Paradise Terrestre, Five Years On…

Somewhere among the notebooks of Gideon I once found a list of diseases as yet unclassified by medical science, and among these there occurred the word Islomania, which was described as a rare but by no means unknown affliction of spirit. There are people, as Gideon used to say, by way of explanation, who find islands somehow irresistible. The mere knowledge that they are on an island, a little world surrounded by the sea, fills them with an indescribable intoxication….But like all Gideon’s theories it was an ingenious one. I recall how it was debated by candlelight in the Villa Cleobolus until the moon went down on the debate, and Gideon’s contentions were muffed in his yawns; until Hoyle began to tap his spectacles upon his thumbnail of his left hand, which was his way of starting to say goodnight….Yet the word stuck; and though Hoyle refused its application to any but Aegean islands….we all of us, by tacit admission, knew ourselves to be ‘islomanes.’


Five years ago today, I steered an overfull Land Rover north in the early morning mist to catch the ferry in Anacortes and take possession of my house on San Juan Island.  My belongings would largely follow a month later, after small renovations and frenzied trips south to pack and prepare for the moving truck.  But the first weeks as an islander were magical.  The house was empty apart from evidence of construction and small enclaves of domesticity — a futon, a card table, and some deck furniture.  I virtually lived on the deck for weeks, in shorts, in warm weather that now seems a fond memory.

As I have written in years past on this day, my island home matures from innocent idyll to complex daily reality, and my fondness for it changes as well, acquiring both depth and sharp edges, as I negotiate a middle ground between deep involvement and the fondly remembered invisibility and anonymity of my first days.  Coming, as I do, from urban America, I find that in order to live in my woodsy enclave on the quiet, almost people-free, waters of Rocky Bay and the Waldron-Orcas-SJI confluence, I have signed up to live in a classic “small town,” for better or worse.

In my annual paean to island life, on the anniversary of my northward migration, I quote Lawrence Durrell’s book, “Reflections on a Marine Venus,” which I reread each year as this date approaches.  This year, I read it, but I find that I no longer associate it with my island home.  This is a sad thing, since my islomania continues unabated, and I fully agree with the sentiments Durrell expresses.

But the tone of Durrell’s islomania, expressed in the language of the early 20th century educated British expatriate, is no longer my tone.  Durrell speaks as a visitor, fundamentally.  He speaks as one coming from a foreign culture, enjoying his contact with the new and the different.  He speaks as one kind of islander, visiting another kind of islander.

As I sit here on the deck tonight, listening to the music playlist that accompanied my trip on the ferry and landing in Friday Harbor, and after re-reading the first pages of Durrell’s book — paragraphs that virtually defined my journey north — I find myself writing a very different “annual report” than usual.  I sat down thinking that I would give the usual “trip report.”

Instead, I find myself eulogizing, and drawing to a close, the words and metaphors which defined that journey.  The motivations and events which led me here are in the past.  I am deeply involved in my community, sometimes more than I have time for or would like.  But that involvement disallows the perspective of the expatriate, the viewpoint of one who loves a place, but will soon move onward.  Durrell’s words will continue to have deep meaning for me, but it’s time to retarget them outward, to places I hope to visit and enjoy.

For the island, five years on, is nothing more or less than….home.  With all of the pleasure, comfort, frustrations, and occasional pain that this denotes.  

Facebook, Google+, and the Crafting of the Global Social Network

I was one of the “lucky,” who has a friend (and ex-coworker) that works for Google, and so I got an early invite to Google Plus, their attempt to take on Facebook head-on (i.e., after Facebook has achieved dominance, as opposed to the early Orkut days).

Google+ is oddly Facebook-like. This makes sense, given that FB is well-used by people of all ages in many countries. The design and interface are battle-tested (if also trivially and endlessly changable). But there’s a key difference, and one that started me thinking about the real business that Facebook is in.

That difference is, of course, the prominence of “Circles” in Google+, and the near-absence of features in Facebook for segmenting and targeting your communications. Sure, one can create friend groups in Facebook, and then make status updates for just a friend group, but I’ll bet a lot of you either didn’t know that, or had never used it. Heck, I’ve never used it despite my expressed desire on Facebook for just such a feature. It’s nearly invisible on Facebook.

