Tuesday, January 31, 2006

The Octopus World at this Minute

Be careful what you wish for. Congressman wants to build a fence along the U.S. border with Canada, pissing off the CBC. This was the longest unprotected border in the world. Earwax can tell you a lot. Europeans and Africans have wet earwax. Asians have dry earwax. The theory is that Asians adapted to cold climates long ago. This, the theory says, is also why their nostrils are smaller. Los Angeles Los Angeles Los Angeles. I still don't believe I live here.

I bought too much music at Amoeba Music a few weeks ago. Is it good for you to drink a beer a day? I am very happy that the Museum of African American history has received a place of honor on the Mall in Washington, right next to the Washington Monument. This seems eminently appropriate. Elections in Nepal in the face of Maoist rebels. Orhan Pamuk. Doesn't everyone respect Oprah? How many avid readers has she created through her book club? I will never mock Oprah. Don't blink, but Bernanke (who looks like Karl Marx/Papa Smurf sort of high on something) was also confirmed by the Senate today.

His mission: keep inflation low, employment high. But how long can we run high trade and budget deficits while keeping inflation low? It depends on the willingness of other countries to continue investing in U.S. instruments and stocking reserves of dollars, but pull that away (especially as foreign countries begin to smell the end) and you have crowding out, higher interest rates, a corresponding hit to the housing market, a corresponding hit to consumer spending as all that imagined housing value goes kerplop.

"Once when among those rebels in a state of hopelessly helpless intoxication the piscivore strove to lift a czitround peel to either nostril, hiccuping, apparently impromptued by the hibat he had with his glottal stop, that he kukkakould flowrish for ever by the smell, as the czitr, as the kcedron, like a scedar, of the founts, on mountains, with limon on, of Lebanon."

Q-Tip. Get it?

Missed the State of the Union. What did he say? Is the War over? Have we won? Is he converting? Is it Miller Time?

Expectant Monkey Dads Get Chubby.

Monday, January 30, 2006

Science Series: Sunlight, Moonlight

Gravity and light. Silver moonlight, just a reflection of the sun's light. What is sunlight?
Sunlight in the broad sense is the total spectrum of electromagnetic radiation given off by the Sun. On Earth, sunlight is filtered by the atmosphere, and the solar radiation is obvious as daylight when the Sun is above the horizon. This is usually during the hours known as day. Near the poles in summer, sunlight also occurs during the hours known as night and in the winter at the poles sunlight may not occur at any time. When the direct radiation is not blocked by clouds, it is experienced as sunshine, a combination of bright light and heat. Radiant heat directly produced by the radiation of the sun is different from the increase in atmospheric temperature due to the radiative heating of the atmosphere by the sun's radiation.

the heliospheric magnetic field of the sun: this field extends from the Sun's equatorial plane throughout the entire Solar System, and can be considered its largest structure. The shape of the current sheet results from the influence of the Sun's rotating magnetic field on the plasma in the interplanetary medium (Solar Wind)

Okay. And moonlight is a pale reflection of sunlight.
Moonlight is the light that is perceived as coming from the moon.  Moonlight is in fact sunlight reflected from the Moon.  The intensity of moonlight varies greatly depending on the current lunar phase; but even the full moon provides only a faint illumination of about 0.2 lx (so full moon is about 500,000 times fainter than the sun).  One cannot read books or discern colors under moonlight.
Id. at Moonlight.

Why is moonlight so much more poetic than sunlight? Where did the moon come from? This is the current thinking:
Recently, the giant impact hypothesis has been considered a more viable scientific theory for the moon's origin than the coformation or condensation theory. The Giant Impact theory holds that the Moon formed from the ejecta resulting from a collision between a very early, semi-molten Earth and a planet-like object the size of Mars, which has been referred to as Theia. The material ejected from this impact would have gathered in orbit around earth and formed the moon.
Id. at Moon.

What is the sun? What happens there?
At the center of the Sun, where its density reaches up to 150,000 kg/m3 (150 times the density of water on Earth), thermonuclear reactions (nuclear fusion) convert hydrogen into helium, producing the energy that keeps the Sun in a state of equilibrium. About 8.9×1037 protons (hydrogen nuclei) are converted to helium nuclei every second, releasing energy at the matter-energy conversion rate of 4.26 million tonnes per second or 383 yottawatts (9.15×1016 tons of TNT per second).

The core extends from the center of the Sun to about 0.2 solar radii, and is the only part of the Sun where an appreciable amount of heat is produced by fusion: the rest of the star is heated by energy that is transferred outward. All of the energy of the interior fusion must travel through the successive layers to the solar photosphere, before it escapes to space.

The high-energy photons (gamma and X rays) released in fusion reactions take a long time to reach the Sun's surface, slowed down by the indirect path taken, as well as constant absorption and re-emission at lower energies in the solar mantle (see below). Estimates of the "photon travel time" range from as much as 50 million years (Richard S. Lewis, The Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Universe, Harmony Books, New York, 1983, p. 65) to as little as 17,000 years. Upon reaching the surface after a final trip through the convective outer layer, the photons escape as visible light. Neutrinos are also released in the fusion reactions in the core, but unlike photons they very rarely interact with matter, and so almost all are able to escape the Sun immediately.
Id. at Sun.

Saturday, January 28, 2006

Making the world (un)safe for Dada

Marcel Duchamp's "Fountain"

A significant story you might have missed. The Dada defense fails in Paris:
A French court convicted a 77-year-old French man for attacking artist Marcel Duchamp's famed porcelain urinal ["Fountain"] with a hammer, rejecting the defendant's contention that he had increased the value of the art work by making it an "original." . . . .

