Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Holiday Composition

Tonight we had a little family sushi dinner at Tachibana, and somehow got inspired to write a topical version of the Twelve Days of Christmas song. I'll just present the twelfth day:
The SUSHI Twelve Days of Christmas

Twelve Cups of Sake
Eleven Pairs of Chopsticks
Ten Zaru Soba
Nine Tuna Toro
Eight Pickled Ginger
Seven Edamame
Six Amaebi
Five Wasabi
Four Tempura Shrimp
Three Soy Sauce
Two Turtle Rolls
And a Big California Roll
Happy holidays, y'all!

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Stunningly Superficial

That's about the best summary of a TV "news" talking head I can imagine.

What's really impressive is that Scarborough doesn't get why he's being taken to task. He keeps saying that he reads the newspapers and Foreign Affairs, so obviously he knows what's going on.

It brings to mind a snippet of dialogue from the wonderful movie "A Fish Called Wanda":
Wanda: But you think you're an intellectual, don't you, ape?
Otto: Apes don't read philosophy.
Wanda: Yes they do, Otto, they just don't understand it! Let me correct you on a few things; Aristotle was not Belgian! The central message of Buddhism is not "Every man for himself!" And the London Underground is not a political movement! Those are all mistakes. I looked them up.
I think it's safe to say that Joe Scarborough is not an intellectual, either.

Update: Purely coincidental, but TBogg used that same exchange as the title of a post on a completely unrelated incident.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Presents for Feet

Did I mention that I got ski boots for Christmas? I have never bought a pair of new ski boots before. When I went skiing as a kid, I always had used boots, since they weren't going to last long on my growing feet, anyway. And as a teen, I think I had hand-me-downs.

So since we started skiing last winter, I've been renting boots (and skis) with only limited success. I have very ordinary feet, but somehow, the boots nearly always manage to be uncomfortable. And when the feet, ankles, shins, etc. are unhappy, the skier is unhappy.

My new boots are very nice. I wore them in the store for quite a while. I'm looking forward to trying them out this weekend! My only disappointment is the color. They come in red/black, which is not my favorite. But they're comfortable, and I don't plan to look at them very much.

Nice present. My wife loves me, and wants my feet to be happy.

All Things Must End

Still not much explanation for the whole thing, but the guy who was camped out in the Mexico City airport for the last few months is gone.

I still have nothing cogent to say about it, but I like to follow up when I can.

You're welcome.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Thanks, Dad

There's nothing quite like getting back to the car after a full day of skiing, only to find one of the tires completely flat. Now, one could call the auto club and wait for them to come and change the tire. But it's cold, and about to get dark, and really, I just want to go somewhere warm and have a beer.

So I changed the tire. And it's really not a big deal. Sure, there are better ways to end the day than lying on the cold ground getting the jack set under the car, but really, it's not a huge thing.

My dad could fix anything (and frequently did). I'm really glad he taught me some of those tricks, like changing tires. I realize there are other ways to deal with it, but now and then it's nice to recognize one's own self-sufficiency, even on such a mundane matter.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Not Important, But...

I really hate it when you're rushing to get dressed, and when it's too late to actually do anything about it, you realize that the jeans didn't quite get fully dry.

Just sayin'.

Totally Great News

After eight years where politics has trumped science at almost every turn, I am thrilled to see that President-elect Obama is about to appoint a Real Scientist as his science advisor.

I'm particularly thrilled because I know John Holdren a little bit. Back in my young days as an academic debater, I used to quote from professor Holdren on various science issues, mostly pertaining to climate change (yes, it was an issue even way back then!). And as a student in the Environmental Science program at Berkeley, I had to take a required upper-division course taught by him ("Quantitative Aspects of Global Environmental Problems"), which was one of the best classes I ever took, and still shapes my thinking on a lot of matters.

But professor Holdren himself really impressed me. And it wasn't just that he'd recently won a Macarthur "Genius Award" Fellowship or the campus Distinguished Teaching Award, or that he was on the board of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. What impressed me was that this very busy, very accomplished man had time, even when I was no longer in his course, to talk with me and advise me about an article I was writing.

So I can say from first-hand experience that John Holdren is a terrific choice to advise the new president about all kinds of matters of science and public policy. He is not only a brilliant and accomplished scientist, but also a student and teacher of science policy with a terrific ability to communicate complex information in ways that it can be understood by different audiences.

Obviously, there are still political battles to be fought, but I now have confidence that the side of science will have a tremendous advocate.

Update: Good profile from the NYT here. Good link at the bottom of it to an appearance on Letterman. Worth watching.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Sick, Sick People

No, I'm not talking about the virus that's been ransacking my family for the last couple of weeks.

I'm talking about some key people in the U.S. government for the last several years. Buried in an update to a long post by Digby on Dick Cheney is some material from Vanity Fair about the use of "intelligence" gleaned from torture:
“As soon as I learned that the reports had come from torture, once my anger had subsided I understood the damage it had done,” a Pentagon analyst says. “I was so angry, knowing that the higher-ups in the administration knew he was tortured, and that the information he was giving up was tainted by the torture, and that it became one reason to attack Iraq.

“We didn’t know he’d been waterboarded and tortured when we did that analysis, and the reports were marked as credible as they could be.” However, approval for Abu Zubaydah’s treatment had been given at the highest level.
We've been over this before (though not recently): not only is torture wrong, it doesn't work. At least, not in the sense that it provides accurate information. At some point, the victim of the torture just tells the interrogator what (s)he wants to hear. But some sick folks find that useful:
“The White House knew he’d been tortured. I didn’t, though I was supposed to be evaluating that intelligence,” the analyst says. “It seems to me they were using torture to achieve a political objective. I cannot believe that the president and vice president did not know who was being waterboarded and what was being given up.”
So there it is: I thought it was bad that they lied about the intelligence to justify invading Iraq, but it's actually worse. They tortured people to generate the "intelligence" they wanted to justify starting a war that resulted in hundreds of thousands of deaths, millions displaced, turmoil in the region and the loss of international respect for the country.

It's just stunning what these folks have been up to in our name. As the apologists keep making the rounds on their "Bush legacy" tour, we need to remember that this is the legacy we inherit and will have to work to live down.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Public Service? Whassat?

Buried down at the end of an article about the foreclosure mess in today's NYT:
In the meantime, homeowners are unlikely to see any new policy unveiled soon.

“It’s become clear that if you stick your head up, it’ll get cut off,” said one White House official. “We’re done in two months. The next administration can try to find a way out of that maze.”
Sheesh. I'm really, really hoping that the incoming administration has something more of a public-service ethic about them. Did I say "more"? How about any?

Hat tip to Josh Marshall at TPM; "Profiles in Courage," indeed.

P.S. Still ridiculously busy, but hoping for a long, curmudgeonly post soon!

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Guilty Pleasures

I admit it: crab for Thanksgiving sounds pretty great!

Thanksgiving Alternatives

Amusingly written, and I thought it sounded tasty:
And if you’re going in with pork, you might as well go all in. The December issue of Food & Wine features a dish so trayf it could be served at the dinner reception for a Holocaust-denial conference in Teheran: bacon-crusted pork loin roast.
I actually like turkey. Go figure. Be he had me at bacon-crusted.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Racing Toward Extinction

I was terribly bored at lunch, so I was perusing the entertainment portion of the Sunday paper that was still sitting on the table. As I skimmed, I saw by chance a review of a new CD by Dido, and it wasn't the review per se that caught my eye, but the description of the industry approach to reviewers:
Because record companies no longer send out advance albums because they're convinced that all music critics moonlight as pirates with CD pressing plants in their backyards, we attempted to download the new Dido album from several rogue Web sites based in Russia, only to wind up with a desktop full of naughty videos (thanks for that!) and nasty viruses (not so much!).
Now, I know that the recording industry has been trying to kill online music for a long time, claiming that their old business model was the only one that would work. But now it appears they are trying to tick off all the reviewers who drove sales of their old model. Brilliant: Driving the reviewers to the pirates so they can hear the music they review!

