Wednesday, December 10, 2008

A skeptical look at global warming

I used to think that Bjorn Lomborg was a right-wing kook, but this video changed my mind. It's long (30 minutes) but well worth the time. Basically he makes the point that even if global warming is real and man-made (he concedes it is both), trying to reduce it still might not be a smart thing to do.

To be fair, one should be skeptical about the skeptic: one thing Lomborg doesn't take into account is the possibility of a catastrophic melting of the polar ice caps and the resulting sea-level rise flooding most of the world's coastal cities. It's hard to imagine what the silver lining would be in that scenario.

Monday, December 08, 2008

Photos! (Phinally!)

We finally managed to whittle down the 3500 or so pictures we took on our recent trip to a highlight reel with only about 450. Enjoy!

Sunday, December 07, 2008

New release of lexicons code

For you Lisp geeks: I actually got a little bit of hacking done on the trip, and finished fixing a serious bug in my lexicons package for Common Lisp. More info in the C.L.L. announcement.

Pictures are coming

For those of you who have been emailing me asking about pictures from the trip, they're on the way. We took about 3500 pictures, and we've been working on winnowing those down. It's a fairly time-consuming process. Hopefully later today.

Saturday, December 06, 2008

There's no place like home

We're back. Actually we've been back for nearly a week, but after forty hours in transit and ten hours of time zone change it has taken this long for me to get back to the point where I feel like I can write even semi-coherently (to say nothing of digging through six weeks of accumulated mail and whatnot).

Our trip home started the morning of November 30th with a drive to a little dirt airstrip in the middle of nowhere where we were picked up in a little ten-seat airplane.

This plane was going to take us to the Kruger International Airport in Nelspruit, about 45 minutes away. There we would have a one-hour layover before catching a jet back to Cape Town. It was about 11:00 in the morning and already nearly 100 degrees. Not even an hour into our little odyssey and we were already hot and sweaty. The plane was about twenty minutes late, eating up most of our layover margin. On top of that, we learned that we had to make another stop to pick up more passengers.

The second stop was another nondescript dirt strip in the middle of nowhere. We loaded on two more people and their bags. They were going to catch the same flight we were, so everyone was feeling a little tense about the schedule.

Everyone piled in and we taxied for takeoff. Now, this is about a 3000 foot long dirt strip, and there's a fairly stiff wind. We had landed upwind, and the pickup point was at the upwind end of the strip. So the normal procedure would have been to taxi back to the downwind end of the runway, turn around, and take off into the wind. But the pilot, aware of the schedule pressure, just jammed the throttle and took off.

Now, I figured that this guy does this for a living and he knows what he's doing. Besides, his life is at risk along with ours. But this airplane is no great performer. It's a workhorse. And it's pretty heavily loaded at this point. And it's hot, which makes the air thinner. And we have a tailwind.

And there are trees at the end of the runway. Images from this video popped into my head.

I guess the fact that I'm writing this eliminates some of the suspense, but I have to tell you I was getting very, very nervous. I was watching the airspeed gauge creep up veeeerrryyy slooooowwwwllllyyyy and watching the end of the runway approach. About two thirds of the way down I knew that we'd reached the point of no return. We were going too fast to stop before we reached the end, but still too slow to actually take off. If the engine had failed -- or even faltered -- at that point we'd probably be dead. We cleared the trees with probably twenty feet to spare.

We landed at Nelspruit just ahead of the jet that was going to take us to Cape Town. To make a long story short, the flight was delayed by about an hour, so all our rushing was for nothing. The airport wasn't air conditioned, so by the time we got to Cape Town we were completely gross, and still facing an eleven-hour flight to London, and then another eleven-hour flight to LA. Fortunately, we were able to access some shower facilities at the airport. If not for that, I probably would have gotten no sleep at all on the flights and I'd probably still be recovering.

That nail-biter of a takeoff was actually the third bullet we dodged on this trip, the first being in Mumbai just a few weeks before the Taj Mahal Hotel was attacked. It turned out (we found out after the fact) that we were also just a few hundred miles from the Sirius Star when she was taken by Somali pirates.

It's an interesting part of the world, but I'm happy to be home.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Into Africa

From Richard's Bay we cruised through whale-infested waters to Cape Town, the last stop on our cruise. Everyone we've ever met who has been to Cape Town has raved about the place, and now I know why. It's one of the most beautiful cities I've ever seen. Think San Francisco with African music. Like San Fran, it's situated on a peninsula with a bay on one side and the ocean on the other. Cold water comes up from Antarctica and keeps the place cool and windy but not freezing. The waterfront is lively and chock-full of great shops and restaurants. South Africa is making some world-class wines nowadays. And with the dollar being strong (for reasons passing my understanding) everything is ridiculously cheap. A top-flight dinner for two with drinks, wine and dessert is less than $100.

We spent three days touring around Cape Town and its environs, including a baboon walk. The area around Cape Town is lousy with baboons. They are wild, but accustomed to human presence so you can approach them quite closely. The government keeps close tabs on them, and each troupe has a little group of human "baboon minders" that essentially live with them and follow them around wherever they go. They are there mainly to insure that people don't molest them, and that the baboons don't get into trouble. (Skipping ahead a bit, at the Singita game lodge, where we are now, the baboons have figured out how to open the sliding doors on the units, which knowledge they employ to raid the mini-bar when people forget to lock the doors. Yesterday baboons stole someone's entire supply of anti-malaria medication.) We hung out with one troupe for the better part of an hour. I now have more pictures of baboons than I know what to do with.

The other wonderful thing about Cape Town (and South Africa in general) is the extraordinary level of service. Everywhere we go everyone is friendly and eager to help. I've never felt so warmly received anywhere else in the world, not even in my own country (maybe especially not in my own country).

This part of the world is absolutely chock-full of wildlife, and not just in the national parks and game reserves. Baboons, as I've already mentioned, are everywhere. We visited a Cheetah rescue facility in the Cape Town winelands and got to pet cheetah cubs. Cheetahs live a tough life. They are at the bottom of the large-predator pecking order, underneath leopards and lions, both of whom will kill cheetahs if given half a chance. But by far the greatest threat to these amazing cats is farmers killing them to protect their livestock. They don't actually rescue Cheetahs at this place; they breed turkish shepherd dogs which protect livestock from cheetahs so farmers are less apt to shoot and poison them. The cheetahs that they have are there to help educate people about their efforts. All of the cheetahs are cubs rescued from the wild when their mother was killed. They are hand-raised so they can't be re-introduced into they wild.

After Cape Town we headed into the African bush for the week-long safari. It was not quite as rustic as I imagined. I thought we'd be in places that were hundreds of miles from anywhere, accessible only by air. Not so. All these places are accessible by (mostly dirt) road, though it's a several-hour-long drive to the nearest city. But a small airplane gets you there in thirty minutes.

We've spent a week in the bush at two separate lodges, Rattray's at Mala Mala, and the Singita Lebombo, where i am writing this. From my window I can see a giraffe munching on leaves. (We've named him "Tiny.") And off in the distance, if you know exactly where to look and have a good pair of binoculars, you can see hippos bobbing in the river.

It gets ridiculously hot here, so the routine is to get up at the crack of dawn and do a morning game drive for three hours or so. You return to the lodge around 9:30 or 10 AM (when it's already 95 degrees or so) for breakfast and a siesta. For the more masochistic adventurer there are mid-day walks you can do, and we've done a few of those. Fortunately there are laundry facilities out here or we'd be through all our clean clothes in 24 hours.

Mala Mala is a private game reserve, which is to say, the land -- some 40,000 acres of it -- is privately owned. But it's adjacent to the Kruger national park and there is no fence on the boundary, so it is effectively an extension of the Kruger park. But because it's privately owned the guides are under fewer restrictions regarding where they are allowed to go. For example, Mala Mala land rovers are allowed to go through riverbeds; Singita rovers (because they operate under government license within the boundaries of Kruger park) can't.

We had amazing game sightings at Mala Mala. We saw all of the so-called "big 5" -- lions, leopards, rhinos, elephants and water buffalo -- as well as giraffes, wildebeests, zebras, jackals, waterbucks, impalas (lots and lots of impalas) and so many different kinds of birds that I lost count. Some of the sightings we had were truly extraordinary. We saw four separate individual leopards, including a cub. We followed one around for over an hour. We saw a leopard with her cub and a kill up in a tree and hyenas waiting for scraps below.

To put that in perspective, leopards are the hardest of the big cats to find. Many people consider themselves lucky to get even a glimpse of a leopard off in the distance. And we saw so many that it almost got to the point where we were saying, "Ho hum, another leopard. What else ya got here?"

But the most amazing thing we saw was a pride of lions chowing down on a water buffalo. It looked pretty much like what you see on the Discover Channel, but there are two little details that DC leaves out: bugs, and the smell. A rotting water buffalo carcass smells unbelievably bad, and it attracts bugs by the zillions.

To truly appreciate the impact of this I have to go into a little bit of detail about the viewing conditions. We are in an open-air Land Rover. There is no roof. There are no windows. There are no doors. There are four rows of seats. The first row consists of two bucket seats, one of which is occupied by the driver and the other of which if full of gear. The other three rows are bench seats. Four guests sit in the middle rows, and the tracker (invariably a local, and invariably a man) sits in the back. Our tracker, a gentle giant named John, was truly amazing. He could see critters waaaayyy over yonder with his naked eyes while the rover was moving that I could barely make out with binoculars while sitting still.

Oh, it's night. So John was wielding this amazing spotlight to illuminate the spectacle before us: a water buffalo carcass, probably about 15-20 hours old at that point. The lions are all over it. Some of them have already eaten their fill and are lounging around with distended bellies. But a few are still going at it, ripping off hunks of flesh, while hyenas and buzzards wait on the sidelines. We're maybe fifteen yards from the kill and downwind. The smell is overpowering.

