Tomorrow morning, I start the Anatomy and Embryology class that all medical and dental students here at the University of Washington take. I’m neither, but since my PhD dissertation work centers around teaching anatomy, I’m taking it.

Anatomy is typically taught using a combination of methods: lectures, living anatomy, and dissection. Of these, dissection is the most remarkable and unique. There’s really no other field of study in which you are so closely exposed to the dead and thus to thoughts of your own mortality. It’s an intense experience. I’m not sure what to think, or how to feel.

I know from visiting the dissection labs briefly last year that I won’t simply freak out and be unable to cope. But, I also know that there’s a pervading sense of unease and queasiness from being in the room that I’ll have to cope with. It’s not clear to me if that will come with time, or whether it will take substantial reflection.

I know that the smell won’t be intense or even particularly bothersome. But, I also know that there’s a raw physicality to it all that reminds me too much of cured meat for that to be an attractive food stuff for some time.

I’m not worried about being shocked. On the contrary, I expect to be fixated and fascinated. I’m worried about the slow moving emotional effect of being around the dead, and what effect that will have on me. Worried is the wrong word – curious and a little apprehensive is probably more accurate. Curious because I want to know how it’ll affect me, and apprehensive because I really have no idea what to expect.

Regardless, it will be challenging, and intensely meaningful. If that doesn’t make something worth doing, I don’t know what is.

Posted in Life, Medicine & the Human Body, Personal | No Comments »

Wow. Just, wow.

For those who don’t know, my hometown of Christchurch just got hit by <i>another</i> large quake, this one “only” a 6.3, but right under the city, and extremely shallow (about 5km). Death toll’s at 75 so far, but there’s still 300 odd people missing, and many ruins yet to be searched. Buildings of all shapes and sizes in the central city have either collapsed already, or are on the verge of collapse. Christchurch Cathedral (often used as a symbol of the city) lost its tower and NW corner, while the big Baptist church on Oxford Tce has been flattened. The Hotel Grand Chancellor, tallest hotel in the city at 26 storeys, is on the verge of collapse, having apparently sunk on one side by about three metres during a ten minute period sometime this morning. If it goes, it may well take a block of neighbouring buildings with it, too.

Photos and videos of the quake and its aftermath abound online. Those showing tangled mounds of scaffolding and other signs of rebuilding from the last quake (September 4, last year, a 7.1 some 40km west of the city), confounded by yesterday’s, are particularly depressing, while others, showing collapsed buildings and great cracks in the road, are perversely fascinating. Those with people are generally uplifting – people celebrating their escape from the PGG building, people helping other people, and so forth. As always, people rise to the occasion of shared tragedy.

My reactions have have been multifaceted:

Shock came first, but passed quickly – after a brief feeling of “not-again”, I was resigned to the fact of it, and moved on. Of course, I’m in Japan, not NZ, so any shock I feel is trivial in comparison to that felt by people there, even those in the safer parts of town where liquefaction was largely non-existent. It was more the shock of seeing the places that make up one’s past turned upside down.

Urgent concern swiftly followed, and it too was blissfully short, with a few notable exceptions; modern communications made it easy to track down most of my friends and family, and despite a lot of worrying about the few who didn’t show up for several hours, I’m now fairly confident that everyone I know well in the city is fine, with most suffering only relatively minor damage to home and contents (chimneys off, shelves down, but no fires or collapses). Similarly, my parent’s house is apparently mostly OK (though I’ve yet to talk to them).

If I’d been there, I’m fairly confident that my next reaction would have been an urge to do something – to find something apparently useful to do and to do it, partly to help and partly to combat the crazy feeling of being useless. Being in Japan, though, I’ve got something akin to survivor’s guilt that I’m going to call avoider’s guilt – the feeling that those I know and love are suffering, and there’s nothing I can do about it. From here, all I can do is watch and sympathize with those I can contact through chat. There’s more to it than this, though, I think. Going back home over Christmas, I had a definite feeling of having not been a part of what had clearly been a defining experience for so many of my friends. It’s hard to place emotionally – it’s kind of like alienation (but not), kind of like jealousy (but not), and kind of like a missed opportunity for solidarity. Mostly, though, it’s just a mass of silly, misguided guilt; a nexus for stress to gather and fester.

Another ongoing reaction has been the sick fascination of reading news reports, watching videos, looking at photos, and talking about events, statistics, political and economic implications, and the underlying natural events. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to know what’s going on, but there’s something perverse about the enthusiasm with which curiosity is pursued in the face of disaster. Yesterday was particularly bad – I just had to keep checking Facebook and the various news sites to see if anything had happened – today, I’m almost gleefully awaiting the collapse of the Hotel Grand Chancellor, an event sure to be spectacular.

To be sure, sorrow and empathy are present, too, but being so far removed, they’re mostly internally focused. There’s certainly sorrow over the places destroyed, but with most of my people safe, what sorrow there is is overcome with relief. I expect I’ll be struck by the angst of destruction and change much more strongly when I go back in December.

All in all, I’m in a very weird place, and though I know that being there would have been terrifying and mad, part of me wishes I was. There’s truth to the idea that life has to be experienced to be appreciated, and I wonder what I might have learned about myself had I been there. Is that wrong or weird? Foolish or silly? Probably. But it’s what’s in my head at the moment.

