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  • Dumbo, his feather and an obscure book about Mexico

    Posted on January 1st, 2011 Sheila Yair 2 comments

    elephantTwelve years ago I was standing on the edge of a great adventure. I was about to take my first real journey, my first expedition alone. I was about to become blissfully infected with the travel bug and on the brink of falling in love with Latin America. But let’s put things in their chronological order. It was Christmas and I had announced to everybody that this coming February I am taking off to Mexico for a 4 month trip. My grandmother showing her typical support of anything her grandchildren do, bought me a little book. It was an obscure little book by the title of “40 Off the Beaten Track Hikes in Southern Mexico”, or something like that. It was one of those books you could only get in the era before Barnes and Noble or Borders. It was thin with strange illustrations and not the best binding. It was a book you would find up in the attic in a box you never noticed before. A box which suddenly had a ray of sun light creep through the window and shine on it. A book you would find in a book fair in a remote little town with a weird and mysterious sales person who no one saw before. It was a book you might see in a movie about an adventure. It was the kind of book you might read about in a blog… OK, I am getting carried away, you get the picture. Anyway, like all those magical books above, I skimmed through it and put it aside. I had a lot of day dreaming to do about my up and coming trip and it was Christmas with the family and one should be somewhat sociable around his relatives during the holidays.
    Now we always say never judge a book by its cover, this of course is a metaphor but we can and should use it in a literal way on actual books. Sometimes we should not even judge a book by its content as you will see here.

    So back to the edge of the great adventure, February came along and off I went to Mexico with a backpack, a few words in Spanish I was trying hard to memorize, one run of the mill guide book and the obscure book my grandmother gave me.

    Mexico was astonishing, the colors, the sounds, the tastes. Being alone in a new and fascinating place was a true shock. I was overwhelmed by this new experience. Mexico, or perhaps it was sheer excitement, had swept me off my feet and placed me in a dazzle, in a stupor of bewilderment. It was only on the second week that I took out the little book and started reading it. But it was a totally different book now. The book that was given to me in a snowy white wintery city was now being read on a pristine white tropical beach with a turquoise sea and palms all around. The cover, on which we should not judge any book, was failing in holding the pages within, as the content was jumping out of the book. Suddenly it was not print anymore. All the places mentioned came to life. They were places that exist and not just strange sounding names. Places that have people in them, places with colonial buildings and bustling plazas. Places with beautiful mountains around them. Places with wild fields and magical rivers. There were sounds and movement instead of ink and paper. The hikes described became real and breathing, they were true adventures to long lost treasures. They metamorphosed from a series of descriptions of left and right turns to necklaces of colorful beads and gems swirling through the land.

    But this transformation was not the main quality of my book. The book became a feather to my trip. It set the trip to the sky. You see it was a very simple book with a few hikes in it, 40 to be exact, just as the title promised. How can such a simple book take a journey and hoist it? Well Dumbo’s feather was a simple device that no aviation engineer would look over twice. But it managed to get an elephant airborne.

    This book was the pretext for me getting off a bus in a junction in the middle of nowhere. This book was the excuse to take a dusty road up the hills. This book was the reason I needed, to walk on a long deserted beach. Just like Dumbo’s feather, this book gave me courage to fly. I would get up from my seat on the bus and make my way to the door, the few tourists would look at me strangely, the locals would seem amazed, even the bus driver would look bewildered wondering why a gringo would get off here in the middle of nowhere. What can he possibly look for in this dusty junction? But I had my book and it promised me some waterfall or lake or church. It gave me reason. I was not crazy, I had a feather. Dumbo too had many people look at him strangely, he had many reasons not to leave the safety provided by the ground. His species are the largest land mammals on earth, which promised him a very immense crash when he landed. But he had his feather and he flapped his ears. And there I was in the middle of Mexico flying, soaring through the air, defying the gravity of all the known touristy places, up above the conventional stops with the regular shops and the known tourist traps. I was flying free of destination, touching the very depth of Mexico, absorbed by the country, discovering its land and people. The horizon was a wing flap away and I was immersed in it.

