Wednesday, December 24, 2008

South of Yecheng

Let me continue to recall a voyage in Western China, into Tibet, picking up where I left off in a previous post.

Mani and I had busted out of the hotel compound and were now walking southward, out of Yecheng. Being Sherpa, Mani could pass as a Chinese national, but not me. Fortunately, I had picked up a hat made of black sheep's wool back in Kashgar, which hid my western features, afro-like. It was early morning, there was a moon, and the road was lined with poplars. Folks were hauling goods on donkey carts, mostly toward the city, but nobody paid special attention to me. That's my memory.

After a couple hours, we caught a convoy of truckers heading south. We traveled perhaps 200 kilometers before we stopped. Word was, a bridge was washed out, and we'd have to wait in a small Muslim town. Here's a map. You'll find Yecheng in the lower left. You'll also note that there aren't any towns worthy of being marked on the route that leads into Ali, in Tibet.

As things go in this part of the world, it's bad form to immediately busy yourself with issues like food and lodging, gesturing into your palate and the like. You hang and let the locals feel you out. That's what we did. It was 1987 and the velcro on my backpack was the object of fascination for local children, and later, the adults. Those hooks and loops were put to the test for better than an hour, I'm sure.

A Tibetan man was stranded in that town. On his truck were hundreds of watermelons, destined for Lhasa, several thousand kilometers away. He figured the Tibetans would shell out major renmibi for the novelty fruit. His plan was now shattered, but he didn't seem fazed. I imagined that the adventures of that Tibetan, who faced disruptions and weirdness (e.g. me, as well as the local Uigurs) with equanimity, would make a nice low-budget movie. "Lhasa Watermelon Run". Black and white.

So, we ate watermelons while the bridge was being repaired south of the village. We ate so many watermelons, we shat red. There were also these very long noodles ("la mian") served as soup or stew, a regional specialty.

Mani and I played gin rummy constantly to pass the time. If we had another encounter with the police, it's possible that the penalties would be stiffer, so there was always some lingering fear. Mani began to see me as an obstacle. He was a professional photographer looking for novel shots in this part of the world, but my presence screamed "trespassing foreigner". We'd been together a couple weeks now, and he had decided that we our luck was better when he won the card games. In the end, nobody contacted the police to rat on us...I suspect that local dislike of Han authorities benefited us.

After maybe four days we were able to continue. Heading south toward Ali, the memories are dim. In the distance, a convoy of trucks winding slowly up a pass, like ants traversing the edge of a taffy ribbon. Little outposts serving noodles. I got the feeling that the workers in these regions, all male, had been sent out here as punishment. Things were cold and desolate in the Takla Makan desert...beautiful for a traveler, but probably incredibly tedious from the point of view of a companionless grunt. At one stop, however, two pairs of female legs emerged from a truck, and the workers lost any semblance of composure. I assume the women were prostitutes...fairly good-looking, and dressed inappropriately for the cold.

One thing I'll never forget is the golden mountain. It was perhaps 9:00 in the morning and this pyramidal peak must have been dusted with mica or some other reflective mineral. It really gleamed. I urged Mani to take a photo, but he knew that the effect would be was simply a monstrous chunk of gold. So, that intense goldness must be added to the list of amazing things that can't be photographed...

*a deep, blue, cloudless sky
*pure blackness in a cave
*the intense, encompassing whiteness you get when you're walking on the snow, in the clouds, with the sun threatening to break through

Supposedly, K2 could be seen from that region. Nobody was there to point it out amongst the other distant peaks, however.

Toilet paper isn't sold in that part of the world. I found a communist youth magazine that sufficed, however. The right, absorbent texture; nothing glossy. Yes, those pages were endowed with pics of all the revolutionary heroes.

At some point, we were traveling a narrow one way road, to one side a steep bank, to the other a lake. We encountered a convoy traveling in the opposite direction. Neither convoy seemed interested in reversing course. I'm not sure how this conflict was settled. Rather than slugging it out, it seems that both parties decided to relax and snack near the lake; a very sedate game of "chicken". We might have hung there for 2 hours. The incident brought to mind Dr. Seuss's tale of the Zax.


Above is a photo of postcard. Mani made postcards as his livelihood. That's Mt. Mustagh Ata in China. Despite the gentle slopes, it peaks at 7500 hell of a footprint. Actually, the pic was probably taken from the Karakoram Highway on the way to Kashgar, a week or so prior to the travels described above. I'll have to write about that later.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Yeccccchhhh...A Smiling Face in the Sky

Last night, my good friend Kan called, said "look at the moon", and hung up. With the greatest of compassion, she didn't inform me that I was supposed to see a smiley face.

Tonight, the moon has risen another 12 or so degrees higher, placing that smile above the two eyes (Venus and Jupiter). Rotating your head, or your photo, by 180 degrees gives you a frowning face. Hooray!

This astronomical episode sets the geek in me a-spinning. They say that you won't see another smiley-phenomenon like this for another 44 years or so. So how often is it possible to see a be-nosed smiley with a third planet, Mars or Saturn? Well, if you take 50 years as a rough average for the frequency of last night's performance, and you figure that nose only has a couple of degrees leeway between the eyes and the smile, you can multiply those 50 years by 180 (360/2) and get 9,000 years. That's awfully rough, and the frequency is probably even lower if you restrict the nose to a narrow left/right region across the face.

My inner geek also got to wondering about the logistics of seeing a frowning face without rotating head or photograph. I don't think it's possible! To see a "real" frown, the sun couldn't be far off the earth-moon line (otherwise, the moon would be closer to being full, and the smile would be replaced by a gape). The sun would also have to be above the moon from an earthbound perspective. That's necessary to get a frown. But if the sun is slightly above the moon, it'll wash out the planets! It doesn't matter if you're looking at the pre-dawn or post-dusk sky.

It's possible to imagine another solar system with planets that are visible in the daytime. Then you might see a frowning formation. Or, to get really sci-fi, you can imagine a universe with suns that spew rays of blackness into the otherwise ever-brilliant heavens. That would work. Hmmmmm.

I'm in a good mood now, and hereby donate this observation to the "intelligent design" crowd as evidence for a loving creator. Take it before I rescind the offer.

To be clear, the geek only emerged after a good solid gawk. Not once did a smiling face impinge on my consciousness. In "A Beautiful Mind", mathematician John Nash displays his talent for connecting the dots and inventing new constellations on demand. You can call my story, "An Ugly Mind".

Honestly, what's the point of overlaying an awesome display of the night sky with...something else? Even worse is something as banal as a smiley.

A nice candlelight dinner for two couples back in University comes to mind. The food was great, and the company wonderful. And then there was Rachmaninoff's extraordinary Piano Concerto #3. I recall getting horribly tweaked when my company felt compelled to verbalize and reify the imagery that the music stirred in their brains. Noooooo!

Embellishing the already-astounding, be it music, sex, or a celestial display. Just a longstanding pet peeve of mine.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008


Hey, I voted for the guy. But read the following editorial commentary from the Bangkok Post:

Looking at Obama's historic campaign, what strikes us most is how consistently mindful this candidate has been. By mindfulness, Buddhism refers to the ability to be totally aware of the nature of things as they are, in the present moment, without pre-formed judgment or emotional partiality...

...From a Buddhist point of view, it is because Obama has a firm grasp on the fundamentals of dhamma, the nature of things, as well as karma, the law of cause and effect of action. Obama himself stressed throughout his campaign that he himself was not perfect and that he expected to make mistakes as president. This is a fundamental understanding of human nature and of dhamma...

...Want to be like Obama? It's not beyond our human capacity. To be able to achieve this level of maha sati, Great Mindfulness, Buddhism prescribes vipassana practice with a detailed step-by-step guidance for anyone who cares to learn.

The entire article is here.

On one hand, I can't say I'm entirely bothered by the Obamasattva perspective. McCain and Obama debated thrice, with neither side gaining a huge advantage in the process. McCain is no ninny, but even his strongest supporters must concede that Obama offered something McCain couldn't...a fresh start with the rest of the world. Does anyone imagine for one moment that the above superlatives would be flowing from Thai pens if McCain had been elected?

On the other hand, the author might want to step back from the whirlwind of recent events, gather up his own mindfulness, and put things in historical, emotional, and spiritual perspective. Jimmy Carter may have been a saint, but he won't go down as a great president. Oil prices and nefarious actions in Iran conspired against him, but it doesn't look like Obama will have it any easier. For every leader who cuts Obama some initial slack, there will be another trying to push the boundaries.

Above: Profound absorption or ordinary languor?

I just hope the world's expectations for Obama aren't too high.

More over-the-top gushing is found here.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Human-Chimp DNA Similarities: Truth, Distortions, Lies

There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy (Shakespeare)

And for every minute thing in heaven and earth, Hamlet,
An infinitude of lies and distortions regarding it await (Me)
If falsehood, like truth, had but one face, we would be more on equal terms. For we would consider the contrary of what the liar said to be certain. But the opposite of truth has a hundred thousand faces and an infinite field. (Michel Eyquem de Montaigne)

So many percentages are floated around regarding human/chimp DNA similarities. Despite the essentially non-existent contribution of creationists to biological science, google "human chimpanzee DNA similarities" and you'll be bombarded with creationist tracts. For every fact-based statement about biological reality, you'll find creationists offering a near-infinitude of lies and distortions.

