Tuesday, September 29, 2009

[Travelogue] I ♥ Tokyo

The Japanese sure know how to roll out the welcome mat. We arrive in Tokyo to another retinue of water-spouting boats (no colors this time, but much bigger water spouts!) and a band of traditional Japanese drummers on the dock. Skipping ahead to the end (because life is short) we got a grand send-off as well, with a brass band playing "Proud Mary" and other rock classics. It was quite the spectacle.

Which is as good a way as any to describe Tokyo: spectacular. For starters, it's huge. We live in L.A., and we've spent a lot of time in New York. We've been to London and Paris and even Mumbai. But nothing compares to Tokyo. It's vast: 30 million people, more than twice the population of Los Angeles. But despite being so big it is nonetheless, like everything else we've seen in Japan, spotlessly clean. It is absolutely amazing. The entire time we were there we saw not one bit of litter. Not a cigarette butt. Not even so much as a stray leaf. We actually saw a guy sweeping the leaves off the gravel walk that leads to the main Shinto shrine. And this walkway is not just any urban gravel footpath. It is -- no exaggeration -- 100 feet *wide* and hundreds of meters long. The surrounding grounds are planted thick with deciduous trees, but there's not a leaf on the path anywhere.

The cleanliness of the city is rendered all the more amazing by the fact that trash cans are all but nonexistent. This is an enduring mystery to us, along with the ingredients of the beverage that was in the container that led us to discover the paucity of trash cans. You see, Japanese vending machines have a much wider selection of wares that anywhere else we've ever been. There are soft drinks, fruit juices, various different kinds of tea and coffee drinks, and an assortment of things that I still have no idea what they are. And that's just the drink machines. I decided no trip to Japan would be complete without trying one of the many concoctions on offer, so I selected one whose cover art suggested that it would be kind of chocolate-milky thing with a cream accent. The "cream" turned out to be this gooey slime that was rather like a thin gelatin. It was not altogether unpleasant, but a bit off-putting to my western palate. I drank (actually "slurped" would be more accurate) it anyway, but when it came time to find a place to dispose of the can there was not a trash receptacle to be found. I had to carry that damned empty can for about ten blocks before I finally found something that kind of sort of looked like a trash can sitting in front of a restaurant. What the devil do Tokyoites do with their rubbish? Maybe none of them ever actually patronize these vending machines. Maybe they're just there for show. (Hm, that might explain the slimy substance in my drink.)

That one questionable experience aside, we had an absolute blast in Tokyo. It's my new favorite city in the world. It's clean, it's walkable, and it is, to our inestimable surprise, affordable, at least if you don't try to buy produce. Tokyo has a reputation for having ridiculously expensive sushi, and maybe it does, but we couldn't find any. Every sushi place we went to (and we ate pretty much nothing else the entire time we were there) was much cheaper, and yet much better, than anything we've ever found in the States. And one place was even in the notoriously expensive Ginza district. Maybe expensive sushi in Tokyo is just a myth they promulgate to keep out the gai-jins, kind of like rain in Seattle. (Every time we've been to Seattle the weather has been beautiful.)

There is so much to tell about Tokyo I'm probably going to have to write about it in installments (and some of them may have to wait because we're in Osaka tomorrow). But I have to get the Tsukiji fish market out of my system. Tsukiji is famous for being the world's largest fish market. You may have seen video of it on the Discovery channel or some such thing, where you see people wrangling these enormous multi-hundred-pound tunas. What they don't show you is that this is just a tiny part of the whole operation. Tsukiji is, like Tokyo itself, mind-bogglingly vast. I actually got lost inside it, and I never get lost. It is hard to find the words to convey the scale (no pun intended) of this place. It is probably the size of several football fields, it's hard to tell from inside because it is impossible to see even a tiny fraction of it at any one time. It is a warren of little alleyways in between vender stands that are crammed full of every imaginable kind of sea critter. If it lives in the water, you'll find it here somewhere, and in enormous quantities. Most of Tsukiji is a wholesale market. They do allow visitors, but it is very unfriendly to the casual gawker. It's a working man's market and there are electric and diesel-fired carts (along with hand-drawn carts, bicycles and motor scooters) continually zipping this way and that, and you have to be constantly on guard to keep from being run over. I had three close calls, including one that got me soaked when I got to close to someone trying to wrangle some live fish out of a tank.

We're back on line, and I have to go to dinner so I'm going to go ahead and post this and write more later.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

[Travelogue] The many (unseen) sights of Sendai

We arrived in Sendai on the main island of Japan to another warm welcome, including a troupe of students in traditional Japanese outfits doing a fan dance on the pier. The fans were yellow on one side, purple on the other, and they moved in perfect synchrony. It was quite beautiful to watch.

Regent usually does a very good job of controlling logistics, but every now and then they drop the ball and things spin wildly out of control. Today was one of those days. We were in Sendai for a very short stop, only six hours from docking to sailing. (I really wish they'd stop scheduling stops this short. With all the overhead, it's really not enough time to do anything.) We signed up for a shore excursion called "The many sights of Sendai." Unfortunately, so had everyone else on the ship.

Normally when everyone on the ship is doing the same thing they break people up into groups and stagger the schedule a little so not everyone shows up at the same time. Today they didn't. Not only that, but there was an extra process in which everyone had to exchange the normal tour ticket for a bus ticket. The result was 350 people converging on the gangway at the same time. I guess it could have been worse. It might have been 700 people (the ship is only half full on this leg). The upshot was that it took nearly an hour just to get everyone off the ship and onto their busses. The "many sights" of Sendai turned out to be only two sights, a Shinto shrine and a Buddhist temple. Both were beautiful, as far as I could tell as we whizzed past them with barely enough time to take a snapshot.

I'm exaggerating a little. The tour was very rushed, but it wasn't quite that rushed. And we did see a couple of other things, but I honestly can't remember any of the details. it was *that* rushed. At one point I got a little fed up with being herded through this thing and that thing that I decided to break away from the group and just wander around on my own. That was a lot of fun, and ultimately for me a lot more worthwhile. Japan is superficially very similar to the U.S. In fact, Hakodate was so similar to L.A. that if you didn't look very closely we could almost convince ourselves that we were back home (except the mountains were too green). But you only have to scratch the surface a little to find really substantial differences. In Sendai, the big thing is these little hole-in-the-wall fast-food stands that serve freshly cooked squid and cuttlefish. They make no attempt to disguise the fact that it's squid and cuttlefish. In many cases, the critters are grilled up and served whole. (They have no bones.) That is just not something you see in the States very often. But you can't walk a block in Sendai without tripping over half a dozen of these little stands.

Because everyone was on the same tour and the schedules weren't staggered, everyone got back to the ship at the same time as well, so there was another backup on the pier as people waited in line to get back on the ship. Then there was a mad rush to get to the dining room before they closed to grab a quick lunch, since there had been no chance to get food on the tour. (The dining room staff did an admirable job of dealing with the mob.) I am given to understand that this sort of thing is common on other cruise lines, but this is the first time I've ever seen it happen on a Regent cruise, and we have a fair number of data points by now. I hope this turns out to be an aberration and not a new way of doing business.

