Jul 31, 2010

Foksani?

So this morning I'm minding my own business on the bus when at one of the stops this guy starts yelling at me. He got on the bus, pushed me a little bit, then got off and banged on my window. He's the one on the right in the picture. He kept repeating something like "foksani," which apparently means he wanted to fight me.

He was either insane or in a drunken rage. I'd bet on the latter. It was strange to go from a sleepy doze to full attack adrenaline surge in a few seconds. Luckily everyone on the bus immediately rose to my defense, and people outside restrained him as you can see in the picture.

So, no coffee for me this morning, thanks.

The new library

An organization called Biblionef donated a bunch of books to my school, so the library the Kalahari Experience built here has some books on the shelves. I've been teaching my classes there as well. The next step is to organize a system where the kids can be in there reading on a regular basis.

Jul 29, 2010

Article of the day

Atul Gawunde, the typically excellent health care writer for the New Yorker, has a stupendous piece on the end of life. Totally un-excerptable, but the best and most wrenching I've read on the subject.

Jul 28, 2010

Quote of the day

Larison has the funniest recapitulation of the conservative response to Jacob Heilbrunn’s excellent Foreign Policy article "The End of the Establishment."
Fly takes for granted that the public supports his objections to the Obama administration when they do not, and he then conjures up errors the administration has not committed to back up his original false claim. In other words, there is “broad foreign policy consensus on the Right today” because most Republicans and conservatives have simply been inventing claims about mistakes that Obama has not made, attributed views to him he does not hold, and imagined that most Americans reject administration policies that do not exist.

My new favorite picture

Jul 27, 2010

Namibia trip: Fish River Canyon and Sossusvlei

Fun facts: Namibia is the second-least densely populated country in the world (behind Mongolia, and if you don't count Greenland and some others as colonies). Namibia was also part of South Africa from 1920 to 1990, administered as a de-facto fifth province.

Anyway, we started our trip by meeting up in Upington. There was a bit of a fiasco when I went with Noah to pick up our rental car in Kimberley (due apparently to my poor line of credit), but after some desperate pleading and signing a couple minor organs away as collateral, we managed to scrape through with Noah's card.

The next day we got right to it, descending into the Fish River Canyon which was pretty close to as spectacular as advertised. I heard from several people that it's the second-largest canyon in the world (which seems like a rather difficult thing to measure), but to me it seemed comparable to some smaller US canyons like the San Juan, and quite a bit smaller than the Grand Canyon. It cuts down through a lot of igneous and metamorphic rock, so you don't see the layer-cake effect quite as much as in the Southwest.

Nevertheless, it's a spectacular canyon and made for an amazing (if rather blistery) hike. One jarring difference with US canyons is that the Fish River basically dries up in the wintertime. With no mountains to provide a little runoff during the dry season, it was a bare trickle down there in between large pools. Yet the high water mark was way up the canyon walls, at 100,000+ cfs at least. Namibia is bloody enormous and the Fish River drains about half of it. I'd be interested to see if anyone has run it before while the rains are going. The gradient was very steep, especially at the top; I'd imagine it'd be pretty gnarly.
Not as large as some rivers.


Another difference I noticed was the constant beaches. Most of the beach sand in US river systems is currently collecting heavy metals in a reservoir somewhere. Here we had some great camping on the dunes but had to empty our shoes out several times per day. I was reminded of some of the research trips my Dad has been doing recently. Speaking of my family, I was also missing my geologist sister something fierce--some of the formations down there were bizarre. We saw numerous vertical intrusions of some black stuff I assumed (for lack of any other guesses) was basalt.

On the second day we had a relaxing soak in Palm Springs, which came out of the wall at a scalding 57 C. It was rather challenging hiking, actually, and we needed the break. There were many sections of deep sand or precarious scrambling over large rocks. I was thankful for all the childhood practice jumping around on boulders. Later, the canyon opened up a bit and it got a little easier.

All in all, though we did get a bit lost once trying to take a shortcut, it was a beautiful hike, definitely worth the pain inflicted on my feet. After we finished up we stayed a night at the Ai-Ais resort and drove to the Sossusvlei area, site of the highest sand dunes in the world. We did have some mechanical troubles, but luckily Kristen was there to rescue us.
Sometimes I miss my truck.


The Sossusvlei area is supposedly the biggest tourist attraction in Namibia. The main point in the "Big Daddy" dune, allegedly the tallest in the world. Half our group climbed to the top in the company of an excellent Belgian couple on their honeymoon (who were unreasonably nice to us), which took about an hour and a half, then sprinted down the face, which took about two minutes. (The first picture of this post was taken from near the top.) Big Daddy is right next to an eerie place called the "Dead Vlei." (Vlei means "pan" in Afrikaans.) It features some dried husks of camelthorn trees that have been there for 900 years. Their roots apparently go down some forty meters.

Now it's time to get back to work. Ugh.
What's the word? Stark?

Article of the day

Hackers get the better of the world's top computer security experts:
The struggle against this remarkable worm is a sort of chess match unfolding in the esoteric world of computer security. It pits the cleverest attackers in the world, the bad guys, against the cleverest defenders in the world, the good guys (who have been dubbed the “Conficker Cabal”). It has prompted the first truly concerted global effort to kill a computer virus, extraordinary feats of international cooperation, and the deployment of state-of-the-art decryption techniques—moves and countermoves at the highest level of programming. The good guys have gone to unprecedented lengths, and have had successes beyond anything they would have thought possible when they started. But a year and a half into the battle, here’s the bottom line:

The worm is winning.

