Saturday, December 20, 2008

all the news that's fit to print

1. First rum cake order! Thank you!

2. We're done bringing all the "entarped" contents back inside the house (thanks, David)! Now we have to go through all the boxes and figure out what goes where. Not an easy task. I also need to take a look at the attic and see how it might be converted into a better storage space than it already is.

3. The renovators did a partial repair of the new, fancy Schonbeck light that hangs directly over the kitchen island. They also successfully installed the upstairs bathroom mirror and the remaining bedroom and hallway lights. Still to come: the rest of the deck.


the tarp is a swimming pool (3)

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the tarp is a swimming pool (2)

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the tarp is a swimming pool (1)

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The final tarpful of possessions awaits unwrapping. My brother David is here, but he's currently zonked out: the poor guy had only three hours' sleep last night after working at the nightclub (which he does after working full-time at his office job). Once David's up from a several-hour nap, he'll help me with the heavier items under the tarp. For now, he needs rest.

We're close to having the back yard back again: I have to deal with all the loose tarps, collapse the kitchen tent, and get rid of the mass of cargo skids first. We've also got to get rid of all the extra lumber from the deck work, and the renovators need to take back their circular saw and other equipment. The final step will be for me to comb the perimeter and underside of the deck to track down as many loose nails and braces and other loose bits of metal as I can.

The renovators are here today, working on trim for the kitchen island, fixing the new soap dispenser, adding more lighting, and repairing one of the new hanging lamps, which is both missing a chunk of crystal and suffering from some sort of circuit-related problem. In all, it's un samedi mouvementé. Back later when I've got time.


'tis the season

My parents make an amazing rum cake. Want one? $30 plus shipping-- PayPal me!

You can actually see the rum mixture saturating the cake in the above picture. Too bad you can't smell the goodness.

A note about shipping cost: much depends on how far away you are and how fast you want the cake. Assume that the cake probably won't go out the same day it's made (though that's possible). If you rush-order your cake, it might still arrive in time for Christmas (if you're in the mainland US, that is; orders from Korea will probably take longer to arrive). I would have advertised before now, if we'd had the time-- and the facilities!-- to make rum cakes, but now that we've got a functioning kitchen and are beginning to wind down with the renovation, it'd be a shame not to be cooking.

Think about it. And think big: order two rum cakes for $25 a cake. Order three or more for $20 a cake!


and as the renovation finally begins to wind down...

It's time to begin focusing on the upcoming journey. March really isn't that far away, and I still face major cash issues before I can continue this walk. I also have to get back in shape; the weight's been creeping up ever since I got home-- there's nothing like walking for weeks on end to get your weight down; suddenly stopping all that has been a major source of frustration.

Now, however, the knee's at a point where I can no longer use it as an excuse to avoid strenuous, health-related activity. Because it's time to stop acting like a football player gone to seed, I'm going to take the rather perilous step of filming myself periodically to prove that I've met certain stated fitness goals. This promises to be a horrible, privacy-invading experience, but I'm willing to suffer for my art. So first, let's set a few modest goals, and a time limit for them:

By January 31st:

1. Weight down to 245.

2. Able to do 40 pushups, taekwondo-style.

3. Able to do 90 abdominal crunches-- 30 each in 3 different styles.

4. Able to run a mile in under 10 minutes.

5. Able to do a single, legitimate pullup.

I'm out of shape-- have been for years-- and these are modest, reachable goals, especially after the conditioning I've received while on the road. I'm not starting from absolute zero, but I am nonetheless starting from a deficit built up from years of laziness. 600 miles of walking is barely the beginning of a cure.

Assuming I make decent progress over the next 40 days, by February 28 I should be able to reach the following goals:

1. Weight down to 225.

2. Able to do 60 pushups, taekwondo-style.

3. Able to do 150 abdominal crunches-- 50 each in 3 different styles.

4. Able to run a mile in under 8 minutes.

5. Able to do at least two legitimate pullups. (My personal best, back in 1989, is seven-- starting from a full hang, palms out and spread slightly wider than shoulder-width.)

