Tag Archives: Transience Divine

A new year, new resolutions

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

  • Learn the names of everyone at GRI by the end of January.
  • Take a dance class with Flame.
  • Try out a “tracking your steps” app (suggestions welcome!).
  • If I don’t exercise before an opportunity to have dessert, I must refuse.
  • If I haven’t contributed to a social media by the end of the day, I have to do it before sleep.

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

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

J² Honeymoon Trip: The Good Parts Version

November 7 – November 22, 2017

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

South Africa, Part 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tanzania Excursion

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

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

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

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

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

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

Johannesburg, Part 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

An allegory for life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Following my ancestor

For the last couple months, I’ve been following the journey of my Y-chromosomal ancestor, also named James Rising, as he found his way to the New World in 1635. He turns out to be a fascinating character (at least to me). From a print-only article in The New England Historical and Genealogical Register:

James Rising was born in 1618 in Beccles, Suffolk; he and his twin brother were the youngest children of an illiterate cordwainer. James had just turned 17 when he sailed from London for Bermuda on a ship filled with very young laborers for the tobacco fields. For twelve years he remained in Bermuda, a country with few prospects for new arrivals. In 1647 he was among the seventy settlers who sailed from Bermuda for Eleuthera, an island a thousand miles away in the Bahamas, with the intention of establishing a Puritan colony. Near its destination, the ship floundered and their provisions were lost, but with help from Puritans in New England, the passengers survived. The colony struggled for ten years, but gave up in 1657, when the last of the settlers sailed back to Bermuda– all except James Rising, who sailed, instead, on a ship bound for New England.

I’ve been using a few different sources to follow his progress. John Ogilby’s 1675 road maps are incredible, with descriptions of the towns, road-side markers, and individual buildings some of which are still there today. I’ve been using one site to find the plates and a different one to get high-resolution images. Here’s the path I followed, from Beccles to Ipswich to Cambridge to Oxfordshire to London:

One of the most interesting source I’ve found for a sense of walking through these cities is Through England on a Side-Saddle in the Time of William and Mary, a 17th century woman’s diaries of her prolific journeys.

On September 30, 1635, James Rising boarded the Dorset in London, and I’m using current winds to try to get a sense of how it got from there to Bermuda. Here is where he is “now”, on October 23, finally having caught a decent wind:

I just hope he isn’t caught by a hurricane before he ever has children. My other records of his journey are on Twitter #rtnewworld.

Eclipse 2017: You can’t fake that

Totality is different! I’m back from eclipse-viewing in Southern Illinois, at a secluded wildlife refuge just 3 hours from the point of maximum eclipse. This isn’t my first eclipse, but it’s my first total eclipse, and I’m still in awe.

I trekked through a little wood to a languid river, with fish jumping at gnats, butterflies and dragonflies, a white crane and a raccoon that came up to check me out. I got out my picnic and book and enjoyed the perfect blue sky.

About a half-hour after the partial eclipse started, I noticed the air cool. The sky looked a shade darker, and contrasts softer. Even at the height of the partial eclipse, all I could notice without the glasses was like a minor dimming of the sun.

And then, totality. I was looking through the filter glasses as the crescent dwindled away, one moment appearing not to move at all, and gone the next. Through my glasses, the sky was completely black. I took them off to a touch of beauty: a blazing one-ring, hanging in the sky, like the sun had been plucked out and just a hole left behind:

Total eclipse

(That picture is doctored, combining two real pictures I took, but it’s closer than either to what it was really like.)

It was suddenly twilight. The empty circle in the sky was sharp, perfect, and delicate. I was transfixed, until I noticed beautiful colors on the horizon, like the pink of sunset. I edged to the water to get a better view, not realizing what the colors portended: as I found my footing, it was suddenly bright again, and the eclipse was over:


But after a day of listening to podcasts in the car of a changing world and the ever-growing potential of fake news, the eclipse gave me hope. Our grasp of reality can seem so tenuous, but we understand that the sun doesn’t just dim. You can fake a lot, but you can’t fake this.