DNA can be compared to a book, written with only four letters. If your task is to assign a percentage value to the similarities between two books, how would you do it? It's tricky! If you simply try to line up two otherwise identical books, letter for letter, the deletion of a single letter on page 1 of one text will result in a very low similarity score. How will you treat alternative spellings? In such a case, no meaning is lost...shouldn't a text riddled with alternative spellings receive a higher similarity score than a text riddled with spelling errors? If, oddly, one version tells exactly the same story two times, is it really fair to say that this version differs from the other by 50%?

Needless to say, good, intelligent, earnest, truth-seeking scientists have devised all sorts of measures to compare DNA strands. Needless to say, creationists accuse these scientists of various anti-god conspiracies. Needless to say, given a choice between two different comparison methods, the creationists will opt for the method that offers the lower percentage.

What are these percentages?

99.7%: This is the percentage of similarity in protein coding regions when "synonymous" substitutions are ignored. Imagine two cookbooks. Much of the two books are drivel...expositions on the author's intimate relationship with fennel, for example. However, a portion of both books actually offer recipes that you can try out. A taste-test of consumers finds that the end products of the two books are 99.7% similar.

98.4%-98.8%: These are the most commonly cited measures of human-chimp similarity. Most of the relevant studies here simply seek to match up letters to letters (as opposed to words to words, or paragraphs to paragraphs). Mary-Claire King's 1973 study of chimp/human differences in a handful of proteins extrapolated a 99% similarity, and the figure hasn't change much since. Since better than 80% of mutational events involve letter/letter substitutions, the 98.5% figure is probably the one that best gives a sense of the degree of divergence between humans and chips.

95%: This is the 2002 similarity estimate arrived at by Roy Britten at CalTech. His method of calculating similarities between books differs from that of most other researchers, though all parties are using the same books. Britten includes deletions or insertions of words, sentences, and paragraphs in his work, a somewhat controversial tactic. To quote Carl Zimmer:

Suppose a stretch of our DNA 6,000 base pairs long disappeared a million years ago. Britten would count that as 6,000 separate changes, yet other geneticists would count it as a single evolutionary event.

And isn't the counting of evolutionary events the truly important measure when we consider the divergence of humans and chimps?

83%: This is the percentage of coding sequences on human-chimp chromosome 22 whose corresponding proteins show any differences at all. To simplify, imagine two cookbooks. The proportions of ingredients in 83% of the recipes differ very slightly (say, one part in 300), with the end result being that consumers usually can't even taste a difference. The remaining 17% of recipes are exactly the same. Shall we conclude that the two cookbooks are "83% different"?

76%: For various reasons, including the fact that the chimpanzee genome was not fully sequenced at the time of the study in question, scientists chose to "align" 76% (2400 gigabases out of 3100) of the human and chimp genomes and then proceed to ask questions based on this alignment. See the 48.6% figure below for a book-based analogy. The figure, of course, has been propagated by agenda-bearers (in particular, one Richard Buggs) as an example of the progressive lowering of human-chimp homology estimates. Never mind that the same paper goes on to reaffirm previous estimates of homology, based on the 76% of usable, high-quality sequences.

To look at it another way, one can imagine a study where scientists choose to compare human/human DNA. Due to budget constraints, only 10% of the sequences are deemed of high enough quality for comparison. Do we conclude that humans are only related to each other by 10%?

Buggs argues that 76% is a conservative, purely scientific derivation, but that's bunk: it's like reading the first 76% of two books, finding they're extremely similar, and then stating there's a 50/50 chance that the remaining pages will diverge in content.

48.6%: This refers to Fujiyama's 2002 comparison of chimp and human DNA. In addition to the fact that Fujiyama employed stringent comparison requirements, the human genome sequence was not completed until 2003, meaning that Fujiyama was working with a draft. It's as if you have two similar books, but one is incomplete. You cut out text from the finished book and try to match it to text in the other. The degree to which the two books match up will then largely depend on the extent to which they're finished. The difficulty of comparison is increased if one book is being written by constantly adding sentences in random locations, as opposed to tacking successive paragraphs to the ends of the last.

Does the above mean that Fujiyama was wasting his time? No. He simply continued his analysis and made inferences based on the text sequences that did line up reasonably well (the ones with minimal "valid alignments"). In those cases, the letter-for-letter similarity came in at 98.77%, confirming earlier studies.

29%: To simplify a bit, assume two books of 20,000 paragraphs. If 29% of all paragraphs are precisely the same, and most paragraphs only differ in one or two letters, would you conclude the two books are hugely different? That's what the creoids do after "reading" 2005's monumental "Initial sequence of the chimpanzee genome and comparison with the human genome".

25%: If your books contain four letters, with each letter randomly appearing about 25% of the time, chance dictates that two letters will line up 25% of the time. A fool will then exclaim that no two books can ever differ by more than 75%. Never mind that no credible comparison methods are this simplistic. A single letter may match up 25% of the time, but two letters will only match up 6.25% of the time (etc.)

6.4%: This is a recent estimate of difference in "copy number" between humans and chimps. To simplify, assume that one book has duplicates of 6.4% of its paragraphs and the other hasn't. If the two books were previously thought to be 98% similar, does this new information now mean that we can subtract 6.4% from 98% and get a revised estimate of 91.6%? Not really. It's a simple matter to copy and paste a paragraph to a new location in your text, but it takes some serious effort to write a new paragraph. To make the fallacy even more obvious, consider two books that are precisely the same, except for the fact that one book duplicates all paragraphs 100 times. Is it really fair to say they are only similar by 1%?

I'm not critiquing the paper per se. However, if humans find some comfort in the 6.4% figure, mice should take deep solace...they differ from their dirty, unrefined cousins, the rats, by a full 10% in copy number.

0%: This is the frequency with which the creobots, when given a choice between two homology measurements, choose the larger. It's also tempting to offer this percentage as the contribution of these ninnies to biological understanding, but that would be generous...I'm not being facetious when I say that a negative number would be most appropriate.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Images on the Way to Mera

Here's a pic from Kare, on the way to Mera. It was actually distilled from my old video camera in "super-nightshot" mode.

I'm a bit pissed that I wasn't more liberal with the camera up there, but you can see another handful of pics here (in slideshow format...give them time to load).

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Mera Peak, Amazing Sherpas

I just returned from a jaunt up Mera Peak. "Jaunt" is a fair describer of the climb...there were really no technical challenges on the way up. The last 50 meters or so is a bit steep, so they've got a line onto which you can attach a jumar, if you wish. The line is interrupted by a snowbar or ice-axe or something at some point, so it's necessary to detach and reattach your jumar at that point. Never mind, though...they've got a Sherpa stationed right there, ready to take care of those pesky details for you. The immediate impression I got was that of being on a scary amusement park ride, where operators check that you're properly harnessed before the ride proceeds. Honestly...that's what passed through my mind at 6,450 or so meters!

The lines disappear quickly over a course of days or weeks. A mountain like Everest must have thousands of ice screws, pitons, and snowbars embedded in her rock and ice. The really dangerous work is to re-establish a grip on these mountains. These days, that work is accomplished almost entirely by Sherpas. With the lines already set, the clients need only be bright enough to make sure their jumars are simultaneously attached to their lines and harnesses. Hmmmmm.

From my own count, few folks failed to make the summit. Some of those who made it did not have the most impressive physiques. The speed at which one can adjust to the altitude does not seem to be easily gauged beforehand. One pleasing fact: older folks seem to handle the altitudes better than young folks. Hooray! Where else does age give one a physical advantage? A mid-aged German guy spoke with joy of his encounter with a super-fit young Canadian climber who needed assistance down to a lower camp.

I don't mean to poo-poo the experience of climbing Mera. Having woken around 3:00 AM, you walk up a decent slope with less than 50% of the atmospheric oxygen available at sea-level. Depending on your speed, it could take 3-5 hours from high camp. Even my Everest-conquering guide Nima vomited on the way down. Rust-colored. I think it was the canned tuna fish our porters fried up for us. In the week we spent trekking toward the peak, it was obvious that the climb had taken a toll on many folks via seriously chapped lips, sunburn, a gimpy gait, whatever.

The weather is a huge factor in your chances of success. We enjoyed perfect weather on the summit. With the sun reflecting off the snow, I could have shed a layer of clothing. The next day was sour, however, with one Czech dude suffering frostbite on his toes. He was worried that the docs might have to do some snipping in Kathmandu, though I do believe he'll be OK.

More than anything, the appeal of Mera is the view. Everest and Makalu are right in your face. Kanchenjunga, the 3rd highest mountain in the world, looks like a fortress in the distance. There's Cho Oyu, beautiful Ama Dablam, Pumori, and more. Hopefully, you'll retain enough consciousness to appreciate it all in the rarefied atmosphere.


