Thursday, October 19, 2006

Alive, on the beach.

Yes... I am alive!

And I present below, as proof, a sequence of images from last weekend, at the beach in Saquarema. For the skeptics (since there isn't actually a picture of *me* here), you can find a complete gallery update at

Or, go straight to the slideshow -- (look for the crazed gringo axe murderer on the beach!)

This entry marks the gallery inauguration of my new Nikon D-SLR camera. I think you can see a noticeable improvement compared to my phone cam!

I know -- it has been nearly six months, and I probably owe some kind of explanation for the sudden disappearance. Lest one think we have spent all of this time at the beach, however, let me just say that, unfortunately, trips to Saquarema have been far less frequent than my blog posts!

There has been a lot going on with us right now, and for the last few months -- and things have been pretty hectic (whose life isn't???). I'm contemplating some kind of more informative update for the near future. We are all very well, though. Rather than spend any more time trying to justify my lack of posting, however, I'll just post these pictures for now. Last weekend was a great "family" weekend ... with perfect beach weather for us (we barely got burned!).

Bye for now!

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Blogging, and Memories ...

I just realized that my first year anniversary of this blog is coming up! (On June 6, to be exact). Wow! It seems like just a couple of posts ago I mentioned that it had been 9 months since I had started "blogging".

Oh... that was just a couple of posts ago! Oops. ;-)

One of the interesting things about writing a blog for me has been that I end up having a written (and sometimes pictorial) registry of what has been going on in my life, as well as the kind of things that I have been thinking about. I looked back on some of my archived posts from last year and can't believe how many things had happened that I had essentially forgotten about. Over the last few months, there have been many blogworthy events and happenings which I'm sure will be lost forever, since I haven't been posting regularly (or rather -- hardly ever!). Ever since I started blogging, I have become more aware than ever of how many details of life we either leave buried in our subconscious mind, or just forget alltogether. Lately, I have become obsessed with the "preservation" of my memories. The threat of my entire history evaporating into the ether looms over me like the shadow of a waiting hunter. It's almost like paranoia ... except I'm sure that it's going to get me.

I looked through my image folders a few days ago, thinking about organizing them: I see that I've taken just over 6000 digital pictures in the last two years alone!

That's right. Six. Thousand.

That's an average of about 8 pictures per day! Who will ever look at all of these pictures? And that's not even counting the video I've taken! And my camera has been broken for the last couple of months!

But even with all of this visual information accumulating on my hard drive, it has become a constant source of low-level anxiety for me that I have no written information about the vast majority of the images registered. As I glanced through some of my picture galleries, I was dismayed: more stuff that will soon be forgotten. I already can't remember the context of a number of the pictures I have archived. What about all of the little moments ... happy and sad ... which we live every day, but have no chance whatsoever of long-term preservation?

And why am I so worried about losing them? Is it just human nature ? ... the age old fear of growing older, and eventually leaving the Earth without having "left my mark"? Or is this just a consequence of my mid-life crisis?

It may be a little of both; but there is certainly an aspect of "mid-life" to this crisis. I'm reaching that age where I can begin to imagine my kids moving on with their own lives; not only imagine it, but see it as inevitable. Many of the things I've experienced over the last few years, I know I will never have another chance to experience again. Watching the birth of my child. Cradling my own newborn in my arms. Holding his hand as he takes his first toddling steps. Listening as he struggles with his first words. And that's just the start ... there is so much ... so much of which I may have not recognized the appropriate value of the first time around, but will one day look back and lament with a profound sense of loss. Today I can still read a bedtime story to Kevin as he nestles beside me; but those days are numbered. The years pass so quickly. I need to film them more, and take more pictures.

(Also, I've reached the age where I must accept that many of the expectations and dreams that I had as a child will never come to pass: I will never be an astronaut; I will never be a millionaire before I'm 40 (I'm shooting for 50 now!). I will (probably) never invent the warp drive, time travel, or develop the true theory of Everything! but I digress: these things don't really have anything to do with memories!)

It's not at all farfetched to imagine that, in the not-so-distant future, it will be possible to carry around a miniature camera, embedded, perhaps, in a pendant hung about one's neck, that will quite literally record everything we see and hear, over our entire lifetime! Transmitting to an i-Pod like device hung on our belt or in a purse, our entire life story will be indelibly written to disk, kind of like a TiVo.

This will almost certainly be possible within our lifetime ... but will we do it? Imagine being able to fast forward through every dialog we have ever held, with anyone we have ever encountered! Relive every cute thing our children have ever done or said ... every milestone in their growth. Imagine being able to replay every date we have gone out on, every lecture we sat through in college, every television program we ever saw! What would the legal and ethical implications be? How about the cultural and social implications?

All that is necessary to make this possible is sufficient digital storage space. Over the first fifteen years since the hard drive was invented, the ratio of storage per dollar grew exponentially, doubling about every 18 months, obeying almost perfectly Moore's Law. That translates to about a 1000- fold increase. If this same rate of growth plays out over the next couple of decades, we will be seeing affordable 500 Terabyte disks -- enough space to store over 50 years of reasonably compressed audio and video data! The good news for those fearful of the "Big Brother" implications of this scenario is that, for the last two or three years, the price/Gigabyte growth rate has dropped off to well below the Moore's Law prediction. The bad news is that all of these "implications" are technically applicable already: tiny cameras are easily available, often embedded within cellphones, digital cameras and i-Pods carried around by millions of people. It is already possible to selectively record a large part of the most important or significant events of our lives.

As is typical of our species, we are not content to hoard this vast body of personal information for our own personal use. Some ancient instinct passed down by generations of forgotten ancestors translates to an uncontrollable urge to share our experience with others of our species: be it a new and better way to start a fire, sharpen a stick, kill a predator, grow food ... or share some tunes with your friends, show off your kids' funny antics, express your political views, or just get even with your ex-wife who slept with your best friend. We want to talk, whether we actually have anything to say or not.