[Defendant] Pinoncelli -- who announced that he plans to appeal the decision -- told reporters that what he had done was not vandalism but a "wink" at Dadaism that had Duchamp's blessing. "I told him in 1967 that I would do something," Pinoncelli said.

"I added to its value," he said, assuring that Duchamp would "have had a good laugh."

Duchamp, who died in 1968, emphasized the creative process, and a role for the spectator.

The work has an estimated value of $3.9-million, said Marie Delion, a lawyer for the Pompidou. The original was lost but in 1964 Duchamp created eight other versions of the work.

After buying his ticket to the exhibit on Jan. 4, Pinoncelli attacked Fountain with a hammer before writing "Dada" on the sculpture.

Pinoncelli, a former salesman who calls himself a participant in the creative process as conceived by Duchamp, said that his hammer attack was an artistic endeavour.

The January urinal attack was not the first for Pinoncelli. He urinated on the piece during a 1993 exhibition in Nîmes in southern France.
From Toronto Globe & Mail.

Injustice? Perhaps Pinoncelli had a point. What's a urinal for anyway, if not for peeing on? And wasn't Pinoncelli acting in accord with Dada principles?
Dada or Dadaism [French, from dada, child's word for a horse] Nihilistic movement in the arts that flourished chiefly in France, Switzerland, and Germany from about 1916 to about 1920 [and later -ed.] and that was based on the principles of deliberate irrationality, anarchy, and cynicism and the rejection of laws of beauty and social organization.
From Dada Online; see also Wikipedia.

Isn't the very idea of an estimated value for the urinal -- $3.9 million -- funny in itself? Surely Duchamp would've laughed to see the State's prosecutors valiantly defending his pisspot? The whole episode is a magnificent Dada joke. Sadly, Pinoncelli's paying dearly for that joke.

UPDATE: Someone in Ireland agrees with me. Also, a supporting quote from Duchamp: ""I threw the urinal in their faces and now they come and admire it for its beauty . . . ." From CBC.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006


I have still not quite accepted that I live in Los Angeles. I have still not quite accepted that I work in downtown Los Angeles, in a ghostly, weirdly empty corporate plaza. I have still not quite accepted, looking at 5:30 out my office window over the the city sprawling out to the Pacific, the sunset strawberry pink and Tang orange, unholy colors we never had back in Connecticut, that I have come out here to live.

The city is lonely and frighteningly empty. The lobbies of gigantic corporate office buildings downtown are -- even during the day -- deathly still. The sidewalks are empty. No one goes in or out of buildings. Where is everyone?

Homeless people stand alone on street corners, waving battered cardboard signs at BMWs trying to get to the 10 West. Shadowy figures dash out in the dark across the four lanes of Sunset, blocks from any crosswalk.

It's always somehow amazing when people do come together or gather anywhere in L.A. It always feels so provisional. In New York, everyone was always together, pressed cheek to jowl, sitting in each others' laps, knocking each other out of the way. It was a rare, precious moment when you were finally alone, in silence, shut off from everyone. Here in L.A., it's strange to ever have people together. People belong in their separate neighborhoods. People belong in their metal shells locked on the 110 or on Olympic.

El Gran Burrito at Vermont and Santa Monica late at night is a typical thing. People drive up out of the night, huddle by the warmth of the grill and eat for a few minutes, perhaps share some words with the cook and cashier, say goodbye, and then drive off into the dark, merge onto the highway, alone.

Still, I am not down on L.A. You just never really have any idea what is out there. Driving through Koreatown, Thai Town, or Little Armenia, you know there are amazing places, hidden behind the garish neon signs -- you'll never see them all, you'll never know the proper things to order even if you found the right places. It's bracing, imagining what is out in the gigantic mess of a city. But that's the sad thing. Unlike New York, "community" here is often very much imagined.

Sunday, January 22, 2006

The mid-range jump shot

There are few things as sweet as a jump shot released with the proper arc, the wrist breaking with the release, the arms held up on the follow-through, and the net collapsing upward in on itself as the ball passes straight down through the cords. It has its own beautiful sound, more like a splash than a "swish".

For twenty-three years I have been trying to work out the kinks in my jumpshot, and I still haven't quite reached the promise land. There are two crucial motions that have been tripping me up for decades. The foundation is the footwork. I always start with my left foot half a step forward, rock forward on the left heel as I step forward with my right. If I pop straight up my percentage goes way up. The problem comes with the slight drift forward or backward, which throws off the shot. The crucial second portion is the position of the hands -- they should hold the ball above the head, not below -- and the gentle wrist-flip release of the shot. It should not be a push or shot-put upwards--that type of motion is hard to control and introduces too many unnecessary complexities, in addition to keeping the ball low for the defender. The arms must stay up during and after the release of the shot, ideally until the ball reaches the rim. The follow-through insures the proper motion during the shot somehow. This makes sense and I've never questioned it.

It's a beautiful thing when it works, this negotiation with gravity, the fantastic calculations one makes without thought, calibrating the push of the legs off the ground with the gentle flip of the wrist, the rainbow of the perfect jump shot.

There are moments -- an hour, five minutes, a day -- where the motions feel perfect and fluid, where the ball seems as if it's pulled by a string into the basket. But these moments always pass too quickly. There's a place somewhere where the shot will always go in, where my feet and hands will always click, and where my follow-through will always produce the proper motions before.

