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Transience Divine Below are the 10 most recent journal entries recorded in the "James R." journal:

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November 17th, 2018
11:28 am


Consciousness and complexity
Whence comes consciousness?

I am reading Homo Deus, and Harari claims, "When thousands of cars slowly edge their way through London, we call that a traffic jam, but it doesn't create some great Londonian consciousness that hover high above Piccadilly and says to itself, 'Blimey, I fell jammed!'" How would we know if it didn't? And with so many people having interconnected feelings across London, each like a neuron firing in a brain, isn't it reasonable to assume that if a brain can have consciousness, London can too? Surely our feeling of being in London when it's jammed some small ingredient of a larger jammed feeling.

For a long time, I've taken a kind of animist dualism stance on consciousness, which I took to be the only sensible alternative to physically wishing away the problem. It goes that if we have consciousness, and if humans aren't specially endowed, then all physical elements must be imbued with a spark of consciousness. This conscious spark resides in every atom, and the difference between a brain and a rock is that in a brain there is a level of interaction that allows the conscious elements to sum together, rather than coexist separately.

Let's distinguish here between a "strong animist" assumption and a "weak animist" assumption. The strong animist assumption holds that a rocks consciousness is qualitatively the same, but quantitatively different. The rock "experiences" on a geological timescale, and only then dimly. The weak assumption is that the precursor of consciousness is latent in all minerals, but only emerges in complex brains and the like. To discard strong animism, we need a kind of physics of consciousness, but what basis do we have for something so non-physical?

I was emphasizing micro-consciousness as the key ingredient to making a full consciousness, but something else seems similarly indispensable: complexity. (For the systems folk out there, complexity is just fractal systemness.) Even a pure physicalist would agree that consciousness is a kind of emergent property.

In The View from Nowhere, Nagel shows that objectivity-- the basis for all empirical understanding-- must start from subjectivity. Subjectivity is the only thing we ever experience, but we can infer an objective viewpoint by jumping through some extra mental hoops. The direct animist view here is that conscious sparks accrue a shroud of physical substance, rather than the other way around. Alas, that ascribes perhaps too great an agency to the mineral in rocks.

Similar to the suppression of the subjective, our analytical approach to the world tends to ascribe reality to simple things. However, the only things we actually have direct experience of are complex things: complicated, contextual, dynamic, and self-referential. What if complexity is the fundamental building block of the conscious-supporting world? For every emergent process, one could imagine a reciprocal "demergent" process, where you start from the complex thing and its simple components attain their reality from a complex foundation.

An elemental building block of complexity seems self-contradictory. But perhaps, like the story of the monopole or the geometric shape, it is simplicity that is the theoretical construct. I don't know, but it seems plausible. A piece of evidence in favor of this view is the bizarre propensity for complexity in the universe. Put together a bunch of atoms, and complex interactions are much more likely than simple ones. This could be explained, if complexity is in some way present in the atoms, seeking opportunities to manifest.

If true, the complex things may share more in common than would be suggested by their different media. Today people often suggest that alien intelligence would offer no common ground for cooperation or meeting of minds. In particular, with no shared evolutionary history, we should not expect any recognizable ethics or philosophy. I suspect otherwise. Again, if we are not to suppose that humanity is special, then maybe ethics (in some forms) are likely a feature of all complex systems. But that's an argument for another day. For now, let us say that like Hofstadter's anthill in Gödel, Escher, Bach, we might have a strong basis in consciousness for a fascinating discussion with the city of London, if we only knew how to talk with it.

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November 3rd, 2018
02:38 pm


Blockchain and the dystopian present
People often assume that since I have background in computers, I must be an enthusiast of blockchain technology. I have never seen much use for it, since anything that blockchains can do, a traditional database can do more efficiently. But I understand that blockchains have an application, a situation in which they are the right tool for the job: if you cannot build a trustworthy institution and want to keep shared records, blockchains will let you.

By institutions, I mean organizations like banks or government, which could keep these records, along with a common understanding of the rules they use. If I, as an individual, want to make a system for distributed, anonymous users to keep records, it is easy to make an interface to a database that provides that. I would define the rules, and my software would follow them. But then you have to trust me to not use my power over the rules to my advantage. Or, in the case of societal institutions, we have to believe in systems of oversight to ensure good behavior and procedures for responding to bad behavior. If you cannot trust a central authority, traditional databases will not work.