Is this possible? I think it is. It's a horrible season to be contemplate this sort of regime, but I don't have much choice if I plan to continue to walk long distances. I do need to be tougher than I've been.

To be sure, I'll be doing other exercises along the way, but I'll only film the above-listed activities. I don't want to bore you any more than I already do, after all.

Just FYI, the renovation still has a long way to go, but we're past the crescendo and moving into a calmer period. It's less about heavy lifting than about shuffling and tweaking, at this point. Possessions need to be put in their proper places; a few extra bookshelves and cabinets/closets need to be purchased to fill some of the new spaces created by all the changes; a few new pieces of furniture need to be bought; chipped paint and flawed floorboards need to be dealt with, along with other minor problems that have cropped up over the course of the last few months. None of what still needs to be done is quite as urgent as all that had gone before; we're nearing the end. Dad thinks that won't be until the end of January, which sounds about right.

In the meantime, I've got a fitness program to implement, more money to earn (just completed another assignment from BK; the boss apparently likes the job I'm doing, as I provide a page of proofreader's notes with every document), a route to plot, a laptop to repair, and transcripts to write (no, I haven't forgotten about them, but they're locked inside that malfunctioning laptop of mine).

At some point before I go back west, I might also do a "practice" walk from where I am down to where my buddy Mike lives (he lives in the city of Undisclosed Location, Virginia); I haven't cleared this with him yet, but the walking route for Google Maps (still being beta tested) shows that his house is a bit less than 37 miles away-- easily a day's walk if I start very, very early! I've walked a similar distance before with a 60-pound pack on my back; if I walk to Mike's place with little more than a coat, some snacks, and a decent water supply, I ought to be just fine.

I'll be writing later about the Big Picture-- how I've been thinking about, and re-thinking, the larger Walk.


Friday, December 19, 2008

oh, to be a performer

My brother Sean, a professional cellist, had a chance to perform last night with a folk-rock group-- somewhere in DC, I think. Sean's heading off to Berlin for Christmas to perform there as well, much to my great, great envy. My friends know my story: while living and studying in Fribourg, Switzerland during the 1989-90 academic year, I traveled to Berlin one week after the Wall came down and simply drank in the ambience. The city will always be special for me because of that time; I remember cold air and kiosks selling mulled wine; I remember throngs of people on the western side of the Wall, and people on top of the Wall; I remember Koreans who saw hope for their own reunification, dancing with signs that read "Korea ist EINS!" on them. I remember crossing through Checkpoint Charlie into the eastern sector; I remember huge, beautiful, empty streets, imposing sculpture gardens, Ostmarks that looked like Monopoly money, and an awful fish-and-potato dish drenched in a runny cream sauce.

I told Sean to take lots of pictures and see lots of sights while in Berlin, but Sean replied that he'll be there only for that one gig (all travel expenses paid!), and thus won't have time for touring. What a shame. Berlin in the Christmas season is probably a thing of beauty (if it's anything like Switzerland or the Alsace-Lorraine region at this time of year), and I'm curious to see how much the eastern side has changed since 1989. I suppose I can satisfy my curiosity with a tour of the photos posted to Google Earth, but living vicariously through someone I know is a much better way to experience a place than staring at a stranger's photos.

Ah, the envy.


Thursday, December 18, 2008

one... more... to go

I took down the second-to-last tarp structure today, moving all the contents back inside the house while the parents were out shopping. We're back to having huge piles of boxes in the house again, but it's nice to know that most of the folks' possessions are once again indoors, away from the alternating heat, cold, humidity, dryness, rain, frost, and even snow. I don't drink alcohol, but I do feel a pang about the torture that our supply of potables-- wine, rum, whiskey-- has gone through, having been stored outside in the kitchen tent.