All of this is to both explain and help understand the rapid growth of "blogging" and image sharing, such as Flickr, along with the various other internet modalities of communication. The most recent example, and case-in-point, being the explosion of internet based video self-publishing: YouTube and Google Video, are the prime examples of the moment. I personally think this is just the tip of the iceberg.

Once again, I digress: my point is that I am yet another victim of our species' genetic disposition to broadcast my meager thoughts out to anyone who deigns to listen to me.


So here is the problem: I'm too lazy to just write a journal or diary... which would technically be a better method of preserving one's memories, since you can go into more personal details in a journal. I think it's obvious that I don't have the self-discipline to do a journal -- writing for myself alone, with no expectations of someone else reading it. A blog, besides satisfying my ancient instincts to communicate, has the advantage of generating a certain pressure to post, since you know that other people might actually read what you write. But on the other hand, I also have this terrible thing about pressure: the best way for me to drain all pleasure from performing a certain task is to make it obligatory-- or even make it feel obligatory.

I've dealt with that problem from the beginning by creating no expectations to post daily. Nor do I set a specific day to post... blogging with minimal pressure, and no stress, when and if I feel like it. The thing is ... if for any reason, due to circumstances of daily life, I go too long without blogging ... it becomes very difficult to start up again. When I go more than one week without writing, my tendency will be to go longer yet. And it becomes progressively more and more difficult to write, which makes me procrastinate even further. It's quite a conundrum.

Thanks for enduring this nonsensical post. It's kind of like a "break-out" post ... I just wanted to write anything to get me back to blogging again. Maybe if I remove the pressure to make sense in my blog posts, I will be able to post more frequently! Of course, then no one will read it! Yet another dilemma!

Relay for Life

Ok, just so I can say this post wasn't complete nonsense, I will actually add something important.

My sister-in-law Kim (brother Steve's wife) has asked me to pass this along. I will pass it verbatim, in her own words, since she does a better job explaining it than I could:

"For three years now (this year being the third) we have been on a team for Relay For Life in support of our friend Ashley, who was diagnosed with cancer in 2004.

First, just in case you don’t know what Relay is, I’ll explain. Relay For Life is an overnight event that raises money for cancer research and awareness. It starts at 7pm with local cancer survivors taking a lap around the track to kick off the event. Then, the various teams that have signed up each put at least one person on the track and the walk begins. Each team should have at least one team member on the track at all times. Throughout the night there are games and fun things to do to keep everyone awake, and to raise more money for the team and the event. If you have between 8 and 15 members on your team you are in the “fundraising club” and you compete with the other teams for highest amount of money raised. Anyway, the idea is to raise money all year for your team to get the most money you can.

For the last two years, Lane and I have been on a team sponsored by our church (GracePoint) that I have been the captain for. This year, Lane has decided to captain his own team of Cub Scouts. I am helping (since they are all kids!) and the kids are ranked 5th in money raised so far, which beats my GracePoint team by far!"

The relay takes place June 16-17. Apparently my nephew Lane has already reached his $100.00 fundraising goal, but I'm sure the more he raises, the better! You can see his profile and donate here. You can find more about the GracePoint Team here.

Congratulations Lane, and Kim ... those of us too lazy to walk around in circles all night can at least fork out some cash for a good cause!

Saturday, April 15, 2006

Two for the Price of One !

Well ... maybe not for the "price" of one!

I've just been propelled into "unclehood" again, with the birth on Wednesday of Rodrigo and Eduardo (Rodrigo is the one in blue! and Eduardo is ... duh!). Proud mommy Tatiana will have her hands (and everything else!) full with these two bundles of joy. Contented daddy Celio (Cristina's brother) was one giant smile throughout the first day. He may be beginning to come back down to earth now, I think: two at once won't be a walk in the park!

Luckily for Tatiana (at least I think it is "luckily"!), Celio is showing signs of being quite a doting, attentive father (and husband). He dove right into diaper changing like a veteran. Good thing: they're going to have plenty of diapers to change!


At birth, this double-barreled diaper-filling machine weighed in at 4.5 Kg (10 pounds) -- that's 90.5 cm (35.4 in) of pure baby-flesh! (These are cumulative statistics... proportionally, Eduardo is half a cm shorter than Rodrigo, and 200 grams lighter!). To the satisfaction of all, they were born chock full of vim and vigor ... without necessity of an extended visit to the incubator!

I will admit right out that I'm intrigued and somewhat intimidated by the task that Celio and Tatiana are facing. I am by no means inexperienced when it comes to raising boys, but two infants at once? That seems somewhat daunting! At one "swell foop", they nearly caught up with us! On the other hand, I have no actual experience with twins to go by: this is a first among our various nieces and nephews -- the first twins in the family!

Usually when I think of twins, I think of the formidable challenges that may go along with the identity crisis that would surely happen being a kid and having a sibling identical in every respect to you. Rodrigo and Eduardo are not, however, identical twins. Now, after 10 years of fatherhood, a part of me is wondering if having two (or three!) at once wouldn't have been a great thing!

Sure ... there are some logistical challenges associated with raising two or more babies at once: two mouths to suckle, two babies to burp, two strollers to push around ... but these difficulties really only apply to the first year or so. Once they are no longer nursing and start getting around on their own, the difficulties will be the same as they are for anyone who has two toddlers at once.

This was our case, with James and Christian: Christian was born when James was only 18 months old. We ended up just spreading this whole "baby phase" out over several years, which in the end was probably more work than if we had just doubled up and got it over with all at once!

Unfortunately it is too late for this sudden spark of insight to benefit us in any way. When I look at Kevin and think that not until 7 years from now will he be in the same grade as James, it just seems forever! I can't believe what we have gone through, and will still have to go through before we can set them loose on the world! (hopefully, send them all off to college!).

It's just one arduous challenge after another. And of course, I wouldn't give it up for the world. How can one explain that? It is so utterly irrational!

