Back on Dry Land in North Carolina : Part III

June 1st, 2012 § 2 comments § permalink

In the past couple days, I made a new Couch Surfing friend in North Carolina, ate at two locavore restaurants, boarded a plane in the birthplace of Pepsi (New Bern, NC) for the hometown of Coca Cola (Atlanta) and then flew back to SF, where I am now.

Our little shakedown cruise of a 1,000 miles covered many aspects of a boat’s lifecycle.

  • We stepped up Borka’s two masts:Stepping Up the mast
  • We traveled through canals and bridges and learned to communicate with transport operators. I got to play with VHF radios. Here’s an example exchange :

    “Dismal Swamp Canal Bridge, Dismal Swamp Canal Bridge … this is sailboat Borka heading southbound.”

    The bridge operator would respond; the bridge would lift, rotate, hinge, creak, and open …

  • We spent nights out in the ocean or in marinas, docking or mooring. We even spent a night at a crab cracking restaurant in Deale, MD on the Chesapeake after docking for dinner and then staying the night.
  • At the end, we lifted Borka out of the water and left her on drydock for the hurricane season.Borka Getting Dry Docked


    For the duration of the trip it felt as though the boat had become an extension of our bodies, our own little universe, a floating home. The rituals of mooring, jumping off to catch the lines, keeping everything orderly an neat, and maintaining readiness to react to unexpected changes in wind, current, or both. Taking precautions in high wind and rough water to keep the life vest on when above board, helming or climbing on deck; being constantly aware of our GPS coordinates.; but mostly, just making sure to take advantage of the down time, to read, to tan, to relax, to take pictures and look around.


    From the water, you get a different perspective of land. Nuclear power plants hide in the thicket of woods from the road, but can’t hide from the bodies of water that cool them. We passed Indian Point on the Hudson River in NY State, Hope Creek and Salem Reactors on the Delaware River which provide 3/8th of NJs electricity, and the Calvert Cliffs Nuclear Power Plant on the Chesapeake in Maryland.

    India Point Nuclear Power Plant, Hundson

    Salem and Hope Creek Nuclear Reactors

    Salem and Hope Creek Nuclear Reactors


    I’ve been close to Army’s machines of war before, but this is the first time I got as cozy with the Navy:

    Navy Bimp

    USS IKE Aircraft Carrier


    The experience of sailing at night on the open ocean (albeit not far from land) was also exhilarating. I made practical use of the stars for navigation, setting our bearing using the compass first, but then taking an object in the sky as heading reference.  The vastness punctuated by lights evoked a parallel to wandering the open playa during early days of Burning Man. Occasionally you see another group of lights saunter on their own path across the darkness. The wonderfully illuminated and decorated ships seemed like elaborate art cars. Massive fishing vessels, with large stabilizing booms out to the sides and cranes to haul their catch on board, bright sodium bulbs, or flashing navigation LEDs, and large mesh nets swaying in the wind.  Off in the distance to our right the lights of Atlantic City and the New Jersey coast (including a massive LED screen you could see from 4 miles away) buzzed with activity resembling the esplanade. This was impossible for me to photograph.  And I felt as I sometimes feel at magnificent moments: I can’t wait to get back to the real world and tell my friends about it.


    At the mouth of Alligator River we met a crazy dane, Henning Bohm who has been sailing solo for 45 years. After his 4th heart attack, he finally qualified for a pension from the Danish government and freedom from his construction management job.  He asked his doctor for the hard truth and learned he has less than a 25% chance of living out a year.  Henning took this news in stride, sold all of his stuff, bought a boat and sailed West across the North Atlantic against the prevailing trade winds.

    He holed up for the winter at a marina in Connecticut where his boat was being repaired. He wanted it in peak shape so that he could sail it to the Caribbean and wither away there … or if his heart held up, to sail back to Denmark through a crazy counterclockwise loop across the whole Atlantic (east from the Caribbean’s West Indies to the Canary Islands and north triumphantly back home.)

    Unfortunately Neptune had other things in mind for Henning: straight out of gate his autopilot broke (which is a key feature for someone sailing solo), set his heater ablaze in the ocean (on which Henning emptied his drychem fire extinguisher), and most spectacularly, ripped off his steering wheel, leaving Henning without a means of pointing the boat (there was no backup rudder.) Henning had to call “Mayday Mayday Mayday” over the radio and a few hours later the Coast Guard showed up (20 miles off shore) and towed him back in for more repairs.

    When Henning set out again, he was aware of the NOAA advisories of strong winds. But such trifles usually don’t bother him since he likes to sail fast, and this is how he ended up in the path of Hurricane Alberto (the first of 2012) outside of Cape Hatteras, which is known as the “Graveyard of the Atlantic”. It came on so suddenly that he didn’t even have a chance to bat down his hatches or pull down his sail. It also got dark. He just strapped himself in the cockpit and faced what he called “a blindfolded ride on a roller coaster” which lasted for over 12 hours. He lay down in the cockpit, sprawling to stay put, bruising most of his body, barely keeping his head out the water (as both the boat salon and the cockpit were filling with water from crashing waves) and trying to steer into the wind (which he could not see, but could only hear the sails.)  “In my 45 years of sailing, this is the first time I was truly scared for my life.”

    When the hurricane strength winds let up a bit, he tried to come ashore at a nearby harbor, but because his engine was busted, he could not fight the SSW wind and had to retreat 100+ miles back north to Hampton, MD. There he bailed 288 buckets of water from the boat, using a hand pump 80-90 times to fill each bucket (when the water level got too low to scoop.) His bilge pumps failed when their air intakes were also inundated. The good news was that his cat, Felix, survived.

