All the places I've lived

I’m sitting here at the Red Carpet Club in Seattle Airport, waiting for our flight to San Francisco. Tonight we’ll be in a hotel in Palo Alto, and in a few days the movers will be delivering our stuff. Another move completed.
The last few nights have been characterized by broken sleep: a combination of the jet lag of the return from China and the busy and distracting events of the move. At one point I found myself, half-awake, composing blog entries in my head. One was a challenge to self-declared supporters of Intelligent Design, which I may actually type up some tome; the other was a list of all the places I’ve lived. Since that’s actually relevant to today’s move, I thought I’d see if I could recreate the material that I dreamed. A disclaimer: this is slightly simplified, and there are overlaps during the period between 1968 and 1972 when I was working and attending university.

  • 1950: Chelsea, London, England
  • 1952: Kilburn, London, England
  • 1955: Dollis Hill, London, England
  • 1962: Beaconsfield, Bucks, England
  • 1969: Abingdon, Berks, England (“Barracks” accomodation while working at AERE Harwell.)
  • 1969: Amersham, Bucks, England (My mother moved here, but I hardly ever stayed here.)
  • 1969: Chelmsford, Essex, England (Essex University.)
  • 1972: Hayes, Middx, England (We rented a house from a friend for the year.)
  • 1973: Newcastle-on-Tyne, England (Graduate student housing.)
  • 1976: Chesham, Bucks, England (The first house we bought.)
  • 1981: Foxboro, MA, USA (Rented a house for a year, then bought one.)
  • 1999: Brookline, MA, USA
  • 2006: Seattle, WA, USA
  • 2009: Palo Alto, CA, USA

Heading home

I’ve just finished up my two week visit to Huawei’s HQ in Shenzen with a delightful dinner with my opposite number on the HQ team. (Many thanks!) Tomorrow morning, bright and early (6:15am), I’ll be heading home: a taxi to the Shenzhen Shekou ferry terminal, ferry to Chek Lap Kok, a United 747-400 to SFO, an Alaska Airlines 737 to Seattle, and finally a taxi to Uwajimaya. Speaking of United, it looks as if I mistimed my flight: a piece about United on FlyerTalk included the following:

Beginning August 1, we’ll offer tasty new options on our fresh Choice Menu, all-new items in our popular snack boxes on shorter flights and complimentary alcoholic beverages in economy on Pacific flights.

Why wait? 😉
It’s been a really great visit. From a work perspective, it’s been enormously productive, and I’ve started to build a great web of connections here. Shenzhen is a fascinating city, both downtown and the area around the Huawei campus. The heat and humidity were less of a problem than I expected; I found that the coolest clothing combo was a light shirt worn open over a vented t-shirt. I don’t know if it was kosher, but it felt right. My biggest mistake: not bringing a couple of pairs of lightweight shorts.
And the food… Honestly, I didn’t have a single bad meal. Tonight I tried a couple of new items: fish roe, and frogs. (Lots of small bones in the frogs, but not a problem.) Mmmm.


For my Chinese readers – 对于我的中文读者

I’ve added the Google Translate widget to this blog. If you want to read my writings in Chinese, choose your favourite version from the menu (Simplified or Traditional) and it should load in a few seconds.
我已经添加了谷歌翻译工具这个博客。如果你想阅读我的文章中,选择你最喜爱的版本,从菜单(简体中文或繁体) ,并应负荷在几秒钟。


Oi! Who turned out the lights?!

Coming on Wednesday to this part of the world:

WAITING FOR THE ECLIPSE: On July 22nd, the longest solar eclipse of the 21st century will take place in Asia. […] On Wednesday, the Moon’s shadow will linger over [Shanghai] for nearly six full minutes, giving residents a stunning and lengthy view of the Sun’s ghostly corona. In addition to Shanghai, the path of totality crosses a number of other large cities in India and China–e.g., Surat, Vadodara, Bhopal, Varanasi, Chengdu, Chongqing, Wuhan, Hefei, Hangzhou–each with populations numbering in the millions. This could be the best-observed solar eclipse in human history.

From SpaceWeather, a website with great content but lousy navigation, which has yet to learn the value of permalinks and RSS/ATOM. The area of totality will be well to the north of us, slicing down from Shanghai to Mumbai, but we should get a decent partial eclipse here in Shenzhen.


