Thursday, April 28, 2016

Well met by sunlight -- Crete in autumn


On sudden impulse -- although I'd been mulling it over for several weeks -- I signed up this afternoon for an October one-week trek in Crete.  Nothing real adventurous or daring -- we stay in small, family-run hotels (not tents) at night and eat good Greek (not freeze dried) food.

I'm advised by a friend that it may still be hot in October, but after years of hiking in high-elevation cold, that may be a nice change.  We hike, of course, for one day through Crete's biggest outdoors tourist draw -- a 12½ mile hike through deep, narrow Samaria Gorge.  We climb a couple of peaks -- neither over seven thousand feet in elevation -- at the beginning and at the end of the hike. 

That's the strenuous stuff.  Other days, we swim on deserted beaches, check out an old Turkish fort, walk on forested paths along cliffs above the sea, check out the spot (marked by a small church) where St. Paul is said to have landed during one of his sea voyages, and hike cross country over mountainous terrain, through tiny picturesque villages.  As the itinerary beguilingly puts it, at various points, there will be time for drinks at a simple beach café, before one proceeds to dinner.

Crete to me has always meant Minoan civilization.  And it's also meant the British resistance to the German occupation, described brilliantly in W. Stanley Moss's Ill Met by Moonlight.  Neither preconception will have much bearing on this trek, limited as it is to the less frequented southern portion of the island. 

But it should be an enjoyable week, hiking with a small group of fifteen hikers,  predominantly British.  It will mark a satisfying conclusion to a year filled with numerous travel experiences.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Dormendo al lato del Tevere


As the Tiber river flows through the heart of Rome, it is bordered by high banks.  At the base of those banks are paved walkways, along which one can stroll and admire the scenery.

At least, that's the idea.  Today's New York Times brings to our attention that nowadays the embankments are covered with litter, overgrown vegetation, and "encampments of homeless people."  The city government ignores the problem.  Local volunteer groups are by-passing an ineffectual municipal government, and sponsoring clean-up efforts, art work, and theatrical performances.

The volunteer work sounds great, and long overdue.  The part about "encampments of homeless people" strikes home, however, and reminds us that some problems are worldwide in scope.  But it also rings a special, and happier, bell with me.

In 1970, I was backpacking alone around Europe.  Still in my first week of travel since flying into Amsterdam, I arrived in Rome without (of course) hotel reservations.  I arrived late on a July afternoon, during the year that Newsweek had published a cover article about American kids inundating Europe, and even the tourist office at the railway station was unable to find a place for me to stay. 

So -- with no plan in mind -- I wandered from the station, crossed over the Tiber to Trastevere, and ultimately arrived at the Vatican.  I found myself hanging about aimlessly in the piazza in front of St. Peter's.  Maybe I should just forget about Rome, and take the midnight train south to Bari, I thought. 

There were Italian kids and northern European kids and some American kids, all hanging around the obelisk in the center of the piazza.  The Italians were good naturedly insulting the others.  I began talking to two students from Wayne State in Detroit who shared my plight.  But they, unlike me, had a plan.

"We're going to spend the night in our sleeping bags down by the river," they confided.  Wow!  I had a sleeping bag, for use in youth hostels, but it never occurred to me to sleep in -- essentially -- the street.  Is that even legal, I wondered innocently?  We bought a bottle of Chianti, descended a long flight of steps going down to the embankment about dusk, shared the wine, and sacked out for the night. We weren't far from the looming, cylindrical presence of Hadrian's Tomb above us (shown in the photo).

I was a naïve kid from small town Washington state -- pretty well educated by this time, but in no way street-wise.  As my journal describes the night:

The Chianti didn't work so well as I had hoped, due to intermittent jeers from Italian teenagers who spotted us from the street above.  I had visions of an "Easy Rider"-type denouement to my European odyssey, but I dropped off to sleep and rested in peace.

So, for a night, at least, I too was a homeless waif, encamped on the Tiber embankment.  But with perhaps a few more resources on which to draw than have those who are being hustled away from the Tiber in today's Rome.

My night on the Tiber hardly sounds terribly adventurous, as I recount it today.  But it marked a first for me, a realization that rules -- while not made to be broken -- weren't always rigorously enforced; that it was ok to sleep on the street if nothing else was available; that, in fact, sleeping on the pavement being jeered at from above could be more fun -- and certainly more memorable -- than checking into a hotel with reservations.

It was a lesson that I took fully to heart for the remaining six weeks I spent in Europe, and even more frequently the following year, hitchhiking in Britain.  Today?  No.  I don't often sleep on a sidewalk.  The Tiber banks, as the Times article described them,  do sound kind of dirty and disgusting.  The homeless dwellers probably aren't university students, and Chianti may not be their drug of choice.. 

But the basic lesson -- that even being uncomfortable in a strange place is more fun than being bored in a Marriott -- is a lesson that has stuck with me all these years.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Drowned rat


I don't know why, but rain comes into my head the minute I think of my childhood.
--Dhanush

I-phones come equipped with a handy little app that lets you check the weather.  Despite being frequently disappointed by its forecasts, I check it often.  This morning, I saw that it would remain cloudy in Seattle until about 11 a.m. -- but après cela, le deluge!

So, ever-trusting soul that I am, I set out at 8:45 a.m. for my daily four-mile walk from my house, planning to circle the UW campus before the rains set in.  After about twenty minutes, it began sprinkling, then raining, and then -- by Seattle standards, at least -- a downpour.  Finally, just before crossing the bridge across the Montlake cut, I gave up and turned around.  My shoes were wet, my jeans were sodden, my supposedly waterproof windbreaker was saturated.  I was, I whimpered to myself, soaked to the skin.

About five minutes after I had turned around, the rain eased off a bit (very temporarily).  And I began to wonder at my cowardice.