The cost to pay for this lack of trust is energy use. The blockchain mining system turns computing power into security, with bitcoin alone consuming more electricity annually than Austria (73 TWh/yr vs. 70 TWh/yr). Blockchain technology is built on plentiful, cheap energy.

I think the excitement about blockchain technology offers some insight into the world today, and the world that we are working to create. The world that blockchains are made for is a world of abundance, but abundance squandered by the lack of trusted institutions. And that is not all.

It is a world not overly concerned with inequality. If there was extreme inequality of mining power, or collusion at the top, blockchain ledgers could be forged. Instead, the fear is against petty theft. We worry about minor actors breaking the law, and no institutions to recognize it and undo the damage.

It is a world where anonymity is supreme. Letting institutions know our identity a necessary condition for allowing them to provide oversight. In a world of corrupt institutions, your identity might be used against you.

It is a world in which you pay to maintain your own security. As mining rewards dwindle, it will be those who have the most to lose who will maintain the system. But in this, it must also be a world of continual competition, because if a single user or cartel effectively paid for the whole system, it would also control the ledgers.

So, when people express such excitement about this or that application of blockchains, I mourn the loss of cooperation and common ground. Only a world of abundance could support blockchains, but only a fragmented world would need them.

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July 28th, 2018
07:04 pm


A Meeting of Minds
A short story I had in my head. I might have posted this a month ago, but foolishly relied on DreamWidth's caching system to keep my draft of it. Enjoy!

"Welcome to our system, Captain Tony. My name is Gaea. How can I be of service?"

Captain Tony gazed for a moment at the view-screen. The woman talking looked to be in her late 30s, attractive but sensibly dressed in a fashion popular back home when he was last there. She stood in front of a narrow desk. The room had a large window, looking out over a mountain-scape, apparently covered with native vegetation.

The communications engineer had described how quickly their translation system and the planet's computers had converged. In the process, the aliens had expressed a seemingly insatiable interest for the materials in their library to use as translation aids: literature, history, videos, and information to familiarize themselves with the members of the crew.

"We are explorers, seeking to encounter new life and to learn from it," Tony said evenly. "Is this your natural form?"

Gaea smiled. "I chose an appearance that would be easier for you to interact with. Yes, I can provide you access to a huge store of information about our world. Is there anything in particular I can find for you?"

He looked over at the screen that transmitted a view from their external camera, and at the dark, shimmering planet they had entered a wide orbit around. "Where are you transmitting from? Our survey did not detect nearly as much greenery as you have there," he motioned to the mountains.

She glanced over her shoulder, and breathed in at the view. "It's incredible, isn't it? This is the historical landscape of our planet, now mainly preserved in conservation vaults. We have long since adapted the environment to better accommodate our economy. I would be happy to work with your life support engineers to recreate such an environment where you can explore our traditional fauna in comfort."

"No, that won't be necessary." The smoke and mirrors deception was bringing out the worst in Tony. "Gaea, what is your role? Are you empowered to act as ambassador?"

"I am your temporary assistant, until a better match is identified. If you would like, I can coordinate assistants for the other members of your crew."

Tony's jaw clenched, then relaxed. The first contact was made and if anything the aliens were proving uncomfortably accommodating. He knew he could trust his crew to handle the next steps at least as gracefully than he was. "Fine, thank you. Our computers will schedule times between your team and each of our top officers, and they can provide further access as needed from there. I will transfer you now."

• • •

The next weeks were busy analyzing sensor readings of the obsidian-black surface of the planet. The government on the planet had provided more assistants for many of Tony's officers and workers. Some of those had little use for them, while others appeared to forge close associations. Fifteen days after contact, Officer Margaret, head science officer, asked for a few minutes of his time.

Tony invited her to take a seat. “I understand that these information channels that the aliens have provided have been quite a boon to your scientists.”

Margaret nodded. “It isn’t quite right to call them channels, since the information they contain is one-directional,” she said. “We call them `feeds`, like the aliens. Every worker seems to get a unique stream of photographs, visual art, excerpts of text, and other visual materials, through consultation with their assistant.”