Unbeknownst to the morons at TITV here in Thailand*, there are good reasons why folks don't climb Everest in October. The lack of action on the monster peaks at this time of year means that you'll meet some really amazing Sherpa climbers guiding expeditions on the lesser peaks. Let me tell you a bit about these guys:

Most impressive was Dawa Sherpa. If you watch the Discovery channel, you know that your typical Everest expedition requires a base camp and four higher camps. The whole process might take 2 months for a foreigner, who shells out as much as $100,000 to reach his dream. But Mr. Dawa simply began his adventure at the base camp on the Tibet side of Everest, reached the Summit, and traversed down to the Nepali base camp in a total of 20 hours. He told me he was a bit disappointed, since he was shooting for 18 hours. All told, Mr. Dawa has summited Everest 8 times.

Then there was Danu Sherpa. Our trek paralled that of Danu and his two wonderful clients, Christian and Chantal (sorry, no photos), so we had plenty of chances to interact with Danu. Not only has he summited Everest 11 times, and Annapurna I once (which is enough, given a 50% death rate), but he's also a radiantly friendly individual.

I shouldn't neglect my own guide, Nima. At the age of 22, he organized and led a Nepali team up Everest.

Finally, there's the story of a Sherpa whose name eludes me who loaded up on Nepali rakshi (a hard alcohol that Sherpas sometimes refer to as "oxygen"), left his home in Pangboche, summited Everest, and returned home to Pangboche in a span of 30 hours.

High altitude climbing, not to mention high-altitude portering, will never be an Olympic event, but I find the accomplishments of these Sherpas to be truly mind-blowing. It was about 30 years ago that Tenzing Norgay surmised that Reinhold Messner must have cheated on the way to the first ascent of Everest without bottled oxygen. Since then, however, it seems that the Sherpas have discovered their almost unhuman high altitude talents, and I'll be a bit surprised if any non-Sherpas come close to duplicating the above feats.

*The Thai TV station TITV sponsored an Everest expedition in October-November of 2007. The unusual timing was supposed to honor King Bhumibol, whose birthday falls on Dec. 5. You could see updates and live reports amidst bombastic music nightly on TITV. The team failed about 800 meters below the summit. In May of 2008, the first Thai reached the summit. He had failed to attract any sponsors whatsoever, but later managed to minimize his costs by joining a Vietnamese team. The accomplishment was met with surprisingly little fanfare in Thailand.

Despite the comparative ease of climbing Mera, no Thais have done it! We scoured the records! Below, I attempt to advance the cause. Pardon the fractured footage...apparently, Nima found my video camera to be more challenging than Everest.

Plane Crash in Lukla

We took the third flight out of Kathmandu, bound to Lukla, on the morning of Oct 8. I knew something was a tad haywire when, after 30 minutes or so, the plane began circling around some cloud-obscured location below. Shortly thereafter we found ourselves on the rarely-used landing strip at Lamidanda.

In Nepal, information passes through several filters before it reaches a foreigner's ear. First, it was confirmed that visibility was poor in Lukla. After awhile, word spread that an accident had occured. Was anyone hurt? The pilot is alive. What about other people? The pilot survived. I guess that's the Nepali way of saying, "everyone else died".

It turns out that [the doomed] flight no. 4 was about 2 minutes behind us. If the gossip on the ground is to be believed, our pilot warned the tailing pilot not to attempt a landing. The pilot of the ill-fated craft is quoted in Nepali papers as blaming Kathmandu-Lukla communications on the disaster, and Yeti Airlines officially claims that the airport was "suddenly" cloaked in fog, but the word at Lamidanda was simply that this guy, Surendra Kunwar, decided to play daredevil. He survived, apparently, because he was thrown through the cockpit windshield onto the runway, while everyone else had to endure the airplane flipping and then falling back 50 meters down the hillside.

In my life, I've met not one, but two sole survivors of bus accidents in India. Anyone who has spent anytime in this part of the world can regale you with tales of whisky-sotted bus drivers who, at 100 kilometers/hour, play "chicken" with the oncoming traffic on narrow mountain roads. Point is: the "daredevil" theory is not particularly far-fetched.

After a couple hours, we flew back to Kathmandu. I had encouraged my guide Nima to consider the possibility of trekking from Lamidanda to Lukla. It would take about five extra days, but being an American, I feared an FAA-style investigation that would shut the airport/airline down indefinitely. Not to turns out that a few October 8 flights landed after the crash.

I'm always the last guy to propose a "moment of silence", but the blase reaction of the Lamidanda passengers surprised me. Perhaps we just had trouble believing any Nepali -> foreigner information that came our way. Maybe the news was just too much to integrate into our morning at the pleasant, grassy landing strip, where locals showed up to offer tea. It wasn't "shock". Far from it. Nobody sensed a disturbance in the force as those 18 lives got snuffed out.

Back in Kathmandu, I was told that someone was looking out for me. I resisted the impulse to ask where this "someone" was with regard to the passengers on flight 103. If I was spared, were the others punished? Not the time for a lecture on the shortcomings of theism. One friend e-mailed me with another sentiment: the devil wasn't quite ready to accept me into hell. That view might be .0000001% more accurate than the former.

Nima's family had already gone into mourning when we returned to Kathmandu. Somehow, they were convinced that he had taken the doomed flight.

Despite my cynicism when the events of the day got mixed up in supernaturalism, there was still some sense of amazement at my continued existence, and it's interesting to consider all the little circumstances that led up to me NOT being on Flight 103. For example, I hate the chaos at the domestic terminal in Kathmandu, so I insisted on arriving at the airport as fast as possible that morning. We were there at 5:00 AM, before the airport doors even opened. What little behind-the-scenes bureaucratic adjustments might have spared our lives? Why had the passengers chosen Yeti Airlines, and not another? (for my own part, I refuse to fly Sita Air, another carrier, because they wouldn't accept responsibility for lost baggage on a previous excursion to Lukla).

Of course, it's not a done deal that everyone would have died had I been on Flight 103. Consider the following scenario: I hop on the flight. 10 kilometers from Lukla, I cough loudly, causing the pilot to reflect on his sick daughter back in Kathmandu. A conservative, family-oriented, risk-averse state of consciousness ensues, and the pilot returns to Kathmandu.

It's also eerie to consider that we had, most likely, smiled and interacted with the doomed parties. Undoubtedly, they were thrilled in anticipation of their upcoming Himalayan adventures. That's how everyone feels when they hop into that "Twin Otter"...chances are high that some amazing experiences are just around the corner, but you're not really sure when/where/how they'll manifest. At Lukla, the landing arrives that mountainous environment, where the plane must be flying upwards at an 11 degree angle upon touch down, you don't have the usual indications that you're about to the ill-fated passengers probably carried those happy feelings until their last seconds.

When we finally made it to Lukla on October 10 (the weather was bad on October 9), I walked down to the crash scene to take some video. As "luck" would have it, I bumped into my former super-porter on the way. I dragged him back up to the main strip of Lukla and asked Nima to consider him as a porter for our upcoming jaunt up Mera Peak. That was fine with Nima, and it turned out to be a great decision. Anyway, Mr. Super-Porter related that he heard a boom, visited the crash site, and was greeted with the sight of bodies with burnt-off faces, and some strange, unpleasant odors. That's pretty much the story you'll hear from all the denizens of Lukla.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

The Enigma of Hitler

Above is a Dali work called "The Enigma of Hitler". I espied it while browsing through an online art gallery. For whatever reason, the pic grabbed my attention, and I decided to google around and try to learn about the context of the concoction.

The piece was created in 1938. It can be a waste of time to interpret Dali's creations, but the viewer should know that the umbrella is Neville Chamberlain's. The telephone, a common motif in Dali's works at that time, hangs on an olive branch. You've got the gloomy weather, which might either be dissipating or gathering into a storm. It's fair to speculate that Dali had some sense that global destiny hinged on communications between Hitler and Chamberlain.

Even at that time it was uncool to refer to Hitler without a qualifying epithet. Despite the unflattering depiction of Hitler, mixed with beans, with a tenuously dangling wad of sputum nearby, the surrealist community was appalled that Hitler might merely be referred to as an "enigma". It wasn't the first time that Dali tweaked the surrealist outlook, which extended far beyond techniques on a canvas. "Enigma of Hitler" was probably the last straw, however: Dali was effectively excommunicated from the group.

Dali went on to renew his Catholic practice. In utter contrast to Picasso, he also became an ardent supporter of Francisco Franco. He would write fawning letters to Franco, praising him for various political executions. The two met on at least one occasion. Despite Franco's very conservative cultural leanings, the Spanish art scene managed to survive, if not prosper, relatively unshackled during Franco's 35 or so years. I say "relatively" in reference to artistic freedom under dictators like Hitler and Stalin.

