July 28, 2008

Typhoon day / Not a lucid one

A typhoon came along to save me from Monday. As the news that it would hit filtered out the supermarkets were packed. People were buying carbohydrates - noodles, crackers, cookies, candy, chips. The place near me is a small, low class supermarket, the kind that sells no fresh produce, and if you can find more than two attractive, healthy looking people there then it's a special day. I know, because it's a game I always play there.

To think that with a better diet and some exercise, some curiosity, many of the patrons could be cultivating the ubermensch within instead of paying to do themselves harm. Of course, I lined up and bought instant noodles, crackers, milk with the rest of them, doing my part to keep the day unspectacular.

I slept late and worked on a stack of proofreading, trying to break the back of it so the rest of the week is just classes, fueled by coffee, water, tequila and spicy dried squid. The tequila is good stuff that Yuki picked up at the airport, the kind you sip at room temperature and enjoy.

Part two. I studied film & literature at university, hence my borderline unemployability. It was in the early 90s, so hours spent dealing with modern French philosophers who put me to sleep but also suggested there was another game I could play, putting fine words together in ways that gave the illusion of meaning. But I never became a real academic, just a freelance bottom-feeder in Taiwan, and I never have any regrets about that because of the awful things I'd be stuck teaching. It was great to come across this 1998 book review by Richard Dawkins, Postmodernism disrobed, that ripped the shit out the whole game. It begins:
Suppose you are an intellectual impostor with nothing to say, but with strong ambitions to succeed in academic life, collect a coterie of reverent disciples and have students around the world anoint your pages with respectful yellow highlighter. What kind of literary style would you cultivate? Not a lucid one, surely, for clarity would expose your lack of content.
And continues with much wonderful stuff.

July 25, 2008

Animal nature

This seems to be the year when I finally come to terms with my animal nature.

Which means what? That expecting humans to be angels will forever be misguided. We're supersmart primates, as much stuck with our lot as termites or bonobos are. Civilization, even in it's most subtle workarounds, is an artifact of drives within us playing out, emerging.

Part of this realization on a gut level is my moving in and out of sadness when I fell, subjectively at least, from top dog to underdog at work, when another teacher's class - same subject, same time - attracted more students. No matter how I fought against it the underdog chemicals flooded my system and it was no fun. Now the other teacher has changed and I win that particular part of the schedule, bright eyed, bushy tailed once more. None of this requires conscious effort on my part, none of this is willed. It just happens, because that's how we are. It's good to be the king.

Related note. Happiness, Truth, Everything is deeply good blog. The writing is strange - the author is based in Tel Aviv, and perhaps English is not their first language, they make many grammatical / stylistic errors, but that's not important. The writing makes clear that if the ideas are good enough then how they are expressed is almost secondary. I think it was Bukowski who wrote that it takes an intellectual to make a simple idea seem complicated, but a genius to make a complicated idea seem simple*, and Yechezkel Zilbe makes it all plain as can be. Recent extracts

Those with beauty and wits, will look for a higher quality lad than you.
Friend says that everyone looks for different kinds of beauty.
But there is a common element!
There is no contradiction. If you ask different people to rate beauty, you will find some correlation between them.
Common element + individual/deviant element.

Our options are limited. We try to choose the best one (assume).
But we can create new interesting options.
There are endless ways we can have better options by engaging a certain amount of negative/effortful experience.
Those endless possibilities do not occur naturally. They occur only when you forget everything you know about your own life and experience. Questioning even the smallest basic assumption about how you feel, function, mind working, wants, etc.
Beware, that even with much effort, you will see only a minority of hidden options in your life. The scope of potential possibilities is never seen fully.
"Cheese crumbs spread in front of a pair of copulating rats will distract the female, but not the male."
Related post: Man in a monkey suit

* I give this quote to my students in the exam prep classes - TOEFL, IELTS, GRE and GMAT - noting that in tests it's best to come off intellectual. Life is a game.

July 24, 2008

Take something from me

One of the good things about summer classes is all the cute high school / college students. It helps if there are people I want to please, it means I keep doing my best. In idle moments I'll stand aside and select favorites or, a new thing, cut and paste these into one ideal. The way I do this is to focus on the one essential appealing element from each favorite - say the eyes, the pants, the wit, the enthusiasm, the legs, the ass, the chest.