    Henning sailed south again, using a safer path. “‘You’re too old to fight the ocean, try the intracoastal,’ they told me. And I did.”  He felt very tired but let on. Then he woke up suddenly, “in the middle of the day, with my clothes off, laying in bed, and the boat was still sailing. I thought it was a dream, so I went back to bed. Then I woke up again and looked around. Everywhere, swamp, swamp, swamp. Must be a nightmare! So, I went back to bed again.” When he finally woke up, he acknowledged the reality of having run aground. In trying to pull it out, he tore his Genoa Sheet (trying to jerk himself off the bank.) When high tide came, he was towed by a friendly boat into the nearest marina.

    The Coast Guard was summoned a second time. This time they took Henning to a hospital.  Apparently he lost of a lot of blood to internal bleeding and they gave him a transfusion.

    When we pulled into the Alligator River Marina, Henning approached us. When we asked, “how are you doing?” He responded, “Oh … Not so well” and told us this story adding that he has been staying put for two weeks trying to regain his strength.

    If you can read Danish or know a computer that can, you can read his own account of the events on his facebook fan page (closed).

    I got an audio recording of Henning telling this story, so when I feel up to editing it, I will post it here. We helped Henning deal with his ripped sheet, invited him to dinner, and inadvertently witnessed his internal bleeding. One side of Henning’s mouth had no teeth from above and the other from below. I came to think of his smile as a Yin and Yang.

    We met other interesting characters on this trip, but Henning wins first place.


    You might also like :

  • Our friends Tara and Sasha’s sailing blog.
  • Animated guide to sailing knots.
  • The Sailing Anarchy blog.

New York’s Canals : Getting to know the crew … : Part II

May 20th, 2012 § 1 comment § permalink

On the way from Lake Chapmplain to New York City, we went through a series of 12 locks that are a part of the NY State Canal System.

Champlain Canal - First Lock

I never appreciated the role these canals have played in the development of New York, but they are absolutely responsible for making it the Empire State. When it was built, the Erie Canal connected New York harbor to the great lakes (Chicago) and the Mississippi enabled America’s western expansion, brought many goods from the mainland to market, and made New York City the economic epicenter of the country.

The canals were also massive feats of engineering, perhaps even more so that the panama canal, though not as cool as:

Nowadays the canal’s main value is historical, symbolic and recreational. It costs $100M to maintain and collects $200k in toll revenue per year. Just consider, we paid 15$ to take our boat through 11 locks of the Champlain Canal. We were the only boat in every lock crossing. In total, we were singlehandedly responsible for the displacement of over 15 million gallons of water and untold quantities of electricity to move the massive lock doors.

A night on the docks:

Night on the Canal

Along the route we got a few lessons in American history. We passed Fort Ticonderoga, the scene of one of the first American victory of the Revolutionary War where a Ethan Allen and the Green Mountain Boys conquered an English fort in 1775. (The more I learn about Ethan Allen, the more I regret not having hung out with him.)

We passed an elaborate but crumbling castle structure at Bannerman’s Island Arsenal, which I did not get to photograph since we were sailing through a storm.

And then immediately afterwards, the Army’s elite academy presides majestically over a narrow S-curved bend in the Hudson 40 miles north of NYC. From the river, we first realized it was West Point by the sign on their mess hall roof boldly proclaiming “BEAT AIRFORCE” their main rival.

West Point

On a previous trip to NY, I met a few cadets in Brighton Beach engaging in some teamwork and Russian language study.


Our crew mate Lindsey Annison hails from Appleby, Cumbria, England.  She let her house for a year and came to the US to speak at a rural fiber optics conference where Tim invited her to join our little adventure. The more I learn about her, the more amazes me. Including:

  • Lindsay tweets with her MP Rory Stewart, who happens to be among my personal heroes ever since I read this book The Places In Between
    Here they are digging optical fiber into the rural north of England:
  • … knows the people who made one of my favorite YouTube video “Extreme Shepherding
  • … is a biological anomaly. Lindsay, a mother of two girls, who were born on the same day, but were conceived a month a part. This is called Superfetation.
  • and there is so much more …

Sailing Down the Hudson … and then some : Part I

May 10th, 2012 § 0 comments § permalink

For the next few weeks, I’ll be sailing down the East Coast. We’re starting inland at Lake Champlain and will first navigate a series of 20 locks to get out into the Hudson.

We’ll have our masts stepped up near New York City, where we’ll sail out the harbor, then back into Chesepeake Bay and into the intra-coastal water way … and then as far as we can get before time runs out.

Our boat is a “sloop rigged catch” which means a double masted ship with a single jib in front. It also has a “bilge keel” which is an unusual configuration of two keels sticking out from the side. One advantage is that if the tide runs off from under you, the boat will remain upright.  For example:


The boat is a Westerly 33″ Ketch named “Borka” (which if you pronounce the “r” in a soft rolling way, is the diminutive of Boris though the origin of the name is different. I’ll write about that later)

Borka and Tim

Tim Nulty is our captain. Crew is Louisa Bukiet and Lindsay (who was visiting Tim from England when he offered her to hop aboard) and me.


I’ll write more soon, but in the meanwhile, you should read about two fascinating sailing misadventures:

Hypertemporal HDR Concept (htHDR)

October 17th, 2011 § 5 comments § permalink

My housemate at Langton Labs, Matt Goodman did an amazing photography project, planting a camera in the mountains overlooking the site of burningman, and leaving it to photograph every 6 minutes for 5 weeks!

The result was 8,000 12 megapixel images of nights, days, sun rises, sunsets, dust storms, cloud formations, and of course Black Rock City coming to life and then, as quickly, fading back into the dust.

They were compiled into this an amazing video — “Playa Time: Dust to Dust” – Burning Man 2011 Time Lapse — now blowing up on YouTube. (If you haven’t yet, go see it, “like it”, share it with your friends, and then come back here.)