Still, what we were able to see of Sendai was lovely. I wish I could have stayed to see more of it.

Tomorrow we're in Tokyo. We're there overnight so it won't feel quite so rushed, but of course we'll be in government-enforced radio silence while we're there so no blogging until we leave. I found out why they do this, by the way. Some of the ship's operations are dependent on Internet access. We can't use our own link, so the ship has to buy access from the Japanese. So it's a shakedown, pure and simple. I am loving Japan, but learning this makes me a little less inclined to hurry back.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

[Ttravelogue] Ohaio gozaimas from Hakodate

The crew of the Mariner does a very good job of managing expectations. Once again the immigration process was not nearly as bad as I had feared. We did have our mug shots and fingerprints taken, but it was very high tech and efficient, not at all like going through central booking. They sent people in shifts so we didn't have to wait in line very long, so the whole process only took a couple of minutes. And the Japanese are so polite it was hard to really mind.

We made landfall in Hakodate on the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido. The weather, naturally, was perfect: 74 degrees and not a cloud in the sky. (Well, maybe one or two.) We were escorted into the port by a tugboat and a pilot boat. The pilot boat -- and I have photos to prove it -- was spouting a jet of colored water that changed from red to blue to green to yellow. It might be hubris to suppose that this was to celebrate our arrival except that the local authorities actually held a welcoming ceremony in the ship's lobby with a coterie of bouquet-wielding high-school girls and a procession of local dignitaries. The ceremony was still going on when we had to go catch the bus for our tour.

Everyone I've ever talked to who has been to Japan remarks on how clean it is, and I am joining the club. Even the tugboat that escorted us into the harbor was the cleanest I've ever seen. Not a spot of rust (well, maybe one or two). The dock was spotless. The town was spotless. The tour busses were spotless.

I make it a point to learn a few phrases in the local language wherever I go. You can get an awful lot of mileage out of "hello", "please", "thank-you" and "I don't speak X" for the locally appropriate value of X. My first opportunity to try this in Japan was in a small local museum (The Hakodate Museum of Northern Peoples). I greeted the curator (whom our tour guide called "sensei", which struck me as very endearing) with "Ohaio gozaimas" (which is the polite rendition of "good morning") and he lit up with surprise and went into a flurry of bowing and expounding on how wonderful it was that I spoke Japanese. Of course, it was all in Japanese so I couldn't really understand a word he was saying. It almost broke my heart to tell him that he'd just heard pretty much my entire repertoire.

Our tour then took us on a cable car ride up Mount Hakodate, which is only about 1000 feet high, but still afforded spectacular views thanks to the beautiful weather. Nancy and I then struck out on our own to explore the touristy part of the waterfront. Hakodate is not a major draw for Americans, so nearly all the tourists were Japanese, and the whole day we did not meet a single person who spoke English.

We were feeling adventurous so we decided to try our luck at a sushi bar. It's amazing how much a Japanese sushi bar looks and feels like an American one -- modulo the fact that everyone is speaking Japanese. And it turns out the protocols are a bit different from what we're used to. We managed to order some Sake (which in Japan is not called sake but nihon-shu) but we sat there for 20 minutes before we figured out that we had to order our sushi from the waitress rather than from the sushi chef as they do in the States. But once we got that sorted out we had some of the best sushi I've ever had in my life. I've had sushi in a lot of places: LA, San Francisco, New York, Vegas, but it all paled in comparison to this random hole in the wall in Hakodate. I ordered omakase (chef's choice) so I got a little of everything, including some stuff that is considered "challenging" in the States, like uni (sea-urchin roe). The reason it's challenging in the States is that the uni isn't fresh, and when it isn't fresh it tastes slimy and disgusting. But when it's fresh, like it was here, it's not fishy or slimy at all. It's got a delicate, nutty flavor. And all the other fish was correspondingly higher quality than what you typically get in LA.

The other pleasant surprise about Japan (or at least Hokkaido -- we'll see what happens when we get to Tokyo) is that everything is cheap. The dollar may be weak, but apparently the Yen is weaker. We might not be able to afford a hamburger in London, but sushi in Hakodate was a bargain.

The only negative surprise about Japan so far is that ATM machines are nearly impossible to find. We've been to a lot of places, including a lot of third-world countries, but we have never had as much trouble finding an ATM as we did today. In the entire touristy waterfront of Hakodate there is not a single one. (We asked.) We finally found one in (wait for it) a 7-11 store, where I also picked up a couple of bottles of Japanese single malt scotch which I can't wait to try.

I'm writing this off-line because we're still in radio silence until we get out of Japanese territorial waters later tonight and they can turn the satellite link back on. Connectivity will of on-again-off-again until we get out of Japan about a week from now. Until then, sayonara!

Thursday, September 24, 2009

In a fog

We sailed from Kamchatka straight into the biggest fog bank I've ever experienced. It was thick as the proverbial pea soup for about 40 hours. The ship cruises at just under 20 knots, so that's nearly 800 miles of fog. And the ship's fog horn, which is unbelievably loud, was sounding every minute or so the entire time.

We finally broke out a few hours ago (whew!) into beautiful 70-degree weather off the coast of Hokkaido, the north island of Japan. The waters around here are thick with fishing boats. They are *everywhere*. It's a wonder there's a fish left in Japanese territorial waters. (Update: apparently we just caught the evening fishing rush. When we broke out of the fog I could count upwards of twenty fishing boats visible to the naked eye. But now an hour later I can't see any.)

Our immigration adventures continue. We've been told that the Japanese officials want to make a "full inspection" of the passengers before they allow us ashore, including photographs and fingerprints. Ain't travelin' just a hoot 'n' a holler?

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Missing the point on health care

Good news is lawmakers are converging on a health care bill. Bad news is they seem to have completely forgotten why we need a health care bill to begin with. Let's review, shall we? Health care costs are going up. They are going up so fast that if the present trend continues the country will be bankrupt in a few years. So we need health care reform to bring costs down so the country doesn't go broke. Doesn't seem too hard to understand, right? And yet Congress seems ready to pass a health care bill that will make costs go up, not down.

I am at an utter loss to find an adjective that is up to the task of describing this situation. "Incompetent" just doesn't begin to do it justice. How could someone as smart as Barack Obama have let this situation spin so wildly out of control?

We interrupt this travelogue...

We've been informed that the Japanese do not allow boats in their territorial waters to use satellite communications links. Why this is (or how they would even know) is not clear. So once we hit Japan we will have only sporadic Internet connectivity (essentially only a few hours between ports when we can get far enough from land that we are no longer in Japanese territorial waters). It's damned annoying. Updates will be sporadic for the next week or so.

[Travelogue] From Russia with (unexpected) love

Russia wins the prize for the port of call that most exceeded my expectations, and not just because my expectations were set pretty low. We were primed for all sorts of bureaucratic hassles with immigration, but it actually went very smoothly. Nancy and I were cleared to go ashore before we actually ready to go.