I recalled a time as an undergraduate, walking from my dorm to the student union building, where I was scheduled to league bowl for my living group (I was quite the college athlete).  It began raining -- a California rain, not all that hard, but blown sideways by the wind.  I found myself hunched over, cowering, muttering imprecations as I hurried myself along.

And my 20-year-old mind drifted back to the olden days of my youth.  Back when we kids played outside for hours, rain or shine.  Back when I enjoyed the feel of rain beating against my young face. I'd end up visiting a friend's house, and his mother would exclaim, "You boys look like drowned rats!  Don't you know enough to come in out of the rain?"  We'd look at each other blankly.  So we were wet?  So what?

Gosh, I thought.  When did I start acting like an old man, all hunched over and miserable, just because it's raining?  Is this what being grown-up entails?

And now, as an "old man," I ask the same question.  I was already wet when I turned around this morning.  I wasn't going to get any wetter. Why didn't I just finish my walk, come back to the house on schedule, change clothes, and have a nice cup of coffee?  Am I the Wicked Witch of the West?  Afraid that I'll dissolve in water?

I had no answer.  I have none now.  All I know is that I cut my walk short, came home, changed clothes, and poured myself the cup of coffee I didn't really deserve.  Neither more nor less drenched than if I'd continued to walk ten miles.

I pride myself on finishing difficult hikes or climbs, despite adversity.  And yet a little urban rain did me in.  I guess I was afraid of becoming a "drowned rat." 

Friday, April 22, 2016

Antoine grows up


Last night, I watched François Truffaut's Stolen Kisses at the Seattle Art Museum, part of its Spring 2016 "Cinema de Paris" film series.  The film, released in 1968, is the third in Truffaut's cycle of five films following the life of Antoine Doinel -- the young protagonist Truffaut had introduced to the world nine years earlier in The 400 Blows.

Antoine, a troubled, adventurous, and somewhat sensitive 12-year-old (played by 14-year-old Jean-Pierre Léaud) in The 400 Blows, is now a troubled, adventurous, and totally feckless young man of 21. 

The same actor -- Jean-Pierre Léaud -- plays the part of Antoine in each of the five films in the series, beginning with The 400 Blows in 1959 and ending with Love on the Run in 1979.  Truffaut's series was thus in some respects an early, abbreviated experiment of the kind done so well by Richard Linklater in his 2014 film Boyhood -- we watch the actor grow and mature in tandem with the character whom he portrays.

Truffaut was a great director, considered the father of the French New Wave cinema, and The 400 Blows is now considered one of the best movies ever made.  Both the director and his films have been reviewed and analyzed to death.  I'm not going to embarrass myself by trying to write a review -- just give you my quick impression.

In fact, although I've read allusions to The 400 Blows virtually my entire life, I shamefacedly admit that I had never seen the film.  But I so enjoyed watching Stolen Kisses last night that I watched The 400 Blows this afternoon, streaming it on my computer screen from Amazon (for only $3.99, no compensation received for this plug).

In Blows, Antoine and his best friend are shown "running wild" (the idiomatic meaning of the French title) in a frigid, black and white, mid-winter Paris -- the Paris that I expected to see, and actually did see, when I first visited it in 1961.  Antoine, despite his wildness, seems like a very nice young boy who has been raised by a couple who lack, as we'd now say, parenting skills.  Although reasonably intelligent (the story is somewhat autobiographical, after all!), he performs terribly at school.  He routinely plays hooky, he lies, he steals, and he ends up in a French version of reform school, where he is abandoned and disowned by his parents.  He escapes, runs all the way (in a protracted and beautifully filmed single-camera scene)  to the ocean he had always dreamed of seeing, wades into the water, and in an iconic conclusion turns back and stares at the camera, freeze-framed, with a bewildered expression.  "Fin." 

By the time of Stolen Kisses, Antoine is taller, thinner, still boyish, prone to quick visits to Parisian prostitutes, and seemingly unable to succeed at any career he attempts.  We first see him being dishonorably discharged from the Army for desertion, and quickly introduced to a job as a hotel clerk by his girl friend's father.  He botches that job, and goes on to botch one job after another-- a shoe store clerk, a novice private detective, and a TV repairman.  As his employers generally admit, he works hard and means well, but they haven't the patience to tolerate his mistakes.

Blows, while amusing at times, was black and white, and suffused with preadolescent angst.  Stolen Kisses is filmed in color, is funny throughout, comes close to slapstick at times, and takes full advantage of the humor traditionally found in misunderstandings between lovers.  The 400 Blows ends with Antoine's gazing blankly at the camera -- he sees no future, he is only one step ahead of being found, beaten, and returned to reform school, and he may or may not be considering suicide.  Stolen Kisses ends with the boy getting his girl, and with marriage in the offing -- despite the fact that the question of what he will do with his life and how he will ever support a family is no closer to being answered than at the beginning of the movie.

But the humor is irresistible -- in a Stan Laurel-ish sort of way -- and the background scenes of  modern Paris are striking enough to draw your attention away from the subtitles.  Antoine as an adult is a lovable doofus, and I enjoyed watching his often comic misadventures. 

But it's The 400 Blows that can break your heart.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Geology 101


Sample rock, on the Trail of Time,
from one of the deepest layers
of the Grand Canyon.

Over the years, a quick check suggests, I've posted five times about my trips to the Grand Canyon.  Perhaps I've exhausted the topic.
-- "Confused Ideas," May 6, 2015


Well, maybe, but after two more posts last year, I can now say I've posted seven times about the Big Gulch, and here's number eight. 