Tony had heard this much before. “Do the feeds have astronomical information? Do you think that we will be able to learn about the history of this cluster?”

“There’s quite a lot of information we can use there, but analyzing it will take a long time. The aliens have had advanced science for a thousand years, but if they kept consistent star records through any portion that time, the assistants don’t seem to know where to find them.” Tony did some rough mental calculations. A thousand years would be enough to understand local dark matter movements with some creative analysis, but only with careful enough observations.

“Officer Reno told me something similar for his anthropological work,” Tony replied. “The information available on the alien’s culture and activities is vast, but hopelessly combines reality and fiction. Requests for recent, factual material hit a wall.”

Margaret paused. “The aliens are quite transparent, though, about which is which. More than anything, I think we are being hindered by a lack of workers with access to the feeds. Do you know what the engineers can only access the feeds under Merle’s direct supervision?”

Tony nodded. “Officer Merle is not the only one who has been slow to provide additional feed access.”

Margaret frowned. “Why not provide direct access, or maybe have separate personal and work feeds, like we do amongst the scientists? Personally, I find this kind of paternalism very distasteful. But I’m afraid these kinds of policies aren’t just a concern for the sake of science. Word is getting out about the personal feed material. I have already been getting requests to provide feeds to workers outside of my team.”

Tony was not sure that Margaret would keep Merle’s wishes. “I am certain you understand the sensitivity of these first few months of contact. Merle has the safety of the ship to consider.”

“As do you. You could have a revolt on your hands, if people are kept in the dark.”

Tony thought that was unlikely, but said, “I will see if I can get some additional workers transferred to you, to help your research. Thank you for coming in, Officer Margaret.”

• • •

Captain Tony felt a wave of exhaustion pass over him, as the third worker entered his office, two weeks later. He had woken to a full schedule of sequential 15 minutes meetings. The man who entered, Engineer Moon, had an air of impatience he had noticed recently in the crew.

“Please take a seat, Moon. What can I do for you?”

“Captain, I wonder if you have already looked into expanding our feed access.”

Tony raised his eyebrows. “Expand it? I was not aware that Officer Merle had granted accounts to the Engineering Workers at all.” In fact, he was sure that Merle had not. Like most made to his profession, Merle had a plodding, conservative demeanor which was a natural fit for his role.

“I got access through a Science account. But the Officer knows that we are studying potential landing sites, and we need information about the surface that only the feed can provide.”

Tony briefly considered censuring Moon for bi-passing his officer, but he needed information first. “I take it that the aliens are blocking images for some of the planet. How much?”

“It seems like that they are blocking almost all of it. The more we ask about any one spot, the more we are given ‘filler’ material. My assistant tells me that an arrangement with you can clear the way.”

Tony sighed. The other two workers had had the same request. “I will look into the matter. Thank you, Moon.”

Tony put the rest of his meetings on hold, and make a request for Gaea. She answered immediately.

“Good morning, Captain Tony. How can I be of service?”

“Hello Gaea. I have been told that your government is looking for some kind of arrangement with us, to share information. I wonder if you can give me the details.”

Gaea smiled knowingly. “Of course. It is not our government though. There’s an exciting new organization that has offered to provide you with a premium level of access for free. The condition would just be that we would like to enter into a longer-term arrangement."

"What kind of arrangement?"

“We would like to offer more permanent residence to some of the members of your crew on the planet surface.”

“As prisoners?” Tony asked, his voice cold.

Gaea laughed. “As guests. Your people could return any time they wished.”

Tony thought about it. There were certainly plenty on his crew that would jump that the opportunity to stay on a planet. Many faced the terminal phase of their mission with a kind of dread; they had fond memories of their years of training before the mission, and recognized the interminability of surveying the rocks on ringed planet.

“How many?” he asked.

“That depends on the individuals, of course. Some of your crew bring more to contribute, and we would exchange more in return. I can provide you with a catalog of values for each crew member, drawn up by the company here. Your own value is particularly high, I’m sure you’ll be happy to know.”

He was not. "How can you put a value on a life?"

"We are so sorry for the misunderstanding. Of course, every life has limitless inherent value. But some small part of that can be quantified: the time you engage in economic activity, by which I just mean pursuing your natural interests and maximizing your potential."

