Monthly Archives: October 2006

High Maintenance

I am glad to see that NASA has decided to send a shuttle mission to service and augment the Hubble Space telescope. A decision had been made to abandon the instrument due to safety concerns in the wake of the 2003 Columbia mishap, with the agency choosing to focus instead on building out the international space station. Like many, many others, I was as mad as a cut snake to hear that the telescope was going to be left to die, and it’s good to see that the nervous nabobs of NASA have changed their minds.

World Wide Web

When I wrote a few days ago about a pelican eating a pigeon in a London park, I thought I was picking up an insignificant, out-of the-way item that readers would almost certainly not have heard about otherwise. It seems that I was mistaken; a search on Google a moment ago turned up “about 339,000” results, and the story has reverberated through the blogosphere as well. Think of that: a bird eats another bird somewhere in the world, and within a day hundreds of thousands of people, all around the globe, have published some comment on it, which means that the news itself — a bird ate a bird in a park in England — has probably reached tens of millions. This is such an abrupt discontinuity from the entire social history of the human race that I think it bears noticing.

Long Day

Last night we added an extra hour in our return to Standard Time. Like most people, I heartily approve; I enjoy the notion, however illusory of gaining a line on the moving finger. Now if we could just persuade Congress to “fall back” three hours a night in perpetuity, I might even get rid of these bags under my eyes.

Fall Guy

Feeling a bit cooped up earlier today, I took myself for a longish walk in Prospect Park, which begins right at the end of my block here in Brooklyn. It was was just what the doctor ordered; few prescriptions can rival in therapeutic value the simple act of getting outside.

Mountain Man

I’m sure that almost all of you, by now, are familiar with Google Earth. This fantastic tool, which requires nothing more than a good Internet connection and a free software download, allows the user to zoom in on high-resolution satellite images of any location on the Earth’s surface. The resolution varies from place to place, but will only get better with time, and already there are large patches of the planet that are represented in astonishing detail. The pictures aren’t live, of course, but are snapshots taken on clear days over the past three years or so.

Stool Pigeon

Here’s a heartwarming little story, and a brief diversion from weightier matters: according to an item in Tuesday’s Daily Mail, visitors to London’s St. James Park were witnesses to an epic struggle as a pelican grappled with a pigeon. According to the report, it took the enterprising waterfowl twenty minutes to swallow its peristeronic snack, which fought vigorously to escape, but ended up, apparently still alive, in the larger bird’s belly.

in the wrong place

worth two in the bush    (photo: Cathal McNaughton)

A Rocky Road Ahead

James Taranto, in today’s Best of the Web newsletter, has published a letter he received from a U.S. army sergeant stationed northwest of Baghdad as part of an intelligence-gathering team. This sergeant, whose daily job is to interact with Iraqis and his fellow soldiers in order to “help put together the intel picture”, is in a better position than most people, including President Bush and his inner circle, to have a clear idea of what’s really going on over there, and what approach we ought to be taking in order to mitigate this disaster. He also writes well.

Hymn to Kim

If you’ve been wondering how folks in South Korea feel about their bouffanted and bellicose neighbor to the north, the irrepressible Kevin Kim has captured the nation’s semtiment in a touching little verse. Do take a look.

Rings and Bridges

Yesterday’s post was about “ring species”, both as interesting natural phenomena in themselves, and as a reminder that the persistent human tendency to impose discrete categories on continuous phenomena can lead us, if not to outright error, at least to an inaccurate model of the world. Keeping in mind that we are all inclined toward this prejudice — Richard Dawkins calls it the “tyranny of the discontinuous mind” — can help us to avoid not only taxonomic pitfalls, but philosophical ones as well.

Circle of Life

One of the obstacles that some people face in understanding evolutionary theory is the natural tendency to think in discrete terms, parsing the continuity of the world into distinct categories. Richard Dawkins, in his book The Ancestor’s Tale, addresses this problem — which he calls “the tyranny of the discontinuous mind” — and offers some examples of how the categories we see in the natural world are not sharply bounded, but merge quite seamlessly into one another. I have promised to write about some of the fascinating ideas in this book, and this topic seems a good one to begin with.

And Now, Sports

Well, we finally made it to Michigan. We caught an 11:45 flight out of Gotham, and got to Ann Arbor in time to join the procession of the faithful down State Street to the Big House, which, just for the record, really is big — It is the largest American football stadium anywhere, and, according to this Wikipedia article, is the 29th-largest sports venue in the world (the larger ones are mostly racetracks). For today’s contest we were joined by 110,923 other spectators, and let me tell you, that’s a fair-sized crowd — numbering only slightly fewer than the population of Ann Arbor itself. And we were not disappointed; Michigan triumphed as expected, 20-6, even without the services of star wide receiver Mario Manningham, who is nursing a banged-up knee.

Aft Agley

Well, old Rabbie Burns was right; things never turn out quite as planned. After spending many hours at LaGuardia Airport this evening, we were sent home, our flight to Michigan canceled due to high winds. We will try again tomorrow; our goal is to be there watch the Maize and Blue trounce the Iowa Hawkeyes in Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor at 3:30 p.m. tomorrow.

