Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Hong Kong Wedding

Hong Kong Wedding


-Elevator at L'Hotel. Photo by Claudia.

Our recollections, our sense of history and time, exist as a series of moments, well-polished episodes we cherish and recount to others with exclamation. They are typically moments in which order seems suspended, life becomes promise or possibility or danger, and we swerve into the unpredictable.

Last week I was at the wedding of PK in Hong Kong. He and I go back to college and so he appointed me as his best man. My own responsibilities were minimal since this opulent wedding had already been meticulously planned. PK had hired a wedding planner who, along with PK, gave form to the week which preceded the wedding, creating and inventing distractions for us guests.

The week adhered closely to the classic narrative, a worthy descendant of a Greek play. Early in the week, wedding guests were taken on private tours of Hong Kong and China. Nightly rooftop cocktail parties introduced new characters into the drama - guests who had just flown in Paris or New York. We chatted and laughed and screened films. As is typical of weddings, I didnt get to spend much time with either the bride or groom (saddled as they are with obligations) but did go exploring with PK's extended family, many whom I met for the first time.

The wedding day of course was the prolonged climax. Early in the day I took part in a ritual in which us, the groomsmen, accompanied the groom to fetch the bride. In preparation for our quest the five of us filled our stomachs with a banquet of dim sum at The Verandah. Nourished, we went off to seek the bride. Our first task was to bribe the bride's maids to let us into the brides apartment. They attempted to extort us. We paid them off in cash and trinkets.

Once inside we were given a new task: The bride had hidden her shoe somewhere inside the apartment and we were to find it. The four of us threw up seat cushions and pushed over tables like four tuxedo'ed thieves. The shoe was discovered above a kitchen counter.

The last trial was for PK himself. He had to recite his love for the bride in language he could not speak - the Wu dialect.

The remainder of the day included the formal wedding at an Anglican church, a lawn cocktail party with overflowing, multi-colored drinks and, finally, the reception, with long tables adorned with flowers, a small army of chefs manning buffets and a band which played into the night. Music was played, toasts were made, and the bride and groom underwent three costume changes.

The next morning was the denouement. A family brunch. A polite exchange of photos and goodbyes.

The wedding had a theme and logo: "Meeting is Destiny" which was printed in books given to guests and, rendered in Chinese characters, flown from banners posted around the reception. The reference was to the meeting of PK and Windy via a series of unlikely events.

Several speakers, including myself, mentioned an episode which was crucial to PK and to his bride Windy. They were survivors of the Asian Tsunami. At one point, trapped in their bungalow in Thailand, as the waters rose above their necks, they were both mere inches from Death. If not for a conjunction of small miracles, they would not have survived. And so this wedding was a celebration too of order, of rituals which bind us, of a cherished victory over the indifferent forces of chance.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Hinton's Cubes Redux

Hinton's Cubes Redux

- Hinton's Tesseract

One of the few entries on this weblog that I get regular email about is the one concerning Charles Hinton's cubes (Apparently it comes up high on Google searches for seekers of this particular information.) The entry gives a short overview of the cubes, which Hinton designed as an aid to visualizing the fourth dimension, as well as some compelling information.

Unfortunately, the actual instructions for constructing and using the cubes is only in Hinton's 1906 book The Fourth Dimension which, despite being now in the public domain, is not available online.

Fortunately, I own a copy of the book, a 1912 edition I obtained years ago online from a London bookshop. I've wanted to make my copy somehow publicly available but didn't know how to do so.

Well, a few weeks ago, I got an unexpected offer of help from a man who works at the Internet Archive which is based here in San Francisco, in the Presidio. He took my book, scanned the various hundred pages and the result is --- Hinton's book is now completely available online!

Enjoy, cube-lovers! But, I take no responsibility for anyone going insane....

Thursday, October 26, 2006

The Guatemalan Fabulist

The Guatemalan Fabulist

The writer Augusto Monterroso, who died in 2003, is known for being the author of the micro-story known as "The Dinosaur" which I reproduce here in its entirety, both in the original Spanish and followed by my English translation:

Cuando despertó, el dinosaurio todavía estaba allí.

When he awoke, the dinosaur was still there.

Monterroso devoted himself to the study of the short form. Several of his other short fables can be found on this page, taken from larger published collections such as The Black Sheep and other Fables. I will also offer my clumsy translation of "The Burro and the Flute":

Out in the middle of the country there had been, for a long time, a Flute, which nobody played, until one day when a Burro which was passing by, gave it a forceful blow and produced the sweetest sound of its life - that is to say, the life of the Burro and of the Flute.

Incapable of understanding what had happened, since rationality was not their strong point and both believed in rationality, they went their own ways, embarrassed of the best thing that either one had done during their unhappy life.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

A Lip-Reading Puzzle

I've been going through Sam Loyd's Cyclopedia of Puzzles and marveling at their diversity and their ingenuity.

Ed Pegg Jr also provides an overview of this early Bible of Puzzles, some so famous that you already know them. Others, like this lip-reading puzzle, are simply innovative and fun:

"Here is a class of a dozen boys, who, being called up to give their names were photographed by the instantaneous process just as each one was commencing to pronounce his own name. The twelve names were Oom, Alden, Eastman, Alfred, Arthur, Luke, Fletcher, Matthew, Theodore, Richard, Shirmer, and Hisswald. Now it would not seem possible to be able to give the correct name to each of the twelve boys, but if you practice the list over to each one, you will find it not a difficult task to locate the proper name for every one of the boys."