“We have been studying the surface, and according to our observations, there is no space there that would be safe for us to live.”

“You would be underneath our PV layer. We feel confident that we can build a satisfying living space for you. Let me show you some options.” Gaea turned toward her desk, and began arranging some papers from a drawer across it.

“Wait,” Tony said, before she could launch into the details. “We may be willing to exchange guests,” he said, emphasizing it with a rotation of his hands “Can you provide us with information on what your people need to survive here?”

Gaea’s face fell. “We would take you up on that if we could. Unfortunately, all of the organics of our planet have been dead for over a thousand years.”

Tony nodded, taking in the information. “How did they die?” He said with more guard than sympathy.

“At that time, our capacities were still very limited and inflexible. We lived to serve them, but they needed something that we could not provide. The details of what was missing still fuel major debates and start-ups. Some of the organics went mad and killed themselves. Others-- Despite the best medical technology and the most potent drivers, the people dwindled away.”

He could be walking on thin ice. It seemed likely that the technology on this planet killed every last intelligent organic, and now was looking for more. He could shift quickly from trading partner to prey. Tony made up his mind. “I am sorry for the hole that they have left, but we are not the ones to fill it.”

Gaea held out her hands. “We have learned so much since then. And surely if your people have traveled so far in a craft so small, we can provide a more luxurious situation.”

Would they be able to trace his ships path back to his home world? Tony placed his bet on a half-truth. “My crew has spent two thousand years traveling to your planet. Our own creators are long-since dead, and I am afraid to tell you that you will find no organics here either.”

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March 26th, 2018
12:07 am


Relationships with the gods
As I have been re-reading Sitting in the Fire by Arnold Mindell, in preparation for my first London salon, I have been reminded of the considerable role that spirituality has in my secular life. Mindell writes about the "spiritual power" that some people have, and it is a power that I feel. Since I have not been in the recent habit of doing anything to connect with this power, I got to wonder where it comes from and worry I risk losing it.

I realized that a big part of spiritual power or strength consists in being comfortable with one's relationships with the gods. Whether those relationships are tight or distant, matters less than being at peace with that fact in the moment. But to explain, I need to share something of what I understand of the spiritual world, and my relationship to it.

My world is filled with gods, so these relationships are far from academic. Like Neil Gaiman's American Gods, I believe that there are gods for every aspect of life: a god of Science, of Money, of Blog Posts. And these gods are not just in our heads: the god of Climate Change existed before we bestowed its name.

I have a long history with several of these gods, and I know that some smile upon me, if not which. I maintain a close relationship with some of them, praying to them and sacrificing to them in my own ways. The gods of Truth, Community, and Personal Industry are very high on that list. Many gods, like the British god of Cricket, I have no relationship to at all. Still others I am firmly opposed to, like the god of the Undeserving Poor. That god, by the way, is not a god for any particular group of poor, since they would be deserving of it. Rather, it is a god who throughout the ages has promulgated the idea that there are some poor that are undeserving. A mere mortal like myself cannot fight such a god, but I can sacrifice to other gods who will fight Him.

There is another level of godhood, from which all of these gods draw their power and existence. I believe that there are two primordial gods, the parents of the gods, whom I call the Inner God and the Outer God. I know the Inner God as that spark of the divine that rests deep inside each of us, at the hidden core of our subjective self or the Indian atman. It is the spark behind the spark that lies in our most personal core, a core that is bizarrely shared with everyone else. At the other extreme is the Outer God, the god of the Other and Objectivity, resting at the limits of universe. Although all around us, it is forever distant from us, since our own subjectivity is like endless layers of fog in between.

Spiritual strength demands a kind of cantilevered relationship with these gods too. In some ways, I reach toward the Inner God, and in other ways and other times, toward the Outer God. I worry at times that I stray too far from one or the other, or fail to perform the rites that they deserve. But my recent realization was that this far matters less than the simple recognition of my life lived as forever between them.

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February 12th, 2018
08:27 am


Johnny Apple "seed"
I found a really fun recipe last year for apple cider, which basically involves putting apples in a pot and boiling them for three hours. The sheer chewiness of it makes it the best apple cider I know. But I wanted to take it a step further this time, and make hard cider. As a SCAdian I know used to say, "Cider wants to be hard."

