Monthly Archives: June 2006

Spanish Castle Magic

I do apologize for the lightweight content around here the past few days. I’m not sorry enought to do anything about it tonight, though: having just come at 11:15 p.m. to the end of a long, busy, sticky day of bustling about in the foul and dispiriting New York weather, I find that the little grey cells that I rely on for generating trenchant analysis, rib-tickling humor, biting social commentary, and up-to-the minute reporting are in a restive and mutinous mood, and I frankly don’t think I’ll get anything out of them until they’ve had a little R&R (I’m pouring some as we speak).

Also, bearing in mind Machiavelli’s advice that whereas good news should be measured out a little at a time, bad news should be given all at once, I must mention that we will be on the road over the weekend, and waka waka waka might be dark for a day or two.

But in keeping with our practice of exhuming, when I am too inebriated, shiftless or lazy to write anything worth reading, some bit of rubbish from the infinite landfill we call the Web, I offer yet another momentarily diverting wisp of froth – in this case a clever optical illusion.

Picking Up Girls

It’s summertime, and the weather here is not conducive to ponderous thoughts, so this evening we shall amuse ourselves with a look at how our doughty pals the Finns make merry while the sun glances briefly upon their Boreal realm. I’m talking, of course, about the World Championship of Wife-carrying.

Sad Sack

The CNN website today carried an interesting little item: an interview with Saddam Hussein’s defense attorney, Ramsey Clark. For those of you who aren’t up on Mr. Clark’s curriculum vitae, he was United States Attorney General under Lyndon Johnson, and played an important role in the civil rights struggles of the 1960’s, but since then has wandered farther and farther into the fever swamps of the extreme Left, and from the Vietnam era forward has happily made common cause with an sordid assortment of America’s foes. He also seems to have, to paraphrase J.B.S. Haldane, an “inordinate fondness” for brutal tyrants, including Serbian thug Slobodan Milošević, Liberian despot and mutilator of uncounted thousands Charles Taylor, and of course the Butcher of Baghdad himself. Clark attended Milošević’s funeral, for example, and announced that “history will prove Milošević was right.” Right to wage a ruthless campaign of genocide, I assume he means.

Thresher

It seems that a lot of people have been asking me about PubSub Concepts, the innovative Internet-search company where I spent the last two years designing and building client software. Word has got around that the company has fallen on hard times, and folks are wondering what’s up.

Indeed, as seems to be no secret, things haven’t gone so well lately. Given my staid British upbringing, however, and an innate sense of tact, I feel that it would be indecorous for me to say much about it all publicly, other than to allow that I do find myself with rather more free time these days, as do some of my newer friends.

Though unfortunate, this sort of thing is hardly unprecedented. Think of World War I, or perhaps the Challenger disaster.

Rush Hour

Well, it’s a strange business, and no mistake. For some reason traffic here at waka waka waka has spiked up dramatically – more than tenfold – in the last couple of days, and I have no idea why. I turned off the comment-spam blocker for a while, but that wasn’t it, and I can’t see any pattern in the stats. I’d like to think that suddenly the world just can’t get by without a daily dose of the waka waka Weltanschauung, but I have no illusions on that score. It sure is odd, though.

It’s Not the Heat

Have I mentioned that I rather dislike the weather here in the summertime? It reminds me of the popular television program Iron Chef, in which the antagonists are given some key ingredient – cuttlefish mantle, say, or babirussa tongue – and ring its changes by serving it up as hors d’oeuvres, soups, salads, entrees, desserts, and even beverages. Well, here in New York, the theme is humidity – enervating, spirit-breaking humidity – and the merciless Gotham microclimate dishes it out in every way imaginable.

Vita Brevis

My friend Eugene Jen has brought to my attention a sad item: Harriet, a Galápagos tortoise brought home on the Beagle by Charles Darwin himself, has died at the age of 176.

Harriet, we hardly knew ye.

The Famine in Touch

Today I had an interesting lunch downtown with my brother, David Pollack, and PubSub CEO Gus Spathis, and afterwards walked with David, through sweltering heat and sweating throngs more evocative of Bombay than Broadway, to the Merrill Lynch headquarters at the World Financial Center, where he was to attend a meeting with the sultans of high finance.

Eggcorns and Snowclones

Yesterday’s New York Times ran a story about a website called Language Log, which I visited at once and had a hard time leaving. There is even a special introductory post written just for all the new visitors that came by as result of the piece in the Times.

If you love English, you’ll love this blog. Onto the sidebar it goes.