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Bikes, Fat Cats and Strange Men

Friday, October 13, 2006

Bailar la Cumbia

Bailar la Cumbia!

This past weekend was the wedding of my cousin Sonia. I dont know her very well but I grew up with her older sisters. Also, her father, my uncle Antonio - kind, witty, gregarious - is one of my favorite relatives. He knew that I was a rare sight at family weddings and, for this one, had good-naturedly demanded my presence. When I kissed and greeted Sonia at the wedding she whispered to me: "It means so much to me that you came." These statements mean much in a family with about 20 aunts and uncles and over 40 cousins.

In enormous families, such as mine, the act of planning a wedding, already a convoluted affair, must bear additional complications. The first is how to manage the guest list. An "intimate wedding", such as Sonia's was, including only close family and friends of the bride and groom and their families still could not be reduced below 300-400 people. As might be imagined, a received wedding invitation within the family creates a reciprocal contract and this obligation only serves to fatten up the wedding lists, lest someone accidentally be slighted.

The second obstacle is planning a date that doesn't collide with other family obligations. This includes baby showers, baptisms, funerals and of course, other weddings. It's an impossible art. The day of Sonia's wedding several family members had traveled South, just past the Mexican border to attend the wedding of another distant cousin.

For Sonia's reception, my uncle had booked the band La Sonora Dinamita. They are a well-known Colombian band, famous for their Cumbias. Although Cumbias originated in Colombia, they are popular all over Latin America. The music has a driving, irresistible beat. As soon as La Sonora Dinamita started playing, half the guests, young and old, crowded the dance floor. I danced for a couple hours straight among my aunts and uncles, my cousins and their children, among familiar strangers.

I've included an mp3 file of Sonora Dinamita performing a medley of some of their more popular Cumbias:

La Sonora Dinamita: Cumbia Mix (mp3)

The reception was well-attended - more so than the wedding itself. Exactly 350 of us packed the dance hall. I know this is the number because thats what the owners of the venue pointed out to us as the maximum we could have before violating the fire code. Wedding Guests #351 and onwards had to wait outside.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Shakespeare in the Stars

Shakespeare in the Stars

1. When I was an undergraduate in astrophysics i used to spend hours in the CfA library poring over their star atlases. Millions of stars and galaxies, entire worlds, each identified only by a series of arbitrary letters and digits. You could gaze at a little clump of galaxies and realize that you may have been the first person to ever give them much attention. The largest atlas occupied about ten volumes each volume covering some portion of the sky.

Unfortunately these atlases - a collection of thousands of individual photographic plates - are only accessible to research institutions. The best a layman can do is possibly the Millennium Star Atlas which contains approximately one million stars and thousands of galaxies. But even the Millennium has been out of range for most budgets - the cost of the hardback collection approaching $1,000. This February a softcover edition was finally released for considerably less. And, I've just ordered it!

In the extract from the catalog above, the only star that might be faintly visible to the naked eye would be the one on the lower left. The lines emerging from a few stars are indicators of its motion, ending at where the star will be when it is viewed in 1,000 years. A reminder that the night sky is dynamic.

2. In the first Act of Hamlet, Bernardo says:

Last night of all,
When yond same star that's westward from the pole
Had made his course to illume that part of heaven
Where now it burns, Marcellus and myself,
The bell then beating one,--

But what star is he talking about? This question was pursued by Owen Gingerich (who was at the CfA at the same time as I was) and others. The conclusion is that Bernardo is referring to Supernova 1572A, so named because 1572 is the year in which it was observed.

The Supernova SN1572A is better known as Tycho's Supernova. The astronomer Tycho Brahe provided detailed observations of this new bright light in the nightsky. Since Hamlet was written around 1600, Shakespeare would have been familiar with this recent star as well and, accordingly, would have been a small boy when it first appeared.

There is another curious relation between Brahe and Shakespeare. In one portrait of Brahe, he is surrounded by the Coat-of-Arms of his ancestors. One of them is Rosencrans and another is Gyldenstern. It remains unclear as to whether this was a coincidence or something more.

A certain Eric Altschuler has used much of the above information to argue, in a physics paper titled Searching for Shakespeare in the Stars that Shakespeare must have lived earlier than thought since he references this astronomical event of 1572 but not equally important ones in 1609 and 1610. So this leans the evidence toward Shakespeare being Edward de Vere, he argues, who lived from 1550-1604.

Perhaps. Eric is familiar to me too. Not only was he a student at the same time I was...he was my study partner. Sometimes I'd see him in the CfA library too, like myself, paging through star atlases.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

"They got me with rubber horns and drugged rabbits."
-James Tate

"A basket of quail burst open in the bazaar. They did not try to escape but spread slowly like spilt honey. Easily recaptured."

Friday, June 23, 2006

In Search of... Miguel Cardoso

"One day he remarked, without lifting his head, 'In the interior you will no doubt meet Mr. Kurtz.'
- Joseph Conrad

1. Metafilter

It was a series of exchanges on the website Metafilter that led to my initial acquiantance with Miguel Esteves Cardoso (hereafter known as MEC)

Like a portuguese explorer from the age of sea voyages, MEC's first act was to proclaim himself and plant his flag:

I have never before written anything without being paid for it. I'm one of Portugal's most successful writers and, thank G-d, the books I've written, as well as the newspapers and magazines I've founded and edited, are all very popular. In fact, the only other Portuguese writer who sells more books than I do is José Saramago, the recent Nobel Prize winner.
The weekly newspaper I founded and edited, "O Independente", is Portugal's number two weekly, though admittedly far behind "Expresso".