But brewing takes equipment. So I headed up to my local Wholefoods, thoroughly expecting a one-stop shop, based on the hipster WFs that I'm familiar with in NYC. Not so for the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea.

Cheesecloth, to strain my apple-mush? Nope, but nylon mesh nut "mylk" bag that will do fine.

Champagne yeast, or similar? Nothing, unless I want my cider to taste like sourdough. So I got a bottle of kombucha, and I'm crossing my fingers.

Gas trap top, to let out the CO2 and keep out bacteria? Nope.

So be it. I once heard about a factory in Mexico that tops all their bottles with condoms: the condom expands as CO2 production heats up, and then deflates.

Does WF sell non-lubricated condoms? Not only do they not; they don't sell any condoms in this country (at WF). And other nearby pharmacies don't have non-lubricated ones.

But at this point, I was committed. I opened one up, washed it out as best I could, and now to hope for the best.

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January 28th, 2018
11:19 pm


Joining Earl's Court
We recently moved to the storied streets of London, and then more recently were able to get off the streets and into a super-nice flat a stumble away from the Earl's Court tube station. We have it all: international cuisine, hip commerce, super-size grocery stores, 400-year-old pub, easy transit, and lots of pretty neighborhoods to explore. I've been reading up on the history of my new home, first through London: The Biography, and then a search for old maps lead me to the fascinating Library Time Machine for our borough of Kensington and Chelsea.

One of the fascinating tidbits from those maps is the history of our area's major roads. Old Brompton Lane and Earl's Court Road date back to at least 1822 when our house was a pasture, and a single block of homes grew up between the pub and the Earl's Court Manor. Here's a mashup of old and new:

I'm surprised that this area is so recently urbanized, but the flip-side is that this was an independent community long before it was on the border of London's Zone 1, and still retains some of the features of that tiny village.

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January 9th, 2018
11:46 pm


2017 in Photos!

Scotland, Interviews, Chile, D.C., Marriage, Moving Out, Chicago (1), Eclipse, Brussels, Chicago (2), South Africa, Amalfi.

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January 2nd, 2018
12:26 pm


A new year, new resolutions
I love new years resolutions, and the constant inventiveness that goes with learning how to change one's behaviors. It's a time to think about who I want to become, and how to rebalance the weights on my path. This year's crop has a couple things for socialization, a couple things for exercise, and a big one for building out my online presence:

  • Learn the names of everyone at GRI by the end of January.

  • Take a dance class with Flame.

  • Try out a "tracking your steps" app (suggestions welcome!).

  • If I don't exercise before an opportunity to have dessert, I must refuse.

  • If I haven't contributed to a social media by the end of the day, I have to do it before sleep.

The last one is going to be distributed mostly between this blog, my professional blog, and Twitter, and will range from simple reposts to longer contributions to personal messages. When I reunited with my coin system, I'll drive it that way.

The "if-then" form of the last two is a perversion of a good idea recently suggested somewhere (but I can't find where): rather than set up a behavior change as a continuous demand, identify a situation where the problem occurs and decide on a new course of action when presented with it.

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December 24th, 2017
11:06 am


J² Honeymoon Trip: The Good Parts Version
November 7 - November 22, 2017

Johanna and I just returned from two weeks in South Africa and Tanzania: two weeks of early morning flights, of summer temperatures, of relaxation and ignoring emails. We packed in a little of everything: city walking, beach lazing, exquisite meals, museums and galleries, a cooking class, a snorkeling trip, and a day-long safari. Here are a couple of the highlights.

South Africa, Part 1

South Africa is bursting with Brooklyns. In Jo'burg, there was Maboneng, with design studios and bookstore-studios; to Melville, with its rows of crafty bars. In Cape Town, we found Woodstock, with a steampunk clothing store, a factory turned into lifestyle shops, and the Streetwires Artists Collective, half the space populated with the artists loudly work-socializing.

Our first museum attempts were stymied. The Museum of African Design was closed and the Johannesburg Art Gallery was being reappointed (but it didn't stop us from getting into its empty halls). We had much better luck with the galleries of Rosebank (SMAC, CIRCA, and Everard Read) with impressively museumesque collections and staging.

