Onward to Malaysia

After Ushguli I spent a few more days wandering Tbilisi, Georgia. It's a beautiful city, with a high density of sights right by the river and the old town. The slightly decrepit curvy streets, and the balconies above them are filled with real people going about their lives. Old men play dominos, young couples dance a mix of modern and traditional styles at a restaurant, and a young girl does a little graffiti on the steps declaring her love for Justin Bieber. My flight through Almaty, Kazakhstan was as uneventful as you'd imagine, except to note that the air quality was really awful.

P1060438Kuala Lumpur is humid, lush and green, reminding me of my first time back in South Florida after moving away. This provides my first taste of street food in a long time, with the fusions of Malay, Chinese, Portugese and Indian which make eating here such a joy. My plan was to head to Indonesia and try some surfing on Nias, but while setting my wakeup alarm I failed to reset my timezone, and missed the flight.

P1060474Plan B went from inspiration to realization in about 12hours. When traveling in this part of the world, I've always been at the mercy of busses, trains, and their schedules and routes. Now I've instead bought a car. It's a 1997 Perodua Kancil with 145k km on it. It's almost certain to give me trouble, and with luck a few stories to go with it, but I'm prepared for that. The flight I missed was early monday morning. By 6pm I owned the car, and by midnight I was in a riverside guesthouse in Melacca smelling the salt air of the straights.

Malacca may be familiar to those who's studied Dutch history, with http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christ_Church,_Melaka and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stadthuys as particularly notable. In the evenings here I often wander on Heeren street, which shares it's name with the road behind my old Wageningen apartment. The walls of the old city are in the same shape as the walls of every dutch city. And in connection with my last stop, the Church here uses old headstones as flooring (apparently this is not disrespectful) and includes one from an Armenian.

I, Jacob, grandson of Shamier, an Armenian of a respectable family whose name I keep, was born in Persia near Inefa, where my parents now forever sleep. Fortune brought me to distant Malacca, which my remains in bondage to keep. Separated from the world on 7th July 1774 A.D. at the age of twenty-nine, my mortal remains were deposited in this spot of the ground which I purchased.

Ushguli, Svaneti, Georgia

P1050909P1050912 Tbilisi to Zugdidi in a marshrutka should probably cost 10 Lari, but I was paying 20 = $17 for the 5 hour ride. On the upside, I had the backseat, and had it alone for the second half of the trip. This meant I was able to lay down and get some actual sleep. During a flat tire, I talked with David who works in a Tbilisi call center. Importantly, he taught me 'Thank You' as 'mad-loh-bah' and the names of a few regional foods.

P1050975P1050922P1050926From Zugdidi I'd hoped to take another Marshrutka, but with no apparent options agreed to a 'taxi', which was a green Mercedes-Benz 4x4 jeep. My driver didn't speak any english, so he called his brother, who showed up after about 20 minutes in a black Mercedes-Benz SUV with a priest riding shotgun. Via the driver's German and my little Dutch, he translated a few key details of the planned route. I finished our talk with 'mad-loh-bah' and this seemed to be appreciated. The drive begins, but ends after 2 minutes. The priest comes over, and swaps cars with me, with the apparent idea that my little english+dutch will do better in this car. There is family of 4 in the backseat. The grandmother Katarina looks about 45, her 25 year old son has a name I never did quite get the but it seemed to be somewhere between Zorro and Sauron so I'll call him Zorron. also squeezed in, his sister Salomeh and her daughter (perhaps age 7) is named Angela. Salomeh actually speaks quite good english, but was too shy to mention that during the 1st hour of the trip. The driver is Rostom Girguliani (geer-goo-lee-ahn-nee).

P1050931P1050949I'm now being driven shotgun in a black Mercedes-Benz SUV along the river. Both cars stop for the local dish, a cheese filled bread Khachapuri and it's meat filled equivalent. Zorron climbs an apple tree, and knocks a few loose. We grab handfulls, while a big pig and small dog fight over what we've missed. We're outside a restaurant, overlooking the Inguri Dam . The accordion player at the resturant over the lake comes out to serenade us (and the priest (Dmitry)) before we have 2 kinds (red + white) of homebrew wine from gas cans. We drive on a gorgeous and twisty 1 year old road towards the home of the other driver, just to the west of Mestia. Rostom is now acting as if we're new best friends, and offering a tour of my final destination, Ushguli, a ride back to the capital, and places to stay all for no charge. I'm a bit skeptical, but I've got nothing else and perhaps this really is just wonderful hospitality. During dinner the men sit and eat, while the women serve us and stay out of the way. They all drink drink WAY HARDER than I can, while serving breads, bread+cheese, bread+meat, cucumber, salt+pepper, tomatos, fried chicken. The oldest guy is Galaction 80 years. Tomorrow we will spend 1 day in Ushgali for photos. I would have preferred 24h there, to allow photos at sunrise and sunset, but I'm literally unable to say no, since it would be 24h before I learned that word ("Ara") and I'm not fully certain of what little I think I understand.

