Monthly Archives: November 2006

Dark Energy

Political disagreements, such as those that have been taking place lately in comment threads here at waka waka wakaexhibit a property not unlike that ascribed astrophysicists to the hypothetical “dark energy” that is thought to permeate the cosmos: they exert a mysterious repulsive force.

Time Machine

You may have heard of the Antikythera Mechanism: a mysterious clockwork device, over two thousand years old, that was found in a Mediterranean shipwreck in 1902. Archaeologists have puzzled over it ever since its discovery, and the atavistic doohickey has meanwhile fueled many an Atlantean’s febrile imaginings. Now, a team of researchers have announced that they have determined exactly what the Mechanism does, but the mystery of how such a thing came to exist at all in 80 B.C. has only deepened.

The Gate Bulges Inward

In “Losing the Enlightenment”, a speech given at a recent dinner honoring Winston Churchill, and reprinted as an OP-Ed piece in today’s Wall Street Journal, Victor Davis Hanson argues that the West is suffering from a “loss of confidence of the spirit”.

Count Your Blessings

I don’t do a lot of recording these days; the music industry having gone through rough times in the 1990’s, I took up software engineering, and now make my living writing code. I still do two or three albums a year, though, and I am occasionally reminded of one of the other reasons I was inclined to switch careers: the hours can be grueling. Yesterday’s session at Avatar — a new album for my old friend, the guitarist Steve Khan — started at ten a.m., and when I left sometime after one in the morning, Steve was still wrapping up a few loose ends in Pro Tools with our assistant, Brian Montgomery.

Carry On

Upon hearing someone use the expression “sang-froid” the other day, I was reminded of an old joke:

Working Late Today

A long day of recording today, at New York’s Avatar Studios with my old pal Steve Khan. We’re in Studio ‘C’, working on Steve’s latest effort, with trumpeter Randy Brecker and percussionists Marc Quiñones and Bobby Allende. It’s getting late, and it doesn’t look like we’re leaving anytime soon, which of course leaves me scant opportunity for lengthy bloviation.

As always, however, I hate to send visitors away empty-handed, so here is an excellent post by Scott Carson on moral responsibility and the “false cause” fallacy.

The Narrow Way

However you may feel about Richard Dawkins’ recent campaign against religion, he is indisputably among the greatest living scholars of natural history. One of the many fascinating ideas he discusses in his richly informative book The Ancestor’s Tale is the notion that “evolvability” itself may be amenable to natural selection. He suggests that certain watershed developments in life’s history greatly increased the facility of organisms to adapt, and that such developments would have themselves been adaptive. There is tricky footing here; it is important to keep in mind that natural selection never “looks ahead”. But, as Dawkins writes near the end of the book, “we might find with hindsight that the species that fill the world tend to be descended from ancestral species with a talent for evolution.” There are a number of developments that Dawkins cites as having improved life’s “evolvability”: among these are the birth of eukaryotic cells, multicellularism, segmentation, and sex. He also discusses another, less obvious milestone: bottlenecking.

Cry, Baby, Cry

Here’s something wonderful, brought to our attention by my son Nick. From YouTube, it’s a clip of the Hawaiian ukulele master Jake Shimabukuro playing George Harrison’s While My Guitar Gently Weeps.

Hitchens on Baker

Bush 41 adviser James Baker, a co-chairman of the Iraq Study Group was one of the men behind the decision not to oust Saddam in 1991. Apparently he has been feeling pretty pleased with himself about that lately, and Christopher Hitchens, writing in Slate, suggests that he oughtn’t. Read his article here.

Happy Thanksgiving

To all of you. I thank you for visiting, reading, and commenting, and I hope this day finds you at peace, in good health, and in the company of those you love.

All-News Format

The New York Times yesterday featured on its front page the story of a college student by the name of Brian Stelter, who has risen to outstanding success with a blog about the TV news industry.

This’ll Kill You

Well, if not, perhaps it will make you stronger.

The Nietzsche Family Circus.

Electoral Collage

Here’s yet another entertaining website, brought to our attention by my friend Jess Kaplan. It is maintained by an outfit calling itself SurveyUSA, and is an interactive map of the current mood of the nation, taken state by state, regarding possible 2008 Presidential election pairings. Here’s what they’ve done:

They Don’t Think Alike

No time tonight for a long post, so I’ll offer another interesting morsel from the Web. Here are the opinions of 50 leading scientists — from Aleksander to Zeilinger, from de Waal to Walker to Weinberg to Whipple to White to Wilczek to Wilson to Witten to Wolfram to Wolpert to Wood, about what the biggest breakthrough of the next half-century might be.

Much Obliged, Jeeves

For you Wodehouse fans (count me as one), here’s a topical item from the New Yorker — brought to my attention, as are so many wondrous and faraway things, by my friend Jess Kaplan.

Rough Commute

Here’s something that happened to me a while back — around 1983 or so, if memory serves. I was reminded of it a few days ago, and thought it might be worth a post.