Jul 26, 2010

Happy anniversary

July 24, 2009, we landed in O.R. Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg. (I missed it by a few days. Forgive me as I was out of the country.) It seems simultaneously forever ago and yesterday. I don't have much to add at this point other than cheap nostalgia; maybe I can come up with something better tomorrow when I start sorting through my hiking pictures.

Jul 25, 2010

I'm back

Sorry for the prolonged absence. I've been on a hiking trip in Namibia. Details to follow.

Jul 17, 2010

Guest post: Black Box Revisited

[Front matter: this is my Dad's best story. If I ever write anything this good, I'll be extremely proud of myself. It was published in Mountain Gazette in 2004.]

The call took me by surprise. I remember I was cooking something, maybe pancakes, in a smoking hot skillet, trying to talk while juggling a pan, spatula and the receiver. I hadn’t even talked to him in over a year. With the phone clamped to my ear by my shoulder I couldn’t hear all that well. Did he say Dugald? Breakfast was two degrees from emoliation. Yeah, Dugald Bremner. No kidding. He was planning a trip. Could I come along?

It wasn’t so common anymore, to be included in the travel plans of my nefarious partners. I had married, having decided that happiness might best be pursued by living with one good woman in a hamlet in Utah. It was as far away from everything as you could get. If you went any further, you’d be coming back. It was sort of working out. I hadn’t been a full-time guide for a couple of years. The fixer-upper was, well.... better; and I was managing to scrape by on income from various enterprises. Trips such as he was proposing were on the docket less frequently.

Trips such as he was proposing would often involve unplanned auxiliary adventures. Like running out of food and water. Maybe thirty miles of compass-heading trail breaking through deep crud. Three days of bushwhacking up the wrong drainage. Unrunnable waterfalls. That sort of thing. The stuff that really makes you feel glad to be alive. I hadn’t purposefully sworn off or anything, just got to be busy with other things.

I didn’t intend to quit cold turkey, however. Somehow I was confident I still had my edge. The mountain of evidence to the contrary was all circumstantial. Kayaking was like riding a bicycle. Still; when he told me where he wanted to go, I had a fleeting voltage surge. Not something to be taken lightly.

I’d known Dugald a long time. We had gone to the same college, lived in two different small towns together, but it was Grand Canyon that was our deepest connection. We were contemporaneous addicts. There was a whole community of people whose lives and livelihood revolved around the Canyon. We couldn’t get enough. Three seasons a year we’d run river trips as paid guides, then loaf or ski all winter. We had ten thousand stories in common and recognized one another, like the early worshippers of Ra. It was possible to do six 18 day trips a season down there, and I did; freezing in the spring, with ice on the boats in the morning, then baking the brains through four months of reflector-oven summer. Come fall, there was snow below the rim on those blessed October trips with the magical light. The work was hard. Daily encounters with the Canyons legendary rapids seemed to leave a residue of adrenaline in the bloodstream at all times. There were frequent realignments of the cosmos and the extraordinary was commonplace.

Some of us had taken up kayaking as a way to see the country and scare the daylights out of ourselves. I had personally been down some rivers that made the Grand Canyon seem well... benign. (A quick genuflection here to the Gods in charge of punishing the smug.) Dugald was one of those pushing that envelope. Still, the Canyon’s rapids were largely where our history was made. The waves of the Colorado are mountains. The skin-prickling beauty of gorge has already taken your breath away and the risks are real.

The luckiest of us got to do it in wooden boats, a risk multiplier that was well worth the added enjoyment. Dories are more fun to row than anything that floats, but they’re not the most forgiving of boats and you just can’t hit rocks. Indeed, one of my economic mainstays, back then, was repairing the misfortunes suffered by the boats in the shop I had out back. It kept me busy most of the winter.

Dugald’s trip would be short reversal of the trend toward complacency. That he had called me probably had less to do with my long-undeserved reputation as a competent kayaker and more to do with the location my adopted burg. Torrey, Utah is the scenic navel of Utah’s Red Rock wilderness; half way from Canyonlands to Bryce. Five miles from the border of Capitol Reef National Park: less than a six-pack from the Black Box of the San Raphael River. That’s where Dugald wanted to go. “The Black Box.” Even now, I get a little shiver up my spine.

I’d been to the edge of the gorge once before. There was an incision through the tortured rock stratum of the San Raphael Swell. The river’s course paradoxically wanders south along the very crest of the upwarp, picking the highest possible terrain to carve through. Coiling back on itself around Mexican Mountain, the canyon traces an Omega on the map. The deepest, narrowest part of the Omega is the “Black Box”. On that previous trip I recalled that couldn’t see the bottom from the rim excepting here and there. It was filled at midday with a Stygian darkness and the white noise of numerous falls. The gradient was an ungodly 180 ft/mile and so narrow you could spit across it with the wind against you. I had gazed into the abyss. It had gazed into me. It made my palms ache. That lunatic ache of one whose limbs just might propel them forward toward purposeful doom.

“Of course,” I’d told Dugald. I thought I was managing the tachycardia pretty well. “That’s a terrific idea.” My palms were aching something fierce. He’d be there in a couple of days.

