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Saturday, August 29th, 2015
2:41 pm - NZ Day 16: Enjoying The Country
Start the day off right, with a visit to the local kittycat! (We found this cute fellow when we stopped for snacks at the thermal park, on the way out of the area.) It's a movie, but since this is LiveJournal, it won't embed, so you're gonna have to click. Sorry...

It was easier to stop at the park than to prepare any kind of breakfast at Hotel Waiotapu, since every item in their self-service area was broken and smelled faintly of fried electronics - including the kettle, the microwave, and the fridge. Clearly that place makes its money by being very conveniently located, not by offering anything close to decent amenities or service.

(As we checked out, Kerry and I noticed that even though our room was tiny, someone had found enough room in it to place a bible. Somebody - neither of us is willing to admit who it was - wrote inside it, "ALL THE PILLS MEANS ALL THE JESUS!" and put it back in the drawer.)

Anyway our task for today was to go 30 miles south from Waiotapu to Taupo, on the shores of Lake Taupo. Highway 5 is the main route between these two places, but the heavy traffic is not ideal for cycling. Fortunately Broadlands Road covers most of the same distance and is much quieter. (Nevertheless we still encountered plenty of big trucks, and had to pull entirely off the road for some of them.)

Along the way we found even more snacks, on a handy apple tree leaning over a farmer's fence:

I gathered five apples but I only ended up eating one, for reasons that will become clear later!

Check out this aged sign in front of a country residence. Can you decipher it?

The weather was glorious, yet again. We pedaled through gently rolling hills and flatlands radiant with a hundred shades of green and yellow, chatting on our intercoms and stopping wherever we wanted to take photographs or mess with our gear or pee behind a bush - or simply hang out. We had the entire day to go 30 miles, most of which was easy riding.

We saw lots of animals on the farmlands surrounding the road (and a few more animals squished onto the surface and baking in the sun) but the two that eventually tempted us enough to stop were these fine horses:

They loved the fresh grass we gave them from the other side of the fence, and definitely loved the apples that we tossed over for them to sniff out and pick up later.

(It takes a little bit of practice to feed a strange horse without being bitten.) (The image below is actually a movie! Please do poke it.)

We named these horses "Bully" and "Bieber". Bully is the domineering one on the right, of course.

The road rolled by, along with the sunny afternoon. Sometimes it felt like I was back in California, cycling around Moss Landing or Hollister. But then I'd see a logging truck, or something like the Ohaaki Power Station and remember where I was.

The flat eventually changed to a mild uphill with a slight headwind, which combined to make our progress extremely slow. We spent hours covering what seemed like only a few miles leading in to Taupo, and finally arrived at the top of a hill, where we paused for a break and saw a gigantic logging truck - the largest one either of us had ever seen in New Zealand - push out into the intersection and go chugging away. It was so epic we had to film it. (Yep, another video you'll have to click to see. Sorry...)

It has 42 wheels. Go ahead and count 'em! It took 1/3 of a minute just to roll across the intersection.

I don't think it's any coincidence that the opposite corner of the intersection is residence for a grave marker, identifying some sad highway accident from the recent past:

And not too far away: The gravesite of Optimus Prime?

After that it was almost all downhill into Taupo. The motel was easy to find and only a block away from the kayak place we needed to show up at the next day. We walked down to a thai take-out place and grabbed food, chomping it right there on the sidewalk on a tiny table, then walked back to the motel and crashed. Ka-bam!!

It was another great day, even though it was just a little too long in the saddle.

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Saturday, August 22nd, 2015
3:51 am - I have no idea where this will go...
Recently I saw a question on quora about failure: "What's it like to have attended an elite school, and be an utter failure afterward?" Some people responded to the question by passionately rejecting the act of comparing oneself to others. Different respondents gave vivid descriptions of their mid-life crises, and how they did - or didn't - turn themselves around. One common theme that emerged was this: If you're doing something you love - something that makes you happy - you are not failing, whatever other people think.

It's a great way to describe success. It's not materialistic, it's not based on social status or power, and it doesn't move it permanently out of anyone's reach, because there's a temporal quality to it: A person can fail over and over, and still eventually find success.

But that temporal quality also has a downside: Success can be just as temporary as failure.

I spent my 20's seeking "quality of life", often down the path of least resistance, attempting to burn off all the angst that teenagerhood gave me. I was fighting against deeply embedded feelings of inadequacy and hopelessness about my future, and I needed to find satisfaction in basic, everyday things, and be at peace. I arranged my life to pursue that, taking quiet walks, having long, thoughtful discussions, savoring good food and the fireplace and my routine. I let the scope of my obsessions narrow to individual days, and easily accomplished tasks.

Relative to what I could have been doing, it would be fair to call me a lazy bum. An unambitious hedonist doing the minimum required of me to stay comfortable and nothing more. But I was happy, doing what I loved, with my little garden and my low-stakes job. So it was success, by this metric.

At some point my angst actually dissolved, and my lifestyle stopped serving its purpose, so a natural consequence of my "success" was to grow restless. I entered my 30's by switching into a high-demand, high-pressure work environment, splitting my time between passionate debates in meeting rooms with fellow engineers and shutting myself in a dark office, assembling and dismantling castles of logic in my mind to a rhythmic industrial soundtrack. It was a different pace, a different set of priorities, and a new way to justify my existence. It was work I loved to do, so it was my new version of success.

It was also toxic, and unsustainable. It destroyed my romantic and social life. I entered another phase of burn-out, recovering from damage even worse than I'd felt before. "Do what you love" seemed like empty advice, because the only career I could remember loving had apparently poisoned me, so what chance was there now?

I eventually managed to parlay a set of present interests and past skills into a new version of my career - one that allows a much better work-life balance. That balance has given me the time and energy to explore other things - like travel, and home ownership, and a different approach to my romantic life. But the job itself mainly consists of writing code, quietly, alone at a desk, even more than my previous job. I have to acknowledge the fact that the thing I do for money, the main thing I've done for money for my entire adult life, is a cramped, socially isolating activity. In order to do it well I must confine myself to a certain state of mind, and that state of mind is starting to lose its appeal.

(It's like meditation, so in a way, inner peace is starting to become the enemy of my happiness. Weird, huh?)

So what's the next version of success going to look like? The next version of "doing what I love"? I might have stumbled upon an answer to that.

I'm currently finishing up a a fast-paced entrepreneurship course. It's a class full of people very excited about doing something they love, and trying to find a way to make it fit in a marketplace. The product my group is working on probably won't change the world, but it stands a good chance of contributing to the science that will.

The course is intense. For four days during the kickoff there was no time in the day for me to do anything but work and get inadequate amounts of sleep. Zero socialization or downtime, barely any time to eat, no time to do laundry or clean the house. My small team would conduct back-to-back interviews for hours, crunch through our notes, then argue passionately about what we learned and how to arrange it on slides for the rest of the class. It was a relentless campaign of extroversion for me, with barely a moment where I wasn't talking, listening, composing feedback, or making a case. And you know what? It felt great. Amazing, actually. I felt like I could just do that for months at a time and watch as a whole different version of myself emerged and sprang to life, like an origami boat unfolding, turning itself inside-out, and reforming into an airplane.

Then, after the fourth day, when I had a gap in the schedule again with a few days to relax and unwind, I spent almost all that time alone, at home, happily mixing music and petting the cat. The pendulum swung back just as hard in the other direction and suddenly all I wanted to do was rummage around in my own head and make something artistic from the pieces I found there. Three days later, after focusing just as relentlessly on my inner universe, I had a nearly complete draft of a music mix that was loud and angry, shot through with vocal samples about regret, failure, and mental disease. It was an obvious sequel to the "Problems With Reality" mix I made a few years ago, so I gave it that name, and began the slower, more relaxed process of editing it down.

Then I went back to work - my normal work, with the entrepreneurial stuff scheduled around and within it - and encountered a feeling of dissonance.

My entrepreneurial group consists of two busy scientists and me, a busy programmer. The product my group is evaluating only exists in a demonstrable form because I wrote it, spending months and months patiently churning out all the code, sitting alone at a desk. My normal work is the same socially isolated process I've been exercising and developing for 30+ years.

So, I'm in a Catch-22 situation where my only qualification for doing something I really enjoy, is my dedication to keep doing something I don't.