    Sometimes I found the abandoned church, or the trail passing through small hilly villages, that the book promised. But most of the times I did not find what I was looking for. It might have been me who didn’t read the instructions, it might have been the author who wasn’t clear, or maybe just trails that changed new dirt roads that came to be or tides that whipped clear a landmark. But with every new chapter and every hike I always found something. Instead of a waterfall I found Pedro, a local farmer who was cutting wood in the forest. He did not know of any waterfall or river near by, but he took me to an amazing overlook and then invited me home to meet his family and have one of the best Mexican meals I had the whole trip. Instead of an abandoned mine I found Olivia, a very interesting hostel owner who told me countless stories of the history of the jungle and its people. Instead of a cave I found a mountain top. Instead of a delta I found the perfect desolate beach. Instead of a toucan nest I found an emerald lake.

    You see it really didn’t matter if I found the trail or the village or the waterfall, I was flying and finding things with every step. It wasn’t the book’s cover nor even it’s content, it was its presence that kept me drifting. There was no specific destination, there was just the courage to journey. We can argue forever about which is more important, the feather or the flapping ears, the physics or the philosophy of them both. But that would be missing the point. It is the flying we should concentrate on. An elephant with a feather or one without are very similar but the difference between an elephant on the ground and one that flies is vast. Would any one of us play a lottery that had no prize? Would we go and buy a ticket and carefully fill in the numbers to a draw that promised the grand total of $0? Of course not, just writing this as an example seems weird and illogical. But would we play a lottery with a fraction of a millionth of a percent chance of a grand prize? Millions do. The mathematical difference between zero and a fraction of one millionth of a percent is insignificant. But the difference between hope and no hope, between $50 million and $0, sends millions of people with a dollar and a dream off playing week after week month after month. The feather, the book, the mathematical probability, they don’t have to be of significance, of great physical force or presence. They just have to make us believe, to give us the excuse to leave the ground. By nature we all have flapping ears. I don’t mean we all look like Prince Charles. We all have the longing to fly but we also have the creative ability to do so. We just don’t always have the feather or faith to attempt it. We can all fly, whether it is on a trip, in our career, in our community, with an invention, or any creative endeavor we take on. We just have to recognize the feathers.

    A few years ago my girlfriend and I were riding comfortably on the bus of life. We had good seats up front, cushioned by good jobs, an apartment, friends and all other conveniences that modern life offers. But the trip had become stale and a bit predictable. So we got up to leave the bus. Everybody around us was shocked. They all said it is a great idea to go traveling and how they wish they could do it too, but in between the lines you saw their bafflement. The thoughts of us being crazy were swirling around every false salutation, choking every fake smile, strangling every fake word of encouragement. Like the busses in Mexico, the bus of life looked at us peculiarly as we got off. But there we were traveling through Europe, the Middle East and India. Roaming through organic farming, goat husbandry and bread baking. Climbing mountains and crossing valleys. Flying through the fascinating things life and this planet have to offer. I won’t go in to much detail as I have written extensively of our adventures in this blog. I will just say that what we have done and seen are priceless.

    These days we got back on the bus of life. The funny thing is, that the bus of life never really changes that much. Sure we don’t have our prime seats, our cushions are not quite as comfortable, but it is defiantly bearable. Aside from that, not much else has changed. Our friends, our family, work all is there in the same place. Almost as if we never left. You see you never really miss life, it is always catchable and always at reach if we find the courage. I guess I am saying there are much more excuses than feathers but it shouldn’t stop us. Any moment that is not spent flying in one way or another is a moment wasted. And wasting any finite resource is a shame.

    Dedicated to my brother Yigal, who has been flying for several years now in quest of knowledge. Sometime through rough weather, sometimes alone, but always forward.

  • Windows and the cavemen

    Posted on December 30th, 2010 Sheila Yair 2 comments

    leaf I was kayaking down Conesus Lake in upstate New York. Every now and then I managed to get my eyes off the tantalizing water and its intricate reflection of the sky, clouds and colors of the evening sunset broken in silky patterns of the lightest waves. As I looked up, I saw many houses with huge windows. At first it didn’t make sense. Why have big windows? They are hard to insulate. You can’t hang pictures on them. They compromise the privacy of your home and are not as strong as walls.

    But on second glance I saw a longing in each of these huge windows. A necessity.
    This necessity to feel outside while indoors threw me back many years to some ancient memories. Not my own memories but those of mankind. Memories from when the Homo sapiens just started building the human house.

