Mail I Never Sent

I drafted a number of e-mails back in late September that I never sent. Most of them were intended for my extended family, as we discussed the events of September 11. I’m not sure why I never sent them. I guess I just despaired of getting my point across.


The Apostle Paul warns, “Do not repay anyone evil for evil… Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath” (Romans 12:17, 199).

Even now, our religious leaders are speaking a message of peace. They are saying that we must respond to terror with love, that we must not answer violence with more violence.

That’s an extremely hard message to hear right now. It’s hard because we’re angry. And we’re scared. And who can blame us for that?

I’m angry at the people who did this to us. I’m angry at my own government for funding the Taliban, Al-Qaeda and bin Laden. I’m angry at the TV networks who are trivializing the death of thousands of Americans with glossy and superficial coverage. I’m angry at the investors who are even now sending the stock market into a downward spiral.

I’m scared of more terrorist attacks. We tested our preparedness for an anthrax assault a few months ago in three major cities; the results indicated we are not prepared for that at all. One crop-duster with the right biological weapons could kill millions. I’m also scared of what our own military might do. The use of “tactical” nuclear weapons is being discussed. Yes, I’m scared.

But I’m not terrified. I’ll be damned if I let the terrorists accomplish that.

Xy went to mass yesterday morning at Visitation of Our Lady in Marrero, LA. The message at this conservative church was one of peace. “Love your enemy.” Xy said that the man in the pew before her was shaking his head and trembling with rage throughout the sermon.

We’re all angry. It so may be hard for us to listen to the wisdom of our religious counselors. But that’s exactly what we must do. How can I love the Taliban, whom I’ve hated for years? It’s hard — very, very hard. Hate is far easier.

It’s also hard to think of peace because we have been conditioned to accept violence. We can barely even imagine any other way to respond. And the events of September 11 demand a response. To do nothing is unthinkable, impossible. We must do something, and more than something. We must do a lot. But what? Can we imagine a response that does not include the slaughter of more innocents? It’s hard. But we must.

And there’s one more thing that makes it hard to think about peace.

Consider the terrorists themselves. We are told that they were religious zealots fighting a holy war. But in fact they were agents of evil. No religion preaches the killing of innocents. Islam certainly does not preach this. The terrorists cannot be considered true Muslims. We should see them for what they are: agents of evil, seriously deluded men masquerading as holy warriors. As a Baptist minister recently said, “Satan can speak in the language of God.”

We’re not immune to this. In our own country, we also have agents of evil. We have those who speak “in the language of God,” deluded men who promote violence and hate in the name of Christianity. They will cite scripture to support their views. For example, they may point to the first verses of Romans 13, while conveniently ignoring the rest of the chapter. But make no mistake. These men are not true Christians, any more than the terrorists were true Muslims. As Jesus said, “You will know them by their fruits.”

From the Sermon on the Mount:

Beware of the false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly are ravenous wolves.

You will know them by their fruits. Grapes are not gathered from thorn bushes nor figs from thistles, are they?

So every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot produce bad fruit, nor can a bad tree produce good fruit.

Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. So then, you will know them by their fruits.

We should not be deceived by the “ravenous wolves” who clamor for retribution. If someone preaches vengeance, they are a “bad tree” bearing “bad fruit.” The Christian position on vengeance and retribution is clear, though right now we may not feel like listening to what Jesus said: “Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles” (Matthew 5:39-41, NIV).


These are my thoughts on the brink of a war that now seems to be unstoppable.

It appears that I’m the only person in our family who favors a peaceful response. I want you all to know that, even if we have our differences, I still love you all. I hope that the family can still accept me. Does that sound silly? I guess that I’m afraid that I’ll be shunned or ostracized. I’m afraid that you will think I’m not a good American.

I am very much afraid about the direction we are headed right now. If America makes the wrong moves, some very bad things could happen. For example, there’s Pakistan. Gen. Musharraf is pro-Western, but he’s also a military dictator with a somewhat shaky hold on power. My friend in Pakistan tells me that there is much popular support there for the Taliban. It’s entirely possible that, if we don’t act just right, Musharraf could be displaced by a hardline, Taliban-style leader. That would be very bad — especially when you remember that Pakistan has nukes.

