Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Viva Bollywood

I'm usually hopelessly behind popular culture icons. For instance, I rarely catch TV shows until they've peaked. So when I saw a promising preview of a new CBS show named Viva Laughlin, I set up the DVR to record it.

Little could I have imagined how strange it would be. It was a bizarre mix of film noir, slickish production values, flat characters, a quirky character (the lead detective) who rapidly turned creepy...and none of that was remotely as peculiar as its most bizarre characteristic: it was based on Bollywood. Indeed, from the very opening scene, characters would periodically meander into a combination of lip-synched and karaoke musicals, in this case pop music standards.

For all this, CBS demonstrated an absolute lack of ambition—an irony that can't be lost on a show situated in a casino. They didn't seem to believe in any of the elements, least of all the musical, leaving behind an utterly castrated and confusing show.

It figures that the one time I try to catch a show at its inception, the show would be cancelled after a single show (in Australia; they let it run for just two shows in the US). So much for my ability to pick popular culture: I ended up picking Fox Force Five.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

The Most Bohring Country in the World

I had just time, I say, and that was all, to prove the truth of an observation made by a long sojourner in [Denmark]; — namely, ‘That nature was neither very lavish, nor was she very stingy in her gifts of genius and capacity to its inhabitants; — but, like a discreet parent, was moderately kind to them all; observing such an equal tenor in the distribution of her favours, as to bring them, in those points, pretty near to a level with each other; so that you will meet with few instances in that kingdom of refined parts; but a great deal of good plain household understanding amongst all ranks of people, of which everyone has a share’; which is, I think, very right.

—Laurence Sterne, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman

He is sullen as I hand it to him. He takes it, flips through, examines, moves on, and stops. He stares closely. Then even more closely. Then under a scanner. Now he frowns deeply. Scanner insufficient, he pulls it back out and stares at it even more closely. And finally he fixes me with a grimace: “This is not good! I cannot read the stamp!” I laugh slightly. “I see! Well, that's what there is.” This does not please. “It is not a laughing matter!”, he says sternly. “I will need to check on it.”

And with that, the immigration officer walks off with my passport and my supposedly suspicious visa. To be fair it is a bit suspicious, and we have the Portuguese to thank for preparing a visa that looks like it was cooked up by a third-rate counterfeiter. But he's ignored everything else to fixate on the one (only?) thing that is entirely normal about the visa: the embossed stamp on the edge. A long five or so minutes pass (as I try not to look “suspicious”, whatever that may mean, for their hidden cameras undoubtedly trained on me) before he returns and grudgingly lets me through.

But he's not done having the last word. After complaining about the embossing (which later proves to be entirely identical in quality to that on all my other visas), he wants to grind in his thoroughness, competence, and general unhappiness at the state of my passport. So he flourishes my latest UK visa and says, “And they got this also wrong!” I've examined (and used) that visa several times, so it seems hard to believe the British Majesty's service and I could both have missed something. But the Danish Majesty's service is pointing right at the offending item: the end-date on the visa. “It should be [20]06 and instead it says [20]16!”, he bellows, as he jabs accusatorily at the offending bit of paper.

If I weren't horribly jet-lagged, I would have pointed out that this would mean my visa was valid for -1 days. As it was I asked exactly what was offensive about it. “That means it is a visa for ten years!”, he declares, as if the rest is self-evident. With polite dignity I respond, “And that is because I have a ten-year visa to the UK”. His look changes from superior to startled, and his eyes reflect absolute incomprehension.

Welcome to Denmark, I think. And I remember why it feels like the UK will outrun the Continent.

Indulge me a little, here, as I propose a theory. The superficial differences are so stark, and so many, and so overwhelming, that the initial reaction would rightly be mocking laughter. Nevertheless, I'd like to suggest that Denmark is the Nordic Portugal: a formerly glorious colonialist, so greatly reduced in power and circumstance as to build an entire introspective national identity out of that decline; a homogenous region with a minority language, sitting on the fringes of and apprehensive of the European experiment of socio-politico-economic union.

I was here on invitation to give a talk at an increasingly successful IT industry conference called JAOO, held annually in Århus (Aarhus). When I started to page through whom I knew at Danish universities, though, I realized it would be foolish to not spend some time visiting the hordes (Danvy, Møller and Ernst at Århus; Henglein, Lawall, Schürmann at various schools in Copenhagen; and that's only half the list, just those I know well personally). And I was curious to see how this Adam Smith-ian would perceive Denmark itself.

My first impression is a shock. I'd expected a northern Switzerland: clean to a fault. Instead I confront certainly the messiest train station I have seen in Europe. This, it appears, it not an isolated incident. Both in Copenhagen and in Århus, both in the mornings and the evenings, train stations are flooded with litter (usually of the wrapping-paper variety). Never mind recycling bins (of which there aren't any, anywhere in public—though this is perhaps forgiveable on the grounds that people routine misuse them anyway); trash seems to be a real problem.

Outside the stations, though, the cities evoke a certain quiet charm. My hotel rooms were in both cases clean (though not overly cozy), and evoked a Nordic sensibility (in both senses of the word)—though much more so in the renovated part of the Scandic in Århus than the dowdy Hotel Danmark in Copenhagen.

You can't visit Denmark without a Hamlet reference. While Copenhagen held too much interest (and the pouring rain was too much of a disincentive) to visit Helsingør (Elsinore), I was delighted by the very first street name I saw in Århus: Rosenkrantzgade. Oddly, while Rosenkrantz is common enough, there are no Guildenstern's to be found in plain sight.