He pulled in at dusk in the mandatory Japanese pickup. He still had those movie-star good looks and a leprechaun gleam in his eye. There was three quarters of a bottle of some unfamiliar solvent rolling around loose in the back. It was labeled Glenlivit and he offered me a pull on the bottle as soon as he got out. It tasted like liquid smoke from a smouldering peat bog. I had filtered an ocean of various distillates through my liver, but this was a different genre of booze. “My God,” I said when I had regained my breath.

He wanted to get some pictures of the Black Box for a Utah Geographic coffee table book that was coming out. A professional photographer is just somebody who sells pictures. If you wanted to turn pro, you took pictures that would sell. It ain’t rocket science. He had bought me a new spray deck, as requested. My old one had turned to dust. He wanted his money back before he’d give it to me. The Scottish heritage wasn’t just evident in his name, he lived up to it, was proud of it. That’s what the single-malt was all about. He had a newfangled garment called a “drytop,” versions of which he was testing for some paddling magazine. He loaned me one.

The last time I had seen him was below Crystal Rapid after the flood had changed it. People were getting the living daylights kicked out of them on a regular basis. That day we’d had some excitement but, as Martin Litton used to say, “Any run of Crystal where you don’t break anything and nobody gets hurt is a good run.” Dugald was crewing for Expeditons then. Our two parties had lunched on the same beach above Tuna Creek and the most of the boatmen snuck off around the corner to scout Hundred Mile. You can’t actually see Hundred Mile from there but the visualization opportunities are unmatched. We were walking on air, high on adrenaline and relief. Dugald soon had us laughing so hard we could barely stand. His humor was deadpanned, exquisitely timed and seriously twisted. He was a heartless, dead-on mimic and if it was you he was doing, you were going to be squirming through the tears.

After lunch I’d traded boats with him for a section of steep, short rapids called the Jewels. I was having a pretty good time considering I’d swapped my ’56 T-bird of a classic Briggs dory for one of those awkward, pinned-oar dirigibles that Expeditions was running then. The boats were a strikingly discordant burnt-orange color, but their fanciful hue belied a true sluggishness. It was like rowing Pier 9.

The rig that I couldn’t herd through the Upper Granite Gorge had yet to be built, though. Enjoying myself beyond the parameters necessary for the fulfillment of the job, I was rowing the unrowable and charming the dudes. I held forth on the merits of ridged hulls, pointed out a short section of igneous granodiorite rock in the primarily metamorphic walls of the gorge. I was probably starting to tell the one about McGregor and his goat when Dugald caught up with me below Ruby. “You’ve got a boat upside down back there,” he said. Being as I was the trip leader, he thought I should know.

Instant accession to dolthood, again. From Godhead to brain dead in a nanosecond. It seemed to me like I made those trips with uncommon frequency when Dugald was around. It had always been that way.

Ten years earlier, a partner and I had been trying to climb a difficult pitch in Prescott’s Granite Dells for weeks, when Dugald arrived on the scene. It had taken us days to wire the first few moves. We were still peeling off somewhere around midway, but were certain it would go. Contrary to protocol, we’d already named it “Madre de Dios.” He had topped out on his first attempt without seeming to struggle. Or that’s how I remember it. Worse, witnessing this triumph and everything else he did, was an unearthly beauty named Jane he had brought with him from Texas. They kept constant company. Though not a large man, he had the body of a gymnast. He was quick-witted and funny. I didn’t like him right off. Way back then, I might have had some adequacy issues, but still—making everything look easy is a damnably galling trait. On the rock Dugald had a “presence” that I’d only experienced momentarily, during a brief period of peak fitness. I suppose you could call it ‘fearlessness’ but that would only be one manifestation of the intensity of focus and confidence that makes someone good. Of course, he had the strength and balance, but the art of climbing rocks is a mental discipline at its core. The ability to relax is paramount. Four hundred feet of exposure seemed to have no effect on his internal calm. Baillie, the Rhodesian, called it “poise,” but what the hell did he know? I was thinking about taking up figure skating.

Dugald’s plan that day in May was to leave early in the morning in separate trucks and drive straight to the take-out, where we would leave one rig. With the gear consolidated in one vehicle we would search out a place to begin the trip which would avoid several miles of abject flat water below the bridge at Blue Bottle Peak. The place we actually started was at the end of a dirt spur of a faint track of a back road in the middle of seemingly waterless slickrock wilderness. We put on our ludicrous boating apparel and jammed the gear into the boats. We each grabbed one end of the kayaks, now better that 60 lbs. apiece, and fairly trotted into desert. In a few minutes, we could discern a slice through the slickrock between us and Cedar Mountain. In half an hour, we were at the river. A short time later we were floating down the lazy San Raphael toward the Black Box.

It was a bright, cool day. There were a couple of small rapids and some odd debris along the bank; the wreckage of a homemade boat; a complete fiberglass canoe. Presently we came to the first real obstacle, a pile of driftwood, which covered the entire canyon floor for some distance. The river disappeared beneath it and bubbled up 50 feet downstream. At higher water, it could have been a nightmare, but on our flow it was cake. We dragged the boats over the pile and slid back into the water. Shortly thereafter, the canyon closed down.