That tent was emptied of all kitchen-related items a while ago, but it's still performing a vital function: tarp repository. If the tarps are dry when opened and removed, they're rolled up and stuck inside the kitchen tent. If they're wet (and the most recently handled ones are all rain-drenched), they stay unrolled and outside; they're simply too large to bring into the house.

Once the final tarp and the kitchen tent are taken down, we'll be close to having our back yard back. Not that it matters much with winter here, but an unobstructed view of our neighbors and their bark-bark-barking dogs will be a nice change. Gotta do something about those dogs, ladies. Seriously. I've seen episodes of "The Dog Whisperer" and know that it's possible to train your babies not to bark unnecessarily. Get to it!


wise use of renewable resources

This is incredible! Go read about GluBam, strips of bamboo glued and compressed together to form beams that can support up to eight tons of weight! Amazing.



Two pics of yesterday's foray into the world of quiche-making. Two of the quiches were made with frozen spinach; the other two were made with fresh spinach. Conclusion: go with fresh every time, but make sure the spinach is totally dry before sticking it into the pie crust. The fresh-spinach quiches turned out perfectly; the imperfectly drained frozen-spinach quiches ended up with soggy bottoms. Not tragic: a few minutes at high heat atop our new range ended up fixing the problem.

Ladies and gentlemen: quiches!

I had to substitute milk for heavy cream, which may have detracted a bit from the overall puffiness of the quiches. Wish you could smell the goodness: eggs, milk, three types of cheese, spinach, mushroom, dried onions, bacon, salt, pepper, and a tiny bit of Italian seasoning. Much butt was kicked.


Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Philip Pullman's frothy metaphysics

Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy (The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass) is a wild metaphysical ride-- imagine Tom Robbins for kids—that takes the reader through multiple alternate universes, many of which appear to be variations on our own, but at least one of which features an earth on which no human life evolved (the mulefa of that world are sentient, but not human: imagine elephants on motorcycles). We encounter only an infinitesimal fraction of the universes out there; more are born every moment.

The manner in which Pullman's universes are born is boilerplate sci-fi (for a classic example, see Larry Niven's short story, "All the Myriad Ways," in his collection of the same title): as sentient beings are faced with choices, each choice results in a mitotic split by which new universes are born, each universe containing an alternate version of the sentient being who has passed beyond the moment of choice. If a certain Being X has twenty possible choices at a given moment, then twenty different universes will be born, each one instantiating one of those twenty choices. Of course, assuming the existence of libertarian free will, each sentient individual actually faces an infinity of possible actions each moment, so each individual is "producing" infinities upon infinities of universes every moment. If you think that's complicated, apply that scenario to every sentient being.

The idea that we live in an ever-burgeoning froth of universes is evocative, but is also, in my opinion, unworkable. I want to talk first about the narrative problems it poses for Pullman's plot (this will require explaining the story a bit), and later on about the philosophical problems inherent in a frothy metaphysic.

1. Narrative Problems

Pullman obviously can't lead us through every single universe; for his story to have any coherence, he must confine his narrative to just a few universes. The ones we encounter are:

1. Lyra Belacqua's world
2. Will Parry's world (which is also our world)
3. The world of Cittàgazze (characterized by the predominance of Italian culture, the presence of Coca Cola, and the general lack of adults in the big cities)
4. The world of Lord Asriel's fortress
5. The world of the mulefa, where Mary Malone constructs her amber spyglass

Beings from other universes appear in the story, but we never visit those places.

All the parallel/alternate universes are connected, however, by the existence of Dust, which is particles of consciousness. When matter evolves to the point where sentience appears, there Dust is found. The universes are also connected to the Abyss: interdimensional explosions that rip the fabric of space-time can create holes in many alternate worlds at once, and the Dust from those worlds will begin to drain into that singular Abyss.

It is possible that the universes are also connected "at the top": the idea that all the universes are the products of a single creator God is alluded to in the books, although God is never actually seen, and God's existence is never confirmed. Much of the story focuses instead on The Authority, the first and greatest angel to be formed from the coalescence of Dust. The Authority crowned himself God and told all who followed that he was the creator.