They're doomed, and they don't even know why.

BTW, the review of the new Guns N' Roses CD on the same page was pretty funny. I suppose a review that starts out with "Axl Rose is an idiot." can't really end well for Rose.

It's a Nice Food Court, But Really...

I flew through Mexico City last summer, and had about a 4-hour layover in the airport, a part of which I spent in the food court, which was quite large and varied. But it never occurred to me to take up residence:
For reasons he can't explain, the Japanese man has been in Terminal 1 of the Benito Juarez International Airport since Sept. 2, surviving off donations from fast-food restaurants and passengers and sleeping in a chair.
Odd. Very odd. I've never been to Japan, but I can't imagine that life in the airport terminal is actually preferable to going home.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Memories of Past Geekdom

Oh, how old I feel!

A friend just pointed out that we're observing the 25th anniversary of the release of Turbo Pascal 1.0. I didn't actually buy it until it was at version 2.0 (for my CP/M system), but I used that (and succeeding versions) a lot.

Anyway, here is a blog post with reminiscences from Turbo Pascal's creator, Ander Hejlsberg. I had the good fortune to work with Anders and the Turbo Pascal team at Borland International back in the 1990s, on Turbo Pascal 6.0 onward through its migration to Windows and eventual morphing into the underpinnings of the fabulous product Delphi. As the technical writer for the TP team, I was told my job was to get inside Anders' brain and translate it for the rest of the world. That was a cool experience!

Anders may be the best programmer I've ever worked with; he's certainly the most proficient assembly-language programmer I've ever encountered. And he had a tremendous knack for knowing the right features to add to a product for the market.

Sadly, Anders went over to the dark side shortly after I left Borland (completely unrelated events!). He's done some amazing work on products there. Although his work is now in more customers' hands, he will probably never again have the same kind of influence over an entire generation of software developers that he had with Pascal and Delphi.

It's an amazing experience to be part of a team that works so well together on a product that is so important and influential. The Turbo Pascal team was tiny (about ten of us worked on TP 6, including doc, QA, and management), but always produced great stuff, usually on time, and was consistently profitable. I certainly owe most of my later success to the valuable lessons I learned while working at Borland.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Only a Miracle Can Save the Bears...

Indeed. This still brings tears to my eyes.

Yeah. I was there. Go Bears!!!

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Speaking of Responsibility

First Mr. Greenspan discovers that there is greed messing up his perfect little free-market view of the economy. And now we're supposed to feel sorry for Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, who has to clean up this big ol' economic mess that has been foisted upon him.

From today's Washington Post:
In reflecting on his term, which comes to an end in January, Paulson said his biggest regret was not seeing the extent of the financial crisis as it developed. ... "We were always behind. We saw the problem, but it took us a while to see the severity of the problem," he said. "But even if we had been more clairvoyant, we wouldn't have been able to do much differently that what we have done."
Well, excuse me, but boo-hoo.

As Dean Baker points out:

The point is extremely simple. There was a huge housing bubble that should have been visible to any competent economic analyst. The bubble was fueled by an enormous chain of highly leveraged finance. (As head of Goldman Sachs, Mr. Paulson personally made hundreds of millions of dollars from this bubble.)

It was entirely predictable that the housing bubble would burst and that its collapse would have a huge impact on the financial system and the economy as a whole. There is zero excuse for Paulson being caught by surprise by a "storm" that he helped create.
Can't put it much more succinctly than that. Not only does Paulson personally and professionally bear responsibility for creating the situation in the first place, he has also been in a position to do something about it for some two-and-a-half years. Now we're supposed to believe this all came as a surprise to him?

Here's a hint, Henry: If you want to see where this economic crisis came from, or maybe see some of Mr. Greenspan's newly-discovered greed, just look in a mirror.

I am so ready for this pack of rats to be run out of town. Even if the next bunch is bad (and I don't see how they can be nearly as bad), it will at least be fresh rats. Oy.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Sad Passing

I was sad to read today of the passing of Pete Newell. Although the story mentions that he had cancer a few years ago, I don't know that it's accurate to say he died of it.

I know of Newell primarily because of his affiliation with my alma mater, where he was the most successful basketball coach in school history. But what really impresses me about Pete Newell is that he was known, loved, and respected by people in his field the world over.

Perhaps most important, I respect that he was able to walk away from a wildly successful coaching career to become sort of a wandering teacher and ambassador for the game. His ability to serve as mentor to players and coaches and entire programs speaks volumes about the kind of man he was.

Pete Newell will be much missed, but his legacy will last a long, long time.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Terry Jones on the Economy and Responsibility

Ran into this column by Terry Jones (formerly of Monty Python) yesterday. Like all the Pythons, Jones is very well educated and quite thoughtful. I found his comments on Alan Greenspan quite refreshing; one rarely hears such forthright analysis in the U.S.

Greenspan apparently just discovered the concept of greed:

When a member of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee recently asked Greenspan if he had discovered that his "view of the world" or his "ideology" about an unregulated financial market was "not right … was not working", Greenspan replied: "Absolutely! Precisely! … That's precisely the reason I was shocked …"

That would be the equivalent of my surgeon saying he'd suddenly realised that he ought to have been using anaesthetic all these years. "I wondered why my patients kept screaming and writhing around," he would have said.

Of course, Greenspan claims that the problem is not with financial instruments (such as "derivatives") themselves but with the fact that the dealers got too greedy. Those peddling derivatives, he suggested in a recent speech, were not as reliable as "the pharmacist who fills the prescription ordered by our physician".

So the chairman of the Federal Reserve – under the last four presidents – has been working on the premise that there are no greedy or unscrupulous people who would care to get mixed up in a market that was last valued at $531 trillion.

And Jones points out some of the issues with reliance on "experts" like Greenspan:

And yet one can't help feeling sorry for Greenspan. There is he is: 82 years of age, having to look back on a career that has been based on a totally false ideology, that has ended up by plunging the world's economy into chaos and that has caused the collapse of the system he dedicated his professional life to propagating. He must feel pretty choked.

Perhaps the only crumb of comfort he can take from it all is that he won't suffer any financial hardship as the result of his mistakes.
Indeed, one of the stunning aspects of modern society is that there seems to be no sense of responsibility or consequences. Experts and politicians advocate positions that turn out disastrously, yet we keep turning to those same people. Pundits, columnists, consultants all seem to live in a world where it doesn't actually matter how things turn out. They will still be invited back or hired by someone else.

Here's an odd notion: actions have consequences, but so do opinions. We need to hold people accountable for the ideas they advocate and the outcomes of policies. It strikes me that a big part of the problem is ideology trumping analysis. Greenspan got blindsided by his belief in free market economics as espoused by Milton Friedman. And people who wanted to believe that free markets worked were happy to have Greenspan confirm their conviction.

Lots more examples available, but you probably get the point. It's more important to examine the truth and consequences of ideas than it is to hang onto what seems comfortable.


Tuesday, November 04, 2008

My Mother's World

I voted for Barack Obama this morning.

No big surprise there for those who know me. But I lay awake this morning in the predawn hours thinking about the election and the many that have preceded it, and realized that this one really is something special.

