Sunday, December 31, 2006

The Problem of Pain

Some thoughts on "The Problem of Pain" by C.S. Lewis:

...Divine freedom cannot mean indeterminacy between alternatives and choice of one of them.
Determinism is generally ignored when it comes to resolving the problem (i.e., "Why doesn't God make us love Him and one another?") because, intuitively, love seems to require choice. But if God has no choice, how can He love?
...if God's moral judgement differs from ours so that our 'black' may be His 'white', we can mean nothing by calling Him good; for to say 'God is good', while asserting that His goodness is wholly other than ours, is really only to say 'God is we know not what'.
Lewis spends the rest of the chapter explaining how God uses pain to shape us, and how it may be a means to an end that only He sees clearly. This obfuscates the issue, it doesn't matter if some 'black' is really 'white'. Any remaining 'black' at all contradicts the possibility of an omnipotent loving God. To accept this as a solution is to call all 'black' 'white', which Lewis rejects. He doubly rejects this, indirectly, in the next chapter:
'Let no man say when he is tempted, I am tempted of God' [James 1:13] Many schools of thought encourage us to shift the responsibility for our behavior from our own shoulders to some inherent necessity in the nature of human life, and thus, indirectly, to the Creator.
But if all 'black' is really 'white', then it is 'white' because the evil emergent from sin is necessary.
We must never make the problem of pain worse than it is by vague talk about the 'unimaginable sum of human misery'. [...] There is no such thing as a sum of suffering, for no one suffers it.
The "sum of human misery" is a poor rendering of a common intuition: it isn't the sum, but the universality of suffering that's unimaginable.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Fake Interfaces

I want to see a website that makes you think you're navigating it, when it fact it's presenting you with information the designer had already decided on. If you clicked on a link, it might take that into account when deciding what to show you, but it wouldn't really be your decision.

A more concrete manifestation might look like this: if a web developer knows that users only visit a fourth of the links in the menu, the developer could multiply the number of links by four and just make sure not to present a user the same page twice. The website would appear much more complex than it actually is.

Love and Power

If international relations are ever going to change, the people in power will have to act in love. Unfortunately, those who love are not power hungry. And those who are power hungry win out for power over those who aren't. It seems like the only way around this is to put people into power involuntarily.

Unheard Music

Music generally takes a lot longer to record than listen to. Folk and lo-fi music is recorded in one or two takes, while modern pop takes time to multitrack, mix, and master. That is., folk has a recording-to-listening ratio closer to 1 than pop music. What would it mean for music to have a ratio less than 1, where it takes less time to record than it does to hear? A composer could distribute recordings of their music that they themselves hadn't yet heard.

Paths to Immortality

If you want to spawn various schools of thought, make exclusive, definitive, yet vague statements on both accessible and esoteric issues. If you want to be read, use the vocabulary of a familiar religion or philosophy to describe a non-complementary system without stating that you do not accept the premises of the tradition behind the words you use. If you want attention, fight for any sort of freedom or vision in an extreme way — especially extreme violence and extreme nonviolence.

You might try introducing new metaphysical metaphors. Or delineate and practice the pursuit of knowledge through new modes of understanding. Devalue the sacred, or revere the secular. It's worked for Wittgenstein, Hume, Nietzsche, Gandhi, Al Qaeda, Hume, Socrates, Popper, and Marx.

If we can delineate all possible movements and paradigm-shifts, what worth do the movements and paradigm-shifts actually hold? And if we can't, then is there anything supremely unique left to do or think?


Sometimes it's easiest to understand a perspective when you hear it from someone who believes it. But no one is a purist. That is, almost no one is solely Platonist, Cartesian, Marxist, etc. To be a purist, you would have to accept one approach in favor of everything else, rejecting even unknown philosophies.

The only possible non-naive purist would be one who can account for new philosophies and make an informed evaluation of them rather than simply rejecting the unfamiliar.

Responsibility Without Freedom

With the problem of freewill, determinism is generally seen as a non-option because it seems to remove the possibility of responsibility. Without choice, how can we be responsible for our actions? Maybe we should reconsider our notion of responsibility. Even in a deterministic world, wouldn't humans still be responsible for their actions in the same way hail is responsible for broken car windows or hurricanes for destroyed houses? We try to protect our cars and houses from hurricanes, so traditional punishments would still apply — just for a different reason.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

An Equality Among Men

Søren Kierkegaard's last written words:

I have nothing more to add. But let me merely say this, which in a way is my life, is to me the content of my life, its fullness, its bliss, its peace and satisfaction. Let me express this, a view of life which comprehends the idea of humanity and of human equality: Christianity implies, unconditionally, that every man, every single individual, is equally close to God...How close and equally close? Because Loved by Him. Consequently there is equality, the equality of infinity, between man and man. If there is any distinction, it is that one person bears in mind that he is loved, perhaps day after day, perhaps day after day for seventy years, perhaps with only one longing, a longing for eternity so that he really can grasp this thought and go through life with it, concerning himself with the blessed occupation of meditating on how he is loved - and not, alas, because of his virtue. Another person perhaps does not remember that he is loved, perhaps goes on year after year, day after day, and does not think of his being loved; or perhaps he is glad and grateful to be loved by his wife, by his children, by his friends, by his contemporaries, but he does not think of his being loved by God. Or perhaps he laments not being loved by anyone and does not think of being loved by God. Infinite, divine love; it makes no distinction! But what of human ingratitude? If there is an equality among us men in which we completely resemble each other, it is that not one of us truly thinks about being loved!
"All is Full of Love" by Björk:
You'll be given love
You'll be taken care of
You'll be given love
You have to trust it

Maybe not from the sources
You have poured yours
Maybe not from the directions
You are staring at

Twist your head around
It's all around you
All is full of love
All around you

All is full of love
You just aint receiving
All is full of love
Your phone is off the hook
All is full of love
Your doors are all shut
All is full of love
From Father Zosima in The Brothers Karamazov:
...truly each of us is guilty before everyone and for everyone, only people do not know it, and if they knew it, the world would at once become paradise.
From "It's in Our Hands" by Björk:
Cruelest, almost always
To ourselves
It musn't get any better off
It's in our hands...
Well, now, aren't we scaring ourselves
Aren't we trying too hard?
'Cause it's in our hands

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Improvised Listening

Free improvisation is a musical movement from the 60s that developed as a response to the almost academic air of precision jazz had adopted. In "Quantum Improvisation", Pauline Oliveros offers a straightforward definition of free improvisation: "nothing is known in advance of making the music".

If the many worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics is valid, then all possible universes necessarily exist. Therefore, every sound that has ever sounded or will ever sound already exists in some world. This makes the listening, rather than the sounding, the improvisation.

Oddly enough, Pauline's comments are preserved. When she talks about "Finding new sounds and new sound relationships", the "finding" only has to be interpreted as "listening to" rather than the natural interpretation, "creating". Her definition of free improvisation is preserved as well — the musicians don't know the music until it happens. That is, until they hear it.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Truth Seeking as Contradiction Resolution

For a while, this is all I've had:

  • Questions are worth asking.
  • Every mode of understanding is worth acknowledging.
The first one should be relatively clear. The second I realized first — by "mode of understanding" I mean intuition, experience, and reason. There may be more or less modes — maybe I should include emotion, or combine experience and intuition, I'm not sure. The principle is the important part.

Today I realized there's an assumption I've been making unconsciously:
  • Actions and beliefs requires justification.
This assumption is revealed when I ask "But why are questions worth asking?", only to produce: "Without answers, we cannot justify action or belief." What if this assumption is false?

I think I've misunderstood justification. In Jain epistemology, they recognize every truth claim as coupled with a perspective; making it silly to talk about the truth claim apart from the perspective. If we look at each mode of understanding as representing a perspective, the issue is no longer justification. Each of the Jain blind men gathered around the elephant has a justification — their perspective is the justification.
  • The man by the leg says the elephant is a pillar.
  • The man by the ear says the elephant is a fan.
In the same way:
  • My intuition says there is hope for all things.
  • My experience shows that some things are hopeless.
Since all these claims are justified, the question turns to resolving the contradictions. We understand how contradictory kinesthetic perspectives fit together in the case of the elephant, but I don't know how different "understanding perspectives" might fit together. Can we formulate a similar principle? Maybe the the modes of understanding have well-defined relationships to each other in the same way spatial perspectives do.

Without a general principle to resolve the contradictions, what should I do? The same thing the blind men do: discuss. They discuss because there is a contradiction, and act/believe when they have a resolution.

So now I have two axioms and a consequence:
  • Every mode of understanding is worth acknowledging.
  • Contradictions are worth resolving.
  • Questions are worth asking.
Truth (as far as we can understand it) can be defined negatively as noncontradiction. Now when I ask "Are these things important: compassion/love/selflessness, truth/trust/honesty, and passion?", and my intuition and experience say yes, while my rationality has no way of saying anything — there's a truth there.

At first it seems strange to see truth seeking as contradiction resolution, but I think it's just because I was distracted by justification and failed to realize that each mode of understanding is already justified in itself.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

The Game and Society

I just noticed some guys outside playing American football (being a typical overcast autumn day, this isn't surprising). Calling the ball a "pigksin" reminds me of our formerly ubiquitous nomadic lifestyle. I wouldn't be surprised if the appeal of many sports is due to the role each player takes in relation to the ball — becoming a chaser, defending it from others, etc. — and the similarity this role bears to the original game hunt. If evolutionary theory is on track, then games like football are the highest fulfillment of our deepest instincts (at least in industrialized societies).

It's also interesting to note the place of the hunt in art. It was of primary importance to the first artists, but slowly fell by the way-side as societies were established — making way for themes relating humans to each other and the gods. You could say all these things make sports photographers the modern day equivalent of cave painters, but the cave paintings are much more of an abstract art than documentary.