    When our first ancestors climbed off the trees, they encountered the first element of the human house, the floor. It was an amazing perspective, here is this great surface lying beneath you, pushing you just as hard as you push it, creating a supportive surface, producing a vast land of opportunities (the original one). The ultimate infrastructure beneath your every step, beneath your every aspiration. As many new technologies, it was offered for free as a beta version for whoever was willing to test it out. And test it out they did. Climbing off the trees, with their first steps, they were about to form a new species forever tied with this new concept. It was a perfect time to proclaim one small step for man; one giant leap for mankind, but both man and mankind were just forming, and the terms were still a ways a way from being coined, so it was saved for a great conquest of a different floor. This floor, albeit being comfortable for those first humans, was much more than just a sole of a shoe supporting their first steps, it was fertile with life and plants, it climbed high with the mountains, dove deep with the valleys, channeled the wind, absorbed rain and reflected the sky. Those first men found the ground solid and knew they encountered, pardon the pun, solid ground for their development. And off to develop they did. The floor was the first step but being the hungry-for-change species that they were they started looking for more. The second step was the wall, the forest, the hills, the cliffs all provided some protection from the elements and allowed this newly forming species to rest a bit and contemplate their progress.

    Then one day, low and behold, opportunity comes knocking on human development (it would have knocked on the door but doors were not invented yet). Like every great discovery, man stumbled on this one. It is truly a beautiful occurrence when technology is built on technology, like a brick on a brick until there is a wall. One man discovers steam, another one invents the steam engine. One man invents a computer another invents a monitor and mouse and yet another invents some useful software. That is what happened that day that opportunity was looking for a human door to knock on. That day man has stumbled upon a cave. Now the floor technology was going very well, if the first version had man sheepishly and hesitantly walking, the newer versions have him running, dancing and hunting. But here man has stumbled upon something that will take this floor concept a giant leap, leaps and bounds one might say. To the floor was added a few walls and to that the new revolutionary element in the human house, the ceiling. Now we were talking about all three dimensions, we are talking about a bundle of different elements working together. Man saw the cave and thought, man cave, cave man, and he liked the way it sounded. Today very few of us would move in to a house before it is finished. We would not think of starting to move our furniture while the contractor and builders are still putting up the walls. But for humanity this was all new and exciting and they saw no logic in waiting. So in humanity went. No more rainy days, no more cold or heat. Man has found his home. And so the earth lay peaceful for a while, and man was content.

    Another interesting thing to see is how a certain technology is invented for something but then evolves and is used for something totally different. When man first saw the cave he thought of protection but as he moved in he started feeling his first notions of possession. And man enjoyed that feeling greatly. The land was much too vast to own anything in it. That was back in those days, it has shrunk and lost that trait ever since. A hill, a river or a tree were much to wild to posses, but a cave could be all yours. The cave also enabled man to start taking more charge of his own life. He could now store food and water, he could bare the harsher elements. Humankind was not a baby anymore, it was rapidly entering its childhood. Man liked this feeling of ownership and with the cave came more possibilities of possession. You could have ‘things’ now and store and collect them. Your food, your hunting spears, your leopard and zebra skin outfits. The word ‘mine’ has found man and man embraced it with great gusto. So now there was a need, for the first time, to protect what was his. So man went ahead and built that last wall sealing him from the world. The animals could not help but wonder where this strange creature who throws spears at us was. You see that last wall was built with not much foresight. Man has trapped himself in his beloved cave with his new belongings. Neanderthals have developed alongside Homo sapiens this whole time, making the same advancements and steps. But here was the splitting point. The humans managed to quickly invent the door and save their race from one of its closest calls. Neanderthals did not come up with a solution to their entrapment and vanished off the face of the earth. With time man learned to build his caves detached of the mountains. He would build them anywhere and from a vast array of materials. But the basics where always kept, the floor, the ceiling and the walls with a door. The doors were very small at first allowing only the desired people in or out but with time they grew bigger and bulkier with locks and chains and wooden beams. The more time advanced the more the door had to protect behind it. It held its ever important purpose of separating the inside from the outside, separating what’s mine and what is not, the individual from society. Windows were also added at some point. They where big enough to allow you to shoot arrows or collect intelligence, but were always limited so as to not break the solitude and protection of the human house. Things ran their course for a while but man was missing his cave in the pre-wall era. He was missing watching nature, seeing the sky and the seasons. But by now man has developed a distinct taste and many of the items in his cave are very sensitive and delicate and don’t mix well with the elements. He needed a partial porter, a barrier that would block the outside but not its vista. Man was in his young adulthood and his command of materials was impressive. Glass was recruited for the task and eventually the windows got bigger and bigger.