Angels can pass easily between alternate universes without disturbing the overall frothy structure of the Great Metaphysic (my term for the sum total of all universes, not Pullman's). It seems that angels, despite being the most highly sentient of sentient beings, do not produce new universes with their choices. Pullman never directly addresses this issue. Humans, too, can pass from one universe to another; in fact, many doors between worlds remain open because the humans who created them have forgotten to reclose them.

If I've read Pullman correctly, the human ability to travel between worlds began about three hundred years ago in the world of Cittàgazze, where someone or a group of someones created a tool called the "subtle knife." The blade is of modest size and two-edged; one edge cuts through any material (reminiscent of a lightsaber); the other edge, when the proper owner of the knife achieves the correct state of mind, cuts through the fabric of one's universe and, depending on the direction of one's concentration, can slice a window or hole into an alternate world. Shifts in cuts and concentration are what allow the knife wielder to open doors to different worlds. A conscientious user of the knife can step through the threshold and reseal the tear, if he so wishes.

But over the course of three centuries, the various users of the subtle knife have secretly entered different universes, pilfering items and technologies found in them, often leaving the doors between worlds open. Each tear allows a little of the Abyss to peek through, and soul-eating Specters, the children of the Abyss, are created every time a cut with the subtle knife is made. As a result, a good part of the trilogy is devoted to the question of how to repair the open doors, stanch the flow of Dust into the Abyss, and stop the spread of the Specters.

It's all quite complicated, and I'm afraid it's also unworkable from a narrative point of view. The problem is this: if there's one Cittàgazze world, there are many—an infinity of them, in fact. The moment the subtle knife was created, there wouldn't have been only one such knife, as Pullman's story implies: there would have been an infinity of them, too, with an infinity of people doing an infinite amount of damage to the Great Metaphysic. The plot of the trilogy wraps itself up far too neatly (and happily), and this is problematic because Pullman obviously wants to write a smart story for smart kids, a story that works on many levels. Astute young readers will catch on to the same problems I'm talking about here, and will have the same doubts about the conclusion of Pullman's trilogy.

With a blossoming infinity of subtle knives out there, a simple resolution is quite impossible. How would you track down and stop the wielders when each wielder is producing an infinity of new wielders at every moment? I conclude that Pullman bit off more than he could chew when he decided on such a freewheeling many-worlds scenario for his story. He could have avoided the chaos by hewing to a more modest alternate-universe paradigm, such as can be found in CS Lewis's Narnia series, where God's anteroom is a forest filled with still pools of water, each pool a gateway to a self-contained universe, with little to no interpenetration between universes except whatever God allows. Pullman could also have gone for an even more restricted scenario, such as the one in Stephen R. Donaldson's Thomas Covenant series, which deals with only one alternate world created by a being who, in our world, appears to be a Hindu monk. In terms of narrative, neatness counts, and the more I think about Pullman's story, the less I like this aspect of it. What a contrast with that other well-known series, the Harry Potter heptalogy! JK Rowling offers us only one world, one with quite enough action to keep us occupied, thank you very much. When put next to Pullman's trilogy, Rowling's series looks relentlessly linear.

2. Philosophical Problems

Now let's turn to the matter of the frothy metaphysic itself.

I'm a big fan of Occam's Razor, which states that we should "not multiply entities beyond necessity." This is normally interpreted to mean "the simplest, most elegant explanation for a given state of affairs is probably the correct one," but in the case of Pullman's Great Metaphysic, there's no need to reinterpret Occam: Pullman's story quite literally multiplies entities beyond necessity!

But let's think for a moment in terms of simple, elegant explanations. Which explanation for the current state of affairs strikes you as simpler and more elegant?