One day I was in office-hours with the lead instructor, and I confessed to him that my group was probably not going to spin off into a startup company because none of us had the bandwidth for it. We needed someone who was willing to dedicate themselves completely to the task of making connections, chasing funding, hiring employees, pitching to industry partners, et cetera. A real entrepreneurial lead. The instructor nodded to show that he understood my concerns, then looked me in the eye and said, "why not you?"

"Well," I said, "I actually like the idea. I could see myself digging into this process and having a great time with it, maybe even being pretty good at it, if I can get enough advice and support. But the problem is, the product we're developing needs a lead programmer, and I'm already very good at that job. If I took on this new role, my team would be effectively swapping a veteran programmer for an amateur entrepreneur. We'd be on even weaker footing than we already are."

The instructor shrugged and said, "I see your point, but I don't think it's a very relevant one. If you think you've got a chance - and the motivation - to take this role, your team would be going from zero entrepreneurial leads to one dedicated one. Your past work doesn't have to match your present work to still inform it. Think of how useful it is to have an entrepreneurial lead who needs to hire good programmers, and who also happens to know how to tell a good programmer from a lousy one in fifteen minutes without even making a phone call or calling a meeting."

Our team came away from the class with a six-month battle plan, designed to get us into a good position to score additional funding and test the viability of a potential spinoff. But it requires that we get a good prototype deployed into the world, with a minimum feature set, so we can hand it to potential clients and say, "This is what we're making. It's obviously the future. So join up with us."

Guess who has to write all the code for that prototype? Yes. Doubling-down, on another six months of intense cogitating, mostly alone at my desk, while the thing the instructor said keeps rattling around in my brain, asking, "Even if it meant almost certain failure, would you do it? What would it be like to try? What would it be like to permanently change into the origami plane, from the origami boat you've been creased into for decades? Is that your new version of happiness?"

In four weeks I'm giving a live presentation about my project to a couple hundred industry people. This is happening at a conference over a weekend, bookended by these weekdays of intense coding. Wherever this all goes, I'm going to be part of it somehow...

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Tuesday, August 11th, 2015
5:01 pm - A few scattered thoughts on DRM, apps, and ecosystems
A large contingent of people - producers and consumers - eventually realized that the solution to the industry-versus-piracy problem, with music, was to abandon DRM and instead chase the piracy out of the market by offering something easier to find, easier to get, and easier to play.

I wonder, how does this contingent feel about piracy of software then?

The story of DRM on software is long and twisty, including things like proprietary ROM cartridges, weird disk sectors, and hidden codes printed in paper manuals. These days, no physical media is required at all, so those old methods don't work. It's all encryption-based. This makes it equivalent to what music is now: Infinitely copyable for virtually no cost.

On portable devices, the potential arena for app piracy is gigantic, and there is a thriving piracy sector, but users in general are turning to it less than their PC forebears, and DRM on smartphones has been a huge shot of cash into the arm of the software industry. Coders are more in-demand, and paid more, than ever.

Say you purchased Angry Birds on your iPhone, and now you own an Android device. You have to purchase Angry Birds again. You fully expect your DRM-less music to be interoperable. Why not your apps?

Perhaps the difference is the perception of an ecosystem.

That is, we (and by "we" I mean a large majority of the userbase) expect music to have portability because almost all music playback devices are perceived to be one ecosystem, whereas smartphones are perceived to be multiple ecosystems divided by operating system.

Why do people have this perception, though? Isn't it a matter of time before this perception changes?

Back in the day, if you bought Photoshop for the PC, you were expected to buy it again for the Mac, even if you only used one at a time. Now, you "subscribe" to Adobe's software and they treat the platforms interchangeably. If Adobe can do it, why not everyone else? Because cross-platform software development is "too hard" to justify pay-once-play-anywhere?

That's no excuse. It's hard to develop a great modern website as well, but your work is judged to be clearly defective if it doesn't run on almost every device around, regardless of platform. Is it so hard to port Angry Birds from iOS to Android that the user MUST pay twice? No, not in my opinion. Not after all the other transitions I've seen in my 25 years in this industry.

The only real reason this doesn't happen is something else: App stores want their cut.

I assert that the perception of multiple ecosystems for software is going to rapidly disintegrate, and the only resistance will come from app-store middlemen.

Or put another way, it is in the direct interest of companies like Google, Apple, and Microsoft to make software as easy as possible to license on their own platform while simultaneously making it as hard as possible to move that license to another, and we are all rapidly coming to the point where we (software developers) will need to fight them, quite hard, for the sake of our own userbase.

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Monday, August 10th, 2015
8:40 pm - NZ Day 15: Hot And Steamy
So, we set off a-wandering from the Waiotapu Tavern and in a few hours we were face-to-face with this:

A great, big, boiling, festering mud hole in the middle of the forest!

You probably can't hear it in the video, but it's making noise like a couple of horses throwing a dance party in a closet. An endless, semi-rhythmic thudding sound that doesn't just vibrate your ears, but vibrates the whole area around you.

The truly great thing about this experience was the act of discovery. Kerry and I just crept into the untracked forest to find the source of a mysterious noise, and ended up staring at this infernal thing. No guideropes, no fences, no warning signs. Not even anyone else around. If your judgement is poor and you tumble over the edge, you will die, and chances are nobody will even discover your corpse for a long time. By the time they do, your flesh will be boiled into mush, leaving only a stew of bones and some expensive equipment to tempt the next victim.


But I"m telling this tale out of order.Collapse )

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Sunday, August 9th, 2015
1:20 am - NZ Day 14: Wheelin' To Waiotapu
After checking out, we rode down to a general store and bought a few snacks while people ogled our bikes. After so many years, I still actually like the attention that riding a recumbent attracts. Added eyeballs means added safety!

I scarfed some leftover thai food while Kerry was in the store, and answered a few polite questions. The number one question people ask is, "is that more comfortable than a regular bike?" To which my stock answer is, "pretty much all the time, yes, except when going over really bumpy roads because you can't stand up on the pedals."

Ten minutes later we were off...Collapse )Here's the day's route:

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Saturday, August 8th, 2015
10:05 pm - Grandma Hazel
I interviewed my grandma Hazel when I was in middle school, approximately 28 years ago. The family visited her house one day and I had a little tape recorder, and shortly afterwards I transcribed the recording. I don't know if I ran out of time, or if the tape ran out, or if I stopped my transcription early, but in any case the narration simply ends. I think I was trying to get up to the point where she met my grandfather.

. . .

"The first thing I remember is coming out to california on a train when I was five years old. Before that I don't remember a thing. And we came up to Cragmont up in Berkeley, and my grandmother and grandfather lived there. And we built a big house there, it took quite awhile to build the house, and I remember I was going through a gate into the other yard where my grandmother lived, and it was one of those swinging gates and I swung it open and it came back and I had a pencil in my mouth and it knocked the pencil down my throat. They didn't know whether I was going to come out of that or not."

"For years and years there weren't very many people up there in the hills, but it was real pretty because there were wildflowers all over and orange with poppies, and you could look out our back window right out through the Golden Gate, and there was no bridge across it then. I used to sit there and play in the wildflowers, I would take big rocks and build houses out of them and stuff like that. And I had four brothers and four sisters, and I was the youngest of them. And I remember at Christmas time, we'd have a big christmas tree, and we'd hang our socks up on the mantle, and we had a big fireplace. And I'd wake up in the morning and run downstairs and find the packages and bring them upstairs and put them all on everyone's beds. And they all would say "what are you doing up so early?" The Christmas tree was decorated with cranberries, and popcorn, and things like that, and we had a big table because there were so many people to sit around it."

"My sister Clara got married. She met a man back in Canada where I was born in Niagara Falls, and he came down and we all had a big church wedding, and I was a little flower girl. And then one by one, different ones got married. Then I went to the schools in Berkeley, and went through Berkeley high school, and then i got a job in a real estate office in Berkeley. And my oldest sister Rae(?) and her husband came out from South Dakota and they lived in Rippin(?) for awhile, he was a high school teacher. And then they decided to go back there on a visit, so I quit my job and I was going to go back with them. But at the last minute he decided not to stay back there. So I didn't go. And I looked around for another job and found one in San Fransisco, in the PG&E building."

