Monthly Archives: February 2007

Apply Within

It is very, very difficult to develop oneself harmoniously. We are not one, but a collection of parts, and the parts bicker, struggle for power, jostle for position. Very often, one gets out in front of the others, sometimes for a very long while, and the last thing that it wants is for there to be an overview, a higher vantage, from which our whole inner world, and the tumult and disorder therein, can be seen.

The intellect, the instincts of the body, the emotions, all have their jobs to do in a properly functioning organization, but we are not so well organized, and there is no-one in charge. In one moment the feelings are on top, in the next it is some idea or other; soon it will be the stomach, a little later the reproductive organs — each with their own wishes, their own aims. And what of our aim? Where are we amid this riot, this anarchy? We are gazing out the window, or sitting comfortably — we must always be comfortable — dozing, recalling the past, or imagining the future; or we are fast asleep, dreaming that we are awake, that we are in command. And meanwhile, the servants, dressed in our clothes, are painting the town red, and writing checks in our name.

Moor Than Meets The Eye

While Islamic culture isn’t exactly on the cutting edge of intellectual progress these days, it wasn’t always so, as anyone with a rudimentary familiarity with history will know. In Islam’s heyday, the caliphate was a beacon of enlightenment, in fields as diverse as mathematics, medicine, and astronomy. I have often marveled at Islamic decorative art, in particular the intricate tesselations, with their complex fivefold symmetries, that grace Muslim architecture from those times, and have noted their similarity to what are known as Penrose tilings, named for the great mathematician and cosmologist who first subjected them to a rigorous examination.

Today’s New York Times carried an article about these remarkable mosaics, and suggested that the high Muslim culture that created these elaborate patterns may even have glimpsed the idea of quasicrystals, which are aperiodic crystals that are built on the same odd, pentagonal geometry.

Learn more here.

Keepin’ It Real

You may have heard of the book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, by the late Thomas Kuhn; it is arguably the most influential book ever written on the history and philosophy of science. In it, Kuhn examines the life cycle of a scientific “paradigm”, and the way that scientific communities pass from periods of “normal” science, during which research stays comfortably within the reigning paradigm, to “crises”, in which results begin to appear for which the current model cannot account, and during which more and more desperate efforts are made to preserve the existing view. An example of such a crisis would be the difficulties pre-relativistic physics found itself confronted with in the aftermath of the Michelson-Morley experiment.

Eventually, some breakthrough is made — a “scientific revolution” — and a new model is found that accommodates the troublesome data. Often this involves an entirely different understanding of the phenomena, and even of the nature of reality itself; Kuhn coined the now-familiar term “paradigm shift” to refer to this sort of reformulation.

Yea or Nay?

While I’m trying to find the time to get back to more serious topics, here’s an amusing bit of froth, in which we find Robert deNiro doing what he does best.

You Had To Be There

There are lot of sidewalk book vendors in my neighborhood, and it’s hard for me to take a walk along the avenue without noticing something I just have to take home. Today’s grocery bag also ended up containing a slim volume from 1906, the year our house was built.

Auld Lang Swine

These past two weekends mark the celebration of the Chinese New Year; this time around it’s the Year of the Pig. As I’ve mentioned before, kung fu schools traditionally go out in the streets to do lion and dragon dances. Ours is no exception, and as I’ve done most years since 1976, I spent the day traipsing around Chinatown in the freezing cold.

Spleen Machines

I do apologize for the dearth of worthwhile content around here lately, but it’s been a busy week. Tonight, for example, we spent the evening at a Lewis Black show at City Center. Black, who splutters in dumfounded amazement at the world’s absurdities, is a funny guy, part of an honored tradition of professional ranters. At times tonight I was reminded of another, even more idiosyncratic observer of the humanity’s hyperkinetic confusion: one Brother Theodore, who referred to his act as “stand-up tragedy”.

Breaking Up Is Hard To Undo

We mentioned a little while ago the increasingly vexatious problem of space debris. Astronomers and aerospace engineers worry that we are fast approaching a sort of critical mass, in which the breakup of some some large orbiting derelict will generate enough fragments to begin a chain reaction that could well end up with the lowere reaches of orbital space too cluttered with lethal projectiles to fly safely through any longer. For this reason the recent demolition of a Chinese satellite in a weapons test was greeted by shock and derision from the spacefaring community, and now comes the news that things may have just got a good deal worse.

Learn more here.

Now You See Him… (Now You Don’t)

Saxophonist Michael Brecker, who died most unjustly a few weeks ago, was remembered tonight in a memorial service at Town Hall, which was filled to capacity by the people who knew and loved him.

Ailing Today

I’m afflicted today with what appears to be food poisoning, and have absolutely nothing to offer tonight, especially as I’ve used up any remaining fuel in the cogitative tank commenting on an interesting thread at philosopher Alan Rhoda’s website about the “problem of evil”, and whether our morality is based on any sort of objective foundation. Interested readers may find that post, and my long-winded opinion, here.

Service Notice

We’re at Avatar Studios all weekend, mixing into the wee hours both days. Back Monday, if not sooner.

Tough Room

From trumpeter John McNeil, who’s been through a lot:

You don’t have to fail absolutely to have no confidence: you just have to fail every so often.

