December 26, 2013
‘Twas the day after Christmas, so with trepidation
Surveying the ruins of the day’s jubilation
I walked room to room to see what had befell
My humble abode on this joyeux noël.
The stockings, which once had been bursting with plenty
Were crumpled knit husks—stripped, discarded, and empty.
The mantlepiece where they had once been suspended
Was swiss-cheesed with holes (it would have to be mended)
The floors rustled softly with paper and waste
That was torn from the presents, discarded in haste.
The tree was in pieces, the boughs wrenched asunder
When the children had massed and then grabbed for their plunder.
There were marks on the walls where the children had feuded
Over battery packs (which had not been included)
The kitchen appeared to’ve been sacked by yule vandals
(the marauders had burned all the red and green candles)
The fridge was stripped bare: every scrap had been eaten,
Every candy cane crunched, every egg cracked and beaten.
All the plates were piled up in spiraling tower
The countertops dusted with snowdrifts of flour.
But where were the miscreants who were to blame?
I received no response when I called them by name.
The children were gathered (as they’d been all vacation)
‘Round the TV which blared singing wintry claymation.
“All right, everybody”, I said to no heed
“It’s time that we all took a moment and tidied”
“On Comet! On Ajax! On mops, shovels, and brooms
We must scour the counters and clean all the rooms!”
“We’ll do it tomorrow, or maybe next weekend
Or at least after finishing Rudolph and friends!”
But they saw by my face there was clearly no use
In continued attempts to evade or refuse.
So we all pitched a hand in and each took a tool
And began to abolish the remnants of yule
And as we were cleaning, we perked up with cheer
Just three sixty four days until Christmas next year.
December 4, 2013
I first heard about Bitcoin a few years ago. I was reading Hacker News, and there was a story about someone ordering a pizza with them. Over the next few months, there were many more stories, mostly about the rapidly rising value. I started to learn a little bit more about it, and found the entire concept fascinating.
Near the first price peak around $30/BTC, I remember reading an article written by a guy who had put his entire life savings into it. Wonder if he had the guts to hold all the way through.
When the price dropped down to a few dollars each, I decided to throw $20 at it.
At the time, there were a few ways to get bitcoins:
- Mine them.
- Find someone in person to give money to and have them transfer bitcoins to you.
- Get some money onto an online exchange and buy them.
I didn’t want to deal with the (potential) technical complexity of setting up a mining rig for a short experiment, and even then, the days when a standard computer could generate any reasonable amount of them were waning.
In retrospect, finding someone in person would probably have been the simplest option, but at the time I didn’t really even know how to verify that things had worked and wanted to be able to comfortably nose around a website for a while without the social pressure of someone who probably just wanted to get my $20 and move on.
So I tried the online exchange method.
The process of buying them was complicated and required me to trust a variety of third parties that I had no real reason to trust.
At first, I tried going through an online virtual currency exchange that specialized in currencies from multiplayer video games. I Paypal’d some money over, then somehow managed to convert USD into Linden Dollars (the Second Life video game currency), but was unable to then convert to Bitcoin. I backed out and started over.
Then, I tried to use Mt Gox. I set up a Dwolla account, verified who I was, and waited. Then verified some more things. After a week or two, I was hitting the “buy” button. I downloaded a Bitcoin client on my computer generated a key and some addresses, and tried transferring some back and forth. The numbers decreased in one location and increased in another. Cool. I have successfully exchanged dollars for math.
At every step of the way I felt like I was on the verge of sending my money into a black hole. The addresses are meaningless strings of characters. The software was full of rough edges and The protocol is complicated and I had no real understanding of how the system worked or what I was doing.
And, for a time, they were forgotten.
Last week, the exchange rate broke $1000/BTC. And all of a sudden, they were remembered. All of a sudden, my $20 experiment was worth thousands of dollars.
I’m not sure how to feel about that. Clearly, I didn’t earn that money in any sense of the word.