But ask me if I would trade places with Celio and Tatiana right now (or even Mark and Cleia, my brother-in-law and Cristina's sister who have just embarked on the more traditional single-child adventure with daughter Isabella!) !?! I feel sorry for them all, but am consoled with the knowledge that they will soon become anesthetized to the suffering, now that they have been transformed into stuperous, glazed-eyed, drooling zombies (i.e. "parents"). There is also the so-called "memory effect" ... which results in our forgetting about virtually everything that happened during the first year-or-so of our children's lives. This is a fundamental evolutionary adaption for humans, without which, no one would ever have a second child intentionally!!!

Removing tongue from cheek for a moment: I'm sure Celio and Tati are up to the task. They are off to a good start, and we look forward to accompanying their successes as they embark on this perilous but rewarding adventure. This new batch of cousins comes at a propitious moment, since several of the older ones have ingressed into that crucial and precarious stage known as "adolescence", which means that it is very likely that they will soon all but disappear from the collective "family" life.


One final observation: the birth of Rodrigo and Eduardo raises my nephew / niece count to a total of 14 (8 nephews, 6 nieces)... unless I've left someone out (!). If I could get them all together in one place, that would make a total of 17 kids counting my three! Unfortunately, one of the disadvantages of being a "multinational" family -- with various relations spread (literally) about the planet (although most of us are in the same hemisphere -- western -- at least!), is that we don't always have close contact with all of the aunts, uncles, and cuz's.

This is something that I deeply regret ... although there isn't much that I can do about it. There is something about the relationship between cousins that is special, which I think is mostly because, unlike with friends, we generally share a common history and values that gives the relationship a headstart. Cousins are like brothers and sisters, without most of the "sibling rivalry" that can get in the way of friendship. Without question, my closest friendships while growing up (outside my nuclear family) were with my cousins. Being a generally apprehensive introvert when it came to socialization, the unconditional acceptance provided by the extended family -- aunts, uncles and cousins -- afforded a safe environment to relax and be myself. Still today, I'm sure that if weren't for the barriers imposed by geography, it would be a great pleasure to maintain far more frequent and intimate contact with them all (and I'm still trying to convince Greg to visit us down here ... so far to no avail, but I will keep trying!).

I see the same thing with our kids today. Their relationship with the only nephew and niece that live near to us -- Bruno and Mariana -- even with them being several years older, have enriched the lives of our children immensely (and vice-versa, I'm sure). They've also had a very close relationship with Juliana and Nicole, even though they live in the US, since they frequently spend a good deal of their vacation time here in Brazil. But the kids are all older now, and school and other responsabilities means that having time for family matters is getting harder and harder. We had feared somewhat that Kevin would miss out on having a close relationship with cousins; but having the twins around now may fill in the lacuna: he'll be the "older cousin" to them, teaching them how to get into all kinds of mischief!

The other new addition to the family is Isabella, who, living in New Jersey, is technically the "farthest away" cousin. Time will tell what their relationship with Isabella will be like; but I think there is every reason to believe that it will be as close as all of the other cousins has been. We are all looking forward to meeting her personally; but it increasingly appears that she will be toddling around by the time we have the chance!

We've gone up to a couple of years at a time without seeing the nephews and nieces from my side of the family (the Kansas branch!); and whenever we do, there is a little problem with the "language barrier" that complicates things between the kids. Even so, we were amazed and pleased at how well the "cousins" got along -- and how quickly they accepted each other -- last year during our visit around Christmas time. We look forward to increasing this contact in the future: I just hope it happens while they are still young enough to form the kind of memories that I have from my childhood.

Family is family, no matter where we find ourselves in the world. If the roots are deep enough, the branches can spread far and wide, but the tree will never fall. The kids know it... they feel it: it's acceptance. I can't help but think that, in some respects, the wide reaching branches that make up our family makes the world seem a smaller, warmer place for our kids. I know it does for me.

Now a couple more pics!


Daddy and Mommy ... all smiles

Meeting the cousins!

UPDATE! 12:27 AM, April 16

Hope everyone has a HAPPY EASTER!

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Those Darn Kids!

"Hey! Stop that! If I've told you once, I've told you a thousand times! Don't you go beheading your brother!"

Those darn kids! You can't turn your back for a second without them getting into some kind of mischief! Luckily, Kevin tipped me off before things got out of hand!

Life can be tough when you've got a big brother.


As advertised, the pool is now open for business. I haven't posted many pictures lately, and there is a reason for that: I'm lazy. But also, it's because my digital camera broke. Well, actually, the telescoping zoom lens started jamming, and I decided to take it apart to see if I could fix it. I couldn't. The zoom lens doesn't stick any more, but I think that's just because the camera won't even turn on at all.

I did trade in my cellphone last week, which sports a pretty nifty 2.0 megapixel camera and actually takes videos also. Until I either fix my camera or buy a new one, I will have to make due with this phonecam.

As of today, the patio stonework is well underway: this weekend or early next week, everything should be ready. We shall soon bid farewell to our construction crew, whom we have come to know so well.

Here are a few pictures taken on Saturday, at the pool's inauguration! (note that these pictures don't demonstrate the phonecam's full resolution, having been reduced to fit on the weblog page). I post them without commentary; but since a picture is worth a thousand words, I do so content that I haven't failed to live up to my customary levels of verbosity!

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Chaos Theory

Our life has been once again in a state of upheaval. Somehow, in the blink of an eye, turmoil and chaos descended upon us here in Gramlingville. And by our choice, no less.

It all began just as things were starting to get calm again. After living the last five months of last year under a siege of dust and dirt, pounding hammers and power tools, with the constant presence of workmen within a stone's throw of our front door, you would think we would have had enough.

Well, we had had more than enough. But ... we also hadn't actually finished all of the work that the original project entailed (reform of the swimming pool and patio, for example, went unfinished); but since the first segment of the project overran its budget (and deadline) we had decided (vehemently) to postpone the second leg indefinitely.