Death

Death. You know, it seems absurd, but actually the death of our cat Bilal is the closest that death has touched my life — ever.

Considering that I’m now 35, I think that’s pretty fucking weird.

But then again: This was a sudden, unexpected death… We found the body ourselves… We had to figure out what happened, and what to do with the body…

All my grandparents are dead. Sadly, I wasn’t close to any of them. A couple of people I knew in high school died sudden, shockingly violent deaths, but they weren’t really close friends and I didn’t really care. No one really close to me has ever died, not yet. But I suppose that’s coming.

In a way, Bilal’s death seemed like a miniature rehearsal for future grief.

Triple Death Mardi Gras

Mardi Gras has come and gone. It was fun, but there were also some tragedies. Three, in fact.

  1. Our monitor died. When you turn it on it emits weird noises and a burning smell. (My printer has also been giving me trouble. They’re both about five years old. Shouldn’t they last longer?) I went to the store and bought a new one yesterday.
  2. Xy’s grandfather died. He lived in Evansville IN. He was a marine, fought in WWII, Pacific theater. Killed 500 Japanese with his tank team. They were on the cover of Life magazine. He ran an electrician business and a vintage gun shop. He didn’t believe in doctors and dentists. He was in poor health over the last year, and he was 79 (XY thinks) when he died.
  3. Our cat died. That was on Mardi Gras night. He appears to have fallen off our roof and broken his neck on the pavement. I buried him in the backyard where his catnip bush used to be. Bilal was two and a half years old. He is survived by his sister Lucy.

Listing it all out like this makes it seem trivial. Obviously my monitor dying is not in the same class as Xy’s grandfather dying. Actually Bilal’s death upset us the most, since it was so unexpected. Not having any kids you do get attached to your pets. We miss him a lot!

I Thought It Couldn’t Get Worse

I heard on the radio that an airplane had just hit the World Trade Center, a bi-plane according to one witness. Curious, I turned on the TV and discovered that it had not been a bi-plane, but a massive jetliner. I thought to myself, “This is a major disaster.” And I thought it couldn’t get much worse than that.

But then the second jet hit the other tower.

This is horrible, I thought. This is an intentional act of terrorism. And I thought it couldn’t get worse.

But then the Pentagon was hit, and then another jet crashed in Pennsylvania. My God, I thought, it couldn’t get worse.

But then I learned those jets were full of people. Mothers and daughters and sons and fathers. And I thought it couldn’t ever get worse than that.

But then one tower of the World Trade Center collapsed. It just fell in on itself, and in a few seconds it was gone. And I thought it couldn’t get worse.

But then the other tower collapsed as well. Only a cloud of smoke and dust remained where two of the most important buildings in the world had stood. And I thought it couldn’t get worse.

But then they began to estimate how many people had been in those towers. And I thought, surely, it couldn’t possibly get any worse.

But then an old man in Huntington, NY, tried to run over a Pakistani woman in the parking lot of a shopping mall and followed her into a store and threatened to kill her for “destroying my country.” And a man in a ski mask in Gary, IN fired an assault rifle at the gas station where Hassan Awdah, a U.S. citizen born in Yemen, was working. And 19-year-old Colin Zaremba said, “I’m proud to be American and I hate Arabs and I always have,” as he marched with a crowd of 300 to a mosque in the suburbs of Chicago. And in Australia, a school bus carrying Muslim children was stoned, and vandals tried to set fire to a Lebanese church.

And I thought it couldn’t get any worse.

But then people began to talk of retaliation, about punishment, about a possible ground war, about the “nuclear option.” They started talking about how the American people have to be prepared for many “difficult” things, such as heavy casualties among our American troops.

I thought it couldn’t get any worse. I was wrong. It can always get worse. And it most certainly will get worse, if this act of violence and terror makes us forget the values of love and reason.

Consider this my personal plea to you, to everyone:

Don’t make it worse than it already is.

The Uplift War

Title: The Uplift War
Author: David Brin
Published: 1987

I would never recommend The Uplift War to my friends who are skeptical about science fiction. It has too many conventions peculiar to the genre. There are aliens of many races, psychic powers, galactic empires, robots, ray guns and spaceships that travel faster than light. It’s all a bit much in a single book if you’ve never read science fiction before.