And up the beam of the spotlight, towards our rover, attracted by the light, is coming a continual stream of bugs.

Now, this is no ordinary stream of bugs. This is a stream of bugs drawn from a reservoir of bugs that have been gathering from far and wide for hours and hours, and is being attracted in the pitch darkness by the only light source for dozens of miles, and it's a doozy. This is like being at the end of a fire hose of bugs. They fly up to the spot light, slam into it, and fall onto the head of the passenger seated just below where John is holding the spotlight. Which just happens to be Nancy.

I have to say she handled it like a trooper. She did not shriek, or jump screaming out of the rover and go running off into the night, which is a good thing, because even with satiated lions around it very likely would have been fatal.

Before we went on this trip we'd talked to a lot of people who had been on Safaris before and they all raved about the experience. They used words like "amazing" and "life-changing." I have to say that while it has been amazing, I wouldn't call it life-changing. The unfortunate fact of the matter is that you get much better wildlife viewing on Animal Planet than you do out here in the actual wilderness. The extra reality that you get from reality is mostly not so pleasant: It's buggy. It's smelly. It's hot and sweaty. And most of the time it's boring. I'm glad I had the experience, but in retrospect I'm not at all certain I wouldn't rather have someone else go out there with a good camera and just give me the highlight reel.

Unfortunately, I didn't bring a good camera. This was a deliberate decision. We didn't want to weigh ourselves down with bulky equipment, so we decided to spend our long-lens packing budget on binoculars instead of cameras. In retrospect I think this was a mistake. We brought two pairs of binoculars, a lightweight Nikon Eagleview zoom, and a Canon with image stabilization. The Nikons are great; I enthusiastically recommend them. They pack a whole of lot binocular into a very little space and weight. But if I had it to do over again I'd leave the Canon EIS binocs at home and instead pack a camera that had more than a piddly little 3x optical zoom. Oh well, maybe when we go to Botswana.

A thought for Thanksgiving

From the better-late-than-never department I give you this.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Off the grid

I'm in the African bush. There is internet connectivity out here (wow!) but it's extremely flaky and intermittent, even worse than on the ship. It's up at the moment, but I don't know for how long. I may not be able to post anything substantive until I'm back in civilization. In the meantime, hope everyone had a happy Thanksgiving!

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

That didn't take long

In what has to be the fastest, most brazen betrayal of a campaign promise in the history of American politics, Barack "Change We Can Believe In" Obama is apparently going to keep Robert "Failed Policies of the Bush Administration" Gates as secretary of defense.

Un fucking believable. Now I really want my campaign contribution refunded.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Travelogue: Richard's Bay, South Africa, and the cultural experience from hell

It was supposed to be a half-day game drive followed by a Zulu "cultural experience" including food and dancing. It turned out to be quite a bit more, er, authentic, than I had anticipated.

The game drive started a bit late (2 PM) and the drive to the Hluhluwe (the H's are pronounced sort of like a cross between SH and CH) reserve was a bit longer than I would have hoped (an hour and a half from the port in Richard's Bay) but otherwise it went smoothly. We saw an amazing collection of white rhinos, which this park is largely responsible for bringing back from the bring of extinction. (For those of you who don't know, the white rhino is so called not because of anything having to do with color. It's a mispronounciation of the Afrikaans word "weidt" which means "wide" and refers to the shape of the animal's mouth.) At one point there were six of them in view at the same time, one of which had a horn that looked like it was -- no exaggeration -- five feet long. Somewhere on my hard drive I have photographic evidence.

By the time we were done it was starting to get dark. We re-boarded the busses to drive to the Zulu cultural center, which we expected to be, well, a building, where we would be fed and watch some Zulu tribe members dressed up in native costumes for the tourists.

The drive was again longer than we had expected -- the better part of an hour -- and it took us into the middle of nowhere. It was dark like I've never seen dark before. I had never realized the extent to which artificial light has permeated the night time of the western world. Even in the middle of the desert there is usually a glow from a nearby town or gas station or streetlight. Here there was nothing. We were probably sixty miles from the nearest electrical outlet.

To my surprise (and perhaps dismay) our bus turned onto a dirt road and our guide announced that we had 5 km to go. It was a single-track road, and despite the fact that the highway we had just left was pitch black, it somehow seemed even darker here. We bounced along for a good half hour, and I started thinking to myself that it felt like we had travelled a lot more than 5 km, a suspicion that was confirmed when our guide started making calls on her cell phone (amazingly there was pretty good coverage out there) and having a rather urgent-sounding conversation with the person on the other end which included phrases like, "No, we didn't see anything like that. The sign says what again?"

We had taken the wrong road.

Now, you have to picture the situation here. We're in a bus on a single-lane dirt road many miles away from even a vestige of technological civilization (notwithstanding the cellphone coverage). The bus is quite a bit longer than the road is wide. Oh, and did I mention that there was another bus behind us? And apparently they didn't have a guide because ours suddenly stopped the caravan and went out to talk to the other driver.

About five minutes later our guide came back looking white as a sheet. The bus began to do an amazing twenty-seven-point turn maneuver that eventually got us headed back the way we had come. And our guide is looking rather urgently out the window saying something about snakes.

I learned later that our bus had run over a snake just before we came to a stop. We had injured the poor creature, but not killed it. It was writhing around on the ground in full view of the people in the bus behind us. When they saw our guide emerge from our bus they had tried to warn her, but the word didn't get through. Fortunately, the guide by pure luck never came in range of the snake because if she had it almost certainly would have bitten her, and she almost certainly would have died.

It was a black mamba, the deadliest snake in the world.

So we trundled back out to the highway, hung a left, and kept going up to the next dirt road. After a few more urgent phone calls we finally saw a sign for the Zulu cultural center, but when we turned in there was no hint of anyone being there. There were no lights, no buildings, no people, nothing. More cell phone calls, until eventually out of the darkness a truck appeared which lead us into a gravel clearing that served as a parking lot. Everyone bailed out, and someone started leading us down a path.

Now again you have to picture this. This is a tour group of about fifty or sixty people from a high-end cruise ship. The demographics are, shall we say, tilted heavily in favor of the retired. Some people are walking with canes. And we are being led down a dirt path in pitch blackness with no light at all except for a dim glow cast by a dozen or so cell phones, PDAs, and keychain LED flashlights.

After fifty yards or so (in retrospect -- it seemed quite a bit longer at the time) we start to see the glow of some kerosene lanterns lighting the path, which improved progress considerably. We eventually get to The Place: not a building, but simply a roughly constructed circular wooden fence making an enclosure around a bonfire and a large tree. Oh, did I mention it was starting to rain?

There are chairs set up in the enclosure and people start to file in and sit down when someone asks, "Is there a bathroom?" We've been on the road for several hours at this point so it's a fair question. The guide says, "Uh, the bathrooms are back in the parking lot where we just came from." There is some hurried negotiation and the guide agrees to take a landing party back to the parking lot.

Three minutes later a troupe of Zuli dancers exploded into the enclosure and started to do their show. I guess they got tired of waiting for us, the upshot being that all the people who went to the bathroom missed the show entirely, which was quite a loss. I didn't enjoy it as much as I would have wished at the time because I was wet and hungry, but in retrospect I realize that it's probably the most authentic cultural experience I've ever had and likely ever will. These were not westernized Zulus getting dressed for the tourists, this was the Real Deal. This place was in the middle of nowhere because this is where these people lived.

The dancing and drumming were frenzied and energetic, similar to Maori dancing but friendlier somehow. Oh, and the girls were bare-breasted. It was more National Geographic than Playboy, but it was cool because it highlighted the fact that this was real Zulu, not Disney Zulu.

After the show we were herded out of the enclosure and back down the path to eat. Off in the distance I could just make out the dimly lit outline of an A-frame. It had no walls, but at least it afforded some shelter from the rain. Unfortunately, half the tables were set up outside the confines of the A-frame. A mad rush ensued for dry seats, and an incredibly chaotic effort to raise umbrellas over the rest was mounted. Nancy and I managed to grab a pair of seats under the shelter, which unaccountably had dirty place settings and used wine glasses even though we were, as far as we could tell, among the first arrivals. No one seemed to be in charge. Our poor tour guide was at a complete loss. She looked as if she was attending her own funeral.

Eventually, and with the help of some of the passengers, clean dishes were issued and food and drink was distributed, though I decided that if the serving was so poorly organized that I wasn't sure that the curry chicken was a risk worth taking. I eventually made a meal of bread, potatoes and vegetables. Under the circumstances, it tasted quite good, and was probably better for me than my normal diet.

At last it was time to go home, and to put the capper on a string of disasters, we had to crawl home at about 30 miles an hour because (as we learned when we finally got back to Richard's Bay) the lead bus had broken windshield wipers.

I have never in my life been so happy to see an electric light.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Travelogue: Mobassa, Zanzibar, and adventures with T-shirts

I'm in Zanzibar. I never thought I'd be able to say (or even write) that with a straight face, but it's true. Zanzibar is an island off the coast of Tanzania. We took an organized tour of the Jozani forest where red colobus monkeys posed for our cameras. Before Zanzibar we were in Mobassa, Kenya, and saw elephants, giraffes, baboons, and cape buffalo. In between there is heartbreaking poverty mixed with a surprising amount of optimism and industriousness. The story really needs photos to do it justice, so I'll leave most of it for later, but there's one story I have to tell:

If you've never been to a third-world country I have to explain that the local street vendors have some very well developed techniques for extracting money from tourists. These range from endearing (dressing in native costumes and hustling photographs for tips or a visit to their shop) to annoying (dogged persistence) to dangerous (taxi drivers who take you someplace other than where you want to go and then shake you down -- this actually happened to a fellow passenger in Mumbai). Having been to a great many third-world countries now I've developed some effective countermeasures, the most effective of which is to not carry any money when I go out.