What he said was indeed true but it was greeted by the insular Metafilter crowd as little more than over-inflated words, the rants of an anonymous persona - the insecure declarations of an Internet neophyte.

From these humble beginnings, MEC went on to become one of Metafilter's most prolific posters and one of its premier personalities. He posted daily, many times a day, and drew (as is to be expected) his share of both admiration and ire.

He wrote about music and art and photography and American culture and food and theater and religion. Even poetry and travel and book-collecting and portuguese fado and espresso and restaurants. And even vibrators and toilet etiquette. And about alcohol. Especially, alcohol. During his tenure there, MEC praised the virtues of cocktail books and wrote about Port and Champagne and bourbon and whisky and tequila and rum. Over 400 posts.

Slowly, over a period of years MEC had managed to craft a persona in a manner far more effective than he had done in his initial appearance. It was clear that this man -whomever he might be- was astoundingly articulate, highly literate, educated and, above all, a connoisseur, an aficionado who delighted in the indulgence of the senses - an aesthete and a gourmand.

This grand presence however, was too large for this small community of thousands. He regularly ignored rules (or perhaps delicately overstepped them) and became a symbol of defiance itself. Many users resented this personality of imposition, but most either defended him or were swayed by his words, or his patient charm. His most loyal defenders even earned the name "Miguelistas" - a band of wily insurgents who did what MEC would not do himself - attack his attackers.

2. The Writer and Celebrity

MEC is in fact well-known in Portugal. He is both a well-known journalist and novelist with over 11 published books. His journalistic opinions there have earned him a reputation as a literary bad-boy, a contrarian and critic. He is foremost an essayist, writing nostalgically about love and passion and with a fondness for the traditional and the beautiful over the garish and new.

Miguel Esteves Cardoso

His novels also tend to ruminations on the unique Portuguese psyche, a minor atlas of the landscape of old Lusitania - both its habits and heritage as well as its emergence into the modern world.

He also has two grown daughters who have earned their own reputation as newscasters, as society figures, as FHM models.

Miguel Cardoso section at Lello

A collection of MEC books at Livreria Lello in Porto, Portugal.

3. The Almost

I did not go to Portugal to meet MEC but on a trip there last week I informed MEC that I would be in his neighborhood. He immediately replied with a joyful and gracious email:

Olá Ricardo!

Boa tarde!

Fico muito contente que voltes a Lisboa!
Eu moro aqui no Estoril,

Mas pode ser em qualquer lugar.

Um grande abraço (e boa viagem!),

I had told him that I was staying at the

Bairro Alto hotel

Bairro Alto hotel in Lisboa but his suggested meeting place was in Cascais.

Much of my time in Portugal was spent traversing the country, from Lisboa


to Porto (and a meal in a tiny restaurant that I will savor for a lifetime)

Lunch and the oncoming storm

and into the northern areas such as Brufe (the restaurant O Abocanhado pictured above), wading in waterfalls, briefly skipping across the northern border into Spanish Galicia.

MEC and I were supposed to meet upon my return to Lisboa but the day before I received this email from him:

Hi Ricardo!

Dammit, I can't meet you after all. I'm off to Germany tonight for the bloody World Cup, which I'm covering for O Jogo, every single day (!

I was really looking forward to it too.

I hope you're enjoying your stay - you certainly seem to know your way around.

All the best,

And so, it was not to be. Perhaps next time, Senhor Cardoso. Algum dia...algum dia...

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

it is always there that i feel others within me; when i try to express myself, i am unable to do so. Words are readymade and express themselves: they do not express me. Once again i find myself suffocating. At that moment, teaching the art of resisting words becomes useful, the art of saying only what one wants to say, the art of doing them violence, of forcing them to submit. In short... Found a rhetoric, or rather, to teach everyone the art of founding his own rhetoric. This saves those few, those rare individuals who must be saved: those who are aware, and who are troubled and disgusted by the others within them.those individuals who make the mind progress, and who are, strictly speaking, capable of changing the reality of things.

-Francis Ponge

Friday, April 21, 2006


- A photo of me, taken by razorbern

Friday, April 07, 2006

Heaven and Earth Magic

"Heaven and Earth Magic represents Smith's masterwork in this form. Attempts to explain the film rub against the point of it. The narrative aspect features a woman chasing a dog that has taken her watermelon. Surrounding this “tale” is a series of synesthetic transformations and Kabbalistic icons, a synthesis of the organic and spiritual with the arbitrary and random...With help from the Archives, SFIFF is honored to present Heaven and Earth Magic with an original score composed and performed live by avant-pop band Deerhoof."

-as part of the SFIFF

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Harold Fisk
Geological Investigation of the Alluvial Valley of the Lower Mississippi River

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

His Master's Voice I believe, from having read ab...

His Master's Voice

I believe, from having read about his preoccupations, that Lem considered himself a philosopher first and a writer second. His stories were vehicles for his ideas.

In novels such as Fiasco or The Investigation or even Solaris, Lem explores the concept that we never be able to truly understand that which is alien. We may be able to make our interpretations and they may even acquire their own sense of consistency but never will they be more than fables, stories we tell ourselves, like huddled animals around a campfire.

