River No. 2

Posted: February 24th, 2014 | Author: | Filed under: Personal | Tags: , | No Comments »

There are places in the world so remote, so obscure, so isolated, that they were never graced with a name. No explorer or cartographer, no colonial leader or military governor deemed them worthy to claim. Yet these obscure regions often contain some of the most breathtaking settings on Earth.

The beauty of River No 2 is enhanced by its seclusion. It is only 15 miles south of Freetown, Sierra Leone, and only 6 miles south of the beautiful Lakka resort; yet even now the road conditions are so poor that it takes nearly a half hour to drive from Lakka.

The drive was its own adventure. In late 2001, the UN, supported by the UK, was still enforcing a cease-fire between the provisional government and the rebel factions. A decade of civil war left much of the infrastructure in ruins, and the economy in shambles. With per capita income measured in the hundreds of dollars a year, any vehicle is considered a luxury. When cars in the US and Europe are considered far too old and decrepit for our streets, we ship them en masse to the third world. There they are driven until they literally fall to pieces, then are repaired and driven some more.

We loaded luggage into a taxi, an ancient Mercedes (much prized for its durability) painted in a bemusing number of yellow shades. Eventually the engine started, and we made our way along the shell-shocked road. The fantasy of shock absorbers was swiftly dispelled by the remains of the asphalt. We snaked from one side of the road to the other, winding around shell craters as large as the car. Progress was slow. The African sun was unforgiving, and the dust smothering.

We were suddenly startled by a bang. What was that? What was that terrible roaring noise? The driver stood on his brake, a full panic stop — from maybe 15 miles an hour. We exited the car, and surveyed the damage. The entire exhaust system from the Y-pipe to the tail pipe, has simply fallen from the car.

The driver was horrified. He grasped his head with both hands, and surveyed the damage to his most prized possession and source of livelihood. Another passenger opened a pack of cigarettes, and offered one to the driver. “I don’t smoke”, he declared — then took one anyway. I took one as well, as I didn’t have any better ideas.

After a few minutes, the driver regained his composure. He smiled at us and exclaimed, “TIA (this is Africa)!”. He lifted the pipe and muffler, partially wedged it into the trunk, and on we went. TIA indeed.

The rest of the trip was comparatively uneventful, as we made our way down the coast of Sierra Leone’s Western Area. The road cut through dense jungles that ran from the tops of the mountains down to the coast. We arrived at the “parking lot” for the beach, nothing more than a large clearing. We exited the shadows of the short jungle trail, into the dazzling brightness.

The equitorial sun was reflected by the brilliant white sand, sand that crunched beneath our feet like snow. The river flowed through the mangroves into a small estuary, and had built a white sand delta.

The giant waves of the deep blue ocean crashed on the outer sand barrier, then rippled through a shallow turquoise lagoon and lapped onto the shore. The rush of the river mixed with the crash of the waves. A little further out, fishermen cast nets for fish sheltering outside of the barrier. We let the majesty of the scene sink in, then began to explore.

As we explored, local children would run up with fresh coconuts for sale. For only a few leone — fractions of a US penny — they would cut the tops, and let us drink the milk. They then took the husk, cut it open, and gouged out the meat for us.

After rehydrating, we rented canoes and paddled up the estuary. African guides lead us through the mangroves, showing us flights of birds and uncomfortably close crocodilians. The estuary transitioned to river, which lead us to the nearby waterfalls.

The falls were the gathering place for the small nearby village. Women washed clothes on the rocks while children played in the shallows. We pulled onto the shore to rest and eat, and began the short journey back.

Whump whump whump… the unmistakable sound of a helicopter. We rounded the bend of the river, and the main beach came back into view. The beach was now garnished with an ancient Russian helicopter disgorging Dutch tourists. The Russian (actually Ukrainian, but that’s another story) pilots headed for a nearby hut that served as the bar, and began drinking the lukewarm beers. Not the most comforting sight for a potential passenger.


The new flood of people, and the relative lateness of the day, prompted us to finally leave this shard of paradise. We returned to our taxis, and eventually to the din and bustle of Freetown.

I have seen many beautiful places, but I think none quite rivals this little known beach. While I have yet to return, I know in my heart I will see it again someday.

The Dive

Posted: May 20th, 2013 | Author: | Filed under: Personal | Tags: , | No Comments »

Sweltering under Florida’s summer sun, wearing wetsuits necessary for a prolonged dive in the 72 degree water, we assemble and test our diving gear and review our dive plan. 100 feet below us is one of the spring-fed caverns that has made northern Florida a diving mecca for cave divers all over the world.

Though excited, we buddy check each other’s gear with the utmost care; a rapid surface ascent would be far too dangerous from such depths. First, the air pressure gauge; 3000 psi, a full tank. Next the primary and backup regulators; both flow easily. Next tested is the inflatable vest known as a buoyancy compensator, or “BC”. All is secure and functional. The diver’s weight belt is verified, and the dive computers have fresh batteries. We are ready to dive.

