Friday, March 29, 2013

30,000 BC, the Information Age

"Ideas are the most valuable resource.  Humans have been anatomically and behaviorally modern for at least 40,000 years.  Take away our accumulated ideas, and we are cavemen." My friend David Jinkins said  that and I believe he is absolutely right.

This week I had a number of discussions with older colleagues at work that lead me to think again about how information is perceived, how vast a pool of information we have at our fingertips today. I was trying to explain the difference in information between 16GB and 16 MB (the amount of material I have made or gathered and the amount of files that were left for me by the previous teacher). I got mostly blank stares, but the difference is huge. I think I have witnessed again the idea of being on a generational cusp. Those who are just a bit older are used to seeing bookshelves and file cabinets as stores of information. Those a bit younger than me are used to looking at bytes of information. 

The very idea of moving from our caveman ancestors to what we are today is the accumulation of those ideas and the ability to store them outside of our collective memories. Information living outside of the human brain, living over vast spaces of time, must have been a fascinating prospect for Mesopotamians.

I still find it fascinating today. The printing press was the first boom in information, but by 1700 the number of books would only accumulate to about  60 stacks each as high as Mt. Everest. A staggering image, but keep hold your amazement. This was just the beginning though, humans were just to realize the true power of symbols, text was the only information technology people used, but in the 19th century things changed. A symbol of a hole or a blank space led to the creation of what some might call the first software, information to picture and back again. As long as you had enough symbols you could represent anything in the entire universe. By 1950 the  amount of information available to us had multiplied 6,000 times, or 360,000 stacks as tall as Everest. Of course those initial expansions in the way information was stored were quite bulky by today’s standards. By now the planet has built a lattice work of wires and non-wire information networks. Human computers, as they were once referred to, were crucial to the modern world, but the invention of the computing machine, the silicon chip, and the internet propelled us to where we are today. This accumulation of information by our collective society has allowed us in some ways to defeat entropy. Just by having information you could create order from disorder. By expending (almost) no extra energy you could defeat entropy, things were not destined to fall apart, but to become more complex. Of course that isn't exactly true, even the accumulation of ideas has to obey the laws of physics, but it would seem that it is only constrained by the eventuality of reaching the limits of storage, something that is becoming ever more expansive.
Every day in my life I carry a 1terabyte external hard drive to and from work. This is my library, literally. I have taken up just over 900MB which would probably be more information than any library I have ever visited contained in it. Next week I am buying a 1.5 terabyte because I am running out of space. This library in my pocket is no bigger than a small novel.  To me this is amazing. Probably even more amazing is that the current collective amount of data at my finger tips through the internet is now estimated to be about 1 zetabyte = 90 stacks of books reaching from earth to the sun. The implications of this are staggering.

Thursday, March 07, 2013

Snake Temple

Last weekend I went with my friend Reed to the Snake Temple just south of Georgetown. I had heard about this place and wanted to see it, but my wife is deathly afraid of snakes so didn't get to until she was gone. Anyways, we rolled up to the temple, which is flanked by numerous shop selling rubber snakes and I heart Penang t-shirts to find a relatively normal temple. The only big difference being that there were vipers strewn about resting on alters, branches, and the tops of pictures. Signs here and there reminded us not to poke them and that we should not worry since they had no venom. Fair enough. There was a wall of pictures with people draping snakes on themselves. I can only assume this was a wall of death, intended to chronicle those who foolishly lost their lives by placing poisonous snakes on themselves.
The real attraction is next to the temple. For a 5 ringgit fee (about 1.5 usd) you can enter the Snake Farm. Not sure why its called a farm, but whatever. Right away when we entered there was this cage with a huge albino boa lolling in it. The guide told us that she and her mate (the smaller yellow snake she is encircling) had mated that morning and that is why she was so chill. I'm no snake expert, but I was skeptical. Anyways, the guide repeatedly told us to stroke the snake. I'm not a huge snake fan, take em' or leave em' I say, so I wasn't in any hurry to touch the snake. The guide proved how safe they were by picking up each snakes head and kissing it. Ok, I get it, the snakes are docile, still the kissing was a bit weird. Finally Reed got the gall to touch it and did so rubbing it from head to tail, which was about 6 meters. Apparently its good luck, but all Reed got was snake on his hand which he promptly washed off (losing the good luck in the process I might add). There were lots of other snakes in the "farm" all along a wall surrounding a courtyard. I would estimate in the walls there were about 50 different kinds of snakes in aquariums. Vipers, adders, even a N. American rattle snake. When we asked about it the guide hit the cage to rile it up and show us the rattle. We asked him if it was de-venomed like the others and he said no. When we asked if he had anti-venom he said no, but the hospital about an hour away did. Though a rattle snake's bite will kill in much less time than that so if bitten you better just make your peace. He then asked if we would like him to go behind the wall and stick his hand in the cage to rile him up more. Uh, no, thanks.
There were turtles, and iguana, a couple of other lizards, monkeys, and chickens. Two other snakes were of note. There was an 8 meter long boa, which was amazingly big. Its head was bigger than my closed fist. There was also a king cobra, pictured. King cobras are disturbing, not because they are cobras and deadly, but because they exclusively eat other snakes. Something feels wrong about that.