An example, and also a personal favorite, is Lem's metaphysical take on the detective story. A bizarre series of murders has everyone puzzled. They occur simultaneously across the country and bring into play recurring elements: bodies missing from graveyards, suggestive trails, murder scenes with hints of the supernatural. But (and this is key) there are never any witnesses. The simplest explanation occurs to the reader immediately: Corpses are rising from their graves and going on murderous rampages. But this is a supernatural explanation and so unsuitable. Instead, the detectives propose a solution which involves outrageous coincidences: sleep-walking truck drivers, mistaken identities, a rube-goldbergian series of events which do not seem probable in the lifetime of this universe. But, the explanation does not rely on the supernatural and so it is accepted as the only plausible one.

These narratives extend back to how we understand ourselves. In His Masters Voice, the hero Hogarth has read multiple biographies of himself and realizes they are all insufficient. He sets out to write his own tale:

"With sufficient imagination a man could write a whole series of versions of his life; it would form a union of sets in which the facts would be the only elements in common. People, even intelligent people, who are young, and therefore inexperienced and naïve, see only cynicism in such a possibility. They are mistaken, because the problem is not moral but cognitive."

The story of His Masters Voice is that a strange message has been recieved from a distant galaxy and a team of scientists set out to decipher it. In the Universe of Lem the message is yet again another fact about the world which must undergo interpetation and squeezed of meaning. Even if the message is deciphered, how do we know that that mirrors the original intent? Predictably, the story is less about the contents of the message itself than about the debates about its decipherment.

To me, Lem was at his best when he was exploring undiluted ideas, as he manages to do both in A Perfect Vacuum and in The Cyberiad. The former book, Borgesian in character, is a series of reviews of imaginary books. In his review of "De Impossibilitate Vitae and Prognoscendi" Lem writes (as an example of his dedication to this task):

Professor Kouska has written a work which demonstrates that the following relationship of mutual exclusion obtains: either the theory of probability, on which stands natural history, is false to its very foundations, or the world of living things, with man at its head, does not exist. In the second volume, the Professor argues that if prognostication, or futurology, is ever to become a reality and not an empty illusion, not a conscious or unconscious deception, then that discipline cannot avail itself of the calculus of probability but demands the implementation of an altogether different reckoning—namely, to quote Kouska, “theory, based on antipodal axioms, of the distribution of ensembles in actual fact unparalleled in the space-time continuum of higher-order events.” (The quotation also serves to show that the reading of the work, in the theoretical sections, does present certain difficulties.)

There is one review devoted to an actual work: A review of the very book itself. The reviewer did not like it.

In The Cyberiad, Lem employs two constructor-robots in the far future who, through humor and stories, explore the ideas of the limits of technology and the endpoints of our own evolution. In one tale, the robots embark on a visit to the most advanced civilization in the galaxy who have reached the Highest Possible Level of Development (HPLD) but find only dissapointment from creatures who at first ignore them then instruct them that technological sophistication and wealth have still not brought resolutions to the basic problem of happiness.

Although I placed him as a writer, second, that is not an attempt to discredit his writing. As one critic observed in 1983, "If [Stanislaw Lem] isn't considered for a Nobel Prize by the end of the century, it will be because someone told the judges that he writes science fiction," Apparently, someone told one of the judges. In any case, the century is over. And in any case, such an award would be posthumous. Stanislaw Lem died two days ago.

Listen to the MP3 of "Polish Science Fiction Legend Stanislaw Lem is Dead"

Friday, March 03, 2006

The Knight and the Spaceship

A drawing exhibition I attended at the MoMA in New York City this weekend introduced me to the work of Ernesto Caivano.

Caivano's line drawings are meticulous and graceful. The flow and density of his drawings remind me more than anything of another exhibition I recently saw of 18th century Kyoto painters at the San Francisco Art Museum. Perhaps one of the landscapes by Yosa Buson or one of Ito Jakuchu's paintings.

Caivan's drawings are set in a mythological world of his own creation. Two lovers are separated by forests and time, searching for each other through a span of one thousand years. He becomes a Knight. She transforms into a Spaceship.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006


I've been reading some of Mark Twain's correspondence, all of it available online. Detailed. diaristic accounts covering the years 1867 to 1910. Travels with his family, and their attendant illnesses, his political writings and dismay with his fellow humans.

There are moments of pure Twain humor, such as this letter he writes back to a woman he has appointed as a member of an international secret club:

To Miss Picard, in St.-Die, France:

RIVERDALE-ON-THE-HUDSON, February 22, 1902. DEAR MISS HELENE,--If you will let me call you so, considering that my head is white and that I have grownup daughters. Your beautiful letter has given me such deep pleasure! I will make bold to claim you for a friend and lock you up with the rest of my riches; for I am a miser who counts his spoil every day and hoards it secretly and adds to it when he can, and is grateful to see it grow.

Some of that gold comes, like yourself, in a sealed package, and I can't see it and may never have the happiness; but I know its value without that, and by what sum it increases my wealth.

I have a Club, a private Club, which is all my own. I appoint the Members myself, and they can't help themselves, because I don't allow them to vote on their own appointment and I don't allow them to resign! They are all friends whom I have never seen (save one), but who have written friendly letters to me.

By the laws of my Club there can be only one Member in each country, and there can be no male Member but myself. Some day I may admit males, but I don't know--they are capricious and inharmonious, and their ways provoke me a good deal. It is a matter which the Club shall decide.