"At that time we were back up on the hill again, my mother and Dad and I, the rest were all married in different places. So I would walk down the hill, to where the end of the streetcars were. It would stop down the hill quite a ways, and the streetcar would go to where the Berkley train was, and it would go across to the wharf, and then you would get on a ferryboat and go across the bay. And then you'd walk out of the ferry building - everyone was going in and out of there - and you'd walk down to Market Street, and walk up to 4th Street where the PG&E building was. That's where I worked. It was a temporary job, so I knew it wouldn't last too long."

"So the day I came home when the job ended, my oldest brother that lived down near Tracy had been there talking with my mother, and he wanted to know if she knew anybody that could come down and stay at his ranch and take care of his kids because his wife was in the hospital, and she told him I would go. And I don't know to this day why I didn't get mad and say 'Well why did you tell him that?' I just said 'okay.' So I went, and my life changed altogether."

"I went down and took care of five kids, and the youngest one was just a baby. And I learned all kinds of things down there. He had some cows and chickens and horses down there, and I learned how to make butter, and cheese, and we put in a garden. We had everything from radishes to watermelon in that garden, and the biggest tomatoes I ever saw, these big beefsteak tomatoes, and one tomato would fill a whole dish when you sliced it."

"I did a whole bunch of stuff I had never done in my life. I canned little pickles, and all kinds of things to eat, and all kinds of things happened down there, I remember the youngest boy, Clifford... We had an irrigation system near the house and he would walk right down one side of the irrigation ditch, through the water, and up the other side, just like a little fish. And one day they were cutting Alfalfa, they had about six mowing machines all along the row, and I went out there and we was running right across there. And of course he couldn't hear because of all the noise, so I took out after him and found him before he could come up the other side in front of those machines."

"So all these things happened. In the meantime, my Dad up in Berkley got sick, and I told my brother I'd better go home."

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Friday, July 10th, 2015
5:45 pm - A few hours this morning
The earliest thing I remember is walking around a city, near the coast. The bright afternoon sun made all the colors intense. The ocean was a striking Mediterranean blue, the dirt walkways and streets were a deep brown, the plaster walls a variety of eggshell greens, pinks, and whites. Doorways were dark and inviting. Roofs were speckled Spanish tile, or heavy chunks of unvarnished wood. Windowsills were thick slabs, windows were iron grids of tinted glass. Fluffy clouds decorated the sky. In the distance up the coast and out to sea there were curtains of mist and drifting fog, showing that I was in a patch of good weather. I could smell nothing - but that was typical, since I almost never smelled anything in my dreams.

At first I was just walking around, enjoying the scene...Collapse )

current mood: indescribable

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Tuesday, July 7th, 2015
3:40 pm - Metabolomics for fun and (potentially) profit
I while ago I had the privilege of attending the 11th International Conference of the Metabolomics Society. When I wasn't doing interviews I wandered around and had fun reading the presentation posters. Here's some neat stuff I saw:


This is a graph of the "Carlson Curve", a kind of genetics equivalent of Moore's Law. The connection illustrated in the graph isn't entirely sensible, since Moore's Law isn't actually about dollar cost, but about information density. It gets the point across though.


Did you know that your brain swells when you're asleep?

Perhaps this is why your head feels fuzzy when someone wakes you up too soon.

P.S.: I bet you've never heard of the Glymphatic System eh? Check it out.


Breaking scientific insight! Japanese women tend to lie about whether they've been smoking recently.


It's not something we often think about, but cooking creates smells because of food chemistry - and smells are complicated. Even a "simple" food like rice, seen as a relatively "empty" carbohydrate, emits hundreds of unique compounds into the air during cooking, creating a distinct smell.

The experiment in this poster attempts to identify all the compounds emitted by the different varieties of rice, to create a correlation between pleasing smells and particular compounds.

With that information, scientists can conduct more precisely targeted experiments to develop a variety of rice that grows well in a given region, and also fetches a higher price (because it smells better.)


Here's a similar, but not identical, metabolomics experiment with wine. The neat thing I learned here is that one of the smell components of wine, according to wine tasters, is "bike tyre rubber". Hilarious! I've been a cyclist for a long time, and I tell you what ... bike tires don't smell good.


The human body carries about 100 trillion microorganisms in its intestines (a number ten times greater than the total number of human cells in the body) and their role in digestion is extraordinarily complicated, and largely unmapped.

This experiment is pointing out something interesting: Our intestines absorb and process many different types of nutrients, and some them are found in the food we eat, but the majority of them are synthesized for us by the bacteria we carry within. Not just one or two types, like vitamin K and vitamin B, but the majority.

Without this symbiotic relationship, we would be so totally screwed!


Here's one of my favorites. Scientists took three very different meals, ground them up into liquid, and ran the liquid through a high-performance liquid chromatography system...


... Then they categorized the metabolites they detected, and plotted them according to their relative levels in each meal. This particular chart is only a small part of the data they collected. It's a heat map of the triglycerides they measured.

Basically, this is an extremely expensive way to prove that the American meal is chock-full of saturated fats, and the lightweight vegetarian meal is almost entirely fat-free, with the more "Mediterranean" meal in the middle. Whether this even constitutes useful information is debatable, as you may gather from the Wikipedia forest around triglycerides and all the instances of "[citation needed]".

Triglycerides of all types are broken down into their component parts inside the small intestine, and then re-assembled from parts and stuffed into large carrier packages, then passed into the lymph system and from there into the bloodstream. Those carrier packages are called lipoproteins, and they come in various sizes, and serve various roles as they move around in the blood. There are "high-density" lipoproteins and "low-density" lipoproteins, among others, and it's believed that the "low-density" ones encourage heart disease, while the "high-density" ones protect against it.

There is a fuzzy link between the balance of triglycerides you eat, and the balance of "high-density" versus "low-density" lipoprotein packages constructed to carry them around in your blood. It's not as simple as, "avoid fats", and it's not as simple as "avoid carbohydrates". There's also a large, mostly unknown, genetic component, so it's not as simple as "avoid saturated fats". But so far, the fickle finger of fate is pointing mostly at the "Mediterranean" meal as the smartest choice.

Now, if we all had access to those foods at reasonable prices, and we all ate just to stay alive, and not for pleasure or convenience, this would be life-changing information, wouldn't it?

Into this complicated mess, science marches on. At least the charts are pretty.


Meanwhile, the local hardware vendors are giving out candy!


Speaking of getting fat, here's a sobering bit of information. This is from an experiment done on mice, so take that as you will, but what it's basically saying is, if you gain a bunch of weight, your body chemistry changes on a permanent basis. Even if you work the weight off, and keep it off for years, your body will not behave in the old way ever again.


Look! SCIENCE! It means: Perfect hair, perfect makeup, perfect lighting, perfect skin, and a pouty deferential look ... oh and some protective glasses, because hey, this is serious.

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Wednesday, July 1st, 2015
12:44 am - Digesting Seveneves: Wherein I struggle with being an armchair geneticist.
Stephenson needs to listen to his editor more, or perhaps get a different one. At least that's the impression I get as a reader - it seems like the touch of an editor has been too light. But for all I know, this book started out twice as long as the version we eventually got - and if that's the case I don't even want to think about how frustrating that original version was. There were times I imagined him opening a PDF file of a physics textbook in his word processor, doing "select all" and "copy", then finding a chunk of dialogue in his draft and planting the cursor smack in the middle of that and hitting "paste".

Okay, that's unfair. He is clearly chasing his own interests, and his long digressions into them are almost a trademark of his writing. But he just spends too much time talking about orbital mechanics, perhaps expecting that the concepts will magically become compelling to everyone if only he can get the explanations clear enough. They're fairly clear, and that's quite an accomplishment, but after the third or fourth obsessive tour through the physics, I was tempted to just turn pages without reading, looking for the quotation marks of dialogue that might advance the plot.

And that's especially frustrating, because the plot is fantastic! A thundering adventure with plenty of twists and macabre accidents, emphasizing the danger and desolation of space. Most of the time I enjoyed it hugely and was greedily stealing hours from my errands, workday, and sleep time, just to keep plowing along. I'd definitely recommend it, if you can tolerate the frequent asides.

