You Know It’s Spring When…


So, every Spring for the last ten years I’ve witnessed the return of this beautiful bird, as I did driving back from Madison today-

An Audubon Society Photo

An Audubon Society Photo

And every time I’ve witnessed its return, I’ve idly wondered what sort of bird it is. I’ve asked local friends, but they’ve never given me an answer. Of course, it looked like some sort of blackbird (duh!). But how to describe its colorful markings? It’s not a red and yellow wing-tip. It’s more of a red and yellow wing-shoulder… But I’ve always been reluctant to describe it that way, since it’s certainly not in any anatomical sense a shoulder. Tonight I finally googled “red-winged blackbird” just to see if that inaccurate, misleading description might narrow down the choices. It did: surprisingly, this bird is generally called (in English) a “red-winged blackbird“. Officially, it’s called agelaius phoeniceus. This is its mating territory, and in a month or so it will be literally everywhere you look; wisely, it winters down in Baja California and northwest Mexico.

More aptly, its French name is “Carouge à épaulettes”. ‘Épaulettes’ means “shoulder pads” (which is at least more accurate here than ‘shoulder’ would be), but ‘carouge’ does not show up in any of the French dictionaries I’ve checked. It does contain the word ‘rouge’, which means ‘red’. Apparently, there is a single village in Europe named Carouge, and in an interesting twist of fate, it’s on the outskirts of Geneva, only a mile or so from where I stayed for a week last summer. Carouge has been called the “Greenwich Village” of Switzerland. I’ll be returning to the area next Fall to do some research at the Université de Genève, and will be sure to visit. Stay tuned for further reports on this bizarre coincidence.

In the meantime, welcome back, red-winged blackbirds! Happy breeding! You’ve been missed.

Sting Ponders The Multiverse


As a rule, musicals tend to strike me as amusing at best (Passing Strange aside), and only time will tell whether Sting and his cohort of Broadway pros can pull off the rare feat of successfully marrying rock, pop, or folk songs to an emotionally resonant and theatrically stageable story. But the more I listen to the numbers Sting has written for his The Last Ship project, the more they grow on me. You can listen to many of those songs, performed live by Sting and several cast members, on this American Masters episode. Meanwhile, here’s one of the more thought-provoking and suggestive songs from the album (not included in the Great Performances episode), one that demonstrates how a talented – and well-read – songwriter (or two) can relate an interpretation of quantum physics to a theme with a lot of poetic and dramatic potential: how choices create universes, and how those universes might be related to parallel universes not only physically, but – more humanly – by relief, or regret, or resignation, or…

“It’s Not The Same Moon”
by Sting and Rob Mathes

Did you ever hear the theory of the universe?
Where every time you make a choice,
A brand new planet gets created?
Did you ever hear that theory?
Does it carry any sense?
That a choice can split the world in two,
Or is it all just too immense for you?

That they all exist in parallel,
Each one separate from the other,
And every subsequent decision,
Makes a new world then another,
And they all stretch out towards infinity,
Getting further and further away.

Now, were a man to reconsider his position,
And try to spin the world back to its original state?
It’s not a scientific proposition,
And relatively speaking…you’re late.

It’s not the same moon in the sky,
And these are different stars,
And these are different constellations,
From the ones that you’ve described.
Different rules of navigation,
Strange coordinates and lines,
A completely different zodiac,
Of unfamiliar signs.

It’s not the same moon in the sky,
And those planets are misleading,
I wouldn’t even try to take a bearing or a reading,
Just accept that things are different,
You’ve no choice but to comply,
When smarter men have failed to see,
The logic as to why.

It’s not the same moon,
It’s not the same moon,
In the sky.