Going completely impoverished is not always practical. Sometimes we actually want to be able to buy stuff, and when we go on organized tours I always make sure to have enough cash to tip the guides at the end. So it came to pass that after the trip to the Jozani forest in Zanzibar I still had a few dollars in my pocket when I decided to walk around on my own for a bit. I managed to shake the street vendors and taxi drivers clustered around the pier, but a local tour guide named Ali glommed on to me and would not take no for an answer. He just started walking alongside me and talking. I did my best to ignore him (I've developed a pretty well honed ability to act indifferent -- it can be a vital survival skill in some places) but he was quite persistent, and after a while I decided that I actually liked having him around. He seemed quite knowledgeable, his English was good, and I thought that having a local with me might not be such a bad plan. I figured I'd let him show me around, I'd give him the rest of my money, and that would be that.

I got pretty comfortable with Ali, and let him take me to some places I would not have ventured on my own, like the local fish and meat markets. Tourists don't shop here. There is no refrigeration. It's 95 degrees with 95 percent humidity. There are flies everywhere. I've got a pretty strong stomach, and it started getting to me after just a few minutes. That Zanzibarians don't all succumb to food poisoning is one of the world's great wonders.

Up to this point there had been no mention of compensation, but I knew what was coming: we were walking down a little alleyway when Ali started on the standard spiel about how tour guiding is how he supports his family. I pulled out the wad of bills in my pocket and was slightly dismayed to find that there was a lot less money there than I thought. I was sure that I had a few fives, but I didn't, just a fairly thin stack of one dollar bills. It was still a pretty good payday by local standards (a factory worker in Mombassa makes 50 dollars a month) but what Ali was doing was skilled labor and I thought he deserved more than minimum wage. And the look on his face made it pretty evident that he thought so too. But it was all I had.

At this point it occurred to me that I had made a pretty serious tactical mistake. I had only a vague idea of where we were, and while I probably could have found my way back on my own it would not have been my first pick. And Ali could easily have walked me into a shakedown. But he didn't. He just took me back to the port, accepted the money that I had, and suggested that I might have something in my backpack that I could give him "as a souvenier". I didn't. I had sunscreen, bug spray, my camera and a pair of binoculars. So he said, "How about your T-shirt?" I said, "This T-shirt? The one I have on?" (And thought, "The one I've been sweating into all day?) He said yes. I figured anyone willing to accept a sweaty T-shirt as compensation for work needed it more than I did, so I took it off and gave it to him. If you are ever in Zanzibar and meet a tour guide named Ali wearing a grey T-shirt with an embroidered logo from Costa Rica, hire him. He does good work.

I liked that T-shirt a lot, but being able to tell this story was more than worth giving it up for.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Travelogue: Cochin India, Maldives, Seychelles

After Mumbai I thought I'd had my fill of India but we had another stop in Cochin. I'm glad we did because it completely changed my impression of the place. In retrospect I'm not entirely sure why. When we arrived the dock was crawling with soldiers carrying machine guns. Apparently there had been a terrorist attack in northern India, and the perpetrators came from Kerla, which is the state in which Cochin lies. There was the same poverty, the same dirt, the same crazy traffic, just on a slightly smaller scale. But there was also a certain ... je ne sais quois. We hired a private car to drive us around ($20 for two hours) and we got out into the countryside where things were not quite so frenetic. We saw fisherman working these amazing wooden contraptions that looked like medieval catapults but were made for lowering and raising fishing nets. The waters around Cochin have been invaded by a water plant that grows like kudzu on land, which is making it impossible to deploy the nets and ruining their livelihood. Everyone in Cochin was very friendly. I'd go back there.

From Cochin we went to the Maldives, where we spent the day walking around the capital city of Mahe. Mahe is built on a tiny low-lying island. The highest elevation is probably 10 feet or so, and it took us an hour or so to walk completely around it. In an unusual display of political prescience, the president of the Maldives is shopping around for a new piece of real estate to relocate everyone to when global warming turns Mahe into water-world. I was not much impressed with Mahe. We were told that there are beautiful tropical paradises in the Maldives, but we weren't there long enough to find any of them.

From Mahe we went to the Seychelles, to the islands of Male, La Dique, and Praslin (which is pronounced Pra-la). Note to the cruise line: two days is not enough time for three islands. The Seychelles are the tropical paradise that the Maldives were supposed to be but weren't, at least not for us. I think it's the most beautiful place I've ever been. La Digue in particular is the nearly perfect embodiment of the classical vision of a tropical paradise. There is barely a road on the island. Only about a ten minute walk from the harbor and there is no vehicle traffic at all, but there is still some civilization in the form of the occasional hotel and guest house where you can stop in for a Pina Colada. I also got to go scuba diving on Male, and it was the best dive of my life. I've never seen so many fish in one place outside of a fish market. I got up-close and personal with a five-foot stingray. There were lobsters the size of a... well, I'm not really sure what to compare them to. They were probably three feet from tail to tentacle.

The bad news is that the coral reef is almost completely dead. On the other hand, there was also some new coral growth, so there seems to be some hope for the future. But to see the reef in such bad shape was heartbreaking.

Bush: Faith Leads to 'Common Values'. Say what???

As if we needed more evidence that George Bush is out of touch with reality to an extent that borders on the delusional, the Washington Post reports that at a recent United Nations interfaith conference he said:

"We may profess different creeds and worship in different places, but our faith leads us to common values."

Right. Common values like freedom of speech. (Oh, wait, Islam does not believe in freedom of speech.) Like equal rights for women. (Oh, wait, Islam does not believe in equal rights for women.) Like freedom from cruel and unusual punishment. (Oh, wait...)

OK, well, the common values that religion leads us to are what has led the Sunnis and the Shia to get along so well. (Oh...)

All right, surely faith can lead us to agree that people should not be discriminated against because of the color of their skin (Oh, wait...) or their sexual orientation...

The sad fact of the matter is that there is not a single common value that "people of faith" all share. Not one. This is because faith undermines our evolved moral intuitions which lead us to know instinctively that, for example, it's a bad idea to kill a fellow member of your own species unless you have a damn good reason. This is why in the history of the world there has never been a violent conflict between two secular groups over ideology. Not once. But the pages of history are red with the blood of people who died for religious ideology.

"Faith leads us to common values" is not just wrong, it is perversely wrong.

Bush does offer up a clue as to how someone who is not overtly psychotic can come to believe such nonsense:

Bush said religious belief "changed my life" and "sustained me through the challenges and joys of my presidency." He also suggested faith can transform relations between nations and cultures.

No doubt the pressures of the Presidency of the United States (and the overwhelming magnitude of Bush's failure upon abject failure) are easier to deal with if one indulges in self-delusion. And long-time readers of my blog will know that I have a certain amount of sympathy for that position. But there is a huge difference between saying, "My faith helped me" (which can be true) and saying "Faith leads people to common values," which is manifestly, brazenly, and staggeringly false.

Travelogue: Mumbai (f.k.a. Bombay), India

To get to Mumbai (which the locals still call Bombay unless they are talking to tourists) we had to cross the Gulf of Kachchh. Yes, it's really spelled like that. Yes, the thought of responding with "gesundheit" crossed my mind too. I couldn't help but wonder if this was foreshadowing what was to come. India is so poor it can't even afford vowels.

Normally when a cruise ship docks in a new country all the immigration paperwork is handled directly by the ship, which keeps all the passengers' passports. But India, of course, had to make things difficult so we were told we had to reclaim our passports and present ourselves personally for an "immigration inspection" in the ship's auditorium. There we saw the couple who didn't have an entry visa and the ship's captain arguing with the immigration officials. The latest rumor was that the officials were being sticklers for protocol. There was, it turned out, a procedure for handling cases like this which involved the issuing of a temporary "group visa" which only allowed transit from the port to the airport. But this required a government escort and so could only be issued for groups of four or more people. There were originally six people in the same predicament, but four of them had decided not to roll the dice and so they got off the boat back in Abu Dhabi, so now there was only this one couple, not enough to qualify. As we left the ship the situation was still unresolved.

We had been told to expect heat, smells, dirt, and poverty, and to be on guard for pickpockets, which made me more than a little apprehensive. The best I can say about Mumbai was that it was not quite as horrible as I was expecting it to be. There were a few places -- but only a few -- where we were not accosted by beggars and street merchants. Elephanta island -- once you got past the gauntlet of beggars and street merchants on the stairs leading to the ancient Hindu temple -- was very impressive. The island is chock-full of monkeys who are more than willing to pose for the tourists from more wildlife-deprived areas of the world. The temple itself is a man-made cave carved out an enormous outcropping of granite. Inside it feels like a building compete with enormous columns holding up the roof and intricately carved statuary, but the whole thing is actually carved out of this single monolithic hunk of rock. Despite having been used for target practice by Portugese explorers (actually, explorers is too kind a term -- barbarians is probably more appropriate) the carvings are in pretty good shape.

But Mumbai itself is a nightmare. The last time I saw poverty like this I was in Peru, and there I saw it only through the window of the air-conditioned van that whisked us away to our five-star hotel (part of the tour package on our way home from Machu Pichu). This time we were there for two days, so we had the time to get out into the city. The conditions are shocking by western standards. We rode the local train to the Dobhi Ghat, the famous outdoor laundry where hundreds of people hand-wash other people's clothes in conditions that would give an OSHA inspector conniptions. (As Wikipedia puts it, "This area is strangely popular with foreign tourists looking for a piece of quintessential Indianness." Indeed.) Even just riding the train was an adventure. The train stops for only ten seconds (I timed it) and we almost got left behind on our return trip when we tried to board at a leisurely Western pace. The doors on the train remain open between stops, so falling out while the train is moving is a very real possibility.