I do have a few bones to pick, though. If I sound frustrated when I bring these up it's only because I'm holding the book to a very high standard - a standard of hard near-future science fiction, which might be the most difficult standard across all the genres of fiction - and I'm disappointed that every tiny little ramification of every movement into the fringes of science has not been thoroughly considered before me. Yes, it's harsh and unfair, and I'm a little prissy princess, but that's why this is a blog post: It's more about feelings than anything else. And I think there are other people out there - other hard sci-fi goons - who share my frustrations.

With that awkward disclaimer aside, I should also give out a warning: I am about to completely spoil the plot. I am going to spoil the hell out of it. If you want to read it yourself with an open perspective, you really should stop reading now. No, seriously. Hey; what are you doing still here? Go read the book! Quick!
Here we go.Collapse )

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Tuesday, June 30th, 2015
7:51 pm - Problems With Reality Mix 2
Surprise! It's another mix!

Problems With Reality Mix 2 (Lossless version)
Problems With Reality Mix 2 (AAC version)
Problems With Reality Mix 2 (MP3 version)

My day job has taken an interesting turn for the last few weeks, requiring me to be up at 7:30am or earlier, and put in 13+ hour days conducting interviews and making presentations. Very social, very extroverted. When the weekends came I felt a huge desire for private time. So I closed myself up in my house with the lights off and watched silly horror movies*.

A couple of movies into that, I felt an even bigger desire to mix loud clangy music together, extending the mental space I explored in the first "Problems With Reality" mix four years ago. It's like I was tired of being sane and normal with such intensity and needed to swing the pendulum hard the other way to "re-balance" myself. I don't know what that implies about my own psychology when I need to swing back away from something I've labeled sane and normal, but that's what it feels like. Maybe I'm just reacting to my culture's tendency to label extroversion as normal and introversion as a sign of disorder and weakness.

Way back in pre-history, perhaps extroverted people did rule the world. Then it all started to go sideways, when the first real introvert showed up, watched the extrovert talking and crashing through the jungle on their regular routine, thought quietly for a while, and then installed a tripwire across the beaten path.

Heh heh heh.

Anyway, here it is. I really enjoyed making this mix, and I hope you enjoy hearing it.

Tracklist behind the cut, for those of you who want to keep it a surprise.Collapse )

*Incidentally, the original movie version of The Dead Zone, with Christopher Walken, directed by David Cronenberg, is fantastic. It has a "tragic romance" aspect that I never appreciated when I saw it as a kid.

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Tuesday, June 16th, 2015
12:46 pm - Wherefore all these "apps"?
When we look at the current app world, why do we see so many odd business models and unworkable products fighting so hard for attention? Why is it such a mess?
Because there is a large group of "early adopters".
These people love to go digging around in the territory, and many apps get discovered that would otherwise be ignored.
These people also love to evangelize apps strongly, to each other and to the general public, because it gives them social status.
They are a key pathway to an app becoming adopted by the majority - a much larger, much more entrenched group, promising much more profit - and they are very active right now.
Think about any other product space, even the very large and common ones, like shoes, cars, jewelry, sporting equipment, movies, music.
Apps on portable devices currently outpace all of them in terms of the attention people are paying, combined with the upside to being a “winner” in that space.
If your app is wildly successful, you can make billions of dollars.
And so, people like Kim Kardashian feel a need to have computer programmers on their payroll.

Can't say I mind. I'll gladly sell the most expensive very highest quality picks and shovels to anyone who thinks there's gold in "them thar hills".

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Saturday, June 6th, 2015
9:32 pm - RULES
From: "Girdle Popper" <G_Popper@Hotmail.Com>
Newsgroups: alt.tasteless.jokes
Subject: Rules On How To Be A Man!
Date: 27 Jun 1998 20:24:33 GMT
Message-ID: <01bda207$4ddde360$>

1. Name your penis. Be sure it is something narcissistic and unoriginal, like "Spike."
2. You are a man. Remember, no matter what, it isn't your fault.
3. Never ask for help. Even if you really need it, don't ask. People will think you have no penis.
4. Women like it when you ignore them. It arouses them.
5. Don't call, ever. If, God forbid, you have to talk to a girl on the phone, use only monosyllabic words and noises. Bodily noises are permissible.
6. Deny everything. Everything.
7. Life is one big competition. If someone is better than you at anything, either pretend it's not true or beat them up.
8. At any given oppertunity, point out how things look like genitalia.
9. Say things like "Wha...?"
10. You are NOT a virgin, ever. Males are born without virginity.
11. If your woman makes you go shopping with her, drive around until a parking spot right near the door opens up. If this takes hours, so be it: You will have the coveted "Door Spot" and others will worship you.
12. If you're ever forced to show emotion, just pick a random one, like rage, lust, or insanity, and display it at a random, inconvenient time. You won't be asked to do it again.
13. If you are asked to do something you don't want to do, first try your manly best to get out of it. If that doesn't work, go ahead and do what you were asked, but complain that you don't know how to do it and continuously ask questions on how to do each tiny part. If no one rushes in to do it for you yet, finish the job in the most half-assed way you possibly can and then yell "See? I TOLD you I couldn't do it." Eventually people will stop asking you to do things.

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Tuesday, June 2nd, 2015
1:43 am - NZ Day 13: Ruminating In Rotorua
Today we got another early-morning call with bad news. No dolphin snorkeling activity for us - the sea was still too choppy. Kerry and I decided that Whakatane was bad luck, so we checked out a day early and shoved our bicycles into a bus, and rode it back up to the lovely lakeside city of Rotorua.

The highway seemed even more twisty on this return trip, and we both got upset stomachs. It was early afternoon when we arrived in Rotorua, and instead of setting out immediately on the bike path towards Waiotapu, we decided to use our extra day to recuperate a little more and get an earlier start the next morning.

Most of the hotels in Rotorua were booked solid, and most of the rest had very high prices. Eventually we found one that was affordable and only a little bit crusty, and we flopped onto the bed and napped until our stomachs felt better. The discomfort inspired us to go through our luggage again and prepare another box of gear that we could ship directly to New Plymouth, instead of hauling it around for another three weeks. We paid for shipping online and left the box with the hotel receptionist, who promised to hand it to the carrier when they came by the next day.

I've been thinking lately: Travel is often romanticized and overrated, especially when it's the kind of travel that's packaged and sold to the middle class - and the aspiring middle class. For a while now I've been lucky enough to consider myself middle class, and one of the reasons I know this is, I have become a target for these romanticized, packaged experiences.

In the case of New Zealand, the package is obvious to me. It's, "come wander through a working model of Middle Earth! You'll dance with Hobbits, swing swords at orcs, and cast Magic Missile at the darkness!" Well, I could try and pursue that. I could completely embrace that vision - that product - and come to New Zealand intent on finding it. If I went with what the travel agents recommend, it would go like this:

Drop several thousand dollars on a helicopter ride into the mountains, then stand around for a few minutes in front of a rock formation that looks vaguely like the background plate for the city of Minas Tirith - except there's no city there, obviously. Then fly another helicopter to a meandering spot on the Mangawhero River, the backdrop for (and I quote) "the dramatic scenes of Gollum catching a fish." Then drive a few miles into a farmer's back yard, to a hill that, if you squint, kind of looks like Fort Edoras in Rohan - if you scraped off the actual fort. And look! Here's a hill that looks like Weathertop, if you squint and imagine a Weathertop-shaped structure in its place!

What better way to destroy a fantasy world? Heh heh heh.

Oh, how I mock the packaged product; but I do need to cop to the fact that I wouldn't be in New Zealand if it wasn't for the Lord Of The Rings films drawing my attention to it. Even if I'm not imagining myself in the Mines of Moria whenever I wander into a cave (like I did in Kentucky), I have still obviously been influenced by Peter Jackson's adoration for his native country, and our common roots of fantasy literature.

Kerry has been to India quite a few times. She has many stories to tell, and they thoroughly clash with the "product" of tourism in India. In India's case I think it would be fair to call that product the "Eat Pray Love experience". It goes, "be like Julia Roberts! Reject middle-class decadence by burning thousands of dollars in jet fuel to flirt with exotic men! Oh, and there's yoga, so it's totally legit." I wonder how many people see the movie, or something like it, or perhaps any one of a zillion Bollywood films, then go to India ... and it's beautiful and exotic, but it's also packed with constant harassment, heartbreaking poverty, chaos, inconvenience, and filth.