Occam’s Razor And Malaysia Airlines Flight 370


Who knows, at this point, just what happened to Malaysia Airlines Flight 370? Only one thing seems clear as the media has ascended to ever-higher flights of fancy about it: no one seems to want to ruin a good yarn by promoting the simplest available hypothesis (as Occam’s razor would prescribe), no one, that is, except Chris Goodfellow in this Wired post-

The left turn is the key here. Zaharie Ahmad Shah was a very experienced senior captain with 18,000 hours of flight time. We old pilots were drilled to know what is the closest airport of safe harbor while in cruise. Airports behind us, airports abeam us, and airports ahead of us. They’re always in our head. Always. If something happens, you don’t want to be thinking about what are you going to do–you already know what you are going to do. When I saw that left turn with a direct heading, I instinctively knew he was heading for an airport. He was taking a direct route to Palau Langkawi, a 13,000-foot airstrip with an approach over water and no obstacles. The captain did not turn back to Kuala Lampur because he knew he had 8,000-foot ridges to cross. He knew the terrain was friendlier toward Langkawi, which also was closer.

For me, the loss of transponders and communications makes perfect sense in a fire. And there most likely was an electrical fire. In the case of a fire, the first response is to pull the main busses and restore circuits one by one until you have isolated the bad one. If they pulled the busses, the plane would go silent. It probably was a serious event and the flight crew was occupied with controlling the plane and trying to fight the fire. Aviate, navigate, and lastly, communicate is the mantra in such situations.

What I think happened is the flight crew was overcome by smoke and the plane continued on the heading, probably on George (autopilot), until it ran out of fuel or the fire destroyed the control surfaces and it crashed. You will find it along that route–looking elsewhere is pointless.

If you’re curious about the details of this relatively reasonable hypothesis, read the whole story.

Jason Isbell’s “Elephant”


I heard Jason Isbell play “Elephant” on an NPR show a few months back, bought it on iTunes and didn’t listen to it again until recently. Some tout it as the best song ever written about cancer (not that there’s much competition on that score), but I’ve come to think of it as one of the better songs ever written about a rare sort of friendship.

Here’s a well-recorded live version from SiriusXM radio. Please excuse the obscenities, by which I mean the embedded ads, the first of which can be clicked away, the second of which will fade on its own-

She said Andy you’re better than your past,
winked at me and drained her glass,
cross-legged on the barstool, like nobody sits anymore.
She said Andy you’re taking me home,
but I knew she planned to sleep alone
I’d carry her to bed, sweep up the hair from the floor.

If I’d fucked her before she got sick,
I’d never hear the end of it.
She don’t have the spirit for that now.
We drink these drinks and laugh out loud,
bitch about the weekend crowd,
and try to ignore the elephant somehow…

She said Andy you crack me up,
Seagrams in a coffee cup,
sharecropper eyes and her hair almost all gone.
When she was drunk she made cancer jokes,
she made up her own doctor’s notes,
surrounded by her family
I saw that she was dying alone.

I’d sing her classic country songs
and she’d get high and sing along.
She don’t have much voice to sing with now.
We’d burn these joints in effigy,
cry about what we used to be,
try to ignore the elephant somehow…

I buried her a thousand times,
giving up my place in line,
but I don’t give a damn about that now.
There’s one thing that’s real clear to me-
no one dies with dignity,
We just try to ignore the elephant somehow…
We just try to ignore the elephant somehow…
We just try to ignore the elephant somehow…

Philosophers Ride Unicorns To Work


I usually teach two books in my “Contemporary Philosophy” class: A. J. Ayer’s Language, Truth and Logic, and Saul Kripke’s Naming and Necessity. Ayer’s book nicely illustrates the limits of verificationist semantics, the problems with phenomenalism, and the futility of trying to eliminate metaphysics from philosophy. Kripke’s book shows how metaphysics survived – and ultimately exploited – the “linguistic turn” taken by 20th century analytic philosophy. One thing that both books have in common, however, is at least a passing concern with unicorns.


Ayer uses the sentence “Unicorns are fictitious” to illustrate how surface grammar can systematically mislead philosophers into spouting metaphysical nonsense (e.g., that since ‘unicorns’ seems to be the subject of this sentence, they must “have a mode of real being which is different from the mode of existing things”). Kripke, on the other hand, uses his scientific essentialism to argue that unicorns not only do not actually exist; they could not even possibly exist.

