So, not five minutes after I had griped about not bringing my horn to the Philippines with me, I saw this sign in the street outside the Internet cafe I had been in. Maybe I wouldn't have been quite as welcome as I thought I might have been
I never really got into the scavenger hunts when I was at university but if there was ever a street sign that I was going to steal, this would definitely have been the one!
Best dive attraction: not the wrecks of Coron, not the stunning reefs of Cebu island, but the sight of every kid in the village under the age of 12 crowding the beach to greet the boat as it came back after a night dive. We tie fluorescent lights onto our tanks so that we can see where everyone is and it's a free-for-all as the kids fight to score a couple to play with. Priceless 🙂
Most resounding thud: swimming head-first into somebody's steel air tank because I wasn't looking where I was going 😳 (well, it was a night dive). Ouch.
Dumbest mistake: not bringing my horn. Philippino musicians are well-known for being pretty damn good and there's a lot of live music here in Cebu City. I've already written about being a sucker for a pretty girl who can sing and I can't begin to count how many times I've lost my heart the few days I've been here :cry:. Man, even the guys sing like angels, if I was so inclined
When I wrote about my trip across the Yemeni desert, it didn't occur to me that it might become a Google-preferred search result for, I dunno, "hitch-hike across Yemen" or some such thing :blink:. Amusingly, I've received a few emails from people wanting to know how the story the ended because they're heading out that way and want to know how to get to the border.
So for the benefit of all you guys, here's how it went...
Tarim is more or less the end of the road before the Ar-Ruba' al-Khali desert and I made the short trip there from Say'un as early as possible to give myself plenty of time to try and find a ride to Al-Ghaida, several hundred kilometres away on the other side of the desert. I found the informal "bus station", a shady spot on the side of the main road where people would gather, trying to organise rides to wherever they were going. I found a trucker who was willing to take me but he wouldn't be leaving until after dark so I made myself comfortable and hung out in the shade of a row of shuttered-up shops, watching the world go by, very slowly...
Unfortunately, Ramadan got in the way again and I spent the entire day watching almost nothing happen. In addition, I learned that trucks always go at night, which kind of makes sense when you're crossing one of the world's hottest places, I s'pose, and I was in for a long, long wait, especially once the sun went down and the streets rapidly emptied as everyone rushed to the mosques. Pretty depressing stuff for any non-Muslim hitchhikers around and so I stretched out on a park bench and tried to have a bit of a nap.
It wasn't until 8 pm before I managed to score a ride on a cargo truck heading out my way and by the time we finally got on the road, it was pitch dark. We bounced around on the dirt track heading eastwards but it was incredibly frustrating to be on the trip of a lifetime and not be able to see anything other than the twenty yards in front of us.
After a few hours of this, we rolled into As Sawm, a Bedouin settlement about thirty miles down the road. We had actually managed to slip through the military checkpoint leading into town but the driver was told to turn the truck around and get me checked through. The soldiers there studied my paperwork with doubtful expressions on their faces and I started to worry if I was going to be allowed through. Since no-one spoke any English at all, they had to send someone into town to get the local schoolteacher to help out. When he finally arrived, he explained that a cable was being sent to the provincial office in Say'un asking for permission to let me through but this being Ramadan, it was anybody's guess as to how long it would take to receive a reply.
When word finally came back several hours later, it was bad news: I would have to return to Say'un and get official permission to cross the desert. My driver was getting quite agitated by this time, worrying about his cargo of vegetables and was quite happy to dump me and be on his way, leaving the rest of us to sit around, chatting and playing dominoes until it was very, very late. The soldiers set up a camp bed for me and I went to sleep staring up at a sky full of stars, frustrated but resigned to returning back to Say'un.
I was woken by the rising sun and got my first look at the surrounding desert only to see that we hadn't even left the wadi yet. The soldiers flagged down the first passing truck and gave me a cheery wave as I made the depressingly long trip back to Say'un. A flat tyre on the way pretty much summed up the whole trip so far (he probably bought it from the Happiness Tyre Company).