JAOO 2007

My primary reason for being in Denmark was to speak at the JAOO conference. This is an industrial conference that this year was attended by about 1200 people, and I spoke about Flapjax in a track about novel ideas of practical import. I was a bit concerned about speaking in one of five or six parallel tracks and at the same time as some high-profile speakers, but the talk was superbly attended (I had guessed somewhere between 150 and 200; the next day at the University I met the student volunteer for my talk, who told me there were 178 people). Audiences here are quiet and, given that they're commercial developers paying top kroner to attend, not as demanding as I'd have expected (I don't think it was just me—other speakers shared the same feeling), but I did make some very good contacts. (The only strange encounter was with Jim Coplien, who happened to sit with Erlang's Joe Armstrong and me at a dinner for speakers and proceeded to pick a surreal argument that clearly represented some long-standing itch he suffers from—I was happy to let Joe argue with him while I had a very good conversation with ActiveState's Shane Caraveo instead.)

Overall, then, I had a good experience at JAOO. The organiers, especially Katrine Hofmann Gasser, are top-notch. The tech support was the best I've ever seen: one person was dedicated to avoiding the common problem that projectors cut off part of the screen. On the other hand it's a dreadful place for a vegetarian, no matter how much you warn them about it in advance. At the speaker's dinner, the only veggie item was shredded beets and some zucchini (i.e., sides for the real stuff). When I asked the staff, one young man kindly walked me around the various platters of mains and pointed to a bit of tomato stuffed between some kind of animal meat and to a bit of pumpkin laid out to decorate large cubes of some sort of fish: i.e., to the garnishes. It's safe to say he didn't get it, and the effect was rather insulting.

One very nice feature of JAOO—one that I would love to see other conferences mimic in some form—is that they organize a run. It's one Danish mile, which sounds innocent enough until you realize that's about seven-and-a-half kilometers. I was very much looking forward to it but unfortunately came down with a cold, and wanted to meet two old friends for dinner to boot (the run is organized at a strange hour). Its highlight—which alone is enough to make you want to do it—is that you go through the ARoS art museum. On the one hand I was thrilled by the idea of getting to run through a museum without being pursued by the law; on the other hand I wondered how good a collection they have if they allow a large group of uncoordinated hackers come bounding through the premises.


I visited three museums in Denmark, going to each with low expectations and having all three vastly exceed even my undiscounted expectations.

Museums in Denmark were having their problems. The famous golden horns that represent the Danish national identity (they're a bit of a fake, but don't say that too loudly) had just been stolen. At first the police suggested a great mastermind at work (down to ominous reports involving black Volvos—in America it's black helicopters, in Denmark it appears to be black Swedish cars), but it proved to be an absolute amateur job. This suggests that the (nearly comical) problems the Norwegians have had keeping The Scream secure are by no means an isolated Scandinavian phenomenon where museums securing national icons is concerned.

But I digress. The Nationalmuseet has an excellent section on Danish life and the rest of it is worth a visit, too, including some remarkable historical artifacts, from some choice swords and beds to drinking horns—though the numismatic collection bizarrely illustrates coins from Haroun al Raschid with a copy of an Iznogood comic book. (It's not worth the explanation.) The Kunsthallen Nikolaj is a terrific exhibition space, and the current exhibit (Tent Show) was a worthy piece of contemporary art, the highlight being a video named The city is my play ground [sic] by citygallery and Anthony Schrag. And then there's the Moesgård (Moesgaard).

Moesgård Museum

The Moesgård museum is about 10km south of Århus. Its main selling point is—squeamish beware—the perfectly preserved body of a Stone Age man, so well preserved that you could tell what he'd had for lunch the day he died (my Rough Guide breathlessly gushed). This seems like a weak premise for building a museum around, and other one-artifact museums have sometimes been a disappointment. Not this one. A recent, major renovation and extension complements a collection of generic dioramas to explain the power of peat bogs as preservatives. (Did you know the Vikings used water drawn from the bogs for their voyages because it would not spoil?—that alone should have enabled them to sail the world!) Aside from the slightly cheesy spooky music in the bog area (and a reference to mythical bog creatures), the display is stellar.

Even better is to come: the material on the Moesgård man himself. The body (which is itself not that much to look at) is in a sunken viewing room; above this is a series of displays and panels including the obligatory touch-screen panel. My policy on touch-screens is to give them about fifteen seconds to see whether they will hold my attention—and they never do. Here, however, I stayed to read the entire panel's content, some of it twice. So if you're in the area, and you're looking for an alternative to what science museums seem to have become—turn-the-crank-and-watch-the-ball-roll diversions for kids, or overly graphical, information-free displays to let adults indulge in a simulacrum of learning—come check out what these folks have accomplished.

In fact, you should visit even if you couldn't care less for the science and the thought of seeing the body turns you off (which, by the way, is not a good reason to stay away as you can entirely avoid seeing it—I'm guessing this was one of the goals of the museum redesign, one accomplished with splendid subtlety). Between the museum and the water 1.5km away is a set of walking paths that lead down to a beach. The paths are maintained by the museum and don't seem to need payment, though the museum ticket cleverly doubles up as a path map on its back. There are two main marked paths; both have some reconstructed Viking-era buildings, while one of the paths winds through a reconstruction of forests from several eras. The map on the ticket is a bit imaginative, but just stick to the white stones and you'll be fine. Some of the white stones have red dots, evoking the ticket's rendition of the path, and others don't; but because white stones are not native to these parts, all the ones you see are signs of the Agency of Man.

One warning: one of the paths walks through a meadow that is populated by a group of rams. City Boy here tried to approach a little Viking ruin they were populating when the lead ram began to walk in his direction, staring intently and making aggressive noises. No doubt being Danish rams these are most polite and genteel creatures, but I nevertheless decided on a course of prudence. Just to test the creature, a few times I paused before resuming to walk in its general direction; but each time the very alert ram returned to its threatening posture, leaving me in little doubt about its intent.