I returned last night from another visit to the South Rim in what is becoming something of an annual encounter with nature and another test of my aging endurance.  I had planned to descend the South Kaibab trail to the Tonto Plateau, traverse the plateau for a couple or three miles until it ran into the Bright Angel trail, and then ascend by that now-familiar route.  But the combination of a little mild illness and gusty winds at the canyon led me to rule out the South Kaibab descent -- which is steep and, following a ridge, is exposed to the elements. 

Instead, I once more did the simpler Bright Angel Trail round trip, down to Indian Garden on the plateau -- a 3,000 foot descent and a ten mile round trip.  For those who have never done even this fairly easy descent into the canyon, I do recommend trying it in April rather than May or later.  The ease of the climb back up seems to depend more on the temperature than it does on your level of conditioning.  And Sunday, when I did my excursion, was a pleasantly cool, albeit sunny, day for a hike.  Extremely pleasant, allowing me to return to the rim with leg muscles aware they had been taken on a walk, but not suffering from exhaustion.

For the first time, I had booked accommodations early enough to grab a room at the Bright Angel Lodge (its "Prescott Lodge" annex, actually), so when I arrived back at the rim I was able to immediately collapse right at my doorstep.   Inexpensive, but rooms book early, even for April, before the high season begins.

What do you do at the Grand Canyon?  Assuming you're not force-marched to the rim by a tour conductor, and given one hour to snap your selfies before continuing on to Zion or wherever else you're scheduled?  In order of importance -- (1) let yourself be awestruck by the immensity and beauty of the canyon at different times of the day, camera in hand; (2) test your determination and endurance by trying hikes of various lengths into (or -- at least -- along the rim of) the canyon.

And after you've enjoyed those activities -- maybe on your second or third visit, depending on your interests and enthusiasms -- (3) learn something about the geology and time scale of the canyon.  And -- as I may have enthused in an earlier post -- props to the National Park Service for their excellent presentation of both.  The museums and signage are excellent, and most impressive of all is the "Trail of Time" -- a 2.83 mile portion of the Rim Trail marked so that every meter (yard) walked represents another million years of canyon development that has passed. 

As one walks the entire trail, he gathers an intuitive feel for just what one means when he says that an event happened a "billion years ago" -- that billion years is represented by one kilometer of walking, thank you -- and a sense of humility when he sees what an insignificant period of time homo sapiens has existed on earth.  Moreover, every fifty million years or so, the time marker is accompanied by a large sample of the rock formed during that period of the Grand Canyon's geological formation.  Each rock sample is large, and polished on one side; the observer is invited to feel it and get a sense for its texture.

Together with the rock samples and the time line, signs at various points explain how various rocks and minerals were formed during the area's history -- how the deeper rock of the inner canyon is extremely hard metamorphic rock formed under extreme heat and pressure, and has been eroded in a steep, narrow canyon by the river; how this metamorphic layer is covered by numerous layers of various softer sandstones, formed as lakes and seas covered the metamorphic layer in more "recent" times, eroding away to form wide canyon walls of varying steepness, depending on the hardness of the mineral at each layer.

But, perhaps I bore you? 

But the "Trail of Time" will not, and your first or your twentieth visit to the Grand Canyon will be enhanced by the painless lessons in geology and in the vastness of time that the canyon -- and the National Park Service's narrative -- will offer you.

I, for one, will be back again.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Trust, but verify


As noted in earlier posts, Seattle's fledgling light rail system was extended from downtown to the University of Washington last month, passing through Capitol Hill, another densely populated area, on its way.  Transit authorities underestimated the popularity of the new extension, and trains immediately began running full during much of the day.

It warms my heart to see kids -- most of the new riders are students from the UW or twenty-somethings from Capitol Hill -- either lining up at kiosks to buy tickets or beeping their pre-loaded Orca cards at the proximity detectors.  So far, these new passengers seem to be paying their fares.

But for how long?  As I noted in a post several years ago, I've watched many riders on the original stretch from downtown south to the airport climb on board with neither a ticket nor an Orca "beep."  Once in a while an enforcement officer would come through the car checking whether we had paid our fares, but it was rare and the spot-checks predictably occurred on a few long stretches between distant stations.  The officers were uniformed.  When they boarded at a station, some street-wise riders prudently disembarked, choosing to wait for the next train.

So I wonder how long it will be before canny students and young adults from the north end of town also decide that payment is voluntary, that the fares are sort of like the voluntary admission fee "suggested" by the Metropolitan Museum in New York.  Maybe I'll be able to tax-deduct the fares I pay as charitable contributions to Sound Transit?

Los Angeles began with the same system, appealing to the better natures of its riders.  Metro gave up in 2013, adopting the turnstiles that most rail transit systems have long used.  The New York Times reported that one reason L.A.'s Metro system had intentionally avoided turnstiles was that supervisors were afraid turnstiles would discourage already transit-adverse Angelenos from even trying out the system.  But the rapidly growing system drew massive numbers of riders. 

Seattle's experience has been similar, on a smaller city scale.

One of the Los Angeles transit system's board of supervisors admitted that there had been no incentive for people to pay -- the chances of scofflaws' being caught were "slim to none."  One rider told the Times reporter,

The last time someone wrote me a ticket I looked at the cop and said: ‘You know what, how long have you been on the force? You can write me that ticket but you’re going to stand there and watch me tear it up because I know it’s not going to be enforced.’

I suggest that Seattle not wait for its customers either to laugh at the transit police and mock compliance, as this fellow did, or, alternatively, to feel like idiots whose voluntary payments subsidize those who refuse to pay.  It will cost some money to install the necessary automated turnstiles, but it also costs money when passengers stop paying their fares.  It would also cost money to employ enough enforcement officers to stage massive spot-checks to compel compliance.