What stood out for me, while editing this video was the difference between night and day. The two are fascinating in their own right but worlds apart. I figured it was time for them to meet. I used my goto HDR tool Photomatix Pro to create this fusion:

(click to see high res.)

The character of the night and day shots is very different, the sun providing a blanket of illumination revealing the whole scene, whereas night veils everything except for that which wishes to be seen, advertising itself through beams of photons spewed in all directions.

I call these hypertemporal HDR images, because it uses the concept of HDR to blend and align photos of different exposures, but draws from photos taken at very different times.

Sign up here to be notified high resolution image prints from this time lapse.

I have also used the same technique to make an image of an amazing laser projector built by another of my housemates at Langton Labs:

(click to see high res.)

1. I turned on bright work lights, set the camera on a tripod and took an architectural shot (highest F-stop, lowest ISO, remotely triggered, long exposure)

2. I turned off the lights, while Michael Broxton fired up the laser. I adjusted the settings for a 2-4 second exposure and blew smoke into the laser light path for the photograph until I was happy with the result. (You can’t even see me in the photo blowing smoke!)

3. I edited the photos independently using Lightroom, until I was happy that the features that each was contributing to the whole, were nicely defined. Then I merged the two using the fusion option of Photomatix Pro. (I use the Lightroom to Photomatix export plugin.)


On the internet, you realize that you never really invent something, but kind of refactor what others have already done. Here are two wonderful demonstrations of the same concept applied to generate the sense of time flowing within one photograph, and I’ll probably play with that in the future as well.

Slices of the day by Sam Javanrouh

timelapsed downtown toronto

And a full tutorial and gallery of HDTR ( “high dynamic time range”, where a single photo contains a blend of times across a full day by Martin Krzywinski:

capturing the flow of time in a single frame


And really, you should watch the video:

Shailendra Kumar Upadhyay – Obituary

May 24th, 2011 § 6 comments § permalink

Shailendra Kumar Upadhyay (born April 17, 1929) died climbing Everest on May 9, 2011. As he liked to say, he was “82 years young”.

I first met Shailendra in Nepal in the summer of 2008 in Kathmandu.

Shailendra Kumar Upadhyay

By any standard measure he was already an old man, but he was still actively involved in the political process of his country. And it was an tumultuous process. The king had recently been deposed. The Maoists who had been staging a multi year guerrilla insurgency that had extended to the majority of rural Nepal had been invited to join the government. Shailendra was right in the middle of these affairs, and he was the right person to act as the intermediary between the disparate parties.

Shailendra Kumar Upadhyay

In the past he had been both a rebel and part of the government. In India he had been part of Mahatma Ghandi’s movement opposing British rule. In Nepal he had been jailed for his anti monarchic political views (1960) but then recruited to represent his country at the UN (1972-1978), as an ambassador to various countries, and Minister of Foreign Affairs (1986-1990).

Even though he was officially retired, he helped negotiate the power transition with the rebel leader Prachandra, based on his political credibility as an independent thinker.

In the summer of 2008 he was participating in the Constitutional Assembly of Nepal. After the King had been deposed, the military and civil government were attempting to define a new government structure.

Shailendra introduced me to the notion of constitutional consultants, professionals that go around the world to countries who are in the process of writing constitutions and try to provide parental supervision. He also introduced me to various dignitaries in Nepal, including a chairman of the Communist Party. (Intriguingly, there are a couple Communist Parties.)

I’ve also had the pleasure of his company on long hikes where he was always a fount of stories from his eventful life. For example, story time would start with me asking a question like, “Shailendra, how many times have you been married?” He would think for a moment and reply with a question, “Officially?” I’d clarify, “Officially OR unofficially.” And then he’d clear his throat and start the story.

As a product and refugee from the Soviet Union, I was also intrigued by stories about how as a member of the Nepali Communist Polit Bureau, he would raise money for the party from the Soviet Communist Party.

(Or raised chickens, or wrote a book Tryst with Diplomacy, or …)

In 2008, Shailendra mentioned that he had a dream of climbing Mount Everest. He also made an offhand comment about wanting to die there, but then laughed.

Shailendra Kumar Upadhyay

Over the next couple of years his planning and training became more serious. When he came to fundraise in the US, he stayed with us at Langton Labs and I tried my best to assist him. Shailendra was starting to feel less relevant with age and wanted to make a bold statement. He would have been the oldest person person and the first octogenarian to climb the tallest mountain.

He died pursuing his goal and this is my memorial to him.


The following videos have been compiled based on interviews conducted when Shailendra stayed in San Francisco last year.

1. Are you afraid to die on Everest?

2. Thoughts on the Elderly …

3. Thoughts on Technology …

4. This was the promotional video for fundraising purposes, edited by Vika Evdokimenko:

5. Role of Nepal in world politics, Israel, the Maoists, the constitutional assembly …



  • A grandson’s obituary
  • BBC reporting
  • Daily Mail
  • Fundraising Site and here.
  • Census Enumerator

    July 3rd, 2010 § 2 comments § permalink

    This April I took a multiple-choice test for a temporary job with the census.

    In May I attended training at a community hut on the bank of an inland creek in China Basin.  It had a direct line of sight to the laboratory where I spent the bulk of my career as a graduate researcher.

    One of my fellow trainees suggested the job was a step backwards for someone with a PhD in Biology, but I saw it as opportunity to engage in the study of my own species.

    Census Employment office took over a Halal butchery store front.

    I also did this for fun.  I did it for the sun, the socializing, and the exercise. I got paid to explore the hidden nooks in my neighborhood during the nicest part of the year.

    My neighborhood (FolSOMA) is at the very heart of San Francisco and is transforming quickly.  Many new funky establishments such as Langton Labs, Wicked Grounds, Rancho Parnassus, and Passion Cafe are opening up; along them are old favorites like GoldTeethUS, the Defenistration Building, and Stormy Leather.  Yuppy condo lofts are invading every available development lot.