Furthermore, this is not an easy read. The pages are peppered with made-up alien words like lurrunanu and tu’fluk. There’s also a sprinkling of obscure English words, such as covinous and antelucan, which revealed the inadequacy of my dictionary. As much as I enjoyed expanding my vocabulary, these terms seem awkward and gratuitous here.

In fact, I found Brin’s prose style to be quite difficult, but not particularly beautiful or rewarding. Some passages are absolutely painful, such as when the author describes a wall as “the barrier that undulated complacently over the countryside like a net settled firmly over their lives.”

If that doesn’t bother you, and if you’re already a fan of the science fiction genre, then you might enjoy this book. The tone is light and at times humorous. The alien psychologies are compelling and are probably the best thing here. And of course there’s the concept of Uplift itself — the idea that one species can raise another to sentience. This is a huge idea, and I can readily understand how Brin has milked so many novels out of it.

Brin is a scientist, and there are a number of thought-provoking speculations here. Unfortunately they are spread a bit thin over 600+ pages. The emphasis is definitely on action and fun.

A note of warning to would-be readers: The Uplift War stands on its own, but early on you will encounter some intriguing references to a spaceship piloted by dolphins that has made a mysterious discovery of galactic significance. Don’t expect to find this mystery revealed in The Uplift War. You’ll have to read Startide Rising if you really want to know.

[Crossposted to Amazon]

Traffic

CONTAINS SPOILERS

I saw Traffic on cable last night, and I can’t remember when I’ve hated and loved the same movie so much.

What I liked: This was a serious movie dealing with an important topic, a topic that always fascinates me. It attempts to depict the complexity of the situation and the fruitlessness of America’s War on Drugs. The brutality of organized crime, the corrupting influence of the drug trade, and the impossibility of effective interdiction… It’s all there.

Toward the end, when Michael Douglass as the US drug czar has a crisis of confidence at a press conference, he sums it up very nicely by saying something like: “The War on Drugs is a war on our own family members, and I can’t do that.” Then he just walks away, quitting his job. Very unrealistic, but a point nicely made.

The film also indicates (correctly) that our drug policies are weak on treatment, focusing instead on interdiction. Why do we focus on the supply from outside of our borders instead of on demand from inside our borders.

What I disliked: The scene where Douglass’ (white) daughter gets fucked (literally) and hooked up on smack by her (black) drug-dealer boyfriend really made me wanna puke. I really felt the movie fell down in the depiction of drug use. In a way, it was cool that they primarily showed privileged upper class white kids using drugs, as that really dramatizes the quandry. But all the film’s depictions of illicit drug use are so extremely abusive in nature — I feel this misrepresents things. It’s my understanding that the majority of cocaine use (cocaine being the big focus in this movie) is fairly benign and casual, just like the majority of alcohol use. Addiction is a serious issue, but it’s also something that happens to a minority of users. Thus, again, the absurdity of the drug war. Traffic seems to reinforce the idea that drugs really are destroying this nation’s youth, which I think is an overblown myth.

Other gripes: Douglass asks who has his job in Mexico, and seems shocked when told there is no analagous position — yet. But that shouldn’t be a shock. The “drug czar” position is a very weird and uniquely American appointment, and Douglass would have to know this. The drug czar has little power, anyhow; I believe he’s more of a figurehead, who’s merely supposed to coordinate the efforts of the various gov’t anti-drug forces.

Also, many of the questions posed by the film (like why we focus on interdiction so much) are unanswered, even though the answers are not that hard to find.

Of course, if Traffic gets people to think, to ask questions, then so much the better.

Suomi

Here’s a brief recap of my trip to Finland:

I went to a conference in Tampere, Finland. It was ED-MEDIA 2001, and since it relates to my field (educational media) the university paid my way — good thing, cuz summer flights to Norden are expensive!

(Norden is a Swedish word for the Nordic region of the world. You might wonder why I don’t just say Scandinavia. Well, Scandinavia may or may not include Finland, depending on context, Finland being different from the Scandinavian countries in a few important ways. So Norden is a better word.)

The conference was good, over 1,000 people from all over the world. An inordinate number of Australians, I thought.

(I expected to see more Linux at the University of Tampere, since Linus Torvalds is Finnish. But it was all Windows. And many people brought Mac laptops for their presentations. But I digress.)