Saturday, March 02, 2013

Singapore to Hong Kong

A quick trip to Singapore and then on to Hong Kong gave me a great break from the heat of Penang. Having lived in Penang for about 6 months now I think that I have become used to the heat each day. Now I only sweat constantly instead of constantly and profusely. I actually had a dream last night that it snowed in Penang and I can clearly recall dancing in my living room at the sight.
In Singapore the weather was mostly overcast and rainy, so that certainly contributed to it feeling cooler. I only spent about 36 hours in Singapore and I tried to do what touristy things there are, but since it was Chinese New Year half the stuff was shut down. I did see the Merlion, but I am still confused as to why Singaporeans worship a 5 meter tall half fish/half lion that is constantly vomiting. Its weird. I tried to go to the national museum, the horse races, Kinokuniya, and a number of other places all closed. Oh well, I will be back since it costs only about 30 usd to fly there! 

In HK the weather was perfect. Upper 20’s during the day and low 20’s to high teens at night. It was beautiful. If I could find a place with weather like that all year round that would be fantastic. The skies were also generally clear and HK is such a nice place because of all the mountains and waterfront. It really is a unique place. If you are looking at those photos and thinking, did he wear the same thing the whole trip? The answer is yes! (kind of) I packed a very light 4 day set and did washing at my friends so made a week long trip with about 7kg on my back. I figured, no one would really being seeing me more than once anyways so it wouldn’t matter (except for the people who read my blog, apparently). Yeah me for being practical!