I have made four appointments in the past three or four months: You as Member for France, a young Highland girl as Member for Scotland, a Mohammedan girl as Member for Bengal, and a dear and bright young niece of mine as Member for the United States--for I do not represent a country myself, but am merely Member at Large for the Human Race.

You must not try to resign, for the laws of the Club do not allow that. You must console yourself by remembering that you are in the best of company; that nobody knows of your membership except myself--that no Member knows another's name, but only her country; that no taxes are levied and no meetings held (but how dearly I should like to attend one!).

One of my Members is a Princess of a royal house, another is the daughter of a village book-seller on the continent of Europe. For the only qualification for Membership is intellect and the spirit of good will; other distinctions, hereditary or acquired, do not count.

May I send you the Constitution and Laws of the Club? I shall be so pleased if I may. It is a document which one of my daughters typewrites for me when I need one for a new Member, and she would give her eyebrows to know what it is all about, but I strangle her curiosity by saying: "There are much cheaper typewriters than you are, my dear, and if you try to pry into the sacred mysteries of this Club one of your prosperities will perish sure."

My favorite? It is "Joan of Arc." My next is "Huckleberry Finn," but the family's next is "The Prince and the Pauper." (Yes, you are right-- I am a moralist in disguise; it gets me into heaps of trouble when I go thrashing around in political questions.)

I wish you every good fortune and happiness and I thank you so much for your letter. Sincerely yours, S. L. CLEMENS.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Rothko Redux

A gift from my friend Matthew Bliss in New York.

A Rothko from not-Rothko. Or is it a non-Rothko from Rothko?

Monday, January 30, 2006

Personal Conversation

E. leaves everything behind to pursue her passion. She has left a formidable career behind to pursue a rigorous craft, in Japan, to devote herself to the perfection found in the minute. She has met someone whom she considers a fellow soul. She has surprised us all and yet, upon reflection, it is not so surprising at all.

E: I have left everything behind. Here is my new life. I am not coming back.

A: You are inspiring.

E: I must say, I gained a lot of strength from literatures and other peoples' experience on this move. I feel that a match in spirit is more important than a well-served mundane life. Everyone around me had awakened in some way. And I think we are fortunate that we are not in a more conservative society.

Sunday, January 29, 2006

The Goblin Market

Evening by evening
Among the brookside rushes,
Laura bowed her head to hear,
Lizzie veiled her blushes:
Crouching close together
In the cooling weather,
With clasping arms and cautioning lips,
With tingling cheeks and finger-tips.
"Lie close," Laura said,
Pricking up her golden head:
"We must not look at goblin men,
We must not buy their fruits:
Who knows upon what soil they fed
Their hungry thirsty roots?"
"Come buy," call the goblins
Hobbling down the glen.
"Oh," cried Lizzie, "Laura, Laura,
You should not peep at goblin men."

-Christina Rosetti, The Goblin Market, 1862

Friday, January 27, 2006

San Francisco in Jell-O Liz Hickok: "My project...

San Francisco in Jell-O

Liz Hickok: "My project consists of photographs and video, which depict various San Francisco landscapes. I make the landscapes by constructing scale models of the architectural elements which I use to make molds. I then cast the buildings in Jell-O."

I had gone to the San Francisco ASW party at the St. Regis at the invitation of A. The people are everything the press makes them out to be - so much so that they are a parody of themselves. This small cocktail party was hosted by a man whose title was "Prince", of some mumbled principality. He waves his fingers and cocktails appear in our hands. I wander off just as A. is chatting with the Prince about a recent sailing trip of hers in the Antilles.

Just outside, as I am walking by the SFMOMA, a homeless woman approaches me and asks for money. I reach into my pocket and hand her a couple dimes.
She looks reproachfully at me. "Thats not enough!" she says.
"How much is enough?" I ask her.
"More! More!" she yells as I walk away.

The eccentrically lit gardens of Yerba Buena lead right up to the urban mall that is the Sony Metreon. The gardens have always struck me as a poor representation of their kind, less a garden than a wild intrusion on concrete, a waterfall that brings to mind the sorry weeds that emerge through concrete fractures. The conjunctions here of buildings and space, of grass and stark walls combine to form an urban composition that is not so much aesthetic as aleatoric.

I follow the lights and walk up towards Market, through crowds of young Asian partygoers, of Scandinavian tourists. I am not walking towards anything. I am walking along, allowing the current of lights and people to guide me across streets and around corners.

Predictably, I end up at The House of Shields and check to see if Schlomo is around tonight - to say hi, to talk about our shared love of The Frog. A band is playing madly in the corner. I order my usual, a Perfect Manhattan, and sip it slowly. The Jazz is passably good, but also makes me long to run home and immerse myself in an old standard. In that way that a hint of beauty - the sniff of a lover on forgotten clothing - makes you ache for the whole thing. Perhaps Sonny Rollins' "Kiss and Run."

I meander back to my obligations, back to the strange, new, and overly stiff St. Regis (an attendant in the bathroom hands me a cloth napkin) sliding through the crowd, looking for my friends. I can see A. greeting a woman and exchanging kisses on the cheek. F. is off in another corner, waving his hands in the midst of some explanation.

I am the only one in the crowd who is not holding a drink. A waitress notices this and walks over. "Would you like another?"

Thursday, January 26, 2006

The I is not dreaming As I am falling asleep, I c...

