Monday, November 30, 2009

Inside the A380

The LA Times has the inside scoop on the A380.

Ron: 1, Dubai: 0

I would just like to note for the record that I called the Dubai crash this time last year:

Dubai is quite possibly the greatest real estate scam of all time.

Now if I could just figure out how to accurately predict *when* these things are going to happen!

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Life imitates art (I hope)

It's that time of year when the cable channels start to show that old Frank Capra standard, It's a Wonderful Life. I just learned that life may be mimicking art. Phil Agre has gone missing.

To understand the impact that this news has had on me I have to take you back to 1985. That year, an MIT graduate student named David Chapman published one of the very few solid theoretical results that the field of Artificial Intelligence has ever produced. David formally proved that planning was NP-complete. What's more, it was a constructive proof: David actually wrote a planner that was provably complete and correct, the first such planner ever to be produced after years of ad hoc research. And this was David's master's thesis!

For his next trick, David teamed up with Phil Agre to help pioneer what was then a completely new approach to AI. The technical details don't matter much. The point is, in my mind David was a demigod, Phil was his main collaborator, and the work they were doing was wicked cool. Their work ultimately had a huge influence on me, and even today I think it never received the attention and appreciation it deserved.

Back in those days I was, like many graduate students, haunted by myriad insecurities. Would I ever find a thesis topic? Would it have an impact? Was I kidding myself that I was capable of doing original research? Was I wasting my life? And on and on and on. At times it got pretty bad and led to some bouts of severe depression, which I now understand is not at all unusual.

Around the time that I was hitting bottom, there was an AI workshop at JPL that Phil attended. To make a long story short, I ended up taking him on a driving tour of Los Angeles (it was his first visit) so I got to spend quite a bit of time talking to him one-on-one. That conversation influenced me more than any single conversation I've ever had in my life. It got me out of my doldrums and I returned to work with renewed vigor. A few months later I had a thesis topic, and a year or so after that, I phinally phinished.

Now, I can't really say I knew Phil. I only ever met him that one time. We never corresponded, though I followed his work for many years. So I have no idea why he has disappeared. Maybe he's just decided to go walkabout. (He seemed like the kind of person who would do that sort of thing.) But I'm telling this story on the off chance that Phil has succumbed to the same sort of demons that once haunted me, wondering where his life is going, if he's made the right choices, and whether his accomplishments measure up to anything. In that case, and on the off chance that Phil might stumble across this blog, I want him to know the impact that he had on my life. Maybe that will help.

There are details of that period that I do not wish to put on the record, but it would not be unfair to say that Phil Agre once saved my life. It would be fitting if perhaps I could return the favor simply by saying so. Phil, wherever you are, I wish you good fortune.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Logos, meet Mythos

Devdutt Pattanaik in a brilliant TED talk explains the contrasts between Eastern and Western thought, and how each is fundamentally rooted in mythology, albeit very different mythologies. Well worth twenty minutes of this life.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Oh, cool!

Our flight back to LA is on an A380!

[Travelogue] Homeward bound

And if you will forgive another cliche, what a long, strange trip it's been. I had been feeling ready to go home for a while, but last night as I was packing I came across a printout of all the shore excursions we has signed up for at the beginning of the trip. For some reason that just took me back to the beginning, when this trip was still a dream instead of a memory, and it suddenly hit me like a ton of bricks: it's over. It's really over. All of the annoyances and discomforts and crazy traffic and pollution and endless bus rides just evaporated from my mind and for a moment all that was left was the awesomeness of it, the exotic sights and smells and flavors and the novelty of being able to tell people, "Yeah, we're going to be on this ship for two and a half months." And now it was over. Just like that. In the blink of an eye. It felt, at the risk of sounding melodramatic, like a metaphor for life itself. I'm still pretty young, but I am becoming more and more aware of how short life really is. I feel an increased urgency to make the most of what's left, because there's no going back.