The conference and the Moesgård Museum apart, Århus was a bit of a...not a let-down so much as a surprise. As the second city of Denmark (or so I was told), the largest thing in the area, and home to a vibrant university, I expected more of life and culture. The main “culture”, however, seemed to be shopping (which a former local explained was because that's where people in the vicinity could go for their consumer needs). The old town was pleasant but perhaps a bit less dramatic than many other European towns. They have an active effort to spruce up their river and its banks, and it's bearing fruit. Overall, perhaps Providence isn't a bad point of comparison: I'd score my own 'hood a bit higher, but of course I'm biased. What I couldn't understand was why one town needs three different Bang & Olufsen stores within five city blocks....


Copenhagen is a city of dreamy spires and a football team named FCK. I've had a soft spot for Copenhagen since I bought a recording of Stan Getz Live in Copenhagen, and indeed jazz has long been in the air here. Even better, given my preferences, I happened to have ended up in Copenhagen at the same time as both their Blues Festival and their Film Festival! It was hard to concentrate on work amidst all those offerings, though my excellent hosts at DIKU—the computer science department at Copenhagen University (now you can work out the initials for yourself)—made it easy to stay honest. (At both universities, however, I discovered that colloquium slots are merely 45 minutes long, including questions. Visitors beware!)

Copenhagen feels a bit like a synthetic city, which may be because it has so many neighborhoods that maintain their distinct identities even today, many just a touch old-fashioned (how often do you see pissoirs in active service?—and once I saw a police car dash out into the middle of a cobbled plaza, so the (male) driver could run into such a facility while the (female) shotgun got out to chat with some locals). There is—yet again—the dominating presence of shopping, while the ever-expanding royals have peppered the place with castles and churches of varying quality (though some of the church spires are wonderfully eccentric, a sign either that under the Nordic and Lutheran rectitude lies a wild spirit, or that too much inbreeding produced some rather quirky royals).

Denmark, Generally

Denmark is one of the best places to watch English-language television. They have a lot of it, there are (decent) movies seemingly every night, and most of the shows seem to be unhampered by advertising. And that's not all: one night I got to watch the full-length, uncut version of The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly. Virtually everything is subtitled instead of being dubbed though most strangely, unless I am very mistaken, the one show that was dubbed was Monk. (Some of the subtitles can be startling. I happened to catch a scene of Ace Ventura; where Jim Carrey said “Monopoly man”, the subtitle read “Matador-guy”.)

The Danes seem to have no pets. In a week, in the two largest cities of Denmark, I spotted only a single person walking a pet. I do not believe I saw a single cat the whole time. What cultural factors would inspire this I can't tell. (It certainly wasn't a matter of weather, because the last week of September was not especially vicious, at least by the standards of the area.)

Cycling is a big deal in Denmark. Indeed, it was listed as the top “attraction” by my Rough Guide (which may say more about the country than about the activity). But this, of course, is cycling of the stolid, intensely practical variety: in my whole time I didn't see a single road bike, though mountain bikes are plentiful. The Danish respect for bicycle lanes is refreshing and also somewhat scary (I wonder how many cyclists are subject to right-hooks). Then again, about a dozen times in Copenhagen I saw a bicycle being carried by a trunk-mounted bike rack of a taxi. Is this standard equipment for Danes?

Of course, the Danes may not have much of a choice regarding transportation. The country imposes a staggering tax on cars (180% or 200%, depending on whom I asked), which means (a) there are relatively few new cars on the roads, and (b) there are virtually no fancy ones: the contrast to German roads couldn't be more stark. Refreshingly, none of the locals I asked (and I asked many) about the causes for this gave me much guff about environmentalism; they simply referred to matters of balance of trade, and one put it very bluntly: “How many Danish car-makers can you name?” Setting aside the advisability of such tariffs, at least the citizens didn't seem to be deluded about them. (But the Danes clearly love their thrills anyway. One broadsheet headline I came across: “Danskere vilde med private helikoptere 1800 kr i brug i timen”.) Danish exceptionalism extends into other areas: not only their separate currency (a damn nuisance, frankly) but also to something called the Dancard, a credit card that is the only credit card accepted by some vendors (another nuisance).

One thing I never quite adjusted to was the shockingly high price of everything. I mean literally everything, even those things you'd expect to be moderate in a socialist paradise, like public transport. Even relative to travel elsewhere in Continental Europe in this era of a very weak dollar, I eventually felt numbed by the prices. One way to keep costs low (this is a figure of speech, you understand) is to avail of the food buffets. In the US, buffets suggest quantity over quality, especially a buffet at times served outside weekend lunches (e.g., an all-you-can-eat dinner service). In contrast, these are not only ubiquitous in Denmark, they're found at fairly good restaurants. Just by a way of example, at an Indian restaurant in Århus (“local Jutlandese specialities”, my host saucily suggested, before taking me to dine there), the dinner buffet ran to about USD 22, whereas a single main dish was around USD 31 (and we're not talking a particularly fancy restaurant here).

Smoking attitudes are still a little...traditional. I'm informed that only recently did Denmark pass no-smoking laws in restaurants. I was amused by my room at the Hotel Danmark, which had a strong anti-smoking statement at the reception, offset slightly by the ashtray and matchbook placed in every room. Perhaps I'd misunderstood them and they were for burning malformed visas.

Every guide to Denmark will tell you that the locals are perfectly proficient in English, and indeed the vast majority are. What is strange, though, is I saw less bilingual (or multilingual) signage here than I have anywhere else in Europe. I most certainly didn't see a single sign in, say, Japanese or Korean: I don't remember seeing one even on Strøget, the nation's premier shopping street.