Going to a game at the Big House is quite an experience; I hope to have a report to file later this weekend.

On the Road Again

We’ll be traveling to Ann Arbor, Michigan this evening, and waka waka waka may have to lie fallow for a day or two. Visitors are encouraged to browse our archives in the meanwhile, and we’ll be back as soon as we can.

Raw Deal

This past Friday, President Bush signed into law H.R. 4411, the Internet Gambling Prohibition and Enforcement Act, which prevents U.S. financial institutions from transferring money to online gambling services. The bill was sneaked, in typical sausage-and-legislation fashion, into the SAFE Ports Act (H.R. 4954 As Amended) for the Senate vote, where it passed 98-0, with two abstaining (Sens. Chafee and Akaka).

The Iron Wire

At the apex of the southern Chinese Hung Ga system of kung fu is the Iron Wire form, sometimes referred to as the Iron Thread. It was created by Tit Kiu sam, one of the legendary Ten Tigers of Canton, and its main purpose is to cultivate internal power.

The Iron Wire is practiced under controlled tension; it derives its name from the feeling one has during many sections of the form that one is stretching an imaginary cord between the hands. Each movement is carefully synchronized with the breath, and at many points in the form there are particular sounds that the practitioner must utter. These sounds are intended to direct the breath (or “chi”) to various organs and muscles. If performed incorrectly or without understanding, this combination of moving tension and controlled breathing can, in fact, cause serious harm, and as a result the form is taught only to advanced students.

Tree of Life: A Reader Comments

In a recent post, I recommended that readers with an interest in biology pay a visit to the Tree of Life Web Project, an interactive display of the taxonomic relationships linking all life on Earth. Upon seeing the post, one of our commenters, microbiologist Andrew Staroscik, mentioned that he had rather a low opinion of […]

Ai! Cabomba

As readers will recall, this past weekend was the occasion of Wellfleet’s annual Oysterfest. It was a splendid event, as always. The weather was just beautiful – cool and crisp, with a deep blue sky and golden autumnal sunshine, and thousands of visitors were on hand, drawn to our charming seacoast village by the promise of happy company, good food, rivers of beer, amusing special events, local arts & crafts, and of course a limitless supply of sweet and succulent Wellfleet oysters, served up in every imaginable configuration.

One of the events on the crowded agenda was a spelling bee, which your humble correspondent was persuaded to enter. Though I am, if it doesn’t seem unduly immodest to say so, a damned fine speller, I did not prevail. After several rounds I found myself presented with a noun I had never heard of: a widely distributed aquatic plant known as the cabomba. I had no choice but to take a guess, and offered C-A-B-A-M-B-A (with the voice of the departed Ritchie Valens ringing in my ears), and that was it for me.

What was the winning word? I’m sorry to say I don’t remember. There were several that were served up right at the end; I recall the eventual winner, a literate young woman, grappling with foraminifer, eutrophication, and minuscule, but I can’t remember which was the final hurdle, if it was in fact any of those. I imagine I was still swooning in stunned disbelief.

The first prize was a copy of Mark Kurlansky’s The Big Oyster: History on the Half Shell, which would have made a lovely addition to my library (I already have a copy of his excellent history of the codfish).

Oh well, there’s always next year.


That’s Life

As I mentioned a while back, one item getting frequent play in my rotating reading stack is the hefty volume The Ancestor’s Tale by Richard Dawkins, and as I expected, it is hugely engaging and informative. I’m about halfway done with it – the backwards pilgrimage is currently marching through the latter Carboniferous period, where we mammals have just been joined by the Sauropsids (including all reptiles and birds) . I’ve already learned a great many interesting things, and will be sprinkling some of them about these pages in days and weeks to come. For today, however, I’ll call the attention of any of you who have an interest in natural history to a marvelous website, the Tree of Life Web Project. Onto the sidebar it goes.

The Dark Side

Our post a couple of days ago about the ruthless Kim Jong Il drew a visitor who left a link to a dramatic image, reproduced below:

two Koreas

Presumably this is a nighttime sattlite photo, showing the luminous metropolis of Seoul, and the prosperous, well-lit Republic of Korea to the south, and the veiled, darkling, and preposterously named Democratic People’s Republic of Korea to the north. The emotional power of this image is immediate, and tragic.

I assume it is genuine, but I can’t be sure. The person who left it signed in only as Kim, which narrows things down in Korea about as much as if he had signed in as “Jim” over here. The waka waka waka comment settings require that one provide an email address inorder to leave a comment, and also allow commenter to link to their websites; the email address left by Kim was from the domain, and the website linked to was the official DPRK government website (well worth a look, by the way).

I rather doubt that our visitor is actually a member of the government of that enslaved nation, nor even a resident; I’d be curious to know more, Kim, if you’d care to drop me a line.