And beyond the dollars and cents aspect, running a system where only some users pay their share is demoralizing to everyone.  And demoralization will not encourage voters to finance badly-needed future expansion of the system at the polls in November.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Dribbling across Britain


As you surely recall, last June I hiked the western half of England's Coast to Coast Walk, across the Lake District from St. Bees to Kirkby Stephen.  A fine and beautiful walk.  But walking that walk, while brisk, perhaps, is not exactly a Himalayan accomplishment.

Imagine my pleasure, however, reading how Bill Bryson -- author of A Walk in the Woods and Notes from a Small Island -- paints the same hike in heroic terms:

I could only fit in the first three days [of the trek], but that took us right across the Lake District from St. Bees to Patterdale -- 42.4 miles.  It was a murderous slog over craggy hills, but the weather was glorious and I don't think I have ever encountered so much continuous beauty while clutching my heart and begging for mercy.

That quotation is from Bryson's latest book, The Road to Little Dribbling: More Notes from a Small Island.  Bryson gives his adopted country another examination, twenty years after his original "notes."  He finds many ways in which Britain has declined over those twenty years, but that decline is mirrored by the many ways -- at age 63 -- in which he suspects himself to have declined.  The "murderous slog" of the Coast to Coast walk may well reflect that personal, physical decline.

Bryson begins his book with a confident plan -- to mosey up the entire length of Britain, from Bognor Regis in the south to Cape Wrath in the north.  He scoffs at the traditional claim that Land's End to John O'Groats is the longest route.  He scoffs at some length but you don't need to understand his scoffing, because once he starts traveling, he essentially ignores either route.  He just gradually ambles in a northerly direction, with some back tracking, and -- according to my Kindle's counter -- devotes only the final seven percent of his book to Scotland.

Bryson has been criticized for this failure to follow his own plan, and for other seeming disappointments.  And if you're looking for a Lonely Planet guide to Britain, or a well organized expeditionary march from the English Channel to the tip of Scotland, you will be disappointed. 

But if you agree that one agreeable way to travel is to putter around, sometimes never getting to a great cathedral because you spent too much time watching a couple of ducks in a village pond, if you feel that an odd name for a village is grounds enough to undergo some hardship to go check it out, if you agree that walking is the best way to see anything, if you like traveling with a friend who worries out loud about what this world is coming to, and what he himself is growing into -- and, essentially, if you've read Bill Bryson's other books and find him a congenial read -- you'll like his latest book just fine.

Bill first visited England when he was twenty, and he's growing a little upset about his now being 63.  And as people getting on in years often insist, the places he once loved aren't getting better as time passes.  Actually, Bryson finds Britain's scenery to be as awe-inspiring as ever -- from the beauties of raw nature to the way that ancient ruins seem to add to rather than detract from the comeliness of the natural world.  But he despairs of humanity.  He observes that Britain is far wealthier today than it was when he visited it as a young man.  And yet the nation then did a far better job of maintaining its treasures and keeping its infrastructure in repair.

If we could afford it then, why not now?  Someone needs to explain to me how it is that the richer Britain gets, the poorer it thinks itself.

Aside from neglect by Britain's government and the carelessness of its people ("the world seems to be filling up with imbeciles"), he repeatedly reminds us of one of the sad features of life, in Britain and elsewhere:

It really doesn't pay to go back and look again at the things that once delighted you, because it's unlikely they will delight you now.

In a word, Bill Bryson has become a bit of a curmudgeon and a bit of an Eeyore -- but we forgive him, because he knows it as well as we do, and because he's funny about it.

In short, Little Dribbling is partly a return to places Bill has loved, which usually aren't as good as they used to be; partly his contemplations on the ever-fascinating topic of growing old (although 63 isn't really ancient); partly a chance to watch a guy wander around, distracted by odd observations of things that most of us wouldn't observe but that prove worth observing; and partly Bill's thoughts about whatever comes to mind, usually triggered by something he sees or something someone says to him.

He's a fairly sensitive guy, but he doesn't take fools lightly (but he usually lambasts them only in his eloquent imagination).  Each day he seems to be looking ahead to the earliest hour he can feel justified in beginning to drink, and an evening of drinking frequently complicates his life and his travels.  He impresses me as a lonely traveler -- although his wife and kids await him at home, not far away, right there in England -- and his personality seems to puzzle or repel the British people with whom he tries to converse, rather than entice them into any more intimate conversations.

I remember how easy it was -- for me, who was far more an introvert than is Bill Bryson -- to meet and hang out with enjoyable people while traveling when I was young.  At 63, for many people, it's no longer so easy.  I think Bryson is one of those people, and he senses it, although he never says so explicitly.  I think this inability to enjoy chatting with others is why he often seems sad, even while being quite funny.  

But Little Dribbling won't be Bill Bryson's last travel book.  Whatever sadness traveling at 63 may induce, it is nothing compared with the sadness of not traveling at 63.  His legs may at times feel ancient, but he certainly still can walk, and he still enjoys walking.  We can look forward to his next bumbling, puzzled, awkward -- but always entertaining -- adventure.

Saturday, April 2, 2016

Look ma, it floats!


Seattle Times photo

We build 'em big in Seattle.  Boeing 747s, of course.  But also bridges.

When I started graduate school at the University of Washington, the second floating bridge across Lake Washington had just been opened, tying the University to the Bellevue-Kirkland area on the east side.  The bridge was usually called the "Evergreen Point" bridge.  The toll was 20 cents, until the bridge's bonds eventually were paid off and the toll plaza dismantled.

Since then, Seattle has prospered, as have its eastern suburbs.  The bridge, eventually re-named after a former Washington governor, Albert Rosselini (but sadly now popularly called the "520 bridge" after the state highway that crosses over it), became a virtual parking lot during rush hours.  And with Microsoft's growth, rush hours grew ever longer.