I'll close with a little vignette. We were walking across the University of Copenhagen campus back to the department after lunch. I saw a few of these plump and delightfully colored birds that seemed to be ubiquitous, so I turned to my hosts and asked what it was. Amir Ben-Amram, a charming Israeli who spends half his time at the University, calmly replied: “That is a magpie. It is a crow as designed by the Danish.”


Vegetarian food isn't easy to come by in Århus. Under Engle is now closed, and I was never able to get into Gyngen to eat. Yellow Deli next to the train station makes a rather delicious sandwich in addition to having several more options.

Copenhagen has several vegetarian options, though I found both Flow and Govinda's closed down and gutted for sale or other changes. Den Grønne Kælder (Den Gronne Kaelder), RizRaz, and Morgenstedet are all excellent. Morgenstedet, in particular, is a bit of an institution: a communal restaurant deep in the heart of Christiania, offering by far some of the most affordable food in Copenhagen (and some of the tastiest, too). The Vietnam resturant, just across the street from the Nordhavn station, has good vegetarian options too.

For a peculiar (and controversial) look at the Danes, check out Danes are Like That! by G. Prakash Reddy, an Indian anthropologist who spent part of 1989 immersed in a Danish village. It's certainly possible (even for one as unfamiliar with anthropological methods as me) to argue with his technique and conclusions, but it is at least slightly amusing to behold the frustration of the Danes at being put under a microscope in just the way a Western anthropologist examines a Primitive tribe.

Adjacent headlines in the Copenhagen Post:
‘Disturbed’ Attacker at Large; and,
Loose Screw to Blame.

The Year of Ignorant Living

This is a slightly modified version of an article I originally wrote for Conduit, our departmental newsletter.

Alumni might wonder about the charmed lives faculty lead on sabbatical. To be sure it is tough to return to civilian life, but not for what might seem to be obvious reasons (in fact, I've greatly missed the teaching!). Instead, this year has been terrific for me mainly because of what it's meant: a return to a state of ignorance.

For all our talk that research is an activity of constantly confronting ignorance, that's not what we really do. Research is more typically a man, a plan, canal panama (women sensibly leave absurd canals out of the picture). We may not know what precise result we're going to get—or even trying to get—but in the big picture we don't flail around very much.

I hadn't planned to spend this past year flailing. Now, I regard tenure less as a reward for past activity and more as a recognition of future promise; so the best way to honor it is to do something new, to view the freedom to take risks as an obligation to do so. Anyway, that's the theory; this runs headlong into (a) having established programs of work in place, (b) not knowing how to achieve ignorance (it's easy to decide to not publish papers or write grants, as Kathi and I did, but harder to decide what to do in its place), and (c) terror.

Proceeding with routine, I spent the summer and early fall working closely with Leo Meyerovich, Greg Cooper, Michael Greenberg, and Alex Bromfield on our new programming language, Flapjax. We finally released it formally in the middle of October to quite a bit of press coverage. In less than a year the experience of disseminating Flapjax has coughed up several surprises (press coverage for a programming language?—must be slow news days...), some negative in a curious fashion (as a result of which we've come to think of Flapjax not as a language but as a library), some surprisingly positive (such as its use at Berkeley). Those are all subjects for a different article.

We worked overtime on Flapjax last summer in part to have it out before I began my sabbatical travels. Kathi and I had been planning these trips for ages, carefully synchronizing the places we visited to be of mutual interest (since a sabbatical is also meant to be a time to recharge personally). Even before we left Providence, however, my carefully-laid plans were destroyed by a decision by the Brown administration that demonstrated a staggering lack of wisdom (needless to say, that won't be the subject of a different article). In a way, though, it was strangely liberating: if Brown didn't want me to accomplish what I'd set out to do on sabbatical, then I was free to do other things. So I did.

Our first stop was Edinburgh. Kathi was there to visit Keith Stenning, a cognitive scientist she knew from her work on diagrammatic reasoning, while I was there to visit Phil Wadler, one of the designers of Haskell and a pioneer of many programming language concepts. I was, however, also looking forward to talking to the seemingly dozens of other researchers Edinburgh has in programming languages, verification, and other parts of applied logic and in which Brown is desperately lacking. When it came to picking an office space, Phil told us that, by coincidence, he and Keith had adjacent offices and the one across the hallway from them was empty; would Kathi and I be willing to share it? It's been a long time since I've had an officemate but Kathi and I figured we could (just about) survive each others' company, and this way we could reduce our space footprint on their department.

What we didn't learn, until our first day in Edinburgh, is that our office neighbors in Edinburgh were Keith, Phil...and nobody else. Where I'd envisioned a long hallway with logicians in every direction you look, we were in rooms of a small tenment, whose door was locked to the world at large. Nobody was ever going to find us here, nor were we going to find anybody else! (Phil did arrange for me to have another, exclusive, office in the King's Buildings, but distance from home—more than any anti-royalist tendencies—made me use it only rarely. There I would have been near all those logicians, but still in a bit of an odd corner of the world.)

Geography is destiny, they say, and it couldn't be more true here. Stenning, it transpired, was no longer working actively on visual reasoning per se; instead he was understanding the logical models behind how people reason. His focus, with his collaborator van Lambalgen of Amsterdam, was on the famous Wason experiments in cognitive psychology, which are a kind of card trick that ask the subject to arrive at conclusions and measure how closely they hew to the entailment relation of classical logic; very poorly, it turns out. This has led some to conclude that logic itself is a poor way to study how people reason. (I hear the hallelujah's from Brown's cognitive scientists.) In contrast, Stenning and van Lambalgen, and others, had revisited the issue with much more detailed studies and found that there were parameterized families of logics that perfectly well explained how the subjects reasoned, and furthermore environmental characteristics—such as how the prompts were stated—predicted how people set the parameters.