A thoroughly successful day…

As I was planning for my new job, with its regular travel to China, I realized that I wouldn’t be able to rely upon my AT&T iPhone. Yes, it would be OK (but expensive) for calls to and from the US, but I couldn’t really use it for local calls and text messaging within China, and I certainly couldn’t afford to turn on data roaming. So while I was at SFO awaiting my flight to Hong Kong, I bought myself an unlocked GSM phone, intending to put a pay-as-you-go SIM into it when I reached China.
The phone I bought was a Palm Centro. Cute as a button, nice keyboard, and Palm OS, which is a bit primitive but still oodles better than Windows Mobile. I arrived in Shenzhen, plugged a China Mobile SIM into it, bought a prepaid card from a street vendor, topped up the balance to just over 100 RMB, and I was ready to go. And during the first week, I used it a lot: checking email, text messaging ((Tons of texting – I never really used it back home, but here everyone texts all the time.)) There was just one problem. The phone didn’t handle Chinese characters. Any Chinese character – in email, SMS, SIM management, caller ID, etc. – simply displayed as a “?”.
Now you might think that this wasn’t very important. After all, I don’t speak or read Chinese. But there are lots of cases where the ability to receive (or even send) Chinese email and text messages is really useful. For example: this afternoon, Jim and I were in downtown Shenzhen, shopping for electronics. (More of that anon.) By 6:30, we were wrapping up and thinking about dinner. Jim texted a colleague of his, and asked him to recommend a really good restaurant. Back came the reply, with the restaurant name in Chinese. As we navigated the maze of streets towards the restaurant, Jim was able to get directions by showing the SMS message on his phone to several people who then pointed us in the right direction. We’ve used the same trick with taxi drivers.
All of this explains why we found ourselves shopping this afternoon. Jim was looking for some networking gear, and I was hoping to find a reasonable unlocked phone that “spoke” Chinese. Jim had trodden this path before, and after a wild taxi ride we found ourselves in a street full of vast electronics bazaars: department store sized buildings full of stalls and shops where people were selling everything from resistors and ribbon cables to graphics cards to cellphones to cameras to laptops… and everything in between. It was a geek’s heaven. Jim found what he wanted, and I was browsing and on the point of giving up when I spotted a G1 Android. Was it unlocked? Of course: the stall-holder invited me to remove the SIM from my despised Centro and put it in the G1, whereupon Jim called me and sent me a text message. I went down to the ATM on the ground floor, got some cash, and returned to close the deal.
Flushed with success, Jim and I went out to dinner at a restaurant which is one of the best we’ve ever eaten at; I would give you the name, except that I can’t read their business card! (But it’s a chain, and they have a cool web site, and the phone number of the one we went to is 26492008. Does that help?)
Back at the hotel, I checked out my new toy. There was only one flaw: the charger was actually for a different phone, with the wrong kind of mini-USB connector. ((Why are there so many different types of connector for a “standard” interface like USB???)) Fortunately the regular USB cable was correct, and I found that I could use my iPhone’s charger with the G1. Everything else is just fine, and the Android itself works like a dream. 3G data access is lightning fast, and Google Maps works fine here in Shenzhen.
Who knows? Perhaps I’ll wind up getting a prepaid SIM in the USA, just to show off the new toy. Although from what I hear, none of the carriers offering prepaid service in the USA support decent data plans


A change in the weather

My first week in Shenzhen was accompanied by the expected hot weather: high temperatures around 90-95F, high humidity, heat index around 105F, oppressively sticky at night, occasional afternoon showers. It sounds unpleasant, but it was actually less of an issue than I’d feared.
Yesterday, all that changed. Typhoon Molave arrived. From Window on China:

Molave landed at Nanao town in Shenzhen City of Guangdong at 0:50 a.m. (Beijing Time) Sunday, packing winds up to 145 km per hour in its eye. CMA issued an “orange alert” at 6:00 a.m. on Sunday that the typhoon has weakened to strong tropical storm after landing in Shenzhen. It located at 22.7 degrees north and 113.7 degrees east at 5:00 a.m.

It rained pretty heavily yesterday, so that we postponed our plans to go sightseeing, and by the time I went to bed the wind was howling and the rain was hammering on the windows. During the night I heard a number of loud crashes, and the noise of the storm made it difficult to sleep.
This morning, Jim and I headed out to find some breakfast. The wind had dropped to the point where umbrellas were not at risk, but the signs of the storm were everywhere: palm fronds down, many trees and shrubs uprooted and shattered, minor debris everywhere. South of the Baicow Gardens complex, we saw the remains of a security (?police) booth. Yesterday it had been a handsome aluminium and glass box on a six-foot high substructure. Today it was a mess of twisted aluminium sheeting surrounded by piles of shattered glass. The whole scene was quite reminiscent of Hurricane Gloria, which tore through central New England in 1985.


