Monthly Archives: January 2007

Surfing to Byzantium

In today’s New York Times I ran across an encouraging item: an account of an Internet personality who has developed a worldwide audience — but not with titillating videos, political vituperation, or lowbrow humor, but rather with, of all things, a series of podcasts about Byzantine emperors. His name is Lars Brownworth, and you can read his story here.

Unfortunately, as a result of the article today the servers are swamped, and Iso far I haven’t been able to download more than the first few seconds of the introductory lecture. But it is certainly gratifying to see a history teacher attracting such widespread interest, and I thought readers might like to take a look. The website is here.

Music Theory

From my friend Eugene Jen comes an interesting item about one Dmitri Tymoczko (Harvard ’91), who has come up with a new way of mapping musical tonal clusters into the topological space known as an orbifold, with interesting results.

The interesting question, of course, is how the orbifold mapping would represent “Oh, Pretty Woman”, or perhaps “Only the Lonely”.

Read all about it.

Hubble Trouble

Here’s some disappointing news, in case you hadn’t heard: the Hubble Space Telescope’s Advanced Camera for Surveys has gone blind, the result of a blown fuse. While the other instruments aboard the orbiting observatory are still in fine shape, this is the camera that has been responsible for all those astonishing images we’ve marveled at in recent years. Learn more here.

One World

I’ve been reading The Mystery of Consciousness by John R. Searle. Searle is perhaps best known for his long-standing wrangle with Daniel Dennett; they have clashed often over the years, with Dennett running roughshod over Searle’s “Chinese Room” thought experiment, and Searle excoriating Dennett (quite fairly) for his rather extreme position as regards the subjective ontology of consciousness.

Round Trip

I’ve just got back to New York after a brief visit to San Diego to visit my father, and no matter how often I make the trip I still find it startling how utterly different the two corners of the continent are, and how easily we flit back and forth. It was a breezy 10° F. or so at dawn on Friday when I headed for JFK, and a sunny 70° at Lindbergh field when I blew in. Now, back in Brooklyn, though it’s warmed up quite a bit, it’s still snowing wetly.

The Love That Dare Not Bleat Its Name

With apt timing as regards recent discussion of the place of science in our society, the New York Times yesterday featured on its front page a story about Dr. Charles Roselli, a researcher in Oregon who is studying homosexuality in sheep.

Flick Lives

I’ll be flying to California at the crack of dawn tomorrow — I’m going off to San Marcos to visit my father. I was dithering over what books, music, etc. I might take for the ride, when suddenly I remembered that I had, a couple of years ago, got my hands on a collection of hundreds of hours of recordings of the old Jean Shepherd radio show.

If the Truth Be Told

My apologies to all for not getting the job done in yesterday’s post. Our friend Peter had asked this question, which last night’s item stopped short of answering:

Are there some scientific truths which ought not to be revealed?

Reader Kevin Kim, and then Peter himself, have quite rightly held my feet to the fire, and I’ll have a go at it here.

Izzes and Oughts

In a comment on a recent post about intelligence and education, commenter Peter Kranzler asks:

Let’s suppose that you possessed data which proved that a certain race of people were less intelligent than the rest of humanity. To take it outside this realm, let’s suppose that you are a white New Zealander and could conclusively prove that Maoris have an IQ substantially lower than the white population. If you report your findings, you will make life even more difficult for a group of people who have enough difficulties already. It is hard to imagine any good coming from the revelation that Maoris are incapable of ratiocination (or whatever). Do you report your findings? Are there some scientific truths which ought not to be revealed?

This is, as intended, a difficult question, and shows the trap that awaits any of us who insist on too tightly coupling moral and political philosophy to empirical questions of human biology.

Nervous Tension

One of the greatest liberations in human history will arrive when we truly begin to master the physical system that is closest to us of all: our own bodies. Despite enormous triumphs in our command of the external world, from the building of vast and towering cities to the development of computers to the exploration of the planets, we still live and die as prisoners in the biological machines we are born into, held hostage every day to the caprices of their vital systems. Without the least regard to our station in life, or our virtue, wit, or wealth, we can all be brought down — stopped, literally, dead in our tracks — by some trivial malfunction, some slight physical insult. It might be a virus, or the bursting or occlusion of some tiny bit of plumbing. It could be a gene that causes a milligram too much or too litle of some necessary substance to be produced, or perhaps a renegade group of cells that, having mutinied, encourage others to join them. And of course we all, without exception, suffer the progression of a disease that is universally fatal, and which subjects its victims, little by little, to a withering and debilitating course of mental and physical demolition; that disease, of course, is aging.

Do Not Disturb

We are all, of course, thoughtful and open-minded people — a distinction that sets us apart from the rabble, from the average man who parrots the opinions of the braying donkeys he sees on television and reads in the papers. No, we are different; the views we express are carefully prepared, using only the finest ingredients: the facts at hand, our rich store of personal experience, and the wisdom of the many sages whose works we have absorbed. When we deliver an opinion, it is like a sauce that has been carefully reduced — a rich and flavorful concoction, complex and nutritious. How could it be otherwise?