Beliefs About God

From Kierkegaard's "Provocations": one becomes a believer by hearing about Christianity, by reading about it, by thinking about it. It means that while Christ was living, no one became a believer by seeing Him once in a while or by going and staring at Him all day long. No, a certain setting is required — venture a decisive act. The proof does not precede but follows; it exists in and with the life that follows Christ. Once you have ventured the decisive act, you are at odds with the life of this world. You come into collision with it, and because of this you will gradually be brought into such tension that you will then be able to become certain of what Christ taught.
Let's say you're in elementary school, and the teacher gives you an address for a penpal. You send the first letter on your faith in your teacher, and you receive a "proof" of the penpal's existence in return (a response). There is another type of "proof", though: as you correspond with your penpal and develop a relationship, coming to understand each other better, you receive proof of their character.

I can imagine trusting your penpal before you really know their character — there's a kindness to that — but it makes no sense to trust someone before you even know they exist. Of course, this metaphor isn't perfect, it's even more extreme in the case of Christianity: we aren't asked to trust God the way we would trust a penpal, we're asked to give up everything. I can see how proof of God's character might "exist in and with the life that follows Christ", but it doesn't make any sense to devote yourself to something without some initial reason to believe it exists (and especially not if you have reasons to disbelieve).

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Misunderstanding Viewgraphs

Edward Tufte is probably best known for his disdain of Powerpoint. I noticed an article where he criticizes NASA on their use of the application, "Engineering by Viewgraphs", and before I had the chance to read the article, an alternate presentation mode came to mind.

Imagine an interactive mind map with automatic summaries generated continuously for various levels of detail. This would separate the content of the presentation from the presentation itself: the content is the map — its nodes, connections, scribbles, images and graphs — and the presentation is a path through it. This solves the problem of "unnecessarily deep hierarchies" needing to be continually restated, as the listeners will be aware of the "position" of the presentation at every moment. It would aide the clarity of a presentation, by forcing a reasonable order on the presenter (clarity could even be determined algorithmically based on connectivity, and possible presentations could be suggested from the map). If the listeners have personal access to the presentation as it was running, this overcomes the "linearity" problem. And, of course, the "low resolution" problem is solved by the textual LOD engine. I would expect this to ease the preparation process as well — I'm sure plenty of people already work non-linearly when preparing slides, writing out the next few slide titles before filling out their points. Group presentations would be enhanced as well by agreeing on the initial structure and allowing each person to contribute higher resolution information to the final presentation.

In case someone ends up making this, a few minor recommendations come to mind:

  • The textual LOD must have smooth transitions. Choppy resizing (as was popular with JavaScript + DIVs not so long ago) would be really distracting.
  • Instead of equally zooming into everything, it would be better to zoom more into the focus than things on the border (in order to retain a sense of location).
  • "Every slide is a node" is a copout analogy. I see nodes with more amorphous shapes that can be molded and reframed as needed (e.g.: multiple nodes occupying the screen at once).
Anyway, this is not what Tufte's article was about...

Merzbow's Noise

We are slaves to analogy. Every sound we hear evokes a reaction and association. Every image reminds us of a time and place; and if it doesn't, we imagine one. Breaking stimuli into its constituents doesn't do us any good: pure colors remind us of representative objects (the blue sky, the green grass), pure tones are reminiscent of various electronic devices, and pure rhythms occur naturally in the machinery that surrounds us. In an attempt to expand our sonic palette, Russolo introduces us to a variety of ignored noises. Yet his list of "roars", "whistles" and "screeches" still suffers from analogical bondage: all these noises are implicitly categorized by their origin. Even when we're confronted by an unfamiliar noise, if we listen closely we recreate it into something familiar (people often hear voices where there are none). Merzbow makes these kind of sounds, these cracklings, mumblings and loud whispers. But if "noise is the unconsciousness of music" in the same way "pornography is the unconsciousness of sex", he has yet to accomplish his goal. Listening to "Minus Zero" from "Red Magnesia Pink", I can still hear structure and reminders of life: broken radios, irregular rhythms, guttural screams, armor penetrating bullets, lasers, explosions, fans, engines, hairdryers and children's conversations. I have yet to experience "being-for-itself" as Sartre would have it. Unfortunately, Merzbow seems unaware of this issue. He initially "tried to quit using any instruments which were related to, or were played by, the human body", in an attempt to sever any connections the noises might incite. But at the same time he's rooted in the subjective interpretations of Dadaism and even gives his own analogies: "The sound of Merzbow is like Orgone energy — the color of shiny silver." Perhaps, in an effort to escape familiarity, after twenty years of experimentation he has created one more familiar sound? If the goal of noise is the "obliteration" of identity, as Simon Reynolds puts it, then the climax of Merzbow's noise is not found in its duration, but afterwards — in the silence. It's only in this silence, the un-created non-sound, that we are emancipated from analogy and forced to come to terms with our unconnected self.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Religious Language

Two forms of language are commonly used to describe the infinite: via analogia and via negativa. Via analogia is used when the Christian says "God is my shepherd", while via negativa is used when the Buddhist says "the infinite is unchanging". These two forms are normally presented and discussed separately — I think there's a more elegant way of describing them: both can be seen as explanation by analogy. That is, both these forms describe something unfamiliar by the means of something familiar. Via analogia does this by comparing positive characteristics (similarities), while via negativa compares negative characteristics (differences). What's interesting is that the positive comparisons are more prone to comparing groups of characteristics while negative comparisons are more about single characteristics (we say, more often, "God is not x" rather than "God is not like x"). I expect there is a neural efficiency explanation for this bias, but it seems like the opposite bias we'd expect.

Monday, September 18, 2006

Native American Messiah

At the end of the 19th century, while white Americans were busy decimating the Buffalo population, some Native American shamans shared a vision of what is called the "Ghost Dance":

All Indians must dance, everywhere, keep on dancing. Pretty soon in next spring the Big Man come. He bring back all game of every kind. The game be thick everywhere. All dead Indians come back and live again. They all be strong just like young man, be young again. Old blind Indian see again and get young and have fine time. When Big Man comes this way, then all Indians go to mountains, high up away from whites. Whites can't hurt Indians then. Then while Indians way high up, big flood comes like water and all white people die, get drowned. After that water go way and then nobody but Indians everywhere and game all kinds thick. [...] Indians who don't dance, who don't believe in this word, will grow little, just about a foot high, and stay that way. Some of them will be turned into wood and be burned in fire.
There are some obvious parallels to the Christian notion of the Second Coming, but what I find more interesting are the differences. Through various tensions and misunderstandings, the movement was dealt its strongest blow at Wounded Knee in 1890 where the US Calvary killed at lest 153 Sioux. The Ghost Dance movement quickly fade in response to this defeat. When prophecies aren't fulfilled, shouldn't they be ignored? In this respect, the faith of the Native American seem more reasonable than Christianity (excluding extremely liberal interpretations of "Christianity").

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Justified Subjective Belief

I met this guy recently, Eric, who prefers to make the distinction between being a Christian and a Paulian. As a Christian, he doesn't try and defend Paul's writings (or scripture in general), but stands by Christ's central teachings. It's questionable what Christ's central teachings are (and how original they are), but Eric says it's just about love. He sees this as objectively defensible, but it seems like the teaching is dependent on the character of Christ: if Jesus was just a person, believing in "Love" is not being "Christian", it's also being Buddhist, Confucianist, and a host of other things. On the other hand, if Jesus is God incarnate, He has a privileged understanding of the nature of humanity and the ethics that follow. Arguing for the latter requires a shareable (objectively defensible) argument for Christ's God-nature, which would have to be founded in scripture.

A more general question that arises from this regards the nature of personal belief. Eric believes more than he can share (again, objectively defend), but isn't worried about not being able to share it. This concerns me: when, if ever, are we justified in believing something about the nature of reality we can't defend to someone else?

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Communication and Art

Communication that relates information can be classified on a spectrum from "poetic" to "prosaic". On the prosaic end we have things like chemistry catalogs, stock prices, and math text books, while somewhere in the middle are novels and certain photography, and to the deep poetic end we have abstract expressionism, some dance traditions, and zen koans.

Prose is characterized by its explicitness. If we imagine human knowledge as a collection of nodes of information, and connections describing the relationships between them, prose is used to introduce new nodes.

Poetry is characterized by its implicitness. Instead of introducing information directly, it is used to induce indirectly. It comes in two forms: adaptive poetry and explorative poetry. Adaptive poetry makes use of analogy to carry relational information from one situation to another (music, and a lot of common poetry fits this category). Explorative poetry forces the listener to apprehend the meaning directly for themselves. Perhaps by making an observation of the external world, or more often through reflection (as with koans).

Under this description of communication, art can be seen as synonymous with poetry. There are two dimensions in which art can further be described: whether it is received as art, and whether it is created as art. This allows for three subcategories:

  • Created but not received as art: Failed Art — for example, elevator music (assumes the creator and receiver are not the same person)
  • Received but not created as art: Ironic Art — for example, rainbows, clouds, microscope slides viewed by an artist, possibly some archaeological artifacts
  • Created and received as art: Traditional Art — most paintings, written poetry, music, etc. (Distinguishing between the intended and received message would be counter productive.)

The Expansion Problem

Given an initial corpus of text for training and a target text, find the minimum number of letters the text can be reduced to while maintaining enough information to be reconstructed without ambiguity.