1. There is only one universe.

2. There is an infinity of universes, with new ones being created all the time as sentient beings make choices.

The idea that this one reality (and there can only ever be one reality, as I explained back in this post) contains one universe strikes me intuitively as correct. Parallel universes seem to me to feed an anthropocentric need to spread our egos as far and wide as possible: what a nice fantasy to think that somewhere out there is an alternate Kevin who is at this very moment sipping Mai Tais and surrounded by gorgeous women!

So the froth model seems to fail the test of Occam's Razor, a truly subtle knife if ever there was one. I also think the notion of a frothing reality presents us with a problem only vaguely alluded to earlier: the problem of freedom.

Freedom, conventionally defined, is the ability to do otherwise than what one has done. This suggests that, at a given choice-moment, there is the actual choice made and, potentially, an infinity of counterfactuals, the ghosts of alternatives unexplored. In the froth model, however, there are no counterfactuals: all possibilities are actualized! Stepping back to the God's-eye view, we can see that this means there is no freedom, no shadowy "otherwise." Those "otherwises" actually exist in—as—other worlds.

Let's simplify the situation and pretend that at moment M, when Kevin makes a choice, reality suddenly switches to the froth model, and that only Kevin is the generator of universes. What this means, from the God's-eye perspective, is that Kevin is a being whose true shape spreads across a multiverse and resembles a great, branching structure. That structure contains no potentiality because every single one of Kevin's choices is actualized in some universe somewhere. The shape of this structure is therefore fixed: the branch-Kevin, taken as a whole, is not free. If we follow Kevin along only one world-line, we can see how he might think of himself as free—how, from his limited perspective, he might come to regret the would-haves and could-haves in his life. But Kevin in his entirety, the infinitely ramified Kevin, isn't free at all: his plural existences cover all possibilities, leaving no counterfactuals.

I somehow doubt that reality is this complicated. I may be wrong, but Occam's Razor is quite persuasive: it's more fruitful to think we all inhabit a single, non-frothing reality, and that counterfactuals, whatever they are and whatever their ontological status, drop away as we pass through each moment of choice.* It also makes little sense, thermodynamically speaking, to say that we, or that our decisions, somehow create whole universes. Easier to adopt the creaturely view that we arise out of a universal matrix, retain some coherence for a time, and then slough back into the cosmic churning—scattered and dissipated, and never to return exactly as we were.

In conclusion, then: while I found Pullman's trilogy to be a great read, it may have failed in the exploration of one of its most central ideas—the notion of a ramifying multiverse. The neat conclusion of the trilogy did not take the metaphysic seriously enough, and as a result, the conclusion rang false.

*The same could be said for quantum-level fluctuations in the structure of abiotic matter. Why should sentience be the sole producer of universes?


not a real man

I plan on making quiche for lunch. We'll see how that goes. I've got eggs, cheese, bacon, spinach, mushrooms, and onions (or in my case, dried onions, because I'm not a huge fan of onions in my food), and premade pie crusts. Gotta find a decent online recipe for quiche now.


Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Buddhist-Christian cooperation
...a thousand years ago

A very interesting post on ancient collaboration between Buddhists and Christians over at a blog called Letters from the Road by a guy based in Singapore who goes by the moniker Yueheng (real name?).

Letters from the Road is a very thoughtful, intelligent blog that covers a variety of religious and cultural issues; I've created a new category on my sidebar called "Trouvailles" for blogs that don't fit into the "People Met Along the Way" category (because I haven't actually met them), or the "Old Haunts" category (because these blogs aren't imports from my old blogroll), or the "Reach Out" category (which includes links also imported from the old blogroll). LFTR is the first blog in the "Trouvailles" category.

Welcome aboard!



Woke up super-late today. I think I've been sick since Sunday night-- the normal "immune system slump" that my body goes through after I get through a period of tension and stress. Last weekend was such a period, what with renovation duties, emceeing, and the large, do-this-NOW proofreading project all demanding my attention. After I finished the proofing yesterday around dinnertime, I pretty much let myself go, mentally speaking. Dad went off to get Popeye's fried chicken for the family, and I spent the evening flipping through movie channels that we don't normally have: Verizon was holding a promo for HBO and Cinemax, so I got to see bits of "Courage Under Fire," "Star Trek: Generations," and, later, the horror movie "The Ruins," a story about heedless twentysomethings in Mexico who blunder into an ancient Mayan temple and are attacked by vicious sentient vines. I ended up cheering the vines. Those twentysomethings were annoying.