I don’t claim to remember exactly what happened after that. There were several distinct short drops among house-size boulders. There was a long chute where both sides of the boat were scraping the wall at once. There were logs jammed in the canyon walls thirty feet over your head. I was injected at one point into a little room where one had a choice of exiting via three different waterfalls. The proper choice was made more difficult by the fact I was upside down. I didn’t feel like I was paddling all that well, but I was there.

We came to one drop that was longer than the others. There was some rock dodging, then a squeeze between the wall and a gigantic boulder that was leaning against it, forming an actual tunnel. The channel then divided equally around a knife edge of stone before it careened into the wall and turned sharply into another dark corridor. We couldn’t scout any farther than that, but it didn’t matter. One thing at a time. Dugald asked me to run first, so he could take pictures, then he’d follow and I could take pictures of him. Somewhere, in some coffee table book about Utah’s geography, there is a picture of me in that rapid taken from directly overhead. Dugald had straddled the canyon and was shooting straight down from above. It’s a cool picture.

I don’t remember that it was a particularly difficult spot. None of it was really that hard in retrospect. It was intimidating. No banks, no sun; just vertical walls, gloom and noise. You had to shout to be heard. The falls seemed to generate their own chill wind. That particular time I was going first, which I hadn’t been doing much, and I was on the water alone. It wasn’t really a significant addition to the risks already involved, but being alone makes it different somehow. I remember the run better than the rest.

Back when I was rock climbing a lot I would get this diffuse ache in my hands and feet when I looked at a wall, long before I got serious about climbing it. When I started boating, I had the feeling when I scouted a difficult rapid and ceased noticing it when I got in the boat to put the spray deck on. That was the moment when I had to wrestle control away from the conflicted demon that was compelling me to do what ever I was doing, and deliver it to the machine that I hoped could pull it off. A complete transfer was crucial to success. The elastic of the spray skirt was like a living malevolent thing; black, slick, unyielding and doubly so if ones hands were the slightest bit cold. The focus required to best it left no room for purpose-tremor or self doubt.

After that, you would push off, clamp down on the paddle and react to conditions imposed. The world changes around you, much more so than when you’re climbing. When climbing you must change the world for yourself, and the moment of commitment is not when you move up, but when you let go. Every move up requires a new assumption of risk. Climbing is the easy part. Letting go is hard. If you’re kayaking, you let go once, then deal with what comes. A different variety of complete adsorption is required. There’s the same stoppage of the cosmos, the same elation at the finish that keeps us coming back, but that crystalline moment of intention, between commitment and action, equally important, only inhabited me until I got the dadgummed spray deck on. Let’s call it “dread.”

I did the run. It was fast, tight and dark. There was only one way through that I could see. I slid my boat into a crack between two rocks, got out and hustled back up to man the camera.

He showed me the shot he wanted and went back up to his boat. I waited with Olympus at ready. I waited and waited. I waited till my arms got tired holding the thing. I began to become concerned and thought of abandoning my post. Finally he popped into view and I clicked the shutter.

I thought it bad form to ask what had taken so long but he volunteered. “I had a little trouble up there,” he said. What? I’d been bent over trying to find a place for the camera in my boat, but that stood me up. Trouble? “Yeah, I was trying to look down the left side there where it split. My stern got away from me and I went upside down against that knife-edge thing. Kinda got pinned.” My God, I thought, my personal recurrent nightmare. Why on earth would you screw around in a death trap like that place obviously was? “I couldn’t roll, but I managed to push off the rock enough to wash off..... Only I went left.” Jesus. The left looked impossible. Where it rejoined the right channel it was scarcely a hole in the wall. It didn’t look like you could pull a string through it. He’s relating this like he missed the 15% off sale at Penney’s. So I think to say, “It didn’t look like it would go.” “I didn’t,” he said, “I got jammed in there. That’s what took so long.” The nerves in charge of my claustrophobia were urging me claw my way up the wall. No kayak we were paddling would fit through what I saw. “It was wider below the surface,” he says, by way of explanation. “How did it look through the camera?”

At the next corner I have to launch Dugald off the top of a boulder pile into the pool below. Since there’s no one to push me, I throw my boat in and jump after it. There were some other places, but it seemed the worst was behind us. We passed under the old bridge someone had made by throwing cottonwood logs across the canyon. We passed the place pioneer cattleman Joseph Swazey had leapt his horse across the chasm.

I bet his palms were aching when he said “Giddiyup.”

We ran another narrow gorge and paddled for a couple hours on easy water through spectacular slickrock country. There were some miles of meandering slow water and tamarisk choked banks. We took out at dusk and ended up having dinner at a truck stop in Green River. It was two in the morning when we finally got back to Torrey where we finished the Glenlivit and passed out.

Dugald took off in the morning and I didn’t see him for a couple of years. I wasn’t so far out of the loop that I didn’t hear the stories though. There was Dugald skiing across the north rim, then hiking across the mile deep Canyon, maybe in one day. Yeah, probably in one day. Dugald and company running the incomprehensible Flying V Canyon on the Salt. Tapeats Creek Narrows in the bottom of Grand Canyon. Courthouse Wash, a normally dry canyon that drains Arches Park into the river across the bridge from Moab. On a gigantic flash flood, of course. Dugald having to take off his life jacket and dive for the bottom to escape Quartzite Falls.