For example, the training text might be a few hundred articles from the New York Times. The target text might be this sentence. Perhaps we could encode the target text:

t targ tex mi b thi sent.
There encoding and decoding of these sentences are deeply connected. There are also multiple levels of information. The first two can be represented by a Markov chain algorithm:
  1. Words: "thereb" encodes "thereby", because nothing else starts with "thereb"
  2. Grammar: "tha man" encodes "that man" because "that" is most likely to precede "man" and start with "tha".
  3. Context: More general than grammar, when talking about flowers we might talk about colors as well, etc. This is a long-distance relationship between words.
The problem has a huge search space, but might be efficiently implemented with some creative heuristics. The applications to natural language compression is obvious, but I think this would be nice in a real-time system that expanded your text as you typed (say, an email). For keyboard-based input, the slowdown in watching for text expansion would probably outweigh the benefits, but in situations where entering input is an expensive operation, this would be ideal (I think some cell phones implement a version of this that considers the first-level, word frequency, for key disambiguation). There are also creative applications if you apply this to music (a language, just generally limited to poetic communication).

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Sitting Down

Last year I had a short conversation over lunch with an RPI girl. She was telling me how suffocated she felt:

I want to go on a safari. I want to go to a party and play games. I want to go to an art museum. I want to go shopping. I don't feel like I'm living, but always sitting down.
I was conflicted — it makes me glad to see passionate people, but the desire to go should be balanced with a contentness. I just now found a note I wrote to myself later that day:
That "real life" is "somewhere else" is an illusion... The desire for the unknown is echoed, but there is a failure to recognize the beauty of the present... We must live the present as if we are already in a far off land — because we are!
This joy of contentness coupled with hope is something I wish I could explain better. If I was given a few wishes, I would ask for the best way to explain this.

Update: a reminder from Emerson: "Art is not to be found by touring to Egypt, China, or Peru; if you cannot find it at your own door, you will never find it."

Dual Filesystem/Mail Server

System administrators do their best to discourage people from sending large files via email. It hogs resources that need to be used for quickly sending short messages, and mail clients aren't generally made to handle lots of large attachments. I think it would be wonderful to have a system that completely rethought the idea of email and shared file storage, and combined them with some of the ideas behind version control systems.

If we imagine everything as data and links, emails become text data with links to other files that are normally called "attachments". There are many different types of links — the metadata on the email (like to/from/subject etc.) would be separately stored and linked to using the respective link types (a "to" link, a "from" link, etc). Forwarding turns into the act of identifying a new recipient for an email and creating a link to them. Replying would entail a link to the replied-to email. "Recieving" an email would simply be recognition of a "to" link associated with your address. If someone would like to modify the document "attached" to an email, it would be edited locally and then added as a branch of the original version — ready for merging if others agree on the changes.

The strength of this would be in a corporate or academic environment. The difficulty comes in when you get people from the "outside" replying to your email with something that is hard to automatically recognize as a "reply", etc. Handling permissions is something else to think through.

Arboreal Proliferation

It's really no wonder that trees survive — there's so much surface area for them to soak up life. It's interesting to see the variety in trees, and how they all get along in their own ways. The big ones need more sun and water and nutrients, which they get because they're bigger — and the small ones don't need as much, but they still get it.

Intersecting Summation Compression

If we have the summation of each row and each column for an image, how much of the image can we reconstruct? There are obviously multiple solutions once you get beyond the 2x1 pixel image, but what if we add extra information about images in general — like the fact that two nearby pixels are similar colors in general? And if this isn't enough information, what if we have the diagonal summations as well? Multiple diagonals? Other angles besides 45 degrees? What does the shape of the linear summation information versus recall accuracy function look like?

Compression as a Learning Problem

Humans are pretty good at efficiently communicating information to each other. One of the reasons for this is that we can model the listener's expectations (their interpretation) of what we are saying. If I say "Can I have that?", pointing towards the table, you will hand me the pen because you can see I just pulled out my checkbook. We have long-term expectations, a learned pragmatics to conversation (like you knowing I want to write a check), and short-term expectations, like learning the meaning of pronouns.

If we apply this to a computational context, we get an interesting compression algorithm. Imagine computer A trying to send a file to computer B. It's a binary file, and because it's not noise, there are short patterns here and there. A and B both have the same predictive capabilities — let's say they're both using Markov models — so they can guess what the next bit is with a certain confidence. So here's what happens: A starts sending B bits, and B starts learning patterns in the bits being sent. A is modeling B's mind, so it knows what B is expecting. Now if A knows that B is very confident about the next bit, A doesn't even bother to send it, it just moves on. Thus you only transfer a portion of the information, and the rest is implied.

The problem, of course, is how expensive it is for A to correct B if it makes a wrong prediction. Bit-by-bit would have a lot of overhead, so it would probably be best for A to send a long sequence at a time, coupled with a note about any bits B guessed wrong.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Nested Links

When I was just starting to learn Polish, I'd have trouble remembering the pronunciation of some letters. For example, if I ran across the city Łódź, I had to look up the ł, ó, and ź to realize it was pronounced "woodge". It would be nice if there was a technique for nesting hyperlinks within each other, and then allowing the user to specify the level using their mouse position (the height — closer to the baseline would mean a deeper level). So if I wrote code that nested the name [[Ł][ó]d[ź]], it would allow me to click on any of the three letters, or the entire link.

Individual letters is probably a language-specific use, but this makes a lot of sense when linking to information composed of difficult words — each word could be associated with a dictionary entry, while the whole phrase would be the normal link. Or if you were looking through a geneaology, and you see "John Smith": maybe you want to follow that exact name, or just his family name, or find out about the frequency of his first name.

The Problem of Corruption

Imagine a jail filled with prisoners of different psychological makeup. They vary from one to another in many dimensions, but let's assume everyone can be rated on a single dimension: goodness. And we'll make one more assumption: good people inspire good in others, and evil people inspire evil in others (to the degree which they are good/evil). The problem: is it possible to organize the activities of the prisoners so that the overall goodness of the jail is increased over time?

If we imagine this situation as isomorphic to some other better-studied phenomena, say, heat distribution, the answer is obvious: there's no solution. Imagine each prisoner as a hot object (heat corresponds to goodness). there's no way of organizing the interaction of the objects to produce more heat than was initially available.

Some possible hopes for our prisoners:

  • There may be some way of bringing outside sources (i.e., society at large) into jails to shift the curve for the best.
  • Because psychology is more complex than a goodness value, perhaps the effect of interaction is not symmetric, and goodness inspires more goodness then evil inspires evil? If we add another dimension to the problem, say extroversion and introversion, maybe this would allow us to augment interaction beneficially?
  • Perhaps the jail system can be subdivided into different tiers of goodness, and the best from each would slowly be moved to the next level? Group behavior may provide unexpected side effects.

Variable-Depth Markov Models

What would a Markov model act like if we allowed variable depth instead of fixing it? First, if you imagine the MM going top-down from initial to final states, it might make sense to group states that always appear in the same context — horizontal generalization into a state-type. Allowing variable depth could be implemented by vertical generalization into state-chain-types. In text processing/generation, this might appear as the creation of single states from idiomatic expressions.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Spamming Turing

One of the reasons I love Larry Kagan's art is for its origin: the shadows were originally a problem he sought to eradicate instead of a feature to take advantage of. What if we apply this idea to spam email? What could it possibly be good for?

If we look at the problem on a document-level, there is the potential for communicating relevant information in the form of spam. But we already know this doesn't work: nothing is relevant to everyone with an email address (much less to everyone in your address book, as some people have proven to me with their cute animals/national anthem/animated gif forwards).

On the other hand, if we look at it on a larger structural-level, we see something more interesting: at least half a billion email addresses receiving spam, most of which have some sort of spam filter in place (this is a guess based in the popularity of Yahoo! mail, Hotmail, Gmail, etc.). Content-based spam filters are, in a sense, fitness functions for the human-ness of a message. What's more, when an email gets past a spam filter, you get a real live human to decide whether its legitimate or not.

Ignoring any ethical dilemmas, I propose a learning system that makes an attempt to "reach out" to others via email, revising its attempts based on the clicks each different email receives (of course, there would be a URL in the message). I predict it will derive a shorter version of the Nigerian email scam, or something with the same theme ("I'm in need of trouble and need a response").

Friday, September 01, 2006

"En Það Besta Sem Guð Hefur Skapað..."

It seems like we have a hunger for "newness", or death and rebirth. In Christianity, we have the death of the "misdeeds of the body" (Romans 8:13) and rebirth in Christ (and in Judaism, the Jubilee year). In Buddhism, the total death of self and recreation (or perhaps "realization") of oneness with everything. Academia is colored religous by its semester-oriented structure; any student can explain the "fresh" feeling of a new semester. Sartre takes this to an extreme, saying that we are new creations every moment (which, oddly enough, causes angst). Total permanence, reminiscent of Parmenides, traps us. Total impermanence, a la Heraclitus ("Everything flows, nothing stands still."), frightens us and causes angst.

Perhaps the love of shopping that so characterizes our American society thrives on this dichotomy? Materialism is a continual recreation through addition, coupled with an eventual eradication of the old. (Being the only sort of "recreation" people know, it's not suprising that Christian speakers spend so much time discouraging this attitude in the context of Christianity.) Materialism provides a sense of newness without forcing us to identify with a purely permanent or impermanent nature.

Monday, July 31, 2006


It seems reasonable to assert "a theory of truth is itself true if and only if it fulfills its own criteria for truth" (I'll call this the "self-satisfaction principle"). If I say "x is true if God said so", this fulfills the self-satisfaction principle. However, if I say "x is true if and only if God said so", this does not (precisely because I made the claim, and God has not).