If anyone tells you they can predict the future of Bitcoin, hold on to your wallet. It’s too different from anything that’s come before for existing economic models to have much predictive power. Is it currently in a bubble? Almost certainly. But that’s not the interesting question. The interesting question is what it means for the future of money. I won’t pretend to know. But I am fascinated by it. It’s an amazing and brilliant experiment at the intersection of technology and math and economics and I’m loving every wild moment of it.
I just reread Ender’s Game, and I was struck with the parallels between Satoshi Nakamoto, the pseudonymous creator of Bitcoin, and Locke and Demosthenes, the internet personalities created by the elder Wiggin children to influence public discourse on the internet. In the story, they leverage their fame and readership into political power. Nakamoto leveraged some clever math, a bit of code and some spare CPU cycles into a fortune of billions. This is what it looks like to have an idea so powerful that it changes the world.
October 20, 2010
It is the last yacht club Wet Wednesday, and there is a two-man band on the edge of a postage-stamp-sized dance floor. The singer/keyboardist is trying to attract dancers, but is so far unsuccessful. Then:
“Let’s take it back to the sixties,” he announces, and begins to play Hang on Sloopy
A cluster of fifty-something women walk out to the dance floor and start to strut their stuff. They have good rhythm. And pantsuits.
The singer picks it up a notch, adding some riffs from Twist
“Twist it!” he shouts. “How low can you go?”
Not very, it turns out.
October 18, 2010
We got back from the Rwenzori hike and drove north to Fort Portal, to the Mountains of the Moon hotel. Dominic had been able to get us his rate (much cheaper than the normal one), but that meant he had to pay for it, but we didn’t have enough schillings to pay him back, so there was a little song and dance about that. We checked in and immediately spent the next hour showering. It was fantastic.
I found a book in our room about Uganda, and the various business opportunities within, that was fascinating because it was so directly focused on selling the country to foreign investors. It was half fluff-pieces about the burgeoning prosperity that was Ugandan business, and half advertisements that seemed to be more about the company’s stock price than about their actual products.
We went to dinner, and it was one of the best dinners we had in the country. We started with an avocado and tomato salad that ended up being a giant whole avocado, sliced with fresh tomatoes and dressing. It cost about $1.40. There were some very young stray cats that came mewling around our table. I named them Jacob and Esau and we gave them some food until Esau decided that we weren’t being attentive enough and bit Kristi in the leg. No good dead. So we chased them away.
In the morning, I went to shower again, and the water stayed cold. I called the front desk and they said they could send someone around with a bucket of hot water. I said I’d rather just have a shower, and would that work? They said they’d send housekeeping. A few minutes later, housekeeping arrived with a steaming bucket. She said that the hot water was solar, and there wouldn’t be any until the sun had a chance to heat up the water in the tanks. So, be warned: take showers in the evening in Uganda. She left the bucket and we went to breakfast. When we came back, we realized that she had carried a heavy bucket all that way and we felt bad, so we poured some of it down the drain so it’d look like we used it.
Dominic was waiting for us at the entrance, and when we got in the car, he let the brake out and we coasted down the driveway for a bit before he popped the engine into gear, complaining about a guy who had sold him bad battery fluid. “This,” I said to Kristi, “is what’s known as foreshadowing.”
But it was all ok. We made it back to Kampala and met up with Leanne and Emma, went to a small art gallery, did some shopping, and then had Ethiopian food before driving to the airport in time for our evening flight. And a short 32 hours later, we touched down in Santa Barbara.
We drove directly to a sushi restaurant.
October 12, 2010
“Hi, I’m calling to talk to you about political candidate, have you heard of him?”
“Yes. Can you please put me on your do not call list.”
“Sure. Can we count on your vote?”
“That depends on how many annoying telephone calls I get from his opponent.”
October 4, 2010
The first day was the hardest day’s hike I’ve ever done. And I carried nothing but a water bottle.
We had a guide and five porters from the local community. Two of the porters carried our packs. The other three carried the food and supplies we’d all need for five days, and met us at the first day’s camp site.