Turn of the Tide

I’ve mentioned oysters before in these pages (I should probably give posts about them a separate category by now), but while scooping a few dozen of them out of Wellfleet Harbor this weekend, I noticed something about them that I hadn’t realized before, which is that they seem to exhibit a consistent chirality.

Pandora’s Jukebox

If you enjoy music, and have a broadband Internet connection, then I must recommend an outstandingly clever website, Pandora. The site allows you to create virtual streaming “radio stations” that you seed with music you like — after which the system analyzes your choices and scans its vast collection to find other music that it determines, by its proprietary algorithms, that you will be likely to enjoy as well. It’s a smart idea, and done very well, with a simple and intuitive user interface. Take it for a spin. One caveat: no classical music yet. Apparently the analysis and assortment of classical music is a more difficult problem. They’re working on it.

Life of the Party

The front page of today’s New York Times features an outstanding photo, a real peach. In the foreground are the presumptive Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, and her intraparty foe Steny Hoyer. Ms. Pelosi, who has yet even to take up the gavel, has already shown outstanding political ineptitude in her attempt to foist small-bore Pennsylvania pork broker and Mideast defeatist John Murtha upon the House as majority leader. The Democratic caucus, in what many see as a telling lack of fealty and sign of party disunity, decisively rebuffed her, installing Mr. Hoyer, currently the minority whip, instead.

May The Farce Be With You

As noted below, Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, the Brights, and other godless infidels have been strengthening their insurgency the Believers. Meanwhile, however, followers of the fourth-largest religious group in Britain are petitioning for official recognition. Story here.

Faith-Based Initiative

There is a gathering groundswell of resistance to the colossal influence exerted on human affairs by organized religion. An increasingly visible and vociferous alliance of scientists, journalists, and philosophers are going on offense — quite justifiably so, given that the world’s intractable conflicts and most deeply seated hatreds seem to be rooted in religious differences, and given the degree to which religious myths are interfering with the teaching of science in our schools, and slowing the pursuit of potentially revolutionary medical research.

Their Own Devices

Some of you may recall the amazing Honda ad that was making the rounds a couple of years ago; it was a film of an elegant and complex Rube Goldberg device made entirely of car parts, and filmed live, with no computer animation. Well, it appears that the Japanese educational program Pitagora Suichi has been collecting viewer-submitted videos of similar homemade constructions, and my co-worker colleague Jay Chang has informed me that an entertaining and amusing collection of them has been made available on YouTube. Have a look here.

That’s Better

This story, one of the enormous body of Mulla Nasrudin folk-stories, is taken from The Exploits of the Incomparable Mulla Nasrudin, by the late Sufi writer and teacher Idries Shah.

Nasrudin found a weary falcon sitting one day on his windowsill. He had never seen a bird of this kind before.

“You poor thing, ” he said, “however were you allowed to get into this state?”

He clipped the falcon’s talons and cut its beak straight, and trimmed its feathers.

“Now you look more like a bird,” said Nasrudin.

Climate Control

The Earth’s temperature rises. The assignment of blame, one of Man’s most tenderly cherished hobbies, naturally ensues. The usual whipping boys — Western civilization generally, and capitalist America in particular — are piously flagellated by the guardians of “the planet” for the vile misfortunes we have visited upon innocent humankind, such as industry and transportation.

It does indeed seem that there is something happening that we should be concerned about. The evidence is clear enough. Is the answer, though, going to be the wholesale dismantling, as some would have it, of the technological infrastructure that undergirds our advancing civilization? Should we rip up the roadways, outlaw the automobile, and spend our declining years reading Baudrillard by candlelight? Of course not. Doomsayers ever since Malthus have prophesied the collapse of our species, and they have always made the same error, which is to underestimate Man’s technical ingenuity. The answer to the very real problem of global warming is not going to be the abandonment of our technology, but its improvement. It is a matter of engineering.

Can’t Have Everything

A savory morsel from Tocqueville:

Foreign policy demands scarcely any of those qualities which are peculiar to a democracy; on the contrary it calls for the perfect use of almost all those qualities in which a democracy is deficient. Democracy … can only with great difficulty regulate the details of an important undertaking, persevere in a fixed design, and work out its execution in spite of serious obstacles. It cannot combine its measures with secrecy or await their consequences with patience. These are qualities which are more characteristic of an individual or aristocracy.

– Alexis de Tocqueville; Democracy in America, 1835 ed.; Pt I, Ch. 5

Rest Area

I’m back in Cape Cod this weekend, and as always it is restorative to be here. The effect is rather like pulling off at a scenic overlook during a long motor journey to stretch the legs, breathe deeply, and take one’s eyes off the road.

Living and working, as I do, in New York City, is to spend each day in a hyperkinetic environment of entirely human manufacture, wrought at an exclusively human scale. But here in Wellfleet, on this tiny spit of land flung into the restless Atlantic, one finds oneself in the presence of physical immensities that offer the tightly clenched spirit room to unfurl. To step outside, as I did last night, to stand in silence under a moonlit sky, pine-framed and ablaze with stars, and then to stroll this afternoon along a deserted beach beside the limitless ocean — a scene entirely devoid, in chill November, of even the slightest trace of Man’s teeming presence — is to enjoy a trans-physical unconfinement, a lebensraum of the soul, that many denizens of the congested antheaps we call cities no longer realize we require for our normal development.