Re-imposition of tolls a short time ago -- now maxing out at $5.55 during rush hour, if your car isn't equipped with an electronic pass -- has helped alleviate the traffic jams.  Folks use the "other" floating bridge, which carries I-90 a couple of miles to the south, if they are willing to accept inconvenience in exchange for evading toll charges.

But all that changes this month when the new, bigger and better, Rosselini floating bridge ("the 520 bridge") replaces the old one.  The shiny new bridge will carry three lanes in each direction rather than two.  It has a wide and commodious bicycle/pedestrian lane, physically separated from motor traffic.  It has view points, and ornamental pylons.  And -- the road bed is built much higher above its water level pontoons.  A draw span no longer will be necessary to facilitate shipping.  Even more important, storms will no longer wash waves over the roadbed, forcing the closing of the bridge.

To me, this is all academic.  I hardly ever use the bridge, despite its Seattle terminus's being but a short distance from my house.  But I'm pleased to have the World's Longest Floating Bridge virtually in my front yard.  That's right.  At 7,710 feet, it will undisputedly be the floating bridge champion.

To celebrate, the Department of Transportation threw open the bridge to the pedestrian public today, using a fleet of 51 city buses to ferry waves of happy celebrants from various parts of nearby areas onto the bridge.  Along with half of the Seattle area, I can now claim the distinction of having crossed Lake Washington on foot, in both directions, on the first day that such a feat became possible.  The bridge, all 7,710 feet of it, was so crowded as to make walking something of an ordeal.  Concessions of all sorts -- most notably food -- appealed to everyone.  Somehow, buying a hamburger on a floating bridge was more exciting than buying the same item on solid land.

It was fun, it was exciting, it diverted us from thoughts of Trump, but the bridge still is not quite complete even now.  But the DOT promises that motorists can look forward to its opening in a couple of weeks.

Let's face it, of course.  It's no Golden Gate Bridge, despite its displaying a few ornamental pylons.  But does San Francisco's bridge float?  I think not.

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Quiet days in Luang Prabang



Laos, a river bank, had been overrun and ransacked; it was one of America's expensive practical jokes, a motiveless place where nothing was made, everything imported; a kingdom with baffling pretensions to Frenchness.  What was surprising was that it existed at all, and the more I thought of it, the more it seemed like a lower form of life, like the cross-eyed planarian or squishy amoeba, the sort of creature that can't die even when it is cut to ribbons.
-----------------------------------

So wrote Paul Theroux, in his hymn to train travel, The Great Railway Bazaar,  about his 1973 visit to Vientiane, today the Lao capital. He wrote at the time when American soldiers were beginning their withdrawal from the Indochinese war.  Theroux wasn't impressed by what he saw.

I just returned yesterday from a week's stay in Luang Prabang -- the second largest city in Laos, and (until the Communists deposed the monarchy in 1975)  its ancient royal capital.  Today isn't 1973; forty-three years have since been flushed down the Mekong river. And Luang Prabang isn't Vientiane, nor is Vientiane itself still a playground for American G.I.s on leave. 

Luang Prabang is now -- and probably was in 1973 as well -- a quiet, friendly, languorous small town, about 190 miles up the Mekong river from Vientiane.  The town has -- as have towns everywhere -- begun to sprawl with increased population (about 50,000), but the heart of the town, the place people go to visit, is a small, walkable peninsula between the parallel Mekong and Nam Khan rivers, just before the latter flows into the former.  The two rivers, about three or four blocks apart, are lined with small restaurants, hotels, hostels, and "guest houses."

This "old town" section of Luang Prabang is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and thus preserved from "modernization" and degradation.

The city's infrastructure is built around a large number of impressive wats (temples or monasteries).  Each of the town's districts is named for its presiding wat.  The streets are full of saffron-garbed monks, many or most of them teenagers.  But economically, the city relies on tourism, and the old town is dedicated to serving their needs (and/or desires).  The monks give the town a spiritual quality; the businesses ensure that the visitor is comfortably housed, wined and dined.  The two approaches to life co-exist, with no conflict that appears obvious between prayers being chanted in the wats and Beerlao being consumed at sunset in the riverfront cafés. .

But although tourism is welcomed, and many of those tourists are young people roaming the world on the cheap, the city seems to inspire a respect in most visitors.  Cafés and bars close relatively early; I witnessed none of the loud partying you might find in other popular Southeast Asia vacation sites. This isn't one of the Thai islands.

I was there not to party, of course, but to hang out with family.  As noted in an earlier post, my great niece and her mother have been living for a time in Luang Prabang, and a number of relatives showed up this month to visit.  Also, it was my birthday, which we celebrated at L'Elephant -- a French restaurant located in a renovated and very atmospheric French villa. We enjoyed feeling like French colonists for an evening. 

I had seen the major tourist attractions during earlier visits in 2007 and 2014.  This year, I just enjoyed family, and absorbed with pleasure the quiet atmosphere of the city.  I strolled along the streets -- often a necessity, since most of my family was staying at the other end of town, a mile from my hotel -- and enjoyed eating and drinking at a variety of riverbank cafés.  My sister bought a dozen eggs at the street market, dyed them, and organized what may have been the city's only Easter egg hunt in a park adjacent to my hotel. 

In a few months, no family will remain in Luang Prabang -- Maury and her mother plan to move on in May to Chiang Mai in Thailand.  But I suspect I'll return for further visits to this small town on the Mekong.

On one pretext or another.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Novennial


Nine years ago, George W. Bush's presidency still had a couple more years to run -- but an eager, young senator named Barack Obama had already declared his candidacy.  Nancy Pelosi had just taken the gavel as the first female Speaker of the House.  The British pound would top $2.00 in April, and the Dow was hovering just under 14,000 -- it hit its maximum of 14,164.53 in October, before everything began going sour.