    Impervious to these developments an agglomeration of public housing projects (of a flavor called SROs) remains.  In other cities, they would have been relocated elsewhere. San Francisco decided to be different by keeping such places central and visible, placing most city housing and social service facilities within a 5 block radius of City Hall (and coincidentally, my house).

    A common sight in my neighborhood.

    I won’t besmirch the spirit of the urban planning decision, but it’s not without consequence. We’re the tall peak on many of these topo crime maps and every one of my car owning roommates has had a window busted.

    Many people who live in San Francisco avoid our area.  Many census employees specifically asked not to be assigned to my district.  I relished the chance to get to know my neighborhood, to see what was usually hidden, to travel without going far from home.

    My beat focused on the SRO (single room occupancy) hotels in the vicinity of 6th and Mission street.

    SROs vary in their quality, purpose and clientele.   Some house the disabled and the elderly, provide social services, and engage their residents with group activities in common rooms. These tend to be painted in cheerful pastel tones.  Some are community centers specialized for a particular demographic, (e.g. low income working Filipino families) and might even have more than one room per unit.  Such SROs resemble clean well run college dorms or decent apartment buildings.

    The ones I was assigned were very much at the other end of the spectrum.  They housed recovering drug addicts, parolees, and the mentally disabled.  Many of the residents preferred to hide in their rooms, emerging only to relieve themselves, and even then not always.

    Vacant room. The man sitting in the window with his broken leg resting on a dog is the maintenance worker for this SRO. He said, you got to rip out the drywall and floor after every tenant from the abuse the room takes.

    Their long hallways of single room units shared one bathroom as the only communal space. It’s these buildings that earn SROs their reputation.   These were the rooms I pried open with my questions.  Did you live here on April 1st?  What is your name, date of birth, ethnicity?


    Behind each door was a fresh surprise.

    One of the many unusual signs that cautioned me not to knock. Of course, I did knock.

    “Count me?  What for?  Everyone knows I don’t count.  Just look at me.”

    I had to introduce myself four times to an amnesiac during one interview.  Each time we got two questions further along, she interrupted urgently. “No, wait, wait… hold on! Who are you?”  Rinse and repeat.

    I stumped a schizophrenic by asking him how many people lived in his room. “You mean in here?” he said, pointing at his head.

    Presuming I was doing genealogical research, an elderly man ebulliently traced out his linage to King Ferdinand of Spain.  Then, excitedly, he started mumbling: “Swiss bank account numbers”, passwords, and the whereabouts of lock boxes that would confirm the splendor of his ancestry.  He confessed that no one ever believed or understood him.  Evidently he had been waiting for someone to arrive at his door and restore him to his rightful place in opulence and history, and now his dream had come true.

    I liked the no nonsense talk that established clear expectations.

“You know what man. I’m going to slam this door right in your face, and then if you gonna knock again, I’m going to stab you.”

 But wait!  An unlikely assistant emerged from the bathroom.  Haggard and female, she looked like half her hair was forcibly torn out.  Who better to speak sense to the young man? She addressed the now slamming door, “You can’t [BOOM] treat people who come nice like that.  You gotta learn the social rules kid, especially now that you got a kid of your own to feed and make educated.  Do you really want a carbon copy of yourself?”


    The official title of my position with the census was “enumerator” but besides counting people I got to play many other roles.

    To “clients” I played a sympathetic ear or the pathetic dummy getting chased away from the door.

    A janitor gave me a word of warning as the metal gate of yet another SRO opened with a buzz, “Bad things happen here” and as it slammed shut behind me, “You’re on your own, kid.”

    One of the many unusual signs in the hallways of SROs.

    Can you really call us Feds?

    In one hallway, I met a curious woman (in more ways than one) who asked me who I was and what I was doing there.  Having processed my answer, she stole away into a room around the corner.  Audibly, she said, “I think you should go beat up that nice white boy walking down our hallway and take everything he’s got.”  Life has taught me to take such amusements in stride.  I immediately walked to the room she entered, greeted its occupants with a firm look, and moved along.

    I heard this story from a fellow census employee with first hand shelter experience.  On the day that the homeless got their public funds checks, buses queued outside.  The homeless hurried to get 50$ round trip tickets to a casino in Reno, NV plus an all-you-can-eat buffet.  The check cashing place on the corner, the ticket booth for the bus, the casino filling up its down time with the dumb, down and out, low-rollers. A whole niche economy.


    While many were eager to be interviewed, intentions varied wildly. An older guy was proud to give the date of birth of his younger girlfriend, eager to spill the numbers that reflected so well on his virility. I inadvertently flattered him by trying to infer the relation from the data, “Might this be your daughter?”

    “Nah, it’s my girlfriend…

    “Pretty good, right? She just got home from the hospital recovering from seizures and shit, so I can’t show her to you right now.”

    Two kinds of people routinely slammed the door in my face, yet I’m not sure either would be happy with the comparison.  They were repulsive in their shiny shirts and crispy suits or obscene in their birthday suits. In yuppy dwellings (to which I was also assigned) rich snobs “didn’t have the time.” One hid behind his door, the other behind the intercom. The powerless and the powerful both exerted themselves in vain (as I usually got them in the end.)

    I came to your door to count you and you turned me away.  You told me I’m worthless, that I’m wasting your time.  You told me that you will stab me and teach me to avoid you. By now I have learned to expect these things.

    You were weak, pathetic to your own self, just wanted to be left alone. “I’m sleeping, I’m always sleeping, I’d rather not wake up,” you’d say.


    The SRO environment resembled an elementary school on permanent recess.  The teachers had given up and classes have long been dismissed… but the news still felt fresh!  The students milled about the hallways with a mercantilistic eye for what others had to trade.  Cookies?  Cigarettes?  Services?