Well, we were talking about Ayer’s discussion of unicorns in class today, and Shannon, one my sharpest students, later tweeted me that “‘Back to the unicorns’ is something one only hears in Harry Potter or philosophy classes”, to which I responded with “Indeed…”, followed by the title of this post.

This got me thinking, though: just how extensively are unicorns used in the philosophical literature? (There’s a book to be written here, if it hasn’t already been published). To get a rough idea, I did a quick search of the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (one of my favorite resources), and found that the mythological creatures trot onto that particular stage in no less than twenty-nine – count ‘em, 29 – different topics! Here’s a link to the list, for all of you unicorn junkies out there.

Bill Murray On The Hardest Job In The World


In his Charlie Rose interview last week, Bill Murray said the following while trying to describe his experiences on the set of George Clooney’s latest picture The Monuments Men-

“It’s fun to watch someone like John Goodman, who is such a natural actor, and yet it takes work… you know, people say: ‘He’s not acting, he’s just being himself’… Well, it’s hard to be yourself, it’s hard to be yourself, you know what I mean? It’s impossible, it’s the hardest job in the world.”

Five Years A Blog


Five years, as of today… that’s how long I’ve been posting items of personal interest to this online scrapbook. I’ve been engaging in this exercise mostly just for myself and friends, but I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how many posts have been of interest to total strangers. Google Analytics informs me that there have been, on a monthly average, around 266 page views by 154 unique visitors; hardly more than a blip in the universe of internet statistics, but enough to make me think that there is something here of value to someone other than myself. If you’re a returning visitor (around 20% of the total), odds are I know you from elsewhere, and I hope you’ll keep in touch by other means as well. If I don’t know you and you’ve stumbled upon something amusing or interesting here, I’m glad.

I know that the odds are against it, but I sometimes imagine that 10,000 years from now, an internet archeologist might dig up one of my fossilized posts, and it will help to confirm or disconfirm some obscure hypothesis about life at the start of the 21st century. We now leave digital traces of ourselves, much like cave dwellers left a few palm prints on the walls. Let’s hope that the walls of our digital caves turn out to be as solid as their stone ones.

Fun With Frax


If you own an iPhone or an iPad and have ever had the urge to release your inner graphic artist… the one you’ve kept hidden since you were 5 years old and discovered you couldn’t draw worth s#*t… then you absolutely must shell out a whopping $2 and download a copy of Frax, the amazing little iOS app that allows you to create an infinite variety of fractal images using gestures, tilt, and a few simple controls. Once created, you can save your masterpieces to your photo library, or upload them to the Frax Cloud and have them rendered in ultra-high, poster-sized resolution.

Here’s an image I created in about five minutes, just trying to learn how to use the app (which has very helpful instructions embedded into it). To see what people who actually know what they’re doing with the app can come up with, check out the gallery at the Frax site.

First Try With Frax

“Her” and Him (Alan Watts, that is)


I found “Her”, Spike Jonze’s new movie, somewhat difficult to sit through. It feels too long (so little happens), and it treads a very thin line between a psychologically rich character study and a Saturday Night Live parody of a cliché romance. Also, the overall look of the film is bland, as if it were covered with a gray-filter. It’s too dimly lit in many scenes. In fact, one key scene happens entirely in the dark, a stylistic choice I couldn’t help but see as a sign of Jonze’s embarrassment with the scene’s content. No doubt the somberness of much of the indoor photography is meant to underscore protagonist Theodore’s extremely introverted personality. But it’s overkill: Joaquin Phoenix’s spot-on Theodore needs no extra help.

Yet, despite these problems, “Her” is, to my mind, perhaps the most thought-provoking Hollywood film released this year, with the possible exception of 12 Years A Slave (which I blogged about here). I say this even though in most ways Her is the opposite of my favorite Jonze film, 2004′s Adaptation. That movie had an almost frenetic energy; it was saturated by the sub-tropical colors of South Florida, it had a very complex structure (thanks to screenwriter Charlie Kaufman), and it centered on two (or three?) eccentric protagonists, played with all the requisite bravado by Nicholas Cage and Chris Cooper. Her, on the other hand, just plods along, without much to look at (a Scarlett-Johansson-shaped video image of Samantha might have helped a lot in that respect), with the simplest possible structure, and only two substantial characters, one of which is invisible, the other of which is rarely expressive.