For me, elections are all about my mom. Some of my earliest memories involve her taking me with her to vote. In our precinct, the polling place was almost always in the multipurpose room at the elementary school on our block. Later on, that would be my school, and I would use that room for lots of other things: glee club, band practice, concerts, talent shows, hot-dog lunches, tumbling class, rainy-day recess. Truly, it lived up to its name. But to me, the room always looked wrong without the red-, white-, and blue-striped voting booths around the sides.

I got it drilled into me very early that voting is not optional. Mom truly voted religiously. It's not like church where lots of people go only on the big holidays. If there was an election, even if it's "just" a runoff or a local primary or something small, you vote. And you don't just show up and cast a ballot, you learn the issues and cast an informed vote, even if that just meant you read the ballot pamphlet and recognized the arguments for or against a proposition and learned to recognize which supporters or opponents were out there grinding the same tired axes again.

But most of the time, we had a horse in the race. It might be a local bond measure or a slate of right-minded school board candidates or a proposition of local or statewide import, but there was pretty much always some cause we were either supporting or opposing. So election day wasn't just a one-day event. It was the culmination of a campaign that we had probably been involved in before it was even a campaign.

I learned early and personally of the dangers of single-issue politics. I recall vividly when a group won the majority on our local school board running on a platform of "neighborhood schools," which I now understand to have been a euphemism for segregation, couched in terms of not busing children to schools away from their homes. So they won, and they gutted the district's very successful integration program. Unfortunately, they had no particular interest or skill in actually running a school district, and the quality of education went down for all (but at least we didn't have to ride buses to our declining schools!).

And somewhere along the line, I realized that although there were ebbs and flows and issues that came and went, there are underlying themes to politics that transcend some of the apparent issues, and these core values are really the bedrock of my political beliefs.

Interestingly, both of my parents came from very conservative (in the old sense) backgrounds. But my mom came to realize that there were some social institutions that needed changing, and she was particularly moved by the civil rights movement. Her sense of fairness and equality was one of the things that came through loud and clear. I knew who Martin Luther King was and why he was important from a very early age.

So seeing Barack Obama on the threshold of the highest elected office in the land holds a particular poignancy for me. In so many ways, this represents the culmination of what my mother has worked very hard for most of her life and all of my life. So much has changed in her 80+ years, not all of it for the better, but I hope she takes particular satisfaction in today's election. I know I do.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

What Happens in Vegas?

I'm in Las Vegas for a trade show. It's been about 15 years since I was here for another trade show (back when COMDEX was the largest trade show in the world, and could only be held in Vegas because it had the biggest convention facilities and enough hotel space). Oddly enough, I still don't like Las Vegas.

I keep thinking of all the advertisements about "What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas." As near as I can tell, what happens here is a lot of littering. As one walks around The Strip and the convention center (or between the two), one sees seemingly endless stands which in any other town would hold newspapers and real-estate advertisements. Here, they contain advertisements for GIRLS.

I have no idea how many of these are actually used for girl shopping. But a huge number of them end up lying on the sidewalk and in the gutter. Just paper trash, blowing in the wind, getting trampled. All day, every day.

Yuck. I can't wait to go home.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Growing Older But Not Up

The busy musical week continued last night with a Jimmy Buffett concert at Shoreline Amphitheatre. I don't like having to drive all the way down to Shoreline for a show, but it's always worth it to see Jimmy. [Though I must say that ticket prices are getting way out of hand; for mediocre seats in the back of the bowl, we paid something like $130 dollars plus the "convenience fee."]

Having just been to the Tower of Power 40th anniversary concert last weekend, it was fun to hear Jimmy thanking us for giving him a summer job for the last forty years. Nice way to rub in that we're all getting a bit older!

But as I've noted before, these "old" bands I like so much put on much better shows than most of the newer artists I've paid to hear.

One definite highlight was Jimmy's rendition of "Fruitcakes," a song he recorded about fifteen years ago (there's a line about "We're seven years from the millenium..."). Not only did he update some of the lyrics for the passage of time, but he filled the song with local references to the bay area. I couldn't tell whether he was reading those lyrics, but it didn't seem like it. It's remarkable to me that an artist could rework one of his old songs like that, more-or-less on the spot, and have it come out so well.

Another highlight came right after the intermission, when one of the members of the Coral Reefer Band, Mac McAnally, sang one of his older tunes that he says keeps coming to mind during this election year, called "The Ass and the Hole." It's pretty funny.

I guess another sign that we're getting older is that one of my friends brought his 10-year-old daughter to her first Buffett concert: our first parakeet! My daughter hasn't shown the interest in either Jimmy or concerts, so she might miss out.

Meanwhile, I'm happy to shell out a few bucks to keep Jimmy employed and entertaining me every summer. There are certainly worse ways to spend it.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Bump City

Last night was the roughly-annual Tower of Power concert at the Fillmore Auditorium in San Francisco. I always enjoy it because a) I love T.O.P. and find that they're still making great music after all these years, and b) the Fillmore is a cool and historic place to see a show.

This year there were two additional highlights: a group of friends in attendance and a Very Special Show.

After I showed up at a function for my daughter's school wearing a Tower of Power t-shirt, I got lots of comments from other parents about how much they liked the band and so on. So I agreed to alert everyone the next time they played locally. So we had three other families as well as a long-time friend and former coworker who is a big fan, and we all met for dinner in Japantown before the show and went over together.

It was during dinner that I got my first inkling of what a special show it was to be. I knew the band was observing its 40th anniversary, and that tickets were priced therefore at $40. What I didn't realize was that it was going to be a huge band reunion, with a whole bunch of former band members joining in for anything ranging from one number to whole sets and even much of the show. Accordingly, they played tunes from various eras of the band's history, including many that we hadn't heard live in a long time, if ever.

Probably the best moment came at the end, after more than three hours of playing, during the encore, when they brought out even more former bandsmen and performed "You're Still a Young Man" with something like a 15-piece horn section (it's usually five), and brought out several great soloists for "What is Hip?"

It was all fabulous. And best of all, it was all being filmed for a high-definition DVD to be released next year, so I can relive the show long into the future. Life is good.

Monday, October 13, 2008

The New Academy

Yesterday we went to the new California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco. The academy itself isn't new, rather they've just had the grand opening of the new facility, which is in the location of the old facility, which they rebuilt while they were in an interim facility. Clear now?

Anyway, this was my first chance to see the new digs, as they opened while we were in Indonesia. My daughter and niece had gone to a pre-grand opening session (since we're members), so they had seen all the cool new stuff. But my wife and I were seeing it all for the first time, and surprisingly enough, I thought it lived up to the hype.

The facility is lovely. The green roof gets a lot of attention, but the whole thing just fits nicely into the space (much better than, say, the big ol' tower they tacked onto the DeYoung Museum across the concourse...). The exhibits are very modern, and traffic flows through them very well. This is a good thing, because all the hoopla has drawn tremendous crowds.

We didn't get to see everything, because it was too crowded. So we missed the new rainforest exhibit, which looks quite spectacular from outside (it's in a big glass sphere). Conceptually, it reminds me of the one at the National Aquarium in Baltimore. We also didn't get to see the new planetarium. We spent quite a bit of time in the new global warming exhibit, which was quite good, and a LOT of time in the evolution area, which highlights research from the Galapagos (including lots of marine stuff, which had obvious appeal) and Madagascar. There was plenty of interest for the adults and the child as well. And we went through the renovated African Hall fairly quickly, spending most time watching the penguins in their nice new habitat. They really seem to like all the attention.

