My First Nomad Cruise: Learning, Friendship and Open Bar on the High Seas

Lisbon, September 2017. I’ve spent a few pleasant weeks there. I think to myself, “Self — you’ve been living outside of the US for about 8 months now. And you’ve got a conference to go to in October. Shouldn’t you be thinking of ways of getting back to the US, like maybe eventually? Also, your country called, and it needs you.”

Fair point. But I was in no hurry to return, especially with Agent Orange in power and Greed as the national religion. How could I get back to the States, but slowly? Maybe on a boat. That moves slowly. And stops in a lot of places.

This could be the best idea I’ve ever had, or the worst. Anchors aweigh!

At a talk I attended the very day I had the boat idea, somebody mentioned in passing this thing called “The Nomad Cruise.” Excuse me, what is this? 14 days on the water, 4 ports of call, and a full program of talks and workshops covering everything from marketing, web design, photography, cryptocurrency, financial planning, and other topics of interest to location-independent entrepreneurs. Oh, and unlimited food and booze. The cruise would be leaving in seven days from Las Palmas, Gran Canaria. Price: eminently reasonable.

I’ve never been on a cruise. I don’t know anyone on this cruise. I have no idea what is going to happen. Where do I sign up?

I. Who are these Digital Nomads anyway?

Location-independent workers are a recent thing, but not that recent. Even a pioneering book like Tim Ferriss’s 2007 The Four-Hour Work Week: Escape 9-5, Live Anywhere, and Join the New Rich — the closest thing to a Bible of Digital Nomadism — was merely describing a trend already well under way. What’s new is the acceleration of this demographic trend due to a few factors. Some of them are push factors, some of them pull:

  • Advent of the freelance economy. Long-term employment is diminishing.
  • Advent of location-independent jobs. If you’re a graphic designer, personal coach, writer, virtual assistant or online entrepreneur, you can work from any café with an internet connection.
  • Ubiquity of internet connections, even in remote areas.
  • High cost of city living without a commensurate quality of life.
  • Political unrest.

Of course, there are as many reasons for going nomad as there are nomads. Personally, I had wearied of San Francisco’s coupling of high cost of living with mediocre standard of living. I asked myself, what else could I get for $2500/month in rent besides deficient-to-absent public transport, impossible parking, rampant petty crime, exorbitant taxation, pointlessly expensive everything, needles and humanure everywhere on the streets, and an embarrassing homeless problem? After November 2016, for the sake of my sanity, I was also eager to put as much distance between myself and Agent Orange as possible. My fellow American refugees felt similarly.

Many of the nomads shared my reasons for hitting the road. For some, price arbitrage is a motivating factor. At $1000 a month, you would be living in penury in a place like Paris. In the US, you would be below the poverty line, qualifying for government assistance. On the other hand, you can live very well on that budget in a place like Bali, Guatemala, or Chiang Mai (as illustrated by Chris Dodd’s well-crafted video). And you get an ocean view!

Here are some of the circles I noticed in the big Venn diagram of nomads:

  • Young folks with limited income who dreamed of seeing the world, and finally did something about it.
  • Entrepreneurs with passive income and location-independent jobs who figured it would be fun to hit the road for a while.
  • Dedicated nomads perpetually on the move, with little intention to return to their home country.
  • Political semi-refugees from where the atmosphere can get oppressive: Hungary, US, Poland, England.
  • People at a transition point in life: divorce, breakup, career change, or major health-related event.
  • Watersports enthusiasts who just need to surf, kiteboard, scuba etc.
  • Cryptocurrency enthusiasts.
  • Entrepreneurs leveraging cost arbitrage to get their startups off the ground on minimal cash.
  • People from affluent countries whose robust social services afford its citizens the latitude to take extended trips, e.g. Netherlands, Germany, Sweden.

Following that last observation, most of the Nomad Cruisers were from Germany and the Netherlands, with sizable contingents from Continue reading “My First Nomad Cruise: Learning, Friendship and Open Bar on the High Seas”

Dispatch from Barcelona: Las Ramblas, Terrorism, and the Fabric of Trust

If you were to create a river flowing with humans instead of water, it would look a lot like Las Ramblas (La Rambla to the locals). Night and day, at all hours, people walk up and down the middle of the famed boulevard. It’s wide enough to accommodate twenty bodies shoulder-to-shoulder, plus a sidewalk restaurant on each side, plus a lane of traffic in each way, plus conventional sidewalks and stores at the far edge.

And yet, a few days ago, the flow of humanity was so dense and turbulent that I could not walk in a straight line more than 10 meters at a time. The mix is variegated, multilingual, multigenerational. In one five-minute stretch I heard English, German, Danish, Swedish, French, Arabic, occasionally Spanish and even Catalan! Families amble and feud, college kids frolic and gawk, stag parties stagger, and seated white-haired vacationers sip on sangria, watching the river flow by.

The particular threat to straight-line walking is the smartphone-addled amblers – a global phenomenon hardly specific to Las Ramblas, but rendered particularly treacherous here through sheer numbers. People looking at on-screen representations of the world instead of the real thing are liable to plow right into you unless you’re looking sharp and wearing your dancing shoes.

Yet, underlying the seeming chaos, there is an order. People don’t run into each other. The wind-up microcopter salesmen launch their wares skywards but catch them before they land on unsuspecting heads. Nobody trips. And I’ve never seen a fight. All of this can only arise from implicit rules harbored so deeply as to not need to be spoken: We coexist peacefully. We look out for each other. This is a safe place.

Yesterday, at 5.14pm, I got a text from a local friend asking if I was okay. She spoke of a van plowing into the Las Ramblas crowd. The unspoken contract had been violated.