Of course, the "product" is not born of India, but more from a negative sketch of what's missing back home. And the same is true for the fantasy sketch of New Zealand. Even if we know they're fake, such things can have a perverse and lingering attraction anyway. I just burned thousands of dollars in jet fuel to ride a bicycle in an exotic location, and is there anything meaningful I'm chasing in it? Probably not. It's not for charity, it's not for self-discovery... I'm not running from a past trauma... I'm not even doing yoga! (Just some fake Tai-Chi!)

So, I can't shake the feeling that despite my high-mindedness, I am guilty of chasing the equivalent of the "Eat Pray Love experience" for geeks. I haven't thought much about the Lord Of The Rings films, except during the tour of Hobbiton - kind of hard to avoid, when you're walking around inside the Green Dragon Inn - but nevertheless I am mimicking the films in my own way, pursuing my own version of that product. I'm on a fairly self-contained journey (bicycling) through fresh air and nature (New Zealand), avoiding deadly beasts (cars) and exploring old ruins (Limestone Island) while casting Magic Missile (taking pictures)... A great antidote for my day-to-day job, which takes place at a desk. Where does the prepackaged fantasy world end, and my own mundane vacation begin? Am I the same posh, blinkered middle-class traveler that I look down upon for buying the "packaged product" of New Zealand as Middle Earth?

Perhaps I am, with just a difference in degree.

The most appalling packaged travel I ever took part in was a three-day cruise to a little island off the coast of Florida, on one of those gigantic cruise ships. There's a lot I could say about it, but I'll just say, every corner of the ship was enthusiastically designed to make me - the traveler - feel USELESS, like a pet hamster trapped in a giant food bowl. All that comfort backfired and made me feel very uncomfortable.

Maybe that's what the difference in degree is: Comfort level. Perhaps I demand some level of discomfort because it bestows some feeling of accomplishment, or worthiness. Something to set me apart from other people. Not for the impression it gives other people - I'm usually embarrassed at the attention I get when I mention my long bike tours, since I think it identifies me as crazy more than anything else - but for the impression it gives to myself. I seek something personal, in the dangerous roads, the harsh weather, the rough sleeping, the isolation. Enlightenment, on my own terms.

Well, it's true: Sometimes the uncomfortable aspects of travel can be the most enlightening, if you give them enough time to work on you. For example, I think the desolation of the small, meth-addled towns I passed through when cycling across the US helped me re-assess what was really worth worrying about in my own life. Of course, that's another thing that the middle class is vilified for: Traipsing through third-world countries and using poverty as a kind of framing device for their own trifling problems back home. I've seen plenty of scathing editorials drifting across Facebook, flouncing at "poverty fetishism", accumulating truculent "likes" like ants on roadkill.

Well, haters gonna hate, and ain'ters gonna ain't.

As an aside, I think it's very interesting that the author of Eat Pray Love wrote a followup book, gathering material about the meaning of marriage, as a tactic to conquer her own fears about it after her bitter divorce. To me, this says that "Eat Pray Love" - and the travel and the farting around and the talk of spirituality - was just a years-long phase where the author "got her sillies out" (as an ex of mine would say), and the follow-up book "Committed" is where the real work of self-improvement took place, back home in the 'States, back in another stable arrangement. I haven't read it, but perhaps she even admits to herself somewhere in those pages that she didn't have to travel to Bali to meet a man worthy of her time, and could have just as probably found one within 10 square miles of her house. She went to Bali to make her ovaries happy, just like I've seen many divorced men my age spend a fortune bedding exotic women to make their post-divorce penises happy.

All-too-human, but not exactly a spiritual awakening. ... Good thing too, because if a spiritual awakening cost that much money, it would be in very short supply!

Onward, to the next day...

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Sunday, May 31st, 2015
5:50 pm - Western Desert, parts 1-4
I was invited to post this on the Ambient Nights website as a guest mixer, but with the site under construction for the last 8 months and other work stacking up behind it, it's time to get this out on the internet.

This is mix 1 of a musical triptych about starting over - searching for lost identity.

The idea for the particular sound came to me when I was bicycling through the high desert of eastern Oregon in 2009.

I was out by myself in a vast hot space, filled with clean air and shimmering light, with the epic scale of nature and geology laid bare around me. It was brutally inhospitable and deeply comforting and intimate at the same time, and an environment well-suited for self-assessment. It was also scattered with the detritus of older stories, of pioneering settlers and farmers, who engaged directly with this raw landscape to establish a new life and independence for themselves. Those stories wove into my personal thoughts as I traveled, making my little bike trip feel like its own epic expedition into the western frontier.

A few years later I wanted to return to that feeling, and began searching for a way to encapsulate it in music. It was very difficult to find things that were differentiated enough to have character, while still fitting within the mental space I had staked out. Eventually I ended up with a patchwork of heroic - and somewhat corny - Western movie soundtracks, hallucinatory ambient sounds, local background noise from wind and animals, and languid, seductive steel guitar. I wanted something long: A soundscape with different parts telling a loose story, each brief enough to have structure but also long enough to get lost in - to let the mind wander - and use it to meditate on a theme.

That theme is, succinctly: Starting over with nothing.

Parts 1-4 are combined into a one-hour mix:

Part 1: Setting Out
Part 2: Frontier
Part 3: Oasis
Part 4: Lightning Storm

Here's an Apple Lossless (ALAC) version, for all you audiophile types like me. (322mb)
Here's an AAC version, suitable for playing in iPods and almost all other modern music players. (127mb)
Here's an MP3 version, suitable for digital players new, old, and ancient. (138mb)

The cover photo was taken by my father during a trip down the Baja peninsula 40 years ago.

You can click here for the tracklist ... or just skip this link and listen to it without knowing what's in store for you. :)

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Saturday, May 30th, 2015
6:17 pm - NZ Day 12: Bushwhackin' Whakatane


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Thursday, May 28th, 2015
3:02 pm - NZ Days 10-11: Idle Time
After the excitement of Hobbiton, we took a day off in Tirau. We opened the door to our motel room, letting in the sunlight and letting out the cigarette smell, and just lazed around for the entire day, cropping photos, playing with the internet, and snacking. Aaaaaaaah!

Here"s a gallery of snacks we saw in New Zealand:Collapse )

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Wednesday, May 13th, 2015
7:37 pm - NZ Day 9: Hobbiton


Today we set out for Hobbiton, on a lovely 13-mile route zig-zagging past farms and pastures. Our tour was scheduled for late in the day so we had plenty of time to look around.

Let's go!!

"Hobbiton, this-a-way!" (Also, dork doing tai-chi, this-a-way.)

Well, it looks like it might be tai-chi, and I've done it before, but in this case I was just posing for the camera. Check out that beautiful countryside in the background! Sometimes it reminded me of California wine country, but less constricted by walls and highways. The hills can really stretch out and get a good roll going here.

"Caution while crossing. Your mother will guide you, while she searches for her severed left hand."

On farmland, trees often have a clear space beneath them that's a very exact height. I assume it's because the animals nibble off all the low-hanging leaves. This means you could actually figure out how tall the tallest animal in a field is, just by looking at the trees.

Kerry and I both had the same thought when we saw this bike: "If this were Oakland, that would be gone in 20 minutes or less." We're city-folk, yup...

Our picnic stop attracted a FREELOADER!!!! No free rides! Get off!

Kerry and I were mystified by these clinging dust clouds, until a local explained that they were dumping massive amounts of lime on the hillside to fertilize the soil and re-grow the grass. Here's a video of us coasting down the road, with lime distribution happening to our left:

When the wind's at our backs, we barely have to pedal. If only every day was like this...

And, if only every day you could meet a grumpy long-haired long-horned old goat by the side of the road, and feed him snacks! Check out the video:

Bread! Bread bread bread give me the BREAD. I am the goat, so bread is mine.

OOF! As soon as the goat realized Kerry had bread to feed him, he wriggled his way through the fence and jumped at her. Kerry's reactions are quick, so she fell backwards before the goat could make contact, and I grabbed one of his horns and held him in place. Kerry was back on her feet in a few seconds, no injuries.

It's a good thing that a goat's strength isn't proportional to his smell, or he would have been unstoppable!

"This is MY cabbage! Take a step near it and I will CLOBBER you!!"