    Rent was subtracted directly from their SSI benefits and left them with an operational budget of 5$ a day, (approximately the allowance for an average elementary school kid in San Francisco.)   They couldn’t afford consumerism as a distraction, so they sought other diversions.

    This person is a fixture on Market street. He feeds hot sauce to his rooster.

    In front of the building, a story of the same genre unfolded.

    A knotted elderly, mentally deranged gentleman held a a cane with its handle to the ground.  An array of soda cans was arranged at his feet.  He swung his club wildly, missing mostly, but occasionally launching a can high into the air above and then back down into the busy intersection.

    A hunched scraggly elderly lady appeared out of nowhere.  “What are you up to today?  Causing trouble as always?”

    It seemed for a moment as if she was readying to deliver a reprimand, but instead, she sat on the curb, rested her chin in her palms and watched this unique sporting event adoringly, “Fun, fun … what fun!”


    One of the most memorable lessons from training was not to bribe clients for interviews.  When our trainer had participated in an earlier phase of the Census, Operation Homeless, she thought ahead and purchased cigarettes as handouts.  Her group leader prevented her from acting on her good idea, saying it was considered a bribe and that “we just don’t do that kind of thing.”

    I thought back to her words when I turned down repeated requests for cigarettes in exchange for interviews. But bribery has many guises. If sympathy is a bribe, I expended a lot of it.

    One guy asked if I would provide any “services” in exchange for the interview.  Evidently, in the world of social welfare they swim in, “services” is a common euphemism. Each is like a treat for jumping through a hoop.  “If you cooperate, I may be able to get you some services.”


    For those that were uncooperative I had to rely on manager’s records to complete the census. In those cases, I spent time interacting with the invariably Indian or Nepali management staff.   To the smell of Indian spices and a view of an alter to a Hindu god, we’d kick back in the office and they’d tell me something like, “When you talk to Indian woman, you don’t have to ask her middle initial.  All Indian women have middle initial same as husband’s first name”.

    I felt like I was cajoling with prison guards.  Their removed and judgmental attitudes and positions behind caged windows made them gatekeeper-overlords of this domain.

    Presumably there is something wrong with this block, if this message needed to be translated into four languages.

    I left a message on this door before.

    This time, I heard a voice.

    “Come back when I am sober.”

    “When’s that?”

    “Not sure…”

    … and neither am I yet sure of the implications of these Censing experiences, not two blocks from home.

    Andijan, Uzbekistan to Osh, Kyrgyzstan

    June 20th, 2010 § 3 comments § permalink

    Last year, a friend and I drove a car purchased in Europe over 10,000 miles east through most of Central Asia. In late September, we lingered at the eastern edge of Fergana Valley.

    I chose to curate a slideshow about this region, because news coverage of recent events have made place names like Osh, Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, Fergana Valley, Andijan and Uzbekistan, familiar.

    The territory between Andijan and Osh is the focus of the photographs presented here.

    Click on photos to see slide show. Use left right arrow keys to explore.

    Fergana Valley is known for its agricultural abundance. With so many ripe melons, it's fun to mull for a long time and choose the best one. (Bazar in Fergana, Uzbekistan.)

    By September the watermelons and the long yellow melons of Central Asia were ripe, abundant and selling at fire sale prices.

    Alternate Text

    Armed personnel carriers are a common sight in Andijan province. Life proceeds casually around them. (Margilan, Uzbekistan)

    Fergana Valley belongs to Uzbekistan and forms a large and fertile protrusion into Kyrgyzstan. Snowmelt from the mountains enclosing the valley on three sides irrigates the crops. At Fergana’s eastern edge the cities of Andijan, Uzbekistan and Osh, Kyrgystan face off across the border. It wasn’t long ago that the people who live in these lands knew no restrictions on movement. In the time of the Soviet Union it was all part of one contiguous Red block. Now, it is an international hotspot. Within 200 miles there are borders with Tajikistan, China, and Afghanistan. Kyrgyzstan is a lone and fledgeling democracy with an American Airforce Base and dictators for neighbors.

    Uzbeks treat rice as gourmet cuisine, pairing it with specific fruits, meats and butter in large cauldrons. Each town, and probably each family, has its own regional plov recipe carried down for generations. (Imagine doing GIS for recipes!)

    Silk Road

    Silk worm cocoons are brought to a boil in a cauldron. Each cocoon contains almost 2 miles worth of silk strand. It takes 13 strands to make one silk thread.

    Young girl operates a silk loom at the Yodgorlik Silk Factory in Margilan, Uzbekistan.

    The pattern card above the vertical loom guides the weaver. Carpet weavers tie several hundred knots (pixels) a day for a few dollars of pay.

    Rustan (on the right) grew up in an orphanage in Uzbekistan. His father is North African and mother is Russian. He is currently studying English. The ethnic mix in the region includes Uzbeks and Kyrgyz, but also Russians, Tajiks, Chechens, Uighurs, Dungans, “Soviet Koreans”, and Turks. (I also met a red headed Kyrgyz.)

    Waitress at Istanbul Lazzat in Andijan. Fatima lives with her mother and daughter, while her father and brothers are working abroad in Russia.

    Men are notably absent, and women staff their positions, as if it were war time. Most of the capable men are working in Russia. They send articles of clothing to their beloved mothers, wives and daughters for their birthdays and money for the household year round.

    Central Asia is to Russia as Central America is to the US, a cheap source of labor.

    On the last night of Ramadan, over 10,000 Uzbeks gathered at the central mosque in Andijan. Andijan is less than 20 miles from the border and the southern capital city of Osh, Kyrgyzstan.

