Monthly Archives: March 2007

A Culture of Moderation

Beneath the spreading pall of dreadful and worsening news blowing daily from the tormented Middle East, there is a small spark of light — a newly founded party of peace and reason in Palestine that calls itself Wasatia. Its founder, Professor Mohammed Dajani, of Al-Quds University in East Jerusalem, describes the organization’s mission: “We want […]

Beside Myself

I haven’t ranted about the decline of the English language in quite some time, but I do find myself vexed almost to the point of irritability by a particularly gruesome verbal tic that seems more and more in fashion. I refer, of course, to the increasingly common use of the word “myself” as a nonreflexive pronoun. You hear it all the time lately, in sentences like:

    “The director has asked Zoltan and myself to oversee the completion of the TPS reports.”

    “Readers may direct comments either to Wally Stunkard or myself.”

This is an abomination. You don’t give something to “myself”, I do. You give something to me. The purpose of a reflexive pronoun is to serve as the object in a sentence where the subject and object are the same, as in:

     “After I had dealt with Carol and her lover, I turned the blowtorch on myself.”

    “I decided to treat myself to an evening of gangsta rap and a large bowl of offal.”

I realize there is a great deal of suffering in the world, and that perhaps we have more pressing matters to grieve us, but this sort of thing really drives myself up the wall.

No Parking Zone

As regular readers will know, I live in Park Slope, Brooklyn, a pleasant, attractive neighborhood of tree-lined streets and century-old townhouses the adjoins lovely Prospect Park. The area has had its ups and downs; when Nina and I moved here in 1982 the neighborhood was just emerging from many years of decline. During the Sixties and Seventies this was a pretty tough district — an Irish and Italian neighborhood with a lot of gangs and petty crime; during that era the handsome old buildings were neglected and often even abandoned. Since then, however, Park Slope has ridden the city’s rising tide of prosperity, and nowadays it’s a very affluent area, with upscale shops and restaurants, and the streets nowadays are full of attractive young couples pushing children in strollers. This is all very nice; certainly our own humble abode has appreciated gratifyingly since we took it over many years ago. But there is a dark side to all this American Dream stuff: you can’t find any place to park.

Curiouser and Curiouser

The Cassini probe of Saturn has sent back a striking photograph of the planet’s northern polar region, taken in the infrared portion of the spectrum. It reveals a startling feature: an enormous hexagonal standing wave girdling the pole. You’ve never seen Saturn like this. Have alook here.

One Year Gone

I must note with sorrow the anniversary of the death of my mother, Alison Calder Pollack, who left this vale of toil and sin one year ago today. All who knew her miss her most painfully; she was a truly extraordinary woman. You can read my remembrance of her, written shortly after her death, here.

To my father, Dr. William Pollack: know that we are all thinking of you today, Dad.

Marching As To War

There might be interesting times ahead for homosexual Jewish biology professors in South Carolina. Have a look here. (A tip of the hat to BV.)

Material Objections

In the two previous posts (here, and here) in our ongoing examination of mind-body dualism, we looked at the “interaction problem” — the question of how an entirely non-physical Mind might push the necessary neural buttons and levers to get the body to do anything.

Atheists 1, Foxholes 0

Readers of these pages will certainly be familiar with Daniel Dennett, the prominent Tufts University philosopher who has done important work over the last several decades on the subjects of free will, evolutionary theory, and, most notably the philosophy of mind. Dennett has also been a major player lately in the increasingly voluble science-vs. religion debate; his book Breaking the Spell is must reading for those who have an interest — from either perspective — in this vital dialogue.

Well, our Dan has been through quite a lot in the past few months; in October he suffered an aortic dissection, and nearly died.

Sunny Weather

Having, as I do, an interest in matters astronomical, I subscribe to the NASA Science Newsletter (you can, too, by clicking here). Among the other extraterrestrial beats covered by their rovingest of reporters is the violent surface of our Sun.

click here to go to the story and video.