But we most wanted to see the new Steinhart Aquarium. My wife and I both have great fondness for Steinhart from many visits as children. She also took fish classes there years ago. Needless to say, it is very different from its old incarnation, which was very old fashioned, very rectangular, and very much one tank after another.

The new exhibit flows in graceful curves (there are very few rectangular tanks, and most of those have shaped facades in front of them), and most of the exhibits are grouped thematically. Unfortunately, the traffic flows are not well thought out. There are dead ends and tight spots, which is completely unlike the flows upstairs in the exhibit halls. And once an hour the walls in the center gallery turn into a 360-degree immersive video thing about water. It's cool, but intrusive.

So I'm a little disappointed in the new aquarium. It's certainly nicer than the old one, and may grow on me when I get to see it with fewer people. All in all, it's nice to see the academy back where it belongs, in lovely Golden Gate Park. The facility had great promise, nice spaces, lots of old favorite exhibits spruced up and much improved. The cafeteria is quite nice, and the restaurant below it is getting great reviews.

I'm looking forward to many more visits. It's a terrific place.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Surreal Slips

Weirdness abounds in the world. I had just finished reading a post by Digby suggesting that John Roberts of CNN was pushing Republican talking points, when I saw a tiny item in a column in today's San Francisco Chronicle (boldface in original):
The Chronicle's Mike Lerseth was listening to CNN on Wednesday when John Roberts, introducing an election segment, referred to that morning's guest, Willie Brown, as "former San Francisco Mayor Willie Horton." In a mob of Willies - including Mays and McCovey - it does seem odd that Horton should be the one in the newsman's mind. (Brown had been talking about race playing a role in the presidential election.)
OK, that's just weird. For those who don't remember, Willie Horton was the scary, black bogeyman of the 1988 presidential election. Willie Brown is hardly scary (although he is African American), and he definitely dresses better than Horton. Something is obviously going on in Mr. Roberts' psyche that I really don't want to know about.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Say It Ain't So!


Bank failures, insurance collapse, stock market plummeting, all OK. But not this! Not the cookies from my childhood!

Iced raisin, oatmeal, circus animals....

Oh, it's just too much. So depressed....

Wednesday, October 08, 2008


One last post, while it's still International Cephalopod Appreciation and Awareness Day. I wish I'd known about it earlier.

And it was only after I got back from vacation that I realized I had again missed Talk Like a Pirate Day (again), which was especially galling this year because we were on a beautiful sailing ship that day.


Bear Blogging

In which my sister, normally gentle and kindhearted, decides that loud tourists deserve a different position in the food chain.

I'll see if she'll post the picture she took of the cinnamon bear. If not, maybe she'll let me post it. Beautiful animal!

UPDATE: Picture posted here.

Reality Impacting

Goodness. Hard to believe I've been home for a week. I keep having things I want to blog about, but I've been trying to catch up with all the blog entries I wrote while traveling without network access. I am now caught up on that.

And of course, there's been lots of work to catch up on, and our Granny Nanny is out of town, so we have to actually pretend we're real parents, too. Man, life is so unfair! But it's actually nice spending the extra time with our daughter, since we missed her so much while we were away.

As I predicted, I am not loving the fact that I'm back just in time for the last throes of the presidential election. One thing I should mention is some of the comments we got about the election from people in Indonesia.

First, just the fact that lots of people in Indonesia wanted to talk about it was interesting. They know a lot about the candidates, and not just because Barack Obama spent some of his formative years in Indonesia. To a person, they made it clear that they cared about our election because it matters to them. That's an amazing fact. Most Americans couldn't name the president of Indonesia, and frankly, it doesn't matter to most of us. But our president, our national policies, matter to them--a lot.

Second, there was a very strong perception among them that Obama will win. Some already refer to him as President Obama. There are two reasons for that: out of self-interest, they can't imagine that we would elect yet another disastrous president, but also because nearly every American they meet agrees with them.

One ex-pat put it this way: "Republicans don't travel." I corrected him, because they do travel, but I'm guessing not very many of them travel to Indonesia. Travel is so broadening, and challenges so many of our notions about ourselves, that it's hard to imagine someone visiting Indonesia, talking to Indonesians, and believing that the last eight years have been good for the world and that four or eight more years of similar policies would be a good idea.

So the Indonesians we met almost unanimously support Obama. A farmer we met in the hills of Bali was wearing an Obama campaign button pinned to his jeans. He was very proud, very interested, and very pleased to know that we were supporting Obama, too.

The world is watching, and they care very much what we do. Like the U.S., Indonesia is a country born of colonialism, and Indonesians look at our country in many ways as a model for what theirs can become. It seems clear to them who would be better for them as our president. Apparently the choice is not as clear to many Americans.

Interesting times.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Duke's on Sunday

Through the magic of the International Date Line, I find myself blogging again on Sunday, despite having flown a great long way overnight. I mean, we left Bali at 10:30 on Sunday night, and arrived in Honolulu at 5:40 on Sunday afternoon. Ah, well.

And as so often happens to me as I'm on a tropical island, I have a Jimmy Buffett tune bouncing through my brain. Entirely appropriate this time, as the tune in my head is "Duke's on Sunday," a tribute to the very beach we just walked past on our way to and from dinner. Duke's is named for Duke Kahanamoku, the Olympic gold-medal swimmer best known as the man who popularized surfing around the world.

So here I am, on Sunday, at Duke's. Cool.

We've moved across the street from our last hotel, to the Moana Surfrider, which is right on Waikiki Beach, and our room has a window that opens right out over Duke's beach, with a view of Diamond Head. It's great to open the window and listen to the surf, which should be very soothing to our jet-lagged selves.

We had another nice dinner at the Hau Tree Lanai, and Danny the sommelier gave us another fine wine recommendation and also a taste of his newest acquisition, a fruit-infused sake that is really yummy.

Tomorrow, we hope to hit the Waikiki Aquarium, which we always seem to just miss, then hop a flight back home. That'll be another short day, but work awaits on Tuesday, so go we must! Until then, Hawaii is a pretty gentle way to slip back into the U.S.

One little travel note I should include is that we had something like 25 minutes to make our plane connection in Guam overnight, and I was dreading that, because of having to clear immigration and customs. But hey, they've changed things since the last time I went through there. Yes, we all had to clear immigration, but that was just a matter of swiping the passports. Customs we didn't have to clear until we got to Honolulu. So it turned out to be no sweat to make it to our connecting flight. Yay!

Large Numbers

I've been thinking a bit about large numbers recently, probably in part because I read Richard Dawkins' book The Blind Watchmaker on the boat and here in Bali, and he talks a lot about both large and small numbers, and interestingly, how the human mind is really only adapted to think clearly about certain ranges of numbers. All quite fascinating, as Dawkins always is.

But what's really on my mind here is money. When we were in Mexico a few months back, the exchange rate for pesos and dollars was roughly 10:1 or 11:1, but for convenience, everyone sort of thinks in 10:1, and that's easy. If something costs 10 pesos, you can pay with one dollar, and it's all good.

Here in Indonesia, the exchange rate for rupiahs is about 9,200:1, so not only is it a less convenient quantity to figure in your head, you also have to deal in numbers on an everyday basis that sound more like annual salaries to me. For example, yesterday we had a buffet lunch, which costs Rp80,000 (just under US$9) for each person. We shared a large bottle of Bintang, the local beer, for Rp35,000. Suddenly the bill for lunch is Rp195,000, plus the ubiquitous tax and service charge, and now lunch costs Rp235,000. That's really only US$25 for lunch for two people, which isn't outrageous in a tourist context. But that number just seems large.