    Of the men that remain, many find themselves in the mosque. According to the Uzbek government Andijan is a stronghold of an Islamist militant group, Hizb ut-Tahrir. At least this reasoning was used to justify a 2005 military operation that turned deadly for the people gathered in Andijan’s Babur Sq. There is still palpable resentment over the governments actions in conversations about that incident.  The consequences were severe: the local radio was immediately shut down, international news organizations were soon forbidden to operate in this area;  the Peace Corps folded its operations; many western NGOs left the country; and, the US Airforce base was closed in Uzbekistan.

    Internet cafe operator in Andijan, Uzbekistan. Andijan is less than 20 miles from the border and the southern capital city of Osh, Kyrgyzstan.

    The border was closed for the religious occasion, and our hosts in Andijan convinced us to stay the night. We wanted to camp by the road near the border, but one of them said, “you don’t want to do that.”

    When I asked why, the other answered, “It’s hard to explain, but you just don’t. Believe me. I don’t want it to be that way, but it is.” He had an apologetic look on his face. “Common, we’ll take you to the mosque and you can see for yourself.”

    One of our hosts exhibited his agility…

    … while the second served us water.


    Female cotton pickers. Uzbekistan is the world's second largest exporter of cotton. Wal-Mart has removed Uzbek cotton from its supply chain, due to labor practices resembling slavery.

    Tristan and I pulled over to get a closer look at the cotton fields. We walked around and took pictures. When we were about to leave, an Uzbek man who seemed like he was in charge of the operation approached us rapidly. Initially it seemed like he was going to reprimand us for trespassing, but it immediately became clear that he was the one in fear of a reprimand. “Dear sirs! Are you inspectors? Which Agency are you from?” I had passed for a local before, but it was the first time I was taken for a government agent. He was relieved when we told him we were inostrantsi (foreigners) and invited us for some tea in a field kitchen.

    Alongside the women picking cotton, you can spot young boys and children.

    Uzbekistan is the world’s second largest exporter of cotton. Wal-Mart has removed Uzbek cotton from its supply chain, due to labor practices resembling slavery. (But what Wal-Mart will not buy, China will, and sell it back to them.)

    Heroin Route

    Marijuana grows alongside the cotton. I stumbled on this patch while photographing cotton pickers.

    The marijuhana grows but few pay it any attention. Everyone knows the real drug problem is the heroin snaking up from Afganistan through the Pamir region of Tajikistan. From here it winds north under the cover of snow capped mountain ranges and steppe and eventually enters Russia around Western Siberia and my hometown. The northern Silk road traversed the Fergana pass between Kashgar and Osh because it was accessible to camels. Ironically, the Heroin Route takes advantage of the porous borders and the cover of mountains which are impractical to patrol. Organized cime groups in Osh squable for control of this leg of transit.

    To make an analogy to something closer to home, what Afghan heroin is to Russia, Columbian cocaine is to the United States; and the Heroin Route is like the speed boats in the Caribbean.

    The fact that heroin production of Afghanistan has only increased since the United States invaded the country, is a sore point in Russia’s US facing policy.

    Porous Borders

    One of the many pre-border checkpoints in the ever tense Fergana Valley.

    These checkpoints are  a joke really, since the actual border is porous. We met an Uzbek, who introduced himself as Frank, on both sides of the border. When he was denied crossing at the checkpoint, he cursed at the guards, assuring them he’d find another way to cross. It tured out as easy as paying a local farmer a few dollars to show you the way though the fields. The bribe suggested by the guard was an order of magnitude larger.

    This border guard has not seen a US Passport before. (Pre-border checkpoint within Uzbekistan near Osh, Kyrgyzstan.)

    When a rather large Uzbek approached our car and said, “Border is closed, but you can go wave your big American cocks around,” I thought he was being belligerent. But then he changed to a softer tone and said, “Please, go wave your big American dicks around. Maybe they’ll open the border, and I will get to go too… Maybe you can even tell them I am with you, as your translator.”

    By the time we arrived, hordes of Uzbeks were amassed at the closed border crossing with Kyrgyzstan. Those who could afford it, would make private side deals with the guards. This accelerated crossing. One girl was protesting, “You know me. I go through here three times a week to attend classes at the Russian University in Osh!”

    We, as Americans, were an amusement to them. I asked an older dignified gentleman in a traditional hat about the situation in the region. “We’ve got problems on top of problems. Our border crossings are plagued by shootings and delays. But, we don’t want to tell you about any of that so you won’t make a big deal about it internationally, while misconstruing it to make us seem like we’re trapped in the 13th century.”

    “But we are trapped in the 13th century,” interjected a dissenting voice.

    “Shut up. Can’t you see we have guests? They’ll spread the news and get us in trouble.” It was good to know Russian as they couldn’t kibitz without me understanding.

    Following the guidance of the wise elder, a consensus soon emerged. I should put away my camera and stop talking to them, and instead work on the guard.

    The border was opened soon after we drove our car up to the gate. The Uzbek guards were nice to us and offered us cigarettes by way of making friends. They didn’t care that we didn’t have official registrations from local police precincts for each day in Uzbekistan.

    On the Kyrgyz side, my camera almost got confiscated. To be completely honest, I was taking photos where the local law so did forbid. But I couldn’t resist. A Kyrgyz guard had wedged an Uzbek girl against the wall with his body and was berating her loudly. Instinct brought the camera to my eye.

    Through the viewfinder, I saw him turn and realize I was taking a picture. My hand quivered and the picture came out unacceptably blurry.

    He took the camera and led me to his commander, whom he addressed as “Number 1”. But, before he did so, I managed to flip the camera latch open and let the memory card fall out in the car.

    Number 1 looked at me and grinned. “So we caught you, eh? Let me see your passport…

    “You are an American? And, you speak Russian?” No. 1 was impressed.

    “Why were you taking pictures?” he asked.