All important events, certainly.  But the single most important event of 2007 was, undisputedly, the grand opening on March 20, 2007, of the blog Confused Ideas from the Northwest Corner.

Looking back over the past 12 months, as we prepare for our tenth year, we see a lower than average number of posts being published, continuing what an economist would call a secular trend downward.  But the number of posts thus far in calendar year 2016 has been above average, which may or may not augur well for the future.

Turning away from quantity, we profess ourselves to be reasonably pleased with the quality of the product.  Movie and book reviews, always a popular topic, have been both numerous and -- as blogs go -- reasonably competent.  A new trend, which may be a bit worrisome, is a tendency toward personal reminiscence.  This trend is a clear marker of the publisher's advancing senility, and must be attacked vigorously in the coming year.

Generally, on these annual occasions, we can easily identify the most popular posts of the year past, for whatever insight that might give.  During the past year, however, few posts have stood out in popularity.  The number of hits recorded for each post has tended to be a function of  the time since its publication, not of any feature of the post that generated apparent reader excitement.

That said, the second most popular post of the year was a reproduction of a newspaper article that your author wrote in 1970 about his personal experiences with the joys of skydiving.  Other posts that tended to draw above average numbers of views dealt with a Los Angeles production of the musical Annie; memories of a chemistry set we owned as a kid, combined with thoughts about Oliver Sacks's own childhood chemistry experimentions; a review of the Andrew Smith novel Stick;  a discussion of a Colin Cotterill detective story that took place in Laos; a memory of listening to an NBC radio dramatization of a Ray Bradbury short story; and a child's hatred of having to get up and go outside the tent in the middle of a frigid night while camping -- in order to pee.

Weirdly enough -- and this really is weird -- the most popular post of the past year, in terms of actual number of views, was published exactly one year ago today.  It was entitled Octennial.  Go figure.

Onward and upward.  Our tenth year now begins.

Friday, March 18, 2016

New UW station finally opens


New UW station
I'm depressed that Seattle has talked about rail transit for so many decades, and has so little to show for it. I'm depressed at the part that the media have played in the debacle of this election. I'm depressed at the role played by the Sierra Club, an organization with whom I feel close ties.

And I'm generally depressed at our inability as a community to make decisions and work together to accomplish what we set out to do.

--------------------------------------------

So I wrote on November 8, 2007 -- feeling morose because the voters had just turned down funds for significant expansions to the fledgling light rail system. 

New Capitol Hill station

Since that time, voters have been far more accommodating.  If you run a search for "light rail" on my blog, you'll be surprised (at least I was) at how many posts I've devoted to the topic.  What can I say?  My fanaticism with rails all began when I received my first electric train! 

In any event, as I posted a couple of months ago, after eight years of tunneling and construction, the extension of the light rail system from downtown to Husky Stadium at the University of Washington is finally completed.  The new stations at the Stadium and on Capitol Hill open tomorrow, amidst much fanfare.  Tents have been thrown up around the UW station to provide music, games, food, favors -- and who knows what-all -- to the expected hordes. 

Free rides, tomorrow only!

And just in time, I say.  I fly to Southeast Asia on Sunday.  Guess how your humble correspondent will be getting to the airport?

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Excelsior!


March seems to be the month when I run out of ideas for posts, and I resort to re-publishing old writings. 

The following piece of doggerel lunacy was never actually "published" (thank god), but was composed strictly for intra-family encouragement in 1996, several months before eight members of my family launched an assault on the summit of Mt. Rainier.  (Three of us made it all the way to the top; the others were left lying on the ground at various spots on the route up.)


If you're not a family member, this "poem" means nothing to you.  Go on to the next post!  If you are a family member, you're wondering why on earth I'd ever publish it.  Meh. 

My thanks to Lewis Carroll for various inspirations, including the rhyme and meter scheme, which I more or less lifted from his mock epic poem, The Hunting of the Snark. 

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They attacked it with crampons, they attacked it with ropes,
     They pursued it with a laugh and a frown.
They charged towards its summit with feverish hopes,
     They vowed to reach it before they came down.

They'd planned it for fortnights, they'd been packed for days,
     They'd triumphed in their dreams and ne'er failed.
The peak loomed above, through the luminous haze --
     They'd climb whether it snowed or it hailed.

They came from Seattle, and from sunny Umatilla,
     From Sonoman vineyards, and the Town of the Stars.
They came to do battle, against a monstrous hill, (uh . . . )
     They arrived in rickshaws and horse carts and cars.

Their leader was ancient, their leader was old,
     His years had reached fifty-five,
His eyes were all rheumy, but his countenance bold,
     He vowed he'd bring 'em all down alive.

"I've conquered Mt. Adams (as have many Sirs and Madams),
     Kilimanjaro has fallen prey to my skills.
You joined me on Mt. Whitney, but why continue with this litany?
     I'm clearly familiar with scrambling up and down hills."

"We will hoist a friendly beer, on the summit of Mount Rainier!"
     (They welcomed with joy this glad advice.)
"You and I will give a cheer, as we toast atop Rainier,
     This forecast I've now offered to you twice."

"We'll be awash in suds and foam, on good old Rainier's dome,
     I know it's true, I'm not just casting dice.
The certainty of my prediction, is a function of my predilection,
     For recycling all my wisdom at least thrice."

But the days for idle boasting, and verbal riposting,
     Came to an end as such days always must.
The sun soon shone high, the month was July,
     They knew it now was "Rainier or bust!"

They climbed to Camp Muir, behind their old, demented Führer,
     Across endless snowfields, carrying forty pound packs.
Like dumb and burdened mules, half suspecting they were fools,
     Until at last they fell half-dead into their sacks.