The I is not dreaming

As I am falling asleep, I can feel my consciousness dissolving. The thoughts of the moment - pondered memories, considered ideas - start to fade in clarity. I can feel myself trying to shape them back, give them form, but its useless. Soon, the memories of only five seconds ago have dissappered. Fighting against sleep is protesting against a suffocating current.

I've always thought that dreams are inventions that we create at the moment of waking, and not before. We, the "we" that thinks and ponders, does not exist at the moment of dreaming. A sleeper, with her eyes shaking wildly is not dreaming at that moment. The remembered dream comes later, as we are waking, as our consciousness is being assembled, and as this flood of nonsense from the play of the nighttime brain comes flooding in. The conscious brain assembles all of it into a story and shoves it into the past to try to convince itself (as it is so good at doing) that it has always existed.

The neuroscientist Giulio Tononi has been exploring a theory which fits in well with this. Here is an excerpt from an article which discusses his work:

Consciousness, his theory holds, emerges when a system integrates information, such as when the different parts of the brain talk to each other. As sleep sets in, those parts stop talking among themselves, thereby dissolving the state of consciousness that emerged from that communication network.

Scientists used to think that consciousness vanishes during non-dreaming sleep because the brain rests and stops working. Researchers showed that was wrong when they discovered that during slumber the brain is still electrically and chemically as active as during wakefulness.

Consciousness fades away not because the brain takes a nap, Tononi speculated, but because its different parts stop communicating. To test his prediction, he and his colleagues performed an ingenious experiment: When they electrically stimulated an area of the awake brain, that part quickly sent out conference calls to many other parts. But in the sleeping, non-dreaming brain, stimulation produced no conference calls. The area of the brain that was dialed up by the small jolt of electricity sat on the message.

"It fit exactly the key prediction of the information-integration theory," Tononi says. "The effect was very clear-cut."

Consciousness, then, the "I", is not something which sits, like a ruling tyrant, at some central place in the brain, dispensing orders. It does not sit anywhere at all. In the network of communication inside the brain's different parts, we are the network itself. When the network shuts down, as it does during sleep, we cease to exist. just as Yourcenar's Hadrian observes.

The idea of consciousness as an abstraction, as the network itself, is something I first encountered in Hofstadter's Godel, Escher, Bach. There, the conscious brain is presented as something much greater than the sum of its parts and Hofstatder illustrates this by an anteater whose best friend is an ant hill - not ants, he eats them of course, but the ant hill itself who as a larger entity sometimes even allows the anteater to have some of its ants.

Hofstadter also conjectures that the Mind is a consequence of introducing recursion in the universe. Imagine this: Minds have always tried to understand and make sense of the outside world. But what happens when a Mind tries to think about how Mind itself works? We may have crossed this threshold when we developed the survival ability to model the minds of others ("What are the intentions of my enemy? What would I do in his place?") and then took the drastic turn of looking back into ourselves. The result perhaps was consciousness. Arguably we went too far and became so enraptured with this new ability and tried to assign human motives to everything - The rain has been so strong and persistent that He who controls the rain does not regard me well.

Finally, there is Julian Jaynes and his radical theory of consciousness: The development of consciousness took place in historical times. The men in Homer's Illiad, for example, were pre-conscious beings. And the voices of the Gods were the voices in their own brains. We call it having a conversation with ourselves but for them this experience of internal voices was new - the early stirrings of the communications network, of the Mind.

If so, we should be reading Hesiod's Theogony as a neurology textbook.

Monday, January 23, 2006

Memoirs of Hadrian

Like Claudia, I find Yourcenar's Memoirs of Hadrian to be irresistibly quotable. I am reading it much more slowly than other books, going forwards then backward to re-read entire pages or passages. Hadrian is writing long letters to the young Marcus Aurelius, conveying both his own intimate amazement of the world and also a wisdom arrived at by tireless observation.


Of all our games, love's play is the only one which threatens to unsettle the soul, and is also the only one in which the player has to abandon himself to the body's ecstasy.


What also reassures is that sleep heals us of fatigue, but heals us by the most radical of means in arranging that we cease temporarily to exist.

And, the search for truth:

Like everyone else I have at my disposal only three means of evaluating human existence: the study of self, which is the most difficult and most dangerous method, but also the most fruitful; the observation of our fellowmen, who usually arrange to hide their secrets from us ... and books, with the particular errors of perspective to which they inevitable give rise.

Historians propose to us systems too perfect for explaining the past, with sequence of cause and effect much too clear and exact to have been every entirely true; they rearrange what is dead.

When all the involved calculations prove false, and the philosphers themselves have nothing more to tell us, it is excusable to turn to the random twitter of birds, or toward the distant mechanism of the stars.

Friday, January 20, 2006

Gnostics, the ultimate pessimist 1. I had picked ...

By all evidence, we are in the world to do nothing

1. I had picked up LaCarriere's book on the Gnostics based on a brief glance inside. Expecting a historical treatment, I was suprised to find that Lacarriere was more interested in exploring the feelings of Gnosis, of a deeper worldview (still relevant) about approaches to the world as puzzle. Much different than say, the treatments from scholars such as Elaine Pagels.