After a satisfying dinner, mixed with many rounds of drinking the homebrew ChaCha. I turn into bed and write a bit of this journal, before the alcohol purges the memories. Words won't do the trip to Ushguli justice. 3D high def IMAX also wouldn't. You'll need to go there yourself, but there seems to be no great rush, time is frozen here from roughly the year 1200. Until you make the journey, take a look at these photos to help you prepare.




P1060299On the way back from Ushguli we picked up 2 hitchhikers who crammed themselves between the luggage in the back. Peter is Hungarian, 31 and speaks German well enough to communicate better than I with Rostom. Kenneth is Norwegian, vegetarian, and as tall as the trees he cuts for a living. We speak very little at first, and by the half hour mark have exchanged only 4 sentences. For the 5th sentence they ask how my liver is doing, I laugh as we share an understanding. In the coming 24hours I learn that their previous 3 nights of homestays simply would not take no for an answer, either at dinner (uncountable) or breakfast, which was 5 shots of ChaCha. Father Dmitry was also a bit of a lightweight, and his emphasis on red wine instead of ChaCha had been my savior so far. Peter and Kenneth are truer travelers than I, with Peter on year 3 of travel and a steady budget of $10 a day. You should follow their travel blog at kepesita.org. They'd planned to take the $75 flight out of Mestia in hopes of seeing more of the Caucauses from above, but take up Rostom's offer to join us for the evening at his brother's house and the next day's journey back to Tbilisi. Dinner is similar to the night before, with pleasant additions of beef soup, watermelon, tomato+onion+vinegar salad, and an aubergine+chili tapenade. A few other men from the village join us at dinner, one in particular drinks unbelievably hard and enthusiastically tops off the glasses every 5minutes, mainly so he can refill his own. Afterwards Peter and Kenneth take the beds I'd used the previous night, while my sleeping bag gets the first use of the trip. To pass the time while drinking enough water that tomorrow morning won't be too painful, we talk in the darkness, and they show a a genuine interest in and understanding of my genetics work. Or maybe it was the ChaCha.

P1060301P1060302At dinner Father Dmitry had made it clear he didn't want to wake at the crack of dawn today, so at about 8:30 we wander downstairs and are promptly put to work by the brother cleaning out the barn/garage. Mainly this means moving the woodpile from A to B in what seems like confused busy work. All the while we can hear Father Dmitry inside, wearing full vestments, as he blesses each room, and the icons which adorn them. After an hour a few other faces from the previous dinner have returned to join us for breakfast. 80% of the meal is lastnight's leftovers, but some oatmeal and other other items are new. The table is set, with candles attached to the plastic coke bottles filled with ChaCha. After a few ceremonial minutes Dmitry takes the candles away (without setting his beard on fire) and the breakfast shifts into the hard drinking phase. We three westerners exchange terrified looks, but give it our best shots. The same over-enthusiastic booze hound pours each glass, the speeches begin, and we prepare for 'the burn'. Peter is the first to jump in, and shouts with a pleasant surprise "it's water", we laugh, and throw this round back with gusto. Our hosts discover their error, and with a genuine horror toss the water from their glasses out the window, then remove the incorrect bottle from the table. This is the funniest thing I've seen in a decade, and Peter and Kenneth share my delight. We celebrate like condemned men who have a power failure in the moment before electrocution. We know our fate is still sealed, but the gods have offered the best comfort they can.