Another, more advanced game, is to move beyond the VIPs and take something from every woman in the room. So what's best about this person who otherwise has little overall interest or appeal to me, what can they add to the whole?

Now, what's best about me, what would I add to the ideal man that some woman was constructing from a roomful of guys? It'd probably be my watch.

What would someone take from you?

July 23, 2008


Why didn't I meet the word in the title until now? Janine Benyus is quoted at Wikipedia:

Our planet-mates (plants, animals and microbes) have been patiently perfecting their wares for more than 3.8 billion years ... turning rock and sea into a life-friendly home. What better models could there be?
Anyway, another entry in the occasional series on robots based on animals, with the Delfly, a dragonfly with a camera.

There's a 5cm model, the Delfly Micro, but the videos for it aren't so good.

It's cool, but nature is so much better - it's the future, and will bury us.

Related posts:
Robot that reassembles when kicked apart
Robots inspired by animals
Big dog robot

July 22, 2008


Bill Burroughs & music: Words of Advice for Young People

In the long run, for most people, there's no choice - you earn less, you spend less. The question is whether you cushion the change by cutting back early, accustomed to the lower standard of living and having $$$ in reserve.

I see disaster looming and at the same time remain fairly stoic. I've been through bad things that lasted for years, so I know when I'm being lucky, and all the times I asked for trouble that never came along.

I step off the hedonic treadmill often, to keep a sense of wonder.

Material progress is not guaranteed, there are discontinuities and backslides, and countries become poor, just like people.

I see disaster looming, but in general, not specifically. For me this long and busy summer is almost done and I'll be free in 2.5 weeks, Yuki back in 2.5 days, and various good things set in motion. But I could lose everything in an instant on the road.

July 16, 2008

Bugs lead to plant teachers

Aoshima Chiho - click the picture to enlarge, the name to know more

Haven't given up / disappeared, just busy at work and then relaxing away from the machine when things are done. To keep my hand in here's something from Scientific American:

Natural toxins in plants can fight human diseases. Research shows that when looking for promising plants, a telltale clue is the presence of brightly colored insects.

In the insect world, bright reds, oranges and yellows can be a warning: “Eat me at your own risk, pal.” Because colorful bugs can be toxic, they often get their chemical protection from nibbling poisonous plants. But these poisons can have a flip side for us—some fight cancer or tropical parasites that cause diseases like malaria.

The idea that colorful bugs can tip us off to disease-fighting plants isn’t new. But researchers at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute just backed it up with science, in the journal Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment. They chose ten plant species that kill parasites and cancer in lab tests, and ten species that look similar but do nothing. Then they headed into the Panamanian jungle to survey hundreds of these plants for beetles and caterpillars. Turns out, they found colorful bugs on almost all the toxic plants but less than half of the harmless plants. And black, brown and gray bugs didn’t have a preference—they ate indiscriminately. So modern-day shamans scouring the jungle for cancer-fighting drugs might just cut down on search time by keeping an eye out for brightly colored bugs.

Full podcast on this and related links can be found here.

July 12, 2008

Feynman on light

Nice clip of Feynman tripping on the mess of light around us.

July 08, 2008


It's my belief that history is a wheel. "Inconsistency is my very essence" - says the wheel - "Rise up on my spokes if you like, but don't complain when you are cast back down into the depths. Good times pass away, but then so do the bad. Mutability is our tragedy, but it is also our hope. The worst of times, like the best, are always passing away".
Boethius, quoted in 24-hour Party People, so possibly inaccurate
Almost at the halfway point through the summer rush, the moment when the wheel starts taking me up.

Busy and getting into the flow of things, while maintaining the system with healthy food, soda water, naps and exercise, because everything breaks down when the body does.

July 07, 2008

Practice / Theory

...when I gave a lecture in the sociology department of LSE on the Black-Scholes-Merton scam, they told me that the previous lecturer, Phil Scranton, made the same talk on the jet engine: we were using it while nobody truly understood the theory. They needed the original engineers to make things work. Theory came later to satisfy the intellectual bureaucrats. But that’s not standard history.
Meanwhile, the universe sits outside my skin, doing everything in ways beyond my comprehension.