2. I had started reading Pagels because she was the wife of the physicist Heinz Pagels whose book The Cosmic Code presented an elegant, informed, deeply poetic view of the quantum universe. Heinz Pagels died in a hiking accident and, afterwards, Elaine Pagels' Gnostic treatments became more spiritual, more comtemplative - she became closer to what she was writing. But, I digress

3. I also picked up Lacarriere because it contained a Foreword by Lawrence Durrell. Careful readers of this oft-neglected weblog will know the significance of that. If not, I offer this:

"She turned her sullen mouth now to the discussion of meaningless matters with Count Banubula, who bowed and swung as gallantly as Scobie's green parrot ducking on its perch."
- from Balthazar by Lawrence Durell

Balthazar, the title character of this particular volume, is a Gnostic teacher living in Alexandria. Durell often describes him as goat-like. Hints of the teachings of Balthazar can be found throughout the Durell novels. Justine, one of his disciples, attempts to wield the aphorisms she has heard, like a shaky sword, in an attempt to unravel the tangles of her romantic life and of her own self-inflicted pain.

4. In the foreword, Durell, surprisingly, dismisses LaCarriere:

"All that we need to know about the author is that he is a wanderer and a poet; he is neither a scholar nor a journalist."

and a passage from LaCarriere will provide a better flavor for this book and reveal Durell's opinion as justified:

"To know our true condition, to realize that we are condemned to live under a fantastic mass of darkness, beneath oceans and successive circles; to know that man atrophied and infirm, vegetates in submarine lairs like the proteus, that blind eel-like creature that lives in subterranean waters, naked and white (or rather albino, since white is still a color after all)... to know this is the first step in Gnostic thought"

5. With phrases such as "To look at the human eye is to grasp the patterns of the entire Universe" perhaps LaCarriere missed a career as an aphorist. His book is populated, though, with quotes from two other authors he clearly admires: Marguerite Yourcenar and Emile Cioran

Cioran is what I call the pessimist's pessimist or the ultimate pessimist. In his worldview we are like writhing worms, with no purpose cast into a struggle which is ultimately meaningless. The only reason not to kill oneself is the mild curiosity about what happens next. I would classify him as nihilist except that I think he does indeed care - at the bottom of that deep well of negativity is a sparkle of hope.

Better to be an animal than a man, an insect than an animal, a plant than an insect, and so on. Salvation? Whatever diminishes the kingdom of consciousness and compromises its supremacy.

Each of us must pay for the slightest damage he inflicts upon a universe created for indifference and stagnation, sooner or later, he will regret not having left it intact.


I'm simply an accident. Why take it all so seriously?

By all evidence we are in the world to do nothing.

6. What would the nihilists say if I told them that I am cheered by reading their writings. That this frantic banging against the universe is perhaps the most human of activities.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Ring of Letters

The Men of Ideas, in the early part of the twentieth century, formulated and exchanged many of their ideas through written correspondence. These took the form of a series of long, articulate letters sometimes spanning years or even decades.

While reading some of the most dedicated correspondences (much of it online, much of it in books) I noticed two things: First, the fertile exchange between the physicists who founded both Quantum Mechanics and Relativity and the twin giants of psycho-analysis, Freud and Jung. Second, was that the most voluminous and dedicated correspondences formed a chain, actually a nicely closed ring. The Ring of Letters.

The Einstein-Freud Correspondence
Einstein, a champion for peace, famously worked to assemble a group of intellectual leaders to bring pressure on politicians. Here, he works on bringing Freud into the fold. The exchanges between them are wonderful to read.
As Einstein writes, "I am convinced that almost all great men who, because of their accomplishments, are recognized as leaders even of small groups share the same ideals. But they have little influence on the course of political events. It would almost appear that the very domain of human activity most crucial to the fate of nations is inescapably in the hands of wholly irresponsible political rulers."
And Freud shares his ideas, "You are amazed that it is so easy to infect men with the war fever, and you surmise that man has in him an active instinct for hatred and destruction, amenable to such stimulations. I entirely agree with you. I believe in the existence of this instinct and have been recently at pains to study its manifestations. In this connection may I set out a fragment of that knowledge of the instincts, which we psychoanalysts, after so many tentative essays and gropings in the dark, have compassed? "

The Freud-Jung Correspondence
It appears that Jung struggled to get out from Freud's shadow. Their relationship, as seen through their letters, comes across as both fertile and diseased. They exchanged nearly 400 letters in the course of seven years.
As Trilling writes, about one episode, in the New York Times "A few days later Jung wrote Freud, coolly but with amenity, even with the avowal of his wish to continue in personal if no longer in intellectual closeness. Freud replied in kind; he commented on the fainting episode, about which Jung had enquired, and contended by saying, "A bit of neurosis that I ought really look into." The minimizing phrase seems to have put Jung into a state of hysterical rage. He insolently replies that "this 'bit' should, in my opinion, be taken very seriously indeed because it leads 'usque ad instar voluntariae mortist ('to the semblance of voluntary death']. I have suffered from this bit in my dealings with you. . ." and more to the same effect and in the same tone."

The Jung-Pauli Correspondence
Pauli was one of the founders of Quantum Mechanics and author of the Exclusion principle which dictates how like particles behave. Without it, for example, we wouldnt understand the behavior of Neutron stars. Jung was the proponent of Synchronicity, a mystical view of the world with creative notions of cause and effect.
And yet these two were close collaborators - exchanging numerous letters, collaborating on exotic ideas.
In the preface to a collected volume of letters, we are told:
"In their joint volume, Jung and Pauli presented the synchronicity principle. It presumes that indestructible energy has a dual relationship to the space-time continuum: on the one hand, there is the constant connection through effect--that is, causality; and on the other, there is an inconstant connection through contigence, equivalence, or meaning that is itself synchronicity. For a physicist, equations are not objectively accurate reflections of material reality but structurally accurate relationship-connections. For Jung, synchronicities are meaningful only when an individual experiences them. This creates another "relationship of complementarity between the occurrence or cessation of synchronistic phenomena and the relative state of unconsciousness or consciousness of the individual who experiences it."

