Monday, March 29, 2010

Sam Harris: Science can answer moral questions

Various ScienceBlogs posts have put this video up from a TED talk by Sam Harris (I found this at Greg Laden's Blog). It is an interesting piece, saying that science can answer moral questions (something that many scientists and non-scientists rarely claim as something that is "appropriate" or "doable" by science). I think it's an interesting video to watch, since it poses rational questions to the point of science-informed morality.

But he says that science is not likely a direction to turn in order to answer certain types of moral questions, such as if deducting 100% of the cost of attending TED as a business expense is a good thing. One thing that I really like about this is that Sam Harris talks about how (at 9 minutes) there doesn't always have to be only one viewpoint that is "right" along a moral landscape. This is something that I personally think is true, since holding the point-of-view that it there is only one unchanging morality is patently false, especially if you look at changes in morality over time. (Therefore, if morality is unchanging, then people in the past were acting without morals.)

However, it's not a really deep philosophical discussion, not everyone's likely to be a fan. But, remember, it's a presentation that was given to a mixed audience, and not at a conference.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Liquid rescaling = awesome!

I saw a reference to Liquid Rescaling online and didn't know what it was. However, it was something that was possibly quite cool, so I chose to look it up. And - at least to my thoughts - it seem quite cool, too, resizing images while keeping the visual "nature" of the images natural-looking.

Although it is cool, it may be interesting to think about how this kind of resizing technology can change the nature of what is "real." I mean, when one resizes a photograph using this technology, the perspective of the image changes, and (depending on the nature of the photo) possibly alters the content of the photograph. This seamless alteration of the content of an image means that "photographic evidence" (already suffering from the ease of PhotoShop and other photo-alteration images) becomes less a capture of reality.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Filling in some blanks

As promised when I was in Bolivia, I will fill in some of the gaps in information as to what Rafys and I were doing. These are all in the "Travel" label, and constitute entries that I penned in both my original travel journal as well as the one that Rafys gave to me. I'll be leaving her entries out from this blog, though.

The times and dates reflect when the entry was originally penned.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Signing the bill with so many pens

Why did Obama use so many pens when he signed the Health Care legislation? It was clear that he wasn't signing his name twenty-odd times, but what (exactly) was he doing? Well, apparently, he was signing his name only one time, and the pens (I suspect) were meant to be given as gifts. Apparently, this is something that one has to practice when one is president. I mean, the signature looks like something that is rather well-written, so it seems like Obama has had enough practice over the past year-plus in writing his name with a multiplicity of pens (but he still seems to be having problems with his "O").

On an interesting side-note, Obama is left-handed. As was Bill Clinton, and George H.W. Bush. (If George W. had been left-handed, this would have been a rather interesting trend in the handedness of presidents. Still, with 7-10% of the population being left-handed, it's interesting to note that of the past 14 presidents (including Obama), 5 were left-handed (35.7%). If we include the ambidextrous presidents, then we have 7 of the last 14 (50%), which is well above the background, population, levels of left-handedness and ambidexterity.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

The inner life of the plastic bag

I saw this originally on Treehugger. Filmed by Ramin Bahrani and voiced by Wernor Herzog, this 18-minute film explores the life of the plastic bag from store to ... floating gyre of trash.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Shop local

I like to think that I do many things that support local businesses. I purchased my bike from a locally owned store, I do my shopping at the People's Food Co-Op, buy my lunch at local restaurants, my coffee at locally owned coffee shops, etc. However, I was tickled when I saw this video of 100 high school students in Kyoto trying to get people to support local stores in a shopping arcade in that city. Enjoy:

Monday, March 08, 2010

An observation

In Bolivia, there are many re-purposed old cars. Most of these visible re-purposed cars are old Toyotas and Nissans. (There are some really older Buick buses out there, too, but I always forget to take a photo of them.) As such, many of these have logos from their former lives as company cars in Japan. This is itself an interesting thing, since I have seen a few of these that had old Japanese phone numbers still written on their backs. I'm tempted to seek out one or some of these Japanese companies and send them a photo of what their cars look like today.