Our first impression was not very promising. A fog bank had rolled in, which cast a gloomy pall over the rusty fishing boats in the harbor. We were about a half hour early for our tour so we decided to take a quick walk. It turned out we went the wrong direction. If we had turned right we would have ended up in the town center, but we turned left instead (both directions looked about the same from our vantage point when we made the decision). We ended up doing one of the most unpleasant walks I've ever done, alongside a busy highway filled with old cars that had never even been in close proximity to a catalytic converter. We almost choked to death on the fumes.

We made our way back to the dock, coughing the whole way, and got on the bus. There was some sort of delay because it took another hour before the bulk of the people on the tour actually showed up from the ship. The busses trundled out of town, and we encountered the aftermaths of not one but two car accidents along the way, one fender-bender, and one apparent head-on collision that totaled both vehicles.

Yeah, I know, it all sounds pretty bad. And it was. But then the sun came out, and about fifteen minutes later we were in the countryside in the metaphorical shadow of three spectacular snow-capped volcanoes. All three are active, and little wisps of steam were coming off their tops the whole day. We visited a dog-sledding operation. It was the usual blend of activities for a rural cultural experience: some native dances, lunch, a walk in the woods. But it was all really well done. The dances were actually interesting. We had been told in advance that part of the ritual is that the women make these hooting noises that sound just like seagulls, and that is exactly (and I mean *exactly*) what they sounded like. But in the context of the dancing it didn't sound weird, it made sense in a you-had-to-be-there kind of way. And the lunch (mushroom soup and smoked salmon) was *really* good. Even the beer (made locally) was good, and I don't normally like beer. The people were all really friendly, as were the dogs (Nancy got completely covered with fur). I'm not sure I would rush back to Kamchatka any time soon, but I would certainly not caution people to stay away, as I was pretty sure I was going to do earlier in the day.

I learned, incidentally, that the correct name of the town is actually Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky, and the accent is on "PAV" not "OVSK". It means "Peter-Paul-town". (Any of you Star Trek fans remember Pavel Chekov? Pavel is Russian for Paul.) There's another Petropavlovsk in Kazakhstan, and they append the "-Kamchatsky" to distinguish it. If you're ever in Eastern Russia I think you could probably do worse. But be sure to turn right.

Monday, September 21, 2009

[Travelogue] A following sea

Greetings from the future. It's September 22nd here, even though it's still the 21st in California, and will be for another eight hours. We're on the Bering Sea, which is notorious for its bad weather. There's a tropical depression bearing (no pun intended) down on us. We were a little apprehensive about this, particularly since the captain made a special announcement warning everyone to batten down the hatches and secure things that might fall over during the night.

Somehow we manage to have good luck even with bad weather. We're traveling West. Normally that would have us moving into the prevailing wind, which on most of the planet usually goes from west to east. But low pressure systems in the northern hemisphere rotate counterclockwise, and this one is coming up on us from the south, creating a very unusual easterly wind. The result is a following sea, what in flying parlance is called a tail wind. So we have big waves (10-15 feet) but they are moving in the same direction that we are. So where we'd normally be plowing through the waves pitching and rolling, we're instead sailing *with* the waves, and effectively surfing them. The upshot is a (mostly) gentle, slow, and not at all unpleasant roll, with a great show of whitecaps outside.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

[Travelogue] Bye bye to American skies

(With apologies to Don McLean.)

We left our last American port of call today, Dutch Harbor, home of the Discovery Channel show The Deadliest Catch, on the island of Unalaska. The TV show has definitely made an impact there. The shuttle bus driver couldn't stop talking about it. "And over there are the crab pots they use on Deadliest Catch. And here's where the crew of Deadliest Catch drank a beer once." And so on. We did see a bald eagle sitting on a street light, which was kind of cool. Not the sort of thing you normally see in SoCal. But that was pretty much the highlight of the visit. I wouldn't really recommend going out of your way to visit Unalaska unless you're really passionate about fishing or bird watching.

We are now out on the Bering Sea heading towards Russia. Our luck with the weather is holding. The sea is (mostly) calm and the skies are partly cloudy, which is exceptionally good weather in these parts for this time of year. We have two days at sea. I'm hoping I'll be able to focus enough to actually get a little work done.

We've been warned not to expect too much from our port of call in Russia. The last time it took six hours (out of an eight-hour-long stop) just to clear the ship through immigration.

We're blasting through time zones like they were popcorn. The clocks are going back an hour each day. Tomorrow we cross the international date line and lose a full day, which we'll get back at the end of the trip. When you fly to LA from Sydney you land five hours before you take off, which always seems kind of freaky. (The time warp effect is even more pronounced if you go to LA from New Zealand.) But there probably won't be much new to tell for a couple of days.

Friday, September 18, 2009

A chat with an imaginary friend

There's nothing like a day at sea to stimulate some philosophizing... The last time I wrote a dialog I picked on the theists, so I thought I'd give the atheists some equal time. :-)


RG: Hello, QualiaSoup. Thanks for taking the time to "chat" with me.

QS: You didn't exactly give me a choice, did you now.

RG: No, I didn't, and that will actually become quite relevant later on.

QS: Hm, that's intriguing. I can't offhand think of any valid points you could make from co-opting my identity in this way, but since I don't have a choice I'll go ahead and suspend my disbelief for the moment. What did you want to talk about?

RG: First I wanted to tell you that I thought that your videos (at least the two that I watched [1] [2]) are very good. They're well paced, accurate, and you take very complex issues and present them in a way that I think nearly anyone can readily understand. And you taught me something about bananas that I didn't know before, so I thank you for that.

QS: Don't mention it.

RG: I also wanted to let you know that your videos inspired me to write this blog entry.

QS: Fine, but why drag me into it? Why not just write a normal sort of essay, or put together a video response like everyone else does?

RG: Because "dragging you into it" is actually essential to the point I want to make.

QS: And that would be...

RG: Before I reveal my thesis I beg your indulgence for one more moment so that I can preface my argument with this: I actually agree with nearly everything you say in your videos. In particular, I agree with you that the existence of God (or gods) is untenable on both logical and evidentiary grounds. Nonetheless, I think I can put forward a credible argument that God (some God, the exact nature of which I will get to in good time) does in fact exist.

QS: Normally I would dismiss you as just another kook. People have been trying unsuccessfully to prove the existence of God for millennia. But since you don't seem to be a religious nut (tip o' the hat for the rhetorical priming there...)

RG: Why, thank you kindly.

QS: ... and since you haven't really left me a lot of choice in the matter, I'll stay and listen to what you have to say.

RG: I appreciate that. But please note that I did not say that I was going to *prove* the existence of God. I freely acknowledge that cannot be done. What I said I wold do was present *a credible argument for His existence* (for some value of "His". And, I might add at this point, "existence.")

QS: I'm all ears.

RG: Thank you. First we have to establish what it means to exist. You didn't go into it much in your videos, but you strongly implied an operationalist definition of existence: things exist if they can be *measured* somehow. The example you gave in your video was the wind, which exists by virtue of our being able to measure, for example, its velocity.

QS: So far so good.

RG: So I have a question for you: do you consider measurability to be a necessary and sufficient condition for existence?