We started in Kilembe, at an altitude of about 1800 meters, and stopped at over 3100 meters six or seven miles later. That’s a net gain of 1300+ meters, or about 0.8 miles of elevation, and it wasn’t all straight up. Twice before lunch I got a bit light-headed and had to stop walking for a few minutes, but I think I was just overdoing it. Once I hit my stride, I could hike all day. One foot in front of the other, slowly.
We passed through savannah, jungle, bamboo, and up into heather, each distinct ecosystems. The heather zone up above 3000 meters looks like an alien world designed by Dr. Seuss. On the third day, we hiked up to our highest point, just under 4000 meters. On the way, we passed through a swamp with huge clumps of grasses rising out of it. The only non-plant life was spiders. The way to get through is to hop from one clump of grass to another, avoiding the muck below. It was like being inside a video game jumping puzzle.
It was incredibly muddy. Large portions of the hike were spent finding a tenuous route along the edge of the trail without sinking your foot in up to the ankle. Going down was interesting. I decided on the second day that the best thing to do was just to plant your heel and ride it down. Sometimes you stopped a few inches later, sometimes it took you a few feet. Only ended up on my ass once. One of the camps was so muddy that there were logs strewn all around to walk on.
The days were comfortably cool. Great hiking weather. The nights were cold. I was amazed at the porters and guide who seemed to wear so much less clothing than us, have so much poorer bedding, and not seem cold. We cowered around the camp fire long before the sun went down. On the fourth night, I slept in all of my clothes except the rain gear, inside my sleeping bag inside the tent, and I felt ok.
The landscape and plants were like something out of another world.
We had a few great discussions with our porters and guides, ranging from sex to politics to sex to economics, education, and environmental policy, right back to sex. They knew AIDS was a problem, but seemed unwilling to take any kind of personal responsibility for it. They believed that condoms would give you cancer (which we tried to disabuse them of), and the men were absolutely convinced that women were to blame. Their argument was that since some women (prostitutes) could and did sleep with hundreds of men a year, they spread it around. Pointing out that the men who slept with those prostitutes shared equal responsibility fell on deaf ears. It was both encouraging that they were willing to engage us on these issues, and heartbreaking that they seem so unable to help themselves.
We hiked with our pants tucked into our socks. Because of the ants. Some places, the ants were thick on the ground, a stream of them so wide that there was nothing to do but run through them as fast as you could, then flail frantically at your clothes to brush them off. I wasn’t willing to stand still enough to take a picture of a large swarm, but imagine this, thirty feet wide.
Our guide was named Rogers. Kristi’s porter was Jessica, and mine was Eliak. Jessica had a great laugh, and we heard it often; I think the others were flirting with her a lot. Eliak was a student of biology. He carried a notebook and spent time sketching and making notes about the local plants and animimals we saw. The other three porters were Vincent, Moses, and Posco. They were coffee farmers.
Here’s a picture with everyone but Kristi. From the top, left to right: The guy who we were trying to get to take the picture of us, Vincent, Posco, Moses. Front row, Rogers, Eliak, Jessica, Me. Here’s the one with Kristi, although we lost Eliak.
September 29, 2010
We were supposed to go Chimpanzee Tracking in a ravine near Simba Lodge the next day, but Dominic told us near the end of the day that he had been unable to get us in. They were overbooked as it was. He had called around to several places, but wasn’t sure if there was a place we could see Chimpanzees. Kristi was upset; she had really been looking forward to seeing the chimps. Dominic told us that we might be able to get to see them at Kibale, but it was several hours away, and he couldn’t guarantee it. We told him that we trusted his judgment, and that if he thought there was a reasonable chance, we’d go for it, and if it didn’t happen, c’est la vie. He said he really appreciate that we trusted him, and that he would do his best. It occurs to me that he must deal with distrust all the time in his line of work, ferrying American and European tourists around. I remembered how nervous we’d been about giving him all the money for gas at the beginning of the trip. He said he’d call around, and text us if we should be ready early.