(As long as I’m digressing, I might add a word of warning about Swordfish, in theaters now. If you go and see this film, which I don’t recommend, you might as well leave after the first ten minutes. It’s all downhill from there. However, that first sequence is spectacular, and almost worth the price of a matinee admission, if you can persuade yourself to get up and leave after the big explosion. Otherwise, you will find your intelligence insulted most egregiously.)

(Oh, and the connection would be? In the film, there’s a hacker from Finland named Axel Torvalds.)

Tampere was fun too (I’d been there once before) especially because it didn’t really get dark at all. It’s not quite as far north as I used to live in Sweden, so I think it probably did get dark sometime around 2:00 AM. But I was asleep, so I missed it. I had to sleep with a blindfold to shut out the light.

I stayed at a hostel run by the YWCA and I met a Spanish guy who used to study in Tampere. He showed me around to a couple of cool bars. I’d have thought he’d know Finnish, but no; apparently many courses at the University are taught in English, so he never learned the language. I can’t imagine that.

Did you know there are only 21 letters in the Finnish alphabet? And they even have two letters we don’t have: ä and ö. Also there are no gender distinctions in Finnish. Not surprising, I suppose, that they have a female president. But the language is exceedingly difficult, nothing at all like the other Nordic languages. In fact, it’s not even Indo-European. It’s Uralic. So most Finnish words are completely unrecognizable to me.

Suomi is the Finnish word for Finland. Weird, huh?

The closest relative language is Estonian. Estonia is right across the Gulf of Finland to the south. It’s a popular vacation destination for Finns.

I also visited the world’s only continuously operating Lenin museum. Do you know where Lenin met Stalin? Do you know where Lenin hid out when he was on the lam from Tsarist forces? Tampere, Finland! In fact, Tampere was the capital of Red Finland during the Finnish Civil War. I hadn’t even known there was an (attempted) communist revolution in Finland.

After the conference I took the train back to Helsinki to meet Päivi. She lived with my family in Greenwood, Indiana back in the early 80s. I met her and her family when I was living in Sweden — they took me to visit Moscow. But that was in 1985. I don’t think I or anyone in my family had communicated with Päivi for 15 years.

She’s an architect now. Married, no kids yet, but working on it. She and her husband just bought a house before I arrived, but they haven’t moved in yet.

Pävi and I both remarked on how very natural and easy it was to get reaquainted. After so much time, it was strange that we could just sit down and talk, almost as if no time had passed at all, though we certainly had a lot to catch up on.

We also got together with Päivi’s family. To me it seemed that her parents, Erkki and Raili, hadn’t changed at all since I last saw them. In fact, they reminded me a lot of my own parents.

We all (including Päivi’s sister Marja, who had just returned from a year in Los Angeles) went out to their summer cottage, which is in the forest not far from Helsinki. It reminded me very much of Door County, Wisconsin.

After the weekend, I spent Monday bumming around Helsinki. Beautiful city. If you’ve never been to Norden, I highly recommend it. Everything is clean and modern; the people are beautiful; with the strong dollar things aren’t too expensive. In the summer, it’s pleasantly warm and sunny. Almost everyone understands English. But most impressive of all is the way they have their whole society set up. Little crime. Almost no poverty. Universal health care. Universal retirement pensions. They say because of the harsh climate people have been forced to help each other more.

I swear, if it wasn’t for the fucking winters, I’d seriously consider trying to immigrate. Probably to Sweden, since I know the language. Finnish is too damn hard. Did I mention they have no articles? Apparently they have prepositions, but they also have postpositions. And nouns have fifteen cases!

Maybe I’ll have a chance later to describe my trip to the Scottish highlands.

Update: I’ve scanned and posted photos from this trip.

July 7, 2001

London — The overnight sleeper train was expensive but definitely worth it. Trains and planes are the way to go — fuck a bus, except for getting around a city.

It’s around 8:00 AM, foggy and damp. I’m in Regent’s Park, making my way to Leinster Square the slow way — by walking. Leinster Square is where I’m staying tonight, so I’m in no rush.

Navigating through London, especially on foot as opposed to public transit, is a fun puzzle in itself. London streets make the warped grid of New Orleans look almost sane by comparison. I bought a detailed street map — it’s a 300-page book.