Another thing was that I saw some Toyotas driving around with "Toyosa" written where "Toyota" should have been. I thought that this was some sort of thing where people don't want to pay for Toyota products, but still have what are Toyotas. However, this was shot down when I saw a Toyota-Toyosa auto dealer. So what is Toyosa? Well, a search of Wikipedia comes up with nothing (in either Enlish or Español). However, a search of the google comes up with a few webpages, including this one: Toyosa S.A.

Based on the very first line of the page, it seems that Toyosa is the official distributor of Toyota products in Bolivia (Distribudor exclusivo de Toyota para Bolivia), unless I misunderstand the Spanish.

On International Women's Day, a retrospective of Coroico

Rafys is taking a nap right now as we spend a bit of a lazy morn on this sunny International Women's Day. I hadn't known of International Women's Day's importance to Rafys until today, and - at least from my point of view - it doesn't seem to be very much celebrated in the US, even if it was born there. Perhaps this is a strange outcome of the successes of the women's movement in the US juxtaposed against the problems of race. Or I'm just oblivious.

Coroico from the Calvary HillAnyway, my legs are still covered by insect bite marks from yesterday's track around Coroico. They loved my legs, but not my arms; they love Rafys' arms but not her legs. I wonder (briefly) why this is the caste. Still, we walked up the hill behind the city, following plinths which followed the various stations of the cross (much like the Calvary Hill in Copa), however, this climb was easier to climb (due to being at a lower altitude), but with a much smaller footpath. We then descended to the town's small and crowded cemetery, and walked slowly and meanderingly back to the main square - our legs and arms covered with bites.

Balcony at the Back-Stube in CoroicoWe stopped at Back-Stube Konditorei, a German-style cafe/restaurant and spent the remaining 1.5 hours on their patio, first with a chocolate ice cream and Kas spaetzl along with una jarra de jugo... Then I got a slice of German cake as well - chocolate, nuts, and raspberry jam. Mmmm....
Hills around Coroico
The Andean condors were sweeping across the warm air between the hills, six or more intertwining their flight paths, soaring and diving, working at play.

At the end of the day, we got on a microbus to come back to La Paz. The micro had a challenge climbing the major hills - mountains - separating Coroico from the capital. Sitting immediately behind the engine, the floor started to heat up quite remarkably, steaming up the inside of the bus and keeping us toasty as we crawled up the mountain. The night sky was marred by neither moonlight or manlight and the stars filled the sky, and perched at a long height of several thousand feet, looking down the valley, I saw a wall of stars, converging at a V, yet with the horizon remaining unseen. As we crested the divide, another set of stars emerged - those tight-clustered lights of the sprawling expanse of Bolivia's capital city, and - now going with the force of gravity - we sped toward the capital city - the last 30 km going by faster than any of the previous kilometers of slow, arduous, heated climbing.

As Rafys and I head back to Los Pinos in a cab, I remarked at how much the micro had to climb in order to go from Coroico to La Paz - a number that was an order of magnitude off, since I was comparing feet to meters, but after a correction from Rafys, we determined it to be still quite substantial. Although about 90 km in a straight line, this distance is misleading, since there are innumerable switchbacks on the Coroico side of the divide, and one must climb down from Coroico (1470m) down to roughly 1000m in order to get on the main road to climb over the divide (~4600m) before descending to Miraflores one of the higher neighborhoods of La Paz (4110m). Therefore, it's a maximum climb of 3.6km!

... now I must wake Rafys up.

Sunday, March 07, 2010

Drinking locally grown coffee in Coroico

Drinking local coffeeWe just sat down for some locally grown coffee in Coroico. The town sits on a slope above a river, and to get to it, we took the new road from La Paz over the mountains (not the 'Death Road'). Once we climbed past the ever-sprawling city, we soon reached a point above which even eucalyptus didn't grow. Soon we were skirting barren rock - above the point at which even grasses grow. Then, at the headwaters of rivers (one going to La Paz, the other to the Amazon) we started again downhill, this time toward the humid lands in which sits Coroico. Soon we had traded sparse grasslands for scant cropland clinging to steep slopes, then - as we descended further - cloud forests, mist rising to the peaks, up from the valley floor. Our microbus sprinted along quite gamely, overtaking trucks and slower buses.