At night, a miasma of pain and bewilderment permeated the air of Barcelona. The Festa de Gracia, the mad weeklong fount of creativity and zest that envelops the Gracia district with miles of offbeat recycled decorations and music, had been put on hold. And, unimaginably, Las Ramblas was shut down. Around 2am, I decided to walk the 1.5km from my neighborhood of Poble Sec to Las Ramblas to see the dried up river from up close. On the way, I walked through several neighborhoods normally bustling at this hour – Raval and Ciutat Vella. No one was there except for homeless folks who had nowhere else to go. And Las Ramblas was cordoned off for the night.

Earlier that evening, I had paid a visit to my favorite local pintxo bar, L’Atelier de Blai. Lisa, the young woman sitting next to me at the bar, worked a block away from where the accident happened. She had heard the screams of the crowd and run out to see the injured folks on the street – bodies with limbs contorted at unnatural angles, some dying, some already lifeless. She ran back into the store and pulled down the metal shutters until the police told them two hours later it was okay to come. She went to a hotel and asked if they could be kind enough to call her a cab: “Yes, after we get one for the other 200 people waiting ahead of you.” She had certainly earned her glass of white wine for the day.

There is an invisible but ubiquitous fabric interconnecting all humanity – indeed, all life on Earth. Whether we realize it or not, we are one giant superorganism, intricately dependent upon one another. It’s easy to see that relationship between, say, a bee and a flower. But it may not be as immediately obvious how my life connects with that rowdy English tourist, or the Catalan grandmother wheeling her groceries home. But it does, and it’s the only way things can ever work.

What the terrorists did was to punch a hole through that fabric of trust and deep interdependence, thereby declaring themselves outside of it. Outside of the fabric there is only death and exile – a fate to which Muslim extremists like the ones who drove the truck routinely consign themselves.

The good news is that the fabric heals itself. And people have the power to accelerate the healing – by choosing to trust, to live, to keep rambling on Las Ramblas. I am happy to report that today, Las Ramblas is open again.

The criminal justice system removes from society those who have willfully damaged the fabric, lest they do more harm.

But state institutions of justice have less latitude to act against those who intend to damage the fabric, even when they declar it publicly – say, through a white supremacist rally. So we must take it upon ourselves to protect it actively.

When someone marches in Charlottesville or anywhere else under a Nazi banner, they are declaring unequivocal intention to do harm. Believe them. Look up from your mere representations of the world and realize that the real world is not as safe as it used to be.

These people want to hurt you if you don’t agree with them, and kill you if you don’t look like them. So you need to let them know that it’s really not okay.

Often they will be too caught up in their own hurt to reason with them. And if you punch them in the face first, you become more like them, defeating our own purpose.

But you can help accelerate their declared intention to exile themselves from society.

The first step is to examine your attachment to aspects of your own identity which you did not get to choose – your nationality, your hometown, your religion, your sexual orientation, name, and even your gender. If you’re doing this because you’re a New Yorker, Jewish, black, Muslim, white, a woman, gay, an immigrant, whatever – it’s already the wrong reason. All those things were just the roll of the dice. Let them go.

Your circle of self either embraces the whole of the world, or you’re just doing this for selfish, tribal reasons that can just as easily turn you into one of the bad guys.

Once you realize that you’re defending all sentient beings, you’re on much better footing. And yes, National Parks contain sentient beings, and you’d better believe they’re under threat, too.

Next, you must seek out and uproot the sources of anger and hatred in yourself. Anger clouds your judgment and makes you less effective, and we need your mind to be sharp here. As William Blake said in Auguries of Innocence, “To be in a passion you good may do/ But not if a passion is in you.” Instead of letting the anger consume you, feel just enough of the anger to let it to propel you.

Hatred is an even bigger problem, as it tends to redound on itself, making you miserable and less effective – and once again, more like your enemy.

The solution? If your circle of compassion embraces the entire world, this has to include your enemies, too. Having compassion for them precludes hating them.

This is probably easier said than done. The central story from the Bhagavad Gita is instructive: Arjuna’s relatives have unfairly usurped the monarchy from him and his brothers. So now his army is arrayed against that of his uncles and cousins. But how can he fight and kill his own relatives?

His charioteer happens to be a pretty wise person – Lord Krishna in disguise, who just happens to be the creator of the universe. And he tells Arjuna that he will do this because it’s his dharma – a mixture of duty and fate: “Put your heart at the lotus-feet of the lord, and plunge into the heat of battle.”

If you are a decent person, then your duty and fate is to protect all sentient beings from forces of harm. You are the guardian of the web of life. Luckily, in America, this dharma thing is a familiar concept. We call it doing your job.

And yeah, it’s your job now. And mine. There isn’t anyone else. So get organized. Protest. Publicly identify white supremacists, Nazis and Trump supporters. Make it difficult for them to have jobs, relationships, permits. Donate to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the Southern Poverty Law Center, Planned Parenthood, and any other number of effective organizations that right-wingers want shut down.

And through all of it, above all, maintain your humor. If there’s one overarching thing that Fascists, Nazis, right-wingers and totalitarians have in common, it’s this: they’re utterly humorless. They’re just not funny. How many pictures of laughing dictators have you seen? Exactly. And they can’t stand being made fun of (see: Trump’s reaction to Saturday Night Live sketches). Srdja Popovic’s brilliant Blueprint for Revolution depicts humor as the central tool for nonviolent resistance.

So take a deep breath, and take stock of your own prejudices, and embrace the whole world with your heart. Like a Zen master, detect then uproot the sources of hate. Get clever by reading Blueprint for Revolution, get creative, get motivated, get organized. And see if, instead of getting livid, you can chuckle a little at the absurdity of it all. You’ll be even smarter and more effective that way.

Then go ahead and do your job. The whole river of life is propelling you forward.

Bali: Rules for the Road

Bali scootersMost of the people I know here in Ubud have had some kind of scooter accident, from mild (gash in foot) to severe (broken hand) to life-threatening (concussion with broken leg and jaw). Scooters are the way to travel in Bali. Since there’s no way around them, might as well learn how to be safe on them:

Always wear a helmet. No ifs, ands or buts about this one. Make sure it’s a good one, and get a full-face helmet if possible, a $40 investment. Unless you don’t think your head and face are worth 4 gin-and-tonics.