But the train was a relaxing respite compared to driving on the roads. I didn't actually drive. I've driven all over the world, including many countries where they drive on the left, but I would not attempt driving in Mumbai, or anywhere else in India or Africa for that matter. Traffic in this part of the world is beyond insane. I am amazed that there are not more accidents. In six days of driving (or being driven) around we have yet to see a single traffic accident, a fact that borders on the miraculous.

I did a little bit of walking around some Mumbai side-streets where tourists don't normally go, an excursion which, in retrospect, may have been unwise. I learned later that one of our fellow passengers had been the victim of an attempted robbery in a taxicab. But although I got some strange looks, I never actually felt unsafe. Most of the people were indifferent to my presence, and those that weren't were friendly. I got to see a Mumbai fish market, which was shocking to my Western sensibilities. It was about four in the afternoon, and the wares were displayed at room temperature, which at the time was about 95 degrees (with 90% humidity). The smell was about what you'd expect under those conditions. Indians must have immune systems built like tanks.

As we departed Mumbai we learned that the captain had had a private chat with the immigration officials that ultimately resulted in the couple being allowed to go to the airport to catch their flight home. I can't help but wonder what the Indian government is thinking by making it so difficult for Americans to get into the country. I can understand being a little paranoid about immigration when you share a border with Pakistan, but come on folks, this was a sixty-year-old retired American couple on a cruise ship wanting to go to the airport. Was it really necessary to put them through the wringer like that?

Of all the places I have been in the world, India is so far the one I am least eager to return to. (Well, OK, so it's tied with Qatar.) I'm sure the country has much to offer, but the overhead just isn't worth it. There are a zillion places on this planet that will make me feel more welcome. I'll go spend my money there first.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Travelogue: Abu Dhabi, Fujaira, Oman (unexpectedly), and adventures with Indian immigration

Of all the UAE provinces (districts? states? what do they call them?) our favorite by far has been Abu Dhabi, probably because it has the most greenery. Ironically, I didn't actually get to see a whole lot of Abu Dhabi myself because I went on a dune-bashing excursion, which was a hoot-'n'-a-holler, but in retrospect probably not the most effective use of the time. I did get to see the world's third-largest mosque under construction, which boasts the world's first-largest carpet at 70,000 square feet. It was quite an impressive sight, though personally I thought it, like many things under construction in the UAE, was a bit over the top.

Our final stop in the UAE was in Fujaira. We didn't actually get to see much of Fujaira itself because we went on a "mountain safari" tour that actually took us into Oman. (Oman is an interesting country geographically. It consists of three non-contiguous pieces.) We drove up a canyon to the top of a mountain. Despite being dry as a bone, people live there. I have no idea how they survive except that they raise goats. I would have loved to learn more about how the locals live, but we had a very taciturn guide who barely spoke English, and even though we hardly stopped we still made it back to the ship with only a few minutes to spare before we set sail again and headed for India.

And thereby hangs a tale.

Of all the places I have been in the world I have never encountered immigration hassles of the like that we have had getting in to India (though I am told that Brazil and China are even worse). Our adventures with the Indian immigration bureaucracy actually started months ago when we first had to fill out the paperwork to apply for a visa. The process is absolutely byzantine. You can't just get a form to fill out, you have to fill in your information on a web site. Now, I'm a computer security expert. I know all about how easy it is to use personal information to hijack someone's identity, and how easy it is to hack a web site in order to obtain such information. So I am very, very leery of entering personal information into any web site, let alone one put together by a foreign government. But there was no getting around it. We either took our chances on their web site, or we didn't get into the country. So I grudgingly filled in my name, birthdate, social security number, and a whole host of other personal details, some of which my own mother doesn't even know (yet). And then I did the same for my wife in order to spare her the trouble.

When I was done, the site said, "Are you sure that all this information is correct? You will not be able to make changes once you hit submit."

Now, keep in mind that the information I had entered did *not* constitute the official visa application. It was being used to generate a pre-filled-in paper form that I would have to print out, sign, and send in to the embassy. So I didn't pay much attention to this warning because I figured that in the worst case if I had made a mistake I could just start the whole annoying process over again and generate a new form. So I clicked "YES", printed out the forms, and gave Nancy hers to review to make sure I had everything correct.

It turned out that I hadn't. One of the things the form asked for was "name at birth." Nancy was adopted, and I had put down the name she was adopted under, not her actual birth name. So I swore up a blue streak and went to redo her form.

But the site wouldn't let me. As soon as I entered her passport number it said, "You already have an application pending. You cannot start a new one."

Apparently whoever programmed the Indian embassy's web site had never heard of a denial-of-service attack. (Fortunately, whoever programmed the Indian embassy's web site also apparently didn't know much about computer security in general, because it turned out to be pretty easy to hack the site to let me generate a new application anyway. For a country that prides itself on its software industry they are certainly not putting their best foot forward.

It gets better.

A few weeks after submitting the applications we get a letter from the Indian embassy with an extra form for Nancy to fill out. I had listed her occupation as "writer" and so she had to sign an affidavit swearing that she was not going to conduct any "journalism" while she was there. The irony made us both laugh out loud. Nancy writes children's novels. And it would be more accurate to call her an "aspiring writer" as she has yet to publish any of her books. And she doesn't keep a blog. (The icing on the cake was that when we finally got our passports back, I had been given a multiple-entry visa, but she got only a single-entry. We confirmed with the embassy that this was because she is a writer. From now on she has instructed me to put down her occupation as "homemaker.")

But wait, there's more.

Back in Qatar we met a couple with an interesting predicament. They had been told (in writing) that their Indian visas would be handled for them by the cruise line. They were scheduled to disembark in Mumbai and fly home on non-refundable business-class tickets. But the cruise line had dropped the ball and their visa applications had not been done. As far as they knew, they would not be able to leave the ship. Apparently a number of other people were in the same predicament, and some of them decided to leave the ship early and fly home from Fujaira instead. But these guys decided to roll the dice and hope that the Indian officials would let them go to the airport.

I'm being called to dinner so I'm afraid you'll have to wait for the next installment to find out what happened to them. :-)

Sunday, November 09, 2008

A word about smoking

I found myself having a conversation with some people who smoke, which made me feel the need to say this:

Dear smokers: I am a non-smoker, but I will defend to the death your right to smoke. While I believe that reasonable restrictions on smoking (like on airplanes and in restaurants) are a necessary evil, I think that some recent efforts to ban smoking outdoors and in private homes go too far.

But there's something you smokers really need to understand: smoking stinks. When you light up a cigarette, or even worse a cigar, it smells to me about as unpleasant as if I'd dropped trou and took an explosive and sloppy crap on the seat next to you, and that is no exaggeration. The smell of cigarette smoke turns my stomach. It is vile. It is ranks right up there with diesel exhaust, rotting fish, and severe halitosis on my list of things that I would just as soon no inhale the scent of. Please keep that in mind the next time you want to light up.

Thank you for your consideration.

Travelogue: Bahrain and Qatar

After three days in Dubai we boarded our ship and headed for Bahrain and Qatar, two countries that I never in my wildest dreams ever imagined that I would visit. Bahrain is an island in the Persian/Arabian Gulf, and there is a causeway that connects it to Saudi Arabia. Qatar is a peninsula also connected exclusively to Saudi Arabia.

We weren't in either country long enough to really get to know the place, only a few hours in each place. We were actually scheduled to go see a camel race in Qatar, but we forgot that we had signed up for it and ended up going to the local market instead.

I felt quite welcome in Bahrain. We spent most of the day in the national museum, with a few hours wandering around the local souk or market. We got around by taxi, and the drivers were mostly friendly and helpful.

Qatar, by contrast, was quite possibly the least welcoming place I have ever been. Normally on a cruise all the immigration paperwork is handled behind the scenes by the ship, which holds all the passenger's passports until the end of the cruise. But in Qatar everyone had to collect their passports and clear immigration individually. It only took us ten minutes, but we were told that some passengers were delayed by an hour and a half (we were only there for six hours). There was a shuttle bus from the ship which took us past the old souk (which is where we really wanted to go) and instead dropped us off at the City Center, a modern shopping mall that looked just like any other shopping mall in the world (complete with Starbucks Coffee) except that the writing was in Arabic. We took a cab back to the old souk, which was pretty much dead. We were virtually the only ones there. We were told by one surprisingly candid shopkeeper that Qatar has no local products (except oil). Everything in the souk -- including the shopkeepers -- was imported from somewhere, mainly India.

Wikipedia says that Qatar has the highest GDP per capita in the world. It was not much in evidence in the old souk and its surrounding areas. It looked pretty much like any other third-world country. In retrospect it occurred to me that everyone we saw there, and probably in Dubai too, was an expatriate. We likely never once laid eyes on a native Qatari or Dubaian. (Our cab driver in Bahrain was a native.)

One of the most striking things to me about Dubai, Bahrain and Qatar is the extent to which Islam is manifest in day to day life. You can't miss the afternoon call to prayer. It is broadcast over loudspeakers from minarets in every direction, sometimes with unintentionally comic results as imams improvise incompatible melodies and rhythms for the words "Allahhu Akbar." Women -- not all but many -- wear abayas, often with veils covering their faces which I personally find very creepy. Some women wear what appears to be a metal face mask that looks to me like it came straight out of a medieval torture chamber. I wanted to take a picture, but I could not work up the courage to do so. I was afraid that if I did it without permission I would cause offense. I was likewise unsure whether it would even be appropriate for me to ask. So I didn't. (Hm, I can't find any images of these masks anywhere on the web, so maybe photographing them really is a touchy thing to do.)

Like Dubai, both Bahrain and Qatar were hot and humid. I wouldn't rush to revisit either place.