QS: No. I go further than that. I take the scientific view of existence: to exist, something has to be measurable *repeatably* and *reliably*, at least in principle. Whether or not we *actually* perform those measurements is irrelevant. There are rocks on the far side of the moon which have never been measured, but they exist nonetheless. They exist because *if* you were to go to the far side of the moon you *could* measure them. The reason God does not exist is that if we could measure Him, he would simply be part of nature and would no longer be God. God is *by definition* impossible to measure.

RG: Not by the definition I intend to use.

QS: Then your definition does not correspond with the popular notion of God.

RG: That issue will indeed lie at the heart of the matter. But we're getting waaaayyyyy ahead of ourselves here. First we have to pin down the meaning of "exist" which will turn out to be much more problematic than the meaning of "God." For example, do unicorns exist?

QS: They do not exist as physical creatures. They do exist as concepts in people's minds. These two different modes of existence are referred to as existence in the wide and narrow senses. So unicorns and God and all other fictional creatures exist in the wide sense but not the narrow sense. But most religious people insist that (their) God exists in the narrow sense.

RG: OK, I'm with you so far. So let's take the wind. Does the wind exist in the narrow sense?

QS: Of course. Why would you doubt it?

RG: Because the wind is not really a "thing" in its own right. What we think of as "the wind" is really just a particular configuration of air molecules.

QS: But that's true of nearly everything that exists (in the narrow sense). Most "things" that we speak of existing don't really exist in their own right, but only as particular arrangements and states of ensembles of other things. At root, everything is just a transient configuration of subatomic particles (or the quantum wave function if you really want to be a purist about it).

RG: OK, we're still on the same page. From now on let us stipulate that when we speak of "existing" we mean in the narrow sense. So let me ask you this: does Borat Sagdiyev exist?

QS: No, he's a fictional character.

RG: How do you know?

QS: Are you kidding? That's common knowledge.

RG: You shouldn't believe everything you read on Wikipedia. Borat is different from other fictional characters. Unlike, say, Harry Potter, you can find people who have actually *met* Borat, who have seen him with their own eyes, who have touched him and hence in some sense "measured" him. Indeed, many of those encounters are documented on film. So by your own criterion, Borat exists.

QS: No. The criterion was that the measurements be reliably repeatable. If you do enough experiments you will find that Borat is actually Sacha Baron Cohen *pretending* to be Borat.

RG: But why should that imply Borat to be non-existent? You admitted earlier that the wind exists, but it is nothing more than a particular configuration of air molecules. So Borat is just a particular configuration of Sacha Baron Cohen, but that doesn't mean Borat doesn't exist.

QS: You're playing with semantics. In some sense, yes, Borat exists. But Borat does not have many of the qualities that are normally attributed to him. For example, he was not born in Kazakhstan. In fact, he was never born at all because Borat is not a *person*, he is a *persona*.

RG: But quibbling over whether Borat is a person or a persona is not a disagreement about Borat's *existence*, it is a disagreement about his *nature*.

QS: OK, I concede point. Borat exists, but he is a persona, not a person.

RG: Good enough. Now, does the fact that Borat is a persona *matter*?

QS: Of course it matters.

RG: Why?

QS: Good heavens, where to begin? Persons are bound by physical constraints that personas are not. Personas are ephemeral (like the wind), persons are not (like air molecules).

RG: But just because something is ephemeral doesn't mean it can't have an effect on the world. The wind, for example, can knock things over despite the fact that it is ephemeral. Borat can offend people despite the fact that he is ephemeral.

QS: But it isn't *really* Borat, it's *really* Sacha Baron Cohen.

RG: I could as well say it isn't *really* the wind, it's *really* the air molecules. It's just semantics. When the air molecules have the configuration we call "wind" they have the effects of the wind. When Sacha Baron Cohen has the configuration we call "Borat" he has the effects of Borat. The two situations are completely analogous. You cannot deny the existence of Borat without denying the existence of wind.

QS: OK, fine, but what does any of this have to do with God?

RG: I'm going to argue that disputes that are usually framed as disagreement about God's *existence* are really disagreements about His *nature*. Furthermore, if you reframe the argument in this way, you will find a surprising amount of agreement between atheists and theists about God's nature.

QS: I doubt that very much.

RG: I know. But I think that's because you tend to conflate *theism* with *fundamentalism*. There is no reconciliation with fundamentalists. The fundamentalists are simply wrong, as I'm sure you would agree. But not all theists are fundamentalists. Karen Armstrong, for example, is a theist but not a fundamentalist. And though I don't have the data to prove it, I suspect most people who consider themselves theists are likewise not fundamentalists. I believe that reconciliation between non-believers and such people (in the sense of coming to a mutual understanding of both God's existence and His nature) is possible.

QS: How?

RG: Let's start with existence. Has anything I've said so far changed your view about whether or not God exists?

QS: Absolutely not.

RG: I didn't think so. So let's try a different question: does the *idea* of God exist?

QS: Obviously.

RG: Then suppose we *define* God as this *idea*.

QS: Such a definition is circular and hence vacuous, so say nothing of the fact that it bears no resemblance to what people normally consider to be "God".

RG: You're wrong on all counts, but let me start with the last one. Wold you not agree that one of the things that people say of God is that He can heal the sick?

QS: Yes.

RG: Are you familiar with the placebo effect?

QS: Are you saying that God is a placebo?

RG: Sort of, though without the disparaging implications. Non-believers have a tendency to pooh-pooh placebos. The placebo effect has been something of an embarrassment to mainstream science. And yet it is undeniably real. It is also, at least so far, somewhat mysterious.

QS: It's just a matter of time before neuroscience figures it out.

RG: That may well be. One of the points of honest disagreements about God's nature is whether or not He is supernatural. Until science *actually* figures out how the placebo effect works we cannot *definitively* rule out the possibility that it is a supernatural effect (or, to put it in scientific terms, that it involves new physics). But regardless, everyone can agree that this healing effect, whether you call it the placebo effect or the Power of Faith or God, is undeniably *mysterious*, at least at the moment. Furthermore, until science *actually* resolves the question of how placebos work, the belief that science *will* resolve it is an article of faith.

QS: Science has a pretty impressive track record of resolving these kinds of mysteries. You seem to be arguing for the God of the gaps.

RG: Again, sort of. At the end I will argue that there is one gap for which there is good reason to believe that science will not fill it. But what I really want to argue for is God-as-an-idea. But (and this is very important) I want to argue *against* the concept of God as *merely* an idea. To reduce God-as-an-idea to God as *merely* an idea is as great a mistake as reducing Darwinian evolution to life-as-an-accident.

QS: I'm not quite certain whether the concept of God-as-an-idea strikes me as absurd or merely useless. But I'm pretty sure it's one or the other.

RG: It will turn out that God-as-an-idea has many of the same properties as God-as-deity (as conceived by non-fundamentalists). He/she/it can heal the sick (courtesy of the placebo effect). He/she/it can be influenced by prayer (ditto). He/she/it can perform (certain kinds of) miracles. He/she/it can serve as a basis for morality. He/she/it is mysterious. Some limited insight into his/her/its nature can even be gained through so-called holy texts, or through meditation and ritual.

QS: I buy all that. But none of that changes the fact that this kind of God is *fictional*.