One day I opened my copy of the National Geographic magazine and here’s this article about some obviously mad Russians running some improbably steep river in upper Slobovia or somewhere and I notice that the pictures featured in this notably picky, high paying publication are by one Dugald Bremner. Well, I’ll be.

I remember one New Years Eve in Flagstaff when Dugald and friends had shown up on our doorstep near midnight carrying musical instruments, of all things. My roomate Brad and I owned the tenement where we lived and had a continual party going any time we could get the air temperature above freezing in our dank apartment. This could be best accomplished by throwing anything that burned into the maw of the fireplace as fast as you could, while hoping that the snow, which fell straight down the chimney, didn’t put it out. Linoleum was the preferred fuel. Apparently, it’s made of gasoline. The apartment had six or seven layers of linoleum on the floor. Enough for quite a few parties. When it would really get rolling, flames would shoot a dozen feet above the roof like some hellish Bunsen burner.

Dugald and his buddies unpacked their instrument and sat down in front of the fire. They started playing some kind of Celtic bluegrass fandango really fast and well. The largely drunken audience was rapt. I had a guitar that I plunked on now and again but I felt like I should have stood up and tossed it in with the linoleum. I hadn’t even known he played guitar at all. Maybe he didn’t till that afternoon. It wouldn’t have surprised me.

Nothing would have surprised me. I could have read a headline in the paper that said D. Bremner Revises Laws of Quantum Mechanics, or Boatman Awarded Nobel Prize. There just didn’t seem to be any limit. I was just glad I wasn’t trying to keep up. I had two kids and a contractor’s license. I might as well have been fat. Any of my kayaks could have been melted down to render a fleet of “creek” boats. The need to dare and excel and push the limits was so muted as to be strangled altogether, the victim of a creeping contentment.

Funny thing was, that the twinge of envy I’d always felt had somehow morphed into a simple satisfaction that there was someone still out there. Someone still doing it well; someone not that much younger than myself and schooled in the old forms of abuse. I became proud of our acquaintance. On my way to the refrigerator, I’d wish him well, pop another brew in his honor. “Way to go, Doog.” I showed the magazine to everyone. “Hey, I know this guy,” I’d say.

His good friend Scott Thybony wrote an account of how it happened. This was good because I’d have always wondered and imagined. They were on the Silver Fork of the American River in the Sierra. Two other guys had already decided to walk around one drop and were carrying their boats to the bottom. Dugald saw a line though, and was going solo. Alone. Somewhere on the approach, in some shoals before the hard part of the rapid, he nudged a rock and got stuck. There was still one man at the top and Dugald hollered at him that he might need a hand getting off. He was that close.

The other boater, like the other two guys on the trip, was a fit gonzo fireman from Flagstaff. He waded out to him and tried to wiggle the boat free. Instead it sank deeper into the river. Before either of them could do anything, the boat submerged altogether. Just sucked right down into the bottom of the river. The current was hitting him fully in the back. It bent Dugald forward and pinned him to the front deck of his boat. His friend tried to shield him from the force of the water, deflect it and make a bubble for him to breathe in, but it was too strong. One of the other guys came back and they both tried to pull him out of the boat by main force. They only succeeded in pulling off his helmet and lifejacket. The fellow on the downstream end of the boat got sucked into the same invisible cavern in the bottom of the river that had swallowed Dugald’s boat. It very nearly swallowed him too. All this happened in a spot that appeared to be easy enough wading. It would have to have been something like that. Something inconceivable. Something impossible.

The water had to go down before they could get him out. They took the boat back to Flagstaff, all cut open, and hung it on the front of his studio. The town went into mourning. Brad had to call to tell me, as a matter of fact. I felt the blood drain out of my limbs. Not Dugald. He was too good, too lucky. Not Dugald. He was too alive.

But it was.

That was years ago now, but I can still oppress myself with the thought. Our brightest stars will fall. Their endings will be undeserved, unexpected, catastrophic. There will be neither repentance nor justice; only the arbitrary and inevitable. That shining promise may wink out in a one car roll-over or be driven like a piton into the cold white granite cleavage of Mother Mountain, at any moment and without reason. You may hopefully discern some evolving purpose through the sorrow; detect some overarching plan at work that will ultimately give meaning to the tragic. I’ve got my own certainties in that regard. There ain’t no stinking plan. What might be “fair” is a concept the world won’t even touch the brakes for.

This days I sit back as I can, having been spared another day, and watch the sun come up behind Mesa Verde. In a few minutes it will wash the sky with light, clear across the shaded Montezuma Valley and illuminate Sleeping Ute Mountain on the western horizon like a goddam beacon. It’s so beautiful it will send another round of shivers up my still-functional spine. I can have a cup of coffee while watching this spectacle; deep in the warmth of my living room, in a house I built to please myself. I’ve got a terrific family. I have been granted every available comfort excepting the illusion that this might be made someway, somehow, to last forever. Well-being is one of those many possible states of being, all temporary. That part, I’m sure about. When you’re through being, that’s Bingo.