Unfortunately flights to HK directly from KL (where I had to route) were expensive since it was Chinese New Year. For some reasons flights to Macau were considerably cheaper. So instead of flying direct I went to Macau then took a ferry to HK. I was staying with my friend Alex, but the first night I would arrive a bit late and the day I was leaving I flew out early so I booked hotel rooms for both of those nights. I made sure to do it far in advance since it was CNY and I knew that prices would only climb the longer I waited.
Arriving in Macau my CNY experience started off with a bang. There is a ferry terminal a short walk from Macau’s airport and as far as I knew you could not reserve tickets, plus ferries left every 30 minutes so I was pretty sure I would be able to buy a ticket. Wrong. All sold out for that day. So I back tracked to the airport and caught a cab to the other and more active ferry terminal on Macau’s main island. Not too much luck there either, but at least tickets were available. I ended up getting super class for about 50 dollars on a ferry that was leaving in 20 minutes. Despite getting in the immigration line immediately I barely made the ferry. Now, I am sure that as some of you read this and you hear the word ferry you are imagining some bulky iron boat. Not so. These are more like large streamlined pleasure boats holding 100-200 passengers. Plus, you certainly aren't imagining the young man standing next to me who was practicing martial arts on a support beam every 10 minutes or so. The ride was pretty good sailing and I got a meal with my ticket which helped me to forget about the cost of the ticket. Unfortunately I didn’t pay much attention to where the ferry would land in HK and so had to take the subway to get to my hotel. After wandering around for a bit to find it I finally arrived around 9pm. Now, because I was travelling alone and not expecting to do much more besides sleep PLUS hotel prices were jacked up for CNY I aimed to spend about 75usd for the night which left me few options. I ended up making both my bookings at the infamous Chunking Mansion on Nathan Rd. The first night I was staying at the Paris Guest House. Immediately upon entering the mansion I was overwhelmed with a feeling that I had been here before. Ah yes, it was in 1995 when I watched Judge Dredd. The crumbling walls, the hustlers and people of varied ethnicity all squishing against each other in this dystopian place brought me back, to the future. My first instinct was to chuck it in and find a nicer hotel. This was even before I reached the place where I had booked.  
From there forward, it got even better. After I had ridden the elevator in which the regulars managed to cram an extra person in after the weight alarm went off, by standing on their tiptoes by the door I tumbled out onto my floor. When I entered a couple of girls entered at the same time as me. They got to the front desk first and asked the man if he had a room for the night. In my head I was saying, “ARE YOU KIDDING?!? It’s Chinese New Year. You must be daft if you think you are going to walk into ANYWHERE and get a room.” So my turn came and I told the man, proudly, within easy earshot of the girls, “Yes, I have a reservation.” and proceeded to give him my information. Now, at first I thought that either he was sick, or he was on drugs. His eyes darted around, he avoided eye contact, and shuffled a bit. Then he asked me to sit and quickly got on the phone and proceeded to converse in rapid Hindi. Long story short, the hotel had sold my room and didn’t have another one. I argued for a bit, then hit the streets in search of another hotel.
After four hours of searching I was walking back by the Chungking Mansion on Nathan rd. when I was asked if I wanted dope, nope, or a girl (standing right there), nope, or a room, oh… uh yeah. So I followed the guy up to his guest house where he showed me the “room”  which was smaller than a prison cell. By this time it was 130am. So when I asked how much and he said 100usd I said, are you kidding? Its 130, you won’t sell this room to anyone else tonight. How about 300hkd? (about 50 dollars) back and forth we went, settling on 400hkd, the exact amount of my refund from my reserved hotel.

From there forward things went pretty smoothly. I slept through the night only hearing, “No, get your hands off of me!” a couple times from the vents leading to the dark alley next to the mansion. The next day I met my friend Alex and we took a nice hike after he showed me the school he works at , HKIS. He told me that sometimes on Fridays he hikes home after work. Lucky. Bugger. A few days of hiking, sleeping, and eating well in the very pleasant weather of Hong Kong and the company of my friend was enough to recharge my batteries. I even went back to the scene of one of the best moments of my life, where I proposed to Aya. Since Alex lives about a 5 minute walk away it wasn't hard to find, but sure was fun. I pretended to drop the ring all over again. 
We hiked the Dragon’s Back one day, a very nice hike with great views and as we were spit out near Shek O we spotted a mini-golf course. Victorious.  One night we went to dinner with a number of other teachers from his school. It was enlightening. They were all a bit older, 40’s and 50’s and had lots of experience. The thing that struck me most was the average age and tenure of teachers at HKIS. It seemed to be an average age of 45 and a tenure of more than 10 years. I think my school would be about 35 and 3 years.

Spending time in HK was great, but all things must come to an end. As I was preparing to depart I decided that I had better get to my hotel a bit earlier in the evening this time to ensure I actually got my reserved room. When I arrived the man behind the desk asked me repeatedly, “You are Kevin Hurley? Did you come here before? Where is your booking number? How do you know this is you if you don’t have the booking number?” I had not brought the print out assuming that I wouldn't need to. I clearly could see my name written on the list of customers he had for the night. Only after I produced my passport to verify my name did I realize what was going on. They had sold my room to someone else who had claimed to be me. I wondered why they wouldn't just kick them out, but it was Chinese New Year and there was money to be made. That’s my guess. Fortunately this time things turned out a little better and the guest house next door had a, better, room available. All things went well and I took the ferry back to Macau and the plane back to KL and then Penang. As I left the Penang airport the sun was just setting. I got into my car, which had been baking in the sun all day. AS I left the airport I was ensnared in traffic and got lost in the myriad of one way streets of Georgetown taking about an hour more than it should have to get to my apartment. I was home.