Dali's modus operandi was to shock, and be incessantly creative and contrary. He invented the Chupa Chups logo, worked with Disney and Hitchcock, and interacted with hundreds of aspiring artists on pilgrimage to his residence. As recently as 2003, Elmer Fudd pursued Bugs Bunny through the "Persistence of Memory". One has got to wonder if the world might look a bit different now if Dali had named the pic a tad differently ("Hitler, Beans, and Sputum"?) , if the surrealists had not possibly provoked a counter-reaction from Dali, or had Dali not heaped praise on a fascist dictator's ego.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

A Tibetan Buddhist Scolding

The above video was taken in May of 2007. The kid had just killed a bird with his slingshot, and was now getting an earful from the monk. I believe the monk's name was Rinchen, so we'll call him that.

My porter and I met Rinchen in an obscure, dusty Himalayan town by the name of "Turke Bajar". The ambience of the place was more Hindu than Buddhist, and Rinchen certainly received no special deference from the townspeople. He seemed a bit out of place in his robes. In a nook that could generously be called an apartment, we joined him in his puja, which was otherwise attended only by a handful of children.

Rinchen was enthused about showing us a fledgling monastery being built a couple day's walk from Turke. Having no serious itinerary to abide by, we agreed to the diversion.

Somewhere along the way, the above encounter took place. Rinchen, at perhaps 19 years old, took his monkhood quite earnestly, as you can see. In fact, to my eyes, he played the role to the hilt. He spoke with great excitement about the hardships he would endure in his upcoming three year retreat in the mountains (no human contact, no exiting the meditation hut except at night, etc.), and made sure I photographed him in various meditative postures.

An hour or so after the above exchange, Rinchen produced the slingshot and made sure I witnessed him tossing it into the forest. I'm not mocking his zeal, not at all. Young Americans might model their personalities after sports heroes or celebrities, and it seems that Rinchen wasn't so different. His heroes were the various Buddhist Lamas whose photographs adorned his shrine.

My porter, Janu, did the translating.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Regression via Music

Courtesy of YouTube, I toured some of my earliest musical memories today. Several hours of this nostalgia is truly mind-altering. The experience is available to virtually anyone. Just plug the names of your favorite childhood bands/songs into the search box on YouTube, and let the memories wash over you. If you have a hard time drawing out these names from your failing hard drive, check out Wikipedia's list of pop hits via year.

Music is ubiquitous, but what was the first tune that really evoked something for you? For me, it was George Harrison's "My Sweet Lord". As best I can recall, I was in a YMCA van in the San Fernando Valley, on an excursion to Canoga Park. That must have been around 1970 or 71. The song is hypnotic, spiritual, trans-cultural, and boundary-breaking. If you believe in "imprinting", that one song might explain a bit of my personality.

Shortly thereafter, the family up and moved to the East Coast. My fourth grade teacher would allow students to bring their favorite 45's and play them on occasion. A few years later I'd be able to apply words like "sappy" or "pretentious" or "hollow" or "gutless" to music, but not at that time. The Partridge Family was popular, and I'd be lying if I said that some of those tunes don't still touch me. "I Can Feel Your Heartbeat" was my fave.

There were pop songs by singers/groups like the Turtles, Paper Lace ("The Night Chicago Died"), Three Dog Night ("Black and White"), Grand Funk Railroad, Looking Glass ("Brandy, You're a Fine Girl"), Tony Orlando ("Knock Three Times"), and Loudon Wainwright ("Dead Skunk in the Middle of the Road") floating around the room. I wouldn't expect a 2008 pre-teen to dig that stuff...much of it lacks the dense "wall of sound" that we now expect. Too rinky-dink, too much bubblegum. Ballads, high concepts.

For whatever reason, you didn't hear the Beatles or the Rolling Stones in that room. Perhaps it just boiled down to the particular tastes of the older siblings of my classmates. Maybe it was one dominant classmate who always managed to get his K-Tel hit album pushed to the front of the cue. Don't recall.

One song that holds up really well, though, is the Raspberries' "Go All the Way". Up to today, I had thought the title was "Don't Go Away". Try not to get hung up on the early 70's fashion and mannerisms:

That clip was from the "Mike Douglas Show". There's a longer version of the clip on Youtube where the band meets Billy Jean King, fresh off her whipping of Bobby Riggs, following the performance. Issues of race and gender permeated the culture. Hell, you can even find a YouTube clip of the entirely un-controversial Partridge Family playing "I Think I Love You" under a "Woman Power" banner.

As I write, I've segued into the Partridge Family's "Point Me in the Direction of Albuquerque". For quite a while, my 9 year old brain (and a very naive 9 year old brain at that) interpreted the song as an ode to Thanksgiving..."Point Me in the Direction of Our Turkey". Anyway, I can't say I dislike it. The lyrics are derivative in the sense that every other songwriter was already tinkering with the theme of hopping into a bus or a car or a train, or hitchhiking, with or without a dog, and sucking in the grandeur of the USA. What happened to those tunes? Gas prices, I guess.


Now, fast-forward through progressive rock, disco, punk, new-wave, grunge, etc., to Bangkok in the mid-90's. It's odd how certain tunes find popularity here in Southeast Asia, when it eludes them in their countries of origin. Everyone here knows "Love Me Love My Dog" by Pete Shelley. Dig it up. Lobo is popular ("Me and You and a Dog Named Boo", "I'd Love You to Want Me"). Have you heard Dan Fogelberg's "Sutter's Mill"? A lot of Thais have.

Another song that met some success in Southeast Asia was "Knife" by a dude who went by the name "Rockwell". He'll be remembered as a "one hit wonder" in the States for his "Somebody's Watching Me", with Michael Jackson singing backup. He's also the son of Motown founder Berry Gordy. "Knife" is a tender, heartfelt, tuneful breakup deserved some success back home.

With a cassette of these Southeast-Asia-only hits playing endlessly in the background, my (ex) girlfriend Noina and I spent a tearful night together. I had to fly back to the States, and couldn't say when I'd return. The lights were off, all words exhausted, but neither of us could sleep. We just snuggled, all sweaty in a one room apartment with no air-conditioning. Thus these tunes, composed in the 70's and early 80's, were stamped in my brain in the 90's. Hearing them in 2008, memories of those feelings, that time, and that place come flooding back.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

A Culturally Biased Number Puzzle

Below is a number series puzzle. I'll give the answer midway through this post.


What's the next number in the series? It's not as easy as it looks.

I'm guessing that Thais would find this puzzle more difficult than would English speakers. Here's the version that would probably be easier for a Thai, and more difficult for a Westerner:


Much ado is made of "cultural bias" in various psychometric tests. I don't have strong opinions on the issue. It seems reasonable to think that steps can be taken to minimize, if not remove, cultural bias. It should also be possible to make post-test adjustments to account for such bias. Sparks start to fly when someone implies that one ethnic group is brighter than another; this accounts for the intense academic interest in the subject.

I'm no linguist, but it seems that many languages in this part of the world make heavy use of "counters". The Thai language has about 200 of these words. Indonesian language has many. I've been told that Chinese does as well. English language has a few commonly used counters as well. If you say, "I'd like two loaves of bread", the word "loaves" is the counter. For many objects, English speakers forego the counter (e.g. "She has three stamps"). The Thais, however, use counters for virtually everything. In Thinglish, you'd say "She have stamp three flat thing". There's a special word that helps you count small flat things. In Thai, at least, the counter always follows the thing you're counting, so you wouldn't hear "She have three flat thing stamp".

So, coming back to the puzzle, if you ask a Westerner, "What do you see below?"...


...he would say "I see one one".


Ask him again, and he'll say, "I see two ones".



But, try the same game with a Thai:


In Thinglish, he'd say, "I see one one tua". ("tua" is the Thai counter for letters and numbers)


Now he'll say, "I see one two tua".



By now you probably understand the puzzle. The final number you see in the Western version of the puzzle is 111221. The number has three ones, followed by two twos, followed by one one.


The final number in the Thai version is 122111. That number has one one tua, followed by two two tua, followed by one three tua.


Interestingly, if you reverse the Western result, you get the Thai result!

Another question: given a "seed number" of 1 through 9, will any of the strings eventually converge? For example, if you start with 2, will these strings eventually merge with with the strings you get if you start with 3? If you use the Thai counting system, it will be easier to realize that the answer is "no"!

In any case, it seems reasonable to believe that one version of the puzzle would be easier/more difficult for Westerners/Thais, given their linguistic habits. A test maker could easily be ignorant of these differences.


A Westerner might find the Asian use of counters to be inefficient. It certainly is, if you're talking about compressing information into the shortest possible sentence. But there are plenty of inefficiencies in the English language. Why say "This is a table" when you could simply say "This table", as you would in Thinglish? Language is not simply about compressing information. It's about offering up information in ways that other brains, with limitations on speed and capacity, can understand. Different languages deal with these limitations in different ways.


Friday, September 5, 2008

Eating Lethocerus Indicus

A perusal of this blog provides ample evidence that culinary sqeamishness isn't one of my weaknesses. I've gobbled many a six-legged creature here in Thailand, to impress, shock, satisfy a dare, or possibly to fill my stomach. The usual mode of preparation is to fry the critters. The (presumably) gooey innards are lost in the process, so you wind up with a clear plastic bag full of crunchy exoskeletons. The vendor has a spray bottle of soy sauce on his cart.