It’s central and prominent on Google+. Google wants us to *limit* and control, for ourselves, to whom we target our words and images. Twitter almost insists upon the opposite, that we speak boldly into the ether, and whomever is listening will hear, whether we know the person or not.

I’d bet that at Facebook, any feature which restricts the *volume* or *velocity* of messages that flow within the Facebook global social network are verboten, or anathema. But at the same time, Facebook positions itself as providing control and “privacy,” despite numerous well-publicized privacy issues.

Twitter largely self-organizes as a social network. Facebook, on the other hand, is *crafting* the global social network. It encourages us to accept the illusion of privacy in order to get us to friend more people, post more status, and expose our opinions and information than we would be willing to otherwise. We should not, as a result, study the Facebook social network as if it were a reflection of our real-life social networks, because the two networks are different both in topology and in weighting.

What Google+ is trying to do, and how that intent will translate into reality once it’s fully up and running, I have no idea. It is, perhaps, not entirely clear to Google themselves, since they seem to start with goals and ideas, and let data and experiment drive them toward an ultimate plan and implementation. In fact, I’ll bet the social network scientists and researchers at Google have studied the Facebook social network and its dynamics better than anybody else except Facebook’s social network scientists, and know a good deal about what makes it tick and what makes it sick.

But it’s safe to say that they’ve made a couple of bets. One is that Google is willing to accept a slightly lower velocity and average quantity of messages in the system. This is inevitable because people will restrict more highly to whom they send various status and messages if the means for doing so is prominent and core to the system’s operation. The degree to which this effect will be prominent is open to question, but the underlying inequality in rates is pretty much built in. They would make this bet if the increased loyalty they get from customers yields a better upside.

Second, they’re betting that running a more organic and self-structured social network will yield better growth than a manipulated and engineered social network. Here, I’d bet that Google analyzed growth rates from various kinds of node-addition processes, and found that Facebook is oversaturating its degree distribution and eventually will lose the desirable “near-scale-free” network properties (for propagation), and will tend toward a distribution with too many degree correlations to propagate information efficiently. That’s a complete conjecture on my part, but it’s backed by some solid science on the nature of information transfer on various network topologies.

So Google+ is starting out in a seemingly interesting direction: offering more well-integrated control over how and to whom we communicate, but with a familiar feel and design. The real question now is, will enough people come and play, so that we can figure out how well it works, what Google is *really* doing, and whether that’s good or bad for individuals.

A belated Towel Day perspective

This year, on Towel Day, I was busy, putting together a fundraising dinner for the UW Anthropology Department and the UW Student Farm.  So I didn’t really write anything, as I have in years past.  But not for lack of something to say.  I’m not sure what it is, exactly, about “Towel Day,” the semi-bogus holiday celebrated by fans of Douglas Adams each year, but it seems to bring out the “long view” in me, visions of civilizations rising and falling.  You’d think such thoughts would be triggered by someone more profound…by a rereading of Edward Gibbon or at least Barbara Tuchman, or even Carl Sagan reflecting on the immensity in which our parochial concerns are lost.

Nope.  Douglas Adams does it every time.  It’s the Golgafrinchans, at the end of Restaurant At the End of the Universe.

Because, of course, they’re us.  They’re our bumbling, over-specialized, incapable of making a living for themselves, useless skills aplenty, useful skills thin on the ground, selves.

And, as an archaeologist and social scientist, the Golgafrinchans always remind me of how fragile our civilization is.  I am a social scientist, and I read a good bit of contemporary social science, of course, but in my work I analyze phenomena at a much longer time scale.  I study societies and social groups as they come and go, are born by fission from some other group of people, flourish, perhaps give rise to social “offspring,” and eventually go extinct.  And what is more emblematic of social extinction than Adams’s portrayal of the Golgafrinchan Ark “B”, carrying the non-essential members of society off to form a new world….

The Golgafrinchans occupy a place in my personal “wax museum of humanity” right next to Danny Hillis’s Long Now Foundation, and their 10,000 year clock.  Although the 24 hour news cycle and the buzz of tweets and instant information would have you believe otherwise, it is over much longer time scales that we can evaluate the success, and equitability, and sustainability of the various ways we humans have, of being human.  Our battles might be fought in days or years or lifetimes, but it is only our descendants that can truly “keep score” and decide how well we did.