Service Bulletin

We’ll be traveling this weekend, and Internet access will be iffy, so waka waka waka will most likely be off the air until late Sunday, or perhaps even Monday.

You never know, though.

The Real Deal

I call attention to a new link on the waka waka waka sidebar; it is the website of one Gin Foon Mark, one of the greatest living masters of southern Chinese kung fu.

Lupus Obscurus

I am reminded again, by a post at a neighboring site, of what an outstanding weblog is maintained by the Englishman “Deogolwulf” under the banner The Joy of Curmudgeonry. He writes with style, scholarship, tartness, and wit, and I urge you all to visit.

Great Minds Think Alike

Here’s an interesting bit of convergent evolution: I see from an item in today’s PhysOrg newsletter that tarantula venom targets the same pain-inducing capsaicin receptors that plants such as chili peppers have learned to activate to discourage predators. Learn more here.

Democracy In Action

Well, Election Day is over at last. No more infuriating telephone spam, no more of the juvenile taunting and slanderous invective that, as this editorial rightly points out, should be enough to keep any self-respecting adult out of public service, and no more dithering over which of the current drift of egomaniacal swine are the ones we ought to hold our noses and vote for.

I don’t have much to say about the results, other than to note with satisfaction the ouster of that blustering ignoramus, the self-righteous, swaggering creationist and homophobe Rick “Frothy Mix” Santorum, and to register hearty approval, also, to the belated departure of Donald Rumsfeld, at whose feet I lay much of the blame for our catastrophic bungling in Iraq.

As for local news, my Congressional district here in Brooklyn is now to be represented by one Yvette Clarke, who occupies a slot on the ideological continuum somewhere just to the left of Leon Trotsky, and our junior senator will continue to be the scheming carpetbagger Hillary Clinton, who was indeed preferable — she does, after all, exhibit a certain shrewdness — to her Republican opponent, the amiable and bumbling nullity John Spencer.

Of course, this is all just an opening flourish, a prefatory ruffle of drums and flutter of strings, to the performance that awaits us in 2008.

Rocket Science

My friend and fellow software engineer Mike Zaharee has sent along a link to a massively depressing story about the next space shuttle mission. It seems that NASA is considering delaying the launch until after the New Year, because — wait for it — they don’t want the ship to be in space when the calendar “rolls over”, because the shuttle’s software can’t handle it.

“The shuttle computers were never envisioned to fly through a year-end changeover,” space shuttle program manager Wayne Hale told a briefing.

Little Big Man

My friend and kung-fu “training brother” Dan Betz has sent me a link to a remarkable tale about one Michael Oher, a young man from the most unfortunate circumstances imaginable, who, thanks to the intervention of a series of caring and concerned people, has risen from utter abandonment to become one of college football’s brightest prospects.

Scientific Creativity, East and West

My friend Eugene Jen has sent me some links to a lively academic discussion. The topic is one that I am keenly interested in — evolutionary psychology — and the question at hand is what the future of the field might be, both here in the USA and in Asia.

Post Op

I’m afraid I’m a bit under the weather tonight, and won’t be offering much of interest. I had a session today with my periodontist — Dr. Louis Franzetti, a good man, whom I like very much — that lasted from 10 a.m. until almost 5 o’clock. He addressed the left side, upper and lower: peeled away my gums, scraped and blasted the exposed bone, did some rather extensive bone-grafting, drilled a titanium implant into my lower jaw, and sutured my gums back on. He is a kind man, and a master of his art, but let me tell you, the experience was not entirely pleasant, and were it not for the blessings of organic chemistry I would be contemplating an untimely exit from this world right about now.

We’ll be back on the air again soon, perhaps even tomorrow.

Looking Up

Recently I was given a century-old copy of the immense Merriam-Webster International Dictionary of the English Language. This 1906 edition’s title page continues:

THE ISSUES OF 1864, 1879, AND 1884




Jose Does That Star-Spangled Banner

From Duncan Werner comes a link to an old memory — the story of Jose Feliciano’s performance of the Star-Spangled Banner at a World Series game between the Detroit Tigers and the St. Louis Cardinals, way back in 1968.

Facing Facts

In a typically interesting discussion over at the Maverick Philosopher, Bill Vallicella says at one point that the “wholly nonlinguistic fact of Santa’s nonexistence cannot depend on a linguistic fact about a word.” Now the subject in question is a rather technical one — it’s about the philosophical difficulties of references and their referents — but it reawakened for me some nagging questions about “facts”, about Platonism, and about the degree to which we are justified in assuming that the categories we impose on the external world are independent of our own minds.

The Undead

The lugubrious, thatch-crowned Ent John Kerry, who is so in love with his own orotund bombast that he simply cannot, even for the sake of his own sallow hide, keep his gaping pie-hole shut, has made a fool of himself again. This man simply will not go away, and some good Samaritan should find a hammer and a wooden stake and do the right thing.