The giant Thai waterbug is different. The males, at least, don't meet their destinies in hot oil. Instead, their reservoirs of pheromones are removed. The pheromone is then used in various sauces. I've tried these sauces.

It's difficult for me to see the appeal. Nail polish remover, ethyl acetate, is the closest comparison I can make. Others claim that the notes of gorgonzola cheese offer similarities (olfactory perception is sooooo subjective). The prime scent components of gorgonzola, however, do not include hexenyl acetate, the waterbug's love juice. You may not be repulsed at the odor of nail polish remover, but you don't mix it in your hollandaise sauce either. Some Thais might claim that essence of waterbug is a taste that only true gourmands can appreciate. For me, however, the real gastronomical delights on this planet are all united in one characteristic: complexity. But pheromones are, by nature, simple, a single chemical that interacts with a single receptor on your amour's antennae.

Thais call the waterbug "mangda". This is not to be confused with horseshoe crabs, whose eggs truly are a delicacy, which also go by the name "mangda". The Thai word for "pimp" is also "mangda" seems that male horseshoe crabs are lazy creatures that often get around by hitching a ride on the backs of females.

I'd post my own photos of the waterbug, but the following, awesome video by an honest-to-goodness zoologist is all you really need.

How many times in history has a Thai waterbug found itself on a $2 bill?

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Missionaries in Thailand

โดยปกติแล้วคนไทยที่นับถือศาสนาพุทธนับถือพระเยซูเป็นที่เคารพบูชา ดังนั้น จึงทำให้เขาใช้คำว่า “พระ” ก่อน “พุทธเจ้า” เพราะว่าโดยปกติแล้วคนที่นับถือศาสนาพุทธจะไม่ทำตัวเป็นศัตรูกับศาสนาอื่น ๆ

นั้นนับว่าเป็นสิ่งที่ดี แต่คนไทยควรจะรับรู้ว่า บางศาสนามองพุทธศาสนาว่าเป็น คู่แข่ง โดยส่วนมากแต่ก็ไม่ทั้งหมด คนคริสเตียนเชื่อว่าคนที่นับถือศาสนาพุทธหรือคนที่ไม่นับถือคริสเตียนจะไปสู่นรกเมื่อตายไปแล้ว

แล้วอีกอย่างคือ คนคริสเตียนส่วนใหญ่เชื่อว่านั้นเป็นหน้าที่ที่จะชักชวนคนพุทธให้กลายมาเป็นคริสเตียน บางครั้งอาจจะเป็นเพราะว่าในคัมภีร์ไบเบิลพระเจ้าท่านได้สั่สอนผู้ติดตามของเขาให้เป็น “ผู้ตกคน” ความเชื่อเหล่านี้ได้เผยแพร่ไปทั่วโลกเพื่อที่จะพยายามชักนำคนที่ไม่เชื่อให้กลายเป็นคริสเตียน คุณสามารถพบเห็นบุคคลเหล่านี้ได้ทั่ว ๆ ไป ในกรุงเทพ และที่ ๆ คนจะได้รับการศึกษาและอาหารโดยปราศจากค่าใช้จ่ายเมื่อเปลี่ยนศาสนาเป็นคริสเตียน เช่น ภาคอีสาน บางครั้งคณะผู้สอนศาสนาจะเชื่อเชิญคุณให้ร่วมงานเลี้ยงด้วย (โดยปราศจากแอลกอฮอล์) เพื่อที่จะชักชวนคุณให้กลายมาเป็นคริสเตียน

ผมไม่ได้เขียนบทความนี้ขึ้นมาเพื่อที่จะต่อต้านคนคริสเตียนและศาสนาอื่น ๆ แต่บ่อยครั้งที่คนไทยมักจะหลงเชื่อความจุดประสงค์ของผู้สอนศาสนา คนไทยจึงควรตระหนักถึงอันตรายที่จะเกิดขึ้นต่อศาสนาและวัฒนธรรมไทย จากคนที่คลั่งไล้ศาสนาเหล่านี้

ถ้าคุณไม่ได้อยู่ในประเทศไทย คุณจะรู้ว่าบางคนดูหมิ่นพุทธศาสนามาก แต่ถ้าคุณอยู่ในประเทศไทยจะคุณไม่สามารถรับรู้ เพราะ บางครั้งคุณไม่สามารถซื้อหนังสือ หรือรับข่าวสารที่ดูถูกดูหม่นพุทธศาสนาได้นี้คือเวปไซต์ตัวอย่างที่ที่ดูหมิ่นพระพุทธศาสนาเป็นอย่างมาก ผมจะให้ลิงค์กับคุณเพื่อที่จะพิสูจน์ประเด็นนี้ของผม


Thai Buddhists usually accept Jesus into their pantheon of holy figures. That’s why they put the word “pra” before “Jesus”. That’s because Buddhists don’t usually see themselves as being in conflict with other religions.

That’s very nice, but Thais need to know that some religions definitely do see Buddhism as a competitor. Many, though not all, Christians, believe that Buddhists and other non-Christians go to hell when they die.

What’s more, many Christians believe that it is their duty to convert Buddhists. Perhaps this is because, in the Bible, Jesus instructs his followers to be “fishers of men”. These believers travel around the world trying to convert non-believers. You can see some of these people in Bangkok, but there are more of them in places like Isan, where people can get free education and food if they change religion. Sometimes, these missionaries will simply invite people to a “party” (no beer!) in order to convert you.

I’m not writing this to bash Christians and other evangelicals. But Thais are often very naïve about the intentions of missionaries. Thais should be aware of the threat to Thai culture from these religious fanatics.If you have lived outside of Thailand, you may know that some people are very insulting to Buddhism. If you live inside Thailand, you probably don’t know this, because you can’t buy books that insult Buddhism. Here’s an example of a website that insults Buddhism and Thai culture. I give you this link to prove my point.


No, I didn't translate myself!

The sentiment is earnest. Most Thais don't seem to have a clue about the evangelical, viral nature of some belief systems.

In a weird sense, though, the tolerance of most Buddhists toward other religions may actually provide some immunity to these viruses. When evangelicals begin their Jesus spiel, the Thai Buddhist reaction may be, "bring him on...give me a pic and I'll add it to my shrine".

In the future, I hope to add some photos to this page. I've been told of several fanatical Thais in Bangkok, wearing placards, sporting mini speaker systems, and warning of Armageddon. If you have any such photos, please send them my way!


Dec 26, 2008: Oooh, Santa has granted my wish! With permission from the photographer, below are a couple shots of an aforementioned loonie. You see "Jesus is the Redeemer" in the first pic, and "The Result of Evil is Death" in the second.

Jan 28, 2009: More!

Monday, August 25, 2008

Bolt Versus Phelps

As much as China's attitude towards Tibet digusts, there's no denying the successful, spectacular nature of the 2008 Olympics.

Imagine some new sprinting events. One would be a "chicken sprint", where the athlete is required to insert his hands into his armpits for the duration of the run. In another event, the hands must be held over the head with elbows locked. A locked-knee sprint could be included. How about one in which the athlete is required to raise his knees to the level of his sternum on each step? All of the above would have 100, 200, and 400 meter categories, as well as relays and medleys.

Perhaps a "silly sprinting" event would be overboard.

In any case, if such events were ever to be seen, would anyone be surprised to see a character like Usain Bolt walk away with, say, eight gold medals around his neck?

As absurd as the chicken sprint seems, isn't that what we have in the swimming events? There's the breaststroke, the butterfly, and the backstroke, with medleys and relays. Judges eyeball the contestants, prepared to disqualify any of them for breaking form. There's also the freestyle event. In the end, though, there's nothing freestyle about freestyle...the fastest stroke is clearly the American crawl, so that's what all freestylers inevitably use.

I don't doubt that hardcore swimming afficionados would be indignant about my take on the butterfly stroke. It's a uniquely challenging form with a long history (?), they'd say. But c'mon...when an Olympic athlete comes home with a hoarde of medals, he/she is most certainly a swimmer. Phelps broke Spitz's record for medal haul, which Ian Thorpe had threatened in Sydney. Isn't it obvious that there isn't any great separation of skillsets between swimming events?

As much as I like to see Phelps padding the American gold medal count, I'll cast my vote for Usain Bolt as the superhero of the 2008 Olympics. In the event that displays the rawest, most touted, most sought-after athletic skill (speed!), he easily annihilated the competition and the world record. Given his relatively poor explosion from the blocks, it's fair to speculate that somewhere around the 60 meter mark, he was propelling himself faster than any of the roughly 100,000,000,000 humans in history.


Gymnastics is another sport where multiple medals are frequently seen. Here, the above complaint (of large overlap between skillsets in different events) applies, but perhaps less strongly. The problem with Olympic gymnastics is the fact that the athletes can only receive medals in particular events if they've already displayed competence in all four gymnastic events. To take this logic to an extreme, imagine that you can't enter the shot put competition unless you've already demonstrated that you're an elite decathlete. The talent pool of potential shot-putters is then slashed dramatically, and it would then be no surprise to see an individual medaling in both the shot put and the decathlon.