As we put the holiday season behind us, we realized, however, that there were a couple of loose threads that couldn't be put off any longer: for one thing, we haven't yet laid down sod, so our yard still looks like a construction site -- and turns into a mud pit whenever it rains. I won't get into what that means to our quality of life here, particularly with a large, juvenile, playful, and exciteable labrador retriever on the loose. I have written about that before (and that was back when we supposedly had grass!)

The main episode that triggered our recall of the construction crew, however, was yet another overflow of the grease trap.


The Grease Trap

I am not sure if this interesting device exists in other countries; I'm pretty sure that in the United States, the fat and grease that makes it down the sink and through the garbage disposal goes straight into the sewer. However, building regulations in Brazil require that every legal residence has a "grease trap", designed to do exactly what its name implies: capture the greasy residue which tends to solidify in the sewer lines (note that we don't have our own septic tank ... this requirement is for connection to the public sewer system). I also can't exactly say what makes this kitchen grease more noxious to the public sewage system than the ... ahem ... other "solid waste" hailing from the privies. This may be important in Brazil because having hot water in the kitchen sink is more of an exception than the rule (this was an example of a difficult cultural adaptation for me -- washing dishes in cold water!).

Whatever the precise reason that makes this device a necessary part of building code in Brazil, in our particular case, the "grease trap" has been nothing but an almost constant headache for us. The grease trap is underground, but sports an iron lid that looks like a midget manhole cover for cleaning and inspection. The goal of the grease trap is to "trap" the grease: but then what? Well, at some point you have to remove the grease, because otherwise, it just stays there, until the pit itself is filled. I think I probably needn't go into too much detail of what cleaning this grease trap is like: just imagine a bucket, rubber gloves, and several months accumulation of putrifying lard and food scraps (let it be known that we don't have an electric disposal either!).

But as bad as cleaning the pit is, the alternative is worse: when the grease trap overflows, you have a malodorous oil-slick on your hands, a small-scale disaster worthy of HAZMAT team intervention.

A curious architectural decision made by my first contractor has both the grease pit and the sewer inspection pit right on our front porch! Beneath the kitchen window. This is our varanda, where we typically sit with friends and family for whatever get-togethers we happen to be having. It was also our favorite place to have lunch or dinner, particularly when it was hot and we could sit outside and overlook the pool and yard with a cool breeze carrying the song of the cicadas and ...

the putrid smell of rotten grease and sewage!

It took us maybe a week or so after moving in to the house to realize that the localization of these basic plumbing items was an error, and that's not even taking into account the aesthetic aspect of having a couple of iron manhole covers embedded into our expensive white ceramic floor. I'm sure I must have offered approval to Francisco (the contractor) on this decision. I have no recollection of the event, but I imagine the exchange went something like this:

Francisco: "Eh ... I'm thinking about putting the grease trap and sewage inspection pit right about here. That OK with you?"

Me: "Are you sure that's the best place?"

Francisco: "Well, if I put it down there I'll have to dig another hole..."

Me: "Oh. Well whatever you think is best."

This was how most of the big decisions were handled during the last months of construction of our first house (or, the first construction of the first "wing" of our house .... whatever!). I quickly caved in to most of his decisions, being under the delusion that this would somehow accelerate the overall pace of construction. Of course that was not the case: by that time, Francisco was being paid by the week. I should have realized something was amiss when I noticed he was cultivating corn and tomatoes in the yard ... ahhh, now there's another story!


The problem with the grease trap was two-fold: first, neither the grease trap nor the sewage pit lids were air-tight, making it a generator of unsavory fragrances in a very inappropriate place. This problem was remedied easily enough with a bit of silicon caulking, passed liberally around the edges of the lids. Secondly, and more critically, some mysterious defect or mistake that Francisco made when he installed said device left it with a significant propensity for overflowing. What´s worse: it overflowed not because it was full (which should take from six months to a year at most), but because the wastewater drainage tube that connects it with the sewage system would become obstructed -- with exactly the grease that the device was supposed to trap!

This problem had been occuring, on average, every one- or two-months. When it happened, I not only would have to scoop the greasy scum out of the trap, but I would have to open the sewage inspection pit and run a line (roto-rooter kind of thing) between the two chambers until I managed to clear the blockage. Then, I would have to scrub down the varanda with hot water and soap and ... to finish off the job ... re-seal the lids with silicon to prevent the escape of noxious fumes!

Allow me to reiterate: over the last two years, I´ve had to do this every couple of months. Sometimes, when the quality of my efforts failed to live up to my customary levels of diligence, I would have to repeat the job within a few days.


Needless to say, this is a problem that has been high-priority for some time now. You can imagine the scenario: guests are soon to be arriving for a party; food is laid out on the table; everything is ready, when suddenly ...!

(I am happy to inform that, never, as far as I can recall, have any guests actually been directly exposed to any of the objectionable consequences that I have been describing, thanks to our assiduous efforts behind the scenes! Well ... maybe a stray fume or two, but nothing that we couldn't pass off as coming from Kevin's diaper!)

I had certainly had enough of this sisyphean endeavor. The definitive solution to this problem, unfortunately, was not to come easy. Several attempts were made to solve the problem in situ, to no avail. The problem seemed to be that the kitchen wastewater entered the pit too low, causing the water to pass under the trap before the cooler pit water caused the grease to solidify. The Final Resolution would require the destruction of nearly 10 square meters of our varanda, with the consequent substitution of ceramic tiling. It also caused a chain reaction which, in the end, catapulted us back into the midst of a major construction project.

Loose Threads

I called the grease pit a "loose thread", and it really was: throughout the entire first stage of construction, the removal and relocation of these two pits were on the "to do" list; but in the rush to finish the work-in-progress before Christmas, this task never got bumped to top of the queue. It turns out there was good reason to put it off as long as possible.