Traditional theories of truth don't fare well:

  • Correspondence: the theory is an abstraction and cannot possibly correspond to anything concrete
  • Coherence: the theory initially stands alone, and has nothing to cohere to
  • Pragmatism: is it pragmatic to be a pragmatist? Outside of an initial assumption of order and uniformity, coupled with a utility function, no.
I propose the counter-example theory of truth as a response to the self-satisfaction principle: "x is true only if there do not exist any counter-examples to x" (where counter-examples includes counter-proofs).

Unfortunately, creating "only if" theories of truth that fulfill the self-satisfaction principle is pretty easy (if I say, "x is true only if I say so", if I write "x is true only if I write it"). A real theory of truth would have to fulfill the self-satisfaction principle and describe an "if and only if" relationship.

Saturday, July 29, 2006

Old Sam Peabody Peabody Peabody

From "Pragmatics as Biology or Culture" by John C. Marshall and Roget J. Wales:

'Full-song' is acquired by a white-crowned sparrow if and only if the juvenile bird is exposed to adult song during a fairly well defined 'sensitive period'; in the absence of such experience, the socially isolated (but otherwise intact) bird will produce, when mature, a simple, phrased song, lacking the full dialect complexities of its normally reared conspecifics. A juvenile exposed to any white-crowned sparrow dialect learns that dialect; but exposure to the song of another species has little or no effect — the bird sings simple song when mature, just as if it had been totally isolated from experience of song.
Some Christian musicians seem to understand a similar need for direct experience. In "Seeing You", Matt Redman sings:
No one can sing of things they have not seen...
Worship starts with seeing You,
Our hearts respond to Your revelation.
In "My Heart" from Paramore:
It's been so long...
Since I've heard the sound,
the sound of my only Hope.
This time I will be listening.
Sing us a song and we'll
sing it back to You.
We could sing our own,
but what would it be without You?
The difficulty comes in discernment — how do we know we've learned some dialect of the "full-song", and aren't naively improvising on our desire for a non-existent Hope? Maybe more people are following in the path of Pessoa than would like to admit it:
I'll always be the one who waited for the door to open in the doorless wall,
Who sang the song of Infinity in a chicken coop,
And heard the voice of God in a covered well.
(Update: Some more insight on the white-crowned sparrows here)

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Extreme Pragmatism

I've been skimming through Saying and Meaning in Puerto Rico: Some Problems in the Ethnography of Discourse by Marshall Morris. The majority of the book is focused on "episodes", each documenting a common oddity of the Spanish used in Puerto Rico. It seems like language has become more of a social lubricant than a tool:

The glossing over of distinctions appears particularly in giving reasons or excuses: "A man and his wife are invited to a dinner party. They do not appear. When their would-be hosts next see them, they give their excuses, he to the man, she to the woman, separately. When the reasons are compared, they bear little or no relation to one another, though they seem genuine." Though in the end it appears that the reasons given were not literally true, being in contradiction, they were of the same value: they had the effect of saying that their failure to attend was due to things beyond their control, consideration for other people, and so on. They had the same effect as literal truth, or better. Literal answers are often more than people want or require, and they are resisted, over-looked and sometimes resented. The effect is what counts.
I'm reminded of the phrase "hung up" from Del Close's classic "How to Speak Hip".

Friday, July 14, 2006

The Evolution of Communication

From Causes of Color:

To attract the potential pollinator to that particular blossom, availability of nectar has to be advertised to the butterfly. This is displayed in the color of the petals. The color of the nectar guide of Aesculus hippocastanum [horsechestnut] changes from yellow to red when nectar is no longer in production.
I've heard of flowers having markings to attract insects, but never of those markings changing, like some organic "no vacancy". Why would they want to do that? It seems too difficult, why not always advertise "vacancy" and let the insect figure it out themselves? This must be a sign of ID, right?

The meanings of the color can only exist if they change in the first place. This change happens to be evolutionarily beneficial: imagine a bunch of horsechestnut flowers; only a few are producing nectar. If the insect visits them at random, there is a low probability of fertilization and reproduction. However, if there is some sort of signal coupled with the production, the insect will adapt to this (possibly by learning, more likely by selection over multiple generations).

The color only has meaning when it's related to some other property. Language can only evolve when there is a definite semantics; and when this is useful, it will necessarily evolve. This makes useless and ambiguous language — nonsense and poetry — the zenith of communication.

(Update: Bruce MacLennan has some done some interesting research studying the emergence of communication within artificial species, echoing these ideas. See his more recent summary or the original from 1990.)

Sunday, July 02, 2006

Proof by Reminder

It's a lot harder to admit that someone doesn't love you if you're reminded of them constantly. With reminders, you have something tangible for your imagination to play with. Maybe church works the same way?

Sunday, June 18, 2006


I remember Bram covering the Gambler's fallacy once: "A real gambler will lose ten times and think, 'I'll bet again, I'm due for a win!', then win ten times and think 'I'll bet again, I'm on a streak!'" This is vaguely reminiscent of a statistic from Sam Harris, "a poll conducted by The Washington Post found that 80% of Katrina's survivors claim that the event has only strengthened their faith in God." I'm curious how many of these survivors are part of the 87% of Americans "who claim to never doubt the existence of God"?

Engraved on the Palms of My Hands

A passion for infinity by any means possible: Ludolph van Ceulen, a German from the 1500s living in the Netherlands, spent his life solving for the perimeter of a 4,611,686,018,427,387,904 (262) sided regular polygon. With some modifications to an equation from eighteen hundred years earlier he calculated π to 35 digits, more than doubling the accuracy of his contemporaries. It took a century for anyone to usurp his effort, which was engraved on his tombstone.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

God is an Abstract Expressionist

In John Kotselas' book "Socrates in New York", God is referred to as the "Natural Artist" (as opposed to man, the "Artificial Artist", who simply imitates God's work). It's entertaining to read Norvig's classic "Artificial Intelligence: A Modern Approach" in light of that terminlogy:

...Most human learning takes place in the context of a good deal of background knowledge. Some psychologists and linguists claim that even newborn babies exhibit knowledge of the world. Whatever the truth of this claim, there is no doubt that prior knowledge can help enormously in learning. A physicist examining a stack of bubble-chamber photographs might be able to induce a theory positing the existence of a new particle of a certain mass and charge; but an art critic examining the same stack might learn nothing more than that the "artist" must be some sort of abstract expressionist.

Saturday, June 03, 2006

The Shadow of It

Timothy J. Keller once gave a lecture titled "The Significance of Tolkien". He discusses J.R.R. Tolkien's work and the origin of the various names and languages in the books. The following is somewhere between a quote and a paraphrase.

Everybody ... even his best friends (except Lewis) thought the Lord of the Rings was too bizarre. Many of you know, it flew completely against the canons of what you might call "modernist literature". When he wrote it, there was no category for it. Fantasy was essentially invented by Lord of the Rings. Here's my main thesis: he did not really write fantasy. Peter Jackson, the director of the films said, "You have to understand, Tolkien was not writing fantasy. He was writing mythology for the first time in centuries."

The basic inspiration for Tolkien's stuff was linguistic, which means he was not exactly making things up, but he was reconstructing a linguistic and imaginary past that could have existed. A person who is a pure fantasy writer just says "I'm thinking of a story and I'll make stuff up. There's a woman, what will I name her? I'll name her this, or that." That is not how Tolkien worked. He would get a name, and ask, "What does that mean? Where would that name have come from? What kind of person would have that name? What kind of story would that person have been in?" For example, he would be writing and up would come Faramir. He would not say "ok, what kind of character do I want Faramir to be?" he would say, "who is this guy? I need to find out."

He was rediscovering an imaginative world which is the root of all Northern European culture, thinking, and mind. There's reverberations of these words still in our heart. He was trying to ask... what was it that happened way way back, what experience, what being, what kingdom, so that even today we remember the shadow of it?

Tolkien said, there is a kind of very sad and yet very joyous story: you can call it a romance, you can call it an epic, a quest, you can call it even a fairy tale, that modern people said "we're past that now, we don't believe in hope we don't believe in good and evil." And Tolkien said, deep down inside we all need those stories. We need a story that tells us how bad things are, and we need a sudden turn in the story, that snatches victory from death and through suffering overcomes everything.

The Lesson of the Moth

Don Marquis, 1878-1937, wrote a series of poems based on a cockroach "Archy" in which the soul of a poet was trapped. Archy would "climb painfully upon the framework of the [typewriter] and cast himself with all his force upon a key, head downward, and his weight and the impact of the blow were just sufficient to operate the machine, one slow letter after another." Of course, Archy couldn't operate the shift key, so his poetry was in lowercase:

i was talking to a moth
the other evening
he was trying to break into
an electric light bulb
and fry himself on the wires

why do you fellows
pull this stunt i asked him
because it is the conventional
thing for moths or why
if that had been an uncovered
candle instead of an electric
light bulb you would
now be a small unsightly cinder
have you no sense

plenty of it he answered
but at times we get tired
of using it
we get bored with the routine
and crave beauty
and excitement
fire is beautiful
and we know that if we get
too close it will kill us
but what does that matter
it is better to be happy
for a moment
and be burned up with beauty
than to live a long time
and be bored all the while
so we wad all our life up
into one little roll
and then we shoot the roll
that is what life is for
it is better to be a part of beauty
for one instant and then cease to
exist than to exist forever
and never be a part of beauty
our attitude toward life
is come easy go easy
we are like human beings
used to be before they became
too civilized to enjoy themselves

and before i could argue him
out of his philosophy
he went and immolated himself
on a patent cigar lighter
i do not agree with him
myself i would rather have
half the happiness and twice
the longevity

but at the same time i wish
there was something i wanted
as badly as he wanted to fry himself


The Tiger and The Goats

My former Asian Philosophies professor, John Koller, has written an excellent arrangement of an old Indian story that describes the bondage incurred when one confuses visible reality with ultimate reality:

The tiger's mother had died, and the poor little tiger was left all alone in the world. Fortunately, the goats were compassionate and adopted the little tiger, teaching him how to eat grass with his pointed teeth and how to bleat like they did. Time passed and the little tiger assumed that he was just a little goat.

