over the actions of a few, and we completely condemn all forms of vandalism and incitement to violence that the Arab and Muslim world have witnessed. We hope that this sad episode will not tarnish the great friendship that our peoples have fostered over decades.

It is an admirable gesture, and I admire their bravery, for without doubt they have acquaintances, if not friends, who will see their offering as treasonous to Islam, and as we know, such people are often not averse to murder.

None Too Civil

Have you heard anything about this? Julian Bond, the chairman of the NAACP, made a speech at Fayettville State University in North Carolina on February 1st in which he made hate-filled and racist remarks the likes of which would have got a white conservative politician in very hot water indeed.

Mr. Bond, speaking at the beginning of Black History Month, said, among other things, that our last two Secretaries of State, Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, were “tokens”, and that “The Republican Party would have the American flag and the swastika flying side by side”.

The Lion in Winter

Today was the Big Day that comes once a year, when all the branches of Yee’s Hung Ga convene in Chinatown for the New Year parade and lion dance.

Consonant Cluster Ice Cream

It’s time I commented on an alarming trend. Not only are we Americans more sedentary and obese than ever, nowadays we even have lazy tongues. You’d think with all the exercise they get they’d be regular Jack la Langues, but no, they’re slacking off just like the rest of us. And written English is feeling the effect.

We Are Shocked.

We at waka waka waka would like to apologize to our readers for the preceding post, which apparently was the work of a malevolent hacker with the initials “J.S.” An investigation is underway.

Obviously a decent, marmot-friendly publication such as this would never condone such gruesome behavior. A clam knife, for God’s sake.

A Modest Proposal

Today, February 2nd, is Groundhog Day. As usual, the world waited atip for Punxsutawney Phil’s climatic prognosis. According to legend, as I am sure most of you know, when the hirsute haruspex sees his shadow, we are in for six more weeks of winter. And as so often happens, this morning the news was bad once again, and the blameless denizens of the world’s temperate zones were condemned to prolonged and unnecessary suffering. All because of a bloody groundhog.

But there is a simple solution, based on an elementary utilitarianist calculation, that seems to have been overlooked by all. Take the overweening little rodent by the scruff of the neck and scoop out his beady little eyeballs with an oyster knife. From that day forward, Ol’ Blind Phil might be as umbrageous as the spreading pall of Vesuvius, but seehis shadow? I don’t think so.

No need to thank me. Just doing my job.

The Pressures of the Flesh

As usual, there is an interesting conversation underway at Bill Vallicella’s place. Dr. V offered a post, entitled Lust, that is brief enough to quote in its entirety:

It is both evil and paltry. The lecher makes himself contemptible in the manner of the glutton and the drunkard. The paltriness of lust may support the illusion that it does not matter if one falls into it. Thus the paltriness hides the evil. This makes it even more insidious.

But there is room for discussion here.

Of Two Minds

My good friend Jess Kaplan has just sent me a link to a transcript of a 1985 lecture by the late Julian Jaynes. I’ve been meaning for a while to mention his bookThe Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, and now seems as good a time as any.

I first came upon this book many years ago, in early days of my own interest in the question of consciousness, and was drawn in by its lengthy and mysterious-sounding title. I thought it would be a summary of mainstream research, but it it turned out to be quite the opposite. It is, instead, a detailed and closely-argued brief for a radical theory of human history and development.

Jaynes, who died in 1997 at the age of 77, was a professor of psychology at Princeton University. But he is best remembered now for his claim, fantastic at first hearing, that our consciousness – the ordinary self-awareness that we are accustomed to – is in fact a very recent acquisition, and that within historical times humans were quite unconscious.