But the tempus still must fugit, awake or asleep,
     Nor pain nor dread persuades it to go slow.
Midnight arrived so soon, they all felt they could weep,
     As they heard, "All right men, let's go!"

They tightened their crampons, clipped carabiners onto ropes,
     They set out with a sigh and a frown.
Eyes rose to the summit, each one still with flickering hopes,
     "By God, I'll stand there before I come on back down!"

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Fewer scouts


Boy Scout membership has dropped by nearly forty percent in the past ten years, according to the BSA's Pacific Harbors Council.  As a result, the Council has closed four of the five scout camps in the south Puget Sound area.  Some of the camps are being logged to raise money.

A scout executive for the Council explained:

Kids have more options today, families are busier, and many are choosing organized team sports over scouting.

Scout executives discussed Camp Kilworth, one of the five camps, as an example:

  Home to eagles and owls, kingfishers and ospreys, Camp Kilworth’s forest is flecked with blooming trillium, and the 25-acre property provides a wildlife corridor between the Dumas Bay Park Wildlife Sanctuary and Dash Point State Park. It feels a world away from the bustle of Federal Way [a near-by city].

Scout authorities face a dilemma, because the property was deeded to the Council in 1934 with the proviso that it revert to its former owner if no longer used for scouting purposes.  The scouts can't simply sell it to raise money.

It's sad that, at least within the region governed by the Pacific Harbors Council (which doesn't include Seattle), scouting is losing popularity.  It's especially disconcerting that fewer boys want to be scouts here in the Northwest Corner, where our self-image has traditionally been heavily influenced by a love of outdoor activities.

Organized team sports are great, for those with the appropriate interest and talent.  But team sports teach kids to think and act as a group.  Scouting combines teamwork with encouragement of individualism.  Camp itself may be a place for group games, but Scouting more generally teaches each individual to excel at those activities that especially interest him.

Boy Scouts currently offers over a hundred merit badges -- everything from American Business to Journalism to Plumbing to Public Speaking.  A kid who is terrible at Kayaking and Scuba Diving, may be a star at Sculpture or Nuclear Science.  There's something for everybody.

And in offering something for everybody, Scouting encourages boys to dig into whatever activity interests them, even if no one else in their troop shares the same interest. 

In a post a few years back, I told of my browsing through a 1955 World Book Encyclopedia, and being impressed at how many entries discussed hobbies for young people, hobbies that were popular at the time but that few kids today would even consider.  The obsession of virtually all young people with social media imposes, to greater or lesser degree, depending on the person, a certain flattening out of individual peculiarities. 

If talking about leatherwork on-line invites only scorn from your friends, you find yourself increasingly less interested in leatherwork.  But when scouting offers a merit badge in Leatherwork, your interest is validated.  You have an incentive to work at it, at least long enough to earn your badge.  And, chances are, some of those short-term interests will stick, will become long-term hobbies.

But, as great as it is for a kids to have hobbies, I think something more important is at stake.  And that is encouraging young people to think for themselves, to pursue interests on their own, to be comfortable spending some part of their time in their own company without constant approval from the crowd.

Baseball and soccer are great, but we'll never run out of social reinforcements for participation in team sports.  Scouting encourages other virtues.

Keep those camps open, however possible.  And let's find ways to draw kids back to both scouting and to an increased development of individuality.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Virtual travel


Is all the world a stage?  And if so, are not only we men and women players, but all other creatures under the sun as well?

A couple of days ago, the New York Times carried a story* about technological advances that permit us to monitor wild beasts in the wild.   Wildlife experts can now use GPS and radio equipped collars to follow and manipulate herds of bighorn sheep; encourage bears and elephants, in their respective areas of habitat, to stay away from human contact; monitor movement and activities of wolves and cougars; and track even birds and fish.

The story was interesting, but I might not have read it but for the sub-headline the Times attached to it: "If technology helps us save the wilderness, will the wilderness still be wild?"  Unfortunately, however, the writer does not really address that question aside from noting:

Like most people, I would miss the un-manipulated wild if it entirely disappeared, and I like a point that Mr. Hebblewhite makes about technological breakthroughs tempting us to overestimate our own cleverness. Even with the latest digital tools, he notes, ecosystems, and specifically the challenge of restoring broken ones, remain profoundly more complex than any phenomenon or system that humans have ever mastered.

In other words, he seems to say, don't worry about it because we can't entirely control everything.  Not yet.

I hate to leave that topic before I even begin to address it, but I need to digress.  This morning's Sunday Times discussed a cool new app that Google is offering, called "Destinations."  Want to go somewhere, but don't know where?  The app, when installed on your phone, will toss a bunch of photos at you of places that the sort of people like you who use this app find appealing.  Paris look good?  Tap its photo, and the app will show you the best flights to get you there, background information about the city ("that metal thing is called the Eiffel Tower"), its climate, etc.  You're not the sort to visit just one city?   No problem.  Destinations will work out an itinerary for you -- hopping around Europe, perhaps..  You can then use the app to book your trip.

I sound supercilious, I realize.  Google admits that Destinations is for the casual traveler, not for folks like us, for whom travel is like breathing and who love to spend hours working out our trips.  But clearly, Destinations  is merely a prototype; soon, the sophisticated traveler will have the tools to work out his visit to Lower Slobbovia in full detail, right down to reviewing the menus offered at each ghastly café along his route.

Both these articles -- as disparate in subject matter as they are -- feed into the same sense of discomfort I feel about where life is heading in our globalized world.  Wildlife management is vital, I grant you.  Quick access to travel information is useful.  But both lead me -- throwback that I am -- to worry about TMI.  Too Much Information.  And about the loss of mystery, spontaneity, and surprise that come from too much advance information -- whether it's knowledge about where I'll sleep tonight while traveling, or about whether I'll encounter a lion around the next bend in the river.