But one day an old tiger came upon this little band of goats. They all fled in terror, except for the tiger-goat, now about half-grown, who for some unknown reason felt no fear. As the savage jungle beast approached, the cub began to feel self-conscious and uncomfortable. To cover his self-consciousness, he began to bleat and nibble some grass. The old tiger roared at the little tiger in amazement and anger, asking him what he was doing eating grass and bleating like a goat. But the little tiger was too embarrassed by all this to answer and continued to nibble grass. Thoroughly outraged by this behavior, the jungle tiger grabbed him by the scruff of his neck and carried him to a nearby pond. Holding him over the water he told him to look at himself. 'Is that the pot face of a tiger or the long face of a goat?' he roared.

The cub was still too frightened to answer, so the old tiger carried him to his cave and thrust a huge chunk of juicy, red, raw meat between his jaws. As the juices trickled into his stomach the cub began to feel a new strength and a new power. No longer mistaking himself for a goat, the little tiger lashed his tail from side to side and roared like the tiger he was. Having achieved Tiger-realization, he no longer took himself to be a goat.

The Wind

Dr. Bach-y-Rita is a neurologist who has developed a device that allows blind people to see. The machine works by transmitting information from a small camera to a laptop, which then sends electrical signals to a small electrode matrix. Depending on how bright a spot on the image is, that point on the matrix has either more or less current. By placing this electrode matrix on your tongue, and attaching the camera to your forehead, your brain associates the stimulation with sight sensations. During one of their tests, an assistant encourages a subject, blind mountain climber Erik Weihenmayer, to try looking at a candle. Immediately, another assistant becomes excited and both Dr. Paul-y-Rita and Dr. Kamm describe some past experiences with subjects and the candle:

"So my question to you is: did you expect the candle flame to be taller shorter? Again, we've had all sorts of remarks from children. For example, one said, 'Why is the flame so small? When I hold my hand over my birthday candles I can feel it all the way up.' So he was expecting the flame to go all the way up." - Dr. Paul-y-Rita

"I have one subject, Allison, who absolutely loves the wind; and, when I showed her the flame, she was like, 'Is that what wind looks like?'" - Dr. Kamm

What Our Cats Have Taught Me

My sisters have two cats, Smokey and Bandit. When they were younger, their behavior seemed completely foreign and humorously enlightening. I kept a few short notes to myself, trying to learn from them (late 2004):

If people are holding you back from doing what you know is right, find a way past them. Sure, it could inconvenience them, but you have to stick to what you know. If that screen door is closed, claw away with all you have when no one's looking. If it's creaky, you've found a weak spot: give the door a good headbutt and you're free. If you're lucky, it might take your master a while to notice your emancipation. Once you're free from social constraints, roll around in the dirt and taste sweet victory.

Saturday, May 20, 2006

Warsaw: Łazienki and the Warsaw National Museum

It's the last day of the tour, tomorrow we leave. We went only to Łazienki today, but it was amazing. It's this park with a palace in the southern part of Warsaw, near the park with the Chopin monument. The palace itself is on a small island, surrounded by bridges and random birds (I noticed maybe seven peacocks outside). They make you put slippers on your shoes before entering the building — it was unclear why at first, but very quickly you come across exquisite wooden floors that they want to preserve. The entire palace is decorated with frescoes, gold leaf, statues in a very Greek/Roman influenced style, and very dark (in light, not spirit) paintings I won't try and classify with a few early Romantic pieces. Of course, at some point the Nazis stormed the palace and shattered most of the statues, but they've been reconstructed. One made a really big influence on me: Hercules, in the second or third room, who towers above you with a slain monster at his side. He just looked so overwhelmingly strong, but not in a comic book superhero way. It made me think, "Maybe he wasn't a myth, but a real person who was turned into one." All the rooms really must be seen, there's so much wonderful art; photographs and explanations wouldn't do it justice.

From Łazienki we came back to the hotel. We had a few hours until we were to meet again for dinner, so I set out on a mission to find Matejko's "Stańczyk". Fortunately, the Warsaw National Museum isn't too far, but I wanted lunch first. I decided I'd try something new: McDonald's in Poland. It didn't work out, the place was so packed I could barely move, and I decided to find something else. Walking by H&M I heard "King Without a Crown" playing from some speakers hidden in the building. Tak. I found my way to the underground and got some pizza for 3,20 złotych (about a dollar) — it was a great deal, fresh, with some toppings; what's more, it was tasty. With pizza in hand I began walking east down Aleje Jerozolimskie (Jerusalem Avenue), and stumbled across the museum after four or five blocks. Inside, I tried to figure out the "procedure" without looking like a helpless tourist... which, I should mention, was almost successful: I dropped off my backpack with the coat-check lady, walked through the metal detector without buzzing, and got a ticket. Unfortunately, when he told me to go "left on the first floor", I forgot that meant "go up the stairs first", so I was scolded by one of the museum workers in Polish for entering an exhibition I didn't have a ticket for. But it all worked out, and I found the Polish painters. It started with some newer work, then a few Zakopane folk artists, and finally moved into a more classical style. You could spend days there and not get bored, so I tried spending as much time as I could with the paintings and sculptures that caught my eye. One of the recent pieces by Jacek Malczewski surprised me: a very simple line drawing on a small piece of paper, some of the lightest markings I've ever seen, but it was so beautiful. I see subtlety like that everywhere, but I need to learn to express it as delicately as he does. Another, a painting by Kazimierz Sichulski, gave me an interesting idea: he had a triptych, a study for some stained glass, and it reminded me of early Art Nouveau. I'm no art history buff, but I'd like to know if those sort of studies influenced the style of the movement. Eventually I found Stańczyk, he was waiting at the very end with some other work by Matejko. I didn't know what size to expect, I never looked up the dimensions, but it was about what I had hoped. I remember some vague thoughts on the crumpled letter next to him, the curtains, the sadness in his eyes... I let the thoughts flash through me, the other paintings already had my mind for that day. As I was walking away, I could sympathize with him: "That's it, that's all for now." It said on the plaque next to the painting that Stańczyk takes on Matejko's features. I can see that.

I took a long way back to the hotel, once I got to Nowy Świat I walked up and down for a while. I ran across an amazing accordionist from the Ukraine, and his Polish partner in crime, Bartez, holding a tip cup. One of the most comical things I've seen yet, Bartez half-danced for nonexistent tips, with exaggerated movements, while his partner lived and died with the notes from his accordion. I gave them everything I had left, and said thanks for the beautiful music. It started raining, so I shuffled quickly back to the hotel.

There was a dinner tonight with some żurek, gołąbki ("Little Pigeons", beef wrapped in cabbage), and some dessert. I had a very sour white wine — it must have been young, or just bad. It was kind of nice to see everyone one last time... but the end of the day, for me, was with Stańczyk and the accordionist.

Friday, May 19, 2006

Gdynia to Warsaw via Malbork Castle

We're wrapping up the trip, there was a lot of driving today. We left Gdynia around 8:30, with the sun finally pouring through the sky (after three days of fog and rain). A few hours later, we arrived at Malbork castle, former residence of the Teutonic Knights. In my opinion, this is one of the coolest places we've visited yet. It's one of the most heavily fortified defenses you'll ever see, there are two moats and multiple walls, drawbridges with assault areas, everything. The guide who showed us around started every other sentence with "In case of an attack...", demonstrating all the defense possibilities. The Knights were an interesting bunch — at the time, essentially fighting monks. The place is laid out with so much thought, it's incredible. There's a central heating system, waste control for disease prevention, efficient and beautiful rooms everywhere... and In its modern incarnation, as a museum of sorts, it's really well laid out. There is so much history everywhere, and everything has a little story associated with it. For example, in the main "ballroom", or dining room, there was a cannonball stuck in the wall. Apparently, a few hundred years ago, there was an assassination attempt on the head Knight. They were all having a meeting, and someone tried to hit the single column in the middle of the room, trying to collapse the roof. They missed (obviously), but not by much. I'm sure the would-be-assassins outside the city walls were hunted down and slaughtered. Another one of the rooms was full of amber: the knights, when they were in control of the area, took control of the amber trade and hoarded a ton of it. One of the pieces on display had a huge air bubble inside it, maybe the size of my thumb — think how old the air is inside there. After that visit, we had some great soup and Beef Stroganoff at the nearby Restauracja Zamek.

Random observation of the day: The United States is slowly invading Poland. Normally, everything here costs some full number of złotys (10, 20, 2, etc.) I saw a sign for Pizza Hut, and it's 19,90 for a pizza. That extra 90 grosze are going to kill peoples pockets with change.

Random Polish oddity: All the light switches here are big panels you put pressure on. I have yet to see an American light switch. It's very elegant, but disconcerting.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Gdynia, Gdańsk and the Franke Factory

Our last full day in Gdynia, it was relatively uneventful. Everyone else spent a little more time seeing the "sights" around the city, and then took a boat to Westerplatte, while grandpa and I stayed behind for the morning. At 10:30, Mr. Iwanowski arrived, very punctually, to take us to the Franke factory. About a dozen years ago, Grandpa helped oversee the creation of the factory, which now manufactures steel products for McDonalds' kitchens, Ikea, Pizza Hut, and plenty other places. There were a few really interesting innovations they were making that helped productivity, I imagine that the people who formalized the sort of Software Design I've read about had some inspiration from these kind of environments.