P1060208P1060218With the correct bottle, we resume. Peter manages better than I, and Kenneth better still. His viking ancestors would be proud, but still no match for these men from Svaneti. I point out "we're doing shots with the driver. again." and later learn they found this worthy of a tweet. It was the only time I lost any respect for these two, yet they have plenty to spare. The drive was pleasantly uneventful. We stopped only twice for more Khachapuri and ChaCha. I finally managed to get Rostom to take 50 Lari during one of the meals, but this seems to have done more harm then good. Later during a refueling, he asked Peter for something which sounded close to "samen betalen" and seemed to be german for "you pay half?". He agreed, and got out to do so. But when we drove away explained he'd just paid the full amount, which was 150 Lari = $90, and was hoping that they would settle up before the trip was done. I knew quite well, that once the money was out of your hands, it was unlikely to come back. In hindsight the obvious solution was for me to offer money and even that up, but somehow with Peter as the one outside of the car, and I having paid about that much just an hour earlier the thought didn't occur until later that night. Instead Peter's attempt when exiting the car was not well received, and I was glad it happened outside the car where I could feign ignorance of the whole affair.

P1060026P1060312From Rostom's side I'm sure it seemed like a reasonable thing, but for Peter and Kenneth's hitchhiking budget it was a huge impact. I hope to meetup with them again before I leave the city, and try to put things right, but it did happen and I record it here as part of the story. It left me wondering if Rostom's hospitality had an ulterior motive, but he continued to reject my attempts to give him money even the next day. That night he put me up in his Tbilisi apartment, and in the morning rejected my attempts to again hand him cash before I left, with sincere statements about freundschaft. But he was expecting me to stay for more days, and trying to offer me the key to his apartment expecting me to stay until my saturday flight. That is a generous offer, but I travel solo and was not prepared to have anyone control that much of my remaining time. I'm back at a centrally located hostel, and free to come and go, without the need to struggle through 2 broken languages or hurt feelings and confused expectations.

հրաժեշտ . საქართველოში ჩემი აზრით

P1050851P1050822P1050853P1050831Last night in Armenia was watching the national team beat "the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia" 4:1. If only they hadn't scored the extra time goal, Kreidler would have won a whole $16. It was a great chance to see 15,000 Armenians side by side, cheering for something the could really feel proud of. There seems to not be enough opportunities for that spirit in this country. I wish them much success in the next and final game against my own motherland.

GeorgiaP1050897P1050898 This morning I rode a marshrutka 4 hours north into Georgia. The capital Tbilisi is notably different than Yervan. A mighty river divides this city. It's residents are notably more ethnically diverse. The old town has incredibly diverse architecture and a real charm. Drinking on the street was unheard of in Yerevan, here it took me about 30seconds to walk from my hostel, to join a group of old men playing dominoes and drinking beers. We had no words in common, but part of the reason I love the game, is that you don't need words. We managed just fine. The biggest difference from the Miami version of the game Ikam's grandfather taught me was the use of an abacus to keep score. One of them was from the small village where I will try to get to tomorrow. I say try, because getting there will require 12h of marshrutkas. I'm a bit sick at the moment (down to just a runny nose, after a few days of a bit worse, but I'll spare you those details) so rather than being out enjoying a apparently delightfully raucus evening, I'm about to turn in for some needed rest.

<rant>I would like to be raped by T-mobile, to pay $45 for 10MB of data over the next 7 days, but they suck too much to actually be able to do that, despite their promises. This may be the last post for a few days</rant>

(no subject)

P1050769I decided to explore solo for a few days. For me this meant taking a series of Marshrutkas to Lake Sevan and it's centerpiece the Sevanavank monastary. P1050737The first day was rainy, and I spent about 20 minutes walking from the dropoff point to my hotel. I confess, this was a Best Western, which meant western prices in exchange for (not actually working) wifi. The staff spoke perfect english, but where is the fun in that. The weather did create some beautiful skies as you can see to the right. The other pleasant surprise was an email from an old friend. Josh Vroman and I went to kindergarden together, and several other times along the way we had classes, or cub scouts together. I don't think I've seen him since I was about 12, but here he was via email. The storm had helped to clear the air, and the next day I was rewarded with very clear blue skies, and visibility to the snow capped mountains which ring the lake. As usual, the photos show well, but the experience was what I enjoyed. The picture at left was taken by an Iranian, and in the USA we don't meet so many of them. The ones we do meet usually identify as Persians instead. He spoke quite a bit of English, and asked where I was from. The answer to that question is always a bit complicated given my semi-nomadic life, but since so many Armenians have a connection to Glendale, California I've learned to give "Born in LA" as a response. His reaction was immediate --- "Ah, Arnold Schwartenegger". I laughed, and continued to marvel at what a positive and global icon that man has become. There was no need to point out that Jerry Brown was the new Govinator instead.