In the morning, we still hadn’t heard from Dominic, so we got up and went for breakfast around nine. Dominic was already there. He had texted, but we didn’t get it in the room. We ate, then drove to Kibale. We arrived at about twenty minutes to one, and Dominic told us that we should be ready to go at one. The trek didn’t start until two, but the word from his contact was that they might be able to squeeze us in if we were ready then. We went to the restaurant to see if we could get anything quickly for lunch (ha!), but there were already a dozen people sitting there who had been waiting for some time. We ordered some sodas and ate the snacks we had with us: two bags of airplane nuts, a bag of corn nuts, a packet of “glucose biscuits” (look for the blurry picture of a little girl on the label) and a tin of sardines. Nothing like an insulin spike for prime chimpanzee viewing.
Then we waited around until two.
But we did get in. At one moment, they were collecting the permits from people, and at the next, we were signing in and forming up into groups. We managed to be part of step two. The rest of our group were mostly in their fifties, with one woman in her thirties, all Dutch. After talking a bit, we realized we were on the same flight out of the country in a week, and we would end up running into them in the airport. Small world.
Our guide was named Charles(“like Prince Charles”, he said). The walk was on trails, and was much easier than the gorilla terrain had been. We found the first chimpanzees in less than an hour. They were up in a large fig tree, eating and occasionally running around and shrieking. The tree was high, and it was often hard to see, but it was clear we were right underneath them because one of them started throwing his fig scraps at us. Every few seconds a piece of fig would come sailing down from above. He did manage to score one direct hit on one of the Dutch.
We walked around as the chimps moved from tree to tree. You had to watch your step, since they aren’t really discriminating about where they drop trou. I don’t think anyone got hit, but you never know. I did see a recent deposit being divided up by some dung beetles, but missed the chance for a picture.
Eventually, the chimpanzees came down, and we got surprisingly close to them. Less than five feet, I think. We saw several on the ground, including a mother with infant riding on her back. She didn’t really want us to get too close, so we only saw her at a few dozen feet, and always headed away from us when she noticed us. I accidentally turned the flash on my camera back on at one point, and felt really bad when I frightened one of the chimps away, but Charles told me it was ok.
Eventually, we used up our time with the chimps and went back to the cars, then started our drive to the Rwenzori Backpackers Hostel in Kilembe, where we’d stay the night before starting our hike in the mountains. But, first, we ended up in Fort Portal, Fort Portal is not on the way to Kilembe.
Here’s what happened. We had been planning to go to a pharmacy in Kasese (near Kilembe) to pick up some more decongestants, because we were both still a bit sniffly, and wanted to make sure we had them for the hike. I asked Dominic in the morning whether they’d still be open in Kasese by the time we got back, and he said “It will be OK.” I was just asking for information, but he interpreted it as “it is important that we get the medication”, and made it happen. So, a cultural misunderstanding resulted in an extra few hours of driving.
And then we got lost. There are several places you can start hiking from, and Dominic thought we were going to the other one. So both our major miscommunications happened on the same day, and resulted in us not arriving until after nine pm, having eaten very little all day. We had to call ahead so that they wouldn’t shut the kitchen down because we hadn’t eaten and would be there at nine thirty and would have dinner ready for us? But it was all worth it when we got in at nine thirty and they didn’t have dinner ready for us. That came in about forty-five minutes. I think they had to go dig up the potatoes.
We met some more Dutch people at the hostel, a couple who had bought a truck in South Africa and were winding their way up through the continent, and a young guy who was traveling on the cheap. I thought our flight home was bad, but he was going back to Amsterdam by way of an 18-hour layover in Turkey. They kindly offered us some of their pineapple dessert they hadn’t finished, and I ate it much faster than was polite. They asked us how long we were hiking, and their astonishment when we told them it was five days did more to psych me out than reading in the guidebooks how sometimes the mud comes up to your waist.