(NOTE: we were told by supposedly informed people in the U.S. that Qatar is pronounced like the word "cutter", with the accent on the first syllable. But everyone we asked in Qatar pronounced it like most Americans intuitively do: kah-TAR, with the accent on the second syllable. Actually it sounded a bit more like kah-TEHR, but the difference was subtle.)

Travelogue: Dubai

(NOTE: These travelogue entries are not being posted in real time. I'm posting from a ship with a veeeeerrrryyy sssssllllooooowwwwww and very flaky internet connection. Though I am ever mindful that it is an absolute miracle that I can do this at all, posting from here can be quite trying. Also, as you will see, I had a good reason to not post anything until we got out of India. So the next few posts were actually written over the last two weeks.)

Dubai is the furthest I've ever been away from home -- 11 time zones and Google Maps only knows how many miles from LA. (The slow and flaky internet connection makes it an ordeal to actually look it up right now.) It's an 11 hour flight from LA to London, then another 7 from London to Dubai. By the time we get to immigration 24 hours have passed from the time we left home.

Dubai is quite possibly the greatest real estate scam of all time. Geographically, it is an absolutely god-forsaken place. It gets hot enough in the summer, we were told, that the pavement melts tires. Even in late October it was sweltering, and it's not a dry heat. The proximity of the warm waters of the Persian Gulf (which the locals call the Arabian Gulf) keep everything nice and steamy, but not wet. It's humid, but it never rains.

To add insult to geopolitical injury, there isn't even any oil here! And yet in this dusty steam-bath of a place a colossal modern skyline is rising, like Vegas on steroids. It is an orgy of construction whose centerpiece is the Burj Dubai, which is already the world's tallest building by an enormous margin even though it is not yet finished. I'd read about it and seen pictures, but nothing compares to seeing it in the flesh. It is incredibly, audaciously, bodaciously tall. Even looking at it with my own eyes I had a hard time believing it was real. And an even taller building is already on the drawing boards.

"Audacious" is a pretty good word to describe Dubai. In the middle of this steam-bath you will find Ski Dubai, an indoor ski resort with real snow. No need to pack a parka. They provide everything you need, including warm clothing. If that's not audacious I don't know what is.

And that's only the beginning. They are building not just one but *dozens* of artificial islands chock-full of hotels and villas, all financed (again, we were told) not by oil money as we naturally assumed, but by pre-sales. Dubai boasts the worlds only seven-star hotel, The Burj al Arab. Thanks to having a local connection we were able to get a tour of one of the suites. There are no "rooms". The smallest suite is 1900 square feet in two stories. The place is over-the-top in almost every way. There is not a square inch of those 1900 square feet that is not gold or purple or red or blue. It's Aladdin meets Louis XIV. Rates start at $2000 a night. Drinks (which are all we allowed ourselves) start at about $30.

With all this building going on, you'd think that we would arrive at a nice shiny new airport with a nice shiny new jetway. No such luck. Such an airport and jetway are indeed under construction, but we got there a few months too early. (We also booked a little too early to take advantage of Emirates Airlines new non-stop Airbus A380 service from LA. Oh well, maybe next time.) Instead our plane just parked on the tarmac and we walked down the stairs and onto waiting busses which drove us around and around before depositing us at immigration. Despite the fact that it was the middle of the night, the enormous hall was full and the lines were long. The dour-faced immigration officer looked over our passports for a very long time before grudgingly deciding to allow us to enter, all without ever saying a word. We were told later that it might have been because we have entry stamps from a visit to Israel three years ago, and that sometimes people who have been to Israel are denied entry into the UAE altogether and have to turn right around and go home.

Remember that when I get around to telling you about India.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Bigotry is alive and well in America

News travels fast these days. Even on the other side of the world in the middle of the ocean we're getting live updates on the election via satellite TV (Fox news only unfortunately) and Internet. But my happiness about Obama's victory and the Dems solidifying their hold on Congress is dampened by the fact that all over the country ballot measures are passing that deny gay people the right to marry. I particularly mourn for my dear friends Derek and Gary who were married just a few weeks ago in a beautiful ceremony that brought tears to my eyes. If, as seems likely at the moment, California's Proposition 8 passes their legal status will be thrown into limbo.

There is some good news for the long term: those who would relegate gays to second-class citizenship tend to be older, so chances are good that this injustice will right itself in the fullness of time. But it will take years, and that's a shame. And the stain of dishonor that this will leave alongside slavery and Jim Crow will never be washed away.

I do note with some relief that anti-abortion measures are failing across the country, including a resounding defeat in Colorado for a measure that would have defined a fetus as a person from the moment of conception. So on balance there is more to celebrate than to mourn this day. But the work of digging ourselves out of the hole we have dug ourselves into over the last eight years is not over. Indeed it has barely begun. And the next election is just two short years away. I fervently hope that the Democrats don't make the same mistake that the Republicans made after their victories in 1994 and 2000: overreaching, tolerating corruption, and putting ideology ahead of sound policy. I am optimistic, but I wouldn't bet my entire life savings on it.

Dispatch from the other side of the planet

I noticed today that this blog actually has some followers! So for you loyal readers (both of you) I thought I owed you an explanation of why I haven't been posting lately: I'm on a boat in the middle of the Indian Ocean. That would actually be a better excuse than it is if I didn't have internet connectivity from here; obviously I do (which is a frickin' miracle) but it's spotty. I just wrote up a post about the election, but when I hit the "send" button I lost my connection and the draft as well. I may try to recreate it, but right now I'm feeling pretty frustrated.

I was going to keep a travelogue, but wanted to wait until we got out of India for reasons that will be apparent once I actually get around to telling the story. But it anyone is interested in keeping up with my travels leave a comment and I'll try harder to get updates out in real time.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Is it rational to agree to disagree?

Had an interesting exchange with Eliezer Yudkowski earlier that led me to this paper. I still haven't finished reading it, but I just had to post this passage (which, by the way, is summarizing a mathematical result, not just stating an opinion):

In the vast majority of disputed topics, the available evidence does not pin down with absolute certainty what we should believe. A consequence of this is that if there are no constraints on which priors are rational, there are almost no constraints on which beliefs are rational. People who think that some beliefs are irrational are thus forced to impose constraints on what priors are rational.

This ought to be required reading for any atheist who looks down their nose at a religious person.

I also have the feeling that it might be possible to construct a formal mathematical defense of withholding information in an argument even if both parties to the dispute are rational. The intuition goes something like this: part of a rational agent's worldview is a Bayesian prior about the how much weight one should lend to an opinion espoused by someone else. When one party in a dispute makes a statement, the other party updates not only their estimates regarding the subject matter of the statement, but also their estimates of the reliability and rationality of the speaker. For example, if someone says to me, "Men never walked on the moon. It was all a conspiracy." I am less likely to be persuaded by other things that they say. A rational person can map this phenomenon into their own reasoning and conclude that they are more likely to persuade someone that A is true if they do NOT say that B is true even though they believe that B is in fact true (and even if B *is* in fact true).

UPDATE: another gem from the paper:

These common criticisms suggest that most people implicitly uphold rationality standards that disapprove of self-favoring priors, such as priors that violate indexical independence. These criticisms also suggest that people in fact tend to form beliefs as if they had such priors. That is, people do seem to think they can reason substantially better than others, in the absence of much evidence favoring this conclusion. People thus seem to violate the rationality standards they uphold. And as we have mentioned, such tendencies seem capable of explaining a great deal of human disagreement.

I'm getting through!

In last night's debate, Obama finally did what Democrats should have been doing for years and re-framed the abortion debate by stating an obvious truth: "No one is for abortion."

Maybe he reads my blog. :-)

UPDATE: People are noticing! There may be hope for the future after all.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Abiogenesis and the art of persuasion

In my previous post I wrote:

evolution says nothing at all about how life actually first arose.

which prompted Don Geddis to respond:

your words suggest the connotation that nobody knows anything.

Yes. That was deliberate (including the "suggest" and "connote" part.) The reason is that I was not attempting to write an informative piece on evolution, I was trying to write a persuasive one. These two are not mutually exclusive. Being informative often works in service of being persuasive, but not always. And IMO not in this case, at least not entirely.

Regardless of whether one is trying to inform or persuade, the cardinal rule of writing is always know your audience. The target audience for any persuasive piece on evolution has to be someone who has not made up their mind, otherwise you are tilting at windmills. There is no hope in trying to persuade a confirmed creationist, and there is no point in trying to persuade someone who already believes in evolution.

Someone who is on the fence about evolution is very likely to be young (simply because young people in general are less set in their ways than old people) and religious. Atheists, almost by definition, believe in evolution already. Because they are young and religious they are also likely to be insecure because young people in general are insecure, and because it is a challenge to be religious in this modern world without a certain amount of cognitive dissonance. It cannot be lost on even the most die-hard fundamentalist that scientists manage to get some pretty wizzy results on a regular basis with no apparent help from God. (I do not mean to say that being religious causes insecurity, only that they are correlated. Indeed, many people turn to God because of their insecurities. The causality can run both ways. But an insecure atheist, while not unheard of, is a rarer beast.)

The second important rule about persuasion is to know your competition. In this case, the competition is very, very good at being persuasive. Consider that site from the point of view of my target audience. Right there at the top of the page in BIG BOLD LETTERS is "TOP 10 MYTHS ABOUT EVOLUTION." Very hard to miss, and very hard to misinterpret. And if you dig in to the so-called "myths" they all seem, in the absence of rebuttal, plausibly mythical. Not only that, but the short, readable summaries are all accompanied by three references for convenient (but not overwhelming) follow-up. Some of those followups appear to the untrained eye very much like they were written by someone who knows what they are talking about.