RG: Absolutely. The mistake that atheists make is not in saying that God is fictional, but in saying that God is *merely* fictional. It's a mistake of the same sort that fundamentalists make when they say that Darwinian evolution is merely random. Randomness is in fact an essential component of Darwinian evolution. But it is not *merely* random. God-as-an-idea is fictional, but it is not *merely* fictional, just as Darwinian evolution is random, but it is not *merely* random.

QS: Darwinian evolution is rendered non-merely-random by the addition of a second essential element, namely, natural selection. Does God-as-an-idea have analogous essential element that separates it from "ordinary" fiction?

RG: Yes, but it's a little harder to characterize. It doesn't yet have a neat label like "natural selection" or "placebo effect". As far as I know no one has really explored this in depth. I've called it the elephant in the atheist living room but that's not a very good label. But the basic idea is this: there are manifest phenomena that emerge from human minds that are undeniably real but beyond the current reach of science. The placebo effect is one such phenomenon. Self-awareness is another. Qualia, like the flavor of chocolate or what it feels like to be in love or to be angry are another. Science can explain the external manifestations of these things, and may even be able to explain the physical mechanisms that underlie them. But science cannot possibly ever explain what it feels like to be hungry, or to be lonely, or to be loved or to be you. God is what you get when you stop sweeping these things under the rug as "mere" anything and start admitting them as a vital part of your reality.

QS: I don't sweep these things under the rug, I just understand them as manifestations of physical processes in my brain.

RG: But that cannot possibly give you a complete understanding of these things.

QS: How do you know that? Our knowledge of how the brain works is incomplete. How do you know that science can't *possibly* give us a complete understanding?

RG: Because of your own criterion for scientific reality: to be amenable to scientific inquiry a thing has to be *measurable*. And subjective experience is, by definition, not measurable. If it were measurable it would not be subjective.

QS: But subjective experience *is* measurable. If I'm in pain, for example, you can measure my physiological responses. You can do brain scans that show distinctive patterns depending on what my subjective experience is at any moment. And the technology for doing these things is still in its infancy. There is no reason to supposed that some day we won't be able to tell exactly what someone is thinking and feeling by scanning their brain.

RG: We can actually do better than that. We can even today tell things about someone's mental state by scanning their brain that they themselves are not consciously aware of. And that is exactly my point. There's this huge disconnect between the objective and the subjective, and it goes both ways. There are things in our subjective experience that are not in the physical manifestations of that experience, and vice versa.

QS: But science could still some day get a handle on all of that.

RG: No, it couldn't.

QS: Why not?

RG: Because at its core, subjective experience is fundamentally incompatible with the laws of physics.

QS: Remember that bit in the beginning where I said you weren't a kook? I should like to retract that now.

RG: Hear me out. All the known laws of physics are symmetric in time and space. That is, the laws of physics are the same everwhere and everywhen. Getting to that point is considered one of the crowning achievements of physics. But qualitative experience is not symmetric with respect to time and space. It has a privileged frame of reference: here and now. The laws of physics by their very nature cannot account for that.

QS: Of course they can. My here-and-now is not the same as your here-and-now. Everyone's here-and-now is anchored to the physical manifestation of their brain, which the laws of physics have no trouble describing as being present at a particular place and time.

RG: Ah, but you are making an assumption here, namely, that subjective experience is necessarily bound to a particular physical embodiment. There is a famous thought experiment in philosophy: suppose we put you under a general anesthetic and create an exact atom-for-atom duplicate of your brain and body. We then destroy the original "you" and wake up the duplicate "you". What would be the subjective experience? Philosophers argue about this a lot, but there are only three possible answers: 1) the subjective experience is indistinguishable from simply going to sleep and waking up again, 2) the subjective experience is somehow distinguishable or 3) it is not possible to do this experiment even in principle because the processes going on in the brain are inherently quantum in nature, and it is not possible to duplicate a quantum state. Let's assume for the sake of argument that 3 is not the case. (All indications are that the processing in the brain is fundamentally chemical, not quantum, so in principle it should be possible to do the duplication.) So now we have only two possibilities. If (1) is correct then we have proven that subjective experience is not bound to a particular physical artifact, and so subjective experience transcends physicality in exactly the same way that, say, information transcends physicality. If (2) is correct then we have proven that subjective experience cannot possibly be the result of purely physical processes, since we have two physically identical systems with two different subjective experiences. Either way science fails fundamentally to explain at least one aspect of subjective experience.

QS: There's another possibility that you have not taken into account. It may be that subjective experience is bound, not to a particular physical artifact, but to a particular physical configuration. In other words, possibility (1) is in fact correct.

RG: We can rule out that possibility as well by simply not destroying the original you. If subjective experience were bound to a particular physical configuration we would necessarily have the same subjective experience in two different locations. But that's not possible because by definition a single subjective experience is bound to a particular place and time. Both copies of you might have subjective experiences that are qualitatively identical, but they would not be the same experience.

QS: OK, let's not quibble over this. What has all this to do with God?

RG: Spiritual experiences are subjective. Some people experience them more than others. It's rather like experiencing color. Some people are color-blind and can't distinguish between, say, red and green. It is impossible to explain to such a person what the subjective difference between red and green is. They can understand in the intellectual abstract that they are different wavelengths of light, and even that they are different colors (because they can distinguish between red and blue), but they cannot ever know the subjective experience of being able to distinguish red from green. There is a "spiritual blindness" that that prevents some people from experiencing God in exactly the same way that color-blindness prevents some people from experiencing red and green. Such people tend naturally to become atheists. I myself am one such person. I have never had a spiritual experience in my life. The closest I've come is a sort of euphoria that I feel when I finally get a piece of code to work after fixing a particularly hard bug. Nonetheless, I can understand in the intellectual abstract that some people have these experiences, that they are as real to them as red and green are to me.

QS: I would call those delusions.

RG: Spiritual experience spans a very broad range. Some kinds of spiritual experience are fairly labelled as delusional, like schizophrenics who hear voices. They really do hear voices. It actually sounds to them like someone is talking even though no one is really there. (It's actually not so much the voices per se that make schizophrenics crazy as the fact that there's often no way to get them to shut up.) But to dismiss *all* spiritual experience as delusion is to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

QS: OK, I'll buy the general notion of spirituality as something that transcends science and is, at least in some cases, not actively harmful, and possibly even useful in grappling with (here's a label for your elephant) existential angst and certain other maladies. That's still a long way from saving your soul by nailing a guy to a cross.

RG: Granted. I already conceded that fundamentalism cannot be reconciled with science. But surely at this point you can see how the idea that, say, Jesus died for your sins can be a legitimate belief in the subjective realm of spirituality?

QS: I would have conceded that straightaway. It is not at all unusual for people to have imaginary friends.

RG: Ah, but Jesus is a very special kind of imaginary friend. He is an imaginary friend whom a great many people share in common. And when imagination becomes communal it becomes a fundamentally new kind of phenomenon: it becomes a shared subjective experience. It becomes an effective weapon against despair and solipsism. It becomes a more powerful healing agent through the placebo effect. In short, it becomes God.