Going to the ATM to take out another million rupiah is...daunting, even though I know it's not unreasonable. I can only imagine the effect of the rampant inflation in places like Zimbabwe, where you suddenly need millions or even billions of the local currency to get anything.

And yet, many things here seem very inexpensive. Our hotel costs us only US$45 per night, which is great. We bought a shirt and a sarong from Dewa's wife's shop, and it totaled US$32. There are certainly bargains here. It's just sometimes hard to wrap your head around what they are.

Surreal Dining

Good dinner last night, but it hardly felt Balinese. We dined at Mosaic, which came highly recommended by our ex-pat friends on the dive boat. It's the only place we've encountered that requires reservations a day ahead. Dewa dropped us off for our 8:30 reservation, and we stepped into a very modern, western-style lounge. Cocktail orders taken, a free canapé arrived, and we got to look at the menu.

The menu has four options, all prix fixe, six courses with optional wine pairings: An Indonesian experience, a daily tasting menu, a vegetarian tasting menu, or the Surprise menu, where you tell them what you like and/or can't eat, and the chef improvises for the whole table.

We went with one each of the Indonesian and the tasting menus, figuring we would trade some dishes along the way. And of course, we did. I'll spare you all the details, but the highlights included some Japanese-style oysters, a lightly-smoked salmon over citrus, a duck fois gras, and my favorite, cinnamon pork belly with Langoustine.

One of the desserts included fresh durian with chocolate in phyllo pastry. First time for either of us with the durian, and neither was very impressed. The other dessert was much more to our palates, passion fruit baked in phyllo, with coconut sorbet. Very nice.

The whole dinner took some three hours, and was very pleasant. My only criticism of Mosaic is that they had a live jazz combo playing in the lounge, and we could hear it quite clearly at our table. That's fine, except they were still playing their recorded background music through a speaker on the other side of the table, and the two did not blend well at all. Quite distracting, that.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

I Can Use Some Rest

Oh, my. Another busy day in tourist land!

Dewa picked us up this morning at 9:00. "Sleeping in" seemed like such a luxury. After early morning diving, we've just pretty much stayed on the same schedule, waking around 6:30 and crashing into bed right after dinner, around 10:00. Tonight's dinner reservation isn't until 8:30, so we'll see how we hold up. I guess last night we didn't eat until well after the dance show ended at 9:00, so this should work out fine.

Today's destination was upward, to two big temples and then the volcano.

First was the Tirta Empul water temple at Tampaksiring. This is the site of a sacred spring, where people come both to use a public bathing area and a ritual cleansing area. We just came to look at the beautiful and large temple. First thing we saw on entering was some small deer in cages. These are native animals which are in the temple as a kind of refuge; people kill them for sport outside. They're very small, and quite cute.

Then on into the temple. It's quite large an ornate, particularly when compared to the small, community temple we visited the other day. The most noticeable difference to me is that more things are painted, so it's just much fancier looking. Of course, it's also much bigger. The spring flows directly into a pool, and the water then flows into several other pools, each of which has specific cleansing properties. To my view, it's mostly very lovely. With all the water, there are also fabulous flowers, especially the red Bird of Paradise flowers.

Next stop, just down the way, is the carved stone temple of Gunung Kawi. This is sort of the next stop for the water flowing from the water temple. In a deep-carved canyon in the volcanic rock (much like the one we rafted through yesterday) we walked down a long, stone staircase lined with the obligatory vendors hawking batik cloth, woodcarvings, t-shirts, bed coverings (quilts made from the batik), and so on. Eventually this goes through a gate or doorway in the rock itself, and you're in a valley that has been carved into a temple or palace, right out of the living rock.

The guide books all say this is a temple dedicated to the royal family that ruled Bali around the 10th or 11th century CE. Dewa reckons that yes, it was a temple, but also a palace. And it is huge and stunning, both the parts sculpted from the hillside rock and the parts built within. In many ways it's reminiscent of the Mayan works we saw last summer in the Yucatan, though that was pretty much all built up, as there are no hillsides to build into!

It's hard to describe the immensity of the works here, either the statues, the shrines, or the waterworks. Dewa and I cleared some leaves that were blocking some of the water flow in one area. It was satisfying to see water starting to flow again. This temple must have been incredible when it was first built.

After climbing back up the huge stone stairs to get back to the car, we stopped for a cold drink, then headed toward the volcano. On the way, we stopped at an agricultural area, where they grow and display many of the food plants of the area and allow one to sample some of the product (and buy some, of course!).

We saw arabica and robusta coffee trees, cacao, vanilla, papaya, jackfruit, snakeskin fruit, cinnamon, pepper, turmeric, ginger, lemon grass and more. We got to try some of their cocoa and coffees, and also some lemon and ginger teas. They also served us some tamarillo and the snakeskin fruit. The former isn't all that interesting; inoffensively flavored, but nothing special, The snakeskin fruit is really quite good, and the skin of the fruit really resembles snake skin. The snake tree is also really interesting. It has huge, sharp thorns all along the trunk and branches.

They also had several Asian palm civets on site. These are the animals that eat coffee cherries, then pass the seeds through undigested in their feces. Apparently, such beans make some kind of incredible, rare, expensive coffee called luwak coffee. Yet another reason I don't think I'll be taking up drinking coffee.

OK, finally to the volcano. Bali has several volcanoes in the middle of the island. We were sitting on the rim of the caldera of one ancient one, Batur, where at least one secondary cone has grown up in the middle. The view from our restaurant was quite stunning: we ate at a counter overlooking the volcanoes and the caldera. We could see the results of two relatively recent eruptions, within the last 15-20 years. The buffet was decent, but the view was great.

I've left out more details, but as you can see, it was another typical vacation day for our family. We went to a couple of bookstores and bought some reading material for the trip home,based on recommendations from the ex-pats on the boat last week.

Tonight, a nice dinner at a highly-recommended restaurant, then tomorrow, a little down time before we start heading home. We have a couple more touristy stops to make, too, so I'm sure it will be yet another full day.

My Friends

Yesterday, our river rafting guide was pretty much putting on a show, spinning the raft, rocking it, steering us under waterfalls, and so on. I described him as one part river guide, two parts clown, which probably isn't too far off.

But the thing I just realized this morning is that I found it really irritating as he did all those things, not because he did them (they were fun!), but because always as he did them, he would laugh and say "Sorry, sorry my friends!" Now, he doesn't know us, and probably can't remember our names (just as I can't recall his), and it's all a part of the act. But that repeated phrase, "my friends," just rubbed me wrong.

And this morning I remembered why: it's a catch phrase of a certain U.S. Senator from Arizona who is running for president, and I am not, not, not looking forward to plunking back into the middle of a presidential election campaign when I get home. Ugh.

One thing I also realized is that after the ride, as we were walking back up from the river, we actually struck up a conversation with our guide, and despite his limited English, he didn't use the "my friends" tic except when giving his canned directions on where to go or sit, how to board the truck, etc. It's part of the act, and only part of the act.

I'm just guessing that John McCain doesn't address his actual friends as "my friends," either. Just a thought.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Indonesian Elephants

[Note: this information is all based on things I've been told the last few days by people in Bali. I have not had Internet access to verify facts. Errors are probably due to my faulty memory or misunderstanding.]

Until this trip, I wasn't aware that there were elephants native to Indonesia. Over the last couple of days I've seen a lot of elephant artwork, which I originally assumed was just Hindu style borrowed from India. But it turns out that at least one of the big Indonesian islands, Sumatra, still has a native population of Asian elephants. Borneo may have, at one time, but does not currently.