I’ll wonder every once in a while if Dugald managed that preternatural calm when he figured out that his last breath had been taken. Near-drowning victims have said it was very peaceful before the blackness. The thought can bring my own demise sweeping sharply from that vague corner where it waits and put it utterly into focus, tangible as an apple. Those moments in the rumbling subterranean corridor of the Black Box return with a shocking clarity. I was sprinting to the bottom of every drop like a scalded dog, bent only on survival. Dugald took a minute to peek around the corner at an optional doom. What did he see down there? Was it that same impulse that put him back in his boat on the Silver Fork, where the others would chose to walk? Was absolute fearlessness his undoing, or the need define the limits of the possible? Or something else? What was it like?

Whatever it is in my case, the cells gone haywire, the drunk in my lane, it doesn’t matter. I’d like to be outside, on a day you can see into Monument Valley, but generally, you don’t get to choose. Let it wait. Like some cosmic door prize, I’ve got another breath coming, and maybe another sunrise. That’s plenty.

Here’s to you, old buddy. Wish you were here.

Jul 14, 2010

Today in preventable deaths

The only thing that gives me hope that the US will be able to get a handle on the health care crisis is that so many of the problems are, well, head-spinningly stupid:
Deadly yet easily preventable bloodstream infections continue to plague American hospitals because facility administrators fail to commit resources and attention to the problem, according to a survey of medical professionals released Monday.

An estimated 80,000 patients per year develop catheter-related bloodstream infections, or CRBSIs -- which can occur when tubes that are inserted into a vein to monitor blood flow or deliver medication and nutrients are improperly prepared or left in longer than necessary. About 30,000 patients die as a result, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, accounting for nearly a third of annual deaths from hospital-acquired infections in the United States.

Yet evidence suggests hospital workers could all but eliminate CRBSIs by following a five-step checklist that is stunningly basic: (1) Wash hands with soap; (2) clean patient's skin with an effective antiseptic; (3) put sterile drapes over the entire patient; (4) wear a sterile mask, hat, gown and gloves; (5) put a sterile dressing over the catheter site.
A related story concerns Thomas Shaw, the inventor of a syringe with a retractable needle that also cuts infections:
After months of trial and error, Shaw hit on the idea of surrounding the tip of the syringe with six petal-like flanges, which could flare open to make way for the catheter port. Unlike some of the solutions floated by big medical device makers, such as coating the ports with silver, Shaw’s innovation added only a few pennies to the cost of production. And it seemed to be remarkably effective: a 2007 clinical study funded by Shaw’s company and conducted by the independent SGS Laboratories found the device prevented germs from being transferred to catheters nearly 100 percent of the time.

Given these facts, you might expect that hospitals would be lining up to buy Shaw’s product. But that is not the case, even though his company is offering to match whatever price medical facilities are paying for their current, infection-prone IV catheter syringes. In fact, since the device hit the market two years ago, Retractable has sold fewer than 20,000 units, mostly to one New York hospital. Often, the company’s sales team can’t even get in the door to show their wares to purchasing agents. “The product does exactly what it is supposed to do,” Shaw says. “But it has one fatal flaw. Right there at the bottom of the handle it says Retractable Technologies.”
Apparently the supply of medical devices is dominated by a few giant cartels that effectively lock hospitals into giant suppliers and make it basically impossible for small inventors to get their products into hospitals.

A cursory examination of the growth of health care costs shows that without change eventually the US will be strangled by it. Obamacare was a small first step, not sufficient by itself to correct the problem. Some of the succeeding steps will be challenging, but there is a tremendous amount of deadwood out there enriching the useless and killing people, with solutions (in a technical sense) obvious to a child. Let's hope we can muster the ovaries to get it done.

Jul 13, 2010

Last thoughts on the World Cup



For most of the time, I don't much care about sport. As a Colorado resident, I didn't realize the Rockies were in the World Series until they lost their second game and never watched John Elway and the Broncos win the Superbowl. I usually tend to think that sports are pointless (the very definition of a sport really), the games often terribly brutal, and the players spoiled, overpaid corporate shills. That's not to say I don't enjoy watching the occasional game--I still remember the Rose Bowl where Vince Young led UT to victory against USC as very good. The thing is I am not a fan. One can't really enjoy a sport if one doesn't care who wins.

However, this has been sport at its very best. All those negative things about sport are all true--but it's not the whole story. Witness the ceasefire Didier Drogba single-handedly wrought in Ivory Coast in 2006. Most countries are built around political compromise, often ignoring ethnic distributions and geographic realities, particularly in the developing world. The project of the nation-state is to provide a decent standard of living for all its citizens irrespective of status. Sport can be the glue that holds otherwise fragmentary countries together. Borders should be redrawn anyway, one might say, but that usually means war, especially in poor countries. Better to try and work with what's already there.

So the reason I like soccer is the USA national team is the only one I really care about (since the Jazz lost to the Bulls in the NBA finals back in 97-98). God knows the USA could use do with some nation-building.

Is baie koud vandag

About a week ago I was talking with a friend in New York and gloating a little bit because it was close to 40 C there with intense humidity. I didn't genuflect that day to the gods in charge of punishing the smug (deities which figure prominently in my personal cosmology), because a couple days later it got really cold, the coldest so far in the village. This morning there was a layer of ice on my water bucket.

It's not really that cold by previous standards--when I lived in Utah I can remember it getting to -40 a few times. (Bonus points if you can tell me why the scale doesn't matter.) The thing that gets me is that you can't escape. It's colder in my shack than outside during the day. The sleeping bag my folks sent me a couple months bag has been a godsend; I sleep in it every night and spend much of the day sitting around in it. About the only way to get and stay warm.