Biking down the roadWe passed biking groups who were speeding down the same slopes we were going in our micro - a short shoulder all that separated them between the quick and the dead.

Getting onto the Death RoadFinally, after many switchbacks (and land-slide-covered stretches of road) we ended up near the river, and the turn-off for Coroico... and getting onto a remnant of what was the Death Road (luckily, though, the heights to fall were far less perilous).

After climbing back up Coroico's hill - along switchback dirt roads and occasional cobblestone), we reached the town on a very warm and sunny subtropical montaine day, just in time for some lunch - and a post-almuerzo cafe.

Saturday, March 06, 2010

Reviewing the last night's activities

So... last night we didn't end up going into La Paz, but instead stayed in and talked, told jokes, drank beer, ordered some roasted chicken, and stayed together until 1PM. During the day, while on the search for an internet connection, Rafys and I ate some salteños. The one we had was roasted meat and potatoes. Very tasty, and I hope we can try soem more at a later time (although time here for me is running out). While on our way back, we decided to pick up a dessert, and I thought originally that a chocolate cake would be a good idea, but neither of the pastry shops we went to had a chocolate cake (at least one that could be shared between eight people sufficiently). I ended up getting an apple pie ('pie de manzana') for the princely sum of 60 Bs. ($8.50); large enough (about 14") for each fo the eight of us to have a large slice of pie filled with apple, raisins, and nuts. (The cost of things was one thing we talked about over dinner, 120 Bs. ($17.00) for 2.5 chickens-worth of friend chicken, a serving of fries (papas fritas), and fried bananas (platanos fritos): the buying power of $10 here versus in the US, and what would constitute an expensive meal in Ann Arbor. For some reason, Subway and Burger King are charging US prices for their menu items, while having to compete against shops selling hamburguesas for up to 1/10 of the price - they must be cashing in on some Western/US caché, garnering upper-middle class patrons; a stark contrast to the US.)

I ended up nattering on with Rafys' cousin Estef until 2:30. :P However, last night, amongst the joke-telling and chatting, I taught Rafys, her aunt and Estef how to use chopsticks. They all seemed to get it easily enough, but without much with which to practice, weren't really able to do much in terms of incorporating that knowledge. I also learned, from the anime- inspired Estef, of "el circulo japonesa" ("the Japanese Circle), which sounds like a little Japan Town in La Paz (but wasn't mentioned in the Lonely Planet guidebook.) I will try and convince Rafys to go there either for a late lunch or an early dinner. Anyway, the day was a long one, and we spoke a lot, and Rafys' cousin had a nice long birthday visit before going home with his wife and baby.

Friday, March 05, 2010

Waiting for the birthday

Today is the birthday of one of Rafys' cousins. I'm not really all that sure as to what that entails, because I wasn't paying close attention when it was discussed last night - I was very tired when it was being discussed. However, Rafys laid out an agenda: morning at an internet cafe, lunch at her aunt's apartment viz birthday celebrations, and later going into La Paz to do some shopping. Hopefully, on the trip into La Paz, we can also go to a Japanese or Middle Eastern restaurant. (I really want to treat her to these cuisines.)

The sun is peeking through the clouds and breaks through on occasion, making the neighborhood glow. The red rocks in the distance, alternatively coarsely blood red and warm desert soil, beats its own slow heartbeat of sun and clouds. The city of Los Pinos - lower than La Paz itself - is quite a nice area, although much newer than the capital (and far less crowded).

Thursday, March 04, 2010

Back in La Paz

Returned to La Paz with little problem, and arrived back at Rafys' aunt's apartment. We now are sat down for some papaya and soy milk.

Leaving Copacabana!

Cross on Calvary HillAfter climbing up and down the Cerro Calvario, we stopped by Plaza Sucre to see if any buses were ready to go to La Paz. The first said, "No. Not until 6AM." There we went to one of the tour-bus companies and learned that a bus to La Paz would be leaving at 6:30PM tonight. This was good news and we were happy to pay a little more so that we wouldn't be stuck in Copacabana another day. We did learn that La Cupula hotel does accept VISA so we didn't have to worry about running out of cash. However, it was $24 per night (double room, shared bath), and if we didn't have to do it, that would be brilliant. (Our stay at the Hotel Paris was roughly $11 for a triple room with private bath, but they didn't accept cash, and we were down to our last 100 Bs.)