It turns out that Sumatra has a problem with dwindling numbers of elephants. As in other areas, elephants are threatened by poachers looking for tusks and by habitat loss. The native population of elephants now on Sumatra is maybe 2,000. Note that this problem is not confined to elephants. Sumatra is also widely known for its tigers, rhinoceroses, and orangutans, all now critically endangered.

So the Indonesian elephants are all now owned (or at least controlled) by the government, which is running a conservation and breeding program. Because of the pressures on Sumatra, they have chosen to send some of the elephants to other islands, where sponsors such as the Bakas park take care of them. Bakas has ten, and three other parks on Bali have 19, 20, and 27. [Note: there might only be two others; that 19, 20 might have been two guesses at the same park...possible transcription error in my brain.] As far as anyone can tell, Bali never had a native population of elephants. Frankly, it's a pretty small island, so the absence of a huge herbivore is not a surprise. But it also means that the elephants are out of their native habitat, and so have trouble feeding themselves.

So the government assigns mahouts to the elephants, at least some of which are park rangers. These mahouts have to report to the government daily on the health, environment, and care the animals receive. The government can decide, literally at any time, to pull the loaner elephants back home to Sumatra.

This makes life interesting, to say the least, for the mahouts. Mo, the mahout we rode with today, decided in high school on Sumatra that he wanted to help save his country's elephants. And after extensive training, he was assigned to the newborn he named Febi. They have now been together for 14 years.
Seven years ago, the government decided to send Febi to Bali, and Mo with him. Mo's family, all office workers, had never been keen on his career choice, and his girlfriend doesn't like Bali, so she is on Sumatra. The pay is better on Bali, though the cost of living is higher and he no longer lives with his family. On the other hand, there are also more tourists on Bali, so more tips. Even though Mo is fascinated by the world and would love to travel, he is pretty much tied to Febi, 24/7, so he takes comfort in the fact that his picture travels all over the world with tourists.

I asked Mo what language he speaks to Febi in, as none of his commands were intelligible to me. He said it's a combination of three languages: Thai (his original mahout teacher/trainer was Thai), English, and Indonesian. Then he smiled and added, "And my feet." Indeed, he seems to do nearly all of his steering by foot pressures on Febi's head, along with gentle hand touches and a few words.

Life for Febi seems pretty good. We got to watch the morning elephant wash, and both Mo and Febi seemed to enjoy it greatly. Having the same full-time mahout seems to be great for the elephants, but seems pretty hard on the trainers. Still, Mo clearly loves his work. He smiles almost constantly, and speaks with great affection both for Febi and for elephants in general.

Just Singing and Dancing in the Rain

The rain didn't really let up until after the dance show. The show itself was moved from the Ubud Palace to the public hall across the street (under a roof) because of the rain. The show itself is very impressive. The skill and precision of the musicians and dancers is amazing. I have to admit I kind of lost the thread of the story, but followed the long-ago advice of a wise friend: "It's art, Chard. Just let it flow over you."

So I did, and it was good. We were there pretty early, so had seats in the second row to one side. Good spot to watch the gamelan players and the drummers, and prime position to watch the monkey (a dancer; not a real monkey this time). This photo set on Flickr seems to be the same show, two weeks earlier.

After the show, we lit out for one of the restaurants that had been recommended by the ex-pats on the dive boat who live in Bali. Lamak had, as promised, excellent cocktails and dinners. Both the pancetta-wrapped mahi-mahi and the scallops were most tasty.

By the time we got to dinner, I was pretty dry again. I had chivalrously given the umbrella to my lovely wife, and I got pretty soaked as a result. And all's well that ends in a tasty dinner.

Oh, and one more new experience to add to my list: when we had the restaurant call the hotel to give us a ride back, they sent over two motorbikes, so we rode back on the backs of them. My first ride on a motorbike, anywhere. I survived with only a small burn on my leg where it brushed the tailpipe.

Tourist Season

Today has been one of those lessons in how tourists see the world. Yesterday's driver, Dewa, arranged for us to go river rafting and elephant riding today. A driver from the park picked us up at the hotel at 8 am, as planned, and promised us that the rain was done for the day (though it proceeded to rain essentially the entire way to the park).

In his limited English, he tried to sell us on the notion that we needed to stop in at a wood carving place on the way, and we tried to explain that we'd done that yesterday, but with limited success. He also wanted to get us to buy into the notion of hiring him tomorrow to take us up into the mountains and such (which Dewa is already going to do). Ah,well.

We have long-since clued in to the fact that wherever we go as tourists, cab drivers and such are always looking for ways to get you to particular stores, generally owned and run by their friends and family members, and from which they earn "commissions." Fortunately Dewa comes recommended by trusted friends who have traveled with him and even bought goods from his store that they are very pleased with. So there is a level of trust there. But still, there are some obligatory visits. And that's OK, as long as you understand what's happening.

But we got to the park, the Bakas Levi Rafting and Elephant Adventure, and paid our fee. First up was the elephants, which was good for us, because early in the morning is both cooler for us as passengers, but it also means the elephants and their mahouts are fresher. We watched as our elephant came out and had his morning bath, then got saddled up (in the form of a teak chair on blankets, tied on with ropes). Then we climbed aboard, and off for a one-hour ride through the surrounding area.

Our elephant's name was Febi (pronounced like the English name "Phoebe"). We looked a little surprised, and Mo the mahout laughed a little sheepishly that he knows it's a female name. He named it after his sister, who dislikes elephants! Mo has been raising and training Febi (the elephant) since Febi was one day old, and has been with him almost nonstop for the ensuing 14 years. I'll write a separate entry later about some of the things we learned about elephants and their training in Indonesia. But for now, suffice it to say we had a pleasant and wide-ranging discussion with Mo as we rode.

Along the route we got to see a bunch of wild macaques, much like the ones we saw yesterday in the Monkey Forest, but without all the tourists and bananas. Febi foraged for snacks pretty much the whole way, as elephants will. We also saw domesticated pigs (quite unlike the wild pigs we've seen elsewhere), chickens with broods of chicks, and a number of birds.

At the end of ride came a couple of obligatory tricks, including balancing with all four feet on a small pedestal and sitting down on another (all with us still riding up top!). After a final chat and posing for portraits with Febi, we were off to river rafting.

There's not a lot to say about the rafting itself. The river doesn't run very fast, and it doesn't have a lot of drops, either. It was really more of a leisurely float, and we rarely had to paddle at all. We were the only two guests in the raft, along with the guide. Normally there would be 4-5 guests, but not this time. The guide (whose name escapes me, darn it!) did his best to make the tame ride more exciting, with lots of whooping and yelping and jokes, as well as turning the raft around and guiding us under waterfalls so we got good and wet.

What the ride does have going for it is gorgeous scenery. The river runs through a rather steep canyon cut in volcanic rock, and the canyon itself is quite beautiful. And you also get nice views of the surrounding jungle, from a different, lower angle than we'd had from the elephant. All in all, it was a very pleasant ride.

Then, off for a quick shower and change of clothes, then a mediocre buffet lunch, then back with our driver, who again wanted to take us to wood carving or book us for tomorrow. Luckily, we were exhausted, and the tape he put on of bad covers of American music really put us to the snooze.

Back to the hotel, then, and my wife is now off getting a massage at the spa while I write. I'm going to go pick her up soon, and probably go see some Balinese dance at the palace.

Although I should note that it is raining. A lot. Again.