When she saw us paying attention to the goat, the owner came out of her house with some cabbage we could feed him. She also told us a few stories about him. The general theme was: "Don't try to mess with the goat!" "Ouch, I got injured!" "Hey I warned you didn't I?"

It was a very lovely visit. But Hobbiton awaited! So we left the goat chomping cabbage and rode on.

The most important thing here is that you be alarmed!! (The details of the message can be buried in grass, for all we care...)

Even if the trees weren't trimmed this way, I'm sure the passing trucks would beat them into shape pretty soon...

Break time! Let's chomp some snacks and look at stuff...

The first highway sign pointing the way! Are you excited? I'm excited!

We made it to the visitor center, where we'll catch a shuttle into Hobbiton. Cloudy weather, but oh well. It'll still be awesome, even if the pictures aren't perfect.

The Hobbiton gathering area was awash in Japanese and Chinese tourists, each with approximately 3.5 cameras, including the obligatory cellphone screwed onto the end of a selfie-stick. I felt right at home among them, fiddling with my own avalanche of camera gear.

We took a look around in the gift shop but, to our surprise, there wasn't anything particularly special for sale. Lots and lots of t-shirts and exactly the same things you could buy online. I was hoping to find something novel to send to the nephews back home. Dang.

About half an hour later, we got in line, and were the first to board the shuttle. It glided across the road and over a hill, arriving at an official-looking gate.

One of our guides had to jump out and open it for the bus.

The sign reads, "before you dig, see site management."

Too late, maaaan, I'm already waaaaay digging it.

In case you're wondering, the electrified wires are to scare all the grazing sheep away. Nothing to do with corralling small children. Though I wonder... Do the Hobbits try to escape?

If it rains, they have an army of umbrellas standing by...

Oh boy oh boy oh boy oh boy! (Can't you tell I'm excited in the picture?)

Here's the first thing you see stepping around the corner. The guide took one look at my Twoflower-style Hawaiian shirt, my huge camera, and my even bigger grin, and pointed at me and said "You. Go first." So I walked ahead of the group and got to stand and compose this nice shot with nobody in the foreground.

The perks of looking like a dork. Perhaps I reminded him of that dorky actor in the video that Air New Zealand shows you when you're preparing for takeoff.

We have arrived! The tour has begun!

Very excited photographer; can't decide what to point at first!

Check out this little video panorama Kerry made, to set the scene:

Lots of things to check out here!

Hobbiton is maintained like a farm. All the gardens are real, and all of the produce on display is grown from those gardens.

The attention to detail is very impressive, especially since all the plant life is genuine.

For example, the trees are all heavy with fruit this time of year, but you won't find a single one on the ground, since that would imply an absence of hungry hobbits. It really does feel like they all just stepped out of sight for a moment as you happen to be wandering through.

It's all just SO CUTE !!!!

This pond was here before set construction began. During filming, a handful of frogs moved in, and made so much noise they had to be relocated.

I've always enjoyed little self-contained idyllic scenes, left unpopulated, as though one could step inside them any time.

At times, this environment eerily reminds me of walking around the Santas Village amusement park, back in Scotts Valley in the 1980's...

... And at other times, it reminds me of a very old fantasy computer game called "Below The Root" that took place in a forest of enormous trees with houses built into them.

Every dwelling is decorated for a particular occupation and it's fun to guess what they are. See the drying rack on the right? Perhaps this is the local herbalist?

I really started to wonder... What would be the logistical problems of a dwelling built into a hillside, instead of over it? Would you have problems heating the place? How would drainage and insulation work? And since I'm from California, how would it fare in an earthquake? (Very badly, I suspect...)

And yet, with all these drawbacks... Wouldn't it just be SO CUTE ???

Just think, you could grow produce on your outside walls, as well as your roof!

It's amazing how much variety the designers managed to cram into such a small chunk of land.

It looks appetizing... But this bread is made from colored cement! Sits out here all year-round.

In fact, it's a pretty close rendition of Terry Pratchett's "dwarven bread".

This is new wood decorated too look aged, using a combination of yogurt, wood chips, vinegar, and paint.

I've no idea if this is actual honey, but I assume it is, since there were actual bees crawling around on the jars.

I'd say these were supposed to be beehives, but elsewhere in Hobbiton is a beekeeper's house with some boxes out front that have removable sections of honeycomb. So... If not beehives, what are these? Bird houses? Special hives for Middle Earth "giant bees"?

Hobbits need to build better ladders if they're going to avoid injury!

More fabulous framing by Kerry.

The central Hobbiton attraction: Bilbo's house!

We made sure to take plenty of photos around it.

The other big attraction was the Green Dragon Inn, where the tourguide invited us to sit down and have a drink. We had the cider and the ginger beer, then mixed them together. The result was fantastic!

Here we are, basking in the warm glow of Hobbiton!

Check out all that fancy design work!

Hobbiton was gorgeous, and worth the price of admission. And for us, it was the high point of a lovely day spent riding through the same scenery that encircled the attraction for miles around. I think it would have been a lesser experience taking a car here. But I've been a bike snob for most of this century, so of course I would think that.

On our way back to Tirau and our hotel we were already plotting about the next visit, and what our nieces and nephews would think!

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Tuesday, May 12th, 2015
7:21 pm - NZ Day 8: Hamilton Gardens

Bursting into song about the wonders of New Zealand.
"The Russian fort is woody / In this town that's full of goodies / The butterflies, they flutter by / And farts come from their bootys"
Not bad for a first draft? At any rate, it is conclusive proof that I am 100% CLASSY.

Here's more evidence! (Gator #1 invited Gator #2 in for tea, but it was a TRAP!)

Anyway, the reason I'm all dressed up in sun-protective gear is because Kerry and I bicycled over to the Hamilton Gardens to spend the first half of the day snapping photos, disturbing insects, and bothering waterfowl, such as these:

That's a cicada skin, left behind on the underside of a leaf after the insect molted and crawled away. And of course, a duck, being ducky.

Hamilton Gardens was, and is, an amazing place to be a photographer. You're probably saying, "but I can see gardens all over the world; why would I want to waste my precious time in New Zealand walking around a garden?"

Perhaps some of these pictures will help explain why!

The place is a feast for the senses, and that feast has multiple courses. There are themed and curated gardens, kept carefully behind partitions, and large open sections that grow a little more improvisational and merge slowly across each other.

(You're probably looking at those pictures of thistles and saying, "he totally cranked up the saturation. There's no way those colors are real." Nope. That's how they looked, my friend!)

We didn't pay much attention to the signposts, and just wandered around. I have no idea how many of these plants are native to New Zealand, or even to the same hemisphere.

The Monarch butterflies were familiar, though! I grew up in a town called Santa Cruz, and during part of the year we could see them hibernating at Natural Bridges State Beach. (Check out this Forestry Service article about their migration routes.) Monarchs were brought to New Zealand from North America, and seem to have a pretty good foothold here, despite the cold winters.

They were very busy drinking nectar, so as long we we didn't interrupt them, it was possible to get incredibly close. Check out this iPhone video:

Now that is close! By the way, that loud hissing sound you hear is the cicadas, scattered throughout the foliage and talking to each other. It's intense, but after a while it fades into the background and you stop noticing it.

It makes me wonder: Do New Zealanders travel to places like North America and walk into the redwoods, and get disoriented because the forest is so very quiet?

The birds let us get pretty close too.

Anybody know what kind of bird this is?

That's me trying to blend in with the local foliage!


One of the newer exhibits was this tudor-accented topiary, groomed into precise tessellations, and decorated with carvings of mythic creatures and gods.

I think some of the carvings were deliberately made to look deranged, or cartoonish, to evoke Lewis Carroll's poetry. I mean, look at that basilisk thing. Is it menacingly reptilian? Or adorably dopey? I can't decide.

And of course, what mythic garden would be complete without Pan, frolicking in the bushes? (Trying to track down a nymph no doubt.)

Elsewhere in the gardens, the Lewis Carroll influence was obvious!

The heat from the gravel and stones in this particular garden was mesmerizing, and the desire to sit down on that bench and lose a few hours was intense. The place had a sense of comfortable timelessness to it, like it would remain early afternoon for as long as you cared to linger there.