Backpackers waiting for the bus to La PazBefore returning to the Plaza Sucre at around 6PM, we saw a horde of tourists waiting to get on to the gathered buses - backpackers (nearly) all. Rafys and I waited in front of the tourism group office and were eventually told to get onto a large (slightly older) tour bus. Once on the bus (we somehow scored front-row seats), I overheard someone say that the cabs of the city were flooding into the plaza in order to block us in (and halt us from breaking the strike).

However, at 6:45, we have (miraculously) set off!

Sitting in Copacabana

We are just finishing a lunch at a small restaurant in Copa. For just 15 Bs. we had soup, a main dish, and mate. We also got some dark and very sweet beer - Bi Cervecina - from the Cerveceria Boliviana Nacional brewery. The rain has been falling for a while now, and due to the high humidity, it is getting quite cold. During lunch, Rafys received a message from her phone company saying that they were giving her 20 free text messages, and she sent off 3 immediately, hoping to hear word of her motehr. (She just got a call from her friend - right now - and the look of relief in receiving that call was amazing.) Also during lunch, we learned that the transportation strike may well continue for another day; that we wouldn't get a bus until maybe 7AM tomorrow. The TV in the restaurant keeps showing images of drivers blocking roadways in La Paz and of policemen firing gas and taking many detainees. Very little in the local (Bolivian) news anymore about the aftermath of the Chilean earthquake, but news of the 6.4 earthquake in Taiwan (just a mention of them). Rafys found out about her parents, her red-haired cousin and her brother, all are well, and her brother was selling the food from her father's restaurant's refrigerators - a stop-gap measure, and likely means of feeding the family as well. The rain doesn't appear to be letting up any, but I think that we will be going to the Museo del Poncho this afternoon instead of staying in this restaurant or climbing Calvary Hill.

In Copacabana

... the one in Bolivia, not the one in Brazil.

Yesterday, Rafys and I took a trip out onto Lake Titicaca to el Isla del Sol. It started off as rather windy and cold, but once we reached the north end of the island (after about 2.5 hours of slowly freezing on the boat) the sun actually did come out and we all started to warm up quite nicely. Once we disembarked, we walked up to some old ruins that constituted a temple and altar at the top of one of the hills. Huffing and puffing at heights approaching 4000m, we slowly approached the summit, taking many photos on the way (these will come later). It was a wonderful opportunity to witness so many different microclimates all based on slope, aspect, underlying geology, and availability of water. We saw lushious islands of grass and some type of agave right next to barren rock and cactus -- the wonders of some water and not too much sunlight.

After climbing up to the top of the one slope, we all had the option of trekking across the island and meeting the boat (hopefully) at the south side of the island -- a distance of roughly 9km, but requiring a climb up past 4000m. We decided to descend back to the boat launch, and the boat slowly puttered down to the south part of the island. When Rafys, I and the rest of the passangers tried to disembark, we were told that there was an "immigration fee" of 5 Bs. (Bolivianos). While this was about 80 cents, it was the fact that we weren't expecting it that made us balk at paying. While the "immigration officials" were hassling passengers, Rafys and I slipped past and sat down for a picnic (we decided that climbing around 300 steps to see some more ruins wasn't really worth it). Eventually, we re-embarked (with most - if not all - of the people who wanted to treck across the island) and slowly puttered back across the lake, the sun beating down on the boat and reflecting off the Titicaca waters.

However, there was one more stop before we reached Copacabana: some "floating islands". While there were floating islands on Lake Titicaca, what we pulled up to was a large diving dock with reeds covering the floor, a few make-shift thatch huts and plastic tables and chairs for eating and drinking. Oh, and a 2 Bs. "disembarkation fee". Most of the people on the boat were ready to just push on, but a couple of passengers paid their fee and started taking photos and chatting with the people on the "island". After about five minutes of this, a German woman who was assured that she would be taken from the southern port of the Isla del Sol (and not to some rink-a-dink tourist trap) got up and yelled at the three people on the island to get back on the boat and on to Copacabana. (While not happy at being corralled back onto the boat by a German woman acting like a classical school-marm, they did get back on the boat, and we managed to make it back to the city before 6pm.)