Like the metaphorical unraveling of a fabric with the pull of a single loose thread, my contractor again found himself back in business. It went something like this:

  • To move the sewage inspection pit, new holes for the pit had to be dug, farther from the house.
  • To dig the new holes, 30-year-old stonework on the patio surrounding the pool had to be torn up. This stonework would be impossible (and undesirable) to replace.
  • Rather than leave a cement space with manhole covers surrounded by ancient cracked and powdery stonework right next to the pool, we decided to tear out all of the stonework, replacing it with concrete.
  • We would have to, however, leave at least some of the stonework as a border around the pool, or replace the border of the pool with new stonework. We elected to leave the old stone around the pool.
  • We then realized that we would have to either 1) pour a thick layer of concrete around the pool to cover the patio, avoiding a highly "trippable" step up to the border of the pool, or 2) poor a thin layer of concrete, making a very "trippable" difference in height. This question was significant, in that if we would want to eventually (some day) place stonework on the patio in lieu of the concrete, we would need to poor the concrete slab thin.
  • We elected to poor the concrete slab thin, and, furthermore, decided to go all out, replacing the stonework of the entire patio instead of just pouring concrete. This was the key decision which caused the true unraveling, or "domino effect" which ensued ...
  • With the decision to replace the patio made, we realized that we had to check the pool plumbing: the pool was at least thirty years old, and any future problems in this area would require tearing up the stonework to get to the plumbing.
  • Since we were digging up the pool plumbing and stonework, I decided to take advantage of the moment and have the crude, homemade "skimmer" replaced with a decent, functional skimmer embedded in the pool wall.
  • Diagnosis of the pool plumbing resulted in the recommendation of complete and immediate substitution, which would require digging down and underneath the pool, and replacement of the pool's drain.
  • This required draining of the pool, which in turn revealed the sorry state of the pool's tilework. I knew that, but we had no intention of resurfacing the pool, in spite of a large number of cracked and broken tiles.
  • The road to hell is paved with good intentions. I think this gives a good idea of what ensued ... it took us at least another week before we gave in to pressure, and went from "substituting a few broken tiles" to "stripping the entire pool and replacing all tile work".

That's where we are now. Of course, I left out a number of details: new guttering on the house, drainage plumbing for the patio, cleaning of the cistern, installation of outdoor lighting, new steps for the varanda ... oh, and we still haven't got to laying down sod!

That's more than enough for now. I leave you with the following sequence of pictures:

The loose thread:

The unraveling:

Getting close!

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Back to the Future! (Part 4)

THE CALF PATH -- Sam Walter Foss (1858 - 1911)

One day, through the primeval wood,
A calf walked home, as good calves should;
But made a trail all bent askew,
A crooked trail, as all calves do.

Since then three hundred years have fled,
And, I infer, the calf is dead.
But still he left behind his trail,
And thereby hangs my moral tale.

The trail was taken up next day
By a lone dog that passed that way;
And then a wise bellwether sheep
Pursued the trail o’er vale and steep,
And drew the flock behind him, too,
As good bellwethers always do.

And from that day, o’er hill and glade,
Through those old woods a path was made,
And many men wound in and out,
And dodged and turned and bent about,
And uttered words of righteous wrath
Because ’twas such a crooked path;
But still they followed — do not laugh —
The first migrations of that calf,
And through this winding wood-way stalked
Because he wobbled when he walked.

This forest path became a lane,
That bent, and turned, and turned again.
This crooked lane became a road,
Where many a poor horse with his load
Toiled on beneath the burning sun,
And traveled some three miles in one.
And thus a century and a half
They trod the footsteps of that calf.

The years passed on in swiftness fleet.
The road became a village street,
And this, before men were aware,
A city’s crowded thoroughfare,
And soon the central street was this
Of a renowned metropolis;
And men two centuries and a half
Trod in the footsteps of that calf.

Each day a hundred thousand rout
Followed that zigzag calf about,
And o’er his crooked journey went
The traffic of a continent.
A hundred thousand men were led
By one calf near three centuries dead.
They follow still his crooked way,
And lose one hundred years a day,
For thus such reverence is lent
To well-established precedent.

A moral lesson this might teach
Were I ordained and called to preach;
For men are prone to go it blind
Along the calf-paths of the mind,
And work away from sun to sun
To do what other men have done.
They follow in the beaten track,
And out and in, and forth and back,
And still their devious course pursue,
To keep the path that others do.

They keep the path a sacred groove,
Along which all their lives they move;
But how the wise old wood-gods laugh,
Who saw the first primeval calf!
Ah, many things this tale might teach —
But I am not ordained to preach.

This is the final installment in what has become a 4 part series(!) The first three installments can be read here:

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3

The Communication Age

In my last post I talked about the Communication Age and how the internet represents the current evolution in a long string of technological advances in the realm of communications.

In less than two decades, the internet has grown into a technology that we now take for granted. But is it obvious exactly what the internet is? How would I explain the internet to 11-year old Jim?

It might pose a challenge. At first glance, it seems simple enough: most technologies are defined by how we use them ... or, more to the point, what we use them for. The problem is, we do so many things with the internet today, that such a generic definition is hard to come up with! We might call it an information tool, or a connectivity tool. But these terms are vague and really not very useful.

Of course, you can define the technologies that the internet is made up of. The term internet technically refers to the physical interconnection of many thousands of individual networks around the world. People often use the term World Wide Web interchangeably when referring to the internet; but they are not the same. The WWW refers specifically to the global collection of interconnected documents; i.e. "information", which can be accessed via the internet. But custom sees us continually using the term Internet or just "the Net" to refer to the entire pantheon of technologies, tools, and concepts associated with today's modern digital connectivity culture. To avoid any confusion, I will continue using the word in this vague way.

In reality, the internet revolution was made possible by the confluence of three factors: affordable computers, affordable high-speed connectivity, and fast, affordable data storage. All of these elements didn't come together at once, but without them, the internet as we know it, in all of its versatility, would not be possible. It could easily have remained an elite, restricted online environment, useable only by large corporations, government organizations, and universities. But it was its accessibility to the general public that allowed it to explode into a multi-faceted communications tool, driven as much by the creativity of the wide world of webusers in general as by the immense profit potential the medium promises to those enterprising companies of every industry equipped to capitalize on it.