At police headquarters in Say'un, I was flatly refused a permit to cross the desert and was told that I must head south to Al-Mukalla and take the safer coastal route. The European kidnapees were still being held, four weeks after having been taken and this was the reason that I was being denied permission. Now I was stumped - my visa was running out and I was not optimistic about my chances of being able to get across the border if I overstayed, even if I was able to get there at all. There were only one or two flights out a week, the next one leaving that afternoon and it was a grumpy Taka who was finally forced to give up and get on a plane back to Sana'a. Peering out of the window as we flew over the desert I had previously crossed, I watched hundreds of miles of ground covered and days of hard slogging be undone by a fifty-minute flight. Damn.
Most of the Yemeni are poor people in an even poorer country. Crowds of men, young and old, jostle each other at busy street intersections, forlornly trying to sell boxes of matches and packets of tissues, desperate to make a sale, their sales pitch joined by the rantings of the mentally ill who freely roam the streets. I even saw the woeful sight of one old woman pushing her decrepit grandmother around in a wheelbarrow. Beggars cruise the streets beseeching passer-bys in the name of Allah for a few riyal while their barefoot, raggedy kids sit in the garbage, playing with piles of dirt and rusty tin cans. Many of them are crippled, hauling their bodies around with a fantastic assortment of makeshift aids although some were not even that fortunate. I regularly saw one man sitting in a crumpled heap at the same spot all day, every day, his wasted legs tucked away beneath him and his back so tortuously bent over that his face was virtually touching the footpath in front of him. Who left him there each morning and picked him up at night, I don't know, but the shopkeepers nearby made sure that he had a little food and water each day, especially during the frantic period around sunset during Ramadan when everyone was breaking their fast - it was tragic to watch him eat, trying to scoop up bits of disintegrating samosas and roti with his tiny flipper arms.
And uniquely Muslim were the abandoned or widowed women sleeping out in the streets, still wearing the full Islamic chador. More affluent women cover themselves with an intricate array of delicate sheets and veils but the poorer classes wear what is little more than a six-foot cotton sack over their heads. These women lay slumped up against a wall, inert, shapeless lumps in a black body bag; dead or alive, who could tell? They weren't even begging but just lay there, taking up space...
But while the Yemeni might not have much money, one never gets the impression that they are poor in spirit. Yemen has a long history that stretches back for millennia and is something that the people here are fiercely proud of. There is little of the jealousy and dislike of the comparatively wealthy tourists that is rampant in many Third World countries - on the contrary, most Yemeni are genuinely pleased to welcome people who have made the effort to visit their isolated country. Kids, in particular, go wild when a foreigner comes into sight and there's nothing quite like being surrounded by thirty riotous rugrats, all frantically trying to get into your pockets for souvenirs and tear your bag apart to see what wondrous things may lie within. It was truly a joy and a privilege to come here.
As you may have gathered, I have a rather strong sense of the ridiculous so this cartoon from Asher Sarlin just cracks me up. Why is the Internet inhabited by a blonde in a bikini and a dinosaur?! With a cake?!?! Excellent!
Via Boing Boing and Cyrus Farivar whose email sig apparently says "Being a good writer is 3% talent, 97% not being distracted by the Internet." I couldn't agree more since I've always said that one of the hardest things about working on Awasu is not spending too much time goofing off reading feeds doing usability testing
I saw An Inconvenient Truth last night which was an interesting combination of footage from Al Gore's presentations on global warming with snippets from his personal life. Other than the main topic of the film, two things really made an impression on me. Firstly, watching him making his well-reasoned, scientifically-backed arguments, I couldn't help but wonder what kind of a world we would be living in today had he have been awarded Florida way back when  and secondly, a commment he made in reference to how difficult it can be to get people to recognize that they are in a crisis and respond to it: "People will eventually connect the dots but when they do, they will often wish that they had connected them earlier."