So while I'm sad about the trip coming to an end, I'm also glad to be getting back home. The trip was awesome, but I'm not ready to retire to a cruise ship, and although I got some writing done and even a little bit of hacking, it's a lot easier to be productive with fewer distractions and a fast internet connection. And I'm feeling the need to be productive. I've seen too many people busting their humps trying to improve their lives not to get out there and do my bit before I die. I haven't decided exactly what I'm going to do, but on the trip I put together a list of half a dozen possible projects, some of which involve travel to Asia :-)

So for pretty much the first time in my life I have no idea what's coming next. But I'm looking forward to finding out.

Monday, November 09, 2009

[Travelogue] Time zone craziness

Trivia question for the day: how many time zones does Australia have?

Answer: six!

The country only spans three hours worth of time difference from east to west, but they manage to cram six different time zones in nonetheless. Western Australia (which includes Perth) is three hours behind New South Wales (which includes Sydney) and Victoria (which includes Melbourne). But in between is a crazy patchwork of daylight-savings, non-daylight-savings, and just plain nutty time zones, including a tiny little piece on the border between Western and South Australia that is 45 minutes ahead of Perth, but one hour and forty-five minutes behind the adjacent South Australia! You can travel west from Queensland to South Australia and have to set your clock forward instead of backwards. You can travel north-south between South Australia and the Northern Territory and have to reset your clock by an hour (which way depends on the direction you're going of course), but in either place you'll still have a half-hour phase difference with GMT. And if you cross the border from Western Australia to South Australia you'll have to change your clocks by a whopping two and a half hours all in one go.

I suppose with Australia being as sparsely populated as it is this all makes sense on the ground. But it looks pretty nutty from the air.

[Travelogue] Back in (western) civilization

Nancy says she could happily live aboard this ship for the rest of her life, but for me there's no place like home. The longest I've ever been traveling before is six weeks, a record we broke about two weeks ago, and I don't know whether it's the time or being in the poorer parts of Asia, but it's starting to get a bit emotionally draining. By the time we reach Sydney in ten days I will definitely be ready to go home.

Since leaving Singapore we've had three ports of call: Java, Bali and Perth. Our visit to Java consisted of three hours of sitting on a bus, one hour of walking around the ancient temple of Borobudur in sweltering heat (Java is six degrees south of the equator), followed by another three hours of sitting on a bus. It could have been worse. Our bus convoy had a police escort, which allowed us to cut through traffic like Moses parting the Red Sea. We felt like VIPs until we found out later that anyone can get a police escort in Java simply by paying a bri-- I mean a fee.

Bali was beautiful, but again sweltering and the street peddlers on the pier were the most aggressive I've ever encountered anywhere in the world, and that is saying something. These people simply would not take no for an answer. I almost had to resort to threatening physical violence to get them to leave us alone. Once clear of the pier, though, the Balinese were very friendly, and some of the local crafts are quite impressive, worth a trip if you're into that sort of thing. The woodwork in particular is comparable to what we found in Africa in terms of value, maybe even better. A master woodworker on Bali makes between two and twenty dollars a day depending on their level of skill, and the intricacy of some of their carvings is mind-blowing.

I have to say, though, that although I found Asia fascinating I am not sorry to be leaving it behind for a while. Dealing with the traffic in particular, even just as a passenger, gets to be very stressful after a while. I tried to pretend that the crazy road rules and the omnipresent diesel exhaust didn't bother me, but the truth is they did. I have learned a new appreciation for Western infrastructure these past few weeks.

On which topic, Perth is a little gem of a city. It's out in the middle of nowhere, the most isolated capital city in the world, but it is gorgeous: clean and modern, chock full of parks and trees, on a river that is too shallow for industrial ships so the waterfront is mostly unspoiled -- except for what must be the most hideous convention center in Christendom. What they were thinking when they approved that monstrosity I will never know. (BTW, if you have $56 million burning a hole in your pocket, there is a stunning home on the riverbank on offer for that amount. It was built by a local mining magnate's wife who lived there for a year and then decided she didn't like it after all. It is rumored that if she doesn't manage to sell it she's going to tear it all down and start over from scratch.)