Defining the term "internet" technically doesn't tell you much about what it can actually do for you though. It is somewhat akin to saying that a "cake" is made of flour, eggs, and sugar: it doesn't tell you anything about what a cake really is; how it tastes ... and when and why we eat it.

The "Net" is difficult to define exactly because it unites a variety of media in a single conduit: perhaps it can be best described as a mixture of the telephone, television, radio, the magazine, and the catalog all-in-one (and all of which are currently under threat of eventual replacement by the internet!). And that's just the start of it. It can be (and generally is!) exploited commercially, but the key to the internet's power (which may also be its greatest weakness ... I'll come to this point in a minute) is that anyone can share whatever he or she wants to. We can share our knowledge, our opinions, our beliefs... we can share our art, our interests, our thoughts. That doesn't mean that everyone has to be a generator of content -- but the internet is not a passive medium, and it is that aspect that differentiates it from the one-way "network television" model of communication.

The Internet and Tribal Culture

I know that "the internet" is a huge subject ... and I could go on all day about it. But there is one aspect in particular which interests me greatly, and which is related to the topic that I started in the previous posts.

I have belaboured the point about the Internet being a communication channel for a specific reason: how we think of this phenomenon can be significant in evaluating our expectations as to what this technology can actually do for us, which will determine the future directions it may take our society. Throughout history, new technologies have often led to dramatic cultural transformations over time: and this is particularly true of communication technologies. The internet has a tremendous transformation potential because it is simultaneously a "personal" communication device as well as the most effective and democratic mass communications tool ever developed. Not every cultural transformation is painless, however.

In spite of its apparent success, the internet has raised some new fears that spring from its darker side: a whole slew of technological parasites have arisen that may threaten the technology and its utility: viruses, spam, spyware, trojans, phishers... the internet has become a threat to our privacy. As we come to depend on our computers to store everything we know (rather than boxes in the basement), we must fear the consequences of that dependency -- the possibility of losing that data, or, worse, of someone stealing it with malicious intent. As we come to depend on the internet for everything, including access to our bank accounts, the security of this medium is paramount. Our credit card numbers can travel the world over: can we trust a particular internet merchant just because he has a flashy, official-looking website?

Besides this aspect of security, another spectre haunts the internet: all of the effort we invest to protect our privacy on the internet from the mal-intentioned also may serve to protect those who seek to prey on the innocent: the child molesters, terrorists, hate-mongers, extremists. Online, people can assume any identity they wish to: mild-mannered office worker by day, aggressive sexual predator in the virtual world. Although much of this behavior may be just harmless fantasy rollplaying, the possibility of encountering a large number of people who share "interests" normally shunned by society may provide a false sense of legitimacy that ends up reinforcing and strengthening destructive behavior.

This is a negative consequence of what is apparently one of the principal characteristics of today's internet. The connected personal computer is not really an information tool: it is a communication tool. Culture itself is built on communications between people; the sharing of ideas, technologies, language, experiences. In the past, geographical, linguistic, and political isolation led groups of people to develop their own cultures, which sometimes turned out very different from a similar group of people just across the river. The internet strips away those borders, and provides the potential for a global culture that transcends physical boundaries.

To a large extent, we see this happening: but there is also another very strong trend which can be cast in a positive or negative light, depending on ones' point of view: the formation and propagation of internet sub-cultures. The internet is a powerful tool for communication: never before has it been so easy to spread a message to thousands or even millions of people. As such, it has never been so easy to find other people who think like you do, who share your beliefs, or who can come to share them. People who agree with each other tend to gravitate towards one another in the virtual world, often reinforcing their own set of beliefs while spreading them to others. These virtual special interest groups can be referred to as "internet tribes".

This trend explains the plethora of "social networking" tools that have sprouted like weeds across the internet: what began decades ago with the "usenet" has branched into dozens of new ways to meet and connect with people. Nowhere is this more evident than with today's teenagers, who arguably live as much in a virtual world as a in the real world: internet chat rooms, forums, instant messengers, blogs, flogs, MySpace, Friendster, Orkut, webcams, MMORPGS's not unusual for a teen these days to count the members of their social circles in the dozens or even hundreds of people, many of whom they may never have even met face to face.

Social networking tools be incredibly useful, allowing us to find and build relationships with people who share our interests, create our own "tribes", without regard to where we may be located in the world. But of course, it also raises serious questions about the nature of the relationships formed, when the people with whom you are socializing may not even be who they claim to be. Or, even if they are, you don't know their background, their history, who their family is... reasonable items of worry for parents who hope to see their children safely through to adulthood.

Another more subtle item of concern is the effect that the formation of tribal sub-cultures can have on our belief systems. This may be an innocuous occorrence when a social group forms around, for example, "Java Programming" (C# and .NET sucks!); but many groups are based on political, religious, or social ideologies. Since it is usually in our nature to seek out people who think like ourselves, we may end up encouraged to "adopt-an-ideology", polarizing our own views, or taking on "labels" which may encompass ideas and beliefs we did not inicially possess. Since we can, in general, pick and choose what we read and who we communicate with, we have a natural tendency to read things written by people which we already agree with, excluding those points of views which we tend to reject. When we affiliate ourselves with a particular group, we often aggregate related ideas or opinions held by those in the group to our own (this is the definition of "ideology"). This closed-loop system may end up reinforcing our beliefs to the point of radicalization. So, incredibly, even though we supposedly have more access to "information" than ever before in history, we still find ourselves dividing up into polarized groups, drawing lines in the sands of the internet, and squaring off against each other just like we always did. Except today, the "enemy" isn't necessarily on the other side of the river: he may live on the other side of your street!

There is nothing new about this behavior ... "culture-forming" is apparently part of human nature, and dividing ourselves into groups is part of this process. Usually this is a positive thing -- an adaptation to some reality which affects a group of people; but it is basically the same process that created, Nazi Germany, for example. In the past, charismatic or influential leaders, large numbers of missionaries, or control over the media were necessary to reach a vast audience. The internet only makes this ancient behavior much easier, and far more accessible to "normal" people.