    I will admit, myself, there are times when a closed house, fully protected from the elements, is convenient. Over this summer we were living in a rural up-state area without a car. We were 3 miles from the nearest town, 6 miles from the nearest supermarket and 30 miles from the nearest city. Without any public transportation we reverted to walking and riding our bikes to conduct our business. Cars make our world small and it was nice to be in a big world for a while. It was partly because the lake is so beautiful and is hard to leave, so why have a car, partly because I can just hear my mom being very proud, and of course partly because it is always nice to save a buck or two while minimizing your carbon footprint. One of these days I was riding from Rochester to Geneseo, a good 30 mile ride. It started pouring on me from the first mile and didn’t rest for a single inch of the ride. By the time I got to Geneseo, I was wetter than the lake itself. Thousands of rain drops have found their way to me and settled on my cloth, bike and skin making us all one big canteen. It was very nice to slip into something dry as I had a hot soup and warm toast. I could watch the rain and hear it but I was out of its range. I was inside but still immersed in the outside. I was in my cave but longingly watching nature out the window.

    For as much as we have developed. With all our advancements and inventions, we still miss the time we were walking our first steps connected to our mom, mother earth. We still yearn for the era where we have not yet invented worries, careers, time and trouble. We were as free and as curious as little children. We have worked hard to disconnect ourselves from nature to build our own world with our own things and our own identity, to distance ourselves from our mother. But one can never fully detach himself from his parents. And so we try to connect again every time we look through one of our big windows, subconsciously we remember the time of our first cave, longing for the lost innocence of paradise, for the warm embrace of nature.

  • The age of information

    Posted on November 3rd, 2010 Sheila Yair 14 comments

    glassesI am sitting here at my friends’ house admiring their one-year-old daughter. As I am watching her, the actual her, there is also a video of her at 6 months playing in the background. Now, this little girl has about a year of existence under her belt (if she could wear one), but around a year and a half worth of documentation. It would take you about a year and a half to go through all the videos and pictures of her. Well putting first time parents pride aside, I am trying to describe the amount of pixels this little creature has already indirectly has created. I can’t even start to estimate the number. But as I am contemplating this, a flash goes off and another 8 million pixels come in to existence. Now, only 35 years ago when the first digital camera was put to the test in the Kodak labs, it took 20 seconds to generate a 10 kilo pixels image. So there was probably less than a mega pixel present on the face of this planet. I can’t begin to imagine the number of pixels my friend has but can anyone even try to estimate the number of pixels existing in the whole world? And I have just talked about images, what about all the text oriented information? The video? The charts?

    We are swimming in an ever-increasing ocean of bites and pixels.

    The difference between oceans of data and information is accessibility. Google, Microsoft, yahoo and others have made fortunes realizing this. Your data is only as valuable as its accessibility. I could have all the answers in the world, all of them, even the big ones, but if I can’t match them to the questions then really all I have is a pile of yes, no and make a left on the next traffic light. I mean here I have an answer, “Yes”, but if I don’t know if it is to, “is there a god?”, or, “is it my turn again to throw out the garbage?”, I really have nothing. So on that pretext, I begin my story on information.

    We were heading back to the U.S. from Italy and we got one of those connection flights, switching in Frankfurt. Upon arrival in Newark we went to my Aunt and Uncle’s house. That evening was dedicated to talk and battling jetlag. The next day it was time to show a few pixels. We had been on the road for almost a year and a half and in our many iniquities, we accumulated quite a few pixels. So out comes the laptop, and as I try to plug it in I notice the plug is a little difficult in fitting. But as I turn the machine on I am prompt to sign in as Clive. It takes me a second to realize what happened here. The first theory was of a virus taking over the computer. But that lasted for a half of a second. I then thought maybe Sheila created a new user and deleted us as users. But that also was in the split second group as far as existence. I then realized the inevitable. This was not our laptop. As we went through security and took out our laptop a switch has occurred. Now if I was sporting one of those trendy air books it would be one thing, but I am one who never quite understood the concept of a laptop. The totally incongruous name aside, a laptop should be portable, hence small and light weight. Having lived in New York City for a long time I dislike cramped spaces, even if it is a screen. So I carry an 18 inch dead weight around which I call a laptop. But here in line to security in Frankfurt, right behind me or in front of me is standing another person with the same misguided concept of what a laptop should be. And he or she is even carrying a product of the same making. What are the chances?