As we slip below the waves, the senses change. The sounds of the surface world are immediately muted; the rustle of the breeze, the chirping of birds and clucking of squirrels, the everyday sounds to which we are accustomed are immediately quenched and replaced with the sound and sensation of one’s own breath. First the sharp hiss of the intake, followed by the exhale, a slow gurgling rumble. Each breath is intensely cold and dry, yet soothing as it fills the lungs. Thus encased in a sensory cocoon surrounding us with self awareness, we sink further below the still surface.

The waters are clear as glass, but the sun’s light becomes ever more attenuated. In our monochrome world, the soft turquoise of the shallows has given way to a dark navy blue at the opening of the cave. We activate our waterproofed torches and continue into a different world.

The floor of the cave is soft silt sand, but the walls and roof are limestone pockmarked from years of erosion. The ceiling shimmers with pockets of air, trapped and unable to flow back to the surface. We follow the lead of our guide; we remove our fins and rotate upside down. We inflate our BCs, and float until our feet touch the ceiling.

After a moment of vertigo, the world rotates; the change of perspective is a breathtaking transformation. The ceiling is our floor, cratered like the surface of the moon. The air pockets are a silver liquid that pools at our feet. We cup it in our hands; it flows through our fingertips and falls back to the ground. With buoyancy as our gravity, we bounce with each step, slowly returning to the surface like an Apollo astronaut. Some distance away, the circular opening of the cave hangs in our sky like a blue marble. We are no longer on anything recognizable as Earth.

We explore for a minute or a day; time no longer passes in a comprehensible way. The sound of breathing is finally punctuated by high pitched beeps; our dive computers are signaling it is time to leave. The chill of the water is taking its toll, but we moderate our ascent. Rising too quickly risks the bends, or a pulmonary embolism.

Our alien landscape sinks away below us, and we return to the bright, clear waters just below the surface. 15 feet away, we stop; our computers don’t advise a decompression stop, but our tables do, and we are risk-averse divers. 5 minutes later we break surface, and the senses return: the sounds of nature, the warmth of the sun, the smell of the breeze and the plethora of colors. To an alien world and back again, in under a half hour.

New Facebook UI

Posted: February 4th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Technology | Tags: , | No Comments »

For some reason, I seem to have been randomly selected to beta test the new Facebook UI. There is no opt-out of this, and I wasn’t notified. After posting a snarky and sarcastic status update, I found that I was seemingly the only friend online who had the new UI.

Good UI designs constantly change in arbitrary and unpredictable ways. Muscle memory is a bad thing. People love to constantly learn new ways to perform common trivial tasks, especially if the new ways are not noticeably better than the old ways. Good to see that Facebook is learning well from its business partner Microsoft!

So, in case you are interested in what you may soon be using, here is a screenshot:

New Facebook UI Screenshot

New Facebook UI Screenshot

A quick tour:

  • The icons in the top left, next to the word “facebook”, are your new links to messages, notifications, and friend requests. The new tiny and arbitrary icons, in addition to having terrible contrast, are drop-down menus with live previews. While slick, the icons are annoying to click. On the plus side, you can click the message directly in the pop down menu.
  • The “Friends Online” list on the side is annoying– unlike the popup menu (still in the bottom right), it is limited in the number of friends displayed, and it doesn’t respect your list groupings. Also, when you click “see all”, it doesn’t expand in place; no, it triggers the OLD chat popup in the bottom right to expand, on the other side of your screen. This is all manner of retarded, I haven’t seen a UI do something that terrible since I last had to use Pro/Engineer.
  • The “Accounts” menu, in the upper right, now has a shortcut to “credits”. Gee, thanks, Facebook.
  • Overall, the look and feel seems more hodge-podge. Why is the search bar in the middle now, instead of the top right as is standard? Why did they feel the need to split common tasks across toolbars separated by the entire screen? What utility are they trying to add? What workflows does this UI intend to facilitate?

At any rate, I hope this beta UI is merely a temporary trial of design features. I doubt that is the case; Facebook didn’t notify me in any way that my UI was going to change or had changed. There is no way that I see to change UI versions. In addition, there is no special offer of a feedback or bug reporting link. I suspect this is not a trial of the UI design, but merely a staged rollout. While I am glad that Facebook is working to improve UI behaviors while adding new features, this feels like a step backwards.

If you are curious about any of the new feature behaviors, let me know in a comment.

UPDATE: 3 hours after changing the UI, Facebook finally posted a notification on my homepage, saying, “Check out your new, simplified homepage!” They conveniently provided this link: http://www.facebook.com/sitetour/homepage.php

Google: Scary? Awesome? Scary Awesome?

Posted: December 15th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Technology | Tags: , , | 1 Comment »

After my recent acquisition of an iPhone, I decided to fix up my long-neglected Google Reader account, to feed into NewsNetWire on my handsized crack.