Gotta start looking for a place to take a crap…

Ah… free, quasi-sanitary public restrooms. Xy would appreciate this. Not to mention the elaborate flower gardens.

July 6, 2001

Edinburgh — I’m sitting on a bench on a hill in a park looking across a small valley at the most incredible array of stone buildings. When I got off the bus here three days ago, the site of Edinburgh made up for the eight-hour overnight ride, which sucked big-time.

But I haven’t spent the last three days in Edinburgh. I’ve been barreling around the Highlands on a bus tour. Saw Loch Ness, the William Wallace Memorial, Glencoe, the site of the battle where Robert the Bruce defeated the English, the site of the battle where the Jacobite Rebellion was crushed, the castle filmed in Highlander, some neolithic ruins, and lots of astonishingly beautiful scenery. Stayed at two hostels; the one on Skye was pretty shabby but the one at Ft. Augustine rocked. We took a walk up to Loch Ness and met a member of the local fire brigade. They were practicing for a rowing contest to be held the next day; their handmade craft was labeled FART which stands for Fort Augustine Rowing Team.

I didn’t take a camera on this part of the journey — mailed it home from Helsinki — but I don’t think I could have captured the expansive grandeur of the Highlands.

I really wish Xy could have been along to see it. I was the only singleton on the bus, and though everyone was nice enough, I was a little lonely sometimes. But moreover, I think Xy would love Scotland, so maybe I can manage to drag her here someday.

It’s been cold and misty most of my time here. I bought a sweater in Portree which is keeping me warm and toasty now.

But Glencoe was so amazing — I expected Gandalf or someone to come walking down the mountainside.

Back to these buildings in Edinburgh: They’re dark, heavy, Gothic, oppressive even — especially with the thick fog.


Later: Ate at a French restaurant I found by chance. Had duck in a raspberry sauce the way it should be prepared — made me realize just how bad the duck at Court of Two Sisters really was.

July 3, 2001

Helsinki — I’ve been riding one of the public bikes around the city this morning. You put in a ten-mark coin as a deposit, which unlocks the bike. Then you ride around wherever you want, with your coin wedged in its slot in your handlebars. When you return it to any of the public bike racks, which are located all over, you insert the lock back into the handlebars and retrieve your deposit.

The bikes themselves are kind of clumsy, with only one speed and spongy tubeless tires that can never go flat — all designed for very low maintenance. One size fits all, which means that my bike is too small for me, and the distinctive design and garish day-glo colors make you very conspicuous. But still it’s a pretty cool idea.


Later, on the bus to the airport: The couple behind me is having an incredible knock-down drag-out. She’s Thai; he’s a Finn. They’re speaking in heavily accented English. It’s the kind of fight where you say “How did I get stuck with such a stupid person like you?” and “Just leave me alone — I don’t need you anymore.”

June 30, 2001

In the Finnish countryside: I wasn’t sure what it would be like to see Päivi again after 15 years, but very quickly we were talking as if no time had passed at all. It seems odd that it could be so very natural, but so it was. We sat on the porch of her apartment outside Helsinki eating salmon and salad and drinking wine and talking about what had happened over all this time until late at night — although of course it never really got dark.

That was yesterday. Tonight, Saturday, I’m sitting in bed in a guest room of the very charming summer cottage which belongs to Päivi’s parents. It’s in the forest some hours outside Helsinki. Raili told me that this house was actually the first thing Päivi designed as an architect, though she’d asked her mother not to tell me. Neither Raili nor Erkki seem to have changed at all since I met them in 1985. Marja is also here — She seems to have changed very little, though she’s only just returned from UCLA and is suffering jet lag so it’s hard to know. But she looks very much the same.

June 27, 2001

Tampere: So much modern “International Style” architecture in America is so ugly. There is a lot of this sort of architecture in Tampere, and some of it is just as ugly, but somehow much of it is not. Why? What’s the difference?

As I write this I’m sitting at the foot of yet another church, Kalevan Kirkko. It’s very strange, very tall, very modern — hardly looks like a church at all.