Well! Kathi and I have been spending a lot of effort on the reasoning that goes into access-control security policies; but we've always known that what we're studying is tool support without reference to the underlying cognitive models. I had been nagged for a while now that properly executing this work demanded an understanding of these human factors, but I had no idea where to start. And now Stenning had accidentally shown us the world we were looking for. Understanding the consequences of this—and learning how to supress the repressed memories of my college psychology coursework experiences—has taken up a great deal of our effort since November, and will become an even stronger focus in the future. (There's one experiment I'd love to report on here, but can't yet. Yet.)

From Edinburgh we went to Oxford and Lausanne for PC meetings, thence to Paris to fly out to India. I've written at length about returning home after such a long time. After India came Australia (for a conference, followed by a personal vacation), about which, too, my notes will eventually show up here—for now, even nine months later, the memories of that continent are too vivid for words. This was the infamous left-right-left-right period of my life.

In late-January I attended a Dagstuhl event on Web programming, in which the main thing I learned is confirmation of my opinion that the Semantic Web folks are hopelessly out of touch with reality (perhaps it's a stealth marketing strategy). I was back in Deutschland ten days later at universities in Berlin (see blog), Tübingen, and Darmstadt, a well as another Dagstuhl, this one on end-user software engineering. Coming as it did after my Damascene conversion to thinking about user-interfaces this was a fantastic opportunity to revel in ignorance and soak up knowledge from the likes of Brad Myers, Mary Shaw, Margaret Burnett, Alan Blackwell, and Stephen Clarke (a UI designer at Microsoft).

In the early spring we visited the programming languages, security, and verification people at Penn, having several enlightening conversations with Insup Lee's group on obligations as a complement to access-control. We were originally due to spend all of spring at UT Austin; given all this other travel, however, we instead made just two very focused trips to UT (which too has a wonderful mix of applied logicians of numerous stripes). UT recently had the wisdom to hire Brown alum William Cook, who is surely one of the smartest and most tasteful researchers in programming languages; only Will can make even a topic like meta-modeling sound interesting. So a week spent primarily with Will and Don Batory was heavenly.

There were other trips scattered around, but the summer was a good time to consolidate and move forward. Usually I spend much of the school year planning for the summer (and hiring students for that purpose), but this year was obviously exceptional. So it was essentially pure luck that I stumbled upon two of the best students I've worked with at Brown, Jacob Baskin and Brendan Hickey, who continue in the tradition of Brown undergrads taking me in new directions (not least of all Brendan, thanks to whom I'm talking to vice-presidents and lawyers). Combined with two students elsewhere whom I'm co-advising, and my current PhD students—Arjun, who has made strong progress on a very interesting security technique, and Jay, who is feeding me doses of the Coq theorem prover when he's not busy getting married (congrats, Jay!)—it's hard not to realize that sabbatical is over and I'm back.

The end of sabbatical doesn't mean I've stopped plumbing the depths of my ignorance. In August, Spike got me excited about graphics for the first time, and I've been programming sporadically in Matlab since. Indeed, for the first time in my life I wrote a one-use, throw-away script that actually used trignometry. This has gotten me interested in research questions related to both the images and Matlab. I can only hope that if I lie down for long enough the feeling will pass.

I've also taken the plunge on a few other fronts:

  • I've long been skeptical of blogs, which associate a false temporality to thoughts. Largely pushed by Brown alum and Blogger employee Pete Hopkins, I created this blog anyway. It will be obvious to readers that I don't “get” the medium, treating it as a repository for essays rather than a dumping ground for thoughts; whether that will change, I don't yet know. I felt obliged to use Blogger, but in retrospect I realize I should have used anything but: that would be the way to test whether Pete was merely trying to drive up Blogger usage or whether he actually cared about what I have to say (my bet, like yours, is not on the latter).
  • I finally decided to self-publish my programming languages text, and to put it in print using Lulu, who have been impressive. (I actually publish the book in three formats: for-pay paper, for-pay PDF and free PDF. The beauty of self-publishing is that you can perform any outrageous experiment you want!)
  • I dove into understanding Creative Commons licensing—something I've put off for far too long—and found that it offered just the right mix of options for my book. So now people who've been excerpting parts of it (a.k.a., “remixing”) can do so legally.
  • I've started negotiations with a publisher in India that may result in a low-cost Indian print version, which is the one of the main benefits of a formal publisher I've missed.
  • I finally learned to use an image-processing application, so I can stop asking my colleague Spike, and Brown grad Morgan McGuire, how to do what I think they find the equivalent of balancing parentheses (well, for me; I count parens like some sharks count cards).

It's also been a wonderful year personally: from the urban delight that is Edinburgh to the new world being created in real-time in Bangalore, from walking in awe of nature in Australia to biking in Lance's town in Texas, from seeing (from afar) the site of the Burgess Shale to lying on my back on the Scituate Reservoir dam to bask in the Perseids. I've seen, up close and (sometimes) personal, everything from rattlesnakes to kangaroos, from a platypus to both black and grizzly bears. And as my blog's name suggests, cricket hasn't been too far away, from following a good chunk of the World Cup to fulfilling every fan's dream: watching England play Australia at the Sydney Cricket Ground, even if that verb is a euphemism for the abject surrender of the Three Lions we witnessed that day. Over up!

A Driving Record with No Prius

One hidden pleasure of my recent New Mexico trip was getting bumped up to a Prius.

When I first heard the term “regenerative braking”, I remember being thrilled by the concept. It was so obviously a good idea that I was delighted someone had taken the trouble to implement it. And the generalization of the concept had an immediate impact on my own driving, to the point that I saw an improvement in my mileage. But I'd never had a chance to test my skill against the actual thing itself.