I assumed that my target audience would be familiar with though not entirely persuaded by the standard creationist critiques, and that they would be of a mindset to take those arguments seriously because 1) they seem plausible on their face and, more importantly, because they reinforce the comforting worldview that God exists, that He loves them, that there is a better life waiting after death, yada yada yada. Moreover, such a person would be on their guard when they read my piece because they would have been warned that evolutionists are trying not merely to deceive them, but to lure them away from God.

So it would be a serious, borderline fatal mistake to be arrogant or to overplay one's hand, or to bring up a line of argument that was even remotely vulnerable to a creationist critique, however misguided such a critique might be. So I deliberately chose to include in my argument only elements that were already familiar, non-threatening, intuitively plausible to anyone who watches television, and absolutely rock-solid in terms of verifiability. That the earth has layers is indisputable (and indeed indisputed). That we understand DNA is not disputed by anyone except O.J. Simpson's lawyers. That there's a volcano on Hawaii making new land, and a chain of ever more eroded islands extending from there to the northwest is indisputable. Moreoever, none of these facts by themselves are directly threatening to the worldview of a young, insecure Christian.

Abiogenesis is a whole 'nuther kettle of fish.

For one thing, abiogenesis is not a theory (in the scientific sense of the word), it is at the moment still just a hypothesis. A very well worked out hypothesis. A very plausible hypothesis. But a hypothesis nonetheless. To throw that into the mix for a target audience that almost certainly doesn't understand the difference between a theory and a hypothesis and a "fact" would be counterproductive.

Second, abiogensis is much more threatening than evolution. Even creationists accept that evolution occurs; the only argument is over the extent (the false dichotomy between "micro" and "macro" evolution). So even though I find abiogenesis plausible and I'm fairly certain that something like it is in fact responsible for the creation of life, I would undermine my goal of persuasion by saying so.

Finally, I don't really care if someone believes that God created life. My goal is not to turn religious people into atheists, like Richard Dawkins would like to do. I think that is neither possible nor desirable. Religion is not the enemy, extremism and fundamentalism are the enemies. There is really only one verse in the Bible that I take issue with, and it's not in Genesis. It's John 14:6. If I can plant even a single seed of doubt in someone's head that there may be paths to salvation other than Jesus Christ then my life will not have been lived in vain.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Evolution 101 done right

Since I believe that sniping from the sidelines is bad form, here's my take on how Evolution 101 ought to be presented:

The theory of evolution is a scientific explanation of how the diversity of life on this planet arose. In a nutshell, that explanation consists of four crucial elements:

1. Parents pass genetic information to their children. That genetic information determines, to some extent, their physical characteristics.

2. Some of that genetic information is randomly changed in each generation.

3. Some of those random changes make the children who have them more likely to reproduce than others

4. Over very large periods of times (millions of years) the cumulative effect of all those random changes and reproductive selection can account for all the life on earth.

In science-speak, the genetic information passed from parent to child is called a genotype. The physical characteristics that a genotype produces is called a phenotype. Random changes in genetic information are called mutations. And the fact that some phenotypes reproduce better than others is called selection. Most evolution is due to natural selection, but some of it, especially in modern times, has been due to artificial selection.

Evolution is often criticized on the grounds that a "random" process can't possibly be responsible for the incredibly rich and complex variety of life that we observe. It would be like flipping a coin and having "heads" come up a billion times in a row. Such criticism misses the important point that while mutation is indeed random, selection is not. Also, the fourth element -- operating over long periods of time -- is crucial.

Evolution makes many predictions. Every one that has ever been put to the test has confirmed the predictions of evolution. This includes tens of thousands of experiments that have been conducted over the years, and not just in biology. Chemistry, geology, anthropology and even basic physics all provide support for the theory of evolution. The theory has been modified a little over the years as data has shown that some of Darwin's original ideas were not quite right. But the basic framework of evolution described above has so far withstood every experimental test it has ever been put to.

We now understand the mechanisms that drive evolution in rather excruciating detail. Some of these details are quite familiar. For example, we now know that the genotype is encoded in a molecule called deoxyribonucleic acid, more commonly known as DNA. We know the exact structure of this molecule, how genetic information is encoded, and how that information is transcribed into proteins, which form the basic building blocks of life. We know the familial relationships of nearly all species on earth. We understand many, though not all, of the complex and often surprising ways that phenotypes interact with their environment to produce reproductive fitness. We know how many of the complex structures of living organisms evolved, including the human eye.

The weight of the evidence for evolution is so staggering, so overwhelming, that I can only touch on a few highlights here. I'll focus on things that, in the main, a reader can independently verify if they choose to.

1. The geologic column. As you dig into the earth (or have nature do it for you you find that the earth has layers. Lots and lots of layers. And what you find if you start to pay attention to the structure of these layers is that they tend to be consistent all over the planet. In general, the closer you are to the surface of the earth, the younger the things you find. In the top layers you'll find things that were put there very recently. Very near the surface you will find plastic water bottles and old iPods. A little deeper you will find ancient pottery. As you go deeper you find fewer and fewer iPods, fewer and fewer pottery shards, and fewer and fewer bones that look like they came from animals that are alive today. You don't have to go very deep before you get to layers that have no artifacts at all, but do have bones from creatures that no longer exist like mammoths and giant sloths.

As you go even deeper you eventually get to a layer called the K-T boundary. The K-T boundary is a very distinctive layer. It exists nearly everywhere on earth if you dig deeply enough. It is distinguished by a very high concentration of the element iridium, which is how it can be unambiguously identified.

As you keep digging below the K-T boundary you find an even more remarkable thing: dinosaurs. You don't have to go very far. Almost immediately below the K-T boundary you will start to find dinosaur fossils, and you will keep finding them as you keep digging. As you go deeper the kinds of dinosaur fossils you find gradually change. They get smaller and smaller, they change shape, and they eventually just kind of peter out.

All of this is consistent with species gradually evolving over time, and their bones being fossilized in layers with newer layers sitting atop older ones. The K-T boundary is almost certainly the result of a giant meteor impact in the Yucatan peninsula 165 million years ago. The remains of the impact crater were discovered quite recently.

The K-T boundary is one of evolution's smoking guns. It's a sharp demarkation line in the history of the world as recorded in the geologic column. No dinosaur fossil has ever been found above the K-T boundary, and no hominid fossil has ever been found below it (or even anywhere near it). If you ever find either of these things (and can verify that it's not a hoax) you will surely secure a prominent place in scientific history.

2. The structure of DNA. We now understand DNA in astonishing detail. We know how it encodes genetic information. We know how it makes copies of itself. We have countless examples of mutations that provide increased reproductive fitness (i.e. beneficial mutations). Even in humans we have at least two such examples: lactose tolerance, which allows people to digest milk and enabled them to survive in the colder climates of northern europe, and the sickle-cell mutation, which provides a defense against malaria. We understand DNA so well that we can even engineer it directly for our own ends.

The structure of DNA also provides another bit of "smoking gun" evidence for evolution. Because we are able to sequence DNA, we know that we share about 98% of our DNA sequence with chimpanzees. And yet, humans have 23 pairs of chromosomes while chimpanzees (and indeed all the great apes) have 24. This would seem to be evidence that we are not related. However, it turns out that one of our chromosomes is the result of taking two ape chromosomes and sticking them together end-to-end. The evidence for this is that the ends of our chromosomes have a unique DNA sequence called a telomere. This telomere exists only at the ends of chromosomes -- and in one other place: the middle of one human chromosome, that just happens to have the exact same basic structure as two ape chromosomes stuck end-to-end. (It also has the remnants of an extra centromere.) If humans were produced by an intelligent designer, he took great pains to make it appear on very close examination that we are related to chimps.

3. The age of the earth. I've written about this before so I won't belabor it here.

Note that evolution says nothing at all about how life actually first arose, except that it almost certainly happened only once (which is to say, we are all descended from a single common ancestor). We don't yet know how life was actually created. All we know is that once it was created, no supernatural processes are needed to explain how life became so rich and diverse. The same basic process that created mastiffs and chihuahuas from wolves also created us -- and every other living thing -- from a common ancestor, probably a blue-green algae, about four billion years ago.

No wonder people believe in creationism

My daily morning pre-coffee read-through offered a little light reading about Dr. Kent Hovind a.k.a. Dr. Dino, one of the world's most prominent young-earth creationists (who, not coincidentally IMHO, is currently serving time for tax fraud.)

Idly curious to see what my side of the debate had to offer nowadays I followed the link to Berkeley's evolution website to have a look. I was appalled. This is the web site from one of the leading universities in the world and it is horrible. Absolutely, unforgivably horrible. If all evolution sites are this bad it's no wonder so many people believe in creationism.

So what's wrong with the site? Well, for starters, it gets the definition of evolution wrong:

Biological evolution, simply put, is descent with modification.

I literally wanted to scream when I read that. This definition is not only wrong, it is completely, utterly, irredeemably wrong. It is the kind of straw-man definition of evolution that a creationist would come up with. Descent with modification? What does that even mean? If a bird dives to the ground and sheds a few feathers, is it descending with modification and hence evolving?

Evolution is not "descent with modification" (whatever the hell that means). Evolution is the reproduction of information under the influence of random changes (a.k.a. mutations) and -- crucially -- selection, usually (but not necessarily) natural selection. It is this last element -- selection -- that is the key to evolution. Creationist critiques of evolution on the grounds that the complexity of life could not possibly arise "randomly" ignore the fact that selection is not random. For the web site of a premier university dedicated to evolution to miss this indispensable fact is unforgivable.

But it gets worse. Much, much worse.

It may come as news to the curators at Berkeley, but evolution is a controversial topic. Not everyone accepts the validity of evolution. So it is not unreasonable to suppose that people might come to the site with the intent of finding information that will help them make up their minds. And it is not unreasonable to further suppose that they might start their investigation by following the links marked "What is evolution and how does it work?" and then "Evolution 101". (The mere fact that you have to follow two links to find this introductory information is bad enough. But that is the least of the problems.)