From the factory, I met up with the rest of the group at an elaborately decorated restaurant with a funny atmosphere. We had lunch, went for some walks around the main street in Gdańsk again, and then headed back to the hotel. I finally got an internet connection tonight, so I can post some entries and finish some emails. Back to Warsaw tomorrow morning, grandpa's staring at me so I better go.

Gdynia, Sopot and Gdańsk

I was really tired this morning, like I was getting up for a day of classes in the middle of a semester. But I went anyway — downstairs with grandpa for some breakfast, and then to the bus with everyone else. Grandpa stayed behind to rest for the day and do laundry.

We started with the pier — it wasn't too much of a surprise, since I took a walk in that direction last night. It's nice to look over the pier and think: only a few times over the horizon is Norway and Sweden (I've been listening to the Kings of Convenience since I'm so close, and DJ Vadim, of course, since Russia [at least the part with Kaliningrad] is only a few dozen miles northeast). At the end of the pier are two monuments: one for Joseph Conrad, the Polish author, and another for everyone who's ever died at sea (at least, that's the gist I got from it). From the pier, we headed to Sopot, and got off a few blocks from the pier. On our way there, we passed the "Grand Hotel" — apparently it was Hitler's favorite place to stay when the area was under Nazi control, which makes it one of the few places that wasn't bombed during the second world war. Right now it's undergoing some reconstruction, to be reopened this summer. They should hang American war propaganda through the hotel about watching what you say (so you don't give information to spies) — but that could get kind of creepy to think that ghosts are listening.

After the pier and a few other beautiful spots, we went to a musical recital. A craftsman spent 25 years working on this single organ at the Oliwa cathedral, it has almost a hundred different voices and I forget how many thousand pipes. The organist recited a few Bach pieces that everyone could reocognize, but there was one really interesting piece in the middle that sounded incredibly modern, almost experimental electronica. I got the name of the composer, "B. Musiowcyk", from the sisters — but the last name doesn't appear on Google. I probably made a mistake in copying it ("musiowczyk"?) — if anyone knows the correct spelling, please let me know.

From Oliwa we went deeper into Gdańsk, the last of the "Tri-city" area. There's a huge shipyard that seems to be out of business (or maybe it's just slow this time of the year). By the shipyard is another monument to strikes/riots against the communist regime (like in Toruń), with three crosses to symbolize three nearby deaths. Then we drove to the main street on this island in the middle of the city, which is, essentially, the "market square" of Gdańsk. There are tons of amber stores, a few museums, and an abundance of beautiful facades. Each store in this area used to be a home, so the facades are decorated to tell a little story about the family inside... you can get a feeling for the town as it used to be by reading the buildings like books. We stopped in an amber store for a short explanation of its origin and refinement — one of the employees even gave a demonstration where he took some raw amber and sanded/polished it.

We had lunch at "Red Door Restaurant"; according to the menu, a "Cosy and tastefully furnished restaurant" that is open "from 12.00 till our last guest wishes to leave". Some more entertaining oddities from the English translation of the menu:

  • Herrings marinated in variousy ways
  • Chicken liver fried in a traditional way or not

We had some free time, and most everyone went straight for the amber stores. I decided to see a little more of the city outside the main street, so I picked a direction and started walking. I found a few more churches, an underground marketplace, and a group of maybe a hundred drunk university students singing "We all live in a Yellow Submarine" in Polish while parading through the streets. You never know what you'll find once you walk away from the other tourists...

There was some traffic, but eventually we got back to the hotel, some time around 5:00. Mr. Iwanowski was waiting with grandpa, and invited me to dinner. We went to Sopot, to this very small, funny restaurant with odd decorations... they were playing American music, very 80s jazz/blues-rock and disco influenced. The food more than made up for the oddities. It was a long dinner, Mr. Iwanowski's wife came as well, so they all spoke in Polish for the majority of the dinner. I listened even harder than I normally do — it was a bit tiring, but I followed some of the conversation.

The sun set a deep orange today, breaking through the low fog; hopefully the weather is better tomorrow.

Highlights: realizing, as the amber was sanded, that its dust is one of the main ingredients in church incense; a very small girl (maybe 4) going around with a large leaf, touching every puddle of water in the main street of Gdańsk; coming out of the underground, just the right light for a certain photograph.

Toruń: Copernicus, the Teutonic Knights, to Gdynia

We had a quick breakfast at the Helios hotel this morning (the entire place is covered in "art" from Copernicus' journals). I ran across something terrible on a piece of bread, some meat covered in a colorless gell reminiscent of tamarind. I was not in the mood. The rest was tasty, though. From breakfast, we went outside to the face the overcast weather. It wasn't overcast very long, because it started raining within a minute of our departure. This wouldn't have been so bad if we left on the bus, but this was our first walking tour. Needless to say, I was absolutely drenched after two plus hours in the rain. Most people were okay, grandpa rode in a rickshaw with an umbrella.

Our guide for Toruń was very stern. He started us off with a memorial to Copernicus. In Toruń, there's almost as many Copernicus reminders as John Paul II references, which says something. From there we walked a block or two to an old "triangle": a church, university, and prison right next to each other. Apparently there used to be jokes about people going from one to the other, in circles, over their lifetime. I don't know which institution that bodes the worst for...

Another block or two and we stumbled across the old city walls from 1300. Some substantial portions still remain. Apparently the layout of the city itself hasn't changed since that time (you can still use city plans from 1300 to walk around). On our way around the city walls, our guide pointed out a leaning building — it doesn't lean like in Pisa, it's stable: it started falling while it was being built, and they corrected for the tilt with the rest of the construction. These are exactly the metaphors you don't want to see: "so long as you account for your major errors, you can stand the test of time". We stopped by Copernicus' home next; there's supposed to be a little museum inside, but that will have to wait for another day. We also saw the university he studied at — a little four story, 6-window wide building on one of the streets running perpendicular to the Wisła.

Once we had enough of Copernicus, we walked over to the former castle of the Teutonic Knights. It's completely in ruins now, with no plans for reconstruction (no original plans or paintings exist, so it can't be reconstructed). Then over to the marketplace for a little break. There's a fountain with sculpture of a boy playing fiddle and some frogs around him, it's a reminder of a story where he saves the city from frogs by luring outside the city with his music. I love those sort of stories... they can't be completely made up, I always wonder which elements are true.

After some free time we walked over to the gingerbread bakery (besides producing Copernicus, Toruń makes good gingerbread — astronomy and pastries, the two essentials). I learned how to make gingerbread, today: hot honey, cinnamon, cloves, anise, nutmeg, two types of flour, ground and mixed well, in the closet 12 weeks, kneaded, oiled, placed in a mold, baked for 10-15 minutes... and you're set. I'm sure I'm forgetting something essential... anyway, it was really good gingerbread in the end.

It was time for lunch, so we headed over to a local restaurant. Some of these restaurants have been around forever, I didn't check this one... the best part of the meal was the bullion. I finally had some Żywiec— it's a bit bitter, with a hint of fruitiness. Nice with the meal, but nothing too special. I'm no beer aficionado, so that's all I can say — I'm sure those aren't even the "right" words.

From lunch we left to Gdynia. Many hours later, we arrived — one of grandpa's friends, Mr. Iwanowski, arranged two rooms for us on the 11th floor, overlooking the sea. The smell of the air getting of the bus made me smile so big — there's nothing like a cool night by the ocean, especially after being inland for months. I went for a long walk (how could I not?), down to the end of the pier. Gdynia may tie with Zakopane for feeling like "home", and I haven't even really seen this place yet.

Highlights: making gingerbread, the smell of the ocean, Wyborowa at dinner.

Monday, May 15, 2006

Rydzyna to Toruń via Poznań

Waking up in a castle is a lot like waking up anywhere else. Maybe it's just because the ghosts didn't bother me... either way, I got a slow start around 7:00 and headed downstairs for breakfast with grandpa. The light coming through the windows was overwhelming — it was pouring through the curtains onto all this antique furniture and place settings, I didn't know what to do. So I just sat down and grabbed some food. A little salmon, some tea and eggs, a short walk outside to survey the lake, and I was restored from my recent royal rest. We went for a short tour before leaving the castle. We started in the games room — there were a few too many baby deer skulls on the wall for me, and in due time we moved on... Most of the rooms had some small architectural element that was preserved and built around, like a pearl, with the exception of the ballroom. The ballroom was gorgeous all around — frescoes on the ceiling, sculptures on the wall, 1.5 ton bronze and crystal chandelier from a church...

Leaving Rydzynia, we passed the small marketplace and it's "Cultural Center", a miniscule building that reminded me of Los Alamos-style Mexican architecture — something about the frills on the top of the facade.

Arriving in Poznań, we passed a few of the universities — primarily focused on economics, and one music hall. There was also a monument built for the various rebellions by Polish workers against the communist government, and a statue of the much loved Polish poet Adam Mickiewicz. Then we headed over to check out the Cathedral Basilica of St. Peter and St. Paul, burial place of various Polish rulers (including Mieszko I, who shows up on the 10 złoty note). It was interesting to go below ground and see where they'd dug up the rulers, but there were also some really beautiful chapels inside the cathedral. One that seemed to attract a lot of attention was circular, covered in paintings and gold leaf, but I was really interested in the ornate lettering on some of the plaques. I love seeing the Polish and Latin scripts spread around liberally.

From there we headed over to the market square to see the infamous goats. Yes, from the Town hall, every day at noon, emerge two robotic goats. They butt heads a few times (in remembrance of an old story about the opening of the marketplace) before returning inside. It's great to hear the school children nearby counting off each butt in Polish.

We had some free time, so I wandered around a bit. I found a nice little księgarnia with a dictionary of Polish etymology. I've been looking for one, but, as is to be expected, it's completely in Polish. So I'm going to have to learn a bit more before I can understand the origins of those simple, beautiful words that stick in my head... "deszcz", "księżyc" and the others that keep coming.