Nobody locks their bikes here — and there are many, many bikes. The city is small and clean but very cosmopolitan. Almost everyone speaks English, but what’s amazing is how many people speak it so well. They must get lots of practice. And of course the Nordic system of social welfare, with universal healthcare, no poverty, and virtually no crime, all adds up to make this seem very close to paradise.

Except that the sun is too damn small in the sky. It’s really unnerving.


A Spaniard’s been rooming with me the last two nights at the hostel. I never quite caught his name. He used to be a student at the university here, but he doesn’t know Finnish. I thought that was strange. Apparently many courses are taught in English.

Last night we went out for beer to a nice pub where we sat outside just above the river and talked about public radio (and how NPR isn’t very “public” by European standards) and access TV, religion, race politics, anarchism, and many other things. After a couple of beers we relocated to a place called Café Europa, filled with antique sofas and armchairs around low tables with candles. I’ve never seen anything quite so cool. I had a Monty Python’s Holy Grail Ale, and we talked some more. When we got back to the hostel, it was past midnight, but the sky was still bright although the sun was below the horizon.

June 26, 2001

Tampere: Damn I’m tired — combination of jet lag, three nights of inadequate sleep, and the fatigue of travel, the stress of being in a foreign country. Also the memories evoked by being in Scandinavia again are mildly confusing, though mostly pleasant.

I’m sitting on a bench in a public square in Tampere, in front of the Greek Orthodox cathedral. Soaking in the 17:00 sun. It looks almost like high noon, but the sun is smaller than I’m used to seeing it. Won’t be dark for another six or seven hours.

It’s warm, almost hot. I’ve seen a couple women lying on blankets in bikinis, here at the square and at a nearby park. Last night it seemed as though the entire town was out by the river, enjoying the sunlight and the mild weather.

I hope I can sleep tonight. I’m going to try making a blindfold of my bandanna.

Things that went wrong on the way here: A storm kept us in a holding pattern some distance from Newark. Finally we landed — in Baltimore. After an hour or so they stuck 15 kids on our plane, a tour group bound for Rome. But then word came that Newark would not be holding the flight to Rome, so they unloaded the kids, and their baggage. When we got back in the air, we were put in a holding pattern again, and when we eventually did land at Newark, we couldn’t get to the gate. The people in front of me watched in frustration as their plane for Portugal was boarded, taxied down the runway, and took off without them. They chewed out the flight attendant, and I castigated them for whining too much. (They were in their mid-fifties at least; “I thought my generation was supposed to do all the whining.) When we got off the plane, Newark Airport was in chaos, as both arrivals and departures had been canceled or delayed for hours because of the weather. I’d missed my flight to London. I was directed to stand in one line, then another. There were lots of lines, all insanely long, and nobody seemed to know if they were in the right line. The Continental reps seems as confused as the travelers, and more harried. One passenger, a Frenchman, tipped me off about the toll-free number for Continental’s customer service. I walked to a payphone, no line at all, and in mere minutes had my flight re-booked for the next day. However, I still had to stand in a long line to arrange for overnight accommodations. It took a couple hours before the bus arrived to take us to the hotel, and then there wasn’t room for even half of us. So we waited for the next bus, which still couldn’t accommodate the multitude of displaced Continental passengers, but I got a seat this time. The Airport Hilton was already overflowing, but it was only a 45 minute ride to the East Brunswick Hilton — or so we thought. After half an hour, the bus driver pulled over onto the shoulder of the highway and made a phone call. “She’s lost,” said the man sitting next to me, a videographer turned high school teacher from Alameda, California. “I bet she went the wrong direction on the highway.” Sure enough, thirty minutes later we were driving past the Newark Airport again. 45 minutes after that, we were at the hotel, but the driver missed two separate turnoffs and ended up in an inclined cul-de-sac. She had to back the bus up, uphill, and then the damn thing would shift into reverse. We finally checked into the hotel at around 1:00 AM. Many of us got booked into occupied rooms and had to return to the front desk, more than once in some cases. I got to sleep around 2:00 or 2:30, then got up at 6:00 to catch the 7:00 shuttle back to the airport. Unfortunately that bus also seemed to be ominously late in arriving. But this is when things began to pick up. Three passengers decided to hire a taxicab; they were looking for a fourth to share the cost and chose me at random form the mass of people waiting in front of the hotel. The cab driver informed us that he would not accept Continental vouchers for payment because “they simply don’t pay.” But we didn’t have any such vouchers anyway. My fellow travelers were all going to London on my flight, as it turned out: Jane, a jet-setting new age hippie from Boulder; Josie, a Filipino living in Buckinghamshire; and Zoe, a British geologist living in Utah and running very late for a conference in Edinburgh, Scotland, where she was presenting a paper on earthquakes.