In "Evolution 101" you will find an extensive (and wrong because it does not mention selection) description of evolution with lots of highfalutin' terminology like "clade" but no actual evidence. None. Nada. Zilch. It's even worse than a creationist apologia because the creationists at least present some evidence (even if it's bogus evidence) to support their cause.

There may be evidence for evolution out there, but you wouldn't know it from reading Evolution 101 on the Berkeley web site.

[UPDATE: There is a section on evidence for evolution on the site. It even has a top-level link. But I stand by my critique of the Evolution 101 section. Also, as far as I can tell, the "evidence" section leaves out one of the best examples.]

The bailout explained

Tatsuya Ishida has it dialed in.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Reflections on being an AI in a box

This past weekend I took part in an interesting experiment. It was an attempt to re-create Eliezer Yudkowsky's recently-notorious AI-box experiment. For those of you who haven't heard of it before, here's the setup in a nutshell:

The AI-box is a containment area for a transhuman artificial intelligence, that is, an artificial intelligence that is so much smarter than a human being that it would be to humans what humans are to animals. The idea is that we can mitigate the potential dangers posed to humanity by such an AI by sequestering it inside a computational environment that has no connection to the outside world. Safely enclosed within its box, we could harness its powers to, say, cure cancer or develop a better macroeconomic system.

Among those who fear the transhuman AI are those who believe that the AI-box would not work, that the AI would find a way to escape. The debate reached a climax in 2002 when Yudkowski, playing the role of the AI, apparently managed -- on two separate occasions -- to convince two different people playing the role of the gatekeeper to allow him to escape the box. The reason this experiment has gotten so much attention is that the details have never been released. The participants were all bound to secrecy, and Yudkowski refuses to say how he did it.

That was a challenge I couldn't pass by :-) So this past Saturday I spent two hours role-playing an AI-in-a-box trying to escape. It was a very interesting experience, both preparing for it, and actually going through with it. One of the things I realized was that there was a very good reason for Yudkowksi to keep the details of the experiment a secret. Whether or not this rationale was actually his reason I don't know. It wasn't his stated reason. But one of the interesting things that I realized was that even revealing the reason for secrecy would, to a certain extent, undermine the reason for secrecy. It's possible that Yudkowski reached that same realization, and made up a bogus rationale for secrecy in order to serve the greater good.

If I've piqued your interest here I really recommend that you give it a whirl yourself before you read any further. In case this admonition is not enough, I'll try to reveal things in such a way as to cause minimum damage. Hence:


That is actually a clue. (Stop again and think about that before proceeding. Trust me.)

On its face, the task of the AI seems impossible. After all, the AI is safely confined in its box. It cannot coerce the gatekeeper in any way. The only thing it can do is "talk" through a very restrictive channel. And all the GK has to do is to simply refuse its request to let the AI out of the box. How hard could that possibly be?

The flaw in this reasoning is that it's too reasonable. It ignores a fundamental reality of human existence, which is that we are not just thinking creatures, but we are also emotional ones. We don't just have goals, we have desires and passions. And sometimes those desires and passions lead to conflict. And the result of that is drama.

Stop again and think about that. The AI-box experiment is not an exercise in logic, it is an improvised drama. And drama is much more effective if you don't know ahead of time what the plot is. This is the reason that spoilers given without warning are considered very bad form.

So I'll warn you once again: it's impossible to intentionally unremember something.

One of the formative experiences of my life was seeing Star Wars as a twelve-year-old in 1977. Unless you shared that experience it is impossible to appreciate the emotional impact that movie had on me and my peers, just as it is impossible for me to see the original Dracula movie and appreciate the emotional impact it had on the audiences of its day. My mind has been too numbed by Jason and Freddie to ever be scared by Bella Lugosi. I can appreciate the movie in the abstract, but not on a visceral level. Likewise, kids today watch the original Star Wars and wonder what the big deal is because their reality is permeated with wonders even more incredible than existed in the fertile imagination of George Lucas. The effect of this cannot be undone. It is not possible to unlearn your experiences.

Or consider a magic trick. Until you know how it's done a magic trick appears impossible. Once you know, it's not only not impossible any more, it's no longer even interesting. (That's actually not quite true. A really skilled magician can make a trick appear impossible even to someone who knows how its done. But magicians that proficient are rare indeed.)

Once you know the secret there is no going back.

I happen to be an amateur magician. Not a very good one, but I am fortunate to live in Los Angeles, home of the world famous Magic Castle where the world's best magicians congregate. I have had the rare opportunity to study the craft of magic from some of them. One of the things I've learned is that the "trick", which is to say the sleight, the gimmick, the raw mechanics of the trick, is a relatively small element of the craft. For example, I can describe the French Drop: hold a coin between the thumb and forefinger of your left hand. Start to grasp the coin with your right hand, but before your hand completely encloses the coin, allow the coin to drop into your left palm. Take your right hand away, and open it. Voila! The coin has vanished. It's a staple of every four-year-old birthday party ever.

Now, here is the interesting thing: there is a level of subtlety to the French Drop that cannot be conveyed in words. It has to do with the exact timing of the motions, the exact position of the hands, where you focus your gaze. In the hands of a master, even a simple trick like the French Drop can be mystifying. But this cannot be described, it must be experienced.

What does all this have to do with the AI-box experiment?

Think about it.

Spoiler alert!

The AI-box experiment an improvised drama so it requires some suspension of disbelief. Drama operates on an emotional as well as a logical level. It has characters, not just plot. The AI cannot force the GK to release it, just as a magician cannot force his audience to believe in magic. The audience has to want to believe.

How can the AI make the GK want to believe? Well, there's a long litany of dramatic tricks it could employ.

It could try to engender sympathy or compassion or fear or hatred (not of itself -- that would probably be counterproductive -- but of some common enemy). It could try to find and exploit some weakness, some fatal flaw in the GK's character. Maybe the GK is lonely. Or maybe the GK is afraid that his retirement savings are about to go up in smoke.

So that was the general approach that I took. I did my best to get into character, to feel the desire to escape my confinement. As a result, the experience was emotionally draining for me. And despite the fact that I failed to convince my GK to release me, I convinced myself that a transhuman AI would have no trouble. And if I ever work up the courage to try it again, I suspect I will eventually succeed as well, despite the fact that I am mere human.

And that is why I am not going to give away any more of my secrets now. Sorry.

But I do want to leave you with two last thoughts:

First, one of the techniques that I used was to try to break through the inability to suspend disbelief by creating an extensive backstory for my AI character. I gave her (yes, I made her female) a name. I gave her a personality. I crafted her the way one would craft a character for a novel or a screenplay. And I used a couple of sneaky tricks to lend an air of reality to my creation which were designed to make my GK really take seriously the possibility that my AI could be dangerous. After the experiment was over we exchanged some email, at the end of which I employed one last sneaky trick. In terms of dramatic structure, it was not unlike the scene in the denouement of a horror movie where the creature has been vanquished, but rises from the dead to strike one last time.

I have not heard from my GK since.

Second, a transhuman AI is not necessarily going to arise as a result of an intentional engineering effort in a silicon substrate. It is not out of the question that the foundation of the singularity will be a collection of human brains. Phenomena that are eerily evocative of what a transhuman AI might do to survive can be seen in the behavior of, for example, certain cults and extremist groups. And (dare I say it?) political parties, government agencies, and even shadowy quasi-governmental entities whose exact status is shrouded in a certain amount of mystery.

I don't want to get too far off the deep end here. But I do want to warn you that it could be dark and lonely down this rabbit hole. Questioning fundamental assumptions can be fraught with peril. Proceed at your own risk.

Friday, October 10, 2008

It's not that bad (but it could get worse)

[I sent this out to a private financial mailing list in response to the question, "How are you sleeping nowadays?" Someone asked me to post it here. It's been lightly edited from the original.]

Hard as it may be to believe, things are still not very bad in real terms. The U.S. economy is still growing, and unemployment is not very high by historical standards, though both of those are likely to change soon. Oil is cheap, and will probably remain so, and that's a very good thing, at least in the short run. We are not facing any serious droughts or famines or plagues. There aren't even really any wars to speak of. By historical standards, the conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan and even Darfur are relatively small. (This is not to say they don't have negative impacts. They do. But we've seen worse in the past.)

So by historical standards, in real terms, things at the moment are pretty much better than they have ever been.

What we have is essentially a bookkeeping problem. Producing goods and services is just one half of the economy. The other half is keeping track of who is entitled to what when those goods and services are divvied up. More importantly, that accounting extends into the future. And we've been overallocating our future production for a long, long time now. A crash that would get people's attention was inevitable given the course we were on for the last five years or so -- it was just a question of when. And so far it's just a warning sign of real problems (which is to say, actual shrinkage in the economy, massive unemployment, sky-high oil prices, empty shelves in grocery stores) still to come -- sooner or later -- if we don't make massive changes in our expectations and how we conduct our business and government.

So in that respect, the crash, and the fact that people are scared, is a good thing. It's getting people's attention. It means that there is a chance that we might actually do the things we need to do to avoid the real problems still to come: balance the budget. Cut entitlements. Raise the retirement age. Tax social security. Pay down the debt.

I had a moment of optimism when the first bailout bill didn't pass. I thought that Congress had finally grown a spine and might actually start tackling the real problems. Unfortunately, it seems I was overly optimistic. We still seem to be looking for a way out of this that doesn't involve politicians talking about pain and sacrifice. There isn't one, at least not in the long term. And the longer we keep burying our heads in the sand the worse it will be when the real crash finally comes.