First look right, then left. Like England and Australia, people drive on the left side of the road here, so look right first when crossing or merging. The corollary to that is “left turn easy, right turn hard.”

Keep feet inside footwell. Inside the footwell, your feet are protected. Outside of it, it can get snagged by trees or other motorbikes, or run over by cars.

Flip down your helmet visor when riding. The other day, a bat flew into my face at 30km/h. I didn’t have the visor down, but I was lucky that it mostly bounced off the helmet and only grazed my face. So now I always pull the visor down. At scooter speeds, a bug can shred your cornea. Protect your face and eyes when in motion.

Always wear closed-toe shoes. No exceptions to this one, folks. It’s unbelievably easy to injure your feet on a scooter — e.g. drop the kickstand accidentally on your foot, and voilà, now you need five stitches. Wearing real shoes instead of flip-flops prevents a whole host of minor disasters.

Slow way down when it’s raining. Your brakes don’t work nearly as well in the rain, and neither do those of others on the road. Avoid driving in the rain if possible, but if not, slow way the hell down.

Gravel and sand are the enemy. Gravel and sand eat scooters for breakfast, lunch and dinner. They make your traction and balance go to shit, then devour you whole. Avoid them.

Don’t pass if you don’t need to. We’re in Bali, not New York. Relax. Enjoy the warmth of the diesel exhaust on your face. Passing might save you 10 seconds; not turning into road pizza by an oncoming truck saves your whole life.

Merge with authority. Punch it when you’re about to get on the road so you can rapidly match the flow of traffic. This is one of the times when speed makes you safer.

No drinking. Even one drink compromises your focus.

No distraction. There are many attractive, minimally dressed women on the sidewalks. Wait till you get to yoga class to check them out — they will still be there. While riding, look only straight ahead.

Beware of dogs, kids, and tourists. All three are highly unpredictable and will wander onto your path, oblivious to danger or honking. Bali dogs are particularly spaced out, with zero respect for road rules.

Beware of mud and dog poop. They make the road far more slippery than you think. Riding onto a patch of either one could mean losing control of your bike.

Expect the unexpected. Oncoming trucks switching into your lane; extra-wide loads; vehicles going the wrong way; cars backing out onto your path; man-eating potholes; flash floods; drivers passing you while you’re passing; dogs sleeping in the middle of the street; chickens falling out of the vehicle in front; sudden traffic stoppage — all these happen on Ubud roads regularly. Anticipate the strange, and always pay full attention.

Impresssions: Bali

There are no sidewalks in Ubud, the cultural capital of Bali. There are sidehikes, and sidetreks, but no sidewalks. First, there is the matter of elevation. Sometimes the sidewalks are raised 30-60cm from the roadway, then slope down to meet the road at a storefront or driveway, which is every 5 steps. Then the sidewalk disappears without warning, and you’re sharing space with scooters, motorcycles and cars. And by “share”, I mean that, should traffic flow require it, these cars will gladly clamber on to your supposedly inviolate walking territory, exercising right of way by sheer size and made-of-steelness.

Second, there are sidewalk hazards. Many of the sidewalks cover drainage ditches underneath, and they have holes — fist-size, foot-size, leg-size, and whole person-size. And if you’re not watching where you’re going, you can break a fist, foot, leg or whole person. Some holes require jumping over — like, a Carl Lewis-style running leap. As a gesture of courtesy, the locals often put a long stick in these holes, so you can spot them better — or impale yourself on them, depending on how close you’re paying attention. There are also tree branches that cut through the space of the sidewalk at a 45° angle, which means you can easily brain yourself if you’re talking to someone while scanning the ground for person-breaking ditches.

Then, there are the people hazards. These sidewalks are narrow — basically, one Westerner wide. When you come face-to-face with a Balinese person, that’s easy: you break left, because people drive on the left here. But what if you come across another Westerner? There are a ton of Aussies and English people here, who will instinctively break left. But with the right-hand driving folks, you never know. A quick two-step shuffle ensues, usually to the tune of Uptown Funk, and with any luck, both parties pass intact. When in doubt, break left — it’s the law of the land.

Most of the Balinese you encounter on the sidewalk will not be walking; they will be sitting in wait for you. The females will all think your name is Massage; the males will all call you Taxi. Every fourth storefront in Ubud seems to be a spa, and every able-bodied male seems to have a side-hustle as a gypsy cabbie (car, scooter or both). By my estimation, while sidehiking in Ubud, for every minute of walking time, you get 5 offers of motorized transport or professional kneading.

Of course, you only deal with the sidehike nonsense if you’re enough of a chump to walk in the first place. Because every native man, woman and child is on a scooter (aka motorbike, moped, or matic). At first glance, the Ubud scooter traffic looks like madness and chaos — more like the flow of a tropical river than any discernible traffic pattern. Lane lines? Absent. Traffic lights and stop signs? Haven’t seen any yet, and decorative when they do exist. What you do see is people from age 10 to 70 on scooters in every imaginable combination: single, double, whole families, an entire hardware store (while the guy takes orders on his phone), and the winner: a lady nursing her baby.