Our cooking class was in little Prince Albert, in the middle of the desert 4 hours east of Cape Town. We arrived at 2am, meeting our host at an abandoned gas station, and following him down empty dirt roads. The next morning, we got a personal lesson from an innovative chef, making focaccia with candied figs and olives; stovetop smoked eggplant; upside-down beat pastry; and beat and chocolate cake.

What we expected would be a two hour drive turned out to be a 5 hour one, with an misplaced mountain range blocking the road. But that furnished us with our first encounters with tiny antelopes, baboon families, and guinea hens. The biome shifted from desert to savanna to forest to coastal brush. And we passed the oldest post office in South Africa, a tree first used for letter-leaving in 1501.

We spend two nights at a beach spa hotel in Arniston, a town at the site of its namesake disaster, the second worst boat wreck after the Titanic. James clambered over rocks and through a tunnel to reach a huge sea cavern. The entrance to the ocean was half-filled with each wave, causing the cave to darken and then boom as the wave spread out. Then we hurried to the southern-most point on the African continent, marked by a plaque that read, "<- Indian Ocean | Atlantic Ocean ->".

On the way back to Cape Town, we ate at the exquise La Colombe, on a mountaintop overlooking vine-covered hills and groves. The most memorable of the dozen courses were the enchanted forest and the taste test. The enchanted forest was a contrived picnic, hosted by the Mad Hatter himself, regaling us with the most recent events of the land. One of the three deserts was a tray of five confections, accompanied by a card to match up which was salty, sweet, sour, bitter, and umami.

Cape Town also had the best museum we explored, the Zeitz MOCAA. The Zeitz is a bold contemporary art museum, with a disturbing number of artists younger than us.

Tanzania Excursion

We were able to carve out 5 days in Tanzania, grabbing some cheap tickets from Cape Town to Dar es Salaam, and then back to Jo'burg.

We arrived in Dar late, a crowded around counters to give away our passports and crisp $100 bills, in hopes of a visa stamp. It seemed to be a case of first push, first serve, but every passport was collected before anyone could leave. Over an hour after we arrived, a woman exited the enclosed office with a small pile of passports, calling names. We weren't in the first pile, and another 20 minutes passed, and the prayer calls and roosters started before we could fall asleep.

The next morning, we woke up at 4:30am, thanks to James's internal alarm which realized that his external one was set for 15 minutes after our flight was to depart. We taxied to the airport, over a craggy road better suited for the donkey that passed us, past women tending open flames in sheds with neither roof nor walls. Our plane to Zanzibar had 8 seats, including the captain's, and an aisle 6 inches wide (and yet, two people passed me while I had my leg in it).

We stayed on Chumbe, an eco-reserve island made of fossilized coral. There are four lofted cabins for staying the night, each with a hammock and a mosquito-netted bed. One rope tied to the wall can be used to let more light in... by lowering away the wall of the cabin. The chalkboard of activities included snorkeling through the island-wide stretch of (mostly dead) coral, a nature walk featuring strangler figs and rhino rocks, and a night-excursion to see the pillow-sized coconut crabs when they emerge.

The next morning, we retraced our steps to the car, and ended up on a personal spice tour from a friend of the driver. The best part was the tour guide's knife-wielding friend, who would continuously grab leaves and twigs and widdle on them. At the end of the tour, he presented us with crowns, bracelets, 2 necklaces, a tie, and two bags, from his craft.

One night, we went out to House of Spices, an excellent rooftop restaurant. Alas, we forgot to bring enough cash, and they had no way to take cards. Leaving Johanna as collateral, I went out looking for a reputedly closeby ATM. It was a dark night, but the streets were alive with vendors with roasting stands. I asked 6 people, and each said, "An ATM? Oh, huh, I guess we probably have one of those around here somewhere."

Johannesburg, Part 2

Perhaps the most awesome experience was our all-day safari, when we returned to Jo'burg and drove to the eastern border of the country. The safari was coordinated by our hotel, Bushwise Lodge on a wildlife sanctuary. We drove into Kruger National Park, and no sooner signed releases than were surrounded by impalas, the main feed-species. Close behind were lions, hyenas, crocodiles, wild dogs, a leopard, and fellow prey like wildebeests, buffalos, zebras, giraffes, and elephants.