There are many redeeming things about driving the Prius. Most of all, because jerky action tends to hurt mileage, and the Prius is constantly reminding you of it, the car instills a certain calm in the driver. It's a lot easier to obey low urban speed-limits when doing so means your car will whisper along on the electric motor alone. And finally, even though I put in a great deal of highway driving (which is not its strongest point), I averaged precisely 55 miles to the gallon on my trip, needing much less than a tank of gas where normally I would have needed much more: indeed, 55 is just about twice the best mileage I normally get from a rental car.

The car is, sadly, marred by several things:

  • Toyota simply has no internal design sense. The interior is true Toyota plastic with controls that are, in general, ugly, unintuitive, ill- and inconsistently-placed, -sized and -lit.
  • The relatively large LCD is another big disappointment, with cheesy graphics and no useful displays (e.g., when certain operations don't function, the LCD provides no useful feedback).
  • In my entire trip I never determined how to turn off the radio, only to turn the volume down to zero. (The volume button can be toggled by pushing, but whether it was depressed or not seemed to have no effect on radio operation.)
  • The rear “spoiler” is in a very awkward place, splitting one large rear window into two ungainly small ones; the glass warps slightly around the spoiler, distorting the view ever-so-slightly; and the spoiler is just about where the lights of cars would be, blocking an important visual cue.
  • The car beeps whenever you put it in reverse, a user interface disaster of staggering proportions.
  • There is a strange ‘B’ driving mode, which turns out to be the low-gear (but they didn't think to use ‘L’: the ‘B’ stands for “braking”, natch).
  • Hovering near certain speeds makes the electric motor turn on and off with regularity; furthermore, every time the motor disengages the car emits a slight clunk and changes its road feel, which is jarring.
  • And finally, the first few times I simply couldn't figure out how to get the car started without rebooting it. (There's a whole new meaning for a car's boot.)

Overall, the car doesn't feel quite ready yet. The internal interface, in particular, desperately demands Acura's masterful attention to detail when it comes to design and layout. And then, I think, I'd be delighted to get one.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Propane Rocks

The best way to understand New Mexico is to consider the Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument.

Never heard of it, you say? That's the point. In New England, it would be one of the most celebrated natural sites. Nature is audacious in New Mexico, however, so it's just another little park, so minor that the last few miles of road to it aren't even paved. (Indeed, my decade-old Rough Guide to the Southwest covers Cochiti Pueblo, where it's located, but doesn't even mention the site.)

But more on that later.


Photo Gallery

I was in New Mexico for a conference in Santa Fe, a town I've long wanted to visit. I was fortunate that my trip coincided with Albuquerque's celebrated annual Balloon Fiesta. Having now attended, I can confirm that the event lives up to its hype. The sight of literally dozens, perhaps hundreds, of large hot-air balloons—in different colors, shapes and sizes, but never mind that, just hundreds of them—is a signt not easily forgotten.

A few practicalities:

  • The most important question—to which I had trouble finding much information on-line—is whether one needs to go to the balloon park at all, or whether one can see the balloons (they are, after all, in the air, right?) from just about anywhere. The cost is modest (about USD 6), but I was more concerned about the crowds. Having made the trip, I can confirm that it's well worth going to the source. The area is so large that it's not as packed as it would seem (even though the numbers are considerable) and you get to literally walk amongst the balloons and balloonists, watching their preparation and ascent up close. Also, it's not always clear which way the wind will blow; the day I went it blew strongly to the north, and the balloon park is already north of Albuquerque, so from the center of town you wouldn't have seen a thing. (That said, some people on-line recommend going up to the high ground of Coors Ave to watch the balloons against the backdrop of the Sandia Mountains. This looks like a sound idea, but then you lose the immediacy of the ascents. If you can, do both!)
  • The event is more sensitive to wind conditions than you would guess from the coverage. Winds over about 10 knots lead to cancellation. So don't give yourself only one shot at watching the balloons, or you may be disappointed.
  • Don't drive to the balloon park. There's an excellent park-and-ride system with spots all over town. The extra cost is negligible (about USD 4) and saves you the bother of negotiating the crowded roads and lots. Buy the park-and-ride ticket on-line, print it, get to the lot by 5am, and you'll have a grand time.
  • At the park, there's a little ridge of higher ground at the northern end. Exploit this. It's a great site to set up a tripod, or just to watch the balloons as they drift away over the surrounding suburbs. It's an entirely different experience than watching them from the lower ground of the ascension area, so do both.
  • There's a grand tradition, apparently, of consuming breakfast burritos. Vegetarians will, however, have to hunt for one that doesn't have various animals pre-mixed. You can find food, but you'll have to work for it.

Beyond the visual and human spectacle, there is the problem of finding the balloons at all. I arrived at the park and walked around in a bit of a daze at—this being America—the sheer volume of commerce, everything from breakfast burritos to lapel pins to new-age crystals. After ten minutes of roaming (the Fiesta organizers boast of over a third of a mile of shops), I finally went to a nice lady manning one of the stalls and asked, a bit sheepishly, where the balloons were. She gave a big laugh, tapped me affectionately on the shoulder, said “Well, bless your heart!” as only a kindly Southern woman can, and pointed me off in the direction of the airfield.


At the other end of the human temporal spectrum is the Petroglyph National Monument (they don't have very many Parks in New Mexico—what you'd expect to be a Park invariably proves to be a Monument), one of the few national parks (I'm going to abuse terminology) sidling right up against a major city. There's a standard trail (in Boca Negra canyon) designed for everyone; this is interesting enough, but crowded, and too short to be satisfying. (If you're in reasonable shape, you need barely a third of the amount of time they estimate for each of the trails.)