Friday, January 20, 2006

Science Series: The Center of the Galaxy

X-ray mosaic image of the Milky Way taken by Chandra X-ray Observatory

Sometimes it helps to put things in perspective. Our Solar System lies in the inner rim of the Orion Arm of our galaxy, the Milky Way.
The Milky Way Galaxy is about 80-100 thousand light years in diameter, about 3,000 light years in thickness, and about 250-300 thousand light years in circumference. It is composed of at least 200 billion stars. As a guide to the relative physical scale of the Milky Way, if the galaxy were reduced to 130 km (80 mi) in diameter, the solar system would be a mere 2 mm (0.08 in) in width.

No one is quite sure what lies at the center of our galaxy Many postulate that it is a massive black hole. Apparently, the evidence supporting this theory is mounting.

According to this theory, it is the gravity of this massive black hole that holds our rotating galaxy -- a collection of more than 400 billion stars -- together. Under this theory, the materials of our universe are spiraling inward toward this massive black hole like water going down the drain.

It might change the way you feel about things to know that everything in our galaxy is spiraling into the eternal darkness of a black hole. Why proofread that memo a second time? Why bother getting into work early? Why compose a symphony? Why try to floss daily? If we are all being flushed down some cosmic crapper, just what is the point?

If it makes you feel better, you can take solace in knowing that there are probably more than 125 billion other galaxies out there, where bloggers are typing and web-surfers are reading as their planets in their far-away galaxies spin inexorably toward the oblivion of massive gravity from which light cannot escape.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006


I am in some kind of twilight zone. I spent 16 hours at work yesterday. I have no idea what is happening in the world. I constantly feel like I'm going to puke. And I still feel like I'm not doing my job right.

Perhaps it's time to regroup and reassess.

I'm going to sleep now, and I'm going to wake up when it's still dark out and go to work and come back in the dark.

Man. Where am I?

Monday, January 16, 2006

Service Changes

I am getting eaten alive at work. So much for my sweet L.A. lifestyle. My writing workshop at UCLA starts this Thursday, and I have to finish my book for the book club I just joined. I haven't been studying languages or exercising enough. Something has to give. Sadly, I think you are looking at what will have to give.

For the near future, I will be cutting back my posts to about two a week. One on Sunday and one on Wednesday (or around then). I'll try to stick to this, although there may be some variations.

Ughh. I'm going to go to sleep now (10 p.m. PST) and wake up at 5 a.m. Hooray. One does feel a bit righteous waking up so early, though. You feel virtuous, like someone who balances his checkbook and flosses every day, though I do neither.

Saturday, January 14, 2006

Science Series: Math

Is math a science? Does math exist? Is math created or discovered by humans?

These are old and played-out questions for sure, but I'm finding them interesting right now for some reason. And I did promise some math during our science series this month. It does seem pretty clear to me that a number, say "4", does not exist in the same sense that mass and gravity exist. The number is an abstract and linguistic concept, just like the letter "E" or the word "shower". Of course, this gets you into the dizzying quandary of whether a "shower" exists even if we don't have a word for it. Of course it does, but in what sense? How is it -- if it cannot be verbalized -- differentiated from the flow and flux of the rest of the world?

Anyway, numbers and math seem to present even more problems than words: numbers are eerily useful for describing the physical universe and the laws of physics. A famous 1960 paper about the ontology of mathematics called this the "Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences". The theory that mathematics's uncanny usefulness in predicting natural phenomena means that it must "exist" is generally known as "mathematical realism":
One of the most intriguing features of mathematics is its applicability to empirical science. Every branch of science draws upon large and often diverse portions of mathematics, from the use of Hilbert spaces in quantum mechanics to the use of differential geometry in general relativity. It's not just the physical sciences that avail themselves of the services of mathematics either. Biology, for instance, makes extensive use of difference equations and statistics. The roles mathematics plays in these theories is also varied. Not only does mathematics help with empirical predictions, it allows elegant and economical statement of many theories. Indeed, so important is the language of mathematics to science, that it is hard to imagine how theories such as quantum mechanics and general relativity could even be stated without employing a substantial amount of mathematics.

From the rather remarkable but seemingly uncontroversial fact that mathematics is indispensable to science, some philosophers have drawn serious metaphysical conclusions. In particular, Quine (1976; 1980a; 1980b; 1981a; 1981c) and Putnam (1979a; 1979b) have argued that the indispensability of mathematics to empirical science gives us good reason to believe in the existence of mathematical entities. According to this line of argument, reference to (or quantification over) mathematical entities such as sets, numbers, functions and such is indispensable to our best scientific theories, and so we ought to be committed to the existence of these mathematical entities. To do otherwise is to be guilty of what Putnam has called "intellectual dishonesty" (Putnam 1979b, p. 347). Moreover, mathematical entities are seen to be on an epistemic par with the other theoretical entities of science, since belief in the existence of the former is justified by the same evidence that confirms the theory as a whole (and hence belief in the latter). This argument is known as the Quine-Putnam indispensability argument for mathematical realism.
From Indispensability Arguments in the Philosophy of Mathematics

Mathematical formalism, on the opposite end of the spectrum, is the theory that mathematics, like verbal language, is a game with its own internal rules, which inexorably produce "correct" answers. See Wikipedia.