The newsletter’s latest number carries a fantastic video of a swirling magnetic paroxysm, a vortex of nuclear fire nearly the size of the Earth. Read the story, and see the video, here.

Pen on Sword

Kevin Kim has posted a characteristically thought-provoking essay on violence and human nature. Do have a look.

Looking Ahead at TED

You may already know about the TED conference, which is held each year in Monterey, California. The acronym stands for Technology, Entertainment, and Design, and it is a forum for presentations by, and discussions among, some of the brightest bulbs at the vanguard of technological and cultural evolution. I hadn’t heard of it myself until reading this article last week , by New York Times technology writer David Pogue, whose own weblog , by the way, is a rewarding destination for those of you who like to keep up with the latest nifty gadgetry.

Only a thousand people may attend the TED gathering each year, as it is intentionally confined to a small and intimate venue. (Next year’s event is apparently already sold out, at $6,000 a seat!) But the organizers have made videos of many of the presentations available on the Internet; you can find them here. I’ve only poked around a little, but there seems to be quite a lot of interesting material there; readers are encouraged to go and have a look.

Sausage and Legislation

Two things you should never watch being made. Here.

Green Machine?

From my old PubSub pal Mike Zaharee — one of the top scientists at our now-shuttered Granite State Research Kitchen up in Nashua, New Hampshire — comes a surprising item. Are you thinking of trading in your gluttonous, swaggering Hummer for a fashionably meek, environmentally-friendly Prius? Not so fast. You might want to read this first.

Piled So High

Jean Baudrillard, that obfuscator extraordinaire of Continental theorymongers, died recently, his passing unmarked in these pages. (Words failed me.) His work lives on, however — which fact is itself aptly incomprehensible — in the International Journal of Baudrillard Studies. It surprises me not at all that the one and only Deogulwulf has commented upon this august organ amongst his observations of the passing scene; in this item he shares with us the musings of an Australian associate-professor of art upon the subtleties of relativistic astrophysics.

The Bad Guys

From today’s New York Times:

BAGHDAD, March 20 — Insurgents detonated a bomb in a car with two children in it after using the children as decoys to get through a military checkpoint in Baghdad, an American general said Tuesday.

Speaking at a news briefing at the Pentagon, Maj. Gen. Michael Barbaro, deputy director for regional operations at the Joint Staff, said American soldiers had stopped the car at the checkpoint but had allowed it to pass after seeing the two children in the back seat.

“Children in the back seat lower suspicion,” he said, according to a transcript. “We let it move through. They parked the vehicle. The adults run out and detonate it with the children in back.”

General Barbaro offered no further details.

I confidently await the storm of outrage and condemnation that the Muslim world will surely visit upon these vicious men for such an atrocity.

Pinker on the Outer Cape

One of the leading thinkers and writers on the subjects that interest me most — the human mind, the evolution of life, and the connection between the two — is Harvard’s Steven Pinker. His books The Language Instinct, How the Mind Works, Words and Rules, and The Blank Slate are all outstanding, and should be read by anyone who shares my fascination with these complex and enormously important areas if inquiry. What I didn’t know, though, was that he is also both a marvelous photographer and a habitué of Cape Cod’s outer extremities. I have just stumbled upon a collection of his photographs of the waters, skies, beaches and wildlife of Provincetown, Truro, and Wellfleet, and they are simply stupendous.

Pinker’s Cape images are gathered into two galleries, here and here, and the main page for all of his photography is here. Please do take a look; you won’t be disappointed. You will also get an idea of why I love this unique place so.

Alma Martyr

Here’s a nice piece of government work, from the AP (by way of James Taranto):

WASHINGTON — Suspected members of extremist groups have signed up as school-bus drivers in the United States, counterterror officials said yesterday in a cautionary bulletin to police. But an FBI spokesman said, “Parents and children have nothing to fear.”

Get Some Skull

Our pal Kevin Kim — essayist, professor, artist, and a genuine Renaissance man whose interests range from the comparative study of religion to philosophy of mind to the passing of intestinal gas, has just published a book. It’s called Water From a Skull, and is described online as “a collection of reflective essays and academic papers (1999-2006) on religious diversity, Buddhism, Christianity, mind, and other topics of personal interest.