Dry Season

We've had terrific weather during our stay in Indonesia. On the dive boat we were blessed with sunshine and soft breezes, which made for pleasant times both during and between dives. This is, of course, the dry season. In the rainy season it can be stormy and rather less pleasant on the boat.

Last night we noted as we got back to our hotel before dinner that the air was a bit misty. We saw clouds as we walked off to dinner, but we could also see stars. No worries.

During dinner, in rained. Only briefly, maybe 5-10 minutes, but it was pretty intense. Although the restaurant (like many, many buildings in Bali) is essentially outdoors but covered, we were happy and dry, sitting on our cushions, enjoying our meal, watching the rain fall. When we walked home after, the ground was wet, but it wasn't raining.

Overnight, though, it rained. A lot. The sound woke me several times in the night. This morning we both mentioned we were reminded of the opening line of one of my favorite stories from Winnie the Pooh: "It rained and it rained and it rained." This morning it is still raining a bit, off and on. We wonder whether the river rafting and elephant riding will take place. And we wonder, does it often rain this much in dry season?

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Beginning Bali

Diving being done, and thoughts of early home going having been dashed, we embarked with our hired driver/guide Dewa to see some of Bali and eventually end up at our hotel.

Leaving the airport at Denpasar, he first took us through the tourist district of Kuta. This was where the famous terrorist nightclub bombing took place back in 2002 (one year, one month, and one day after 9/11). We saw the memorial erected at the site, but didn't stop to spend time there. Our main reaction to Kuta was that we were really glad we had elected to stay elsewhere. Didn't really need the chain stores and nightclubs that could be in any tourist beach town in the world.

But we had expected this. Our friend Sharon had recommended not only that we hire Dewa, but that we spend our few days in something more like the real Bali, so we're in Ubud, about 45 minutes north of the tourists. The streets are narrower, the shops are smaller and have local flavor instead of designer labels. And it's really rather quiet.

On the drive up, we stopped at several places, including both stone and wood carving places and a small, local temple. Bali is known for both its carving crafts and its batik cloth, as well as its Hindu temples and dancing. The carvings are just amazing, even though we know they're produced in quantity for the tourist market. It is really high-quality stuff.

The temple was interesting. It's quite old, and constantly being renovated. But it has the sincere feel of a local church. Much less pretense than temples we visited in Fiji, for example.

We stopped for lunch at a local restaurant. Their pizza oven is in the stomach of a large carved stone turtle (wish I’d gotten a picture!). The dining room is on the top floor, open on all sides so you can see the surrounding country, which is largely rice fields. It was very calm and peaceful, and the food authentic and tasty (we skipped the pizza and had curry and fried noodles with veggies).

Then we stopped to check into our hotel, the Tunjung Mas Bungalows. It's a small place (6 bungalows, I believe), but quiet and lovely, easy walking distance to town. The name translates as "Golden Lotus Flower," and there are lots of lovely flowers on the grounds.

We then visited the Monkey Forest, where there are, unsurprisingly, about 300 macaque monkeys in residence. They're a hoot, running all about doing monkey business and delighting the tourists. Interestingly, there is a Hindu cemetery in the middle of the forest on a hill, and there was a community burial going on which we watched some of. I was not aware that in Bali, at least, they bury their dead for a while, then eventually exhume them for a mass cremation. The purpose is to save the expense of individual funerals.

After visiting Dewa's shop and his wife's, too, we crashed at the hotel for a bit before heading off to dinner at Bebek Bengil, which translates to the Dirty Duck Diner. It's a lovely setting, built on what used to be rice fields. It's extensive, but doesn't feel big or crowded, as the facilities are really well designed. There is flowing water and fountains throughout, and tables that feel private. The food was quite tasty, and we both tried cocktails made with arak, the local liquor. Rather a strong flavor, so we switched to Bintang, the local pilsner beer.

Whew! Long, busy day, and we have to get up in the morning to go river rafting and elephant riding before Jan's spa appointment and Balinese dancing at the old palace. Hey, short visit, no time to waste!

Last Seven Seas Thoughts

Just wanted to put down a few more thoughts about the recently-competed diving aboard the Seven Seas before I start scribbling about Bali.

First, I have to say that the Seven Seas was a very nice, very well-run operation. Mark and his crew did an excellent job of making us all feel welcome, comfortable, and safe. The boat itself is lovely, and the dive crew and kitchen crew were all top-notch. Good food (self-serve is nice), friendly service, and all well maintained. I believe we had one of the smallest cabins on the boat, but it was quite adequate. We stored our luggage and some other things on the unused upper bunk. Getting dressed with two of us was challenging at times, but we managed.

And the diving was really, really good. Graham made sure we got a taste of all the different environments available around Komodo, and Tomi and Bram and the boat drivers made sure we saw the key things and got to and from the sites quickly and easily. Best of all, I felt like Mark and his crew had a good, positive working relationship. I didn't sense any of the labor-management tensions that often creep into dive-boat operations.

It was hard to say goodbye, but after ten days and about 35 dives, we were ready to think about heading home.

We'd had some thoughts about trying to get home sooner, rather than spending an extra four days in Bali, but Continental Airlines assured us that the one flight leaving before ours on Sunday, tonight, was already overbooked considerably. So we headed off for a little mini-adventure in Bali.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Boats to Build

We did a really interesting little tour of a village known for building boats. Unfortunately, I seem to have neglected to write down the name of the village, so I hope one of my trip mates can fill in that gap.

Anyway, they build boats in the traditional Indonesian way, which is to say, by hand, from wood. They use a few metal bolts in key locations, but for the most part, it’s wooden pegs, driven by wooden hammers. They do use an electric drill, however.

Some of the fascinating aspects of the process are that, unlike Western ship-building, they build the hull's planking first, then individually shape the ribs to fit the planks. By hand. And nearly everything about the process is handmade of wood, like the ladders down into the boat, the roof over the hull that shelters the workers (and the boat) from sun and rain. I hope my pictures can convey some of that.

We climbed up a ramp to look into one of the hulls that was in process. It’s not nearly as rickety as it appears, though it is a bit steep, with not much in the way of a railing. Depending on who you ask, the four guys building this boat have been at work on it for either one or two years so far. There’s still much to do, including plugging the gaps between the planks and adding decking. Once the hull is complete, they have to launch the boat and tow it to another island where it gets its engine and other finishing.

The village itself was pretty interesting. We stopped by one house and saw people weaving. We walked through much of the town, followed by a horde of children. One teenage boy was talking to his girlfriend on his mobile phone so she could hear us speaking English. Several people in our group had brought gifts for the children of the village, including pencils and books. I thought a riot was going to break out over the package of pencils. It’s hard to believe how much of a difference such a thing can make in a kid’s life, but we later had one little girl showing off her pencil and just beaming.

We saw lots of motorbikes in town, but only a few cars. The biggest, fanciest house belongs to one of the big boat-builders, naturally. That is really the business of the village. But we saw other interesting stuff, like a shack with a hand-painted sign that reads "Rental Playstation." For a place with little apparent electricity, that seemed odd.

Poking About

Diving (and the visit to Komodo National Park) is winding down. Josh is editing his trip video, which promises to be splendid, as always. This morning we visited an interesting site where a big boulder from the top of the reef recently (like 12-18 months ago) rolled down to about 90 feet. In the wake of its roll, there are a lot of small rocks in the black sand. And among them, more nudibranchs than I can describe. Graham says it's the premier nudibranch dive in all Asia.