I sit quietly, doing nothing. Learning more by observing one crumpled paper closely than all attention paid to a book.

If I return to reading it's because I lack the energy / insight to truly see what is around me.

July 06, 2008

Reveries of the solitary wa*ker

It's rare for a man of 38 whose been in Asia for more than 10 years to find something wholly new to do on a Saturday night, but yesterday I did, working through to 4am on some proofreading with nothing more than soda water and lemon to keep me going. It was good to let go of the pressure to have fun and instead get lost in the flow of getting the job done. It opens up today, and hopefully will act as a reference for the next two weekends until Yuki comes back.

Mishima and the orderly life.

The stack of books for the summer, which will mostly have to wait until after I move part time, contains Rousseau's The Reveries of a Solitary Walker, and it seems to be very good, although it probably helps if you're in a solitary mood at the time. Fortunately, solitude is my default state. Early on is this passage, which gets my idea of what I want this blog to eventually mean to me:
If in my later days as the moment of departure approaches, I continue - as I hope - to have the same disposition as I have now, reading [these essays] will recall the delight I enjoy in writing them and causing the past to be born again for me will, so to speak, double my existence. In spite of mankind [Note: at this point in his life J-J R felt totally abandoned by the world], I will still be able to enjoy the charm of society; and decrepit, I will live with myself in another age as if I were living with a younger friend.

July 05, 2008


According to Wikipedia, 食い倒れ [kuidaore]:

is a Japanese word meaning roughly “to ruin oneself by extravagance in food".

July 03, 2008

Manumission / Double happiness

Today, I:
i) went to the foreign affairs police and picked up my permanent resident visa, which means that I move from slave to freedman, a big deal in the scheme of my small life.
ii) got home and learned that my father-in-law had a good operation.
Double-plus good.

Waiting to be unraveled

Zen line from p165 of The Botany of Desire: the infinite is in the finite of each instant.

Now this is Zeno's paradoxes and the infinities that are nested between integers, curled up in the most ordinary of moments and things, waiting to be unraveled. The only problem being that there's no time for us to explore it - we can only get so far before turning back or dying.

The book was OK, and well-written and all, but kind of empty, with few stand out lines or ideas. Or maybe I'd already reached the same conclusions, and wanted to be taken further.

At least one mistake that came out glaring, when Pollan claims that peyote is 'the flower of a desert cactus' [p169], rather than the cactus itself, which contains the active ingredient in question. When I read it struck all the more because yesterday, for the first time in two years, one of my peyote flowered, as shown above.

I may dry and smoke the flowers and see what happens, but expect little more than a cough.

July 02, 2008


It's the season for me to be proofreading a lot of theses. While some are well argued, well-written, many are appalling - especially things from the literature department.

But it brings me down to earth. I read a lot of books and listen to a lot of lectures, and the thrill of being a leader in your field, getting tenure and the freedom to explore as you want, it all looks very good. And sometimes I wish I'd studied harder, some thing else, and worked to an academic career. But then it's clear I'd be a plodding a mediocrity at best, that I'd quickly feel trapped in my not so good job, with not so good students and working with subjects and ideas that I'd already burned through and got bored with long ago.

Freedom is the only thing that interests me, but it's hard to figure out in what form it should arrive.

The need for both the Apollonian and Dionysian, for order and chaos to function together. This is the idea behind the slowly evolving next stage of things.

July 01, 2008

A kinder, gentler squid

Consciousness is something we do when we're not busy, so time flies when you are. 1/3 through the last eight weeks of working like a madman. I've got the schedule hacked and plates are spinning all around, but it's easy to get lost in the turns.

"How do you see yourself and your ideal self? When you see the differences, you get a visual image of why someone is confused"
Dr Richard Varnes on The Leary Circle, quoted on p91 of R. Greenfield's Timothy Leary: A Biography

Meanwhile, below is a video of cephalopods doing their essentially alien thing, which kicks in around the two minute mark. However you feel, stick around to 4:25 and see octopus magic. There are reasons why I don't eat these creatures.