Another issue is my computer. Below a certain temperature it trips the fan to maximum speed and slows the processor way down--the same as for extreme heat. Of course, the fan only makes it colder, so before I start it up I have to bring it in the sleeping bag for a few minutes. (No better cure for loneliness.)

I still prefer this to the heat though.

Jul 12, 2010

Feel it: it is gone

Well, that went by pretty quick. We're already feeling post-World Cup hangover as what was helping prop up the economy and distracting everyone from the intractable problems ground to a halt. Last night I watched the final with my host family wrapped in my sleeping bag as the temperature plummeted to near-freezing yesterday. I have to agree with Becca's sentiments here:
As the world cup comes to an end this weekend, it's a bit hard to process. It seems like the World Cup has been omnipresent in South Africa's consciousness since long before we arrived in the country so it will be a bit weird to go on without it.
The final itself was a little underwhelming--all the semifinals and especially the third place match were far better soccer. There were some atrocious fouls, particularly from the Dutch. I was amazed the De Jong's karate kick into Xavi Alonso's chest didn't end up with a red card. Still, the better team won, and on a very impressive goal, not PKs. That alone puts it above the 2006 final with the infamous headbutt and PKs (admittedly a low bar).

"2010! Ke Nako! Feel it!" have been the phrases on everyone's tongues since we arrived. It will be interesting to see how the country handles the transition. The crime fears of UK tabloids proved unfounded; crime actually went down. The sheer quantities of tourists probably provided some safety in numbers, but the decisive factor had to be the stupendous police presence--even Kuruman had cops galore.
Private security companies said violent crime in parts of Johannesburg fell 60%. Some believe criminal gangs took a kind of forced sabbatical to avoid the 40,000 extra police hired for the tournament.
Perhaps someone can work those data into their theory of crime prevention. (Mark Kleiman?)

Maybe (ok, definitely) crime will creep back up, some of the stadiums will be destroyed, and about one-fourth of South Africans will remain chronically unemployed. But there's no way the 2010 FIFA World Cup can be considered anything but a resounding success. I was privileged to be a part of it, and feel nothing but immense pride for South Africa.

Philosophy articles

Ron Rosenbaum takes on the New Atheists (as seems to be fashionable these days) in something he calls An Agnostic Manifesto.
Faith-based atheism? Yes, alas. Atheists display a credulous and childlike faith, worship a certainty as yet unsupported by evidence—the certainty that they can or will be able to explain how and why the universe came into existence. (And some of them can behave as intolerantly to heretics who deviate from their unproven orthodoxy as the most unbending religious Inquisitor.)

Faced with the fundamental question: "Why is there something rather than nothing?" atheists have faith that science will tell us eventually. Most seem never to consider that it may well be a philosophic, logical impossibility for something to create itself from nothing. But the question presents a fundamental mystery that has bedeviled (so to speak) philosophers and theologians from Aristotle to Aquinas. Recently scientists have tried to answer it with theories of "multiverses" and "vacuums filled with quantum potentialities," none of which strikes me as persuasive.
Julian Sanchez responds:

To the extent that it is a meaningful question, I have no reason to expect that science either eventually will, or even in principle could answer it. But I am not sure why I am supposed to care, except insofar as it’s interesting to mull over, if you go for that sort of thing. Suppose I allow that it is a genuine mystery—radically uncertain, even. It’s outside the realm about which we can talk meaningfully or offer evidence. So what? If there were some part of the world about which we couldn’t even in principle gather information, would I have to declare myself a basilisk agnostic because, after all, they might be there?

Rosenbaum’s mistake is to suppose that atheists are committed to providing some kind of utterly comprehensive worldview that explains everything in the way religious doctrine sometimes purports to. But why? Can’t we point out that claims made on behalf of one brand of snake oil are outlandish and unsupportable without peddling an even more wondrous tonic?

I don’t know why there’s something instead of nothing, if the question is even intelligible, any more than I can prove I’m not a brain in a vat. These are interesting facts to reflect on in an epistemology seminar. They have very little to do with my ordinary assertions about how to get to The Passenger or whether the details of any particular cosmology seem persuasive, or whether praying to Mecca or confessing to a priest seems like a sensible thing to do. The question of whether there’s a God is only really interesting or a live debate in practice because its embedded in these more particular traditions. Punting to the non-local question of why there’s anything at all is, ultimately, just changing the subject—a fact that may be obscured by gesturing at the realm of mystery and calling the question mark that lives there God.

I report, you decide.

Jul 9, 2010

Is the Daily Show sexist?

A few days back, after the tryout of former video-game host Olivia Munn, Jezebel posted an indictment of The Daily Show:
The Daily Show is many things: progressive darling, alleged news source for America's youth, righteous media critique. And it's also a boys' club where women's contributions are often ignored and dismissed.
The show responded with this letter from women staffers:
The Daily Show isn't a place where women quietly suffer on the sidelines as barely tolerated tokens. On the contrary: just like the men here, we're indispensable. We generate a significant portion of the show's creative content and the fact is, it wouldn't be the show that you love without us.
It's tough to know what to make of this. Comedy is, indisputably, a male-dominated profession. Take a look at Comedy Central's list of the 100 best comedians--by my count, eight of them are women. And according to Jezebel, Munn is only the second female correspondent in seven years at TDS, and guests this year have been 63 males and 13 females.