The tantalizing question is whether in developing mathematics and applying it to the world (e.g., the trajectory of comets, the acceleration of falling objects, the melting point of metals, etc.) we are discovering -- innately -- universal laws. Could it be that mathematics, which started for us with counting "separate" units, and which would appear to be as human a product as language, could correspond or be useful in measuring and predicting the phenomena of the universe? This appears to be the case.

ancient tokens from the Near East, precursors of writing and math

I feel that I'm out on the edge of my ability to discuss this meaningfully at this point. First, I don't know a tremendous amount about math, or its specific applications to the universe. (For example, don't we have to create new rules of math to describe quantum mechanics?) Second, there's something here that is a deep logical puzzle, which my relatively feeble mind cannot process: what does it mean that humans created math if math corresponds to the world? Does that make math a science of sorts? But math is not developed by observation and use of the scientific method of experimentation and observation; rather, it is developed -- as far as I know -- largely through the application of logic. The formalism argument does not appear to account for math's eerie applicability to natural phenomena. So if math is developed through logic, the implication is that logic is connected in some rather profound way to universal laws of the universe. As you might expect, this possibility is hotly debated. (Quantum mechanics again throwing in the monkey wrench. I wish I understood what the hell quantum mechanics was.)

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Science Series: Matter

electron cloud

What is matter? Mostly empty space.
Things don't fall through other things because they are levitating on an electrostatic field! . . . . When you sit on a chair, you are not really touching it. You see, every atom is surrounded by a shell of electrons. This electron cloud presents a rather negative face to the world. Remember that like charges repel each other. When two atoms approach each other, their electron shells push back at each other, despite the fact that each atom's net charge is 0. This is a very useful feature of nature. It makes our lives a lot easier.

Now the question you should be asking is, if atoms push away from each other, why doesn't the entire universe just blow away from itself? The answer is that some, actually most atoms' electron shells are not full. When two atoms come together and have empty spaces in their electron shells, they will share electrons to fill in the spaces in both of their shells.
From jlab.

Hydrogen atom -- Unlike planets revolving around the sun, the electron is not held around the nucleus of the atom by gravity, but rather by electromagnetism.

What we see, what we touch, what we lean upon, chew, swallow, cut, and build, is almost entirely empty space, only partially filled with diffuse electron clouds and relatively tiny atomic nuclei.
Electrons in an atom are said to inhabit areas called atomic orbitals. This area is said to form a probability cloud, space where the electron may be situated. In the helium atom . . . the atomic orbital where the electron may be situated describes a sphere. However, the cloud or atomic orbital that an electron can occupy changes shape depending on the energy of the electron. So some electrons orbit in the shape of a dumbbell designated as p. And the heavier the element, the more electrons there are and the more complicated shapes there are for the orbitals in the atom.

A simple game of ping pong becomes a metaphor for the world: an empty ball, batted back and forth from surface to surface; the thwock of the ball against the paddle created by the repulsion of electric charges. We are electric illusions, cloudy ghosts of positive and negative charges.

The conclusion that all things are (mostly) empty will sound familiar to casual students of Mahayana philosophy. And the modern theory is not too far from Democritus's.
At least as early as 400 BC, Democritus was teaching and writing that the hidden substance in all physical objects consists of different arrangements of 1) atoms and 2) void. Both atoms and the void were never created, and they will be never ending. . . . The void is infinite and provides the space in which the atoms can pack or scatter differently. The different possible packings and scatterings within the void make up the shifting outlines and bulk of the objects that we feel, see, eat, hear, smell, and taste. We sense hot and cold, but hot and cold have not real existence. For hot and cold are simply sensations produced in us by the different packings and scatterings of the atoms in the void that compose the object that we sense as being "hot" or "cold."

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Old Journals

In my closet, I have a stack of old journals. I've been keeping a journal pretty regularly since fall 1993. It’s sort of satisfying, to look up at that top shelf in the closet and see all those volumes of my accumulated and archived scrawl from the past twelve years.

It would be a miserable task for anyone to read through all of my journals. Much of the content is quite dismal. For example, here’s a fairly typically self-absorbed and spaced out entry from June 7, 1996, soon after I had graduated from college. I was home, sitting on the deck, looking out on the lawn. I am pretty sure I was not on drugs.
lost, with my eyes, in the green noise of wind and sunlight and shadows blowing through the sea of foliage, the white sound of a thousand leaves turning in the wind dizzying . . . .too bright to be real. There is a Sony satellite dish perched on our roof. The forest floor is perpetually autumn crinkle brown – the imbrication of seasons, years, in the cool summer shadow of new leaves flying high above in warm uss of sunny air. Shadows inch imperceptibly toward the horizon across the carpet of the lawn

The best entries, the ones that age the best, are the entries where I transcribe conversations I overheard other people having. If I could draw (better) I probably would’ve sketched out these people. Instead, I have, for example, this mysterious entry of quotations from March 14, 1995. (I acknowledge that it’s a little like one of those segments in “Talk of the Town”.) Anyway, I have no idea where I could have been. I know I didn’t make this up because I couldn’t have:
”There’s nothing really on TV tonight. . . . That 911 – I like that 911. They stopped showing that story, though.”

“I’m not supposed to have coffee now.”

“My doctor told me about decaffeinated.”

“I have $2.50 left, cash for the month. How do they expect you to live on $10 a month? I mean, you can’t live on that.”

“Car go fast.”

“They tell me I should eat a lot of fruit, a lot of vegetables. Hey, I can’t afford a lot of fruit and vegetables. The weeks I buy the vegetables I can’t afford the fruit. The weeks I buy the fruit I can’t afford the vegetables. Back in the 60’s I never had to worry about this. I bought as many groceries as I wanted. We had money back then. I never thought it would come to this. Counting every penny. I guess that’s the way it goes . . . .”

Francis Lebeck

Nancy Delacroix

“No one’s showing up. We’re just waiting around. Like we do at my house – we wait around for a while and maybe one or two people show up.”