Once back on shore, Rafys made a call back to her aunt in La Paz, and was told that there was a general transport strike in Bolivia, amongst both local and intercity drivers. We would be stuck in Copacabana, and we didn't have a lot of cash to start with (nor are there any ATMs, and few places accept credit cards). Luckily, right ourside our hotel (the Hostal Paris), there was the Copacabana Restaurant, which (with an 18% surcharge) will accept credit cards. No choice but to pay it. Luckily, the food was really tasty -- a lot more so than what we had on our first night.

Today, we looked at the cathedral in town, ate some local food for breakfast, purchased some snacks at the open air market, and found this Internet store, with very slow connections and four functioning computers (out of nine). We've scoped out a place for lunch, and after that, we might try the long trek up the "Calvary hill" just north of town. There is a good chance that the strike will be over by tonight, since it has already been lifted in Bolivia's second city, Santa Cruz. If so, we can leave the city tonight at 6:30pm. Fingers crossed!

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Conversing and planning

With a fair amount of help from Rafys, I was able to talk (perhaps too much) during breakfast on topics like the cost of books in Chile and Bolivia (very expensive) as well as about my family, history in Japan, and a few other topics. My difficulty still lies in not being able to conjugate quickly and correctly (of course, I don't have all the vocabulary necessary to the topics justice), but it is - I believe - a start, proof that I'm more than a hulking shadow. Now I have to work on more give-and-take that makes a conversation.

We still don't know the new occurrences in Chile - whether telephone communication is back, whether Rafys' mother and friends are alright, etc. I think that we may go to the internet store after Rafys gets out of the shower. Then we can see what the situation is. I hope all is well, of course, but the earthquake, and its aftermath of aftershocks, looting, and other violence, have left a hole (a big on) in the goings-on with Rafys and her aunt here in La Paz.

Later today, we will make our way over to Copacabana and the shores of Lake Titicaca. My brother wanted a photo from the lakeshore, and so I'll give him one, and it might also be my Christmas photo. I also need to find some present for my mother's birthday, coming up later this month. The Lonely Planet guide talks about people selling little trinkets, bu the guide seems to be several years out-of-date, so that I am not inclined to trust information regarding social aspects.

Monday, March 01, 2010

Comparing earthquakes

The story of the destruction in Chile contrasts sharply from that of Haiti - at least in the way it is coming across in the news. Originally, the death toll stood at less than 100, far less than the numbers coming out of Haiti. True, the numbers have climbed, but still far lower than in Haiti. Part of this is also due to the high concentration of death include the most populous city in Haiti - Port au Prince, whereas the death toll was spread along hundreds of miles of coast and small islands - from which initial details were sketchy.

Too, the country of Haiti was unfamiliar with earthquakes and had little reason to build structures to withstand earthquakes (if memory serves,  Port au Prince didn't suffer an earthquake for over 200 years, whereas Chile suffers a major earthquake every 50 years or so. This meant that a lot of the infrastructure in Chile was able to withstand an earthquake that was nearly 3x stronger than those legally built (but devastated) structures in Haiti. This brings one to another point: many of the dead in Haiti were in slums on the slopes around the city - buildings and building layouts that were completely flattened in the earthquake. Therefore, infrastructure built to withstand earthquakes means you don't lose many people, however, it makes for a much weaker news story.

Add to the perception of Haiti being a continuously failed state since its independence 200 years ago, and this tugs on the strings of collective guilt throughout the Caribbean - it offers a romantic notion of a rebirth, its debts, which had crippled it for centuries, forgiven and help poured in to help the 'dirt poor' populace.

Compare this with Chile, a country standing at the door of OECD membership (the first in South America) and you don't have the same social story of failed states holding out its hands for the help of the world (NOTE: this is a "story" of the developed countries). Indeed, Chile's president, Bachelet, initially turned down financial assistance.

In all these ways - infrastructure, economy, and political stability - Chile's earthquake aftermath is a very different social and political story than Haiti. (That it is more than half a world away from Europe and the US and Canada probably also feeds into the differences.)