By law, people are required to Continue reading “Impresssions: Bali”

The San Francisco Lectures Resource

Many great public organizations in San Francisco put on high-quality talks and book readings. Here are some of the good ones I’ve encountered:
1. The Commonwealth Club: The grandaddy of them all, 112 years strong. They hold 2-3 talks per day, in SF and Silicon Valley. $100 yearly membership pays for itself if you attend two talks a month. They get all the world-class speakers, and practically every major new book goes through here. Inforum is their celebrity arm.
2. City Arts & Lectures: Weekly talks by names big enough to fill the Nourse Theater in Hayes Valley.
3. Jewish Community Center of SF: very high quality speakers once or twice a week at the JCCSF in Pacific Heights on a variety of topics in science, arts and humanities.
4. Being Human: great speakers on neuroscience, mindfulness, spirituality. Frequency is sporadic but quality high; their last talk was with the amazing Prof Robert Sapolsky. Annual 1-day conference is worthwhile.
5. Wisdom 2.0: talks and workshops on the intersection of mindfulness, business, spirituality and technology. 4-day annual conference in Feb.
6. Odd Salon: series of short (10-20min) talks on a given theme on Tuesday nights. Sample themes: Revenge; Undead; Anomaly; Intrepid; Dystopia.
7. The Long Now Foundation: deep thinkers on science, technology, humanities and the future giving “seminars on long-term thinking.” 2-3 talks/month. Totally worthwhile membership. Founded by the legendary Stewart Brand of Whole Earth Catalog fame, who conducts all the interviews and then sends you email summaries of them. Their bar, The Interval, was voted one of the best 20 new bars in the country – check it out.
8. Spirit Rock: daily classes, workshops and retreats on mindfulness, meditation, well-being and personal growth. A true treasure in Marin, 45min from the city. Jack Kornfield, the closest thing America’s got to the Buddha, teaches there.
9. Consciousness Hacking: Wed night gatherings with neuroscientists, technologists, meditators and entrepreneurs interested in the functioning of the brain and how to enhance it. Cool community.
10. Nerd Nite: monthly lighthearted gatherings with short, TED-style talks on scientific topics, with the occasional big event on an aircraft carrier or even Alcatraz. Quality varies, but usually a fun young crowd. Chapters in SF and South Bay.
11. Book Passage: bookstore chain that hosts a ton of readings in its SF and Marin stores. Everybody comes through here. Probably the least-mobbed place to meet your favorite author for free. Check their site for listings.
12. Books Inc: The other SF bookstore chain that hosts a ton of readings.
13. Stanford Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education (CCARE): Based in Palo Alto, so a bit of a haul from the city. Periodic lectures and workshops with big names in psychology, mindfulness, meditation (eg Dalai Lama).

There are more (e.g. World Affairs Council), but I’ve only listed ones that I have personal experience with. If you have a noteworthy venue in mind that I haven’t included, please mention it in the comments!

Madrid: 13 Observations

1) Stylin’ clothes. People here dress sharp. Not a lot of velour tracksuits with flip-flops.

2) Jesus do they party. Clubs don’t get going till well past 1am, and the streets are filled with people till 4am, but only on days that end in Y.

3) Free food. There is a tradition of giving away tasty little tapas snacks with your drink order. Or with your tapas order, like your tapas had tapas offspring or something. I love this tradition.

4) Rampant smoking. The memo that smoking cigarettes is one of the dumbest, foulest things you can do as a human being has not reached these parts. People of all ages, especially youngsters, smoke like they’ve got lung and life to spare (truth: you absolutely, positively do not).

5) Parking. This is a nation of champion parallel parkers. The streets are narrow, parking spots tiny, and somehow these guys wedge their cars in with 10cm between themselves and their neighbors. Amazing.

6) Smartphone addiction. Spaniards love their smartphones every bit as much as Americans, obliviously walking into intersections while staring at their screens like the best of New York and San Francisco.

7) Low obesity. There are no fat madrileños. The overweight people are almost exclusively tourists.

8) PDA. This is the capital of public displays of affection. In the airport, at the bar, on the sidewalk, a guy will grab his girl and start a serious, extended make-out session with zero compunction.

9) Trains. The trains are amazing — polished, gleaming, graffiti-free, air-conditioned beasts of modern transport efficiency. And Madrid has three layers of public transport: the CERCANIAS city train, the metro, and buses.

10) Globally homogenized youth culture. In their manner of dress and ornamentation, Madrid kids are indistinguishable from their American counterparts in San Francisco or Brooklyn (and Berlin and Paris, for that matter). Hipster style is the same, with the beards, hairdos and skinny pants. Septal nose rings, random tattoos and those ghastly earlobe-expanding washers also abound, perhaps even more so than in the US.

11)  Ubiquitous free internet access. These people are big on public WiFi (pronounced wee-fee). It was not just in every small cafe and tapas bar — it was in the buses. Damn.

12) Silent Spanish. There are a few facial gestures Spaniards make that are unique to them, which is how I could tell them apart from the foreigners before even speaking to them.

13) Tapas! Holy cow. The variety of ingredients, the flavors, the combinations were astonishing. Pinchos (or pintxos, the equally common Basque spelling) are the tiny snacks put on a single piece of bread, like Spanish sushi. I found the broadest variety (if not necessarily the cheapest at 2.70 euro a pop) at this converted old movie theater called Platea. It’s in the swanky Salamanca neighborhood near the city center, and you need to check it out: two floors of tapas and food shops, one full restaurant, one gleamingly suave cocktail bar, and a DJ spinning bumping tunes the whole time.

Platea, tapas heaven, Madrid Sept 2015
Platea, tapas heaven, Madrid Sept 2015

San Francisco 2013-14: The Zeitgeist of the City

On the morning of Tuesday, 6 November 2012, I walked to Joslyn Park to cast my ballot for the US Presidential elections for the last time in Santa Monica. I then visited my parents up the road and had lunch with them. After taking a picture with them wearing their little “I Voted” stickers, I got in my car and drove up to San Francisco.

The move to San Francisco was a belated one. As early as 2009, I had ventured up north and checked out an apartment a friend was getting with the idea of becoming housemates. He wanted an answer the next day, I wasn’t ready to make a decision that fast, and perhaps not entirely willing to trade in my two-bedroom, two-bathroom beachside pad for a 10’x10’ room in a shared apartment. The opportunity passed.

And yet, I repeatedly found myself in San Francisco which favorably impressed me each time. TEDx SF invited me to come speak on creativity in November of 2009, and the people I met were very interesting indeed. Then, every other month, I’d find myself in the Bay Area to visit friends for weddings and other special events. In fact, I had three sets of close married friends (two in Oakland, one in San Francisco) who always welcomed me and subtly campaigned for my move to the Bay. Two other close friends also made the pilgrimage from Los Angeles and made murmurs of approbation.