Here’s how. We fancy that we are savants strolling the agora, but in fact we prefer to keep indoors, in our comfortable and well-appointed offices, and to let our secretaries answer the phone. They, of course, having none of our exquisite subtlety of mind, are expected to send the important callers in to see us, where we may give them and their questions the attention they deserve. But what happens, as we doze in our leather chairs, is that most callers never get past the front desk, where they are handed a brochure outlining the company policy and sent along their way.

For Whom the Bell Tolls

There are few topics that get folks as worked up these days as the notion that there might in fact be innate differences amongst people (or even worse, statistical differences between identifiable groups of people). You may recall that Harvard president Lawrence Summers was tarred, feathered, and run out of town on a rail for so much as suggesting that known differences in the distribution of various cognitive attributes in men and women might account for some of the unequal success of the sexes in the sciences.

We All Want to Change the World

Readers are encouraged to visit The Joy of Curmudgeonry for an excellent piece by “Deogolwulf” on the persistent allure of political revolution.

The Thief of Time

I tend to procrastinate; I’ve had a problem with it all my life. For years I’ve meant to come to grips with this psychic defect, but I never seem to get around to it. I’m not alone in this, I realize: 15-20% of us are prone to habitual and reflexive deferment of life’s little obligations, and even though Mark Twain advises us never to put off till tomorrow that which can be done the day after tomorrow, many folks would still like to have a better understanding of why we so often would rather do just about anything than the thing that needs doing now.

For those of you who share this affliction, I’ve found a splendid resource for all things cunctatory: Procrastination Central. It’s the perfect place to spend some time when you should be doing something else. Take a look, if you can find the time.

Blood and Sand

A grim story in today’s New York Times begins as follows:

The United Nations reported Tuesday that more than 34,000 Iraqis were killed in violence last year, a figure that represents the first comprehensive annual count of civilian deaths and a vivid measure of the failure of the Iraqi government and American military to provide security.

This is indeed a sickening tally of human misery. And to be sure, the Iraqi army and police have been, by all accounts, at best useless, and at worst, have themselves been agents of grisly violence. It is also quite clear by now that the US management of postwar Iraq — attempted, as Tom Friedman put it, “with our pinky” — was vastly inadequate.

Michael Brecker, 1949 – 2007

The musical community suffered an irreplaceable loss this weekend: saxophonist Michael Brecker has died at the age of 57. He had been fighting leukemia for years, and finally lost the battle.

A Deep Misunderstanding

Readers will probably be familiar with one Deepak Chopra, who has made a handsome pile over the years by peddling pseudo-scientific New Age pablum to legions of credulous and uncritical admirers. Now, in an item at the Huffington Post, he swivels his intellectual popguns to bear upon Richard Dawkins’s book The God Delusion, and does about as little damage as you might expect. If you enjoy seeing intellectual justice in action, visit the website eclexys, where blogger “gordsellar” gives Chopra’s gormless review, which is a basinful of the purest hogwash, the fisking it deserves, in a post entitled Deepak Chopra: Who Is This Idiot?

Thank you Kevin Kim for linking to this post, which I might otherwise have missed.

Salmon Run

We are home once again – just the two of us, having safely ensconced our son in his new home in the halls of academe. Thanks to those of you who have emailed in response to the previous post; the immediate connection with a community of friends is one of the most rewarding aspects of maintaining this website.

There and Back Again

We are in Wellfleet this evening, having arrived late last night on an important mission. No, I’m not talking about plucking oysters from the bay, though this afternoon did find me splashing about at low tide as usual. This weekend, however, the task at hand is to take our son Nick off to college. He was accepted as a midterm admission at a well-known university in the Boston area, and the moment is at hand; we drop him off tomorrow.

Tough All Over

However dreary your day, or stifling your job, just be glad you don’t live in Mogadishu, Somalia. This article from today’s New York Times, by Reporter Jeffrey Gettleman, gives us a glimpse of one of the most wretched places on Earth.

It is easy enough to sit back at aloof and luxurious remove and fling curmudgeonly barbs at the preening popinjays and benighted saps that bray and caper upon the stage, but when one thinks of the intractable misery in this world, the inexhaustible capacity people have for making other people suffer horribly for no particular reason, and the fact that, for most people who have ever lived, their lot has been little but misery, hunger, anguish, and death, it really isn’t funny at all.

Nothing To See Here

Readers visiting waka waka waka this evening confident that yesterday’s service interruption must have been due to the gestation of a particularly expansive discursion upon some fascinating topic or other are, I’m sorry to report, mistaken. While there is, as always, no shortage of topics, events, and cultural foibles about which an essayist might comment, I am, tonight, unequal to the task, and must refrain.

That’s A Moray

In discourse these days, whether about politics, religion, philosophy, or any of the other topics that seem so effectively to get everybody’s knickers in a twist, we will all have observed by now that some people have what is known as a “short fuse”. I’ve been noticing more and more that quite a few folks go one better, and operate on what might be thought of, if we are willing to test the metaphor’s tensile strength, as a proximity fuse: they detonate at the expression of any thought that even reminds them of whatever it is that they are crusading against.