What a brilliant idea!

(Via PZ.)



I had been warned before coming to China that real coffee was hard to find, and quite expensive. Those who know me and my caffeine dependency might have wondered how I would survive.

I arrived here in Shenzhen with a pound of espresso-ground coffee from Starbucks in Santa Barbara and an Aerobie Aeropress. Unfortunately I left the measuring scoop behind, so I had to wait until breakfast this morning, when I was able to grab a few (disposable) soup spoons. Finally, before settling down to work back in the hotel this afternoon, I made the first cup of coffee that I’ve had since I arrived here.
The Aeropress works beautifully. I had calibrated the kettle, so that I knew how long it would take to get close to the magic 175°F. (They recommend “three-quarters of the time to bring to the boil”.) I think I used a bit less coffee than I should have (what’s “two scoops” in Chinese soup-spoons?), but I followed the directions exactly, and the result was excellent: smooth, great flavour, no bitterness, good colour, perfect crema. The trick is in keeping the pressure gentle, and not rushing it. And clean-up is trivial.
Highly recommended. With any luck, my blood-caffeine level should now be inching towards the “operating” range….


Values, science, and contingency

I’ve been commenting on a thread over at Thinking Christian about Sean Carroll’s Discovery piece on why science and religion are incompatible. It’s an odd kind of discussion: the resident Christians excoriate Carroll, and in the same breath they assert that Christianity is always, authoritatively correct, which seems to rule out science as a way of answering questions. Anyway, I made a few comments about values being contingent, like language, rather than extra-human absolute truths, and a bunch of people piled on. I wrote:

On values: try substituting, mutatis mutandis the word “language” for “values”. Then your paragraph reads in part:
That we speak a certain language is (let us say) a physical state within the brain. Science can then look into its genesis and perhaps tell a plausible story about how it came to be. But the languages themselves are not physical states

But the last sentence doesn’t follow. In fact, languages are precisely physical states: patterns of utterance and interpretation replicated (with variations) in millions of brains, and transferred from brains to brains by socialization and education. Some have speculated that there are a set of “hardware” mechanisms which facilitate (and, presumably, constrain this process, but that’s relatively unimportant.
Nobody argues about which the “correct language” is. (Well, no sane persons.) We can’t say whether French or English is more correct. We can debate the origins of each, and the relative effectiveness of each in expressing certain things. And we would certainly note the existence of deep commonalities between different languages.
Well, values are languages. They are languages that we use to talk about patterns of behaviour that we collectively approve or disapprove of. Like language, values are contingent, in space and time. Just as it would be difficult to speak with an Elizabethan Englishman, because of the evolution of language, it would be difficult to communicate about values with an Elizabethan Christian, for who slavery, burning heretics at the stake, and treating schizophrenia with exorcism were perfectly Christian values.
Your values are patterns in your brain which influence your response to certain stimuli. Nothing magical, supernatural, or un-scientific about them. Values are not extra-human things that tell us the way things ought to be: they are linguistic expressions that we use to tell each other how we imagine things ought to be.

Most of the comments were silly, but there was one by Franklin Mason that I responded to at some length. After I’d written it, I decided that I liked it so much that I would replay it over here:

So, I take it that you think it impossible for anyone to be incorrect in the values they hold.

Incorrect according to whom? Flip back to the language analogy, and remember “My Fair Lady”. To be an accepted member of a social group is, in part, to use the language of that group. In school children learn what is, and is not, “correct” spelling, grammar, and usage. Same with values.

Second point: science itself is a value-driven endeavor. It values truth above all else. Moreover, in the construction of scientific theory, you’ll find many values called open: value is placed in simplicity, explanatory power, predictive power, etc.

Yup. Science is a human endeavor, and as such we use the language of values to express many aspects of it.

Lots of value is non-moral in nature. The values I’ve described above are epistemological in nature, but they are values nonetheless; and like all values, they don’t simply describe how things have gone, rather they describe how things ought to go.

Let’s correct your drift here. We use the language of values to describe how we think things ought to go. Values (and language) are not free-floating absolutes; they are aspects of human thought and communication.

Thus, if all value is contingent and culture-relative (as you seem to wish to say), so too is science. On your view, science, just like morality, would come to be one of a plethora of ways in which one might come to the world, with no objective reason to prefer one over the other.