My local bookstore runs themed promotions each month which definitely work because last month, when I saw a pile of books on economics on display, I realized that it was a subject I don't know an awful lot about and so decided to pick up a few. Oddly enough, quite a lot of them looked interesting but I eventually chose two: Hidden Order by David Friedman and The Armchair Economist by Steven Landsburg. Now, while I like to think of myself as a reasonably intelligent sort of a guy, I have to confess that I have never read so many articles where the author explains something in a series of steps, each of which make perfect sense, but the final conclusion seems completely, intuitively wrong. Maybe I'm just not as smart as I think I am . Or maybe nobody understands this stuff, not really.
I wanted to reference an article I came across a few weeks ago that linked to "the ten most important articles about economics you won't understand" (or something like that) but I'll be buggered if I can find it again :-(. And while yes, I didn't understand the economics behind most of them, the feeling I definitely got was that neither did the experts. If you consider the massive losses that Amaranth recently sustained (along with the many other high-profile crash-and-burns before them), while some of it may well be explained by greed and incompetence, when words like "gamble" and "risky" (which is really a convenient euphamism for "gamble" :roll:) keep coming up, you kinda get the feeling that they weren't really sure what was going on either
Clearly IANAE but my understanding is that when the US dollar became a fiat currency in 1975, for the first time a dollar note was no longer backed by something tangible (e.g. gold) but instead, only had value because the government said it did. I wrote recently about peoples' tendency to confuse things that appear to be the same but are in fact very different (doing something for love or for money) and I think the same thing happens here. When we open our wallets to check how much is inside, we think of those notes and coins as themselves having value, the same as we do when we look at the numbers on our monthly bank statements that represent blips in a computer . But they don't, they only have value because someone else is prepared to accept those coloured bits of paper or electronic blips in return for real, tangible goods. As soon as that network of trust is gone, the whole system collapses and your "wealth" vanishes into the ether. And this confusion between real wealth and the proxy we use to represent it is a recipe for disaster.
I've been listening (several times) to a recording of a fascinating presentation by Dr. David E. Martin where he talks about the house of cards the global economy is built on. One of his claims was that 90% of GDP growth in the US in 2001-2 came from housing  which suffers from exactly the same problem: the value of your house is exactly what someone else is prepared to pay for it. If no-one wants to buy it, it ain't worth jack.
Now, it's a truism in stock trading that it's time to cash in your chips when your mom and taxi drivers start getting into the market and it looks like we may be seeing something like that here. Ordinary folks are starting to play a game that previously only professional players used to indulge in, leveraging huge amounts of debt, but instead of using it to build value, it's often used instead to fund a life of consumerism. And it's a game that many don't understand. I have a house in Australia that has seen a pretty big increase in it's nominal sale price and it's certainly easy to see why people would be tempted to borrow against that to buy a plasma TV or second car but honestly, it's not real wealth! People have been predicting an end to the housing bubble for ages now and when it comes (and come it will), even in just a limited way, it's going to be utterly brutal when folks have to start paying off their purchases with real money. This article says that "[c]onsumer spending is currently responsible for 70% of US GDP growth" which is worrying because it means that when the politicians proudly proclaim that GDP growth is going through the roof and everything is hunky-dory, it really is all built on a house of cards.
Connect the dots, indeed, but what if I don't like the picture that starts to appear? How do I get off this ride...?
 If you read the blogs of other feed readers, you will know what can happen when they start talking about politics so I'll just leave it at that 🙄  I'm going to have another crack at these books while I'm away and might post something if I can get my head around them a bit better. But don't hold your breath...  I once had a friend who used to work in the forex trading division of a large multinational bank and I asked him if what he did was anything more than a bunch of guys playing with numbers on a computer, if there was any real value being created. He was rather embarrassed to not be able to answer that question.  I didn't find anything to corroborate this but I did come across this which says that housing accounted for 50% of GDP growth in the first half of 2005.