The Long Now clock is designed to transcend us as a civilization, and as one of the ways we can communicate some of what we’ve learned with our far-future descendants.  It is designed not to require folks to be close enough to us in time and culture that they can read our writings, or comprehend our ideas, but to draw upon principles that are presumably deeper — not necessarily built into the laws of physics, mind you — but comprehensible to beings who are descended from our kind of minds, our kind of bodies.

Combine the perspective of an anthropologist studying the slow coming and going of societies, and the perspective of a software and systems engineer, and I think you get a sub-genre of futurism and speculation:  what it takes to “recover” the good bits of a civilization, after a collapse or other disaster.  Or simply the slow erosion of deep time.

I think of this problem in algorithmic terms.  If you wanted to maximize the chances of being able to recreate us, down the road after we’ve lost our knowledge, lost this particular set of scientific/democratic values, what is the “minimal instruction set”?

In short, what is the “boot loader” for an open, democratic society  combining expressive freedom and respect for scientific discovery?

This is the closest I can come up with, and I do not claim that it’s a deterministic algorithm.  In other words, starting here, you are not guaranteed to replicate the aspects of our civilization we value.  It’s clearly stochastic, and there’s clearly a lot of noise.  Which means only that I’m giving an “initial condition” and transition probabilities for processes which are in the “basin of attraction” of the product we’re looking for, and that if you follow such rules, “more often than not,” you’d end up with something we’d recognize as an open society.  Assuming you either replicate the experiment a lot (i.e., send LOTS of Golgafrinchans to LOTS of uninhabited worlds), or wait for the experiment to repeat itself over and over (i.e., deep time).

But here’s the algorithm (and I don’t claim full originality here):

  1. Pay attention and observe patterns in the world around you, keeping an open mind.
  2. Bang the rocks together, so to speak, and make things.  Especially new things.
  3. Understand how competition and cooperation work, and why each is necessary.
  4. Study those who are different, with an open mind.
  5. Pass on what you learn, without too much prejudice.

Put this algorithm on an endless loop, and you have something approximating the progressive parts of the last several thousand years of Western Civilization.   Ignore a couple of key clauses, and you have a much wider array of outcomes.  Not all good, and some downright scary.   Do it just like this, and you might, if you’re lucky, end up with an open, tolerant, prosperous, enlightened democracy.

That’s it.  That’s what it takes.  The Golgafrinchans managed it, apparently…and so did we.  But it was a narrow victory, and the question is whether we can manage to keep it up…..

Happy Towel Day!

Is the United States “Broke”? Reintroducing sanity to our budget discussions

It’s fairly common these days to read or hear sometime talking about how bad the deficit is, but “the real situation is far, far worse.”  The discussion then turns from describing a 1.3 trillion dollar deficit and 14 trillion dollar debt, to numbers like 100 trillion worth of “unfunded liabilities.”   The usual point being, of course, that the United States is on the brink of catastrophic fiscal meltdown which — if not fixed by drastic reductions in spending and probably elimination of all pensions and safety nets — will lead to national bankruptcy, hyperinflation, and the specter of authoritarianism and other evils.

It’s a fairly compelling story, and it certainly has managed to scare the living s**t out of many Americans, leading to the rise of the Tea Party movement, attempts to destroy public sector unions, and radical budget cutting fever in Congress.

It’s also a carefully constructed story, which happens to succeed only by comparing apples to oranges.  In other words, while we do have lots of debt and unfunded liabilities, the picture is nowhere near as grim as is being suggested.  I intend to go through some simple numbers below which demonstrate that we can handle both our current deficits, and the larger issue of the social safety net, “within the system,” and that collapse is not inevitable.

MxMo Monday: Curacao Punch

Mixology Monday this month, brought to us by Dennis at Rock and Rye, highlights “forgotten cocktails.”