It's funny how we can get from watching schools of big fish one dive to poking under rocks for tiny slugs the next. Truly, I enjoy both. One of the joys of looking so closely at small things is that you notice more and more detail the longer you look. You might start out looking for a pretty nudibranch and notice a tiny shrimp or a well-hidden crab. Much like life in general, I suppose: When you're open to seeing things, you might see things you didn't expect.

Volcano update: The cone was shrouded in clouds this morning. Unfortunately I didn't get to take a picture, so you'll have to take my word for it.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

I Don't Know

Good diving today. We're still at Sangeang Island, and this morning conditions were very mild, so we got to dive again at Deep Purple and Bubble Reef in the morning with essentially no current. Then an afternoon dive at Sangeang Rocks, where we bimbled (Graham's term for it) around the rocks looking for critters. I found lots of little shrimps and crabs, some little nudibranchs, and a few little fish. Lots of baby and juvenile fish on all the dives; this is a great time of year for that.

As we rode the skiff back to the boat, we noticed the smell of smoke in the air, and someone pointed out that the top of the volcano is smoking a bit. Last night coming back from the night dive we had noticed an orange glow up there, too. No notion that things might blow, but it's kind of fun being next to an active volcano.

UPDATE: As the sun went down, we could see the orange glow up near the top of the volcano. There was some debate over whether we were seeing lava or a fire, but Graham assures us there is nothing up there that would burn (anymore), so we concluded that it was lava glowing. Kind of eerie and yet cool.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Small and Large

Fascinating deep dive this morning at Sangeang Island, a relatively-recently active volcano with lots of black sand. We dropped down about 110 feet into a canyon full of fan corals and such. I found a huge scallop on the wall, probably the largest I've ever seen. Working with our friend Sharon, I also spotted a tiny pygmy seahorse on one of the fan corals.

Probably the oddest find was a dive mask one of our friends found sitting on top of the reef. The cover on the mask strap had the logo of our local dive shop back home, Bamboo Reef! We decided to leave it there. I'm hoping someone can snap a picture of it when we go back later this morning.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Life on the Reef

Today we're at Banta Island, not technically part of Komodo National Park, but just outside. The water is warmer again, and the dive site we're currently visiting, called K2, is quite spectacular. The late morning dive was particularly good, with lots of light, warm water, and just about the whole range of reef life on display. As we swam along, we could feel different currents blending, which is usually a signal that much will be happening. The different currents bring in nutrients, and that was certainly in evidence.

Many corals that are usually only open at night were fully out and feeding. Schools of reef fish that are normally lurking in or near their coral homes were out in the open, gorging themselves on yummy planktonic lunches. From the perspective of our photographer friends, the visibility isn't all they'd like, but the amount of life on display more than makes up for it.

At one point I spotted a couple of groupers, so I watched, thinking I might get a repeat or a variation on yesterday's courtship dance. Instead, one took off almost immediately, headed down the reef. As I pointed out the remaining one to my buddy, he spooked a little, and moved away. Almost instantly, the “rock” above him moved, revealing itself to be a fairly good sized, very well camouflaged, octopus!

I tried to get the octopus to play, but it only wanted me to go away. Doug came and got a few pictures, but by the time Andrew and his video camera got there, the octopus wanted nothing more than to hide. He found a rather deep hole in the reef, where I could barely see a tentacle and an eye, so I figured we were done.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Love is in the Water

We're south of the equator here (8 degrees or so), which means that it's Spring, and you can certainly tell by the behavior of the critters hereabouts.

We did two dives today at a site called Castle Rock, where there is often a current running ("breezy" or "drafty" and sometimes "gusty," depending on who you listen to). Currents tend to bring in bigger life, and this site is no exception. As we dropped in, we could see numerous white tip reef sharks cruising by. There we lots of trevally jacks, mackerel, and some tuna, too. Some of the mackerel were getting a bit frisky, swimming side-by-side, bumping into each other, getting excited.

After watching that show for a while, we headed up the sea mount to shallower water. There were some really nice corals and lots of fish; pleasant to watch. I spotted a pair of camouflage groupers circling around one another. This was clearly a mating/courting ritual. We watched for a while, and then noticed a much bigger grouper come peeking around the rock, apparently deciding all was going well, and heading off again. I decided this must be the chaperon. After a couple more minutes a third grouper of the same sort, but showing rather different coloration, joined in. One of the others, presumably the female, moved off, and the two others literally faced off, sitting nose-to-nose for a couple of minutes. Then there was a little snapping, some displays of wide-open mouths, and the interloper (I think) moved on. The female returned, and the courting resumed.

One positive thing I noticed this morning was a crown-of-thorns starfish. These are known as a great, voracious pest in many places, and the last time I recall seeing any was on our honeymoon ten years ago in Fiji, where they had devastated quite a number of reefs, practically scraping them bare. We were told at the time that the rise of the crown-of-thorns correlated with the decline of giant clams, which filter enormous amounts of water, including filtering out the eggs of the crown-of-thorns.

Here we have noted quite a few clams, although not the truly huge ones, but they seem to be doing the job of keeping the crown-of-thorns in check. Balance is important.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Big Black Fish

A highlight of the afternoon was a dive along a reef that culminated in us "hooking on" to the reef in a strong current while "big, black fish" came to check us out. I'm not entirely clear why the dive guide didn't want to say what kind of big, black fish we might bee seeing. I guess either he didn't want to jinx us, or he wanted the nature of the fish to be a surprise.

In any case, after swimming along the reef for a bit, we swooped up through a gully into shallow water and grabbed onto pieces of dead coral rock. As the current rushed by, we scanned for big, black fish.

And then, they came: Manta rays. At least four of them, about 5-6 feet across. They would swim up through our streams of bubbles, almost close enough that we could touch them. Then they'd open up their mouths and float back on the current, feeding as they went. It was great, and went on, over and over, for about half an hour. We had a blast.

Later, some folks went back to snorkel at the same site. They had some good encounters, but only when there were also divers in the waters. They appear to really like the bubbles. When the divers were gone, the mantas still played and fed in the current, but farther away from the people.

Here Be Dragons

This morning we awoke at Komodo Island. After breakfast we took the skiffs over to the visitor center at the park, where we hired guides to walk us around the island. On the walk we saw a lot of deer, a couple of wild pigs, Imperial pigeons, chickens, eagles, and some other birds. But no dragons. We did see some genuine dragon poo, complete with deer hair, so we know they are around and feeding.

As luck would have it, however, there are four big dragons who like to hang out by the kitchen at the ranger station, so they took us over there. It's not the same as seeing them truly in the wild, but they are wild and uncaged. Lovely animals, if a bit slothful this morning.

The island itself, at least the part we hiked, is quite dry ('tis the season)and not particularly diverse. After the obligatory stop at the ranger-station souvenir shop and one other little higher-end gift shop (I so wanted to buy a plush Komodo dragon, but didn't want to carry it home!) we walked through a local market where we were offered carved dragons (many wearing scuba gear), pearls, and some other crafts. Little kids followed us back to the skiff, imploring us to buy some pearls, a necklace, a carving. Or give us your hat, your sunglasses, something. They ultimately seemed pretty pleased with our plastic water bottles.

One of the ongoing difficulties in diving in some of these remote, impoverished areas is how to deal with such requests. We have so much, it seems criminal to leave without leaving something behind. Most of us try to help, and often bring some small gifts for the villagers, but it is always difficult.

I guess I'm slightly disappointed in the dragon encounter. It's cool to have seen them. In some ways the distant spotting of them on the beach the other morning was more satisfying, but both reinforce that we are really in Komodo.

Now back to diving for a bit. Supposed to be lots of fish life hereabouts.