    So here we are with a little bit of data, which we will try to convert into information. Especially the whereabouts of my precious pixels from a year and a half of traveling.
    OK Sherlock what do we have? Well not too much- we have a first name, ‘Clive’. OK don’t panic, this is the age of information. So off we go to look for Clive on Facebook, only 30,000. A first name is not the best search term but we narrowed it from 7 billion people to possibly 30,000. Next we know it happened on the Air India flight going to Newark. So we call both Air India and Newark to see if anybody has reported a missing laptop. Newark is a maze of phone numbers that lead to other numbers, that finally get to a voice message of a very honest Sargent who quite simply tells you he is totally overworked and the airport police understaffed, so he can’t really get to this phone nor listen to the messages too often, but you should never the less leave a detailed description of the item you have lost. Well we are still in pitch dark here as far as the case goes, so we leave that detailed message. Then we come up with the bright idea of calling the laptop maker. Who ever dealt with databases knows that every table in a database has a key, one unique definition every row of information that makes it easy to locate. And while we only have a first name for our computer holder, we do have the serial number of his or her computer which the company can easily locate, thus having access to their address and having the ability to put in contact the two misfortunate parties and have them both retrieve their lost computers. Ah, the beauty of turning raw data to valuable information, these are the moments that put smiles on database administrators, the moments that make this great age of information worthwhile. Well in order not to disclose the computer manufacturer I will only use their initials, so I will refer to them as HP.

    Off to the phone we go barley able to contain our excitement at solving this little case. As we call this HP Company’s customer service we are very quickly disenchanted. We realize immediately that we are talking to the country from where our airline originated. Yes this is one of those many off shore calling centers that take half an hour just to understand your problem. It then takes you about half an hour to try and decipher the reply. The woman on the other line tells us she cannot do anything for us and we should go to the local police station and report it. “They will get your computer back”, she assures us in her very heavy accent. I can just see the clerk’s face in Morristown New Jersey as I explain to him about my mishap in Frankfurt Germany and ask if he can do anything. “Why sir that is horrible, I am dispatching three units right away. We are also going to have to involve some FBI units on this one, as it is international. Heck we might as well get MI-6 and the Mosad in on this you don’t know how big this might get.” Well off we go to the local police station. “They will get it back for you”, echoes in our heads. The police officer at the desk is very nice and does a great job not bursting in laughter as we ask him what can we do. Well he lets us fill in a form and he even assigns a case number to it.

    So back to calling India. Some times in a database you have certain tables that are confidential, restricted, password protected. We know where the data is, we can almost see it, so hopefully this case number will be the password that makes it available to us. In India another representative answers and again tells us the local police is best to deal with this. We inform her that we went there already and even have a case number. She says she can’t give us private information like that. I tell her I do not want any information, just call Mr. Clive and give him all my information and tell him I have his laptop. No can do. She says that maybe if the local police station calls them she might be able to talk with them. At this point I stop being polite about this whole local police option and explain to her that the local police are not going to do anything. This happened in Germany and they have nothing to do with this. I am forced to draw my last card, the all mighty, “let me talk to your supervisor.”

    The offshore representative: My supervisor can’t talk to you right now.

    Me: I’ll wait (it’s an 800 number going all the way to India).

    The offshore representative: He will tell you what I told you.

    Me: I still want to talk to him.

    The offshore representative: He doesn’t want to talk to you.

    Me: You mean to tell me HP customer service is refusing to talk to a customer? Can you say that again because I am going public with this one.

    The offshore representative: …OK, a supervisor will call you back.