By contrast, the "productive" garden area - full of edible plants, and decorated with signs discussing composting and suggesting recipes - brought feelings of growth and renewal. Everything in it looked like it was just about to be pulled up and chopped into a salad bowl, or stirred into a stewpot. Mmmmm!

It looked delicious and I caught a few fellow tourists reaching into the exhibits and plucking out onions, or tomatoes, or peas, and sneaking them furtively into their pockets or mouths.

Even the things that weren't technically edible looked delicious.

Doesn't that flower just look good enough to chomp? (As an aside, I'm very pleased with the framing of this photo. It's on par with the framing that Kerry manages to get almost all the time. I don't know how she does it...)

Azolla: Free-floating water ferns! They contain a nitrogen fixing bacteria (Abaeberia azollae), and can be used as a mulch on the garden, or as chicken feed. Azolla grows rapidly and is a pest to lakes, ponds, and waterways, so it needs to be contained - like in this bathtub - for garden use.

The "productive" area was even more saturated with insects than the other gardens.

Among the "productive" gardens was one of more local origin called the Te Parapara Garden. Here's me pretending to be one of the wall carvings.

Dig this: Te Parapara was originally the name of the pre-European Maori settlement in what is now the centre of Hamilton Gardens!

The section is part tribute, part reference, and has two sub-sections, one presenting the uncultivated food the Maori gathered from the forest and grassland, the other presenting the system they developed for organized farming of these and other tropical crops in a sub-tropical climate. When Europeans showed up in the 1840's, this system was well-established in plantations all over the islands.

Speaking of tropical, another highlight for us was the tropical-themed garden. 200 different species of plants, according to the documentation, hardy enough to be grown outdoors but still giving the appearance of the tropics.

The colors were intense, and many of the plants had a thickness and stiffness to them that made the garden feel as much like a sculpture or a carving than something grown from the soil.

I wonder what it would take to grow these in my back yard? I have a bunch of succulents there already - perhaps it's time to add to the collection when I get back home?

Even the doorways were interesting here...

...And each of them led to something new and unique, like this Italian Renaissance-themed garden with many pockets and sections to explore.

Having so many distinct styles so close together, but confined to their own sections, appealed to my OCD nature. It was like browsing a collection of trading cards or figurines neatly organized on a shelf. Sharpened borders, matching sizes, and no intermediate space becomes just as important a part of the structure as the content itself.

I assume this is why most of my plants back home are in pots. They're all together in the garden, but they're also distinct and - in a very real way - protected from one another. Plants will happily fight to the death for root and sun space, and I don't want to lose any "weaker" species to "stronger" ones. I gotta catch 'em all!

Perhaps this is why I was so impressed by the Victorian Flower Garden:

All the plants seemed to be co-existing, even though they were placed together in what looks like a big tangle. I assume this is a combination of careful selection and careful grooming.

The effect was lovely, and the open setting - colorful and layered without being overwhelming - made this garden my favorite, slightly outranking the Tudor garden with the weird topiary.

We both wanted to stay longer, but we had a bus to catch. There were three or four sections that we just didn't have time to see. It would also have been nice to set down a little picnic blanket and have lunch somewhere. Nope! Got to get going.

There is so much of New Zealand to see - including dozens of things Kerry and I already know about and deliberately decided to skip - that it's unlikely I'll ever return to the Hamilton Gardens to finish my tour. Plus, the sections are always in flux - their contents are literally growing. A return visit would not be a return to the same sights as before. So if you think you can skip it just because you've seen my pictures, well, it just ain't so!

Kerry and I returned to the Albert Court Motor Lodge and fetched the rest of our luggage from the garage near the office, which the clerk had graciously let us use for our visit to the gardens. A while after that we were riding the bus out of town, towards Tirau. This would provide us a flatter approach to Hobbiton than the route we'd originally planned.

Tirau turned out to be a collection of shops strung out along Highway 1 where it briefly merges with Highway 27 and Highway 5, with a few motels scattered in like eddies in a river. Like speedboats in that same river, big trucks would come roaring up and down the highway through town at all times of day or night, with little regard for pedestrians or the wake of noise they left. We went out for dinner and watched them zooming by as we ate.

Out of curiosity, Kerry bought a popular local drink, called "L&P". Kiwis think this drink is awesome, but to us it tastes obnoxious. We've decided the "L&P" stands for "Lemon and Puke".

Our motel room reeked so much of cigarettes that we had to keep the windows open and even move the bed closer to the windows, but at the same time the noise from the trucks was punishing. Sleep wasn't easy.

But who cares! Today was amazing, and tomorrow we're going to Hobbiton!

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Monday, May 11th, 2015
5:07 pm - NZ Day 7: The Cat Bus (Or at least, the Bus To The Cat)
Even without the reconfiguring, our schedule always included one very long bus ride from Waipu down to Hamilton, so we could get off the northern peninsula of the island and reach the interior, close to the Hobbiton movie set. Kerry and I had to see Hobbiton, of course. If we went all the way to New Zealand and then skipped it, we would be beating ourselves with sticks at the end of the trip -- and when we got home our friends would probably beat us with sticks too. And it would serve us right! Hah!

We got up with plenty of time to spare before the bus, and packed the bikes up lazily. We both knew we'd just be going half a mile and then re-packing them underneath a bus. In seven days we've had to switch our gear between planes, a kayak, bicycles, hiking trails, a boat, a shuttle, and a bus, with four hotels and a post office in between. Sometimes it feels like it's the gear that's on vacation, and we're just chaperoning it along. "Here, let me fluff that pillow for you, camera. Is that seat comfortable enough, repair kit? Be sure and give me a good Yelp review after your trip."

(As an aside, it's day 7, and we've already been personally reminded by employees at two establishments to go online and review them on Yelp. That service has quite a foothold here, I guess.)

The bus churned and rumbled way, waaay up into the hills along Highway 1. We never even considered cycling on this part of the highway, and I was very glad for that. We could have been squished by this very bus! I dashed back and forth between the windows on either side, giddily snapping photos, but afterwards I looked at them and almost none were usable. I was countering the motion blur by shooting at 1/8000-second, relying on the amazing sensor in the camera to keep the photos from being grainy, but every time I saw a pretty scene at the roadside it flew out of range before I could compose the shot. I am spoiled by bike touring in multiple ways.

I caught a few interesting things, but after an hour or so I just put the camera away and chatted with Kerry, and then listened to The Amazing Maurice And His Educated Rodents while she took a nap. I've discovered a third thing that causes her to instantly fall asleep next to me: Riding a bus. The first two are watching tv, and reading fiction out loud to her. (Non-fiction doesn't seem to work.)

After many hours, we arrived in Hamilton, and set out to accomplish the day's mission: We were going to visit Diesel, the Rototuna Countdown Cat. Yes, that's right, we've traveled thousands of miles around the curve of the Earth in order to roll up and visit a cat that lives in front of a supermarket. We're perverse individuals that way.

We had to ride pretty far north from the bus stop - also the opposite direction from our booked hotel - to get to the right Countdown supermarket, and when we got there, one of the clerks told us that the owners of Diesel had in fact moved away at the end of last year and taken the cat with them. This was pretty disappointing, but the side-trip turned out to be worthwhile, because the very same shopping center had a pet store in it with another kittycat wandering around outside!

"Welcome to the shop! My name is Ginger Boy! I'll show you around."

"These are some of my favorite things! Actually, everything in here is mine, and it's all my favorite! Let me show you more!"

"Welcome to my apartment! My best favorite thing, is the food thing. Now you pet me while I eat, and that's two favorite things at the same time!"

(Nom nom nom nom nom nom nom nom.)

"Then afterwards, we sit and watch the Zebra Finches! If you want one, they're only five bucks each." (Ginger Boy was right, they're fascinating. I took a short movie of them darting around.)

After that visit, Kerry and I ate some mediocre fush'n'chups and cycled back across town to the Albert Court Motor Lodge. Hobbiton was only two days away, but before that we were going to explore the Hamilton Gardens! Fancy stuff! But before that: Lots of sleep.

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Monday, May 4th, 2015
10:40 pm - NZ Day 6: Waipu Wandering
We got a decent amount of sleep, and it was all downhill into central Whangarei to catch the shuttle directly to Waipu. This would mark our first diverging from the schedule we'd meticulously prepared over the previous two months. We would be skipping the Waipu caves and their dark ceilings, sparkling with glow-worms, but we would also be skipping another several thousand feet of hills, as steep as the ones that punished us on that first day of riding. Now we knew our limitations, and we knew this was a necessary change.