QS: But it's still just an idea. It never rose from the dead or tuned water into wine.

RG: But that doesn't matter, and if you think it does you are missing the point. Whether Jesus actually, literally, physically turned water into wine only matters to the fundamentalist, with whom we have long since parted company. But to the non-fundamenatalist theist this is simply irrelevant because that is not what God is about. For the non-fundamantalist theist, God lives in the spiritual realm, in the realm of mythos rather than logos.

QS: But the realm of mythos isn't *real*. It doesn't *exist*.

RG: And here we come full circle, and I have one final question for you: do *you* exist?

QS: What a ridiculous question. Of course I exist. Oh, wait...

Is it still a joke if no one gets it?

I don't think I've ever seen so many smart people miss a point so ironically. YVain wrote up an analysis of fashion from a geeky sociological point of view, using the idea that "Real Men Wear Pink" as a hook on which to hang a theory of fashion as a tool for signaling social status. The essay got a lot of attention on hacker news, all of which proves that the article's point is actually correct, but in a particularly ironic way.

You see, the phrase "Real Men Wear Pink" is a pun. In this context, "Pink" is not a color, it's a brand name. So this really is a test of social standing of sorts, but it's not about fashion per se, it's about knowing the difference between wearing pink and wearing Pink.

Lest you come away from this thinking that I'm some kind of fashionista, I'm not. It's pure coincidence that I happen to know this little fashion factoid. I once had occasion to stay in a hotel on Jermyn street in London, where Thomas Pink has its flagship store. I happened to see it as I was walking down the street, and the irony of the name struck me immediately, and has apparently stuck in my head ever since.

I actually have done a little bit of studying about men's fashion, and there really is a sort of secret code that separates high-end men's fashion from the middle and lower-end stuff. Take men's jackets, for example. There are only a few parameters that vary: there's the cloth, of course, and whether it's single or double-breasted. But beyond those obvious things there are half a dozen or so less obvious ones, like the number of buttons. Middle-end jackets invariably have two or three buttons. Higher end jackets will often have one or four. Then there are the lapels. Middle-end jackets that are single-breasted will invariably have regular lapels. Double-breasted jackets will usually have peaked lapels. If you see peaked lapels on a single-breasted jacket you are almost certainly looking at a very expensive piece of clothing.

I learned all this because I once got a gift certificate for a high-end clothing store. It wasn't redeemable for cash, so I used it to get a jacket custom-made with a combination of features that are never found on off-the-rack jackets, but out of a fairly unassuming grey wool that makes it look at first glance like a regular sport coat. I wear it with jeans as a sort of personal fashion joke. I have yet to meet anyone who actually seems to have noticed.

I'm obviously hanging out with the wrong crowd.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

[Travelogue] Drumming up some enthusiasm

We were on Kodiak Island today. We were told that we were the last cruise ship of the season, and that the previous three had all cancelled because of heavy rain and high wind. But when we got there is was only partly cloudy, no wind, and no rain. And it's kind of creepy, but that sort of thing just happens to us again and again when we travel. The opposite extreme, where we get weather bad enough to affect our plans, has happened only once in ten years that I can remember.

Kodiak turned out to be vastly more interesting than I was expecting it to be. We took a tour called the "Kodiak city overview" (with "city" being rather a relative term here) thinking it would be sort of a pity tour where we politely ooh and aah over the native crafts. And it kind of started out that way, with our guide proudly pointing out the fact that they have a McDonalds and a Subway, and (OMIGOD!) a Wal Mart! But then it started to get more interesting, with a small but well stocked aquarium where we got up close and personal with some Alaskan king crabs, and a beautiful rain forest full of moss-covered trees (but for the fact that it was fifty degrees it would have been paradise). But the highlight of the trip was a concert given by the Kodiak Island Drummers. The venue was the high school (there is only one on the entire island) and just the auditorium was an interesting feature in and of itself. The room was perfectly cylindrical. It had to be because it was mounted on gimbals and it could rotate to convert from an auditorium into a classroom.

The start of the show was delayed by some technical difficulties with the lights. Someone apparently turned out the backstage lights before the house lights, and now they couldn't find the switch to turn out the house lights. I was thinking to myself that they should just leave them on -- how much of a difference would it make? They finally sorted out the problem. It turned out to be worth the wait.

The curtain rose on a black, silent stage. Then a dozen ghostly white-gloved hands and masked faces appeared out of nowhere, glowing blue, illuminated by an unseen black light, followed a split second later by a sudden frenzy of sound and disembodied motion as they began to beat on unseen drums. And they were good. Tight. Lively. Well rehearsed. Not quite as good as the Kodo drummers of Japan, who tour world-wide, but the potential is clearly there.

After about twenty minutes they finished and brought up the lights. They took their masks off and we were shocked at how young they were. I was expecting high school students, but their ages turned out to range from eight to fourteen. It is no coincidence that the acronym for Kodiak Island Drummers is KID. If you have a passion for seeking out talented musical acts that no one knows about you should come up to Kodiak (and stop off for barbecue at the Smoke Shack in Seward while you're at it).

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

[Travelogue] Best barbecue west of the Klondike

The weather here in Alaska seems to turn on a dime. Yesterday was gorgeous, today is once again gray and rainy. Fortunately, we didn't have any plans to disrupt. We're in Seward, Alaska, on a transition between the first and second of the five legs of our cruise. Only a few dozen people from the first leg are going on to the second, and the ship is nearly empty except for the crew. It feels kind of eerie.

We walked around Seward for a bit but there's not a whole lot of there there. Like every place else we've been it's bracketed by beautiful mountains, but the town itself is not much to look at. You can walk the entire business district from end to end in about ten minutes.

We decided to have lunch in town and ended up in a restaurant called the Smoke Shack, which occupies one of four old rail cars in a complex aptly named the Train Wreck. It has six tables, and apparently we've become thoroughly citified because Nancy and I were both astounded at how slow the service was. It took us about half an hour to get a pulled pork sandwich and a bowl of soup. But it was worth the wait. My sandwich was served with an assortment of three home made barbecue sauces, any one of which would almost have been worth a trip to Seward to try. If you ever find yourself here and you like barbecue (and you're not in a hurry), I can definitely recommend this place.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

[Travelogue] Rain? What rain?

After taking a one-day break our ten-year-long winning streak with the weather while traveling seems to be back. With a vengeance. A disastrously rainy day in Juneau has been followed by two days of gorgeous weather in Sitka and the Hubbard Glacier. Sitka, with the city-limits-busting population of 8,000 or so, is the fifth largest "city" in Alaska. I took a mountain biking excursion and it took all of ten minutes to ride from the center of town to its outskirts. From there it was nothing but trees, streams, and mountain lakes. They get so much rain up here that they don't have water meters, just a flat rate for all you con drink, shower, and flush. Quite a contrast from Southern California where we're on second-stage rationing because of a four-year-long drought. Somewhat ominously, though, the summer has been the driest that anyone in Sitka can remember.

Tomorrow we're off to Seward, which marks the end of the first of the five legs of our trip. From there we go to Kodiak Island and Dutch Harbor, and that's the last we'll see of the U.S. for two months. From there we cross the Bering Sea to Petropavlovsk, which is at the southern end of the Kamchatka peninsula. I am given to understand that it's considered a resort by Russian standards. We'll see.