Wiki Wiki Wiki

Yesterday, I made a brief and rather positive reference to the communally written Internet encyclopedia Wikipedia. Today, my good friend David Pauley has sent me a link to an essay, posted at Edge.org by computer scientist Jaron Lanier, that makes some very pertinent criticisms of the increasing fashionability of such examples of Internet “collectivism”. Lanier’s argument is that “hive minds” like Wikipedia are good at some things, but very bad at others, and that the current trend seems to be toward an uncritical embrace of a kind of “digital Maoism” that he sees as potentially quite destructive. Lanier writes:

In the last year or two the trend has been to remove the scent of people, so as to come as close as possible to simulating the appearance of content emerging out of the Web as if it were speaking to us as a supernatural oracle. This is where the use of the Internet crosses the line into delusion.

This is a fascinating and important discussion. Read Lanier’s essay here, and an assortment of responses here.

The Wave of the Future

I’ve got something else for you to worry about, if you’d like to take your mind off cyanide in the subways, North Korean missile tests, and bucket drownings.

Wikipedia

It is never the final word, but it is quickly getting to be the world’s best starting point.

Welcome To Hell

Well, just as I feared, it’s here – New York’s estival death-cloud has arrived, and life in Gotham will now be a fetid, stinking, sweaty hell until sometime in late September. Today the temperature was up around 90, the air was viscous and clinging, and the sun beat down pitilessly from a blinding white sky.

All hope abandon, ye who enter here.

Worse Than The Disease

Today I noticed no fewer than five different people wearing Che Guevara T-shirts here in my ultra-blue neighborhood of Park Slope, Brooklyn. I will be generous enough to assume that they do so out of youthful ignorance, and not out of an informed wish to lionize the ruthless and bloodthirsty Communist revolutionary, butcher of political dissidents, gays, and Christians at Castro’s Cabana prison, who personally executed, with apparent relish, even the children of his political opponents, and who tried to cultivate in his followers “hatred for the enemy, which pushes a human being beyond his natural limitations, making him into an effective, violent, selective, and cold-blooded killing machine.”

We Have Liftoff

Forgive me for discussing personal business in this sober forum, but today’s post is one of congratulations to our son Nicholas, who was graduated today from the Berkeley-Carroll school here in Brooklyn. Next stop: Brandeis University.

Here’s a shot of the newly minted alumnus with his sister Chloë, who will be heading into her senior year at the University of Michigan.

Nick and Chloë Pollack, June 16th, 2006

Nick, I’m mighty proud to be your father.

Sound Advice

My dear, departed mom used to quote a wise old saying from her native Scotland:

When in doubt, say nowt.

Good advice, friends.

Slow Learners

The rate at which we learn is such a limitation. People are generally at least moderately intelligent, and if we were all able to comprehend the various things that everyone else is working on, I’m sure that so many helpful suggestions would be offered that the rate of progress in almost all fields of endeavor would increase exponentially. But it is simply impossible to get people “up to speed” as it were, with any reasonable investment of time or effort.

We’re Off To See the Wizard

Today finds your humble correspondent in Seattle, Washington, where I have been summoned, quite unexpectedly, for a bit of business about which, unfortunately, I mustn’t disclose any details at the moment. The trip came up on very short notice, and the urgency of making hasty travel arrangements yesterday evening meant that waka waka waka lay fallow for the day. I apologize for the service outage.

Rhythm Method

The other day I had a familiar tune repeating itself in my head (an irritating phenomenon sometimes called an earworm), and couldn’t for the life of me remember what it was. Convinced that the Internet had to be able to help me somehow (my answer for everything these days), I got online and started poking around. I quickly turned up a website called SongTapper, where the idea is that most tunes are distinguishable by their rhythm alone. All you have to do is find your way to their song search page and tap out the rhythm of the song on your space bar. I was skeptical, but lo and behold, out popped the correct answer: Mozart’s Turkish March.

Try it yourself.

The Simple Life

In considering the question of how “mere” matter can exhibit intentionality, I argued in a previous post that living things have their purposefulness and “aboutness” by virtue of their being designed, just as our artifacts have. The designer, however, in the case of living things, is not a purposeful Mind, but the blind processes of evolution and natural selection. If we are willing to acknowledge that our complex intentionality might, as we look backward through our ancestral history, take simpler and simpler forms, all the way back to the simplest early replicators, we might have in hand the “gradualist bridge” that many dualist philosophers insist cannot be built. We still have a major problem to solve, however, which is the origin of life itself. There have been many promising suggestions as to how life might have got started, but one stumbling block for many models has been a sort of Catch-22 problem in which the machinery for RNA replication needed to be in place in order for the ball to get rolling. NYU researcher Robert Shapiro, however, has a new and promising model that bypasses the need for preexisting RNA, and relies only on simpler organic reactions.

The paper is to be published in the June issue of the Quarterly Review of Biology, but you can read a bit more here (hat tip to Jon Mandell ).