One entry is worlds more interesting than the other. There’s a lesson there, somewhere

Monday, January 09, 2006

Science Series: Cetacean Evolution

One of my favorite little facts: many scientists believe whales may have evolved from relatives of hippos; see also here. (They used to think they may have evolved from wolf-like creatures.) You can watch this video to see the evidence.

It makes sense: hippos stay under water for long periods. You can imagine a hippo wandering farther and farther out, down the river, the fateful step across the continental shelf, falling into the dark of the deep -- something brand new and terrifying, yet a return of sorts.

Many of the missing-link creatures are weird walking-whales. Steadily the arms shrink and become flippers (with the skeleton of a land mammal's limbs still inside), the legs come together and fuse (this is why cetaceans (whales, dolphins, porpoises) have horizontal tail fins). They swim like otters, by undulating their spines up and down. Fish, on the other hand, have vertical tail fins, and swim by undulating from side to side.

The return to the water has allowed cetaceans to achieve great size (the blue whale) and intelligence (dolphins). No one is quite sure how intelligent dolphins are. The interesting thing is that their brain structure has evolved in quite a different manner than primate brain structure. Dolphins are second only to humans in brain to body mass ratio. Their lobes are shaped differently, although, like humans, they have a large frontal lobe.
EEGs show alternating hemispheric assymetry in slow waves during sleep, with occasional sleep-like waves from both hemispheres. This result has been interpreted to mean that dolphins sleep only one hemisphere of their brain at a time, possibly to control their voluntary respiration system or to be vigilant for predators.

Dolphin brain stem transmission time is faster than that normally found in humans, and is roughly equivalent to the speed found in rats. As echo-location is the dolphin's primary means of sensing its environment -- analogous to eyes in primates -- and since sound travels four and a half times faster in water than in air, scientists speculate that the faster brain stem transmission time, and perhaps the paralimbic lobe as well, support speedy processing of sound. The dolphin's dependence on speedy sound processing is evident in the structure of its brain: its neural area devoted to visual imaging is only about one-tenth that of the human brain, while the area devoted to acoustical imaging is about 10 times that of the human brain. (Which is unsurprising: primate brains devote far more volume to visual processing than almost any other animals, and human brains more than other primates.) Sensory experiments suggest a high degree of cross-modal integration in the processing of shapes between echolocative and visual areas of the brain.

That's right, dolphins never fully sleep: it appears half their brain is on all the time. It is amazing to imagine what kind of picture of the world dolphins (and other cetaceans) create with all of that brain processing power devoted to "acoustical imaging" (producing images of the world from the echoes of their clicks bouncing back toward them). Apparently there's some innate math involved, as dolphins figure out the shape, size, distance, speed, and texture of objects based on the echo of the click, which they apparently read through their peculiarly spaced teeth. I just get AM radio.

What about that narwhal and its gigantic tooth sensor/weather station?

Sunday, January 08, 2006

Octopicks: The Go! Team

Was there any album released in 2005 more jacked up with ecstatic joy than The Go! Team's "Thunder, Lightning, Strike"? There is no way. The Go! Team cannot be defeated.

I've had this album for about two months now. I think it has single-handedly kept my mood and heartbeat elevated through the past few weeks of the dull daily grind in the law mines.

The Go! Team sounds like Boards of Canada if they got hopped up on coke, snorted Pixie Sticks, drank too many Red Bulls and began to form human pyramids and do backflips. Many songs feature a chorus that sounds like it was teleported from "The Electric Company" shouting or rapping with preternatural enthusiasm.

It is simply impossible to be unhappy while listening to The Go! Team. It makes me hop up and down in my seat as I drive back from work and makes me enthusiastic about--everything! If everyone listened to this album, everyone would be way happier but lines at the gym would be way too long. Everyone would be pumping up and wanting to toss other people into the air in synchronized formations. I'm jumping up and down just thinking about it.

Saturday, January 07, 2006

Science Series: Time

tempus fugit

Ever since I was little, I've wondered what time is. St. Augustine wrote in Confessions, Book XI:
What, then, is time? There can be no quick and easy answer, for it is no simple matter even to understand what it is, let alone find words to explain it. Yet, in our conversation, no word is more familiarly used or more easily recognized than 'time'. We certainly understand what is meant by the word both when we use it ourselves and when we hear it used by others.

What, then, is time? I know well enough what it is, provided that nobody asks me; but if I am asked what it is and try to explain, I am baffled.
I've never had a good definition for time. If I were pushed, I would probably say something along the lines of this: time is an arbitrary, agreed-upon set of intervals used to measure the passage of natural processes, or . . . er, time. Any definition appears bound to end up being a bit tautological.
There are widely divergent views about its meaning, hence it is difficult to provide an uncontroversial and clear definition of time. The Oxford English Dictionary defines it as "the indefinite continued progress of existence and events in the past, present, and future, regarded as a whole". Another standard dictionary definition is "a non-spatial linear continuum wherein events occur in an apparently irreversible order."

After perusing the old physics textbook I have here, I am more certain than ever that I have no idea what time is. I happened upon the famous twin-in-a-rocketship illustration of special relativity's feature of time-dilation:
One of two twins boards a fast spaceship for a journey to a distant star. The other stays behind on earth. Imagine that there are two clocks at earth and star . . . . There is a clock on the spaceship . . . . When the ship arrives at the distant star, less time will hae elapsed on the ship clock than on the earth and star clocks. Now the ship turns around and comes home. . . . [L]ess time elapses on the ship clock, and the travelling twin arrives home younger than the earthbound twin. Depending on how far and how fast the travelling twin goeds, the difference in ages could be arbitrarily large. The travelling twin could even return to earth millions of years in the future, even though only hours had elapsed on the ship. . . .