I have to say that this trip has made me an even bigger fan of Western civilization than I was before. I love Asia, much more than I was expecting to, but the places I like the most were the places that were most Westernized: Japan and Singapore. There's just an awful lot to be said for emission controls and yielding the right of way. And clean drinking water coming out of the tap. And air conditioning. We in the West take these things for granted, but they are in fact unimaginable luxuries in some very large parts of the world. I think Americans in particular would do well to keep that more in mind than we typically do.

Sunday, November 01, 2009

[Travelogue] Singapore: green and squeaky clean

I would not have thought it possible to build a city cleaner than Tokyo. I was wrong. Tokyo is spotless, but Singapore is positively gleaming. Even the container port where we first docked (because the berths in the cruise ship terminal were all occupied) looked like it had a serious case of obsessive-compulsive disorder. If I had seen people scrubbing the concrete with toothbrushes I would not have been too surprised.

Singapore is a unique country. It's a tiny (20x30 miles) island just at the southern tip of the Malaysian peninsula. It grew up similar to Hong Kong under British rule, but with a more varied and eclectic mix of Asian influences. It has also had the benefit of a benevolent dictator who has turned the Island into a squeaky-clean and more fully Westernized version of Hong Kong. Politically Singapore is a very weird animal. It is nominally a democracy but actually a dictatorship. Like Hong King, Singapore is a pean to free-market capitalism. It makes most of its money from shipping and banking services. Income taxes are low (at least according to our tour guide). And yet it has an extremely liberal ethos. The country enthusiastically embraces its multi-ethnic heritage. It is so environmentally conscious you'd think Al Gore was prime minister. Taxes on cars are ridiculously high (there is excellent public transit to compensate) and old cars are simply not allowed on the road. There are clearly emission control laws in place. The black-smoke-belching diesels and scooters that seem to be ubiquitous in China, Thailand and Viet Nam are nowhere to be found here. Even chewing gum is banned!

There are trees everywhere. The waterfront is gleaming and chock-a-block with a wide array of restaurants housed in historic buildings that have been lovingly restored. The cruise ship terminal is part of an enormous shopping mall, again with literally dozens of restaurants overlooking the water. It appears at first glance to be the best example of urban planning in the world. I can't think of any other city that comes close. And to top if all off, everyone is friendly and speaks English. Of all the places we've been on this trip, Singapore is the one I would most like to come back to (well, maybe a toss-up with Tokyo).

The only problem with this place is the weather. It's 1 degree north of the equator, so they have three kinds of weather: hot and humid, hotter and more humid, and ridiculously hot and humid, with an occasional rain shower thrown in for seasoning. They don't get taiphoons, and they don't have earthquakes. I'm not sure I could handle living in a place that never gets below 70 degrees. But it sure is nice to visit.

The downside of everything being so wonderful is that there aren't many good stories to tell. We walked around, marveled at the architecture, ate some great food, and that's about it. So to make up for it, I'll tell another story about something happened way back in Osaka that I just realized I forgot to write about at the time.

Osaka is a sprawling city without a real center, and the cruise ship terminal is kind of out in the boonies, relatively speaking. There's quite a lot of stuff there, including the aquarium (worth a visit) and a giant ferris wheel. There's even a shopping center, but it's kind of an uninteresting one. There are no restaurants beyond a food court and a few chains. So we went on a sushi quest and ended up in a tatami room in a place where no one spoke English and the menu was all in Japanese. We had a great meal nonetheless. After we were done, as we were walking down the street, the proprietor of the restaurant came running after us. It seems I had inadvertently left a brochure on the table and he was returning it to me. He handed it to me with a lot of bowing and a long speech in Japanese that I couldn't understand. For all I know he was saying: stupid gai-jin, why can't you remember to take your shit with you? But it sure didn't sound like that to me.

When I told this story to several people familiar with Japanese custom they all told me that such a thing was not at all unusual in Japan. But it sure seemed extraordinary to me. Americans could learn a thing or two from the Japanese. And the Singaporeans.