P1050748By early afternoon I decided to journey onward to the Armenian Switzerland, Dilijan (2), about an hour away. It's hard to believe that an hours drive, could so radically change the scenery, but click on the picture at right and you won't have to take my word for it. P1050787. I stayed at Dili Villa a fantastic house maintained by the currator of a really impressive museum. The house is equally filled with paintings, but at the museum I was given a tour of the not-yet-opened basement exhibit with more of the history of the area. This wasn't your usual, 'look but don't touch' experience, instead I was invited to flip through old photos, handle a bronze age axe head, and even pose with a few weapons. P1050790.

Since then I've returned to Yerevan. Last night we ate at a fish restaurant where you pick your sturgeon and trout from one of the pools, then watch while they bash it's brains in. Fresh fish has to come from somewhere... I've also bought tickets for an upcoming segment of the trip. In a few days I'll move on to Georgia. On Oct 15th I fly through Kazhakstan, en route to Kuala Lumpur. I've got a few ideas what may come next, but writing them down here seems the best way to ensure the plans change.
Screen shot 2011-10-07 at 3.16.10 PM

The locals, the diaspora, and the embassy circuit

P1050683Yesterday was a nice Armenian lunch of stuffed peppers and roasted aubergine. I overheard English from a table nearby and asked the gentlemen if they could point me towards the museum/home of Sergei Parajanov a Soviet film director. They were happy to offer directions, but with a light rain coming down insisted that I join for 1 beer before I left. Two of them were around 35 years old, and the third was their Father / Father-in-Law. He was part of the diaspora living in Glendale, Los Angeles and visiting for a few weeks. When I mentioned I'd visited the Genocide Museum the previous day, the father was happy to explain to me his personal experiences with the after-effects, while the sons seemed to have a "oh there he goes again" reaction to a conflict which was not their own. This seems a natural and healthy process, but gave me my first real interaction with some of the true culture of this place.

P1050657In the evening I joined my host at his office, the US Embassy. After surrendering my cell phone and passport I was admitted into a brief and rather lifeless office party, followed by a paper airplane contest mostly for the kids. A bit later, some of the guys in the office had brought in their amps, guitars, and drum kit, and they were practicing for a show at the office christmas party. Songs included Tom Petty, Blind Melon, and a few other rock covers from my high school years. Afterwards we headed over to the onsite bar where the Marines relax and pour the drinks. We swapped travel stories and let the whole evening slide into a very pleasant Vodka-Redbull fueled blur.

P1050663Today was some code and some downtime, with a rooftop Octoberfest at sundown. The atmosphere was great, the beers were homebrewed in 3 styles, and even the sausages were handmade. One of the guys I met, and his Palestinian wife, are 2 weeks away from his next assignment, in Thailand doing aid work for Burma. He doesn't yet know much about the place, while after 10 years of following what's going on there I perhaps know a bit too much. Tomorrow we'll probably do brunch and continue to talk and plan.

P1050678Wageningen, the Netherlands had nothing open on Sunday, and therefore there was no way to do a brunch. I really missed that familiar pace of wandering to a favorite restaurant, eating a big meal with coffee refills, bacon and eggs, and skimming the paper while planning the day. Tomorrow will be the first time in many years with that particularly American tradition.

Europe, you're up. Yerevan, yer on.

Rolling east from NL into Germany my very first impression is that on the NL side the plants around the railroad tracks are neatly manicured, while in Germany they grow wild. By Hannover the skies are clear and blue, framing the tall modern windmillls which have replaced the smaller wood and stone Dutch icons. This is my 3rd time in Berlin, and I've got a reasonable sense of how the trains work, and how to reach my destination -- Comebackpackers in Kottibusser Tor. The neighborhood is ethnic, open late, full of cheap döner kebab shops, bars and clubs. Turkish, German, and English are only the most common tongues I hear from passersby, many of whom are riding bicycles on the sidewalks causing me to occasionally jump a bit as they swerve past me. So Bike lanes become the first thing I miss from NL. Over a fence I see a lively bar with someone twirling fire, and another bar appears to be a white schoolbus hopeless mired at the bottom of a deep ditch. The streets are dimly lit, lined with trees, greenspaces, and people. All night long they'll linger at tables outside restaurants finishing one more beer, one more smoke, and one more joke.