After that, the rest of the trip went very smoothly.


After soaking in the sun and reflecting for an hour or so, I don’t feel tired at all.

Beep

AltaVista reveals the following word count on the Web:

beep:      625,434
beeep:      12,191 
beeeep:      2,962 
beeeeep:     1,264 
beeeeeep:      931 
beeeeeeep:     453 
beeeeeeeep:    866 
beeeeeeeeep:   273 
beeeeeeeeeep:  562 
beeeeeeeeeeep: 131

What I found most intriguing is the surprisingly low count for beeeeeeeeep (9 E’s). I can’t imagine why this is the case.

So I repeated the search with variants of the word “bleep” and got these results:

bleep:     51,388 
bleeep:       328 
bleeeep:      170 
bleeeeep:      95 
bleeeeeep:     48 
bleeeeeeep:    36 
bleeeeeeeep:   19 
bleeeeeeeeep:  33 
bleeeeeeeeeep: 14 
bleeeeeeeeeeep: 7 

Look at that — there’s a SPIKE at the 9 E variant!!!

What could possibly account for this?

More Fungus

I’ve been getting a lot of questions regarding my last post. I’ll try to answer them here.

It’s been incredibly frustrating trying to find specific information. I don’t even know its common name, much less the scientific one. People just call it “the fungus.” Most people don’t seem to know much about it, or even care — except for the people who actually grow the stuff, but they contradict one another wildly.

In fact, Dortmund (a German guy who’s pretty big into the whole scene here) assures me that it isn’t even really a fungus at all. But he won’t be more specific.

It is usually edible, even the glowing parts. I’ve heard that it might be mildly toxic, but that you’d have to eat a truckload to get sick. Dortmund, on the other hand, says that it’s not only non-toxic, it’s actually nutritious. He claims to eat nothing but. And he looks pretty healthy. He says that this stuff was the original and only food of humankind, before we were corrupted by the plow.

But I’m not sure I can trust Dortmund. He seems a little unstable — he’s homeless — but he can grow fungus like nobody’s business. He helped me with my first batch, showed me how to rig up the swabs and how to fix the poles on our decaying rooftop. You have to stay up with the poles all night and sway them back and forth through the night air. Dortmund spent the whole night with me on the roof, laughing at odd intervals and telling me jokes in German, and I swear you could actually see the spores accumulating on the swab. (Not really, but it seemed that way.) Those were the spores that gave me that first spectacular batch, and I’ve often wondered if Dortmund’s influence had something to do with it. He continues to drift on from rooftop to rooftop, and fantastic growth seems to follow him wherever he goes.

Meanwhile I bumble on. I’ve spent many a sleepless night up on the roof, swaying the poles; I’ve spent a fortune on growth medium; and no results. I’m beginning to suspect that I’ve been played the fool.

Fungus

There’s a variety of fungus that people cultivate down here in little rooftop gardens. I’ve really never seen anything quite like it. They only grow at night, and very quickly too, so that they complete their entire life cycle in just a few hours.

There’s a whole subculture surrounding these things, which is how I first found out about them. People have rooftop parties where they get together, watch the fungus “bloom” and then carve it up and eat it. They’re not hallucinogenic (I know, some people are probably wondering “then what’s the point?”) or if they are it’s very subtle. The main focus is more on the social aspect of just getting together and having a good time.

In fact, most people aren’t really interested in the fungi at all, which is a shame, because they are fascinating organisms. They grow to be almost three feet tall (in as many hours!) and they’re mostly dark orangish-red, dappled with darker-colored spots and lighter-colored knobs. But there’s an incredible variation from one specimen to the next. Occasionally I’ve seen ones that glow faintly in the dark. They’re not shaped like mushrooms at all; they’re more like giant-size asparagus.