I am not saying that there is anything wrong with the existence of opposing viewpoints ... actually, debate is healthy and desirable. But often the very existence of a given tribe is founded on some fundamental ideology which can not be called into question without resulting in the dissolution of the very group itself! Members of a group called "I hate Microsoft" might debate pros and cons of their respective operating systems with a group called "Microsoft Rules". Some individual members might actually be convinced to switch sides; but like a living organism, the instinct for self preservation dictates that the group itself must defend its own ideology, even against a logical argument, or suffer death. Through natural selection, the moderate members are weeded out, until only the radicals are left to toe the party line. Like an audio feedback loop within an amplifier, the group's ideas are fed back into themselves and augmented repeatedly until nothing comes out but a high-pitched whine!

The internet is a new deal for us, so it may take a while for us, as a society, to get used to it. False information, lies, and distortion can travel just as quickly over the internet as truth can; in fact, it often travels faster because radicals and extremists use inflammatory language, designed to provoke strong emotions and appeal to our basest instincts. What I am contending here is that one of the unexpected consequences of the internet is the propagation or amplification of new and existing extremist ideologies. If I were going to do a doctoral dissertation in anthropology now, this would probably be my subject.

Freedom and the Internet

Abuse of the internet is a complex problem, but use of the internet at all is a threat to oppressive governments around the world. Even in such societies, where free public access to information can be a menace to the established social order, those in charge are challenged with the question of how to bar access to the internet and still build a technologically modern culture. This may seem an unlikely danger to those of us living in western democracies; but even here debate still rages about how free our access to information should be, and just how much privacy individual citizens should be allowed. It may not take much more than a few high-profile incidents to provide our governments with the public backing they need to further invade our privacy and restrict our access to knowledge, in the name of our own security. As we become ever more reliant on this technology, control by the government of the internet or its progeny may make George Orwell's vision of the world entire feasible.

It is in this war that one of the major battles is currently being waged, as large corporations, entire industries, and even private individuals seek to maintain control over their intellectual property. The internet encourages and facilitates the interchange and sharing of data digitally, and that includes art, music, film, books, software .... Many forward-thinking content-producers are concluding that the old-ways are doomed to failure, and are experimenting with alternative models of commercialization in order to be fairly compensated for their efforts. But battle-lines are drawn, and, one way or another, things may get nastier before they get better.

Fear and the Future

It's not surprising, then, that the internet occasionally inspires a certain degree of fear. It may even become tempting, at some point, to begin to think in terms of Daedalus & Icarus: the internet is our Godzilla, or our Frankenstein's monster. The internet has grown far beyond its original conception, has evolved creatively and dynamically into -- something new, and -- just maybe -- sometimes, something dangerous. Can this be the price we pay for our desire for omnipotence?

If there is one thing that hasn't changed when it comes to forseeing the future, it is fear of the future. Both change and the unknown generally inspire fear, and the future is the ultimate unknown, no matter how hard we try to predict it. Today, as in the past, we can find any number of potential reasons to fear the future. In fact, when I was 11 years old, there was always one possible scenario that would prevent me from living to see robots and our expansion through space in the year 2000: and that was the seemingly inevitable destruction of the human race in a global thermonuclear war. If you are under 25-30 years old, you probably won't even know what I'm talking about. But the fear was genuine, and the anticipation of Mutually Assured Destruction, despite its obvious madness, fostered nightmares throughout my childhood.

Today the phantom of nuclear destruction seems more distant, but other anxieties have taken its place: global warming, genetic engineering, cancer causing substances in virtually everything we eat ... terrorists with access to Weapons of Mass Destruction.

Most people haven't yet come to fear the internet enough to reject its use; probably because it is too incredibly useful. The vague potential of "danger" isn't enough to outweigh that utility. Cars are dangerous too, but they are so useful for getting around, very few people would consider giving them up. The changes to our culture wrought by the internet will likely be as profound and long-lasting as were those brought on by the automobile itself, or television. Maybe more-so.

The internet and the home computer, along with the mobile phone, the i-Pod, and a thousand other wearable gizmos, have insidiously infiltrated and installed themselves into our very culture. This seems to be an accelerating trend: and there is no stopping it. It is changing the way we buy and sell. It is changing the way we think about "intellectual property". It is changing the way we socialize, and the way we search for "information". But, perhaps even more significant, it is changing the way we define "information".

The Nature of Information

According to John Brockman, of The Edge (a non-profit online magazine that promotes "inquiry into and discussion of intellectual, philosophical, artistic, and literary issues" as well as working "for the intellectual and social achievement of society"):

"We are in the age of 'searchculture', in which Google and other search engines are leading us into a future rich with an abundance of correct answers along with an accompanying naïve sense of certainty. In the future, we will be able to answer the question, but will we be bright enough to ask it? "

He is voicing what seems to be a valid fear: just as calculators and computers have virtually eliminated our need (and our capacity!) to work out complex mathematical calculations longhand, might not the instantaneous access to answers to virtually any question without us even having to think eventually erode our capacity for rational thinking, logic, and reasoning? If this is a legitimate concern, than I say that the problem is even more serious than Brockman alludes to: at least we can trust the answers that a calculator gives us, since they are the result of computation; unless the software or the electronic circuit fails, it will never make a mistake. Google gives us no such guarantees about the nature or quality of the information it returns us. Even its much talked about "page rank" algorithm has nothing to do with trustworthiness of the information; pages are supposedly ranked more by popularity than any other factor.

The internet wasn't designed from the ground up to be all that it is today. Indeed, in theory, it is something that should never work ... it only works in practice! What use is an "information tool" that can bring you wrong information just as easily as right?

The key to answering to that question is the recognition that there is no such thing as "true" information!