But the Rinconoda Canyon trail, one intersection south from the Visitor's Center, is barely more challenging but longer, and excellent. This goes into the heart of the canyon through some fairly pristine scrubland. The park claims there are over 500 visible petroglyphs on this path; I can't say as I found more than about 20% of them (but then I was also trying to make time). The second half of this walk feels a bit disappointing—instead of walking alongside the rocks, you're now in the middle of the canyon—until you contemplate the idea of actually living here, as the creators of these petroglyphs did. Better than any interpretive sign, this walk conveys that experience.


Photo Gallery

One of the Southwest's more celebrated Native American sites is Bandelier, the dwelling of the Pueblo Indians from around 1000 to 1500, before poor land management (of a tough land!) caused them to abandon the site. Bandelier is known for its large collection of trails and remarkable rock dwellings, notably the so-called Long House, which is essentially a medieval condominium complex carved into a large mass of rock.

Bandelier may not be the Canyon de Chelly, but it's worth the visit nevertheless. There are two main foci in the park: the visitor's center at the bottom of the canyon, and a campground at the top. There are good trails from each, and a lovely path that connects the two. From the visitor's center a short walk takes you to the Long House and other artifacts, and a mile-long supplement takes you to a remarkable cave dwelling up in a hill. The ascent (and descent!) are not for the vertiginous; though I hate descending ladders, it felt criminal to pass up on the experience so, summoning courage, I trotted up the stairs and ladders. I'm glad I did. It's easy to see that power in such a society must have rested in those with the genes and conditioning to adapt to such a dwelling...while the slow guy got eaten by the bear.

Oh right, bears. There are black bears here. Normally I ignore this sort of information entirely, but my experiences in Banff (where we saw both black and grizzly bears) have made me a little more sensitive to such warnings (and the bear-proof trash cans everywhere were surely not installed merely to decorate or to confound the average visitor). I went to Bandelier early on a Sunday morning—well before the visitor's center opened—which is a great time to go, by the way, because it meant I essentially had the park to myself. To myself and the bears, that is.

The general advice for bear territory is to make noise as you travel, so as to avoid startling a bear. This would be fine but for the exceptional bird life in the park, and walking around reciting high-school poetry is hardly likely to help on that front. So I decided to stay silent (please, save your comments), saw some wonderful birds in the extended trail that goes to the cave dwellings, and returned uneaten and intact.

Of Bears and Other Beasts

In the early afternoon I did one of the overlook trails that emerge from the campground. Here there would be no danger of bears, or at least of coming up on one suddenly, because there are few trees and little shelter. Running late, I was rushing back from the overlook when I saw a snake sunning itself on the trail in front of me. Oh, I thought, what a lovely snake! It was a dark reddish-brown that blended well with the surrounding rock, and it had beautiful little diamond patterns on its back and black-and-white bands on its tail. Wait a minute: Diamond patterns? Black-and-white? Something I'd read back in Texas about snakes started to emerge through the haze of my consciousness, and that something was an instruction to stop. In the half-second it took for that thought to pass from brain to foot, however, I'd taken another step—enough for the snake to raise said tail and emit a loud sound like stones in a tin can. Rattling.

I'm a city boy, and we city boys know more about rats than about rattlers. I have since read that, if bitten by a rattlesnake, don't run for help: the blood circulation helps the venom spread. (Another thing I read, which does not inspire confidence: a wet rattle makes no noise.) My concerns were a little more immediate, however. Should I walk around, stand my ground and wait, or turn tail and run? (I've also since read that, from a safe distance, you can harass the snake into moving: throw a little sand at it, for instance.) Fortunately, I didn't need to learn any of this by trial and (very great!) error. I had already annoyed the snake, and after a few seconds it slithered a bit off the trail...and a bit more...and more. (All this while I was rushing to grab my camera because I know you, dear reader, will demand proof.) Finally it had moved off the trail, but was it lurking behind the large rock that it had passed behind, waiting to strike? I paused a half-minute and then, most beloved reader, having built up a full head of steam I ran, executing as perfect a steeplechase as you can ever hope to see.

Tent Rocks

Photo Gallery

So, back to those tent rocks. These “rocks” are hoodoos, a geological formation caused by the erosion of softer rock that lies under a hard top. We could employ euphemisms all day, but there is only one honest description of the result at Kasha-Katuwe, and it is perfectly accurate, even down to the details: phallic. Someone, surely, has nicknamed these the, uh, Devil's Mojo.

You absolutely should not miss out on Kasha-Katuwe (I liked it so much that I went back a second time, with Daniel Jackson). The thrill begins with the approach. Ever seen one of those roads that just heads off perpendicular to a highway, seemingly to nowhere—these are common in west Texas and other badlands—and wanted to take it to its end? Well, here's your excuse. The road, furthermore, runs just along the base of the plateau that separates Santa Fe from Albuquerque, so you can observe the escarpment up close. And then you're in hard-scrabble John Wayne country.

Which is why it's startling to suddenly see a sign to a golf course. Golf? Is there any grass, or is the entire course a sand-trap? I did not investigate, but a clue lay in the fact that there is also a dam of some size that appears to hold the water of the Rio Grande (and may explain why that river is but a mere dry bed downstream in Albuquerque). The juxtaposition of dam and golf course against the terrain adds an element of surreality.

The last five miles of the drive are on gravel (okay for cars, but not for RVs). This just heightens the sense that you're really getting out there, adding to which, you don't see the formations until you're nearly there. And then, suddenly, the hillside is alive with hoodoos...and that's not even the best part.

There are two marked trails at the main visitor point. One is a walk along the base of the cliff, leading up to an unprepossessing cave. Other than the opportunity to see one or two hoodoos (or hoodoo rocks) right up close (and, heh, heh, very personal), there's not much to be said for this loop...especially not compared to the alternative.