I'm sharing my room with Jeroen De Dauw, and Samuel Lampa. They're also here to attend the Semantic MediaWiki conference. Jeroen in particular is just 20, with nearly that many popular Mediawiki extesions to his name, while Samuel is a student under Egon Willighagen a prolific science blogger. The conference was enjoyable, if perhaps a bit less crowded than I might have hoped for. Each day of the conference ends at a restaurant, and then smaller groups wander off to the bars of the choice. My favorites were a large punk bar named after 'The Clash' which was new to me, and c-base the bar/clubhouse/garage which I'd previously visited after a Chaos Computer Congress over xmas 2 years ago. Even 2 years later, that first visit to Berlin and c-base standout as one of the great memories of my life. This trip was nice, but cannot hope to compare. More work than pleasure, it's merely the familiar front porch as I leave home. The adventure is just beyond.

To get to the other side. Why did the neutrino cross the road?

computing in the amorphous (non amazon) cloud

Old friends leave comments and ask if I'll be blogging this trip. I have no idea. Blogging is a way for me to talk to everyone, but it doesn't work so well if I'm regularly talking to anyone. Blogging about life, changes that life. It's a Heisenbug. When living at normal speed, the blog energy spills and becomes disruptive. When in motion can I release that energy without damaging what is close at hand. maybe.

James Diggans recently moved to my favorite old home SF, (and hasn't yet committed to a job) you want to hire him. He follows synbio pretty closely and back in June I asked him this:

this is the most advanced thing I've seen and understood. Do you know of anything else related? Can you help me to understand what methods a biobricks related python library might actually provide?

I'd muddled though a few more links and papers, and even downloaded and but not yet installed something which looked interesting called Proto.

But life kept moving, and late last night I sent my KeyGene colleagues the announcement of my departure and the date for my farewell borrel.

Just before the end of the day I learned Drew Endy will be visiting our little company before I leave. His work is a big part of what brought me to KeyGene NV. To explore the edge where reading genomes becomes writing them. My work on that front is small scale, usually just few plant SNPs. Endy has instead worked across the entire bacterial genome, creating and cataloging various biological parts. He teaches high school students how to engineer new strains of bacteria which can light up, or make smells to when exposed to a stimulus. Just like they might have done in a wood, metal, or electrical shop class.

It stirs my own interest in engineering. Of understanding every single piece. Of knowing nothing further can be removed. Of building ever more elaborate devices from these BioBricks until Life becomes Lego.

But deep down, I'm a software guy, not a hardware one. And this my excuse to finally pickup Proto. The results have been very satisfying, and while it's still fresh I wanted to share a bit of what I think I now know.

Jonathan Bachrach and Jacob Beal have done most of this work, and documented it clearly. Their paper Cells Are Plausible Targets for High-Level Spatial Languages shows

  1. Proto is a functional language with a Scheme like syntax

  2. familiar operators like AND, OR, NOT, Greater-Than, Less-Than, Equal-To, Min, Max.

  3. a few new methods, such as 'diffuse'

  4. programs written in this high level language can be compiled down to a form suitable for use in real cells

  5. standard compiler optimization improvements apply and more can be expected

What's different here is the computer is in a very different environment.

Beal says: An amorphous medium is a manifold where every point is a device that knows its neighbors’ recent past state.

Mike says: Its a squishy bag filled with 1000s of computers. The bag might be as big as the ocean, or as small as a single cell.

Imagine throwing 1000 little computers out of a plane (2D) or over the side of a boat (3D). Each can pass messages to computers near by, but their radios are not strong enough for every computer to talk to all of the others. They must all be given the same program, and establish enough communication to coordinate tasks and roles among themselves. This is similar to aspects of SIMD parallel programming, but with a much more challenging network. No useful sized multibit adders. Iteration and other and familiar tools are absent. Floating point numbers are ... chemicals floating in other chemicals ... Stack Overflow indeed.

There is a nice little quick start guide and instead of printing "Hello World", you're rendering into a 3d space where you can position the camera, and control the scene.

I've skimmed, but not yet really done the real thinking in proto tutorial but once I do, the next milestone would be setting up this pymorphous which seems like a very appealing top level interface.

Its an interesting little corner of programming, which should become important in the years to come.

On a world tour

The Netherlands has been wonderful and treated me very kindly. With a with a heavy heart, nimble feet, and a head full of good memories -- I'm off.

2011 Departure

Sept 20, train from NL to Berlin for the SMW conf

Sept 25, fly to Minsk, Belarus, 3h of airport, then off to Yerevan, Armenia.

If you've read my blog, and live somewhere in Eurasia maybe you're on my way, drop me an email.

I'm on a world tour to visit Kreidler, my man
Going each and every place, with Mike right at hand