Now I'm up. It's the afternoon, and I've got a tarp city to dismantle.


Monday, December 15, 2008

life imitates art

Have you ever read Tom Wolfe's A Man in Full? If so, you may recall entrepreneur Charlie Croker's plantation, a monument to conspicuous consumption that features a domicile equipped with both a massive hearth and massive air conditioning. Here's the rub: the house is in Georgia and, especially in the summer, just doesn't need a fireplace that big. So how does Croker justify using the fireplace at all? He turns on that air conditioning!

Now we have an example of life imitating art: the upcoming refrigerated beach. I had to laugh when I read the article: the refrigeration system is essentially an anti-ondol. For those who don't know: Korean dwellings are often equipped with ondol floors-- that is, floors atop a system of pipes through which heated air or water can pass, thereby heating the floor during the winter.

Good luck to the beach-coolers.



The Christmas party went well. My thanks to the ladies of the Washington Korean Women's Society for having invited me to emcee for them. I was happy to hear that people were entertained, and was doubly glad that we had great speeches from everyone. Special props to the Consul General of the Korean Embassy, who deftly riffed off my Konglish jokes to hilarious effect.

Now I'm home, and I've got until 3AM to proof a 9-page, single-spaced document that arrived while the party was going on (oh, yes: I turned on the BlackBerry during a lull in the proceedings... CrackBerry, indeed). Nine pages in three hours? Who're we kidding? No way that's gonna happen. I've already emailed my BK contact to say that I'll work as fast as I can, but I won't make a 5PM (Seoul time) deadline.

So-- back to the grind! Gotta do as much as I can.

UPDATE: It's 3AM, and this is just insane. The 9-page document is riddled with errors. I'm crawling through it, and after three hours, I'm barely halfway through page 2. I'm also getting cross-eyed and am calling it a night; I've informed my Seoul contact of this. If this gets me fired, so be it. It's ridiculous to expect a person to work through the night after having spent six hours emceeing. You'd need guru-like stamina and powers of concentration. Not this tar baby.


Sunday, December 14, 2008

stand or fall

Sure enough, I got a second editing/proofing assignment from BK, but the file was sent in the HWP format. Dad doesn't have the Hangeul word processing program on his computer-- why would he? his keyboard doesn't have Hangeul on it! My contact in Seoul, quickly realizing that HWP probably wasn't the best format, immediately sent me a second email saying that an MS Word version of the file was attached. Only... no attachment. She also said the job needed to be done by Monday morning, Seoul time, but that's obviously not gonna happen today. I wrote my contact and explained that I'd be emceeing until about midnight, DC time, and wouldn't be home until close to 1AM, i.e., 3PM on Monday, Seoul time. I told her that I might be able to get the job done before close of business (approx. 5PM), but couldn't guarantee that. She's in for a surprise when she wakes up and opens my email.

Meantime, I'm gearing up for tonight's Christmas party, writing my script, looking over the details, formulating any questions I might have. I'm being asked to do less tonight than I've done in the past, which is relaxing for me. I won't feel any real stress until right before I arrive, but I'm very comfortable with this group, so whatever stress I feel will quickly disappear. Having done my share of public speaking, I'm hoping the evening will pass smoothly. Who knows... we might even have photos later, if I remember to bring my camera.



I'm done with the six-pager, and now there's more work coming my way from BK (not Burger King, dammit!). Too bad I'll be asleep when the assignment arrives in my in-box. I already sent off an email explaining the situmication; I can only pray the Seoul office (damn, they're working full tilt on Sunday) understands that this hairy monkey needs his shut-eye.