This alternative is the cliff walk (an out-and-back, not a loop), which takes you to the top of the formation. This is somewhat intimidatingly posted as having a 630 foot rise over 1.3 miles, which by my calculation is about a 9% incline. This posting is in fact entirely misleading, because the walk is much better and worse than that: the first mile of the walk has the same inclination as the cave loop, and virtually all the climbing happens in the last third of a mile. (Not that it's particularly hard anyway: from parking lot to the top took me 27 minutes, including pauses to make way for other people on the trail.)

But oh, what a route it is. For what they don't tell you is this: the hoodoos on this route—hidden out of sight from the parking lot and the cave loop—are vastly more dramatic; and the reason for that is that the first mile is through a slot canyon. The canyon alone is worth the price of entry and the drive, a stunning pink-and-grey confection of aggregate worn with utmost drama by wind and water. It's enough to make you forget why you came entirely, and the canyon, not the (remarkable) hoodoos, is the reason I went back to the park a second time. (Well, that and the company, but I was glad to have talked Daniel into going here.)

If you go, do it when the sun isn't directly overhead: the shadows are half the drama here. Also, if you decide not to drive the additional dozen or so miles of gravel to the next overlook, do drive another 300 yards or so, until you get to a gate, and turn around. You'll see an entirely different side of the hoodoos from there.

Interestingly, Kasha-Katuwe is only a handful of miles from Bandelier, but the drive between them is about 70 miles, the long way around. I predict that within ten years the last few miles to the tent rocks will be paved, and in a little while longer it'll be connected more directly to Bandelier. Even in New Mexico, a site this beautiful cannot be wasted. At that point, of course, someone will install an expensive cafe of the “Coyote Grill” variety at Kasha-Katuwe, but there's always the danger that, this being America, someone else will decide to illuminate the hoodoos every evening in a changing spectrum of kaleidoscopic colors. Can't happen, you think? Who could subject a great geological sight to such a travesty? You have clearly never been to Niagara, my friend.

The Cities

After all this, it was hard to care much for the cities. I must confess, too, that something has changed in my perception of the world. As I said initially, I've looked forward to visiting Santa Fe for years. But now that I was there, I couldn't bring myself to care; and what had happened in the meanwhile is Australia, a continent that completely awakened me to the natural world. That, combined with the tweeness and absolute ridiculousness of Santa Fe—a large parking lot, or a bank drive-through lanes, in regulation adobe—left me underwhelmed.

In contrast, Albuquerque exceeded my expectations. The physical location is stunning, and it seems to be a town that underpromises and overdelivers. Even the Nob Hill area, with its studied precocity, has a certain appealing modesty to it, and I was impressed by how few houses had lawns (as opposed to more regionally appropriate sand and rock) yards.

New Mexico is an interesting place. Not only nature but many generations of inhabitants have also been audacious here, with breathtaking effect (visit the Trinity Site for further evidence of that). It can be too easy to think of it—hills of yellow scrub, sky of the bluest blue—as a kind of cut-rate California, but this would be unfair and wrong. It is a slightly precarious place, seemingly dependent less on pure enterprise than on a generous dollop of federal money; and its native tribes lead a very troubled existence. (Surely their casinos do as much harm as good for a list of reasons that seems endless: the disproportionate distribution of wealth, the dependence on an unreliable revenue source, the incentive for young people to become croupiers instead of acquiring real skills, the execuse for those who might otherwise care to convince themselves to do nothing, ....) On the one hand it is a land trying hard to attract other forms of revenue (free Internet access at highway tourist information centers is surely a smart, tourist-friendly idea), but on the other hand I've never heard as many Christian stations on an FM dial.


Vegetarians in Albuquerque will want to check out Annapurna and the Green Light Bistro, both of which now run out of the same location at the corner of Yale and Silver, just south of the main UNM campus. This is hippie fare, but the Indian food is surprisingly pleasant (and their chapati is exquisite). Expect large portions and long waits for service, during which time you can listen to the new age music and read the Hindu philosophy on the order number flag.

Santa Fe has several vegetarian options, but food in the town in general felt a shade indifferent. Various sources raved about brunch at Cloud Cliff, but I was disappointed: the food seemed be liberally dosed in spices and sauces, but they hadn't cooked into anything. Annapurna has a branch here that I didn't visit. Tree House is very good (but drive slowly or you'll miss the entrance), though the menu on-line really has no relationship at all to what you'll find when you visit. I visited the Body Cafe several times, and concluded that their prepared food is indifferent, but their raw food is outstanding. I don't think I had a single good coffee anywhere in the state.

The Sage Inn in Santa Fe is an odd place. It's clearly a dumpy old motel that was heavily renovated. The Web site promises a great deal, but ultimately it's still just a motel, though two steps up from the typical American variant. The location is indifferent, but over time you realize it's actually pretty good (at its price) for Santa Fe: you can at least walk to the Plaza, even if the walk is not hugely pleasant. There is reasonable WiFi coverage, but the redesign clearly slightly predated modern times: there wasn't a single free power point in the room (other than the low-wattage plugs for electric shavers). The front desk staff are a morose, surly, clueless, and indifferent bunch (check your reservation carefully!). But the breakfast is surprisingly good (this being Santa Fe, you get yogurt and granola). If they would tone down their Web presence, improve the rooms for business travelers, and pay double to hire good desk staff, it'd be excellent value.

The Vagabond Executive Airport Inn in Albuquerque tries hard. They have an old facility, and the renovations give it a slightly surreal feel. The rooms are old but clean and enormous. The staff are eager to help: when my Ethernet connection wouldn't work (no wireless), they rushed me new (working) parts in two minutes. They run a 24-hour airport shuttle, and gladly also picked me up from the car rental lot the night before. But they also missed my 4am wake call, which seems pretty inexcusable for any hotel.