Sitting passively in on conversations

I just finished hanging the washing (colgando la lavenderia) and (before that) taking a late tea. Again, I was a passive observer, partly because a lot of the conversation was about the aftermath of the earthquake (terremoto) in Concepcion, things that I wouldn't be able to add to. Also, perhaps due to the altitude, I am prematurely tired this evening, regardless that I drank a very strong cup of coffee.

Rafa and her aunt are both waiting for some sort of news from Conce, and are now watching the newscast out of Chile, which has been reporting on the continuing vandalism (and not possible arson) in the city. I am happy that Rafys is not there, but at the same time, I wish she weren't held hostage by the events.

In a call to my mother earlier today, she expressed concern for Rafaela and her family, but was very stressed that we might have thought that we should go down there to help. Although I would like to do so if there was a serious need, I have a feeling that we would just be two more people that wouldn't be making much of a help in the situation. Therefore, we will continue with our trip, free of the worries of earthquakes on the one hand, and being even held hostage to the lack of personal communication coming out of Chile (and more specifically Concepcion).

La Paz - some thoughts

I´ll be filling in some of the previous days' activities and stories later, but right now I find myself at an Internet connection without my notebook. Í'll also add photos later...

La Paz - and interesting city. We arrived last night at about 11pm, and went straight to Rafys' aunt's apartment. The airport is located at 12,000+ feet, and just walking to the baggage claim and loading the bags onto a cart seemed like an effort. Luckily, the city of La Paz is about 1000 feet lower than the airport, and Rafys' aunt's house is lower still. However, walking around this afternoon at just a moderate pace gave me just a little tinge of a headache. Luckily, I'm not trying to do any vigorous things. I had trained intensively in aikido for 1.5 years in Denver, and I thought that 5280 feet (the "mile high" city) was hard enough on the lungs. I don't want to have to push myself at double that altitude. But I am getting ahead of myself.

We were greeted boistrously in the stairwell of the apartment last night by Rafys' cousins. They took our large backpacks (thankfully, because I would likely have been a wreck after walking up 4 flights) and then we all sat down for some drinks and sharing of gifts. The Kilwin's fudge that I had brought with me from Ann Arbor didn't withstand too well the multiple aborted attempts at leaving Santa Cruz that had been made earlier that day (more on this later). Still, though, they seemed receptive to trying a strange type of candy that is (at least to my taste) a little too sweet. Rafys had brought a whole slew of presents, too, both from her and her mother, and these went down with much fanfare. Similarly, the two bottles of red Chilean wine were consumed on the spot, and I started to feel the fingers of fatigue creep into me.

I tried to make it, I really did. The evening in the parlor started off so well, with me listening as much as I could to the Spanish, and responding as best as I could when propted by a question. However, as the night wore on, it became more and more difficult to pay attention and focus to understand what was being said by the cousins and aunt. Eventually - although it was not my intent - my nodding off intiated a call around to many different taxi companies as the evening came to a close (and I hit the hay, dead to the world).

We ended up coming to La Paz a few days earlier than originally planned, because the TAM airline (one of the national Bolivian airlines, run cooperatively with the military) cancelled their flights to Sucre, suddenly, and after 4 hrs of waiting. Since it was a Sunday, their staff at the ViruViru airport was limited to only check-in personnel, and so if we wanted any change to our tickets, we would have to go to the old airport (El Trampillo, shared with the military). This meant a cross-town trip to the old airport, finagaling with a bunch of people who had little interest (or incentive) to negotiate, and pay what was basically a full price ticket to get to La Paz. Then we had to go back across town to the ViruViru airport (no TAM flights out of El Trompillo to La Paz). It was a very stressful day, and we both were not very happy with the type of service offered by the airline.

However, the airplane did leave on time for La Paz, and it does mean that we now have extra time here in La Paz to make trips out to Lake Titicaca and other surrounding areas.

Rafys is still trying to get in touch with her family and friends in various places in Chile, and has managed some success in contacting friends outside the city of Concepcion, but not much ability to reach people directly in Conce. We continue to try. (Fingers crossed.)