Saturday, November 29, 2008

now there's a walker!

Many thanks to reader Scott for sending me the link to Walk America 2008, a blog by a guy who's already most of the way home. As he writes:

Hi! I'm BJ Hill. I am a 32 year old teacher who is walking from San Francisco back home to Massachusetts. I carry a notebook with me, and ask people I meet along the way to write a message to the next President of the United States. I hope to give these thoughts, concerns, and ideas directly to the president after he is elected in November.

Farther down the page, he writes that $35 supports him for a day and $100 buys him a pair of shoes to last a month. If you're moved to do so, why not contribute to his cause? And if he's somewhere close to where you live, why not go out, meet him, and give President-elect Obama a piece of your mind?


what's in store today

The parents are out on separate errands, and I'm doing my laundry. Once that's done, I'll be moving the computer back into the computer room, and not long after that, my brother David will be coming by.

David's probably the kindest and most thoughtful of us three brothers, and he's giving the family a special treat today: he booked a hotel room over at Pentagon City, and will be footing the bill (I think) for all meals today and tomorrow morning. He thought the folks might need a respite from weeks of living in a disaster area, which is why he did this. As I said: very thoughtful.

The parents have done this once before, some years back; they stayed overnight at Pentagon City and walked around the complex all day, window shopping, people-watching, and just enjoying themselves like two kids who realize they have the run of the house for a short while.

After weeks of camping, I admit it'll be nice to sleep in a bed for the first time since I got home in late September. I'll be bringing along my art supplies and Philip Pullman's trilogy (almost finished); I also plan to enjoy the food court and maybe take in a movie with the family. I think that's the sort of relaxation David had in mind.

The renovators are here; they start a new project on Monday, so they're finishing up what they can today, and have even said they'll help out with the more difficult aspects of deck construction. They'll be back periodically after Monday, of course: the house is still far from finished.

But today isn't the day to think too much about that. Once David arrives around 2 or 3PM, we'll put our troubles aside for 24 hours and just... breathe.


Friday, November 28, 2008

a good time was had by all

It was great to see my buddy Mike and his family yesterday; the two girls are rapidly becoming young ladies, and the youngest child, their son, won't be a munchkin for much longer.

I came to Mike's house early, chopped some wood, then showered and changed clothes in time to help greet guests. All in all, we were thirteen-- the luckiest thirteen around. Mike's parents were there along with my old high school French teacher and her husband; Mike's sister also arrived with her husband and their lovely two-year-old daughter in tow. Great food, interesting conversation, and the sense that this was a place where a man could truly relax. What more could you want on Thanksgiving?

As I think over recent events, I have to say it's been one of the most interesting years of my life, not least because my walk has afforded me the chance to meet some fascinating folks. Here's a shout-out, then, to

Rev. Nan Geer and Tom Dorsey in Blaine, WA;

Rev. Jay Rozendaal in Blaine;

Mr. Satpal Sidhu (and Charnjit) in Lynden, WA;

Nomon Tim Burnett in Bellingham, WA;

The Wood family in Arlington, WA;

Joshua and Heather in Monroe, WA;

Miles Erickson in Everett, WA;

Rico Simpkins in Kent, WA;

Genjo Marinello in Seattle, WA;

Paul and Ginger in Seattle;

The entire Benedictine community of St. Martin's University of Lacey, WA;

Alix-Gay and her husband Ralph in Longview, WA;

Dave and Ardeth in Centralia, WA;

Pastor John and the entire Metanoia Peace House community in Portland, OR;

Bernice Harbaugh of Cascade Locks;

Sue Ryan of the Hood River News;

the Horn family of Underwood, WA, across from Hood River, OR;

Dr. Jay Ellis Ransom of The Dalles, OR;

Amanda and Kyle of Umatilla, OR;

Chuck and Lori of Irrigon, OR;

Adam Kirtley of Whitman College in Walla Walla, WA;

Adam the hotel manager in Walla Walla;

Mechelle in Walla Walla;

Pastor Bigger in Walla Walla;

Bob and Rob (and Rob's wife Jeanie) in Walla Walla;

the tiny Korean community in Walla Walla;

the three police officers I, uh, encountered during my trek;

...and all the people whose names and locations I'm unable to recall as I'm writing this.

You know, if I were to die right at this moment, I could honestly say I'd die happy. I have a great family, great friends, and a growing reassurance that this country, which I'm getting to know step by step, is gonna be all right if the good people I've met are any indication.

A special note of thanks to the rest of my circle of friends, e-friends, and commenters, as well as to stalwart Alan Cook, who has done so much to make this walk happen.

So where's my Oscar, dammit? I just thanked everyone in the northern hemisphere!


Thursday, November 27, 2008

Thanksgiving gift 4 (maybe... I was just farting around on this one)

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Thanksgiving gift 3B

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Thanksgiving gift 3A

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Thanksgiving gift 2

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Thanksgiving gift 1

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Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Happy Thanksgiving!

I might not have a chance to do this later, so I'll wish you all a very Happy Thanksgiving. May you stuff yourselves silly with turkey; may you find yourselves in the company of friends and loved ones, and may you reflect with gratitude upon your many riches-- for riches you have, if you know where to look.


"The Deck Star will be completed on schedule."

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on tolerance

An excellent post on tolerance can be found over at Malcolm's blog. Very insightful comments follow.