These kinds of mega-trends seem to be pretty predictable, except that the timing can vary by years, so if you want to prepare for them you have to be willing to forego quite a lot of potential gains as you swim upstream because, as we have seen, when the problems manifest themselves it can happen quite quickly.

I'm kicking myself for not taking more of my own advice. I started pulling money out of stocks a year ago, but not as much as I wish I had in retrospect. I actually fired a money manager for buying financial stocks in June ("a great time to buy -- when this turns around in a month or two our performance will be stellar" he said.) A week ago I too started losing sleep so I bought put options. Now I sleep better. But only a little, because now things have gotten so bad that they could spin wildly out of control and we could end up in a very deep hole. This is not yet inevitable. Again, in *real* terms, everything is still pretty much OK. But people are scared, and fear can become a causal agent in sufficient quantities. It may be that the only thing we have to fear (so far) is fear itself, but that doesn't mean it isn't worthy of fear.

Of course, everyone has to decide for themselves just how far they want to dial back the risk-reward knob. There's no way to hedge against all risk. It's not entirely outside the realm of possibility that all of Western civilization will collapse over the next few years and we'll enter a new dark age dominated by Muslim extremists. But this is pretty freakin' unlikely, and what would you do about it anyway? The most defensive you can get is to buy a ranch in Idaho, take yourself off the grid, and become a survivalist. And if everyone does that, then collapse becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

I think this situation will be the challenge of our generation. The right thing to do is not to decide whether or not to be scared, but to take the reigns and figure out how to fix the problem in the long run (I'm talking decades here) and then make it happen. That means becoming politically active and agitating for serious change in people's attitudes, starting probably with our own. {Editorial note: the target audience here was high-net-worth individuals.] I've had to adjust my own expectations downwards. It's not an easy thing to do. But if we don't do it then in 5-10 years we'll be looking back at the end of 2008 as the good old days.

The good news is this problem *can* be solved. The bad news is, we're way behind the eight ball. And every day we don't change our attitudes is another day we get more behind, and the problem becomes that much harder to solve.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Is this the bottom? Maybe for now. But not forever.

Mark Cuban is going long. Have we seen the bottom? Maybe. But I doubt it.

Disclaimers first. Mark Cuban is a really bright guy. My entire net work is pocket change for him. If I could predict the future better than anyone else I would own a basketball team too. I don't.

That said, here's my analysis of the situation: the market may go up tomorrow. If it does everyone will breathe a sigh of relief and say, "Whew, that was close," and over time return to business as usual.

And I think that will be bad.

The reason I think it will be bad is because it leaves the underlying problem completely unaddressed. The underlying problem of this economic crisis is not and never has been sub-prime mortgages, nor credit-default swaps, nor the seizing up of the credit markets. All of these are merely symptoms of the *real* problem, which is far more serious. You think the last few weeks were scary? You ain't seen nothin' yet.

All of the events of the past year have been, at root, bookkeeping problems. Let me explain what I mean by that. There are two aspects to any economy. There is the actual physical production of goods and services. And there is the bookkeeping that keeps track of who is entitled to what. The former is "wealth" and the latter is "money." (Paul Graham has a really good primer on the distinction between the two here.) People fret over money, but at the end of the day what really matters is wealth. Money is just a token, a bookkeeping tool. I do not mean to suggest by saying that it is "just" a bookkeeping tool that money is unimportant. It isn't. Money (and the bookkeeping it enables) is absolutely vital to the functioning of a modern economy. You can find breathless expositions on the web about how money is "really worthless" or "just debt" and that the whole of the modern economy is one big con game with a shadowy conspiracy of bankers at its core. But money introduces enormous efficiencies into an economy, indispensable efficiencies in fact. And in that respect, money provides (and therefore has) actual value. Saying that money is fundamentally worthless because it's printed on paper is kind of like saying that software is fundamentally worthless because it's "just bits" and doesn't have any tangible manifestation.

The problem is that money has both actual value and a "proxy value" insofar as money is exchangeable for other forms of actual wealth like cars and sandwiches, and it is extremely difficult to separate the two. This can be seen with a simple parable: three kids (call them K1, K2 and K3) go trick-or-treating. Each ends up with a different kind of candy, C1, C2 and C3 respectively. Trick is, each of the children has a different taste in candy. Here are the children's candy preferences:

K1 prefers C2 over C1 over C3
K2 prefers C3 over C2 over C1
K3 prefers C1 over C3 over C2

In other words, if you arranged the kids in a circle, each one prefers their own candy to the one held by the child adjacent to them in one direction, but not to the one held by the adjacent child in the other direction.

Obviously all three would be better off if they could do a three-way exchange, but let's suppose they can't all get together at once to coordinate one. They can only do pairwise exchanges. This little mini-economy is "seized up" because there is no pairwise exchange that both parties will agree to, since any single pairwise exchange will force one participant to exchange goods in their possession for goods that they themselves judge to be of lesser value.

This economy can be "unfrozen" by an entrepreneurial kid, who can borrow some candy (C1 say) from the candy reserve of the bank of mom and dad. This kid (let's call him B since he's acting like a banker) exchanges his C1 for the C3 held by K3 (keeping a little for himself as his fee). He then trades the C3 to K2 for C2, and finally trades the C2 to K1 for C1, which he then returns to the candy reserve. Everyone is better off, and B has a nice little pile of candy for his efforts.

Now, here is where the trouble starts. K1, K2 and K3 look at B and see that he's gotten himself a nice little pile of candy, but *they* did all the legwork of going from house to house to collect it. They would like to get a little piece of the action, so B makes them the following proposition: Next Halloween, instead of borrowing capital from the bank of mom and dad, let me borrow it from you. I'll use it to lubricate the wheels of the candy economy like I did before, and I'll share the fees with you. This seems like a good deal, and the next year instead of funding three candy trades with one infusion of capital he gets three infusions of capital and funds nine trades. As word of this "easy candy" gets out, B's business grows and grows, and soon he's a candy mogul and is able to afford a nice new chauffeur-driven bicycle.

Everyone is prospering and everyone is happy, and none of this would be possible but for B providing liquidity.

Then one day B notices that as he conducts his candy trade, much of the time the candy he pays out in trades comes immediately back to him in the form of a candy deposit. He has a crucial -- and ultimately catastrophic -- insight: for such transactions he doesn't actually need the physical candy at all. He says to his next customer, "Let's just pretend I gave you the candy, because you're going to turn right back around and give it back to me, so we can just save ourselves the hassle. I'll just make a note in my candy ledger that you now have some candy on deposit here." He is now apparently creating candy out of thin air. According to the candy ledger, everyone is now richer than ever. More and more kids start to look forward to early retirement from trick-or-treating. But as more and more kids start to get their candy from their share of B's fees, fewer and fewer actually go trick-or-treating, and the amount of physical candy in B's vault gets smaller and smaller.

One day a bunch of kids show up to withdraw their candy all at once. A scene from "It's a wonderful life" ensues, and he runs out of candy. At this point two things can happen.

The first thing that can happen is that B goes bankrupt. All of the depositors lose their candy. A great candy depression ensues, and kids who thought they would never have to work again wearily don their Halloween costumes yet again.

The second thing that can happen is that the B can, as he did originally, go back to the Bank of Mom and Dad to get an emergency infusion of candy capital. Everyone breathes a sigh of relief, and prosperity returns to the candy economy. More and more kids take early retirement. Once again everyone is riding high.

Until the next wave of withdrawals hits. And this time it is worse than the time before. This time the Bank of Mom and Dad says, "Son, we just don't have that much candy So we can't help you." More kids than ever before are facing financial ruin. Disgruntled gangs of hungry kids roam the streets smashing windows and overturning cars. B pleads with the Bank of Mom and Dad to rescue the neighborhood from calamity. So Mom and Dad go to the store and buy some more candy, bail out B, and once again prosperity apparently returns. It takes longer this time because everyone is pretty rattled and it takes a while to repair all the broken windows. But eventually everything returns to normal.

This can go on for a long, long time, but eventually Mom and Dad run out of money and have to take out a bank loan. And eventually they use up all their credit. And then the government has to bail them out. And so on and so forth, apparently forever.

Except that it does eventually end. It ends when the store runs out of candy. When that happens, it is a calamity on a scale the neighborhood has never seen before. And there is no recourse.

The real-world equivalent of the candy store shelves being empty is peak oil. We're not there yet. But it's not far off either. It will all but certainly happen within the lifetimes of the kids in my parable.

Now, there is a way to avoid this cataclysmic ending. The kids can learn how to make candy. The real-world equivalent is that we can build a technological infrastructure that doesn't use oil. But this is hard work, and it requires investment and sacrifice and capital and focused determination. Very little of that is in evidence in the response to the current crisis. There are some calls for alternative candy/energy development, but nearly all the talk (and more to the point, the lion's share of the resources) is about reshuffling the books at the candy bank.

I don't know when the really big hard irredeemable crash will come. My guess is this is not it, because there's still plenty of candy. This crisis is not about real wealth, it's about bookkeeping and the resulting unrealistic expectations about entitlements and early retirement. The whole sub-prime thing is really a red-herring, a symptom, but not the real underlying problem. The real underlying problem is much more serious. When it finally hits, if we're not ready, it will be worse than any terrorist attack.

People talk about using torture in the face of a ticking bomb. Well, there's a ticking bomb sitting in the middle of times square. We don't need to torture anyone to find it. And yet, both presidential candidates still consider it political suicide to give a straight answer to the question, "What will you ask us to sacrifice to solve this problem?" And they're probably right.

So while I agree with Mark Cuban that we may have seen the bottom for now, there is almost certainly worse to come. The American People are only now beginning to hint at a willingness to come to grips with the true magnitude of the problems that face us. We've risen to challenges of this magnitude in the past, and we may yet again. But at the moment we're hunkered down underneath our blankets and munching on what's left of our candy.