But what I like about “Her” is its heartfelt exploration of intimacy, an exploration that goes deeper than what is generally found in your standard relationship flick (which, I admit, is not saying much). The film raises the question of whether it would be possible to be really intimate with the user interface of an operating system (to get some sense of Johansson’s silicon-based Samantha, just imagine Apple’s SIRI on both intellectual- and emotional-IQ steroids). But the film is more centrally concerned about the loss of human intimacy in our ever more technologically-mediated world, and that is an even worthier subject. Samantha and Theodore’s dialog reminds us, somewhat poignantly, of what a genuinely intimate relationship at least sounds like – something that’s sorely lacking not only from most other films, but also from many lives. The only thing missing from Theodore and Samantha’s relationship (besides a body, of course) seems at first to be any element of danger. For surely nothing could be less dangerous than a relationship with an entity pre-programmed to satisfy one’s every need. Theodore apparently need not fear that Samantha will ever leave him like his ex-wife did, but there’s the rub: how could such an apparently “failsafe” relationship ever really be fulfilling?

It’s the particular way in which the film first raises and then answers (or subverts) that question that makes it worth watching, and helps to excuse its weaknesses. Here’s the trailer-

Near the end of the film there’s an important reference to Alan Watts, the mid-20th century intellectual, ex-theologician, and pre-New Age disseminator of Asian religious traditions and metaphysical views. For those unfamiliar with Watts’ work, the brief description of him given in the film might suffice for the script’s purposes (though I doubt it). But for those at least passingly familiar with his life and work, the reference will have all sorts of rich resonances, and suggest several different levels on which to interpret the ending. The most obvious level has to do with Watts’ charismatic charm, which seems to have been accompanied by a (no doubt philosophically motivated) lack of shame. The second, slightly less obvious level rides on Watts’ trenchant criticisms of Western Culture, which he viewed as both a cause and effect of its average member’s confusion and neurosis. His prescription was, quite simply, to become enlightened in the down-to-earth, Zen sense he himself clearly sought. Finally, a third level of interpretation rides on the similarity between Samantha and Theodore that Samantha at one point says comforts her. To jump aboard this train of thought, you need to focus on Watts’ thesis that reality is, ultimately, One (a “monistic” worldview that a Buddhist need not accept). To avoid falling into didactic mode, I’ll just add that these three levels of interpretation are, I think, complementary. They leave Theodore with much more to mull over beyond the picture’s ending than just the promises and pitfalls of romantic attachments. The only problem is that the reference to Watts and the relevance of his personality and worldview is such “inside baseball”, the resonances that finally sold me on the film will probably not occur to most of the film’s audience. I’m not sure that they even occurred to the filmmakers.

If you’ve never heard an Alan Watts talk, here’s a 10-minute audio excerpt I once used in an adult enrichment class that focused on his fusion of Eastern and Western perspectives. At one point he mentions “the ceramic myth” and “the fully automatic myth” – ideas he explains earlier in the talk. By the first he just means the monotheistic story that God created the universe (much as people create ceramics). By the second he’s referring to the Newtonian view of the universe as a dumb, fully automatic machine, devoid of consciousness. In this excerpt, the two main themes he riffed on throughout his career – the mental illness of Western culture, and the metaphysical monism (supported by ecology and post-Newtonian physics) that could be part of the cure – are on full display.

Much more Watts is available here. For my own previous posts on Watts, just search for his name using the Search box above.

Pannonica – Thelonius Monk


I stumbled upon Thelonius Monk’s “Pannonica” leafing through an old collection of jazz standards about a year ago. I slowly sight-read through the 32-bar tune, finding the changes intriguing but mysterious, the often chromatic melody fluidly elegant. On paper, the composition is something of a conundrum; in the air, it is seriously playful. I was hooked immediately… but what did that strange title mean? Googling it revealed that ‘Pannonica’ – or ‘Nica’ for short – referred to the Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter, née Rothschild (1913-1988). She was a well-known jazz connoisseur, and the musicians she supported and promoted seemed genuinely to respect her. She gained some notoriety when Charlie Parker died of an overdose at her house in 1955, an incident depicted in Clint Eastwood’s 1988 film Bird (which I recommend). Monk lived at her house from 1970 until his death in 1982.