Moreover, all these great Continue reading “San Francisco 2013-14: The Zeitgeist of the City”

Ten Reasons Why I’m Skipping Burning Man in 2014

“Let’s go.”
“Whaddya mean ‘Let’s go’? I spent all of last week trying to convince you to go, and you mumbled and waffled and made lame excuses and said no. Now, all of a sudden you want to go?”
“I changed my mind. Let’s go.”
“Just like that? Well screw you and your fickle ways. Let’s go.”

180min before the dust
180min before the dust. Incidentally, what’s on the bench is ALL of our stuff. Ahh, the days of simplicity…

I had been aware of Burning Man for a couple of years before finally deciding to go in 1997. There would always be some article about the best parties in the world in a newspaper of record like Maxim (which totally kicked ass then, by the way). I’d make a mental note along the lines of “Hey, that does sound like a good party,” then promptly lose said note for its lack of adhesive quality in my cranium — and with it, the intention to plan this quixotic desert excursion.

But this time around, things were Continue reading “Ten Reasons Why I’m Skipping Burning Man in 2014”

Life, Death, Youth, the Red Book, Oprah and Truth: Harvard Commencement and Reunion 2013

One of the things that I remember best from my 15th college reunion was looking over at the 20th reunion people and noticing how impossibly old they looked. These were some paunchy, bald folks in dad jeans, with crevasses on their faces and the teenage kids responsible for said erosion. That would never happen to us whippersnappers of the Class of 1993.

Well, it did. And I’m glad it did, since the alternative (e.g. death) is neither novel nor exciting.

Like a wedding, a college reunion is an occasion of almost unalloyed joy. You get several days to catch up with long-lost friends on years of stories, all in the midst of an endless banquet. You meet the heretofore mythical spouses (“Oh! Someone actually agreed to commit her life to you — that’s great!”), you hug their impossibly cute kids, have great conversations, remember old times, and drink far too many Cape Cods strong enough to remove paint and half your liver.

Another similarity with weddings is that a reunion is a gathering of victors. If you’re broke, sick, alcoholic, getting a divorce, grossly out of shape, prematurely aged, going bankrupt, tangling with the law or otherwise on the receiving end of a bad fortune cookie, you’re probably not going to show up. At a place like Harvard, the impulse to avoid the scrutiny and comparison of peers is perhaps even stronger. What, you haven’t published your third bestselling novel yet? How many IPOs? Not the head of Neurosurgery? No tenure? Only spoken at TED Mainstage once? No Pulitzer, MacArthur or Nobel? Why are we friends again?

The Class Report

Exacerbating all of this is the Class Report, better known as the Red Book. Every five years, we are encouraged to Continue reading “Life, Death, Youth, the Red Book, Oprah and Truth: Harvard Commencement and Reunion 2013”

Impressions: Amsterdam

  1. Included with your admission ticket to the Concertgebouw is free coffee and tea before the concert, and wine at intermission.
  2. Sandwiches come with knife and fork.
  3. The biggest hills in town are bridges.
  4. An intersection can have separate traffic lights for pedestrians, bikes, cars and trams. They are not necessarily synchronized with each other. Each segment of the street has separate lights (i.e. there’s a light to the first traffic island, then another).
  5. The fanciest cars on the road are taxis – late-model Mercedes E-Class.
  6. Trash is deposited in huge subterranean bins which are picked up and emptied by giant cranes.
  7. At an intersection, both cars and pedestrians yield to bikes. Cars are especially careful, since they’re liable for all damages from collision with a bike.
  8. People are not big on curtains. Half the homes don’t even have them, and the other half are cavalier about pulling them shut.
  9. There are no Dutch restaurants outside of Holland.
  10. In the same way that London has lots of Continue reading “Impressions: Amsterdam”

What I learned at SXSW 2012

I recently got back from the South By Southwest Conference and had a marvelous time. One unusual thing that happened this time around was that several people asked me, “Why are you here?”  It was a bit like asking why do you drink water, or what’s the big deal about this whole breathing thing anyway.

And yet, a trivial question it is not.  In fact, I very nearly didn’t go this year, so it’s important for me to remind myself why I do take 6 days off from work, buy a non-cheap pass, pay for non-cheap airfare and scrounge for accommodations in an overstuffed Austin during the second week of March every year to go to SXSW Interactive (NB: to add the Film and Music portions would frankly be too much). Here are my five reasons:

1) Encountering new ideas.  SXSW consistently pulls to its stages some of greatest minds in science, business, technology, entrepreneurship, journalism and all-around awesomeness.  Because there are so many stages, these speakers have incentive to share their best work with us lest we leave for another of the 35-40 simultaneous talks.  This year alone, I was lucky to catch talks by neuroscientist David Eagleman, inventor Dean Kamen, game designer Jane McGonigal, Mathematica creator Stephen Wolfram, and X Prize founder Peter Diamandis (about all of whom I will share below). Continue reading “What I learned at SXSW 2012”

Notes from a great conference

I just came out of a four-day conference (which shall remain nameless), and it was such a life-affirming, mind-expanding, invigorating experience that I thought I would share my notes.  I got doused by a downpour of novel ideas from disparate fields in the many talks I attended.  Here’s a sampling, in no particular order: Continue reading “Notes from a great conference”

Beijing 2008: Cultural, Culinary and Linguistic (Mis)Adventures

Around January of this year, my friend Randall and I started to discuss the possibility of visiting China for the Beijing 2008 Olympics. Randall had been taking Chinese lessons for some time, and I was itching for an excuse to start them myself. After some back-and-forthing over phone and email, we carpe’d the diem on February 27, when Randall purchased a brace of plane tickets to the Imperial City. Alea iacta est — the die is cast; can’t go back.We would arrive in Beijing on Sunday, August 3, five days before the opening ceremonies of the Games of the 29th Olympiad.