My Lucky Day

Today is Friday the 13th, always a good day for me, as I was born on one, back in 1956. And this year is no exception; my lovely wife Nina and I are back in Wellfleet this weekend, and as always it is balm to the spirit to be here. And as if the cool sea breezes, lovely autumnal light, and serene natural beauty of this New England coastal village weren’t enough, tomorrow is the 2006 Wellfleet Oysterfest, a gustatory extravaganza that draws lovers of our renowned and eponymous mollusc from all over the Northeast. Expect another favorable review.


There was a tragic and shocking event here in New York today, as most of you have probably heard by now. Yankees pitcher Cory Lidle, acquired just this summer by the Bombers in the trade with the Phillies that also brought Bobby Abreu to the Bronx, was killed, along with his passenger, when the small plane he was piloting flew into a high-rise apartment tower on East 72nd Street.

I don’t really know what to say about this sad, strange story; I just thought it would be remiss of me not to make note of it. It is always so unsettling to see how some lives end while the rest of us go on, for a while at least.

Pawn Sacrifice

One of the least palatable aspects of the situation in North Korea is the humanitarian quandary created by Kim Jong Il’s ruthless game, in which he relies on the misery of his enslaved people for his own protection. North Korea depends for its very survival on foreign aid; the United States and China are the principal benefactors. It is only this largesse that makes it possible for Kim to maintain an enormous standing army, and to play with nuclear weapons; had the Chinese seriously pressured him, he would have had to stand down. They didn’t, though, partly because they are concerned that any further instability, such as might be caused by even deeper poverty and famine, would drive hordes of refugees across their border, but also, I think in large part, because they enjoy the discomfiture that the obstreperous Kim causes the Western bloc.

The US, too, has been reluctant to cut back on the millions of tons of food we send to North Korea, but for quite different reasons — we are well aware that to do so would sentence a great many people to starvation. Kim knows that this leaves us in a difficult position: by refusing to provide any more foreign aid, we could press China to do more about the rogue state that it helps to support — but only at the cost of our conscience. Lacking one of his own, I am sure he is laughing up his sleeve at ours.

Without a Doubt

It’ll be lighter fare this week, as I am working rather long hours and will be traveling on Thursday. For the moment, two pointed little jokes:

He’ll Be Sorry

With characteristic bluster, the insane despot Kim Jong Il has defied the will of the international community generally, and the United Nations Security Council in particular, by conducting an underground nuclear test, of as-yet indeterminate magnitude. He’ll soon be sorry, because he can expect swift and certain retribution from the UN, in the form of some harsh finger-wagging, and if that isn’t enough to teach the impudent little rascal some manners, you can be sure he won’t be spared some stern tut-tutting as well.

He’ll think twice before he tries that again.


Thanks to commenter Kevin Kim, I’ve been spending some time poking around in Korean blogs. All cultures, of course, have their odd little quirks and idiosyncracies (the United States is no exception, of course, what with our drive-thru wedding chapels, monster truck pulls, and yen for Mespotamian nation-building), and I’ve run across one that seems to be unique to Korea. No, it isn’t kimchi. I’m referring, of course, to fan death.


My old pal, the guitarist Steve Khan, has many friends in Venezuela, and has spent a lot of time down there in recent years. This has given him an opportunity for a first-hand look at the enlightened presidency of Hugo Chavez, and unsurprisingly, he is not impressed. Steve sent me, yesterday links to three items by New York Post columnist Douglas Montero that show some of what life is like in that beautiful Caribbean country under this egomaniacal popinjay. Read them here, here, and here.

Tunnel of Love

Another long day today – work followed by a long evening of teaching and training down at the kwoon, and here it is pushing midnight and no post written yet. So rather than bloviate into the wee hours, I think I will offer you all, instead, a glimpse of New York City life, in the form of a conductor’s announcement that I heard on the F train as I was making my weary way home this past Saturday.

Beside Ourselves

We’ve all heard of the “out-of-body experience” (“OBE”), in which a person has the sensation of detachment from the physical self. These are often reported in situations where a subject hovers close to death; people will recount, upon returning to normal consciousness, that they were floating near the ceiling, looking down upon themselves and others in the room (who are often doctors and nurses struggling to keep the patient from dying).

Yesterday’s New York Times carried an interesting report of some new neurological observations of this phenomenon.

Search Me

The technological infrastructure here at waka waka waka is provided by an outstanding hosting service called BlueHost. Among the many excellent services they provide for the absurdly low fee of $6.95 a month is a versatile website-statistics package. It occurred to me earlier this evening that it might be amusing, in lieu of coughing up yet another grim and controversial entry about the accelerating decline of civilization, to look over some of the search-engine phrases that have brought visitors here over the past year.

No Respect

The other day I ran across an item from the Boston Herald about a jihad-related kerfuffle in France. The story is about a high-school teacher named Robert Redeker, who has been driven into hiding after he published an article in Le Figaro suggesting — how dare he! — that Islam is trying to impose its cultural will upon Europe.

Hic et Nunc

OK, as promised, politics entirely aside for the moment (although just for the moment, I’m afraid, as there’s just too much material out there, and more every day).

Sure, the war in Iraq, and the jihadists’ campaign to bring down the West generally, get most of the headlines. But today’s item is about a new weapon in a much older war – the fight against hiccups.