Could [time dilation] really happen? I could, and it has. Atomic clocks are now so accurate that experiments have been done to detect the miniscule time difference between a clock flown around the earth on an airplane and one left behind.
Richard Wolfson & Jay M. Pasachoff, Physics:Extended with Modern Physics (1990); see also Time Dilation at Wikipedia; Pierre Boulle, The Planet of the Apes

Often, I think the one aspect of time that seems most concrete and understandable to me is the second law of thermodynamics (entropy). As Stephen Hawking explains,
the laws of science do not distinguish between the past and future, [or the forward and backward directions of time] . . . . Yet there is a big difference between the forward and backward directions of real time in ordinary life. Imagine a cup of water falling off a table and breaking into pieces on the floor. If you take a film of this, you can easily tell whether it is being run forward or backward. If you run it backward you will see the pieces suddenly gather themselves together off the floor and jump back to form a whole cup on the table. You can tell that the film is being run backward because this kind of behavior is never observed in ordinary life. . . .

The explanation that is usually given as to why we don't see broken cups gathering themselves together off the floor and jumping back onto the table is that it is forbidden by the second law of thermodynamics. This says that in any closed system, disorder, or entropy, always increases with time.
Stephen Hawking, A Brief History of Time p. 144.

Entropy is a fundamental rule I can understand. So maybe that is one process that goes on inexorably, we watch it, and we call it time. Okay, I know that's dumb, but when I was a kid, I thought I was a genius because I had debunked -- in my own mind -- the whole ridiculous concept of time. At age ten or eleven, I was feeling pretty good about myself because I had "figured out" that time doesn't exist: we exist in a perpetual present -- there is no past or future -- we simply watch natural processes happening in this never-ending present (food decaying, cells breaking down as people and organisms age, rocks eroding, etc.), and we call that the passage of time. I concluded that time was just an abstraction we pasted onto entirely mechanical, physical processes; that is, there was no time out there that was coming or going, there were only physical and chemical processes happening (watch gears moving, skin shedding, earth spinning). If these material processes were altered, that would alter the flow of "time". Actually, it wouldn't because there was no "time" to be altered. Dumb, yes -- but not bad for ten, huh?

Anyway, my idea was not as breathtakingly original as I imagined. It appears Leibniz and Kant were onto this a few centuries earlier
Leibniz and others thought of time as a fundamental part of an abstract conceptual framework, together with space and number, within which we sequence events, quantify their duration, and compare the motions of objects. In this view, time does not refer to any kind of entity that "flows", that objects "move through", or that is a "container" for events. . . .

Immanuel Kant, in the Critique of Pure Reason, described time as an a priori notion that allows us (together with other a priori notions such as space) to comprehend sense experience. With Kant, neither space nor time are conceived as substances, but rather both are elements of a systematic framework necessarily structuring the experiences of any rational agent. Spatial measurements are used to quantify how far apart objects are, and temporal measurements are used to quantify how far apart events occur.
Wikipedia. Interestingly, Nagarjuna, the founder of the Madhyamika school of Mahayana Buddhism, had a similar analysis of time
Nagarjuna examines time and finds that it cannot be conceived of as an entity existing independently of temporal phenomena. Nagarjuna begins with the conventional division of time into past, present, and future. He then argues than not one of these can be said to inherently exist.

The present and the future either depend on the past or they do not. If they do, then they must in some sense already be present implicitly in the past, in which case their distinction with the past does not make sense. If they do not, then there can be no relation or connection to the past, and it makes no sense to talk of them as linked phases of time. Instead, time must itself be regarded as a set of relations among temporal phenomena, and nothing in itself.
From The Nature of Time.

I still sort of believe time does not exist, although it seems it's apparently not a simple matter of separating matter from time. In any event, one thing is clear: the passage of time, as experienced subjectively, certainly does speed up dramatically as you get older. The last ten years have been a blur. It seems there are some explanations for this. It is a bit frightening: I wish I could have those endless summer afternoons back. 1982 felt like forever -- in a wonderful way.

I'll end with a question I share with St. Augustine:
If the future and past do exist, I want to know where they are.

Friday, January 06, 2006

South Mouth

Isn't it funny how, in so many countries, when you get to the southern part, people start drawling their words? I know this is true in the southeastern part of Bangladesh, where my parents are from. In Chittagong, people drawl their words, and syllables seem to run together. (Think "y'all".) It's difficult for those used to northern, proper Bengali (the version spoken in Dhaka or Calcutta) to understand.

This accent/drawl phenomenon clearly holds in the U.S., and apparently in Japan (where people speak a "funny" version of Japanese in Osaka, and where the Japanese in southern Kyushu sounds a bit drawled), and China (where Cantonese certainly sounds more drawled and casual than Mandarin). I think Mrs. Octopus told me this is also the case in Vietnam. I don't know about other places. Does this sort of thing happen in France, Germany, Italy, Ethiopia, or Iran? Maybe people just get tired in the heat and can't be bothered with enunciating every last syllable?

Maybe the whole north/south thing is a red herring, and it's mostly about being far from the metropolitan center in the region. For example, London -- home of proper English -- is relatively south in England. It is interesting how accents from different regions in a country come to represent different levels of class and sophistication: "In Germany the Prussians were considered the ruling class, he said, and the eastern German accent was associated with education and style. Then came communism. Today, said Kretzschmar, the East German accent is associated with poverty and backwardness." Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

And then, of course, there are the issues of accents developed among various minority groups (black english, Spanglish, etc.), and the hierarchy of foreign accents (English, French, or German vs. Indian, Chinese, or Mexican). In America, it seems certain foreign accents carry a cachet of sophistication and erudition (the old world accents) versus the stigma of backwardness (others).