Nica and Monk in 1964, at the Five Spot in New York. Photo by Ben Martin/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Image

Nica and Monk in 1964, at the Five Spot in New York. Photo by Ben Martin/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Image

For months I struggled to find a way of soloing gracefully through those seemingly disjointed changes, not to mention ways of comping that did the tune at least minimal justice on guitar. Of course I listened to Monk’s solo piano rendition, and realized instantly that trying to emulate that masterpiece would be hopeless. So here’s the best I could come up with, given limited time and resources-

Hannah Rothschild, Nica’s great-niece, recently wrote her biography (thanks for the tip, Berry). Here’s The Guardian’s review. It follows by a couple of years David Kastin’s well-regarded biography. I’ll probably read one of them eventually. But for now I think I’ll just continue to relate to her through Monk’s masterful musical portrait – he knew his subject so very well.

Sarah Jarosz On NPR


Yet another reason to love NPR: their “Tiny Desk Concert” series, which provides talented young singer-songwriters like Sarah Jarosz with an intimate, non-commercial, high-quality venue. Here Jarosz performs three tunes from her latest album, Build Me Up From Bones, with fiddler Alex Hargreaves and cellist Nathaniel Smith. The album is beautifully produced, but I love these cut-down versions even more-

David Simon On The “Horror Show” That Is America


I’m a big fan of David Simon’s classic HBO series, The Wire, as well as his more recent project, Treme. He’s a clear-eyed, street-smart social critic who understands the limits of both capitalism and Marxism, and consistently avoids viewing individuals or groups as exclusively victims or victimizers. If Simon has an ideological commitment, it is to try to safeguard the intrinsic value of human beings against the devaluation that usually occurs when capitalists and capitalist institutions regard them merely as costs. His thinking isn’t particularly subtle, but it is refreshingly direct and to the point. Here’s an excerpt from a column he recently published in the Guardian, which is worth reading in its entirety-

I’m utterly committed to the idea that capitalism has to be the way we generate mass wealth in the coming century. That argument’s over. But the idea that it’s not going to be married to a social compact, that how you distribute the benefits of capitalism isn’t going to include everyone in the society to a reasonable extent, that’s astonishing to me.

And so capitalism is about to seize defeat from the jaws of victory all by its own hand. That’s the astonishing end of this story, unless we reverse course. Unless we take into consideration, if not the remedies of Marx then the diagnosis, because he saw what would happen if capital triumphed unequivocally, if it got everything it wanted.

And one of the things that capital would want unequivocally and for certain is the diminishment of labour. They would want labour to be diminished because labour’s a cost. And if labour is diminished, let’s translate that: in human terms, it means human beings are worth less.

From this moment forward unless we reverse course, the average human being is worth less on planet Earth. Unless we take stock of the fact that maybe socialism and the socialist impulse has to be addressed again; it has to be married as it was married in the 1930s, the 1940s and even into the 1950s, to the engine that is capitalism.

Mistaking capitalism for a blueprint as to how to build a society strikes me as a really dangerous idea in a bad way. Capitalism is a remarkable engine again for producing wealth. It’s a great tool to have in your toolbox if you’re trying to build a society and have that society advance. You wouldn’t want to go forward at this point without it. But it’s not a blueprint for how to build the just society. There are other metrics besides that quarterly profit report.

The idea that the market will solve such things as environmental concerns, as our racial divides, as our class distinctions, our problems with educating and incorporating one generation of workers into the economy after the other when that economy is changing; the idea that the market is going to heed all of the human concerns and still maximise profit is juvenile. It’s a juvenile notion and it’s still being argued in my country passionately and we’re going down the tubes. And it terrifies me because I’m astonished at how comfortable we are in absolving ourselves of what is basically a moral choice. Are we all in this together or are we all not?

(Thanks Erik).