Such minds are like eels lurking in the coral, snapping at whatever shiny object paddles by. I suppose other eels find them attractive, but to swimmers they are merely a nuisance.

The Most Wonderful Time

I must say, at the risk of sounding Grinchy once again, that I am not at all sorry that the holidays are over. The garish displays are coming down. The tourists crowd the city less densely, and the reduced incidence of pastel pink and primary-colored polyester outerwear stretched over ample midsections allows Gotham’s naturally dingy palette to return to the fore. Gone are the gift-laden shoppers who turned the subways into freight trains; gone as well is the bloody “Carol of the Bells” that blared from every loudspeaker. The hawking of rubbish to the besotted is much abated, and fools are once again being separated from their money at the normal workaday pace. For those of us for whom gift-shopping is a baffling mystery, the anguish of the annual Deadline has passed, and we are delivered, for better or worse, for another year. No more obligatory holiday parties, corporate gift drives, and salvos of greeting cards (actully we utterly dropped the ball on that last item this year; apologies to all).

No, that’s all behind us now. Nothing lies ahead but grim and slushy Winter, and the resumption of life’s dreary toil. Snows will fall, and blacken on the city streets, as we trudge to our daily servitude through the bleak and cheerless months to come. The distant memory of the summer’s fetid heat will seem an otherworldly illusion as the Boreal winds howl down Broadway straight from Baffin Bay, and the ancient questions, set aside during the recent Saturnalian euphoria, will gnaw us once again with renewed vigor.

Yippee! My time of year.

Experts In Their Field

The NFL playoffs are beginning, and with both of our local franchises having made it into the postseason tournament, the media hereabouts are brimming with informative coverage of the impending contests.

The best part, for the seeker of wisdom, is the commentary by the players and coaches themselves, in which they offer the lay audience a glimpse of the arcane inner workings of the game, and share with us the expertise that they bring to bear as they gird their loins for the struggle ahead.

The Royal Road

This is making the rounds, apparently, but I wouldn’t want you to miss it.

Chiding the Hangman

Richard Dawkins, who seems to be everywhere lately (he’s even been spotted recently in a small town in Colorado), has an Op-Ed piece in today’s Los Angeles Times in which he laments the execution of Saddam Hussein, for some of the same reasons that I brought up in this recent post.

Not To Worry

As I’ve mentioned recently, there is always something at to engage the curious mind. One of the more interesting features of the website is the annual World Question project, which consists of asking a diverse collection of thinkers some simple but provocative question, and presenting their responses.

Meaning and Demeaning

In today’s New York Times we see, in response to an article about the difficulties faced by working diabetics and their employers, the following letter (it’s number six in the linked collection):

To the Editor:

Thank you for your article. But you do a disservice to all those with diabetes by referring to them as “diabetics.” We are not our diseases; we are individuals with lives and families. Such a reference is demeaning and promotes just the discrimination you were reporting.

Susan Lesburg
Boston, Dec. 26, 2006

We are all aware, of course, that diabetes is merely a disease, and that those who suffer from it possess other attributes as well. In the article under discussion, however, the individuals chosen for consideration were selected precisely because of the salient characteristic they share — namely, that they do indeed suffer from this cruel affliction — and the term “diabetic” summarizes this distinction with precision and economy. The use of the term in such a context should not be seen by diabetics as diminishing their humanity — which, as nobody should have any reason to doubt, is surely as dignified and multifaceted as anyone else’s — and to eschew its use in favor of some euphemistic monstrosity such as “the pancreatically challenged” would serve only to draw another pint from a language and culture that are already well on their way to becoming quite utterly bloodless.

I have seen firsthand the suffering diabetes can cause, and certainly mean no disrespect to its victims. But Ms. Lesburg might do well to read this post, by the noted curmudgeon Deogolwulf.

The Story of the Moral

Dr. William Vallicella, in a discussion at Maverick Philosopher about whether religion is simply a quest for comfort, asked me the following question:

Can an atheist be moral? Yes, of course, in one sense, and indeed more moral than some theists. But the more interesting question would be whether an atheist would have an objective basis for an objective morality. In other words, even if it is true that many atheists are morally superior to many theists relative to some agreed-upon standard of behavior, would these atheists be justified in making the moral judgments they do if there is no God? Perhaps, but the answer to this is not obvious, whereas the answer to the first question is obvious.

While there are those who have tried to devise such a scheme, I think their efforts are misplaced; I will not try to establish an “objective morality” here, because I see no need for one.

Happy New Year To You All

Well, we are back in New York, after a restful interval in Cape Cod. The weather was cold and damp, and the outer Cape largely deserted, but it was nevertheless balm to the soul to be out there. I scooped up a few dozen oysters, of course, despite temperatures just above freezing, a leaden sky, and a chilling wind and drizzle.