Gymnastics is spectacular, but can there be any doubt that it would be even more so if gymnasts were allowed to specialize in one event? In other words, an athlete could specialize entirely on the floor routine, foregoing the training required for the vault, balance beam, and parallel bars. In addition to an increase in the mind-bogglingedness of the performances, we might see a decline in some of the alleged abuses of young female gymnasts, who must maintain an insane training regimen to prepare for four events.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Frontloading, Freeloading

Today's organisms are phylogenetically descended from others which were vastly simpler than they are, so much simpler, in fact, that it's inconceivable how any kind of description of the later, complex organisms could have existed in the earlier one. John Von Neumann

There are numerous grades of creationist arguments, from those that willfully ignore the convergent evidence from multiple branches of science, to those that make every effort to conform to available evidence without dispensing of that added element, the cosmic designer. The notion of "frontloading" falls into the latter. The idea seems to be that:

*Evolution did indeed proceed from a primordial common ancestor.

*Further tinkering may not have been necessary, but the potential for all sorts of otherwise impossible complexity was built into the DNA from the very beginning. Over geological time, organisms unfold into more complex, higher forms. Evolution, in other words, was directed from the very beginning.

Typically, a frontloader gets excited if/when some journal reports on a gene that serves no immediately obvious function in a creature that resides in a low position on the evolutionary tree, but is important for higher organisms. An example would be precursors for nerve tissue found in some sponges. Unlike the folks who do the research and write the articles, these frontloaders are quick to speculate that the gene in question was somehow embedded for future generations and is worthless for the sponge.

Despite the attempts to move the ID goalposts right out of the stadium, there are big problems with frontloading:

1) Exactly how many genes needed to be loaded into the primordial organism to encompass all of life's diversity over the last 4 billion years? Presumably, any genes that IDers typically label "irreducibly complex" (e.g. those for the blood clotting cascade) must be included here.

Michael Behe takes a particularly, uh, nuanced view on the subject. Some of his remarks seem to suggest he's not averse to a frontloading scenario. And he claims to endorse "common descent". On the other hand, he also argues that the majority of the 10,000 or so protein/protein interactions in a typical mammalian cell exhibit irreducible complexity. That's just one species! For a Behe-frontloading scenario to work, tens of thousands of different protein coding sequences would have to be packed into the primordial organism.

2) How were these useless genes preserved over 3 billion years or more? Useless genes, of course, have a habit of getting excised from the genome, so we should see evidence of some sort of mutation-checking system that is so powerful that a wide variety of genes can be passed through trillions of generations without so much as a single base pair substitution. We don't see that, and it's not for lack of trying...biochemists would love to get their hands on enzymes that copy with such fantastic fidelity. It's funny to see the same folks who have offered up so much blather on the topic of "genetic entropy" reverse course and speculate that certain useless genes have been passed through lineages unscathed for eons.

Then again, there seems to be another breed of frontloader who argues that none of these ancient genes were actually useless. They simply served functions other than what we see today. That's's the same argument that biochemists have offered the IDiots to dispute "irreducible complexity" for the last 20 years (e.g. on its own, the spring mechanism of a mouse trap won't catch mice, but it will serve nicely as a tie clip).

3) Where are all these buried genes now?

I can see some "outs" for the above questions. As for the buried genes, IDers can wiggle out of that dilemma by fantasizing that we've reached the evolutionary juncture where all such genes have been jettisoned and are thus, conveniently, not available for study. With the advent of humanity, you might say, all biological innovation pooped out. Awfully sci-fi.

It's possible to imagine some sort of DNA or RNA software package that compresses a huge diversity of genetic outcomes into relatively few base pairs. I'd call this program "evolution", but the frontloaders must also explain how their pet examples of "irreducible complexity" get compressed and maintained in the primordial .zip file. If you respect the authority of Von Neumann, that's one hell of a hurdle.

Should I try to make that bacterium sweat, or grunt with effort?

Monday, July 21, 2008

The Tedium of "Uncommon Descent"

I've been eyeballing William Dembski's "intelligent design" website, "Uncommon Descent". Speaking only for myself, there definitely is an enjoyment in sneering at these folks. It's not only a concern for the future of science education in the U.S. that compels me, all too frequently, to see what these folks are up to.

There is yet another motivation for visiting these sites. On some level, I honestly do hope that somebody could arrive at an argument for "intelligent design" that is compelling, or actually challenges some evolutionary views and forces good scientists back to the blackboards. I'm all for weirdness, whimsy, complexity, surprises, and strange twists. More than anything, I enjoy the attempt at honing in on reality. If science blows expectations, more power to it. Contrary to what many creationist ninnies seem to believe, there's no "anti-god" motivation behind my disdain for their philosophies, and that's probably true for most scientifically-minded people.

Unfortunately, these compelling arguments never seem to emerge. Visit the site, and it's highly unlikely you'll find anything of scientific value. Currently, what will you find?

*Philosophical proofs against anything that tweaks the Abrahamic mindset...abiogenesis (how can non-life beget life? huh?), artificial intelligence, morality (if there's no absolute lawmaker, people can just run amuck, right?), etc. Didn't these sorts of arguments lose credence 400 years ago?

*Disputation of the global warming consensus. This, of course, has little or nothing to do with the site's stated charter (to dispute "materialism"), but it's not in the least surprising to see where these folks stand on the issue.

*The "Darwin is the Jesus of Atheists" argument. Constant attacks on Darwin's character and intelligence.

*Praise for the way in which ID has subtly infiltrated society.

*A repeated argument that science requires more faith than religion. (Scientists assume that if you feel pain in your foot, you've hit a real rock, but religious folks don't need that assumption, blah, blah, blah). Ho-hum.

*Complaints about PZ Myer's threat to desecrate communion wafers.

*Praise for a journal article titled "Design Principles of Photosystem II and Hydrogenases". Like infants, it seems the IDiots are merely thrilled at the inclusion of the word "design" in the title, since the actual body of the paper contains no succor for them. This isn't the first time that the term "design" in a paper has incited an orgy for these fools.

*One of the main contributors arguing, in effect, that mutational hotspots somehow disprove evolution (according to him, they're entirely non-random, which is anti-evolutionary, blah, blah, blah). Tedious. Similarly, there's an emerging ID-based argument that epigenetics == Lamarckism != Darwinism, so evolution is false.

*Endless repetition of the "evolution is in its death throes" mantra. In the next paragraph, of course, you're likely to hear these dunces complain that they have no representation at all in academia because of one conspiracy or another.

*Interminable proclamation that any slightly perplexing biological mechanism is "IC" or "irreducibly complex", and thus impossible to arrive at by any means other than conscious design. The current example is the Venus Flytrap. At first glance, it is a tad imagination-defying that that such a mechanism could evolve. After all, what use is a half-flytrap? Five minutes of internet research, however, reveals that the flytrap is related to the sundew, a carnivorous plant that doesn't snap shut, but traps flies via a sticky goo. It's then fairly simple to imagine some gradual evolutionary steps...1) the sundew better captures prey by folding around it, albeit slowly, 2) the folding mechanism improves, and 3) the goo is eliminated. My initial failure of imagination is remedied with some simple background on the flytrap's relatedness to another species.

Where's the bloody science? What is a pro-ID scientist to do in a research environment? Shall scientists cease work on abiogenesis because an IDiot has a cutesy philosophical refutation of its possibility?

The UDers are known to imply that a number of their scientists are forced to work in stealth to avoid the bigotry of "big science". If huge numbers of biologists are indeed being expelled for their unorthodox views on evolution, it only makes sense that there should also be a sizeable number of scientists working stealthily on pro-ID science. You'd expect a slew of anonymous but science-literate posts over at "Uncommon Descent". But the tone of the posts over at UD make it clear that there aren't any such stealthy biologists contributing to the site. One of the head honchos at the site, in fact, is in the habit of announcing that he only has access to the abstracts of journal articles (i.e. he doesn't have the passwords that any university academic would).

One of the hallmarks of pseudoscience is a lack of willingness to entertain third explanations. If we can't explain the lights in the sky, then an alien visitation is the only possibility. Even if we grant the dubious premise that known mechanisms of evolution (e.g. point mutations) can't account for the complexity of some proteins or protein complexes, why not speculate on mechanisms by which evolution can proceed at an accelerated pace? I hint at a few here. Here's a prediction: if and when new explanations are validated, they'll come from real biologists. The findings will then be greeted with excitement by most academics, but will be pooh-poohed by the IDiots.


By the way, don't even attempt to post a comment on "Uncommon Descent". They'll ban any real scientist who evinces the slightest hint of snideness, though they're more than happy to let young earth creationists roam amuck on the site. In this sense, the site is all the more anti-evolution: the bright folks get weeded out, and the morons survive.

Sunday, July 20, 2008


Quick. How many balls are in the jar?


It's a tiger phallus.

We're not in a museum. And the clear liquid is not formaldehyde. We're in a country shop near the Mekong River, and the preservative is good old ethanol. The Thais call this stuff "yadong"...local distilled alcohol (usually from sticky rice) plus, say, a snake, a venomous centipede, herbs, whatever.