Before I launch into the story, you should recognize that neither Randall nor I is a rabid sports fan. In fact, we couldn’t be bothered about organized sports at all. Our interest was in seeing China, breathing its air (but not too much), eating its food (way too much), practicing its language, and witnessing the spectacle of the games up close. And if we caught an event or two, even better.

Having attended the Games in Athens in 2004, I just wanted to marinate in the unique atmosphere the Olympics create: revelry and friendly competition between all nations; being amidst some of the most talented, hard-working, accomplished young folks on the planet; witnessing the spectacle of human achievement; seeing which country’s fans got wasted the most. Athens was an amazing experience, and I was eager to repeat it Beijing-style. As it turns out, Athens also became the touchstone by which Beijing would be judged, as Greece and China went about hosting the world’s biggest party in dramatically different ways.

Incheon our way to Beijing

If for some reason the story of our trip were to be read in Mrs Golding’s English class, she’d say that our stopover at Seoul/Incheon International Airport was an example of foreshadowing. Why? Seoul was awarded the hosting of the 1988 Olympics. At the time, Korea was at best a developing nation, their most visible product being Continue reading “Beijing 2008: Cultural, Culinary and Linguistic (Mis)Adventures”

Rio de Janeiro

When I arrived in Rio de Janeiro’s Antônio Carlos Jobim International Airport (confusing three-letter symbol: GIG), it had more of the feel of the tiny Treviso airport (trip to Croatia, Summer 2003) than one serving a city of 8 million. João was holding up a card with my name in the small receiving area — let the royal treatment begin! — and directed me towards my cab. I found it heartening that a country would name one of its biggest airports after a composer — namely, “Tom” Jobim, the man who wrote the lilting tones of The Girl from Ipanema (in Portuguese: A Garota de Ipanema). Can you imagine an American airport being named after Irving Berlin or Aaron Copland instead of some dead president? Ladies and gentlemen — I had officially arrived in a place that was Different.

There are shiny airports, and then there are not-so-shiny airports. Airports tend to reflect the rest of the city. JFK is marginally shiny. LAX is shiny. Amsterdam’s Schiphol is way shiny. Heathrow is gleaming. GIG is not shiny. And Rio itself is great, but shiny it is not. In fact, it may even disdain shininess.

The drive through Rio immediately reminded me of Tehran, another vast metropolis with upwards of 8 million people, lots of culture, and great disparities in wealth. As we drove towards our condominium in Ipanema — about as far from the airport and downtown area as you can get — we went through the favelas, the slums made famous by movies like City of God (Cidade de Deus). I had imagined these shantytowns to Continue reading “Rio de Janeiro”

“Can I help?”: A Sojourn in Cambridge

A late welcome from the banks (and BoGs) of the Cam

It is a Sunday morning here in Cambridge, with an absurdly forceful wind whipping through town, ripping off tree branches, launching horizontal raindrops at pedestrians at relativistic speeds and making cyclists ride at oblique angles just to maintain balance. It’s been nearly three weeks since I arrived here, having left on a Sunday afternoon to arrive at the Monday morning opening ceremonies of my course with 150lb of luggage in tow. Just days before, I had been told by the course assistant director that “There’s no reason for you to show up before October 5”, only to be informed the next day that orientation begins October 7. As it turns out there were many reasons to be present before the 5th — somewhat symbolic of the slapdash nature of this course, as it is the first time it’s being done. More on that later.

It is just after brunch at the Caius College (pronounced “keys”) dining hall, which comprised two fried eggs, a croissant, a bowl of yoghurt, a glass of Minute Maid orange juice, canned pear tomatoes and beans, and a raft of bacon and sausage and hash browns which I dodged — all notable because they form the essence of the Full English Breakfast experience.

I’m sitting here in the computer room, in the basement of the Caius College Library, right next to the Senate House. The latter is a rectangular building in the grand neoclassical style, where the Praelectors of the various colleges lead their graduating gowned flocks to receive their degrees, each college marching in the order of their founding (Caius is fourth, after Peterhouse, Clare College and Pembroke College). But, pray tell, where is the Senate House — or, more specifically, what street is it on? The answer can initiate you into the some of the folly and madness that is Cambridge (and, ultimately, England).

You see, the Senate House is technically on King’s Parade (not King’s Parade Street — just King’s Parade), on what I consider as the main Cambridge U drag. Except that the northern edge of it starts being called Trinity St. But the southern edge becomes Trumpington St. What you start to notice is that over the course of 500 yards, this street changes names 4 times: St John’s St, Trinity St, King’s Parade, Trumpington St, Trumpington Rd (see http://www.cam.ac.uk/map/v3/drawmap.cgi?…), and it’s not the only street that does this. So, even armed with an address such as ‘6 Trumpington St’, you can have a hell of a time finding a place, because you are never really sure which street you’re standing on unless you already know the town well. Add to that the capricious nature of numbering houses (sometimes alternating even and odd on opposite street sides, sometimes not) and the sporadic presence of street signs, and every new address becomes a new adventure.

But these names are old, old, and going against 750 years of history remains a losing proposition around these parts. And, until the 19th century, the Colleges had hegemony over the town, to the extent of setting prices for such things as bread and ale. So the little stretch of street in front of Trinity College will be called Trinity Street, and 50 meters up, in front of St John’s College it’s St John’s St, hallelujah and amen.
And to put in perspective how old Cambridge is, just think of this: when Sir Isaac Newton, the Lucasian Professor of Mathematicks, was writing his Principia Mathematica, Cambridge was already older than Harvard is now.