I think Coates is mostly on the right track:
"I don't think Jon is sexist," she says. "I don't think that there is a double standard at the Daily Show. I do think that by the time it gets to the Daily Show it's already been through the horrible sexist double standard of the universe. You're not hiring someone right out of school. By the time they get to the candidates of the Daily Show, the herd has been thinned by the larger societal forces."
[...]

I think I'm more swayed by Smithburg's explanation, probably because it's akin to what I've experienced in magazine journalism and its seemingly unshakeable whiteness. There is a very direct correlation between the wealth gap and the diversity of masthead at magazines like this one. Us black and Latinos often come from backgrounds in which our families' primary reason for sending us off to college is stability.

[...]

I think that last point likely applies to women in comedy. I suspect that a certain kind of cultural capital--a kind that women are often not privy to--is really at work here. The problem is the accumulation of said capital, as Smithburg indicates, begins long before one is at a point in their career where employment at The Daily Show is a possibility.

None of this is meant to condone throwing up one's hands and feigning powerlessness. But by the time you're debating Olivia Munn, it's already too late. Better to begin by, say, setting up a summer program for girls in their junior or senior year of high school, and try to foster that needed cultural capital. The Daily Show may already have a program like that, I don't know. But this points to something else--these kinds of societal problems require root work, and there's no guarantee you'll get any credit for doing it. But if the point is to show the world how nonsexist you are, you've already failed. It has to go deeper.
And also, I think Amanda Marcotte is probably on to something:
I'd say the whole problem is actually quite simple. Our culture does believe there are female and a male senses of humor that differ. We tend to say that men have a sense of humor when they say funny things, and that women have a sense of humor when they know when best to laugh when men say funny things. This sense is so ingrained that I had a few occasions when I was younger where I'd say something funny and get blank stares, only to find a man stealing my joke a half hour later and getting giant belly laughs for it.

That doesn't happen to me anymore, because once you get paid a couple times to write funny stuff, people start to put you into the category of exceptional, funny women who get to join that boy's club. But even then, I suspect the reason it's so hard for comedy shows to remember to hire women is that we have trouble recognizing jokes for what they are when they come out of female mouths.

Jon Stewart is no sexist. But I'll admit, grudgingly, that TDS is probably (like the rest of the comedy industry) rather sexist in practice. They should be taking more steps (as they have with their racially diverse correspondents) to seed and recruit female talent.

I was still rather irritated by the Jezebel article and a lot of the hullabaloo that ensued. Let me explain why: one of the things I like about South Africa is the refreshingly candid discussions I've had about race and other taboo subjects--the relative lack of PC police that makes people so much more guarded in the USA. American discourse around race, gender, and sexual orientation is such a minefield that many people simply avoid it altogether--better to avoid making a friendship- or career-destroying gaffe.

I don't want to come across as yet another white male complaining that I can't make racist and sexist jokes. I'm not saying that someone like Rush Limbaugh should be given the benefit of the doubt--political correctness has eliminated a lot of prejudice from the national discourse, or at least made it a lost more problematic. Nor am I saying that people shouldn't speak out or condemn practices or people they see as immoral. But this kind of moralizing--where good faith goes out the window, where demons are condemned and exorcised--often makes it harder to have an honest conversation with people who are fundamentally on the same side. It makes for defensiveness and counterattack rather than soul searching.

Now hire some more women, Jon.

Jul 8, 2010

Spain vs. Germany

While not the most exciting game, this was one that Spain deserved to win. They played better than I've seen them in the whole tournament. Germany, while they played well, showed little of the devastating power that saw them obliterate Argentina, perhaps because of Mueller's absence.

In any case, the final should be fantastic. No matter who wins, it will be a country that has never gotten the cup before, and I heartily support that. In fact, this is the first time that Spain has even made it to the semifinals. Sports Illustrated called the final for them--we'll see what happens. All in all, I've been much more pleased with the quality of play and games so far than in 2006. Let's hope it stays that way.

Jul 7, 2010

Quote of the day

"No doubt a youth who received impressions cautiously, whose love was lukewarm, and whose mind was too prudent for his age and so of little value, such a young man might, I admit, have avoided what happened to my hero...I am glad that my hero showed himself not too reasonable at that moment, for any man of sense will come back to reason in time, but, if love does not gain the upper hand in a boy's heart at such an exception moment, when will it?" --The Brothers Karamazov.

I was reminded of that by this article in the NYT. Still gives me the shivers.

Jul 6, 2010

Superman!

I bet you didn't know I could fly, huh? That's Lion's Head in the background.

UPDATE: That island in the bay there is Robben Island, where Mandela was imprisoned.
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Karen Kaye bait

We saw this bird-thing in Kruger. I don't know what the hell it is.
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Jul 5, 2010

Handstand of the day

I'm going through some of my vacation pictures. This one is taken from the top of Table Mountain in Cape Town. My friend on the right there wrote a pretty extensive journal of the whole trip, with luck we can get a version of that posted here in the future, complete with videos and pictures. Sound good?
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Jul 3, 2010

I'm back!

I'm finally home for a few days. I got back in time to watch Germany crush Argentina in the quarterfinals 4-0, eish!

Jul 2, 2010