"Information" ... as a concept ... can encompass every kind of knowledge, including opinions, beliefs, and ideas, along with a nebulous concept called "facts". Now I am going to wax philosophical and make what may seem to some a controversial affirmation:

All that can really exist in our consciousness -- all that we classify as "information" -- are the result of two kinds of actions -- observation, and communication. All that we actually know -- what we classify as "knowledge" -- is the result of our interpretation of this information: the deductive or inductive reasoning we apply to our knowledge to arrive at our own conclusions about the meaning of that information.

"Observations" are those phenomena which we experience with our own senses; but we would do well to remember that even our own senses can be tricked, and how we understand all that we perceive still depends mostly on learned information, transmitted to us through communication. "Communication", then, is the dissemination of "knowledge" between people, which in turn means the transmission of our observations, and that which has been "communicated" to us, and of our interpretations of these things.

Never before has it been more obvious than with the internet that all "knowledge" is relative: a student researching a given subject for a term paper may easily encounter a wide variety of different points of view, or beliefs about that subject. He may also encounter contradictory "facts": after all, anyone can make (up) a web page. You can try to limit your research to "trustworthy" sources, but eventual contradictions are inevitable, and the access that we now have to a large number of sources of "information" should make it obvious that, no matter where we find our information, we are simply, only, "communicating" with other people (even if my source is someone long dead!).

But there is a silver-lining to all of this, which is the point that I hoped to eventually arrive at with this rambling discourse. Throughout almost all of human history, mankind has had to rely on a very small number of sources of information for all of our knowledge; usually this information was passed on verbally within the tribes or community in which we lived. Usually this set of "knowledge" was adapted to the individual reality of each individual group of people, and worked well for them. Ocassionally, upheavals would occur, when new observations of nature or contact with other groups called into question our accepted beliefs.

Then, suddenly, someone came up with a way to "record" our "knowledge" symbolically, first by drawing pictures and then, just a little later, by scratching abstract symbols which represent the sounds we make. If all of human history were compressed into a year, then this "revolution" would have occurred only a week or so ago. Suddenly it was possible to truly "accumulate" knowledge, pass it on to future generations and even, eventually, share it cross culturally.

In this cosmological blink-of-an-eye, humans changed all the rules: new technologies, new ways to raise and grow food, new machines of warfare. But for the first few thousand years of written history, this fundamental, important ability of our species was restricted to an elite few: even the capacity to read was not widespread. Most people were condemned to be followers: when your sources of information are limited, you are at the mercy of those leaders who tell you what should or must believe. Those that could read were still lucky to have access to one or two books (probably the Bible or Koran being one of them ...). Still, it was enough to get us where we are today.

On this one-year timeline of human history, the invention of the printing press was just over a day ago. The television, 2.5 hours ago, and the internet: just about an hour ago. Each of these revolutions brought more and more sources of information into contact with the average person, until, finally, with the internet, we reach the point where we are today.

In the poem presented at the beginning of this post ("The Calf Path"), Sam Foss creates a little parable which decries mankind's tendency to follow in the footsteps of those who have gone before, rather than stepping off the beaten path and maybe finding a better way to do something. A copy of this poem was first given to me by Dad when I was in high school: it exemplified what was one of his "pet philosophies", and it (and he) has had a tremendous impact on the way I think. The idea of the calf path became something of a family philosophy. The idea can be summed up as basically saying: Don't take anything for granted. Don't believe everything you hear (or read). Always look for a better way to solve a problem. Dad's skepticism was often confused for stubborness (or maybe that was the other way around!), but nobody questioned his capacity for creativity and innovation.

My take on the calf path is more to the point of this blog post: in the poem, Sam Foss says:

"... For Men are prone to go it blind, along the calf paths of the mind" .

To me, this means that it is easier to just follow a path than to understand why the path was made the way it was.

Of course, what makes human beings the most successful animal on the face of this earth is that we excel both at innovation, and at transmitting the results of that innovation to each other ... as well as down to successive generations. History has been built both by leaders and by followers; but the great leaps forward have been taken by those who dared to step off the path. I am not arguing in favor of blind skepticism, which is even worse than blindly following others; humanity wouldn't have made it very far at all if every step forward started at the beginning. Rather, I am simply presenting the case for my belief that the next generation of intellectuals and innovators will be those who seek to understand why a path was made the way it was, as opposed to just choosing a path and following blindly. Usually, when you are on a given path, you can't really see if the route you are following is the correct one. You need to step off the path and take a look at it from afar so you can evaluate it, possibly compare it with other potential paths. Note that this is not the same thing as saying that everyone should make their own paths!

This brings me back to the first post of this sequence, and the picture of the supposed "home computer" of 1954. This "future" in which we now live is one in which we have at our disposal the potential to communicate with a large number of people, and the possibility of sharing more and more "knowledge" and information than ever before in history. Much of this information will seemingly be less accurate (technically speaking, or scientifically speaking) than what we could only have found in the library or the newspaper just a few years ago: and some of it will be outright lies. Still, many people whom I know (and many of them I have "met" in online tribes!) have adapted with ease to this paradigm of internet knowledge. Rather than locking themselves into radical extremist "tribes", they recognize the importance of "critical thinking" with respect to virtually everything we observe or receive via any communication, whether the source be the internet, the local TV station, the newspaper, or a library book.

The optimist in me believes that it is not specifically the access to other people's "knowledge" -- chewed up, processed and spit back out at us -- which drives our capacity for innovation (this is just the calf path of the mind). Rather, it is the free exchange of ideas which stimulates creativity, produces change, and makes great things happen. My contention is that we find ourselves on the edge of a critical moment in human history, that possibly will make all of the great leaps of the past look like trivial baby steps in comparison. If history itself is any indication, the next few decades will see more radical and deeper changes in human culture and technology than we have ever seen in all of human history. People may fear and resist some of this change, but "information" is an inexorable tide which, once accessible to all, no levee will be able to hold back.

Hmmm ... now I wonder what the future will be like when my kids are 40 years old?!