Grandpa and I met up with Ania and Wojtek, relatives of grandpa's highschool friends. Ania's studying architecture nearby — we talked about art, architecture, language, culture, history, our mutual disdain of politics... although she probably found out more about me than I of her — a rarity.

Back on the bus, in a few hours we arrived in Toruń — hometown of Copernicus. Finally, after a few days we have an internet connection, so I'll be working backwards and forwards from today (the midpoint of the trip), and by the end this little blog should form a semicoherent whole.

Highlights: The morning light at Rydzyna, conversation over lunch, żubrówka over dinner.

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Wrocław: The Square, Panorama, to Rydzyna

Opening the window around six in the morning, Wrocław was covered by fog. As usual, we had breakfast and headed out for a quick bus tour. The first thing I noticed was the thriving underground art scene — which is to say, there was a lot of graffiti. But it was really unique graffiti, there was quite a diversity in styles even amongst the tags (those quick black signature-type pieces). One of the fellows on the tour used to spray graffiti in America, and said that Germans and the Dutch were known for their graffiti — maybe it's rubbed off on the Poles as well?

The first place we stopped was this large "spire", a huge metal needle (a hundred feet at least) — apparently it was placed there for some sort of art exhibit nearby, and the people liked it so much it was never taken down. The guide explaining this to us, Waclaw (sounds like "Vatslav"), was particularly entertaining — he would ask us not to call him Wrocław, remind us that we "may attack with questions", reccomend where to go for the "biggest and most picturesque portions of ice cream in Western Poland", and inform us that the animals in the oldest zoo in Poland "have been looking at visitors since 1865".

After the bus tour we went to the Panorama of the Battle of Racławice, a 50 foot tall, 370 feet wide painting wrapped in a circle around a center viewing platform entered via tunnel. The painting depicts one of the first battles of the Kościuszko uprising, an attempt in 1794 to free Poland from Russian control. A veteran of the American revolutionary war (less than two decades ago), Kościuszko had some experience keeping unwelcome relatives away and defending radical new constitutions (Poland's constitution, the first in Europe, was passed only three years earlier on May 3rd, signaling serious improvements in universal political equality and government responsibility). With only a quick glance at the painting, it's hard to tell who's winning — in the end, the Poles successfully defended Racławice, despite their numerical disadvantage. More happens after that, of course, it's a much longer story, but I find it incredible how many times the Polish have been persecuted for simply defending the country's borders, while they cling to their eternally progressive ideology. I'm reminded of "Misread" by the Kings of Convenience:

How come no one told me
all throughout history
the lonliest people
were the ones who always spoke the truth?
The ones who made a difference
by withstanding the indifference...

Only a few hundred feet away from the panorama there's another reminder: a memorial to the 21,857 soldiers killed by Stalin in the Katyń massacre of 1940 — a sculpture depicts mother Poland pleading with the angel of death over a dead Polish soldier, shot in the back of his head.

We left the panorama and monument for the academy. Like a lot of other buildings, it was mostly destroyed by a 80 days of Russian bombing, but has been reconstructed since then. It held some of the most intricately detailed rooms I'd seen yet. One of them was meant to be a lecture hall, which seems completely unreasonable. I don't know how I would pay attention to a lecturer in a room like that. Another room, a concert hall, was a little less magnificent visually, but had wonderful acoustics. And it pretty much made my day to know that Edvard Grieg had once played in that same room.

From the academy we went to the market square for some free time. I looked around for a little, climbed the 302 steps of the tightly-wound spiral staircase at a nearby cathedral... but I needed to think about some things, so I did what I normally do: picked a direction, and started walking. After four or five blocks I was out of the main commercial district, and I came across bigger streets and an underground. The underground kept going, so I followed it, eventually led into a mall (I found out later that this is one of the biggest malls in the area). It was two o'clock, a little past lunchtime, but I couldn't find any distinctly Polish food. I didn't feel like sitting down, so I found a little "food court"-style restaurant that looked like they were making good food. I managed enough Polish to order a calzone without the cashier asking me to repeat myself. Still hungry, and now cocky as well, and tried to order a banana smoothie from the fresh juice stand. But my cover was let down... totally mispronouncing "bananowe", the girl smiled and asked, in English, if I'd like it in a big or small cup.

Returning to the square, a crowd had started to gather: a few hundred dreadlocked and buzz-cut students protesting political-religious involvement in the educational system, holding signs like "Jestem nieochrzczona" ("We are not baptized"), "Jestem ateista", "Jestem anarchista", and "Jestem pacyfista". They seemed kind, the first thing they said to everyone with their megaphone was "Dzień dobry!" ("Good day!"). A few policja stood away from the crowd, ensuring the peace was kept (a testament to free speech in Poland).

We all met up by the water fountain near the center of the square, and packed up once more to make our way towards Rydzyna, where we'd be staying at the castle overnight. Most of the castle is pretty cool — the rooms themselves are a bit large and minimalistic (I liked it, even if it's not very "castle-like"), but the exterior, hallways and lobby are all beautifully 17th century baroque. One of the coolest things is that, after being burnt during WWII, it was restored by locals. The Association of Polish Mechanical Engineers spent 19 years, starting in 1970, to reconstruct it from original photographs and plans.

After settling down in the castle, we walked maybe half a mile to a little cottage with a fire ring where we had dinner. A local folk band came to play, a family: a fiddler, accordionist, guitarist, and a little girl no more than 7 with a beautiful and unusually mature voice. She also played tambourine and made up her own dances &mash; a total performer, someone gave her the nickname "Britney Spearski". Despite the plague of mosquitoes, I had a good time, and even learned how to dance the polka and waltz from one of the ladies in our group. Being one of the few guys, this was probably a mistake, considering I didn't really get to sit down after that.

By the time we started walking back it was pretty dark, with the exception of the moonlight. I stood just outside the doors of the castle with a few people who were smoking while we finished a conversation. I forget what we were talking about, but something funny happened I'll remember for a while. While I was standing there, two girls walked by about thirty feet away. I glanced at one of them for a moment, and she looked away. I realized: everyone gets a first look, but it's the second one that counts: if you have decent timing, and catch them in the middle of the second look, you can elicit a wonderful blush. While still blushing, she sat down with her friend on a nearby bench. It was facing the other direction, but she promptly turned around and put her head on her arms, which were crossed on the back of the bench, giving me googly eyes for however long the conversation with the others went on. I finally went inside, giving her a little wave and a "dobranoc" — I don't think I've ever seen someone wave back so vigorously before.

Australian slang of the day (from Danuta):

  • lashing (LASH-ing) — raining (I have a feeling this is just a British English usage I haven't heard)

Saturday, May 13, 2006

Zakopane to Wrocław via Wadowice

Today was mostly spent traveling North. We left Zakopane in the morning and got to Wadowice in less than two hours (about the same distance from Zakopane as Kraków). Wadowice is best known as the birthplace of John Paul II — one of the most celebrated figures throughout Poland (an overwhelming majority of the chapels we've visited make some reference to the pope, and at least half of them have a statue nearby). The city was busy preparing for the visit of Pope Benedict XVI later that month, restoring the church, putting up posters, working on the platform he'd stand on when addressing the masses. John Paul II's home church was pretty, but I found it severely disturbing that they were selling "Jesus memorabilia" inside the church — much less, next to John Paul II photos and pamphlets.

Grandpa and I stopped by the pharmacy next door, then walked over to a bus stop to wait for the others. Since it was going to take a while, I wandered around the city, finding plenty of hidden crevices and little shops. Something about the city reminds me of central Mexico, which is very odd, I can't put my finger on it.

Before driving to Wrocław (sounds like "Vrote-suave", about 260 km/160 mi from Wadowice), we had lunch at a very inviting restaurant. When you walk in the front door, you're met by columns with vines running up them, and led to your party's own beautifully furnished room. We were served some bullion and the best pirogies I've ever had by a dynamic hostess who reminded me of Sartre's waiter:

"...trying to imitate in his walk the inflexible stiffness of some kind of automaton while carrying his tray with the recklessness of a tight-rope-walker by putting it in a perpetually unstable, perpetually broken equilibrium which he perpetually reestablishes by a light movement of the arm and hand..."

After the tasty lunch, we started heading for Wrocław — canola fields forever.

Friday, May 12, 2006

Kraków to Zakopane

It's a relatively short drive from Kraków to Zakopane, only two hours or so uphill (I think I heard someone say "101 kilometers", about 63 miles). You can see the snow-covered Carpathian mountains rise in the distance, towering over the cities in the valleys, only vaguely distinguishable from the sky (it's a big surprise when you're looking out the window and realize that those aren't clouds in the distance, but mountains). The other way you can tell you're getting close is the pitch on the roofs. They start to angle so radically that the fundamental architecture of the houses is modified. Zakopane itself has a wonderful atmosphere — people still making good, regular use of horses, wearing warm clothes out of habit even though the weather is comfortable. The people are great: getting off the bus, I noticed two jolly, unshaven guys sitting on a bench, with a cart nearby holding some wool and other little things, sharing conversation and a drink (perhaps some of that misleadingly named "Zakopane mountain tea" — almost 200 proof).

After arriving, we walked quickly through the marketplace to a tram that would take us up one of the mountains. The marketplace is hard to walk through quickly — there are so many enticing sights and smells. The mountain was definitely worth it, though. Once you get a few hundred feet from the tram station, you come across this huge field (presumably for skiing, in the winter). Laying on the grass, soaking up the sun from that altitude, looking over the city and the mountains, completely serene. Perfect.