I suppose everyone has a different threshold for when a cocktail recipe is “forgotten”…the average person who doesn’t frequent “serious” cocktail bars wouldn’t recognize a Japanese, for example, but if you’ve hung out at Rob Roy or Vessel in Seattle regularly, you’ve probably had one in the last year.  Again, if you’d read Vintage Spirits and Forgotten Cocktails, then you’d probably say that Curacao Punch was no longer “forgotten.”

But try to walk into a bar, even most of the serious ones we tend to frequent, and Curacao Punch isn’t easy to find.  Murray Stenson looked at my blankly, and so have a number of other serious bartenders in several cities.  So I’m going to claim that Curacao Punch still fits this month’s theme.

Frankly, the recipe in Ted Haigh’s book is something I find damned near undrinkable.  He uses 2 full ounces of Curacao, compared to 1 ounce each of cognac and rum.  Let that sink in, in its sticky orange glory.  This might be historically accurate, but unless you’re looking for an adult orange snowcone, dial back on ratios here.  My own favorite was posted by Adam Elmegirab, of Boker’s Bitters in Scotland fame, and I’ve tinkered with it a bit here.

In particular, I find that I prefer a mix of overproof aged Jamaican rum, aged agricole rhum, and cognac.  The nice thing here is you can tailor this to local conditions and ingredients, so if all you get is Appleton V/X, you’re still gonna be seriously happy.  The Curacao should not be Cointreau, this demands richness rather than the drier crisper Cointreau.  Clement Creole Shrubb or the original Senior of Senior Curacao are optimal here.

2 oz  cognac (here:  Remy VS)

1 oz aged Jamaican rum (here:  Smith and Cross Navy Strength)

1 oz aged Martinique agricole rhum (here:  Saint James Ambre)

1/2 oz curacao (here:  Clement Creole Shrubb)

1/2 oz lemon juice

1 oz water (not soda water, just cold filtered water)

1 heaping barspoon cane syrup (3:1 in this case)

Shake and strain onto cracked and shaved ice, garnish with berries or whatever you have.

The effect here is a subtle mix of brandy and rum flavors, with a bit of orange on the finish.  The overproof Jamaican rum  adds a decent but mellow burn, so you’re not going to mistake this for a soft drink.  (Don’t use white Wray and Nephew here, by the way, you want aged flavors, so sacrifice overproof for aged.  Appleton 12 is amazing here too, the Reserve is great, and the V/X is perfectly sufficient)  The sweetness stays in the background, and I find this much more balanced than the recipe from Ted Haigh’s book (sorry, Ted).

Not complicated, but a classic which deserves to be much more well-known in the bars of the West Coast.

MxMo: Vieux Caribeño

This month’s Mixology Monday theme was fun, especially since I’ve been working with rum recipes lately, learning the history, and focusing especially on agricole.  Lime and rum have been paired flavors for centuries, probably since the rum ration under Admiral Vernon (“Old Grog”) included limes and citrus and was found to ward off scurvy.

Early in my cocktailing days, back in college, friends and I drank an unnamed cocktail from Hemingway’s Islands in the Stream, lovingly described as gin, green coconut water, lime, and bitters, served tall in a glass wrapped in wet paper towels to keep it cool in the tropical heat.  The drink was unnamed by Hemingway, and in the late 80’s the resources simply weren’t easy to find to do good historical research.  We added tonic water and simply called it the “Hemingway” and still sip them to this day.

Something like this is made by Mr. Martin Cate down at Smuggler’s Cove, under the name Caribeño, and since I just finished a batch of barrel-aged gin (in a former Tuthilltown rye whiskey barrel), I thought I’d go with the following:

Vieux Caribeño

1.5 oz barrel-aged gin

3 oz young coconut water (fresh is best, some of the asian canned varieties with pulp are fine)

3/4 oz lime juice

1/2 oz cane sugar syrup (for fun, use Lyle’s Golden)

1 dash Angostura

Shake the ingredients and pour over fresh rocks in a collins glass with lime shells.  In the pictured presentation I’ve added a sugar cane stir-stick rolled in powdered lime zest mixed with a small amount of cane sugar.

This works, but my barrel-aged gin is pretty vanilla-forward right now since it’s the first batch through this particular barrel.  The next one I’ll probably cut the straight barrel-aged gin 2:1 with london dry to mellow out the vanillin a bit.  Otherwise tasty!