After adding my feeds, Google — apparently using my emails from Gmail as a reference — took it upon itself to suggest several new feeds I may enjoy:

AMERICAN.COM — A Magazine of Ideas, Online

E. Kowalski’s blog

Firearms and Training

Residents of Gainesville, FL

Soul of Star Trek

Apparently, Google thinks that I am a libertarian(ish), mathematically-inclined, gun-loving Sci-Fi nerd who lives in Gainesville, FL. Google is, in fact, entirely correct.

This is awesome, because I found at least one blog I would like to follow.

This is scary, because Google’s CEO, Eric Schmidt, doesn’t understand privacy. Of course, Google’s PR Fire Dept claims poor Schmidt was terribly misquoted.

Years ago, Wired ran a story portraying 2 worlds of pervasive surveillance. One was a dystopian world, a police state where the government used a network of hidden cameras to maintain order and eliminate crime. The feeds from this video, of course, was entirely protected and secret. The other world, less dystopian, was also a world under constant surveillance — but all the video feeds were publicly available. Want to know if your friends are already at the bus stop? You can check the feed. Want to know what the lines at an event are? You can check the feed.

While many look at both worlds with some level of disquiet, the truth is we are approaching both worlds. The former, the government is instituting without a peep from us — in the US, traffic cams are everywhere. On the other hand, we are freely creating the later world through social media; why bother installing public surveillance? People surveil themselves and proudly submit it for public consumption via YouTube, Facebook, or Twitter.

In a way, the very act of publishing information might be an abandonment of anonymity and information we normally consider private. A couple of years ago, researchers discovered they could easily link data sets, despite anonymizing attempts. Have we ever truly had anonymity and privacy, or has it merely been an illusion created by insufficiently advanced data collection and mathematical techniques?

If privacy (or the illusion of such) dies (and some say it already has), who has killed it — the Googles, the Governments, the Statisticians, or the Tweets?

NASA and the Scientific Divide

Posted: November 30th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Science, Technology | Tags: , , , | No Comments »

Recently, I met a man who walked the surface of the moon. After his brief talk, we were invited to ask him questions. One surprising question was, “Why waste money on space exploration?” Coming from a background of hard science, I found this question jarring. “How can someone not want to explore space?” The man who once walked the moon seemed similarly disconcerted. As he struggled to answer in terms that resonated with the layfolk, the intellectual disconnect was agonizing.

NASA is in an era of highly publicized disasters, with increasingly boring or technical missions. These issues only look to get worse; budget woes will leave us without manned spaceflight for at least 4 years, and our backup plan is to buy trips on Russian rockets. With less and less exciting missions, and the public’s lack of scientific interest and understanding, it is easy to see why our generation has become apathetic to NASA’s mission. However, despite its apparent recent struggles, NASA has an extensive resume of accomplishments and contributions to our society, which few people realize.

In the past 51 years, NASA has achieved that which was once thought impossible — we have sent people to live in space, we have landed on another body in the solar system, we have sent probes out of our solar system, we have landed probes on other planets. To accomplish this, NASA has, out of necessity, developed technologies we now take for granted, from improved artificial limbs to enriched baby foods.

Even without such useful spin-offs, NASA and other government space research programs have created a space-travel infrastructure, pouring the billions necessary to develop techniques such as putting satellites into orbit. Such high-risk, high-cost expenditures are unlikely to have been pursued by private enterprises, as they would not even have the funds to accomplish these programs. These technologies are available in the private sector, opening up new industry applications in communications, private space travel, and privately funded research.

The scientific research that NASA has provided is staggering. From moon samples, to Jupiter probes, to space telescopes, to extra-solar probes, to weather satellites and space-based geological research, NASA has provided unique and invaluable resources to biologists, geologists, chemists, meteorologists, physicists, astronomers, and more. This research has fueled discoveries whose value cannot yet be known.

Here is a brief history lesson. In 1803, President Jefferson asked Congress to allocate $2,500 to an expedition to explore the Missouri river, hoping to discover the extent of the Louisiana purchase and a path to the Pacific Ocean. Without knowing what would be found, the Corps of Discovery mapped the Missouri River, discovered over 100 new species, and made the first mineral maps describing one of the most resource-rich regions on our planet. Our explorations, discoveries, and established diplomatic presence in the area allowed the US to maintain full control over the most geopolitically valuable regions of the world — the Mississippi-Missouri drainage basin. With this transportation conduit, the vast resources discovered in the west, the massive tracts of arable land, and enormous strategic depth, the US was able to position itself as an unrivaled economic, military, and political hegemon.

None of these outcomes were expected or anticipated. The purchase was a gamble and the expedition was a gamble. The results helped fuel 2 centuries of growth. Do we want to turn our backs on the next great frontier? Are we willing to cede the future to India and China, both of whom are aggressively developing space programs? I would hope that anyone who wishes to protect our future prosperity and security can see that the answer to both of these questions is a resounding “no”.

Fortunately, it seems that the public agrees. However, as the Apollo generation ages, and our generation gains more influence in policy, NASA’s support will be in jeopardy if we cannot convince ourselves that our future is worth fighting for.