Wedding Weekend Memories

A year of planning, and many thousands of dollars later, the wedding is over. I am thoroughly (and happily) married. With 4 days, 18 activities, 133 guests, about 20 speeches (most short), 11 vendors, there is an awful lot to remember. I am putting together a collection of photographs (and see Toh’s more extensive set), but I wanted to also record some memories for perhaps the biggest event of my life to date.

Friday Night:
Friday was set aside for “Bachelor activities” (read: “activities Johanna does not endorse”), which turned into a BBQ-sushi for the wedding party, karaoke, and midnight prophesies. Some of the karaoke highlights for me were Mary F.’s enthusiasm during “We are family”, Amir and my “A whole new world” (I got to be Aladdin this time), and all the Flight of the Conchords lovers getting into “Most beautiful girl in the room”.

The day started slow, but when a dozen people showed up for Flame’s aunt’s yoga class, I knew it was going to be good. Friends and relatives helped us put on a day of “ad hoc” activities, including a bike ride, a hike, a walk around Provincetown, and a dance class. I stayed at the wedding party house, instigating games: I taught people Rythmomachy and orchestrated a new game I call “The Ephemera Game”, for people go guess where I got maps and pamphlets.

The wedding rehearsal was were it finally became real. Some 40 people showed up to play their parts or offer moral support, and proceeded to mill around. I don’t know how these things are supposed to go, but someone needed to take charge, so I started directing people. The questions started rolling in: where should we put the chairs, the blessing givers, the grandmas. We had put together a 4-page step-by-step document for the ceremony, and yet there was still so much to decide.

The highlights of the day was definitely “Welcome Event”, organized by my parents. The puttanesca flowed like wine, and the wine gushed like our reconnections with so many people. My step-father began his speech apologizing for not writing one, and then spoke for 20 surprisingly riveting minutes on how Flame and I got together, our travel and take on life, and something about crashing through waves. Then 9 more people came up, with tributes, roasts, and one number for us (the golden ratio, since J^2 = J + 1).

As Sunday began, Flame and I split up for our separate preparations. I drove the groomsmen to the top men’s barbershop in the area for a straight-razor shave: what better way to start my wedding day then a knife at my throat. Flame and I reunited around the bend of a Doane Rock trail, for a clichéd “first look”. Nonetheless, Flame was absolutely beautiful in her wedding gown, and we alternated lovey and silly until I think the photographers had all they could handle.

Our first scare came while doing relatives photos back at the ceremony location. We realized that the ceremony programs, which we had spent hours printing and folding, were nowhere to be found. I was about to derail the photos and send people racing back to the parents’ house, when one of my groomsmen, Amir, said he would take care of it, and then did so.

The other scare for me came as I was waiting at the front of the ceremony and Flame was walking down the aisle. I suddenly remembered Heidi’s admonition that, whatever else happens, I remember to bring my vows; and I remembered that my vows were in my backpack, far out of reach. Then I remembered that Flame had told me to give a copy of my vows to my best man, Toh, the day before, and I wondered if he happened to remember them. I turned and asked him, and he said not to worry, he would hand them to us at the proper time.

The only other ceremony event I only heard about two weeks later. As my sister’s children did their blessing, a commotion of squawks arose in the tree behind us. A hawk had alighted, and dozens of crows and other birds had began mobbing around it. After a couple minutes of this, the hawk picked itself up and flew directly over the assembled people. This must have been some kind of omen (the word auspices actual means to look at birds), with the hawk being a Native American symbol of a guardian, my late father being a zoologist, and my diverse community being all about mobbing. But the interpretation is still unclear to me.

After that came the reception, the hora, the dinner, the speeches, the tosses, the first dance, the dessert, the dancing, and the afterparty. During dinner, we had our special wedding puzzle at everyone’s place (individual pieces and solution), and though no one solved it, two groups made some great progress. Flame threw a bouquet to the tune of Put a Ring on It, and I did a thesis toss to Weird Science. For our first dance, I had taken the choreography from the Ed Sheeran video Thinking Out Loud and adapted it to Flame’s song of choice, Crazy Love by Van Morrison. I had swapped the man and woman parts, and we got plenty of appreciation and laughing. Dessert consisted of the best pies in town and an organic chocolatier, Chequesette Chocolates, which crafted a sea-scape of sugar sand with chocolate turtles and oysters. Even the afterparty was a blast, with 30ish people coming out to hear some live music (we had bribed the band to stay an extra hour) and snacks (including grilled cheeses).