The Pauli-Heisenberg Correspondence
Pauli was Werner Heisenberg's closest scientific collaborator. Between them, they exchanged hundreds of letters in which they worked to resolve the conundrums of Quantum Physics. Heisenberg is best known to the scientific layman as the author of the Uncertainty Principle, which dictates limitations on complementary properties in subatomic particles.
In fact, Heisenberg first outlined the Uncertainty Relation in a letter to Pauli. The Pauli-Heisenberg letters have not yet been made available to the public. But there is much speculation that they will reveal that Pauli had an even greater role to play in the development of the fundamental principles of quantum physics than is currently believed.

The Heisenberg-Bohr Correspondence
The correspondence between Heisenberg and Bohr has become famous for one key reason: the questions around whether Heisenberg was helping Nazi Germany to build an atomic bomb.
From the Bohr letters:
"At that time I had no knowledge at all of the preparations that were under way in England and America, and when I did not reply and perhaps looked doubtful, you told me that I had to understand that in recent years you had occupied yourself almost exclusively with this question and were certain that it could be done. ...There was no hint on your part that efforts were being made by German physicists to prevent such an application of atomic science. alarm was not lessened by hearing from the others at the Institute that Weizsäcker had stated how fortunate it would be for the position of science in Germany after the victory that you could help so significantly towards this end."

The Bohr-Einstein Correspondence
The conversations between Bohr and Einstein were about the fundamental nature of reality. Einstein, a disbeliever in quantum mechanics, kept pushing Bohr and Bohr, one of the founders of quantum mechanics and the man responsible for our modern view of the atom, kept pushing back.
These two giants, in their long debates, sketched out many of the puzzles of modern physics and consequently much of the legacy that modern scientists have to confront. I have linked to a picture of the two men, deep in talks, architecting the Universe.

Sunday, January 08, 2006

Alphabet of Smells

Nez du Vin

One of my favorite Christmas gifts was a Nez du Vin kit. This kit, packaged like a book, contains numbered vials inside accompanied by sheets containing diagrams and descriptions for each of the scents contained in the vials. The scents include fruit and vegetable and floral scents. Here is a menu of scents from 12 of the vials:

1. Fraise
2. Framboise
3. Cassis
4. Mure
5. Cerise
6. Violette
7. Poivron vert
8. Truffe
9. Reglisse
10. Vanille
11. Poivre
12. Note fumee

Since I am the type of person who likes to grab a bottle of vanilla, open and sniff it just for the pleasure of it, this was a great gift.

The creator of these kits, Jean Lenoir, has created an olfactic alphabet. In this case, these are smells often found in red wines. And, by training our nose to identify these smells, we can increase both our appreciation and enjoyment of the complex bouquet that is wine. Lenoir created another kit for coffee lovers.

Friday, January 06, 2006

Rothko and the saddleblankets

- Navajo Saddle Blanket, circa 1900.

The paintings of Mark Rothko have the power to elicit an almost religious feeling. The paintings seem to vibrate, to emit a low hum which dominates the surrounding space. This is especially true of his larger canvases, the vast colorfields typical of his later work.

This sacred aspect becomes explicit at the Rothko chapel in Houston, Texas. Here, the paintings hang in bare rooms, like vertical prayer rugs.

What gives the paintings their power? One explanation is that the composition of figure and ground recalls an older aesthetic. That Rothko was both creating and also re-inventing, summoning up ancient memories, speaking using the words of a universal language.

I doubt, however, that Rothko was the first to utter these phonemes, these antediluvian words. More likely, I believe that as we trace the past, we discover that even our aesthetic discoveries are a sort of unconscious plagiarism.

The blankets woven by the Navajo, for example, seem to possess some of that same calm. The buyers of these blankets referred to them as "windows" and as "ghost blankets" They were woven to accompany a journey and each blanket contained some of the weaver's hair, a token to ensure the rider's return.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

- Taken at the Standard Hotel in Hollywood "S...

Hotel Standard in Hollywood

- Taken at the Standard Hotel in Hollywood

"Like an animal clawing for shelter, she puts her face and hands against the glass. What if he were to wake up now, she thinks, and see me here, standing like a ghost? What if I were to scream? What if I were to walk inside and bite his hand?

The humid window is like a small kaleidoscope and within it she can see his hair, his legs, the lights from the canal, the shine of her own eyes, together, shifting, a swirl of small images. It is as when she was a little girl and she played for hours with her small mirrors, her toy carousels - these miniature worlds. As the glass becomes opaque, the images disappear and all she can see is the bright reflection of the lights. The cold now makes her feel more naked than when she first stepped out, and she feels like one of those small creatures with shiny eyes, peering out from the dark.

When she walks back inside, she grabs his arm and gently bites it. He moves his body and looks at her, not fully awake, still inside half of a dream. The bite stings like frost. He lifts his hand and puts it on her shoulder. She lays down and curls up her body, as if in instinct, as if following a cue, she curls up and falls into a dream."

-An excerpt from a journal written when I was about 16, grabbed from my parents house