In the meantime, here's a photo of Hubbard glacier. Click for a full-scale version. I'm not going to be able to post many photos because the internet bandwidth from the ship is so low, but this was just to beautiful to wait. The face of the glacier is 500 feet high and seven miles wide (though what you see in the photo is just half of that width -- the other half is hidden behind the point on the right edge of the photo). If you look very, very closely you will just be able to make out a small black dot about a quarter of the way from the left edge of the photo and just under the bottom of the glacier. That's a boat.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

The rain in Spain...

... may fall mainly in the plain, but in Alaska it rains along the coast.

About ten years ago, Nancy and I visited Europe. We landed in Munich on a gray, soggy day. It had been raining continuously, we were later told, for several weeks. But then an amazing thing happened. As we got off the plane, the rain stopped and the cloud cover started to thin. By the time we cleared customs the sun was shining, and since then we have had an almost uninterrupted streak of good luck with the weather whenever we have travelled. It has really been quite amazing.

Today our luck finally ran out. When we arrived in Juneau, Alaska this morning it had started to rain, and it hasn't stopped all day. Our excursion to the Mendenhall Glacier was cancelled, but not before we had driven to the airport and donned ice-hiking gear, including crampons and a harness. The day was somewhat redeemed by an absolutely fabulous dinner at a place called the Twisted Fish. If you're ever in Juneau I highly recommend it. The cocoanut salmon is almost worth the trip.

Juneau is actually a pretty amazing place. It's on the North American continent, but you can't reach it by road. The only way to get here is by air or sea. Nonetheless, it is the capital of Alaska, one of only two state capitals that is not accessible by road (the other, of course, being Honolulu). There seem to be only two kinds of businesses in town: art galleries and bars.

We're told this weather is not at all unusual. What is unusual, in fact almost unheard of this time of year, is sunshine. So it will give you some idea of how powerful our travel weather juju has been up until now when I tell you that we actually saw the sun yesterday in Ketchikan (of bridge-to-nowhere fame) for about five minutes. All of the locals were in the street gazing open-mouthed at the sky as if it were the Second Coming. (Yes, I am kidding about that. Now, I am not (at least as far as I know) kidding about how rare sunshine is up here.)

Which brings me back to Fjords. There are only four places in the world that have fjords: Norway, Alaska, Chile and New Zealand. Why is this? It because fjords are valleys carved out by glaciers. To make a glacier you need a lot of ice. To make a lot of ice you need a lot of precipitation and cold temperatures. To get cold temperatures you have to be far from the equator. And to get a lot of precipitation you need a mountain with a large body of water to the west. Why? Because the prevailing winds on planet earth blow from west to east. You can get sporadic precipitation from a lot of different sources. But to get the kind of sustain precipitation that you need to make a glacier the only way to do it is to tap into the water that has just evaporated from an ocean. The way you do that is you take the moist air from the ocean and force it upwards. As air rises, it cools, and any moisture it contains condenses out. And the easiest way to force air upwards is to take a mountain and put it in the path of the prevailing wind. Norway, Alaska, Chile and New Zealand are the only four places on earth that have the necessary ingredients to make glaciers: mountains far from the equator facing west adjoining an ocean.

So fjords, along with earthquakes and the Hawaiian islands chain, are another puzzle for young-earth creationists. If you want to argue that fjords were created by, say, Noah's flood, then you have to come up with some other explanation for why fjords are found in exactly these four places and no others, since glaciers require a very long time to form (and a long time to disappear again). 6000 years is nowhere near enough.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

And now a word from our thponthor

We're at sea today, cruising the Alaskan Inside Passage so there's not much to report trip-wise. So I thought I'd take a vacation from the vacation to write about some geek stuff.

For the last few months I've been getting back into Lisp programming thanks to the advent of Clozure Common Lisp. CCL has actually been around for a long time, but only this year has it gotten stable enough to get real work done. But having reached that point, CCL now in my view kicks some serious tushie because of its excellent integration with both Linux and OS X, including Cocoa. (I'm told it also runs on Windows but I wouldn't know about that.)

A couple of years ago I sketched out a plan for attracting more people to Lisp. The plan was for a new Lisp-like language that I dubbed Ciel (pun intended). The "hook" for this new language was going to be a fundamental focus on abstract associative maps. I produced a rudimentary implementation in C++ using the Boehm GC and CLN for the numerical tower. It was only a few hundred LOC, but it was nonetheless fairly featureful. It was also hopelessly unreliable. It would run for a while and then dump core. And because most of the code was C++ code that was written by someone else, debugging it was pretty hopeless. Sometimes it seems that C++ was specifically designed to be hard to debug. So I ultimately abandoned the effort.

But now that CCL is available as a platform I'm taking up this effort again. The goal is to produce an integrated collection of a programming environment, libraries, and introductory text so that newcomers can download it all as a package and have it all Just Work. In this respect Ciel would be similar to other integration efforts, like Lisp in a Box and Peter Seibel's Practical Common Lisp but with one important difference: what the package will aim to teach is *not* Common Lisp, but Ciel, a new dialect of Lisp specifically designed to be user-friendly to non-Lisp programmers. Think of Ciel as a mental bridge between Python and "real" Lisp.

Specifically, the features that are going into Ciel in furtherance of this goal are:

1. Abstract associative maps as a fundamental data type. This was the basis of the original Ciel proposal, but will only be one component of the "new" Ciel effort. Associative maps are fundamental to a wide variety of programming tasks, but traditional presentations of Lisp encourage both confusion and premature optimization by teaching association lists to beginners. Association lists are very powerful, but they are too low-level for a modern introduction. Instead, associative maps should be taught (and should be made available) as an abstract type. Students should be taught to *use* associative maps *before* they are taught how to implement them.

2. Iteration using iterators rather than recursion. Again, recursion is very powerful, and to really understand programming you have to understand recursion. But newcomers should not be forced to wrap their brains around recursion before they can do anything interesting.

3. Lexicons instead of packages. I believe that lexicons (which are similar to Python modules) have a better "impedance match" to the non-Lisp mindset.

4. Various tweaks to cover-up aspects of Common Lisp's design that perennially confuse newcomers, including a new design for global variables, and seamlessly integrated infix syntax. I haven't written about that last one yet, but here's a sneak preview: the idea is to co-op an unused portion of the Lisp syntax space, the juxtaposition of a symbol name and a left paren with no intervening whitespace, e.g. f(x). There is a simple reader hack that allows f(x) to be *read* as (f x). Add an off-the-shelf infix parser and you can write, e.g. f(x+y) with no leading hash-sign character macro, which tends to be off-putting to newcomers. I've been experimenting with this idea for a few weeks now and it seems to work pretty well.

5. A single binding construct that subsumes LET, MULTIPLE-VALUE-BIND, and DESTRUCTURING-BIND for lexical bindings, and a separate binding construct for dynamic bindings. The conflation of lexical and dynamic bindings in Common Lisp is, again, a source of perennial confusion for newcomers, and the payoff in terms of being able to run legacy code from dynamically scoped dialects of Lisp is not worth that cost.