You know, people seem to think that as soon as something is described as “contingent”, all bets are off: that it could be not just different, but anything at all. But “contingent” means “dependent”, and things like language and culture – and science – are strongly constrained by the facts that they depend on. Case in point: our eyes evolved to be sensitive to particular wavelengths of light and particular types of visual stimuli: they’re good at detecting vertically symmetrical patterns, not so good at horizontal or rotational patterns. There are good adaptive reasons for this (e.g. threat detection), but it’s not the only kind of vision, as a quick trawl through the evo-devo literature will explain. It’s contingent: it could have been different. We could have evolved as nocturnal creatures, in which case we might have large eyes like Tarsiers with increased sensitivity to infra-red.
Now the point about this is that while the form of our vision is contingent, it’s not random. We didn’t get to choose our vision. We could tweak it a bit (with glasses), but we couldn’t rewire it. (More on that carefully-chosen verb form later.) And the same is true of things like language and values – and science.
Our language and values are contingent on our biology. If we had evolved with enhanced infra-red vision, we would be able to directly sense many more physiological phenomena – we might be able to “see” certain kinds of emotions and pains. Our languages would reflect this. Or if, as nocturnal creatures, we had evolved an enhanced sense of smell, we might rely on olfactory evidence and prefer it over visual. Now think about all of the ways that vision, and metaphorical uses of “see” and “perceive” crop up in your language – and, yes, in your values. “Seeing is believing”. How about “smelling is believing”?
And of course you use the “objective” word, which suggests that you hold true to the obsolete dichotomy that everything is either objective or subjective: absolute, or personal. Sorry: those words don’t really mean very much. They are just another piece of the language of values: ways that we communicate about social preferences.

I take it that most scientists reject this. The values that science exemplifies are quite objectively good, they would say; and if you disagreed, they’d think you were just flat wrong.

Scientists are human; scientists use human language to communicate about science; when that communication involves “how” and “why”, scientists use those aspects of language which evolved to talk about such things, which is the language of values.
No scientist would say that there are no values. They would (mostly) say that they aren’t what you seem to think they are. Scientists have arrived at the “rules” and “values” of science because they work: they lead to repeatable results, and minimize the likelihood of fraud and deception (especially self-deception!).
I said earlier that I would comment on the “we couldn’t rewire our vision” thing. Well, of course we are now getting close to the point where we can, and things are going to get quite interesting. Will our values change as we change? They always have in the past.
We are, understandably, parochial creatures. We pay lots of attention to the time and space around us: the recent past (say, the last couple of thousand years, the next century), and the planet which we inhabit. These preferences are, of course, contingent: contingent on our physical size, our senses, our environment, our natural (i.e. evolved) life span, and historical factors like the invention of writing and social institutions. Humans had a long, rich history stretching over hundreds of thousands of years before writing emerged, but of course we have almost no record of their lives, their societies, their gods, and their values. From this point of view, the last two thousand years is just an historical blip. And if we take an even longer look, we’ll realize that this whole human thing is just a contingent blip; when the next cosmic collision wipes out 90% of life on the planet, as has happened many times in the past, what survives and flourishes isn’t going to be human. But that’s OK.


Dan Dennett in fine form

From Dan’s report on the “symposia on faith and religion” sponsored by The John Templeton Foundation as part of the Darwin bash at Cambridge University:

The second talk was by J. Wentzel van Huyssteen, a Professor of  Theology at Princeton Theological Seminary, and it was an instance of  “theological anthropology,” full of earnest gobbledygook about embodied minds and larded with evolutionary tidbits drawn from Frans de Waal, Steven Mithen and others.  In the discussion period I couldn’t stand it any more and challenged the speakers: “I’m Dan Dennett, one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, and we are forever being told that we should do our homework and consult with the best theologians. I’ve heard two of you talk now, and you keep saying this is an interdisciplinary effort—evolutionary theology—but I am still waiting to be told what theology has to contribute to the effort. You’ve clearly adjusted your theology considerably in the wake of Darwin, which I applaud, but what traffic, if any, goes in the other direction? Is there something I’m missing? What questions does theology ask or answer that aren’t already being dealt with by science or secular philosophy? What can you clarify for this interdisciplinary project?” (Words to that effect)  Neither speaker had anything to offer, but van Huyssteen  blathered on for a bit without, however,  offering any instances of theological wisdom that every scientist interested in the Big Questions should have in his kit.

But I learned a new word: “kenotic” as in kenotic theology. It comes from the Greek word kenosis meaning ‘self-emptying.’ Honest to God. This new kenotic theology is all the rage in some quarters, one gathers, and it is “more deeply Christian for being more adapted to Darwinism.” (I’m not making this up.) I said that I was glad to learn this new word and had to say that I was tempted by the idea that kenotic theology indeed lived up to its name.

Via Why Evolution Is True.