We were shown our rooms and the facilities, and experienced my favorite story of Ugandan culture. The bathroom next to our room had only cold water, so if we wanted a warm shower, we had to walk across the yard to another building, where there was a row of individual shower stalls with doors. The doors had a gap at the top and bottom to let in light, but there was no light back there. There was a bulb, unlit. The woman who worked at the hospital showed us this, and we had the following exchange.
Her (explaining): The light has burnt out, but we are replacing it.
Kristi (hopeful): Will it be replaced tonight?
Her (chuckling, but matter-of-fact): Oh, no.
Ha ha! Replacing a lightbulb right now? Surely the lady jests.
September 26, 2010
We woke up before dark for an early-morning game drive. All the drivers were waiting at the hostel and the lodge. The early morning is the best time to see lions and leopards, since they’ll hunt when it’s still cool, eat, then spend the afternoon sleeping.
Our first sight was a baby elephant, just a half-mile into the park. It was still too dark to see much, so it was really the silhouette of a baby elephant. The mother was not visible, but couldn’t have been far. We saw many of the same animals as the day before, although we saw buffalo quite close up this time. Also, we saw kob doing a sort of mating ritual. The single male kob space themselves out at regular intervals in a grid, and any females who need some kobbing come select their male. We didn’t see any actual mating, but some of the other cars did (we overheard at lunch). Near the end of the morning, we saw a hyena at some distance. He was limping pretty badly.
We packed up our stuff and then had lunch at the fancy lodge again, and dragged it out for about two and a half ours by eating and ordering slowly.
After lunch, we went on a river cruise. Dominic told us which side of the boat to sit on, so we got good seats. The show was fantastic, and I took many pictures. We saw a few elephants, hundreds of buffalo and hippos, five crocodiles, thousands of birds (one being eaten by a snake), one large snake, and several people swimming way closer to crocodiles than I’d ever personally get. A good time was had by all (except that bird), and I highly recommend the channel cruise.
We then traveled to the Northern-ish edge of Queen Elizabeth park, and stayed in the Simba Lodge. With dinner, I ordered a gin and tonic and acted like a big damn European explorer.
September 23, 2010
In the morning, we headed north to Queen Elizabeth National Park. We entered the park at Ishasha, which is known for having tree-dwelling lions. Unfortunately, we did not see any. Predators are a rare sight, and it didn’t help that there had been lots of burning in that area of the park. We put the top of the van up for the first time, and stood as Dominic drove off-road.
We saw lots of antelope: Kob, which are Uganda’s national animal, waterbucks, and topi. We saw a large herd of buffalo in the distance, and saw the signs of elephants (dozens of smashed and uprooted acacia trees), but did not see them. We found a troop of baboons in a tree, and a group of what Kristi called “varmint” monkeys, which are small and generally considered pests, and which Dominic didn’t even bother to slow down for. I was a little disappointed, because I hadn’t seen them before, but I figure it’s be like bringing someone to New York and them wanting to stop and take pictures of the pigeons.
Dominic would stop and study the antelope through the binoculars to see how they were moving. He said that you could tell when there was a predator around because they would all move away from a single point. But he didn’t see any indication of one.
We turned around when we got in sight of the border to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and headed toward Mweya, where we were staying. As we got closer, the landscape changed. Where Ishasha had been grasslands punctuated by numerous trees, the area around Mweya was much more bushy. The dominant plantlife was a kind of cactus that looks like a tree on the bottom and a cactus on top. Here we saw many warthogs, more waterbuck, and (briefly) a few wild boar.
We got to the hostel at Mweya, and immediately wanted to stay at the fancy lodge just down the street. We called, and the only double room they had left was a luxury one for $360/night. We decided that we didn’t really want to stay there that much, and settled for the $18/night hostel. The upside of the hostel is that it had a family of warthogs hanging out and keeping the lawn short. They are such funny creatures. In order to eat the grass, they’d bend their front legs and kneel on their elbows, even the baby. It was time to wash our clothes, so we got some plastic basins from the bathroom and went over to an outdoor water faucet. Handwashing clothing is hard work, but forty minutes and two beers later I was willing to call my stuff clean enough for government work. We hung them up and cleaned ourselves up for dinner, which we decided to have at the nice safari lodge.