Needless to say, a convincing demonstration of a mechanism whereby self-replicating organisms could have arisen in the early terrestrial environment would be an important result (to put it mildly), and would deal Intelligent Design proponents quite a blow.

On Purpose

From Marcus Aurelius:

“At every action, no matter by whom performed, make it a practice to ask yourself , ‘What is his object in doing this?’
But begin with yourself; put this question to yourself first of all.”

Inconstant

Today’s PhysOrg newsletter (which I highly recommend subscribing to, by the way – it’s free, pithy, and a great way to keep up with the latest in science and technology) contained some interesting news: it appears that some of the physical laws of the universe are changing over time.

If You Don’t Mind

Dr. William Vallicella’s website, The Maverick Philosopher, will of course be familiar to readers of these pages (in fact many of you will have come here in the first place as a result of our occasional cross-linking). Bill is a professional philosopher – the real McCoy, as opposed to the loquacious amatuers who drive taxis and cut hair here in Gotham – and his site is a fascinating forum for discussion of philosophical topics. He attracts interested laypeople like me as well as his academic colleagues, and the discussions are always at a high level both of erudition and civility. I have learned a great deal by reading and participating, and have been persuaded to rethink many of my own opinions as a result.

Hell to Pay

My friend Jess Kaplan has just brought to my attention an ominous datum: on this numerologically significant date, 6-6-06, the cost of the average fixed-rate mortgage just happens to be a rather unsettling 6.66%.

Just Cause

Those who prefer a dualist account of mind sometimes raise the objection that if our mental acts are simply the result of material chains of events in our brains, then there is no room for creativity, for our apparent ability to think original thoughts. But what does “creativity” mean?

See? It’s the Bloody Egg

In a gratifying development, it appears that scientists have finally weighed in on that dimwitted question concerning the chicken and the egg. As w.w.w. readers will recall, of course, from this post, the matter had in fact already been settled.

Lubber Chicken Circuit

Well, I’ve been slacking off again. Rather than sitting home hammering at life’s persistent questions, I spent the evening at the Yee’s Hung Ga 32nd Anniversary and First Annual Awards Banquet, at a restaurant on Elizabeth Street in the heart of New York’s Chinatown. Along with the copious distribution of engraved plaques to various honorees, the four-hour bacchanal featured kung fu demonstrations, laudatory and exhortatory orations, lion dances, a celebratory proclamation issued by no less than Hizzoner the Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg himself, and ten courses of Cantonese food. A splendid time was had by all.

Blue Horizon

There are places here and there that are noted by painters and photographers for the special quality of their light. Southern France is one; van Gogh made some of his most beautiful paintings in and around Arles. St. Petersburg (Russia, not Florida!) is another, and so, as it happens, is the far end of Cape Cod.

Happy Feets

Here’s an amusing item over at MandellOnline: a one-man review of the history of pop-music dance styles over the past 50 years. Well worth a peek.

Storm Cells

Those who’ve read any Charles Fort (I’ll be writing about him shortly) will know that over the centuries there have been, from all corners of the globe, reports of odd things falling from the sky – frogs, fish, stones, sheets of ice, mysterious slime, etc. One of the more common reports is of showers of blood.

These accounts are often either dismissed as fabrications, or explained away in various unhelpful ways. One such “scientific explanation” of the shower-of-blood phenomenon, for example, was “a fine mist of blood cells produced by a meteor striking a high-flying flock of bats”. Usually, of course, they are simply swept under the rug and forgotten.

Now comes a noteworthy development from India, where one Godfrey Louis, a physicist at Mahatma Gandhi University, has collected some samples from a red rain that fell in Kerala, and upon examining them has found what appear to be some very strange microbes. They are small – about 10 microns in diameter – and reproduce under harsh conditions, though they appear not to contain any DNA. Louis has suggested that they may in fact be of extraterrestrial origin, and may be examples of panspermia (the notion that life on Earth was seeded by otherworldy molecules).

Read more here.

Some Killer Weed

I don’t spend a lot of time in the recording studio these days; one of the reasons that I took up software development after twenty-odd years of making records for a living was that the long and irregular hours were beginning to get to me. It was not a big deal, really, to do multiple consecutive sixteen-hour sessions when I was in my twenties; I’d just collapse for a day after the project ended, and I’d be fine. But as I got older it got harder to bounce back, and I’d spend days in a fog after those marathons. Now I’m 50 (50!), and I have to say that after putting in 32 hours in two days on Tuesday and Wednesday over at Right Track I feel about as focused and articulate as Ozzy Osborne on a fistful of ‘ludes. So instead of the usual piercing analysis and trenchant commentary on the passing scene, I’ll just have to leave you today with something else to worry about: Giant Hogweed. It’s big, it’s phototoxic, it looks like a cow parsnip on steroids, and it’s coming your way. Learn more here, and here.