Abandon All Hope

In Lebanon yesterday, supporters of the pro-Western, Sunni-led government marked the second anniversary of the assassination of the former prime minister Rafik Hariri with a large demonstration. According to the story in today’s paper, as they marched along they chanted:

“We are against sectarianism!
…And God is with the Sunnis!!”


One of the cleverer ways that archaeologists date the artifacts they find is a technique known as dendrochronology, which relies on the patterns of growth rings in the trunks of trees.

Voice of Reason

I miss Carl Sagan. He was such a gentle and reasonable man, eloquent and passionate, but never strident, never shrill. He took immense joy in the simple fact that we humans live in a breathtakingly beautiful natural world, a universe of bottomless wonder and complexity, and that from this dance of atoms and forces arose beings that could come, in time, to understand it: that we, born of the ashes of stars, are the mirror in which the awakened Cosmos can behold itself.

Dem Bones

An article in today’s Times raises an interesting issue. The story concerns a Dr. Marcus Ross, who was recently awarded a Ph.D. in paleontology by the University of Rhode Island. His professors all seem to agree that he did good solid scientific work in the pursuit of his degree, but there is one curious wrinkle: the newly minted Dr. Ross is a young-earth creationist.

Bang! Zoom!

I’m mixing all day today, so have no time for the usual logorrheic bombast. Here’s an interesting morsel, though:

If you’re planning a visit to the moon, but aren’t sure what to occupy yourself with once you get there, NASA has put together a handy 181-item to-do list. Read all about it here.

The Flaming Sword

I’ll join Kevin Kim in suggesting that readers go take a look at this post by Bill Keezer — one of our valued readers and commenters — on how wrong things might go if our Islamic enemies acquire nuclear weapons.

The Unkindest Cut

Yesterday we took up Jared Diamond’s discussion of Easter Island in his latest book, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. The book, as I suppose anyone who wasn’t just stunned by a blow to the head might gather from the title, looks at societies that have failed, contrasts them with others that have not, and attempts to explain the difference.

Causa Mortis

My old friend Jess, a California attorney, comments on the sad death of Anna Nicole Smith:

This shows, once again, how higher-level appellate litigation devastates the body.

The Navel of the World

You may be familiar with the author Jared Diamond, whose brilliant book Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies quite deservedly netted a Pulitzer Prize. I’ve been reading his latest effort, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, and it is awfully good as well.

Thrace is the Place

Here’s a stunning photograph, today’s “Featured Picture” over at Wikipedia. Worth a look.

Listen to This

I don’t often recommend recordings in these pages, as people’s tastes vary greatly — but maybe I should, as I have, in the course of thirty years as a recording engineer, been exposed to an awful lot of good music. So here’s one, if you’re interested.

News from All Over

There were two excellent articles in the science section of today’s New York Times, and I encourage all of you to go and read them.

Supply and Demand

Well, it’s mighty cold here in Gotham. The temperature is dropping back down into the single digits tonight, and adding a piquant accent is a howling wind that appears to have dropped straight down to Brooklyn from somewhere up around Port Radium. The few pedestrians that I can see out on the street, swaddled and muffled beyond any regard for fashion, tilt forward into the Boreal gale as they make their way to shelter. Otherwise, all is quiet save for the occasional pop as frozen sparrows, dislodged from their miserable perches by the icy blast, shatter like lightbulbs on the stony ground.

Here in our modest bow-front Victorian limestone townhouse, however, we are snug and warm, thanks to the controlled combustion of a steady flow of natural gas. This resource is provided, at exorbitant cost, by our mild-mannered neighbors to the North — who are, now that I think about it, the same ones who are supplying us with all this Arctic bluster in the first place.

You know, that’s a pretty smooth operation.

No Problem Here

Dr. William Vallicella calls our attention to a post by Dr. Alan Rhoda in which Dr. Rhoda argues that the “problem of evil” is as much a difficulty for the atheist as for the theist. But Dr. Rhoda’s post, which Dr. V. calls a “good solid crack at it”, rests on the unwarranted assumption that the atheist will be as troubled as the theist by the notion that there might not be an objective basis for morality.

Break Fluid

On the editorial page of today’s Times there is a paean to coffee by guest columnist Stacy Schiff. I happened to read it as I was enjoying an exceptionally tasty and enlivening mug of Indonesian joe, so it was well received. In particular I enjoyed two quotes, reprinted below.

Hardware and Software

As I mentioned recently, I’ve just read John Searle’s book The Mystery of Consciousness. Searle holds a sort of middle ground among philosophers of mind: he is a card-carrying physicalist, meaning that he rejects the idea that our minds are non-material entities that interact with the body in some ghostly way, but he also takes issue with functionalist philosphers who argue that consciousness is simply an emergent property of sufficiently complex information-processing systems. Searle’s best-known salvo against functionalism is his famous “Chinese Room” thought experiment, which I won’t recap here, but which has been a source of lively dispute ever since it was published in 1980.

Ghost Stories

As so often happens, there is an interesting conversation underway over at The Maverick Philosopher. In this case the topic is the recurring theme of mind-body dualism, and in particular how a non-physical mind might causally interact with a physical body. (The original post has to do with a rather arcane metaphysical system known as “hylomorphic” or “Thomistic” dualism, but a lively chat ensued.)