    A little like those automated menus, if you are stubborn enough you eventually will talk to someone. So now a person from the U.S. actually calls us. Of course each time we have to go through the whole story describing the incident. He tells me it is a breach of privacy and that the best I can do is open a ticket and give HP consent to hand over my information if and when Clive calls them. Let’s assume Clive does call you guys, and complains, do you really think someone will put the two cases together and say hey lets get these two people talking? No the supervisor admits. Well then, ‘Why do you even suggest this as the solution?’ I think to myself. I reiterate that I do not want any information, I just want HP to inform Clive of the whereabouts of his laptop. I ask the supervisor if he wouldn’t be glad to hear from somebody if he were to lose his computer? He admits he would but stands firm on the fact that it would be a breach of privacy. He is in eternal loop mode now, and he will give me the same answer until I hang up. I tell him I am very disappointed with his company and the level of their customer service, “it is a breach of…”, he replies. I part with a polite and aggressive mid sentence hang-up. These companies won’t think twice before sending you promotional material or even sending your email to other companies. But to inform you someone has found your laptop, well that would breach your privacy. Well how is one to read all their non-privacy breaching promotional spamming if he doesn’t have his computer?

    My uncle, who works for a company that deals with this HP company extensively, says he will try and get one of the big players over at HP to help us. The only thing he comes back with is that the computer was purchased in the United States. That’s not a huge help, but it is good to know.

    Well it seems we are back to square one with only a first name. OK, the other party involved here is the airline. We are a little sick of the phone by now, and decide on a house call, an actual visit to the airlines offices in Manhattan. Yes let’s see if the personal touch will get more results.

    So Sheila goes in to the lions den to see if she can meet with someone who is a little less of a privacy advocate and is actually willing to help two lost computers find their way home. At this point it has been three days, we have not heard anything from the nice Sargent at Newark, we have exhausted the HP possibility and the local police not surprisingly has filed our case in the paper recyclable bin. Since we had Sheila’s name and last name on our login screen we figured Clive will have a much easier time finding us than we him. Sheila does only have about 6 cousins and 2 aunts who are named exactly as her, right down to the middle name. Don’t even ask about that, it’s an Irish thing. So we posted a message on her Facebook wall and made it public. We even opened a tweeter account and tweeted our distress. But there is a sea of information out there and Clive has shown no sign of life. I start thinking we will never see our computer again, with all our software, images, music etc. Oh well at least we have another computer to reformat and start over with.

    So back to Sheila at the Air India office. She is greeted by a very nice representative. She reservedly describes our predicament along with all our efforts to retrieve information. The representative takes pity on Sheila and starts ticking away at he computer. Yes there was a Clive on your flight, she informs her along with his last name. It seems he booked his ticket through Expedia, let me call them. You know how when your stuck in a traffic jam, moving 5 inches in 15 minutes and all of a sudden it clears and opens up, those few first moments of blissful moving, that energy of actually propelling the car at the speed it was built for. Well that was the feeling as information about Clive started to appear. His full name, his email, a phone number. It is the information super highway, the Clive one, we have been waiting so long to ride. Sheila, sure that this information won’t be shared with her, whips out her eyeliner. She secretly writes all this down in nervous bulky shaky letters. Once off the phone, the representative happily hands over to Sheila all the details. She tells her the phone number is an Indian one, probably of the agent who booked the ticket, the email also looks very abstract and random. But beggars can’t be choosers and this information is a huge leap in the case.

    We go back to the internet and this time our search results are narrowed down to two. There is one Clive in Illinois and one in New Orleans. Now this is a data set that is manageable. We search for any contact information about these two Clives but to no avail. At this point my aunt steps in and suggests we try the 10 digit number, it might not be from India. Sometimes you are so busy trying to solve something while the solution is right there in front of you staring at you. Low and behold the area code is none other but New Orleans. Can it be? Can this be the closing to the case? With trembling fingers we dial the number. It is an answering machine with a British accent. Well that is promising since the Clive in New Orleans is of British decent according to the internet. We leave a message describing our peculiar situation and ask if this might be the right Clive. After less than a minute there is a call back. It is him. He was very tired and busy and didn’t even unpack his bags yet. So while we were jumping through hoops, pulling out our best detective skills, he didn’t even know he lost his computer. We exchanged addresses and shipped our wrong computers off. After a few days our laptop is back home along with all the pixels and bites we love so much. Elementary my dear Watson, we started with 7 billion people brought it down to 300 million then to 30 thousand then 2 and then one. The age of information, where data is flowing everywhere and occasionally put together as some useful information.