The bicycles fit sideways into the luggage compartment under the bus without any acrobatics, and we piled our bags around them, except for our backpacks which we were too paranoid to relinquish. My rough estimate is that we were carrying about $11000 worth of gear in those backpacks, mostly in the form of camera lenses. That's pretty absurd, especially since we could have left half that gear at home and barely changed our enjoyment of the trip.

The green countryside scrolled by, and we found ourselves in Waipu before my stomach had a chance to notice it was on a bus and get upset - a childish behavior that it picked up years ago when I was riding commuter shuttles to work. We stepped off into an early autumn day with a fresh breeze and just a hint of ocean salt, and a few minutes later we had our gear reassembled and were riding back down the main street of Waipu, looking for our hotel, and for a place to get snacks.

The motel room was cheap, but dingy and cramped. The single-pane window opened directly onto a parking space. All the usual hardware was stacked in a corner - television on top of VCR on top of mini-fridge, unplugged and dusty. We stripped the bikes down, hauled the bags inside, then hauled the bikes in after. The room was now incredibly cramped, but we didn't care - it was time to go out and get snacks!

The restaurant across from the hotel was excellent. Actually, it was as good as the hotel was bad! We ate burgers and salad, and drank cider at a spacious table. Encouraged by the weather, we decided to go out riding and see what else we could find. What we found was a pastoral paradise.

We rode out through a meandering patchwork of lush green fields, split by slow rivers along soft banks, and crisscrossed by dirt roads with deep ruts and high shoulders of tangled grass. Dark horses, cream-colored sheep, and speckled cows meandered around, nibbling on the grass or lounging in the sun, between fences of rusty wire and wooden posts. Across all this blew a steady coastal breeze, fresh but not cold, weaving into the trees and carrying the scent of the sea, and higher up, carrying along an army of fleecy white clouds, sailing like galleons in the sky. It was like riding around inside everyone's collective hallucination of the perfect day in the countryside. A living daydream, filling up every kind of sense.

It was a feeling like the one I felt in western Kansas, on a particular day when I was bicycling there three years ago. Not exactly the same; the Kansas air had been warmer, and pungent with the smell of old grass and wet soil. A Halloween smell. Waipu was bringing me a younger, lighter smell - something like Easter. Looking around, I would not have felt surprised to see little pastel eggs tucked into the hollows of trees, and peeking out from rabbit holes.

Savoring this vivid impression, I stopped by the side of the road and dug a chocolate bar out of my saddlebag. A hundred feet away, Kerry pedaled up to a horse behind a low fence, but it saw her coming and backed nervously away, intimidated by the combined size of bicycle and rider. Kerry chastised the horse for being a scaredy-cat, and giggled. "Silly horse," I said, talking casually over our headsets. "Doesn't it know that bicyclists always have snacks?"

Once again, all the effort of hauling these awkward bicycle contraptions around felt absolutely worth it. We were traveling within, not just traveling through.

We pedaled around the area north of town, then came back and made a left turn, headed towards the sea. The road curved around and undulated over a few gentle hills. Nothing intimidating like what we saw the day before, thank goodness. We stopped in a random spot, peed behind some the bushes, then flopped down in the grass and chomped through a bag full of bubble gum. This is how a day of cycling is supposed to go! Not a death march, but a long string of roadside picnics.

"I'm still getting used to the idea of spending an entire day riding a bike," Kerry said. "I mean, not pedaling the whole time obviously, but... It's strange being 'in transit' for so long, you know? I'm used to riding a bike to get somewhere. So I get this feeling of impatience, like, we should just never stop, and pedal hard, so we can hurry up and get to the next town, the next thing. But I know that's not the right way to think about it, so I'm pushing back against that idea in my head. That's taking effort, but I think I can get there. We'll see. Still, it's good that we're doing other stuff too and not just bicycling day after day like some of the trips you've taken."

"Yeah," I said. "I don't expect you to like bicycling as much as I do. You'd have to be as crazy as I am; and that's pretty crazy. But I'm really happy you're here with me."

"Awww," she said, and gave me a hug.

We rode on, and about a half mile later we rolled around a corner and found the water - a long shallow inlet with pasture on either side, sweeping out to connect with the deeper ocean, kinked by a few bars of white sand, and with a thin crest of surf sketching out the interface between the incoming waves and the receding tide. Just up from the shore on our side of the inlet was an old graveyard, the headstones bleached and weather-beaten in some cases and sharp and shiny in others, all behind a fence with a single strand of electrified wire strung along it in plastic brackets, to keep the cows from crapping on the dead. We parked our bikes and went strolling around.

You can tell we’re only out for the day because the bicycle in the picture is lacking about 40 pounds of extra gear!

Seeing this coastal graveyard and this blue ocean and these huge clouds brought a lot of other associations to mind. Some musical, some literary. Sting's "The Soul Cages" echoed through my ears. Fragments of poetry by Robert Louis Stevenson. Images etched into my imagination when I read "The Sea Wolf" in the 7th grade. I felt detached from my own era, but it wasn't a disorienting feeling; it was a comfortable one. This graveyard by the sea was telling me something.

"Here is an environment, a source of sensations, that you cannot make your individual stamp upon, no matter what you try. Even solid stone, etched with descriptions of who you were and what you did, and placed here, will simply wear away into an anonymous blob in a thousand years, and it will be millions more years before this place even begins to look slightly different, from exactly how it looked a million years before you passed through. Maybe the shoreline will have a different shape but it will still be the same shore. All the poems written, all the ships built and launched, all the perfect picnic days and garbage left behind in human history compresses down to a thought ... an afterthought, even ... and I could be anyone standing here. Or no one."

"But is that really true? Humans do have a collective impact, after all. In seven thousand years we managed to create the Sahara Desert from grassland, with help from domesticated animals. Some people say that 15000 years ago the Great Plains was forested and only became grass because humans kept setting fires. Others say the forest retreated naturally as the glaciers melted away. And, we're certainly good at mass extinction..."

Abruptly I realized I'd been staring at the same distant sandbar for an entire minute. I walked back to my bike and stowed the camera. Time to ride out for snacks!

Kerry chatted with a few people sitting around in lawn chairs, dangling fishing poles down into the water. They told her that if we wanted to swim at a proper beach, we should cycle only "a kilometer or so" down the road and we'd find one, along with a general store. That sounded good.

Of course, "a kilometer or so" turned out to be four or five miles. We were both rapidly coming to the conclusion that New Zealanders could not be trusted to give accurate estimates of distance. It's probably not Kiwis in particular, it's probably just people who drive cars and don't bicycle. Back home, most people have at least tried bicycling. In New Zealand, people ride mountain bikes on tracks, but touring seems to be strictly for tourists. The idea of using a bicycle to get from one town to another seems absurd to just about everyone we've talked to here...

Eventually we did find a nice beach, and a nice general store. Many snacks were snacked upon.

I've never seen such a perfect demonstration of a beach forming from millions of discarded shells!

We collected a bunch of them and took a few photos, then left them around for kids to find. No sense hauling them back to the hotel.

As the afternoon moved on to evening, the shadows got deeper and more lush. Even though we were riding back the way we came, along the same road, everything looked different.

Whenever the temptation came upon us to stop and eat a snack, or take a photograph, we just went with it. The landscape seemed to be taunting us to find the right collection of buttons and switches that would capture the perfect photograph. Vacation with gadgets! Fun stuff.

Even the clouds got in on the act!

When we got back to town, I felt hungry and Kerry felt tired, so she took a nap and I walked over to the same restaurant, and went though the day's photographs.

Kerry's nap didn't last long, though: A bunch of Waipu locals gathered in the pub to watch the latest cricket game. Their shouts and laughter went straight through the thin walls of the hotel. Minus one star!

In the original schedule, Waipu was just a handy town to spend the night after exploring the Waipu Caves, but it turned out to be a fun place to explore in its own right, and very restorative. Kerry and I went to bed feeling a lot more refreshed than we'd been the previous night in Whangarei.

Good thing too, since the next day we'd be stuck in shuttles for six hours!

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