I look ahead a couple or three generations.  Every wild animal, every hotel room, every bend in the river, every odd-shaped rock, will have been noticed, recorded, monitored and made available on-line, courtesy of ever speedier microprocessors and humongous warehouses full of servers.  The environment will be known so well that it can be reproduced -- digitally -- in detail.

The Times delivered the final blow in an email this morning.  Reminding me that they had sent me a free "Google Cardboard" virtual reality viewer several months ago, they breathlessly announced the latest entertainment treat:  "Use your Google Cardboard to watch our latest NYT VR film," the email was captioned.

It all comes together in my mind.  Virtual reality!  Of course.  Once all the earth and the creatures therein have been catalogued, shuffled, and organized, Google will bring out its Destinations 14.0 app.  Same photo of Paris.  Tap it.  Bing!  The offspring of Google Cardboard will fire up.  You can wander the streets of Paris, enjoy the ambience (if not the food ... yet ) of a small Left Bank café, wander the halls of the Louvre, climb the Tour de Eiffel -- all without leaving your living room.  (Or, if your interests are more outdoorsy, go on safari to darkest Africa.)

Las Vegas has long given tourists the opportunity to visit its own Nevada version of Paris.  Every bit as nice as visiting Paris, France, the ads suggest.  (But without the menacing discomfort of the horrid French waiters and taxi drivers, is the unstated subtext.  And all those French-speaking people.)

Destinations 14.0 will do Las Vegas one better.  No need to fly to out to the desert.  You can enjoy Paris, in perfect detail, while lounging in your recliner in the comfort of your own living room.  Vacations have never been so easy.
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*Daniel Duane, "The Unnatural Kingdom" NYT (3-11-16)

Monday, March 7, 2016

Daydreaming on a cloud



I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o'er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils.

Every few days, a box pops up on my iPhone screen, reminding me that I haven't yet backed up the contents of my phone in the "cloud" -- access to which Apple so kindly provides.  I haven't, and I probably won't, because doing so would just make even more data about me available to the world.

(As if I don't already spill it all, voluntarily, on Facebook!)

But as I was wandering about this morning, o'er the Wordsworthian UW campus, my mind began drifting over the concept of the "cloud," and its many implications.

One of the great unknowns of modern biological science is the meaning of "consciousness."  Is there some part of the brain devoted to our being "conscious"?  Almost certainly not.  Most neurologists would probably guess that consciousness arises out of the complexity of the brain -- at some point, the tangle of perceptions mediated by the brain, resulting in the actions of the body, becomes so complex that the subjective sensation of "consciousness" occurs.

No one can be certain that anyone besides him or herself experiences consciousness -- everyone but myself may be an automaton.  But that's a topic for another day.  Assuming that bodies much like ourselves have similar subjective sensations, we can safely assume that all humans are conscious.  As well as many animals.  But as we go down the list of cerebral complexity, we certainly feel safe in concluding that at some point, we reach animals that are not conscious. 

I doubt that a mosquito experiences subjective consciousness.  Or a clam.  Certainly not a paramecium.  Birds?  Maybe.  Ravens seem to have complex behavior patterns that suggest consciousness, but a raven is too canny to ever let you know one way or the other.

Now -- let's hypothesize that a brain is an organic computer.  I realize that most neurologists would question this hypothesis, but the brain at least resembles a very complex computer in the way that it receives information and "decides" how to act on it.  We even refer to the increasing complexity of computers as "Artificial Intelligence."  As we enable our computers to become more and more brain-like -- even human brain-like -- can we  be sure that they will remain simply machines?  Merely complex mosquitoes?

And if we concede that at some point a computer might begin to experience, subjectively, consciousness, we then must admit that we will have created something at least analogous to a human being.

Now a computer's contents -- such as the contents of my iPhone -- can be copied in the "cloud" (really, just in storage on some unknown entity's servers, but I like the "cloud" metaphor, because it's how we visualize such storage).  And from the cloud, the contents of my computer can be copied onto another computer. 

If we have not just an iPhone, but complex computers with consciousness, by uploading to the cloud we will be creating not just a clone, but a clone with a memory and a history of life experiences identical to those of the original -- up to the time that the original's contents were uploaded.  If the original computer was "guilty" of harmful acts against humanity, all its clones would be equally guilty.

This post is an example of thinking out loud on paper, or at least replicating my random thoughts while wandering on paper.  Or digitally.  Innumerable arguments, scientific and philosophical, can be made against just about every point I've made so far.  But bear with me for my concluding  final observations.

If a sufficiently complicated computer has the same consciousness as a human brain, then -- in theory, at least -- a human brain also could be uploaded to the cloud.  The difficulty would be one of technology, not concept.

And now, my final leap.  What if our human brains are merely carbon-based computers that some master race -- or "deity" -- has created for his/their own ends?  And what if the contents of our computer/brains, unbeknownst to us, are being uploaded to some celestial "cloud" on a virtually continuous basis, second by second?

The purpose of backing up a computer is to save a computer's contents as a precaution against anything happening to the original.  If I'd been conscientious and had backed up my iPhone, and had then lost the iPhone or had seen it run over by a truck, what would I do?  I wouldn't lament that my Great American Novel was lost, right?  I'd buy a new iPhone and quickly download into it the contents stored in the cloud.

Similarly, assuming my fantastic hypothesis were to be correct -- that our brains are being backed up in a heavenly cloud -- then it would be no big deal if our bodies were run through a wood chipper.  Every memory, every thought, every talent, every experience, would be preserved in the cloud.  Ready for downloading into a new body at our creator's leisure.

"O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?"
--1 Corinthians 15:55

Q.E.D.