After a perfect weather weekend, Monday finally succumbed to the rain, and Linda and Ron’s house became filled with people, love, and brunch. We were saying goodbye until it was time for the hackathon. The Hackathon turned into a brainstorming session, worth its own post.

Finally, here are the acknowledgements for a weekend that was really a labor of love:

As Amir said, the whole event went really smoothly: it went off with just one hitch!

Laser-cutting Rythmomachy Board

This wedding is going to be the culmination of a dream I have had for almost 2 decades: Finally, I will have a professional-grade set for playing Rythmomachy, the Philosopher’s Game!

I have been having so much fun laser-cutting for the wedding, and putting together activities like a massively distributed crossword puzzle. Last week’s inspiration was to laser cut a board and pieces for Rythmomachy, and I want to share them with all of you.

What is Rythmomachy, you ask? I call it “Chess on steroids”, and one medieval scholar said,

Pythagoras did first invent,
this play as it is thought:
And thereby after studies great,
his recreation sought.

Here I just want to share my design for a board and pieces. You too can have this for your very own:

It took about 1 hour on the Berkeley laser cutter I was using. The design is in two files:

Download the board Download the pieces

I thought to put etchings on the board to tell you how to set it up, since this has always been one of the greatest barriers to starting a new game.

Also note that every piece has a version colored dark and light. These need to be glued back-to-back. Each piece starts out as one color, according to the etchings on the board. If it is captured, it’s flipped over and becomes the other player’s piece.

I put some foot pads on the back and set it up to be flipped closed:


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The end of history

They say that history repeats itself. The strictest form of the claim is like the world view of the aboriginal Yir Yoront, for whom every generation is a repetition of the one before. Even if our Western world view cannot admit such stasis, many people would say that the rise and fall of civilizations is a story that has repeated itself many times, and many future civilizations will walk on the ashes of this one.

However, when it comes to the history of human civilizations, history will never repeat itself again. Our species is on a one-way road, and if our global society collapses, no future Homo sapiens will enjoy the benefits of industrialized society.

Empires may rise and fall, but the modern world is intrinsically interconnected, and as a civilization we rise and fall as a globe. We are interdependent: were it not for international trade, most regions could not feed themselves, much less build and support their own industries. The stories of future history are confined to a single narrative.

So what happens if the global economy collapses and trade ceases, and each region is left to pick up the pieces on its own? These enclaves would not have the benefits of readily available resources that our ancestors enjoyed when they started our journey in industrialization. We have exhausted readily-available high energy sources: new sources of energy, like shale gas and tar sands oil, require immense technology to access. They would be trapped in perpetual pre-industrialization.

Add to this the harsher climate, destabilizated ecosystems, and exhausted ores that we are bequeathing to them, and their lives will be mean indeed. The planet will recover, given 50 million years or so, but far too late for our species.

What if we colonize other stars, with virgin resources and the room to collapse at our leisure? Those planets will have their own stories, and maybe there we can avoid becoming to big to fail, but colonization is a one-way process. Without a way to travel or communicate faster than light, our futures will be disconnected.

By the way, this also limits our use of any Prime Directive on Earth. Non-industrialized cultures cannot achieve development on their own– not that any culture ever did. We are in this story together, taking it forward because there is no way back.

So, let’s celebrate our dependence. Our lives and the lives of all our descendents depend upon it.

A USexit next?

The Brexit is happening. I’m starting to wonder which US state will be the first to leave the union. Oklahoma, maybe when Clinton becomes president, as mounting budget deficits and poor populations make printing money look really good? Or a richer state like New Hampshire, a closer analog to England, citing the decay of the US?

We are in a time of changes. Old institutions will fall. But it all might be happening too late for a further Fourth Turning-style crisis. The Baby Boomers are starting to die, Millennials are insatiably hopeful, and Gen Xers won’t give a fuck so they’ll broker a peace just to be left alone.