Kevin has a piercing and wide-ranging intellect, is a marvellous writer, and has a truly skanky sense of humor. I’m sure the book is well worth reading, and I’m going to get me a copy. You should too; you can pick one up here.

Time Out

Enough brooding and introspection already. Let’s get happy. This will help:

À La Carte

Readers may be interested to take a look at the latest addition to the waka waka waka sidebar; it’s a relatively new website called Strange Maps. It is exactly what the name suggests — a weblog devoted to cartographic curiosities. In here you will find such oddities as The Whole World in a Cloverleaf, East Germany Lives On — As a Tiny Carribean Island, The Most Generic Country Ever, the United Shapes of America, and a whole lot more.
Enjoy.

Mind: The Gap

In the previous post in this thread, we were considering the causal linkage between my observation of a falling flowerpot and my stepping out of the way, and how a dualist account of such a chain of events might differ from a materialist one. Although the immaterial Mind of the dualist is considered to be not of the physical world, and therefore outside the purview of the natural sciences, that is not necessarily the case, as we shall see.

Conscious Entities

We’ll get right back to our look at causal interactions in mind-body dualism, but meanwhile I want to call everyone’s attention to a new link on the waka waka waka sidebar. It’s a website called Conscious Entities, and is maintained by an Englishman by the name of Peter Hankins. Mr. Hankins is, like me, an amateur fascinated by the questions and problems of consciousness, and he has done an impressive job of presenting them. He writes exceptionally well, and his site is inviting, extensive, and well-designed. This appears to be an outstanding resource for those of us who are curious about the philosophy of mind, and I look forward to exploring it in detail. I invite our readers to do the same.

Causing Problems

Well, having got the boot for badgering dualists about their view of the world, I might as well carry on. In for a penny, in for a pound, I say. So for the next couple of posts I’ll discuss what all the fuss is about.

As I’ve said, there are some good-sized humps any dualist account has to get over, and the one that comes up most often is the problem of causal interaction. Let’s have a look.

All Fixed

I’m happy to say that waka waka waka‘s Brooklyn nerve center, which for the last couple of days has been as isolated as the hapless Easter Islanders of a thousand years ago, is once again connected to the outside world. Unfortunately, however, even though it is ten p.m. on a Friday night, I am still at my office in Midtown, attending to clamant matters having to do with my primary source of income. As I may be here into the wee hours, it appears that a resumption of the usual bombast, bloviation and braggadocio will have to wait one more day. I do apologize.

We’re Down

Unfortunately, Internet access from my Brooklyn lair is down; this may mean that waka waka waka will be down as well until the problem is fixed.

Thank you, Time Warner Cable.

Shown The Door

Readers of these pages will know that I have often participated in the online discussion at The Maverick Philosopher, a weblog maintained by Dr. William Vallicella. Dr. Vallicella is a staunch defender of dualistic interpretations of the mind-body question, a position that puts him at odds with such prominent thinkers as Daniel Dennett, John Searle, the Churchlands, and many others (and of course with pretty much all of the neuroscientists studying the workings of the mind and brain). But despite what you may have gathered from harsh dismissals of dualism from Dennett et. al., dualism is very much a defensible and consistent philosophical position. I believe it is most likely to turn out to be wrong — an unnecessary product of our need to fill explanatory gaps, and a relic of a pre-scientific model of the world — but it is indeed a view that can be coherently defended, and I have learned a great deal about how this can be done from Dr. Vallicella and his astute commenters.

Endurance

Well, as far as survival in the polar regions is concerned I don’t think I’m about to knock Shackleton off his perch anytime soon, but I must say that after the weeks of frigid weather we’ve had, gleaning four dozen oysters from Wellfleet harbor this morning was far from the usual carefree splash in the bay. Indian Neck Beach today looked more like the Weddell Sea than the clement shores of Cape Cod, and I was on the lookout for leopard seals throughout. Fuzzy cell-phone pictures below.