6. Support for ((...) ...) syntax so that you can write the Y combinator without FUNCALL being the most prominent visual feature of the code.

7. A comprehensive library including a complete web framework: a client, a server, interfaces to various databases, an HTML and form generation library, etc.

And last but not least...

8. A step-by-step text targeted towards new programmers. This text will be unique in that it will not take a top-down or bottom-up approach, but will instead be "middle-out". Because it starts with a comprehensive library, it can extend the knowledge of that library both upward (how to *use* the library) and downward (how the library is implemented) more or less simultaneously. The hope is that this approach will both attract newcomers (because it will let them do useful things quickly and easily) and convert them into "real" Lispers (because they can easily see how the features they are using are built in the underlying Common Lisp implementation).

A year ago I would have thought all this to be hopelessly overambitious. But I've been working on it for about six months now, and at my current rate of progress I think I have a good shot at getting it all done inside of a year.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

[Travelogue] Off to a good start

They say that the worst experiences make the best stories. If that's true, this is going to be the worst story ever, which is fine by me. As many of you already know, Nancy and I are off on a long trip. A ten weeks, this is by a huge margin the longest trip I've ever been on. It's pretty mind-boggling that none of the myriad things that could have gone wrong actually have. Our flight was not delayed. Our bags were not lost (though there were a few hours when it wasn't entirely clear whether they had actually made it on board the ship). We were not detained at the cruise terminal security checkpoint despite the fact that I very cleverly put our cruise tickets in our luggage (so our tickets got on board even if we couldn't). And they did manage to start the engines and disembark despite the fact that there was a two-hour delay while they loaded extra provisions on the ship.

Watching the ship being provisioned was actually pretty interesting, at least to a geek like me. There was this little army of fork lifts that shuttled palette after palette of soft drinks, flour, cheese, produce, and assort god-only-knows-what onto a little platform that was then hoisted onto the ship via a crane. The instant the platform reached the ship, a little hand-operated forklift would jut out from the hull, pick up the palette, and slurp it into the ship. And that process was repeated again and again and again for about three hours. Enough food and drink and booze to keep 700 human beings alive and happy for three months, all loaded in a few hours by less than a dozen men thanks to modern technology. Captain Bly would totally freak.

This ship, the Radisson Seven Seas Mariner is quite amazing. She was renovated not long ago, and I don't know if it was just a cosmetic makeover or if the re-did her physical plant, but she is unbelievably smooth. Even now as we're cruising up to the Alaskan fjords at twenty knots I can't tell that the engines are running. It's the quietest ship I've ever been on.

Speaking of Fjords, here's an interesting bit of trivia for you: there are four -- and only four -- places on the planet that have fjords. What are they, and why are there fjords there and nowhere else? Tune in tomorrow for the answer (assuming someone doesn't post it in the comments first).

Sunday, September 06, 2009

A Time Machine time bomb

I finally convinced myself that my new eSATA drivers were working, so I switched my two main external drives back from USB to eSATA. Everything seemed hunky dory, until I noticed that Time Machine was suddenly spinning for an awfully long time. I checked the logs and saw that Time Machine was busily deleting all my old backups. By the time I noticed, I had already lost about a year's worth.

What happened, as it turned out, was that when I unmounted the external drives to switch them back over to the eSATA cables, Time Machine removed those volumes from the exclusion list. It was trying to backup those external drives. To do that it needed about a terabyte of free space, so it was busily deleting all my old backups to make room. If I hadn't stopped it, it would have nuked them all. My backup volume is only 750GB.

IMHO this is a SERIOUS bug in Time Machine, almost bordering on legally actionable negligence on Apple's part. There are apparently people out there who have lost all of their backups because the exact same thing happened to them but they didn't notice in time. Newly mounted external drives should be excluded from backup by default. At the very least, Time Machine should prompt you, or warn you, or something. What any backup program should NOT do under any circumstances (and I would have hoped this would go without saying, but apparently not) is silently delete all of your backups.

UPDATE: There seems to be some confusion on two points. First, there was an option in TM on Leopard to "warn before old backups are deleted." In SL that option has been changed to "notify after old backups are deleted", which seems to me to rather defeat the purpose. Second, in most jurisdictions, if you accept money for a product there are implied warranties of merchantability and fitness for a particular purpose which you cannot disclaim. In this case, TM is advertised as an integral feature of OS X whose purpose is to make backups of your data. If instead it deletes all your data, that *could* be negligence that Apple could not legally disclaim, rather like selling a fire extinguisher that actually set your house on fire. But IANAL, and I didn't suffer any actual damages because I caught it in time, so I will not be putting this theory to the test. But someone who lost all their backups might.

Friday, September 04, 2009

CSS sucks redux

This is what my Google Groups admin page looks like since I upgraded to Snow Leopard:

If Google can't get CSS layout right what hope is there for us mere mortals?

Thursday, September 03, 2009

ESata on Snow Leopard

Imagine a car company with a successful line of sports cars. One day it decides to introduce a new model with new, clean lines and all the latest bells and whistles. Only one catch: the new model is available only with a 120 horsepower four-cylinder engine.

This is essentially the situation with Mac OS X Snow Leopard, which comes without support for the SiI3132 chipset, the most common chipset used in external SATA disk controllers. ESata is the 8-cylinder turbocharged engine of disk interfaces, the de facto standard for anyone for whom performance matters. And that includes anyone doing serious video editing, which is one of Apple's specific target markets.

Of course, it's not completely surprising that Apple would punt on ESata, since it already released its latest MacBook "Pro" models without an ExpressCard slot (except for the 17-inch model), which was the only way to get an ESata interface. All this leaves me at a loss. Does Apple intend for people to use MacBook Pros to edit video or not? And if not, what exactly is their target market? I don't get it.

Happily, through the grapevine I heard that the Silicon Image 3132r5 driver might work with Snow Leopard. I tried it, and it does indeed seem to work. I have not tested it extensively yet (I don't trust it with my live data so I need to swap an older drive into one of my Sata enclosures) but it looks very promising.

If anyone else decides to try this please let me know if it works for you.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Blessed are the pacemakers

No, that's not a typo. David Wong takes a crack (in Cracked, which seems like an odd venue for this sort of thing) at brokering peace between Christians and Atheists. One of his defenses of Atheism is that it grew out of Rationalism, which even Christians embrace on suitable occasions:

[Christians], there are people you love who would not be alive without [rationalism]. You can pray that grandpa's heart holds out for another year, but rational thinking invented the pacemaker.

Makes a worthwhile read. But it's interesting that he directed it at Christians specifically, and not theists in general. Shouldn't there be things that Atheists and Muslims can and must agree on as well? Athesists and Buddhists? Jews? Zoroastrians?

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

God, I love free enterprise

Just as I was starting to really fret about how to get rid of the horrible gloppy mess left behind by the fireproof gel we put on our house, someone drops off a flyer on our front porch. "Fire cleanup -- like it never happened!" and a list of a whole range of services, including some that would only be needed by people who got it a whole lot worse than we did (like replacing all the insulation in the attic).