    “Instinct,” I said, “everything here is new, unusual and interesting for me. I appologize for having taken photos at the border and I won’t do it again.”

    He checked my camera; froze in thought for a moment; and eventually uttered, “go”. During my drive across a quater of the world, I was pulled over, stopped, detained, arrested, taken to court over two dozen times, and on every single occasion I ended up getting off without having to resort to a bribe. The guard who brought me in sneered, “So he let you go? Lucky bitch! Just let me catch you again. I’ll deal with you myself.”


    Cyrillic letters 'О' (o) and 'Ш' (sh) mark the entrance to the city of Osh, Kyrgyzstan. The truck on the right is made by КАМАЗ. KAMskiy Automotive Zavod (factory).

    Alcoholism is common in these parts as are its consequences. The white embroidered hat is a traditional Kyrgyz hat called "kalpak" Sign on the top right advertises Bavarian beer. (Osh, Kyrgyzstan)

    Uzbeks are the merchant class in Kyrgyzstan. They run a lot of the bazar. It is a historical divide between the settled peoples (Uzbeks) and nomads (Kyrgyz). But until 16 years ago, they lived together as part of one larger Soviet Union without the notion of themselves as nations with a border in between.

    Street scene at Osh bazar, Kyrgyzstan. These hats (tibeteikas) identify ethnic Uzbeks.

    The pavilions, shops and storage spaces in Osh Bazar are assembled from thousands of shipping containers. Osh is on the terminus of a train shipping line from China via Kashgar.

    It’s hard to generalize about the street experience in Osh. It feels like a rugged place, and in contrast to Uzbekistan you see a large spike in Chinese influence. Buses advertise the fact that they are made possible by a gift from China. The entire bazar is constructed of labyrinthine walkways and pavilions made from stacked shipping containers, also from China.

    Flirting in Osh, Kyrgyzstan.

    The streets, a visually powerful experience to the reconnoiterer.

    A man plays a Weltmeister accordion in Osh, Kyrgyzstan.

    “No money, no crisis” reads a young man’s t-shirt on the streets of Osh, Kyrgyzstan where hundreds of ethnic Uzbeks were killed and thousands fled to refugee camps across the border over the past two weeks.

    Sometimes the calmest, most hospitable, peaceful situations can transition instantaneously to chaos and violence. Social puppeteers can excite these phase transitions with a slight nudge, like calm water nearing its boiling point.

    A gas station in Osh, Kyrgyzstan offers a broad spectrum of octane. At another gas station, I saw 72 octane for sale.

    A gas station in Osh, Kyrgyzstan offers a broad spectrum of octane. At another gas station, I saw 72 octane for sale.

    In the evening we drove north and met the crew of a transport hauler in a Chaikhana (tea house) by the side of the road. They offered to guide us to a camping spot up the road while leading the way in their massive truck. Their one crew seemed to have most of the ethnicities of the area covered.  “We’re all friends.”  I heard this phrase uttered too often, and spoken almost defensively.

    "We are all friends. He's an Uzbek. I'm a Kyrgyz. That one's a Tajik, a Dungan, and a Kazakh." (Osh, Kyrgyzstan)

    We skirted the Uzbek border heading around the valley though Jalalabad and then north across at 14,000+ foot pass through the mountains to the capital city of Bishkek. The following day, Osh caught up with us:

    Prison break in Osh.

    Pleasure clove

    June 20th, 2010 § 0 comments § permalink

    a cleft is what’s left when you’re through getting cloved.

    Trash City

    February 25th, 2010 § 1 comment § permalink

    I spent the summer of 2008 in Beijing.  I lived 4 blocks from the Olympic village, and I had front row seats to the colossal transformation leading up to the games.  I acquired an electric scooter and explored the various parts of the city, biasing my direction towards places I hadn’t been before.

    One sweltering day in Beijing, when we were out on another non-specific exploratory scooter patrol with RJ, we came across a peddle powered vehicle with an unbelievably large load.  This wasn’t in itself unusual.  You see these guys everywhere in Beijing and they make it into all of the tourist photographs.  But being right there on the scooters next to such a load presented us with the very real possibility of discovering where all this stuff actually goes.

    We tailed this vehicle for a few blocks, riding circles around it in traffic, examining the contents.  The driver was dark from spending all his time in the sun and grimy from the Beijing air, beads of sweat reflected the sun on his forehead, his clothes were shredding from wear and acrid sweat.  The insides of his knees were calloused from an improper peddling position which undoubtedly also hurt his knees.

    His cart was fantastically overloaded with computer monitors, cardboard boxes, sundry electronics, water bottles, stacked tall and precarious.  On the top was a slight middle aged female.  She was the captain steering the upper story of the ship while the peddler focuses on the chug of the peddles, (in the engine room.)  She was a skillful jockey corralling the amorphous pile of stuff, banking it into turns, using her arms and legs as dynamic counterweights, to adjust straps, and to hold on herself.

    I’ve seen many such carts but this wasn’t the usual kind.  The two person technique allowed them to be particularly ambitous.

    We made a northwards turn near Tsinghua University Science and Technology (TUS) park, and passed tall office buildings which house the likes of Google China, Microsoft and Baidu, fancy restaurants, and a language learning boutique called “Wall Street English”.

    On the road we spotted several more recycling vehicles, and we started to swim faster that the current chasing down the next and the next one.  There were all kinds, electrical, gas, or peddle powered, and even some drawn by donkeys.

    When we crossed the train tracks the recycling trickle became a recycling stream — half the vehicles on the road were loaded with recyclables, and when we rounded the next corner, we merged with the main vein of traffic through the heart of a neighborhood we dubbed trash city.  The vehicles were no longer driving, but lined up in a long queue.

    (This is a video of this crossing, but going in the opposite direction.)