Presumably, a sip is supposed to do your sex life good. Being scientifically-minded, I put this theory to the test. The results came out negative. Given the rarity of this particular item, who knows how long ago that phallus had been separated from its owner? After untold dilutions that would make a homeopath proud, one can only speculate on how many tiger molecules actually flit about in a shot glass.

Dancing Shrimp

Above is a Thai dish known as "goong dten" or "dancing shrimp". They're dancing because they're not particularly thrilled at finding themselves in a styrofoam "to go" box mixed with mint, chilis, onions, and other ingredients you'd expect in a dish of "larb". Add a dash of lemon and they get extra-frisky.

You can catch a sense of Thai-ness here. Note the accompanying blue dish. It's not a bowl. Sure, some of your dinner might hop off the table, but that's the fun of "goong ten". Children, little sadists, get a special kick out of the treat.

Gastronomically speaking, there's nothing profound going on here. You bite into the critters and experience a little "pop" as their guts seek the most efficient exit route through the exoskeleton. Otherwise, it's larb.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

A True Thai Ghost Story

Sometime in November or December of 1999 some Thai friends dragged me off to Ayutthaya for a nighttime "sound and light" show. The show was nice enough. On the drive back to Bangkok, talk turned to ghosts. It often does with Thais.

In brief, there's an old temple back in Ayutthaya, "Wat Tagrai" (ตะไกร), where masses of Thais were executed during one of the Burmese invasions in the 1700's. The Burmese would bind a Thai to a pole, slit the neck, and methodically repeat the process with the next victim. It's this sort of history that, of course, makes for a haunted temple.

For quite a while I'd had an ambition for New Year's 2000. It was this: toss my watch, and go alone to a place on the globe where nobody celebrates New Year's. The Himalayas were high on the list, but that wouldn't have been practical. When told of Wat Tagrai, it was clear where I'd spend the last night of the old millenium, and the first morning of the new. Being shit-scared of ghosts, Thais would steer far from the temple as midnight approached.

I arrived sometime on the afternoon of the 31st, located a cheap hotel near the temple, and then sauntered off to Wat Tagrai. As you can see in the background of the pic above, it was more of an archeological project than a well-preserved relic of old Ayutthaya, once considered one of the most beautiful cities in the world. There were three large statues in front of the temple. The one you see is "Pra ReuSee", the archetypal forest hermit.

Around 10 pm, I situated myself on the pedestal of one of those three statues (I forget which one) and occupied myself with simple meditation. Feral dogs wandered around. With my eyes half-open, I swear one of those dogs stared at me, head a-tilt, doggy brain thrown for a loop by the new statue on the scene. The great forest monks of Thailand were known for their ability to sit sublimely even as tigers sniffed their robes, but that's not me. I considered making a move to scare the critter off, but imagined that this might set off a very undesirable howling spree. Eventually, the dog hopped off, uninterested.

When I tell the story to Thai friends, it's at this point I ask them, "do you know what happened next?"

Absolutely nothing. No ghosts.

Unfortunately, of all people on the globe, Thais are most likely to find any excuse for a party. They celebrate Chinese New Year's, Thai New Year's, and Western New Year's with full intensity. I could hear the sound of fireworks at some point, and it's likely that point was precisely midnight. Around 2 AM I dragged myself off the pedestal and walked back to the hotel.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Is "Spiritual Rationalism" Even Possible?

Where do rationalists stand with regard to non-banal experiences that are typically referred to as "religious" or "spiritual"? You know...meditation, bliss, oneness, zeroness, whatever. Do practices of phowa, tummo, chod, yidams, yoga, etc., shed any light on questions of being? There actually seems to be quite a variety of views:

A. such experiences are reserved for elites, and thus shed no light on the driving forces behind religion.
B. such experiences are delusory or, at least, worthless. Check out PZ Myers
C. such experiences can indeed be powerfully transformative and may be worth pursuing (Sam Harris).
D. I can enjoy all of these experiences myself without engaging in religious woo. Here, you have Richard Dawkins emphasizing that he can enjoy a sunset (it's usually some celestial phenomenon) as much or more as the next guy.

These categories aren't meant to be mutually exclusive. They're just intended to reflect the dominant responses you'd expect to hear from various rationalist personalities when you play a game of word-association and blurt out terms like "neurotheology".

I've avoided the term "atheist" for my argument. Theravadan Buddhist purists (who often are Westerners re-projecting all that they thought they had rejected in Abrahamic religion) might spurn some of the aforementioned practices as superstitious or "degraded" or untrue to the original scriptures, and embrace others. Here, you get a mix of all the above categories. These Buddhists would probably self-identify as atheists, but might not be thrilled with the geeky "rationalist" tag. Rationalists are not known to seek out the spaces between thoughts. However, in many cases, especially in the West, the two terms can be used virtually interchangeably.

Regarding A), at best it's a simplification to say that the experience of meditation is reserved for religious elites when, even today, a large percentage of the male population in places like Thailand is expected to engage in an extended retreat at least once in a lifetime. To then argue that the religion "in itself" can do without meditation seems rather silly.

I'd like to add my own category E). It goes like this: Yes, these experiences may be worthwhile and transformative, but rationalists can't have them. Or, to be less dramatic, they may be somewhat handicapped when seeking them out.

I recall Phil Plait arguing that he might view the night sky with more awe than less educated folks. With his trained eye he, after all, can make determinations as to whether stars are retreating or not. Their colors tell him something about the heat they produce. He knows their stories. That's very nice, but he's playing right into the hands of the folks who claim that a scientific view dulls the moment to moment appreciation of life. For many, this dunderhead included, awe arises when one is left thoughtless, and dissipates as a conceptual overlayer gets re-established. That's the vaunted Zen "beginner's mind" to which contemplatives aspire, as opposed to Plait's "expert mind".

Blathering about spiritual experiences is a dangerous road, but I've done enough meditative tinkering to know that the quality of sights and sounds that impinge on consciousness are hugely variable. In the Tibetan tradition, you may identify with a "yidam". Depending on the yidam you focus on, your post-meditative perceptions might be altered in interesting ways. Meditate on Tara, and you may find the soft curves of your coffee cup to be unusually prominent and compassionate. Meditate on a heavenly realm, and you may find every object glistening, imbued with sacredness. Meditate on a wrathful deity, and a confident, sharp clarity may be felt. Other times, the world is saturated with a dreamlike quality. There's really no reason to find these gestalts to be any less "real" than that of ordinary, tedious, ego-focused, samsaric vision. But you're not going to "get it" if there's a big internal debate going on as to whether these deities have objective existence or not.

There's a bit of a paradox here. Rationalists identify strongly with the logical, thinking mind ("sem", in Tibetan, if I recall). They believe in its eminence. And yet, they often don't seem to fathom the extent to which this mind can exert its power right down to the level of perception and sensation, where a deity's presence may be felt vividly and organically. "Sem" may be more or less isolated from the realm of the senses for some folks. There are indications that religiosity, suggestibility, etc., may have genetic components. Point is: maybe some folks are simply cut off from certain experiences.

Another Tibetan practice is "guru yoga". Here, you summon up intense devotion for your teacher. You see him as no different than Buddha. It's something that's awfully difficult for me (superhuman authority figures on thrones are problematic, to put it mildly). Rationalists have an understandably difficult time suspending disbelief and logic in this sort of situation, and it's all the more difficult when the supposedly venerable guru figure spends massive hours watching TV, seeking out his next fuck, and micro-managing the financial affairs of the organization. But here in the West we have psychologists who are supposed to free us of neurosis. Imagine, for a second, that you viewed your therapist as no different than the Buddha. You'd probably carry out his instructions especially intensely and dutifully, and results might be quick in coming. Of course, this sort of relationship can and does lead to abuse, but that's another issue.

As far as I can see, these feelings of intense devotion are hugely emphasized in virtually all religious traditions. They enable certain experiences. What object of intense devotion can atheists claim?

Various traditions emphasize the importance of creating an "auspicious" environment to facilitate prayer or contemplation. We might simply be talking about lighting some incense, or we could be talking about a very elaborate ritual. How might rationalists quicken various "spiritual" experiences? What venerated implements are available?

Next, there's the issue of "self knowledge" for rationalists. Being of a scientific bent, they may disregard any information gathered via self-reflection, since it's 100% subjective. In other words, because you believe that you can't probe your mind via the scientific method, you're not even going to try. I say "believe" because I'm not at all convinced that the mind can't be investigated, and subjectivity can't be minimized via the structure offered by meditative techniques. You attempt to focus solely on your breathing, but repeatedly get distracted in discursive thoughts. You then realize that you're not quite as "in control" as perhaps you thought. Is that not insightful? Is this not an experience that can be shared with and confirmed by other meditators? Perhaps Westerners are somewhat burdened by the impression that "self-knowledge" necessarily involves stuff like recalling and playing out the historical chain of events that culminated in a rubber boot fetish. There's also this very Western notion that "self-knowledge" involves selecting out the traits that make you especially different from the next guy, not the traits that bind you.