A Moon for the Misbegotten

The Jovian moon Io, its small size notwithstanding, is one of the most geologically active objects in the solar system. It is close enough to Jupiter that it is subject to constant tidal stresses, which generate a tremendous amount of heat in the moon’s interior. While most airless moons are scarred and pocked with impact craters, the surface of Io is quite smooth, due to its constantly being paved over with volcanic ejecta. Were Io much closer to Jupiter it would simply be torn apart.

Now the exploratory probe New Horizons, passing by on its way to Pluto, has sent home a remarkable image of an enormous eruption on this tormented moon. You can see it http://science.nasa.gov/headlines/y2007/09mar_alienvolcano.htm?list743573.

Io is a truly remarkable place, unique in many ways. Wikipedia has a good gateway article about this amazing little world; you can find it here.

Roadwork ahead

We are traveling today, and Internet access will be spotty over the weekend, so blogging may be, as they say, light.

Barrel of Fun

Are you planning an elegant social function? An afternoon garden party, peut-être, or perhaps a genteel soirée to raise money for a new wing at the local art museum? Don’t call the caterers before you consult this online oracle.

Opportunity Knocks

My old friend Pat Goldsmith, who has traveled the world for decades as a dealer in exotic art, is selling some of his collection. He has some particularly splendid examples of Indonesian and other South Asian work, and you can acquire them at very reasonable prices (particularly, I think, if you mention that you heard about them here). By all means do take a look; his website is here.

What A Piece of Work Is Man

Despite all Man’s ennobling qualities, despite all the many ways in which he is set apart from the beasts — his vaunted freedom of will, his keen moral intuition, his literature, his arts, his sciences, his care for the future, his veneration of the past — he still manages to give frequent and mortifying examples of how far there is to go, and of the extent to which he is yet ruled by the animal drives that writhe and snarl beneath his civilizing forebrain.

Let Slip The Blogs Of War

We are adding two new links to the sidebar. Both are blogs maintained by citizen journalists from Baghdad, with very different perspectives. The first, Iraq the Model, is the work of two brothers, Mohammed and Omar Fadhil, who see in their nation’s strife and suffering the hope of a nascent modern democracy, while the second, Baghdad Burning, which is written by a highly articulate and obviously well-educated woman who goes only by the name Riverbend, bitterly laments the cruelty and chaos that has resulted from the war, and the fracturing and destabilization of Baghdad society after the fall of the old regime. Both are extraordinary examples of the power of this new medium.

Where Is Thy Sting?

If you haven’t already heard, there is something disturbing going on that might have far-reaching effects on North American agriculture. All over the country, the bees are disappearing.

Do Forgive Me

What was meant to be a relaxing, restorative weekend of healthful exercise, quiet contemplation, and the writing of some meaty posts about the freedom of the will, US politics, and a fascinating but largely unknown collector of unexplainable facts instead became a weekend of the severest toil, thanks to a crisis at my workplace and a last-minute mixing session. I therefore find myself without any substantial offering for this evening, and will leave you for the nonce with a weightless little meringue that I turned up in a brief scouring of the Web. In this case it a humorous little confection from the comedic oeuvre of the late-night entertainer Conan O’Brien, in which he meticulously insults almost every nation on Earth.

Heady Stuff

Reader Andrew Staroscik has sent along an interesting article about recent developments in the neuroscience of human brains, for those of you who are interested in such things. The gist of it is that human brains are markedly different from the brains of other animals not just in their gross anatomy, but in the microscopic details of the neural tissues themselves. In other words, it isn’t that all mammalian brains are made of the same stuff, with ours just being bigger and more complex, but rather that we have evolved some new varieties of brain cells that aren’t found elsewhere.

You can read the story here.

Free as a Bird

“Ask yourself: are you free? Many are inclined to answer ‘yes’, if they are relatively secure in a material sense and do not have t worry about the morrow, if they depend on no one for their livelihood or in the choice of their conditions of life. But is this freedom? Is it only a question of external conditions?