    At the head of the line was a weigh station, which the vehicles would mount, get weighed first and tarried after.  The load was examined by an inspector whose stomach was exposed by a rolled up blue shirt.  (This was the preferred way of cooling oneself.)  He would issue a receipt to the driver who now rolled his empty cart onward in search of more filling.  A few shouts (or was it signals using gongs and bells and some form of morse code) would summon the relevant section peddlers.  Immediately, the monitor kid would run over with a wheel barrow, and the cardboard guy with his donkey, etc.

    The economy of the whole neighborhood is dependent on recycling, and the physical layout of the streets and the people that lived there, constitute the recycling factory.  If you followed the wheel barrow full of monitors, you’d soon find yourself in an unpaved alley where the disassembly process unfolded in the open air.  What used to be whole, now became parts, and the parts were handed down different alleys and eventually out the back on large trucks.  I do not know how money flowed through this system, or how much pay the receipt entitled the driver, but we could follow the trail of the material.

    The first intersection on Monitor street branched into Plastic Alley left, Monitor Glass Road to the right. Going straight on Electronics Way led to a Circuit square which was also fed by a few other disassembly pipes of electronics from computers, radios, and cellphones.

    If you tossed a gps transponder into such a cart anywhere in the city, you could probably track it through the maze of Beijing streets down to trash city, a brief pause at the weigh station, and a short leg to the point of its final transmission.  There, typically a young kid would wrench out the critical circuit and toss it in a bin with others like it, and pick up the next circuit board and do the same.  And there would be right here, in Circuit Square.

    The boards themselves along with other scraps back in to Smelter Cul de Sac and are transmuted to hazardous fumes and a little bit of precious metals.

    This place has a remarkable counterpoint in other parts of Beijing in the form “cell phone repair” stores where older masters and young apprentices micro-solder damaged components using stereoscopes.  Here, they rip these components off and toss them into sorting bins, to be transported somewhere else.  Disassemble and reassemble.  Large Motorized Diesel Trucks filled to the brim left from the back of Trash City directly onto the highway.

    Trash City had the appealing character that you could return and discover more.  You could come back to a place and ask for someone you met there last time, and they would turn up.  You could be invited into the run down communal homes where there are no doors to hide behind, but everyone’s business unfolds in full view.  In the first room by the entry, there would typically be a computer internet and several people sitting on benches waiting for their turn to use it, to play games, chat or watch videos.

    You could come there at 2AM, buy a large beer for 2RMB (then 25 cents) and play a game of pool on the street.  There would be kids in their underwear, and people in pajamas crossing the street, brushing their teeth, or walking to the communal toilet around the corner.

    The kids and the grownups never let themselves be separated from their most valuable possessions.  The cellphone coordinated their work in the day and illuminated their way at night.  Everything that was workspace by day was living quarters by night.

    RJ and I returned to visit (and photograph) our friends on several occasions.  Once, I got a call from RJ telling me to come see another part of Trash City we hadn’t seen before.  And it was true.  A disjoint orbit, with a different entrance way!  The Prosthetics Quadrant and Mannequin Circle, and in the middle of it all was a peculiar kind of mannequin leg jousting match. (Rarely do the kids arm themselves with a prosthetic arm or a hook, as those are actually more complex instruments to wield and not so much suitable as fighting toys.)

    By it’s own admission, Beijing verge of trash crisis …

    Donald Knuth and MathOverflow

    January 15th, 2010 § 0 comments § permalink

    Yesterday evening, I arrived early for a dinner with a bunch of mathemagicians from the Joint Mathematics Meeting. At first glance, I didn’t recognize anyone in the restaurant lobby, and when I asked the hostess she confirmed that my party had not arrived.

    On second glance, I did recognize someone in the lobby. His face was iconic, but it was his name tag that confirmed it beyond a doubt. I felt immediately nervous and to suppress it, I walked up immediately and introduced myself, “Are you here for the MathOverflow dinner?”

    And Don Knuth responded, “Yes, I read about it on the site, but it seems like I’m the only one here. I wonder whether this is really happening.”

    I said I’d check in with my friend Anton who organized the meetup, pulled out my cellphone and typed an SMS.

    “What’s that?” he said, and pointed at my phone.

    I was a little puzzled, but I answered the question at face value, showed him the iPhone, the touch interface, and the chat application, all of which seemed to amuse him.

    “Maybe I’ll get one of those when I am ready to communicate again.” He told me that, in the meanwhile, he was still keeping himself free of distractions while writing. “Maybe, when it‘s done, in say 20 years… Though by then,” he mused, “the gadgets may get so complicated that I would never be able to figure it out.”

    “Yeah, this one here,” referring to my iPhone, “is just the gateway model to the future.”


    Our group size was intimate enough that we could huddle around Donald Knuth as he shared stories, one of which I paraphrase from his perspective:

    Given that my life is so intertwined with algorithms, there was a time that I became fascinated with the idea of making a pilgrimage to the birthplace of Algoritmi (Latin form of the person from whom the word etymologically stems).

    When I looked it up on the map, I was disheartened at the fact that it was in the Soviet Union, near the town of Khiva/Urgench in Uzbekistan. I’m never going to get there, I thought. It was the 1970s.

    I mentioned this fantasy offhand to a colleague from the Russian Academy of Sciences. And two years later, he called me up to invited me on an official government visit to an Algorithms Meeting in Khiva.

    So, not only did I get to go on my pilgrimage, but a hundred girls with flowers greeted us on the tarmac!

    There were some visa problems, so the French mathematicians couldn’t make it. It was a nice meeting. We dedicated a town square for the erection of a statue to Al-KhwārizmÄ« and I recently confirmed with Google Earth that the statue is in fact there.



    He mentioned his 72nd birthday last Sunday, so in secret we ordered him a little cake and sang happy birthday!