Rationalists reject views that are not based on sound evidence. That's nice, but 24/7 we're faced with the existential dilemma of constructing/maintaining/abiding-by a self-perception that is based on...what? Many scholars of the early texts of Buddhism remark on the radical deconstruction of self going on in these works. It seems, however, that many rationalists would prefer to avoid this particular exercise in deconstruction. Or, perhaps, they think that Ellis, Maslow, and the like have rendered these approaches moot. Laughable, really.

Rationalists focus on logical and evidentiary errors. But what of perceptual errors? A classic Hindu/Buddhist example is that of an individual whose fear causes a rope to be seen as a snake. Are rationalists less prone to such effects? Perhaps more prone. Mistaking a rope for a snake may occur once in a lifetime, but the unjustified reification of self is near-constant and worthy of examination, according to the Buddhists.

In science, anomalies often spur insight. It's rather odd, then, that an apparently large subset of rationalists have concluded that meditative self-experimentation is necessarily a fruitless endeavor. Science isn't mere application of logic and statistics. It's about going out and finding and manipulating materials and circumstances. No?

Ask rationalists why religion endures and they often unwittingly offer up a sharp reflection of their own cognitive biases: it's there to explain the cosmos. Or, perhaps, it's there to offer a legal/moral/social skeleton for society. For the politically inclined, it exists as an elitist power structure. I'm reminded of a classroom of well-indoctrinated schoolchildren. Ask them why people take drugs. You might be surprised at the sophistication of the responses, but isn't it odd that nobody chimes in, "because drugs make you feel good"?

Folks spend a good deal of effort justifying their own propensities. A musician may pity those who can't "get" Coltrane. For the literate, it's lamentable that some humans never experience the genius of Joyce or Shakespeare. You may be seen as pathetic because you're clueless about the gritty reality of the inner city. Or because you're out of touch with nature. Because you've never gone for a real adrenaline rush. Because you've never experimented with S&M. Because you've never studied martial arts and can't defend your own body. Because you've never been through cancer. Because you've never had children. And of course, you may be pathetic because you haven't had a "born again" experience. Or because you're deluded enough to believe that you've been touched by a sky fairy. And it's pathetic that some folks don't seem to appreciate the diversity of mental states that they encounter in interactions with others.


In fairness to Phil Plait and PZ Myers, they've got awesome, provocative blogs. Plait has indeed spoken of the purely visceral power of heavenly imagery, and PZ, when he's not thrashing creationists (which is enjoyable in its own way), can write incredibly evocatively and lucidly. He's sure as hell not autistic.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008


Quick! What is the highest place on earth?

If you say Mt. Everest, you're kinda wrong. Mt. Everest is highest above sea level. However, the earth isn't a perfect sphere, which means that the distance from the center of the earth to the surface is greatest at the equator. This distance isn't entirely trivial...6357 kilometers from the center to the poles, and 6384 kms from the center to the top of Mt. Chimborazo in Ecuador. A basketball with these proportions would probably bounce a tad unpredictably.

From this perspective, Everest is 2.4 kms lower than Chimborazo! Furthermore, the Mariana Trench is quite a bit "higher" than some areas on the ocean floor near the North Pole. I say "some areas" because scientists, believe it or not, have yet to pinpoint the exact spot on the earth's crust that is closest to the center.

For the weight-conscious, Chimborazo is also the world's best place to stand on a scale. If my numbers are right, you'd weigh about 1% less on Chimborazo than at the poles. Not noticeable, though I wonder if somebody with a highly trained sense of gravity (a juggler? a high jumper?) would perceive a difference. The greatest high jump in history occurred in Salamanca, Spain at 40° latitude, and the second highest actually occurred in Stockholm (59°), which argues against any significant effect.

The diminished pull of gravity, however, is significant enough that it makes good sense to launch large rockets near the equator.

There was a time a couple hundred years ago when Europeans believed Chimborazo to be the highest point on earth! They were correct for the wrong reasons. I presume they arrived at this judgement via triangulation, just as they later arrived at a measurement for Everest, with sea-level as a reference point. Alexander Humboldt (of Humboldt Bay and Humboldt Current fame) attempted the summit in 1802.

Three other peaks are actually further from the center of the earth than Everest: Huascaran, Cotopaxi, and Kilimanjaro. Given the difficulties in making precise measurements from the absolute center of the earth, there's some debate, in fact, whether Huascaran might actually be a tad taller than Chimborazo. For me, all this ambiguity points to the illusoriness of pursuing the world's "highest" summit. Given the relative ease of climbing Chimborazo, one wonders if some anonymous, bored Incan nomad (did Incans have nomads?) scampered up the peak 1,000 years ago, leaving the goats to fend for themselves.

Another item to add to the "things to do before you croak" list. It'll go somewhere above "hear the roaring sands" and below "see a really intense aurora".

Sunday, June 29, 2008

A Wedgie for Creationists

The creationists have got their panties in bunches over Richard Lenski's recent paper on bacterial evolution and evolutionary contingency. In brief, over the course of 44,000 generations, Lenski's lab of e. coli acquired the ability to metabolize citric acid. It appears that at least 3 mutations were involved.

Now, on one hand, you have Andrew Schlafly (of Phyllis and "Conservapedia" fame) demanding a right to Lenski's data and bacterial cultures. Lenski was partially funded by the government, and Schlafly is a taxpayer. It appears that Schlafly sees the paper as a severe affront to his beliefs, and strongly suspects some kind of fraud. Never mind that he is not qualified to read such technical papers, much less analyze the bacteria for himself. The whole brouhaha is detailed here and here.

On the other hand, you have Michael Behe, an intelligent design creationist, poo-pooing the paper. After all, he says, the machinery to metabolize citric acid was dormant in e. coli's DNA. The only mutations required were those to allow it through the bacterial membrane. A handful of point mutations (most likely) over 20 years is nothing to get excited about, according to Behe.

Obviously, there's quite a disparity between Schlafly's and Behe's views. Is the paper such a blow to creationism that it surely must be fraudulent? Or are the results entirely ho-hum?

Now (July 9), we've got "Answers in Genesis" chiming in with an interpretation that Lenski's results are neither ho-hum or fraudulently evolution-affirming, but pro-creationism. Such disparities are fairly commonplace in the world of creationism, where the only guiding principle is to attack evolution on every possible front. In the spirit of fraternity, it seems that debate between the various schools of creationism is supposed to be minimized. But the logical chasms are huge.

I'm not only referring to creationist arguments against evolution, but also to their own religious dogmas. It seems, for example, that these folks are rather divided over the existence of satan, and/or his role in evolution. There was a time, though creationists have conveniently forgotten it, when satan was accused of planting un-biblical dinosaur bones in the soil. Remnants of this view can still be found on the net. Unfortunately, it seems that flimsy creationists tracts that may have existed in laundromats 40 years ago have gone the way of soft-bodied pre-Cambrian worms. Now, of course, you've got a "creation museum" with displays of folks saddled on the behemoths, and satan is normally left out of creationist arguments against evolution (Lewis Black on creationists: "these folks think the Flintstones is a documentary").

My point: scientists should make a point of questioning the creationists, a tactic that is normally ignored. Of course, there's a good argument to be made that scientists should never debate these buffoons in the first place. But if we must debate, then the scientist needn't merely play the role of creationist error correcter. My own experience is that, given a quasi-earnest nudge, these folks are foaming at the mouth to spew the most ludicrous supernaturalisms. Such a process may reveal inconsistencies in their views toward both evolution and religion, leaving them to fend off not only the scientists, but other believers.

Some other questions for the creos:

*How often has the Designer interceded? While most young-earthers would say "once", and others might say "always", creationist darling Behe implies that he does so intermittently. (Question for Behe: do you think your "science" could pin down when these intercessions occured?)

*If you claim that ID is a science, could you offer up a handful of experiments that might falsify it?

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

The Thailand Bowling Resort

About three years ago, I had this notion of putting together the "Thailand Bowling Resort". Enthusiasm for my latest brilliant idea normally wanes within a week or two, but I was hyped for several months. I put together the graphics (see the bowling balls in the coconut trees?) and a five page business proposal, and even made some meager attempts to contact folks with big bucks.

I envisioned myself as the Willy Wonka of global bowling. Given the relatively cheap costs of bowling in Thailand, you could send members of your league over here, toss a few games, and then drink cocktails on the beach. There'd be 200 foot lanes, and lanes with Evel Knievel style "loop the loops". Banked, race-track style lanes. Lanes with 15 or 21 pins. For the serious bowlers, you'd be able to choose from any number of lane conditions, and actually toss all sorts of balls...not just cheap plastic house balls. Video would be available so you could check out your form. Etc.

It never happened, of course. All you venture capitalists can feel free to grab the idea. But you gotta give me rein to mysteriously wander the premises in the wee hours, with tuxedo, top hat, and cane.


Actually, I haven't tossed a bowling ball for nearly half a year now. My new focus is on Himalayan climbing...I'd really like to get up over 8,000 meters someday. More on that later. But it's not like all my bowling balls are going to waste...I build leg strength and endurance by stuffing the balls into my backpack and "trekking" up and down the stairs in the condo.

Not quite ready to compete with the guys below, though...