Keep that bike off the pavement, mate

In the battle against archaic addressing, your best weapon (save memorizing the damn map — oops, I mean memorising) is speed. And that is achieved through the humble bicycle. Even beyond the spire- and cornice-lined streets, it’s the preponderance of bicycles that struck me most upon first arriving here. Every bicycle rack, street sign, and building wall is festooned with metal and rubber, spoke and mudguard, three or four deep. There being at least three times as many cycles here as there are things to fasten them to, most of the two-wheeled conveyances are freestanding, leaning against a wall (which, by the way, would NEVER happen in Boston — the bikes would simply vanish).

Almost all streets are marked with cycle paths, even one-way ones having a little bike lane going the opposite way. And, at the top of every hour, as lectures let out, a stream of pedalers floods every street even more than before. Students, professors, fellows, rich people, poor people — everyone cycles. Those who have children of their own wear helmets; the rest (85+%) meander blissfully bareheaded. In sheer volume, Amsterdam ain’t got nothin’ on this town when it comes to bikes (NB: I have since been to Amsterdam, and I sit corrected. Still — whole lotta bikes.)

And so, wishing to be part of the wheeled and mobile masses, on my second day here, I set out on a bike hunt. You will be shocked to find that I
bought the first bike that I found at the first bike shop that I visited (those who know me well realize the improbability of such an event). There
it was: a Trek 700 hybrid, fully tricked out in the Cambridge Urban Geriatric package — mud guards front and back, front and back lights (required), rear rack (for passengers), chain guard (to save your trouser cuffs — key!) and the all-important front basket. An older gentleman had customized his bike for commuting, found that his knees couldn’t take the strain, and returned it less than a week after its purchase.

I immediately recognized how much time and money I’d have to spend to get a bare-bones bike to have all these accoutrements, and how I could never get them for a mere £150 ($230 or so, and rising). So, relinquishing my penchant for rock-devouring aluminum moutain bikes or speedy racing bikes, I plunked down on the spot for this incredibly practical instrument, and have enjoyed many a ride with nary a pant rip, chain-oil smudge or a wet rear, even in driving rain.

Now you would certainly be looked at askance if you were to tell an English person that your last bike used to rip into your pants. Or that you like to ride on the pavement. Because ‘pants’ around these parts means ‘underwear’, and ‘pavement’ means sidewalk. So you can imagine my mild bewilderment when, on my first day on my trusty steel steed, I was told that riding on the pavement was strictly forbidden. And when you say something is ‘pants’, that means it’s no good. (On the other hand, if something is ‘the dog’s bollocks’, then it’s grrreat — ‘brilliant’, in
fact.)

Now some of these differences aren’t strictly deadly, e.g. ‘tap’ for faucet and ‘post’ for ‘mail’, ‘lorry’ and ‘lift’ for truck and elevator. But, as a driver and cyclist, you can get into real trouble if you don’t know ‘give way’ means ‘yield’ and if you have no idea what a ‘rising bollard’ is.

Ahh, the rising bollard. See, there are certain zones of the city which are closed to all traffic, except for buses and taxis, at certain times of day. The borders to these zones are marked by ‘Caution: rising bollards’ signs, and woe betide he who obliviously or willfully drives onto the division zone, because from the very heart of Mother Earth majestically rises a ‘bollard’ — a metal column or pylon 3 feet high – impaling the car smack on its engine or transmission, instantly destroying it. Now the car-cass (ha) has to be towed, and the shame-faced driver has no choice but to pay something like a £1000 fine. Wild stuff.

And so the real shock of the new hit me as soon as I started cycling. ‘Stay on the left side, because it’s the right side’, my initial mantra, proved less helpful than it sounded. So I just decided to follow the direction cars were parked. That was a bad idea, because cars park facing either direction, on both sides of the road. OK, follow other cyclists and drivers then. Turnabouts (rotaries) go clockwise, not anticlockwise (counterclockwise) as I learned the hard way, and right turns are the dangerous ones, as oncoming headlights remind me time and time again which country I’m in.

One thing that I have yet to get over is the momentary horror of passing a car on the left, looking inside and seeing a small child in the driver’s seat (eek!) or, even worse, NOBODY in the driver’s seat (double eek!). Two and some decades of conditioning is hard to live down in two and some weeks.

Gonville and Caius is the baius knaius

Let’s get back to the initial story of my arrival here. Now, on that very Monday, I actually did not have a full acceptance from Cambridge University — or, more specifically, the Board of Graduate Studies. This latter institution is responsible for handling the affairs of graduate students here, and they do a magnificent job of devouring, swamp-like, any correspondence, email or phone call that comes their way without actually responding, and of generally doing business at the speed of a rapidly advancing glacier. Hence, my affectionate title for them, ‘The BoGS’ (which, in local parlance means, perhaps even more appropriately, ‘the toilets’).

Anyway — for whatever reason, even though the Bioscience Enterprise Programme, my course of study, had accepted me in early June, these swamp dwellers had not (long and complicated story which I hope you will never hear), so on Monday morning, I was homeless and addressless. Luckily, through the intercession of Dr Joe Herbert, the course director, on Tuesday evening I had been accepted at Gonville & Caius College, one of my top 3 choices, and the next week received an actual letter from the BoGS welcoming me to Cambridge. The amusing part of the story is how, fast on the heels of my acceptance to Caius College, I received my first letter from them the next day (even though I had no address) — the bill for the term’s charges. They can be on the ball when they really want to, you see.

Gonville & Caius was founded twice — once by Mr Gonville in 1348, and the second time by (you guessed it) Dr Caius. Now, for whatever reason, his name is pronounced ‘keys’ — some latinization of ‘Keyes’, which was fashionable in his day. But this gives our college double Cambridge snob status. First, because only yahoos from the outside even mention the ‘Gonville’ part; and second, because of the way ‘Caius’ is pronounced. Magdalene College has the trick pronunciation (’maudlin’) and Peterhouse the trick name (not ‘Peterhouse College’; just Peterhouse), but Caius got both. Of course this is also great fun to play with, as you can send a message to your fellow Caian (’kee-an’) saying ‘plaius excuse my snaius’ with a knowing chortle, har.