It took me a while to wheedle out information from the people who actually grow them. They’re an odd lot. It’s not that they’re secretive, exactly, but they seem to have a hard time expressing themselves. Or maybe I’m just dense. But they get into a quasi-mystical fervor whenever they talk about growing these things.

Eventually I gathered that key to the whole process is collecting the spores. The most common method is to use big swabs of damp cloth. These are mounted on long poles on the roof and left up all night. In the morning they’re taken down and the spores are extracted, if there are any. The whole process is kind of hit and miss.

I thought this was very strange.

Once the spores have been acquired, they have to be planted almost immediately or they’re no good. Only they’re not really planted like a seed would be; they’re placed in a “growth medium.” I’ve never really understood what this medium is, and I think different people might use different semi-secret formulations of their own. When I ask about it all I get is technical mumbo-jumbo about “polysaccharides” and “red algae” and (I’m not making this up) “sulfated galactose monomers.”

Whatever it is, the shit’s expensive. In fact, I’m embarrassed to admit how much I’ve spent over the last few weeks. The guy I’m buying it from is one of the more successful growers, and he says he’s giving me a discount.

What’s really frustrating is the lack of results. I did have an initial batch of spores that grew up nicely, just when I was getting started; I called up everyone I knew, and a bunch of people came out, and we had a nice little party. Xy & I were both pretty psyched. But since then, I’ve had almost no luck at all — just a few stunted things that look more like ordinary toadstools than anything else.

I’m getting tired of putting up the damn swabs every night, but I keep thinking of that first crop that was so beautiful. I just wonder if I could swing a better deal on the growth medium…

Mardi Gras

I wanted to let everybody know I survived my first Mardi Gras.

Carnival season begins here in New Orleans on the 6th day of January, also known as Twelfth Night because it’s the 12th night after Christmas. I believe it commemorates the visitation of the Magi.

I knew Carnival had begun when one of my co-workers brought a king cake to work. This is a large pastry decorated in Carnival colors — purple, gold and green. Hidden inside one slice of the cake is a small plastic baby. Whoever gets the slice with the baby has to buy the next cake.

What is Carnival anyway? It’s the season before Lent, that 40-day period of privation and fasting that begins on Ash Wednesday. Hundreds of years ago, people began celebrating the day before Ash Wednesday as a sort of last fling before Lent. This day became known as Mardi Gras, which literally means “Fat Tuesday.” I guess this single day of celebration eventually expanded to a whole season, known as Carnival.

Originally Carnival meant “farewell to the flesh.” It’s still celebrated in most Catholic countries, and New Orleans is definitely Catholic country.

The festivities really picked up about two weeks ago when the parades began. I’ve seen at least ten parades in that time — maybe more — I’ve lost count. These parades are kind of like the familiar Fourth of July parades we all know and love, except that they’re totally different. In fact I’m kind of at a loss for words.

Each parade is sponsored by a different social club (they’re called krewes) and travels a different route through the city. The Krewe of Bacchus brought their parade down our street, right in front of our apartment. The parades feature marching bands and elaborate floats. The riders in the floats (krewe members only) throw beads and other goodies to the crowd. XY caught a doubloon from the Bacchus Grand Marshall, Luke Perry! We also saw Britney Spears and Whoopi Goldberg.

Of course you don’t have to be Catholic to celebrate Carnival. Lots of people come from all over to celebrate. This year, there were estimated to be over 2 million visitors. The mayor announced yesterday that 1,230 TONS of trash had been collected!

I’ve never seen such madness. The city really does shut down and everybody joins the celebration. It’s so incredibly massive, and so much bigger than anything I’ve ever seen, that it was hard to remember that in most of the rest of the country, these were not special days at all.

Unfortunately I came down with a mild cold on Lundi Gras (that’s the day before Mardi Gras) so that put a bit of a damper on things. But since all the parades come within four blocks of our apartment, I was still able to get out easily and see the sights.

Mardi Gras has a somewhat tawdry reputation, which you may or may not be aware of. Lots of college students come here to drink heavily and take off their clothes. But that kind of behavior is largely confined to the French Quarter. For most of the people living here, it’s a family holiday. Kids love parades, after all.

I could go on and on, but duty calls. I’ve got flyers to design, CD-ROMs to burn, websites to update, and design documents to write! It’s back to business as usual.