It was excellent food, and the view from the balcony was fantastic. It looked out over the channel between Lake George and Lake Edward, and we could see a herd of dozens of elephants walking along the shore across the channel. We resolved to eat all our meals there.
When we got back, it was well after dark, and our clothes still hadn’t dried, so we brought them into our room. The nice thing about mosquito nets is that every bed is a clothes-drying rack.
September 20, 2010
I woke early and met Dominic by the van at just after six. We were giving a ride to the same ranger we’d transported down the previous night, but I pulled rank and sat in the front seat. I was popping Sudafed and aspirin to make sure I looked as healthy as possible, since if you’re visibly sick, they won’t let you go, and they only refund part of the permit fee. It costs $500 for a chance to see the gorillas. No guarantees. Kristi stayed back in Buhoma because she’s seen the gorillas twice before, and didn’t want to spend the money again.
We got to the ranger station and I met the other people who would be going. There was a Polish couple, a Dutch couple, and a trio from Tuscany. We all sat in a little circular gazebo-hut thing and were briefed on the gorillas. Our guide, Benson, told us that there were an estimated 720 mountain gorillas in the wild, in Uganda, Rwanda, and the DRC, and none in captivity since the 1960s. They tend to not stay alive in captivity. There are three groups in Uganda that are habituated to humans, and the group we would be visiting was 13 gorillas. They passed around pictures of them and told us a little about the gorilla social structure and what to do if one of the gorillas charges (Don’t run. Look down. Pretend to eat a leaf), and not to sneeze on or try to touch the gorillas.
We then piled into some SUVs and drove down the road a ways, before striking out into the jungle. The guides in front and behind carried rifles and machetes, and we were literally hacking and clambering our way through the jungle. We started down a steep hill and then followed along the floor of a small ravine. We walked for about 30 minutes, then stopped in a small clearing where they reiterated the rules about sneezing, touching, and not running, then we went on with just two guides. A few minutes later, we caught the first glimpse of a gorilla through the brush. It was hard to see, but the guides slowly hacked away at the plants between us and the gorilla to give us a better view. Shortly, though, he moved on, and so did we. We continued like this for a while. We’d walk a hundred feet or so, then stop and gather around where we could see movement through the underbrush, but it wouldn’t last long. One time we saw the two infants in the group playing. They were wrestling around on the ground underneath a bush.
One time, just after a blackback gorilla had moved on, and we started to follow, the gorilla turned and ran at us. The front guide was to my right, and just uphill of me. The Dutch lady was at my left. She started to slip down the hill, and the guide said with an urgent stage whisper “Don’t run.” The gorilla stopped about four feet away from us, slapped at the ground with one hand, stood for a moment, then turned and went back up the hill. Everyone stopped in awe, and our guide said “we’ll go a different way.”
After forty minutes of following them, we came to a clearing where most of the group was. They started on the ground, but climbed up several trees. In one tree, there was a female and a blackback. Another tree had a silverback and the two infants we’d seen earlier. The infants divided their time between eating leaves and chasing each other, and the silverback broke branches off and tossed them down to a female who was waiting on the ground under a bush. In another nearby tree, another silverback climbed up and began to eat. We stayed there and took it all in for a little while, then the guides told us it was time to go. You are only allowed a maximum of one hour with the gorillas.
When we got back to the lodge, Kristi was still out on a nature tour, so I had some tea and looked out over the jungle. Then she came back and we went with Dominic to a local bar. The hand-lettered sign out front said “Pool Joint”, and they did endeed have a pool table inside. We got some drinks and I played a game of pool against a kid of about 14. I managed to get down to one ball left by the time he sunk the 8-ball, but I think he may have been humoring me. There was another kid in the bar about the same age, drinking out of a small bottle of booze.
Dinner was three courses of absurdity.