Tuesday, November 25, 2008


Here's one for the linguaphiles: I'm now into the second book of Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy, The Subtle Knife, and I've encountered an interesting name: Cittàgazze.

The name is obviously Italian; the alternate Earth in which the name is relevant seems to be dominated by Italian culture (even though this world still features that trans-universal American standard, Coca Cola). One character informs another that the city's name means "City of Magpies," because magpies steal, and most of the citizens have been reduced to such behavior in the aftermath of a cosmic disruption.

In Korean, the word for "magpie" is ggach'i, which sounds an awful lot like the Italian gazze. This might simply be a phonetic coincidence, or it might be an old loan-word, borrowed from Italian or from another language that refers to magpies as something like gazze or ggach'i.

This isn't as crazy as it sounds. Korean contains plenty of loan words from all sorts of languages. Ddakgwang (sweet-pickled turnip, now called danmuji) and doshirak (bento-style lunchbox meal) are Japanese-derived, for example. The word bakkangseu is a Korean rendering of the French word vacances, i.e., vacation. Areubaiteu comes from the German word Arbeit, meaning "work." Perhaps the most well-known loan-word is bbang, which means "bread" and obviously has Latinate roots-- pain in French, pan in Spanish, etc.

So it's at least possible that ggach'i derives from Italian. Anyone got an etymological dictionary?

Meanwhile, my thanks to Philip Pullman for keeping my mental gears turning.


Monday, November 24, 2008

a long, long way to go

One of the great hurdles in the creation of true human-style artificial intelligence is intentionality-- the world of meaning. How would an artificial mind navigate the following problem, which arose during conversation with my mother as we were prepping lunch yesterday?

MOM (looking at the bowl of food I'm about to stick in the microwave): Oh, that doesn't need to go in for even a minute. Just put it in for 39 minutes.


An overly literal artificial mind would miss my mother's mistake and might get confused about what she really meant. It's pretty obvious to us humans that Mom meant "39 seconds," not "39 minutes."

But what makes that obvious? How would you design an artificial mind that could handle the fuzzy logic of human discourse, a domain in which such mistakes are both routine and correctly interpreted?

My "OK" in response to Mom's utterance indicates that I "saw through" the words and immediately grasped the intended meaning-- an easy feat for human minds. What would it take to bring an artifical mind up to speed on mistaken utterances, subtletly, puns, sarcasm, slang, lying, and so on?

While I'm optimistic about the possibility of human-style AI, I don't see it happening anytime soon because of problems like the one above.


Sunday, November 23, 2008

why bother?

So one of the questions that arises from the ongoing comment thread in the "Karen's Wish" post (over 40 comments thus far) is this:

When it comes to seeking religious harmony, why bother?

To me, the question is similar to asking why we bother doing anything when we know, bone-deep, that death awaits all of us, that all our efforts will eventually come to nothing, that the entire human race is, ultimately, a minuscule thing on the cosmic scale-- its history a mere Nabokovian spark between two eternities of blackness.

Full disclosure: I'm not a utopianist, and not a fan of John Lennon's vision that the world will "live as one," mainly because that sort of rhetoric is easy to utter, but immediately bogs down when we try to get into specifics.

I think human existence is a messy business, and will remain so. We haven't really evolved in an emotional sense: we still understand and, more important, relate to the motives of ancient literary figures. Humans haven't changed, not where it counts, and until we start tinkering directly with our genes, we'll still be the same venal species we've always been, with or without religion.

Yet we strive. We hope. Why?

Maybe it's a bit like cleaning your kitchen: you know it's going to be dirty again come the next meal, yet you still cook, eat, and clean up. Or maybe hope is linked to the ancient throb of the survival impulse, but why is there such an impulse in the first place?
Questions. Always more questions.


what I'm reading

With the computer once again unplugged, I find myself turning back to books. I'm currently reading the His Dark Materials trilogy, and have gotten halfway through The Golden Compass (a.k.a. Northern Lights in its original UK form). I've got the huge, three-in-one volume of Pullman's oeuvre, which is almost as hefty as the bundled version of CS Lewis's Chronicles of Narnia.

I watched the movie The Golden Compass during a long flight some time ago, and wasn't all that impressed with it. The book is, unsurprisingly, a lot better, especially if you're a linguaphile: the vocabulary of the alternate universe can often be figured out if you know your Greek, Latin, Germanic, and occasionally Arabic roots. A few of the important common words have stumped me, such as "anbaric"-- which I could tell referred to electricity, but which I didn't know was from the Arabic root that gives us the word "amber." Wikipedia has an article devoted to Pullman's terminology.

The weirdest convention of the story is the idea that all human beings are born paired with "daemons," animal manifestations that can change form during the human's childhood, but that eventually "settle" into a single form as the child grows up.

Daemons may be a physical representation of a person's soul, an idea espoused by some of the story's characters. But "representation" doesn't completely describe daemons, which seem more like empathetically connected Siamese twins, imbued with their own thoughts, able to roam a certain distance from their humans, and even to act against their humans' will.

I couldn't imagine living life with a daemon tied to me by some sort of astral cord. It'd be hard to have sex in front of a pair of sapient animal witnesses, for one thing, and if daemons existed in our world, we'd have to build all our cars to accommodate twice as many passengers. Daemons strike me as something of a drag, but Pullman has done a good job of exploring the concept in his story.

The story itself is interesting and compelling, but I'll write more about it later.