Since the original Dr Caius, this place has been a haven for medical students (aka ‘medics’) and natural scientists (’natskis’). Lots of the streets and buildings are named after famous alumni: Harvey Court and Harvey Road are tributes to old William, the Western discoverer of pulmonary circulation c. 1628 (Ibn an-Nafis, the Arab physiologist, did it first c. 1250). Glisson Road, where I live, is named after Dr Glisson, discoverer of the eponymous capsule of fibrous tissue encasing the plumbing that goes into the liver.

On my second day in Cambridge, as I was exiting the College one evening, I had a near run-in with one of the more famous living Caians. First I thought it was a handicapped student, but then I realized that I had narrowly avoided collision with none other than the current Lucasian Professor of Mathematicks, Stephen Hawking.

When Jesus, Christ, Corpus Christi and Trinity sit to dine

There are 32 Colleges at Cambridge, and the students harbor the same fierce and irrational loyalties towards them as we all do to arbitrary elements of identity like country, religion and name. Some are more hoity-toity than others (Trinity being the ne plus ultra); some are more liberal (Kings). All are absolutely enamored of their rules and traditions. One of the surviving traditions is that of Formal Hall.

Dinner is served in two seatings: 6.20 and 7.15. At the second seating, all students are required to wear their academic gowns before sitting down at the long benches of Caius Dining Hall, listening to a Latin benediction, and sharing a three-course meal which ranges between being repulsive to marginally edible. The ploy for getting the students to show up in spite of the shoddy cuisine is to mandate the pre-purchase of 16 meal tickets, at £4.50 each (about $7), which is certainly much easier than providing good food. One saving grace is that we are allowed to bring our own wine to the table and share with whomever we want, with a loosely enforced limit of one bottle per person. If you just asked yourself, “Wait a second there — shouldn’t one bottle per Homo sapiens be enough?”, read on.

As it turns out, drinking in general and wine in particular provide a cornerstone — nay, THE cornerstone of Cambridge life. When I first read The Double Helix at the tender age of 15, what struck me most was how much of business, even of Watson & Crick magnitude, was conducted at pubs, over beer. Every College has its own pub, open to everyone, with absurdly cut-rate drink prices (pint of cider £1; pint of beer £1.50; shot of tequila £1.40 — dangerous!). Every Wednesday we have after-dinner port at 8pm, which goes on and on and on. And regularly there are fancy dinners (the last of which was the Graduate Matriculation Dinner) where we sit with the Fellows of the College, eat from a menu written entirely in French (of course ‘pommes de terre’ taste better than potatoes!) and have 4 different courses of wine, capped off by your choice of port or claret, passed around in a crystal decanter, around in a crystal decanter, around in a (burp) crysal descanter, roight.

Unfortunately, these occasions are the only time when we dine with the Fellows. The professors and such always eat at the High Table, which is not open to students, graduate or non, and this hierarchical arrangement echoes itself throughout English social structure. My hopes for having regular chats with Prof Hawking have thus been temporarily dashed.

Of course, no account of a sojourn in England is complete without some mention of how unlike (and, by implication, inferior to) America it is. None of you know me as a cheerleader of things American, but I cannot help but notice some peculiarities of life here. The most amusing is easily the hot & cold faucet arrangement: in every sink, they are separated by 2 feet of space, such that thou shalt scald thine hands or
freeze them, but though shalt never wash them under a temperate stream of water. Seeing as how some of the tubs and showers actually have the technological wonder of the mixer tap incorporated, I am dumbfounded as to why sinks should be so deprived.

There is also a strange fondness for rules and an unabashed willingness to enforce them, even to perfect strangers. In my 12 years of cycling nearly every day in the States, people reminded or reprimanded me only a handful of times for my kamikaze tendencies, even in the most flagrant case. But here, somebody says something nearly every time. The most surreal incident was when I was locking my bike, and a friend that I had not seen in 3yrs called my name, prompting me to exclaim ‘Holy fucking cow!’, to which a grey head stuck itself out of a Caius College office window and said, emphatically, ‘No. NO.’ This lifetime had not prepared me for that.

At risk of flagrant generalization, what epitomizes my experience here is the phrase with which shopkeepers greet you: “May I help?” For some time, I have found the absence of ‘you’ at the end of that query to be particularly jarring, and my over-philosophized explanation is thus: they don’t really much care about ‘you’ here, as evidenced by the absence of customer service and the presence of the National Health Service. Collectively, people matter (hence, rules and the penchant for them); individually, not so much. Here, rules are rigid physical things that you run into, as if hitting a wall; not at all nice and bendy like back there, and not at all guidelines for when common sense fails. And saying ‘Can I help’ instead of ‘Can I help you’ conveys the same amount of warmth and sincerity as saying ‘I love’ instead of ‘I love you’.

Hey, America may not be so great, but at least sometimes they fake it well when it counts. (NB: My English friends have since brought to my attention that they feel exactly the same way about American rules, especially when it comes to bars and carrying ID. Acknowledged.)

Of course, you’re all more than welcome — nay, encouraged — to visit. There’s really no place like Cambridge (except for Oxford), and it’s quite fun for a quick swing-through.

 

Meanderings Amongst Words: Book Expo America, Chicago, 2-5 June 2004

People have brought to my attention that my blog here has been gathering e-dust, languishing in the vast underworld of unheralded, undersubscribed blogs. It ain’t for lack of material — lord knows all kinds of zany things have been happening. So, best to write up the events of last week before they get corrupted and ultimately deleted by the editorial caprices of that gentle tyrant, memory.

I spent the better part of this past week at Book Expo America in Chicago. I arrived in the Windy City — so-called apparently because of its fickle political affiliations and not the hearty sweep of air through its skyscraper-fortified corridors — on a Tuesday night, and through some strange convergence of fate, all of my Continue reading “Meanderings Amongst Words: Book Expo America, Chicago, 2-5 June 2004”

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