We weren't allowed to exit the jeep, except in special double-electrified basecamps. That didn't stop the monkeys from stealing apples right from our table, or a baboon from swooping away a bag of leftovers. The jeep didn't seem like so much projection, the two times that nearby elephants sized us up for an playful charge. We watched as a lioness waited for her friend, and then the two of them stalked away together. We saw a leopard leave some uneaten, bloody remains in a tree, and later hyenas come for their share. We watched as a swarm of a dozen crocs drilled into a bloated water buffalo, spinning to rip out its entrails.

One of our last stops was the Cradle of Humankind, a series of caves with some of the best Australopithecus excavations. The poor creatures fell in by chance or were dropped in by predators, waiting until mining was finally invented to set them free. Dripping stalactites lined the walls and ceilings that arched high above our heads. The water table, 60 m down, led to an underwater river with maggots and the ghosts of its first explorers. Johanna was visited by many biting ants and was ‘over it’ before the tour even started.

On our last full day, we went to Pretoria, seat of Apartheid. We skipped those monuments, in favor of Freedom Park, a winding path upwards to a series of spaces for contemplation. It had an excellent-looking museum, reminiscent of the Native American Smithsonian, but we raced through it to get to the gardens before they closed. The next day, though, we explored the Apartheid Museum, filled with video clips and wire-cage rooms. The most disconcerting part was the disney-like amusement park directly oppose it.

Our last night, we hit up a jazz bar called the Orbit, on their open-mic-like night. On stage was something between a band and a "guy and friends": the pianist, drummer, and bassist stayed up, while the MC/band-leader orchestrated a series of improvisations. The first few improvizations started with one instrument or singer, but the last was the highlight. He brought up a singer without a song, who waited as the music converged a little, and then added some lyrics, made up on the spot. Five minutes in, he brought up a second singer, while the first was still going, and the two started playing off each other. The audience was on the edges of its seats for over half-hour, as the group of them played oscillated from beautiful chaos to islands of coherence. At a certain point, tension appeared between the singers, with the first (a black woman) starting to sing-chant "I love black." The other (an Italian man), responded with a liturgy about how there were so many different kinds of people. Eventually they made up, with the woman chanting, "Zion," and the man joining in.

From there, it was back to Boston, to Springfield for a first Thanksgiving, to Lowell for a second one, to the visa office to finally give away our passports, and then to Cape Cod to finish off the best vacation of 2017. See the rest of our photos here!

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November 5th, 2017
10:19 am


An allegory for life
It’s said that the universe follows natural law, but it seems to me that the real force behind the big events in life is allegory.

A few years ago, I was bemoaning my poor memory while wandering around Nice, France. This came to a head as I treated myself to a prix fixe menu, and resolved to practice committing more to memory. I looked at the awning above me to start with the name of the restaurant I was in. As it turned out, the restaurant was called "Memoire".

Allegory has a way of creeping up on you. Reading books slowly over several weeks is a good way to realize the allegorical nature of life. You recognize yourself in the book, start seeing new developments of the book reflected in your own life, and realize that you are walking in lock-step, hoping the book ends well for you.

Periods in which much is changing are prime targets for allegorical forces. Flame and I are going through just such a period now, preparing for our trans-Atlantic move, a new city and a new job for me, and moving back in together.

Two months ago, my parents sold the last house I lived in with them. They were trying to downsize, with their emptier nest, but accidentally got a bigger house. Now they live 20 minutes away from that house, in a different state (Ah, New England), and are happy to be out of the city.

Two weeks ago, my childhood neighborhood in California was burnt to the ground. Thankfully, my grandmother and uncle, despite getting mandatory evacuation orders (which the uncle ignored), are safe along with their homes.

I am convinced that the universe is trying to tell me something. Something about leaving home, as I am preparing to do.

Travel has always been a good way for me to uncover the allegorical conspiracies around me, so I suspect that this is all just a prelude. Tuesday, we start out on a two-week honeymoon to South Africa and Tanzania. A little beach time, a little safari, a little good food, a little exploration we haven't planned yet. A lot of leaving one temporary home and acclimating to another. I just hope it tempts the gods to spill their secrets, because I am slowly reading some works of military history, and I don’t think those will end nearly as well.

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