Starting this weekend, I'm taking a few weeks off, my first real holiday in, well, a while :-(, going to Palawan in the Philippines to do a bit of wreck diving. And since I got my nitrox certification last year, I'll be able to blow bubbles for that much longer 🙂
Coron Town, where I'll be staying, is about a half square kilometer in size and while they claim to have electricity in the evenings, apparently it's a bit unreliable. My kind of town . There is internet access but obviously it sounds like it might be a bit flaky so apologies in advance if I'm a bit slow responding to email and support requests. I might have to smuggle in some of our hamsters to beef up the local workforce. I won't be taking a laptop either (a tough call, really! :roll:).
In case you couldn't tell, I'm kinda looking forward to this trip and so, in order to spread the joy a bit, while I'm away there will be a special 50% discount on upgrades from the Advanced to Professional Edition. Just go to the special order page and use the promotion password BUBBLES.
I've been a bit remiss in keeping the weblog Best Bits up to date but I've added a bunch of entries from the past year, if you've got nothing better to do for a while. There's some fun stuff in there 🙂
Posting has been a bit light here of late, not only because it takes time to write good posts but also because it takes a lot of mental energy to sift through the chaotic maelstrom that is the inside of my head and bring together whatever thoughts are running wild in there together into some sort of coherent whole. Writing heavy-duty, multi-threaded, computationally-intensive server code is much less stressful.
I recently caught up with a friend of mine from high school that I hadn't seen for many (many :cry:) years and we've been chatting quite a lot on email recently. The other day things took something of an interesting turn when she said (referring to me) "I envy those who can chop and change career path".
I gave my usual reply that for me, a career is nothing more than a means to make money so that I can go out and do the things I really want to do. I work for a few years, then take a year or two off to bum aroundtheworld or go play music for a while or do any number of other fun things but people often don't get it and wonder why or how I can "sacrifice" my career in this way 😐
We got into a bit of discussion about why people work, which tied in nicely with a recent post Adrian Savage made over at his LifeHack blog:
Last week, I starting thinking about why so many people devote so much of their lives to work, and seem to get so little enjoyment or reward in return. It doesn't seem to make a great deal of sense.
Indeed, it doesn't 🙄
People get so caught up in the process of furthering their career that they sometimes lose sight of what it's all about: making money. Cynical that may be, but it's my fate to become a grumpier old fart as I get older . They often claim that they do their job because they love it or they're doing something worthwhile but when asked if they would still be doing it if they weren't getting paid for it, you often get a sheepish grin (at best).
Doing something for the love of it and doing it for money are two very different things. I've spent a large proportion of my life learning to play music and love doing it but when I end up churning out The Girl from Ipanema in some cocktail lounge, believe me, it's only because I'm getting paid for it (or trying to pick up chicks, but that's another story ). I consider myself lucky that the things that I do to earn a crust , cutting code and playing music, I actually enjoy doing but as soon as money enters the equation, it changes everything. When I get hired for some contract programming gig, I'm just a grunt for hire and if the boss insists on Jello software because he wants 4 weeks worth of work done in 5 days, despite my recommendations to do otherwise, well, I just shrug my shoulders and do the best I can under the circumstances.
Working on Awasu has been completely different. We've had the luxury of being able to set our own schedules, although that will certainly change as we start to take on more clients, but the key difference is that I really am doing it because I love to do it. I was working on Awasu for a long time before any real money started coming in, and while it's sure nice to have and one reason why I started the whole thing in the first place, it's not the main driving motivation. And I think that it shows in the software:
I not usually that "cutting-edge" when it comes to installing alpha versions. But I'm comfortable loading your updates as your alpha codings have been remarkably stable.
That's quite a compliment, but not surprising. Everything that goes out the door, including bleeding-edge, everyone-assumes-that-its-full-of-bugs alpha releases, go out with my name on it so I make damn sure it's of the highest quality. Maybe it's just because I'm Japanese 😎
I'm immensely proud of where Awasu stands today and we've got some seriously cool features lined for the coming months so please stick around for the ride. And in the meantime, check out the rest of LifeHack. It's worth a read.
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