I'm holding onto my Connecticut accent as long as I can out here in L.A. before I succumb to saying "dude" and "like, totally" like all the time.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Science Series: Gravity

From a 1990 Physics textbook by Richard Wolfson and Jay M. Pasachoff:
We experience gravitational force in our everyday lives. Yet the gravitational force is the weakest of the fundamental forces, and perhaps the least understood theoretically. But though the gravitational force of an individual bit of matter is extremely weak, this force is cumulative. No antigravity is known. So the gravity of a massive object like a star or planet is very large, and on a large scale gravitation is the dominant force in the universe. Our best theory of gravity is now the general theory of relativity, advanced by Albert Einstein in 1916. But physicists have not yet figured out how to combine general relativity with the quantum theory that describes matter on an atomic scale. The lack of a quantum theory of gravity has greatly hindered the efforts to unify gravity with other forces.
That's right, scientists still don't quite get gravity. You'd think they'd be all over something so fundamental before inventing nuclear bombs, spider-gene spliced goats, and the Toyota Prius. But no, it remains a mystery: we don't understand why there's gravity, and it appears we're no longer even sure how to predict how it works.

I think it's fantastic that we don't quite get gravity. We can go around explaining and exploring all sorts of other wonderful stuff, while we remain unclear as to why exactly we are not, at any given moment, flying into space.

While we are discussing gravity, I might as well share with you the official Octopus Grigori theory of what gravity is doing. Right before the big bang, the theory goes, all the matter in the universe was massed together in one (relatively) tiny ball of stuff, right? And then that exploded, sending everything zooming outward, producing the expanding universe (expanding into what is another question for another time). But eventually, some theories posit, this expansion must slow because of gravity. Gravity pulls smaller objects into the orbit of larger (or more massive) objects (see moons of Jupiter, solar system, galaxies, etc.). This process continues and continues and where do you get? Exactly, a very tiny ball containing all the matter in the universe, which then promptly explodes, creating this expanding universe, which eventually begins to slow down . . . . The universe as perpetual motion machine. Troublingly, other theories suggest that the universe's expansion is accelerating, and as this happens, matter is becoming further dispersed, weakening gravity's influence, and helping to accelerate expansion even more.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

New Year's Resolutions

Here are my New Year's resolutions:

1. Floss every day. I make this resolution every year and never keep it. I am disgusting.

2. Take public transportation every day. Lots of talk, little action so far. Be the change you wish to see, Octopussy.

3. Take more photographs. I wish I had time to learn how to develop photos, but that's never going to happen.

4. Write every day. Try to finish and polish collection of short stories. I am going to take yet another writing workshop, this time at UCLA extension starting later this month. This will help to motivate me. I'll start sending out more stuff to journals and then -- and then . . . go back to work as a lawyer the next day.

5. Practice Japanese, study kanji twice a week. I still am not clear on why I continue to study Japanese. I never really have any occasion to use it. At this point, I'm studying it because I've already studied it and I feel it would be a waste to lose it. Good money after bad?

6. Learn Vietnamese, practice with Mrs. Octopus twice a week. Vietnamese makes Japanese look like a cakewalk. For months now I've been struggling just to get a tenuous grip on the various intonations. One of the basic intonations involves making your voice break in the middle of the vowel and then regaining your voice. Others involve making individual syllables sound like questions, sliding up and down in register, etc. It's not so much like talking, Vietnamese, as it is like singing or performing.

7. Practice Bengali, refresh reading and writing. This was my first language and I really should get it together and be able to speak it well. After I took a class during law school a few years ago, my reading and writing was decent, but now I've slipped back into virtual illiteracy. This is embarrassing. Happily, Bengali is related -- but distantly -- to our own language (going back to the original relationship between Sanskrit and Greek), and is based on an alphabet, unlike Japanese.

8. Practice Spanish, refresh grammar. Back in Connecticut, the forward-thinking public school board started us on Spanish in second grade. Here in L.A., I am hearing and reading Spanish all the time and sometimes getting to use it. The other night at the Vons, right before Christmas, some older guy came up to me the wine aisle and asked for a recommendation for a red wine that was sweet but not too sweet, and tasty. I tried to help, although I lacked expertise in either Spanish or wine selection.

9. Work out four times a week. I haven't played soccer since I've been in L.A., which seems sort of sad. I have been playing a lot of basketball at the Y downtown, and my mid-range jumper is improving. My ball-handling ability has returned to some degree after an embarrassing period of lacking proper handle. Sometimes I’m on fire and I’ll be hitting threes from anywhere, but I never know why or how.

10. Figure out what to do work-wise. I am just plugging along at work, but sometimes I get the feeling I really should be doing something else. Now that I am in my early thirties, I am starting to get that chest-constricting panicky feeling of the walls closing in on me.

11. Read at least one book a week.

12. Cook more often. Learn how to make Chinese food. If I could make good Chinese food I don't think I would ever leave the house again.

13. Join a soccer league. I really miss playing soccer. I often have very vivid dreams where I am playing soccer. I love soccer, but I am not that great. There is a theme of ambitious, enthusiastic mediocrity that runs through my life and is often most clearly expressed in sports. I am sort of good at a number of sports, but do not excel at any one sport. See also, this blog.