We went back down the mountain to get lunch — white mushroom soup (local mushrooms, of course), and some sort of pancake dessert. I thought it was wonderful, but Grandpa has a more sensitive mouth for his native food, and I learned a new combination of some words I already knew: "To nie jest pyszna."

After lunch we were given a few hours free — finally! I walked up and down the 10 blocks or so of the marketplace street twice, stopping in every store and booth that looked unique (about half of them are the same, selling touristy goods). There is a whole half-block dedicated to cheeses, and another half-block populated by old women sewing socks and sweaters with thick yarn, some side streets near the middle where you can buy clothes, and plenty of places to find trinkets. One of my favorite characters was this man dressed up in traditional mountain attire — with his cane, beard, long hair, crazy hat — carrying a lamb on his shoulders, going up to people and having his picture taken with them (putting the lamb around their shoulders, of course). On my way through the second time, I noticed a crowd of maybe 30 people had formed in the middle of the street, surrounding a man shouting things in Polish. Sitting on a bike, he dared people to ride it — he would bet them a few złotych they couldn't. Sure enough, someone would take him up on his offer, and fall down after no more than three feet. He would demonstrate to the cynics that it can be done, and another would try. It took me a moment to realize what was going on: he'd modified the bike so the front wheel pointed in the opposite direction of your turning!

After the break, we stopped by another cathedral. This is the most elegant one I've seen yet — made completely from stone and wood, it has a glorious post-gothic mountain appeal to it. We drove around a little on our way back to the hotel and the guide pointed out an amazing tradition in this area: sometimes, you'll see stripes on houses. If they're white stripes, the couple inside was just married. If they're blue stripes, the person inside is "waiting for someone". Maybe I should start wearing blue stripes?

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Kraków: The Wawel and Wieliczka

We began the day with a bus tour through Kraków. In Warsaw, Kuba told me it's one of the bigger tourist attractions, while a Polish friend in New York tells me "it's just a bunch of old bricks", so I wasn't sure what to expect. It felt a bit like Warsaw, but older — the streets were more narrow, the architecture more traditional.

After driving around a bit, we went to the Wawel, Royal castle in Kraków (which was the capital of Poland until 1596, when King Sigismud III moved it to Warsaw). Supposedly, this castle was built on top of a dragon's lair. The legend goes that, early in Kraków's history, this dragon would regularly torment the countryside, killing farmers and eating young girls (which he especially liked). To appease the dragon, young girls were sacrificed at the mouth of the cave every so often. Eventually, there weren't any more girls left except one — the king's daughter, so the king decided to give his daughter as a wife to whomever might slay the dragon. Of course, many tried and failed, until one poor apprentice had a bright idea: he stuffed a lamb with sulfur... the dragon ate it, and could not satisfy his thirst — drinking half the Wisła! Promptly exploding, the dragon was defeated, and the apprentice was married to the king's daughter.

The castle itself is like a small town, there is "Sigismund's chapel", the main residence, and plenty of other little shops and homes within the walls. The main residence, which is now a museum of sorts, is incredible — there are so many paintings, tapestries, sculptures, pieces of furniture... everything. The final room we visited was the largest, with patterned marble floors, leather walls, chandeliers, candelabras by some thrones at one end, tapestries on the walls, engraved ceilings. The acoustics were to die for. If I was a poor peasant a few centuries ago, I might have aspired towards a more affluent position simply to attend the dances and concerts held there.

The cathedral holds the tombs of many members of the Jagiellon family, Polish royalty. One particularly interesting tomb was that of Jadwiga, a saint and monarch who was known for her charity (she donated her dresses, jewelry and various other items to help restore the Academy in Kraków, she founded hospitals etc.) She was very young when she died, maybe 25 years old, and was said to have had blue eyes and blonde hair — a beauty frozen in time above her coffin.

From the Wawel we headed to the market square to see St. Mary's Basilica, a 1,000 year old cathedral. Every hour a trumpeter plays the hejnał from the top of the basilica, stopping mid-note about 30 seconds into the tune. This is based on a children's story by J.P. Kelly where he tells of a trumpeter being shot through the throat by invading Tatars in 1241 — a story with no historic support, but it's a wonderful tradition.

The market square in Kraków is one of the most lively in all of Poland. I counted at least 6 street musicians (and a few groups of them), crowds of people, smartly dressed students, the long "cloth hall" in the center, filled with merchants with local goods and items imported from the mountains nearby, as well as a plethora of restaurants. For lunch I went with Jane to a Georgian restaurant. She's great, every day (sometimes twice) we'll have the same conversation:

Jane: So, is this your first time to Poland?
Me: Yes.
Jane: Do you like it so far?
Me: Yeah, there's so much beauty and tradition here — and a different kind than what I'm used to in America.
Jane: I love it here. This is my tenth visit.
Me: Wow.
Jane: When I tell my friends I'm going to Poland, they always ask me "What are you going there for?" But I just look at them and laugh.

Anyway, I don't think she realized it was a Georgian restaurant, and was just assuming that every ethnic-looking restaurant must be Polish. I have a soft spot for their alphabet and figured I'd take a break from all the Polish food for a moment. It wasn't bad at all; I'm no food expert but from my meal and the others I saw nearby, I'd say it's distinctly Eastern European, but reminiscent of popular Greek cuisine.

After meandering around the square for a while, we left for the Wieliczka salt mines. A few hundred feet below the surface, they have thousands of kilometers of man-made caves, many of them filled with salt-sculptures, salt-chandeliers, salt-everything. It's one of the quietest places I've ever been. It would be amazing to hear someone record an album in the largest room, St. Kinga's Chapel. They should really invite Sigur Rós, Explosions in the Sky or Godspeed You! Black Emperor on down.

Tomorrow we leave for Zakopane, in the mountains of Southern Poland.

Poor translation of the day (from the sign outside our dinner restaurant):

  • "You are hungry and thirsty, our business is to find remedy."

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

To Kraków through Częstochowa and Oświęcim

We left for Kraków this morning. Most of the way down you see only big fields, isolated bales of hay, and steeples randomly peeping out from tree clusters. I spent a third of the ride reading, a third staring out the window imagining the stories of the people living in these little villages, and another third practicing that wonderful Polish tongue twister from the beginning of Brzechawa's poem:

W Szczebrzeszynie chrząszcz brzmi w trzcinie.

("In the town of Szczebrzeszynie a beetle buzzes in the reed.", in English this might be approximated "f shtchebzheshinye hshonshtch bzhmi f tshtsinye") On our way to Kraków, we had two places to stop: Częstochowa, and Oświęcim.

Częstochowa seems like a quaint city, but I can't be sure — we only stopped to see Jasna Góra, the monastery housing the famous Black Madonna. Częstochowa is called the "holiest city in Poland" due to this icon, which was supposedly painted by the apostle Luke. Plenty of pilgrims come to visit, sometimes climbing the hill on their hands and knees. Fortunately, we bypassed that part and took the bus straight to the parking lot. The monastery is really beautiful, tiles, brick and cement on the outside, and grand ornamentation on the inside. Some of the walls still bear the marks of various attacks on the monastery (which the monks, and the "miraculous powers" of the icon have successfully defended against time after time). Walking around inside one of the cathedrals, the first thing to grab my attention was a painting of a very modern looking man — in what appeared to be his pajamas, holding a wooden rosary and looking upwards towards a bright light. It seemed rather odd, so I wrote his name down for later: Maximilian Kolbe.

After being led through various hallways and corridors, we were about to enter the main room where the Black Madonna was kept. As we entered, you could hear the chants of an unidentifiable choir — I didn't notice a director, just people singing. Then there were all the children in dresses and suits for first communion. That's when I realized we entered from the front — the icon was behind us. I didn't have any divine revelations or miraculous healings, but it is a pretty painting.

The sister showing us around took us through a few more rooms, then upstairs to the treasury. That's where I learned to read the "no cameras" signs more carefully (the armed guard kept his eye on me the rest of the time). The monastery has a surprising amount of unique jewelry and other valuables... one piece in specific stuck with me: Jesus on the cross, with a skull and crossbones at his feet. Only recently did I learn that this is a reference to the tradition that Jesus was crucified on the site of Adam's tomb, and not simply symbolic of Christ's victory over sin.

Leaving the city, we stopped by a little restaurant on the outskirts. I'm guessing it had a capacity of forty people, and we were the only guests. Great food — the typical starter "salad" (various shredded vegetables), great bread, żurek and some meat and noodles I can't quite remember.

50 km from Kraków is Oświęcim, better known as Auschwitz. Once I noticed the architecture start to change, I stopped taking pictures for the day. What can you say? Walking around Auschwitz, you can still hear the birds chirp... I was reminded of Vonnegut: "Poo-tee-weet". Then Zosima's older brother from The Brother's Karamazov:

" must know that verily each of us is guilty before everyone, for everyone and everything. I do not know how to explain it to you, but I feel it so strongly that it pains me. And how could we have lived before, getting angry, and not knowing anything?"

It's true. I'm simultaneously overwhelmed by anguish for our condition, and joy for the hope of our redemption. And in the midst of the hatred, there is hope: as we walked by the various rooms for different means of death (starvation, suffocation, etc.), our guide stopped at one and told us a story.

Imagine that you are a prisoner here, working day in and day out, surrounded by death. Now, imagine that another prisoner has escaped. In order to keep this from happening, the Nazis execute ten prisoners for every escapee. Now imagine you are amongst a crowd of thousands, while they select their ten prisoners. Then something unexpected happens — a man offers to give up his life in exchange for one of the men that was selected, so he can have a chance at being reunited with his wife and young children. Surprised, the Nazis oblige. Of course, they can't say that they starved him to death, so they write on his death certificate: "Maximilian Kolbe, died from a heart attack."