14. Write more letters to friends. This used to be one of my most frequent activities. Sadly, I don't write letters to people nearly as often as I used to. I always get great satisfaction from finishing, sealing, and addressing a letter.

15. Remember birthdays. I'm always very touched when people remember my birthday. I wish I were the type of person who always remembered other peoples' birthdays. Because I want other people to feel loved, and, to be honest about it, I guess I want everyone to like me. Sadly, even when you want everyone to like you, it's hard to get everyone to like you. Weird, dark needs and urges poke and jab their way out of us, roughening up our encounters. We snap, we retort, we take little digs at each other, take each other down a peg: we want to put other people in their place. We want other people to know that we don't think they're such hot shit. It's surprisingly difficult for people to really get along, especially when they're similar. There's so much jockeying for position, so much establishing the pecking order. And there's so much of that talking we do to others that we are doing for ourselves, to make ourselves feel better about ourselves in some way, to convince ourselves that we are still special and promising and exceptional. A plague of formerly gifted children. This has nothing to do with remembering birthdays. I find, the older I get, that this kind of mild antagonism becomes more and more pervasive. It seems that people often get a little more bitter as they adjust to fewer options, dimmer horizons, realizing that they have settled into the vast grid of anonymous normality.

16. Be less self-absorbed. I think I overvalue my free time. I spend so much of it on myself, wallowing in my hang-ups, etc. I should do something useful with my free time. Say, volunteer for a good cause.

File under Self-Improvement: 2006 Reading List

Okay, so in an auspicious beginning to the New Year, I am late with my promised New Year's Resolutions. I was in Connecticut over the weekend, where computers are scarce. I have, however, compiled my infamous reading list for the year. This is a silly annual project where I compile a farcically long list of books I hope to read during the year; usually, I get through maybe a tenth (or less) of the list. This year, though, will be different. I will read more.

So, without further delay, here, in no meaningful order, is my list for 2006. Note that I am going to waste much of my time rereading old favorites: this is a highly unproductive habit of mine. But I am a gross, flaky creature of habit. Rereads are designated with an "(rr)". Also, because I have such little self-control and discipline, as always, many of the books on the list are books that I've only partially read, or gotten close to the end, but never quite finished. These are designated with an "(f)".

I have long suffered from the compulsion to buy books -- lately this has been replaced by a mania for putting books on hold with the LAPL. Often it seems, I am happier just to grab and hold on to books than to actually, tediously, finish them. I will post a longer commentary about the urge to have books later this week.

Please feel free to offer recommendations, commentary, cautions, etc.

Don Quixote (rr) - Cervantes (I could spend the whole year on this, probably)
The Sot Weed Factor - Barth (Barth is probably all washed up, but whatever)
The Interpretation of Dreams (f) - Freud (But no one reads the whole thing)
Meditations (f) - Aurelius (Isn't this how Clinton became President?)
Absalom Absalom (f) - Faulkner (I always get bogged down around page 35)
Confessions (f) - Saint Augustine (If only there were less stuff about God in here)
The Ambassadors - James
Nostromo - Conrad (I feel like I should like Conrad, but I don't)
Middlesex (f) - Eugenides (I'm like halfway through, and feel like I should finish)
Green Mars (f) - Robinson
Atonement - McEwan
The Big Sleep - Chandler
The Wapshot Chronicle - Cheever (Variations on Updike)
Three Case Histories - Freud (More Freud)
Lady Chatterley's Lover - Lawrence (File under old boring stuff)
In Cold Blood - Capote
The Prize - Yergin (my brother gave it to me, so I feel like I should read it)
The Order of Things (f) - Foucault (I've poked around lots, but would feel better finishing it)
Darwin's Worms - Phillips (if only everyone wrote as clearly as Phillips)
The Fortress of Solitude (f) - Lethem (I don't really like Lethem, but I want some Brooklyn nostalgia)
Will in the World (f) - Greenblatt (I bought it in hardcover and got bored, but I really should finish it)
Cloud Atlas (f) - Mitchell (I couldn't decide if it was good or boring.)
The Wings of the Dove - James (more James)
The Golden Bough - Frazer
The Varieties of Religious Experience - W. James
The Winter's Tale - Shakespeare
Darwin's Radio - Greg Bear
Typee - Melville
Bleak House (f) - Dickens (I actually really like Bleak House, but it's so damn long)
Moby Dick (rr) - Melville
Shalimar the Clown - Rushdie (I've heard this is better than the last couple of his, which sucked)
On Beauty - Smith
Bech: A Book (f) - Updike
Epileptic - David B.
A Treatise on Human Nature - Hume
Finnegans Wake (f) - Joyce (every year I try to read a few pages more)
Collapse - Diamond
The Bill of Rights - Amar
The House of Seven Gables - Hawthorne
The Artist of the Floating World - Ishiguro
The Rings of Saturn - Sebald
Distinction (f) - Bourdieu
Pride and Prejudice - Austen (I've never read any Austen)
The Psychopathology of Everyday Life - Freud
Licks of Love - Updike (I read too much Updike. It's like a crutch.)
Ka - Calasso
The Year of Magical Thinking - Didion
Dissemination (f) - Derrida
Perdido Street Station - Mieville (I hear he's the new "it" boy in SF)
Can't Stop Won't Stop - Chang (Pretty interesting so far, although I wish the whole book was not in sans serif font)
Ice Haven - Clowes
Melville - Delbanco
Never Let Me Go - Ishiguro
Maximum City - Mehta (Excellent so far. Wonder if I will be able to maintain my interest in Bombay for a whole book.)

I will post my resolutions shortly.