This last December, while it was strange and vaguely disorienting to return to Christchurch to see the cracks and damage from September’s quake, this next December I suspect it will be much worse. From the photos, it looks like vast numbers of buildings throughout the city will have to be demolished and replaced, and I doubt the cleanup will be complete, even then. It’ll be strange. I can only imagine how strange it is for those actually there.

For now, then, here’s hoping that this will be the last big quake to hit Christchurch for some time to come.

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Went to Yakima a week and a half ago to taste wine. For those who don’t know, it’s a wine region in south central Washington. We were in Zillah, a bit south of Yakima proper, where we visited six different wineries and tasted about 30 wines.

Grape hyacinths are the closest I got to taking any photos of grapes

Before talking about the wine, here’s my rating scheme. Each wine gets between one and four marks, meaning:

  • Four: “Great, I’ll look for this one”,
  • Three: “Nice, I’ll buy this if I see it”
  • Two: “OK, well, I wouldn’t turn it down”
  • One: “Hmm, yeah, maybe I’ll just have water”

This scheme is purely subjective and quite simple, mostly because I’m not terribly good at the descriptive element of wine tasting yet. Nonetheless, it forces me to think a bit and make some sort of judgement, which is really the whole point.

Anyway, on to the wines – here’s what caught my attention:

  • 2008 Two Mountain Riesling: Nice and light, comparatively dry in that it didn’t have a lot of residual sugar, but with sweet honey and floral flavours to make up for it. They noted peach, apricot, and overripe grapefruit in their description, but I could only get peach. They also mention minerality, but I can’t actually distinguish that. Slightly higher acid than normal, too, making for an interesting variation on the riesling theme. Of all the wines we tried, this was probably the best suited for warm summer nights because it was so refreshing. Three summer parasols.
  • 2005 Two Mountain Vinho Vermelho port: This was a find; 100% Touriga Nacional grapes, but with a lot less of the deep musty flavours that some ports wallow in. It was very similar to thick dessert wines and muscats in that it was almost like drinking honey or nectar except, unlike them, it had the complexity and length that makes port worth savouring. Despite being a very young port (only 2005!), it tasted as if it had been in the barrel for at least 10 years. Unfortunately, though, it was fairly expensive ($47), so I wasn’t able to afford any.Four drunken bishops.
  • 2007 Hyatt Black Muscat: Normally, muscat grapes are normally used to make dessert wine; in this case, they were used to make a rosè. Most wines also don’t taste a lot like the grapes from which they’re made; unfortunately, this one did. This doesn’t mean it was boring – in fact, muscatelle grapes have a very interesting flavour that is reminiscent of wine even when fresh, and when my father used to grow these at home, my sister always referred to them as the ‘gross grapes that taste like wine’ and refused to touch them. I, however, loved them, and stole them whenever I had the chance. So, while I was underwhelmed by this wine, I can’t say I didn’t like it. It just wasn’t what I expected from a muscat. Two splodges.
  • 2006 Hyatt Winter Harvest White Wine. Ice wine, divine. With a relatively high amount of residual sugar at 315 g/L, this was as thick and rich as anything else I’ve tried, and, with lots of stonefruit flavours, it was just what I like in an ice wine. Unfortunately, at about $28 for a 375ml bottle, it was too expensive for me. Three fruit salads.
  • Wineglass Cellars. Unfortunately, I lost my sheet of notes from here, which is a pity, because the staff here were some of the most friendly and talkative of the whole trip, and I recall liking several of their wines quite a lot. There were a couple of interesting ones, too; a Sangiovese Rosè, and a Cabernet Franc, both of which I’ve not really tried before. They also had a barrel tasting of 2008 Pinot Noir or Zinfandel that was quite divine. Kicking myself about the lost notes, but will be looking out.
  • 2005 Bonair Grand Reserve Merlot. We tried merlots at each of the wineries we visited, but at Bonair, you got a limited number of tastings, and I didn’t choose this one. However, I stole a sip from someone else’s glass, and learned enough to know this was probably the best merlot of the day, and I missed out. Pity, that. No rating.
  • Paradisos del Sol Angelica G. This was a charming and strange winery complete with random animals and eccentric owner who was really passionate about explaining the tasting of his wines, right down to providing appropriate things to eat with each one. Angelica G was code for a Gewürztraminer dessert wine served with brandied pears. Quite wonderful. Three pears.

Of the wineries, Paradisos del Sol had the most character, Wineglass the best wine-conversation, while Silverlake and Hyatt tied for both most commercial winery and cheapest wine.

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This quarter, I’m taking a design studio class focusing on the dissemination of video interviews of members of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda. You might not be familiar with the Rwandan genocide and the ICTR, so here’s some background:

Over three months, starting in April 1994, about 800,000 Rwandans were killed, mostly with machetes, mostly by their neighbours. Despite the 1948 Convention on the Prevention of Genocide, the international community chose not to intervene, instead arguing over the definition of genocide. To make matters worse, when France eventually sent troops in, they stabilized the country by preventing the army of Rwandan expatriates invading from Uganda from forcing a rapid end to the killings.

If you’re interested, I recommend We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will be Killed With Our Families: Stories from Rwanda by Philip Gourevitch. It’s gripping, disturbing, and difficult to put down.

There’s another book by Romeo Dallaire, the UN general present in Rwanda during the genocide who was repeatedly ordered not to get involved, called Shake Hands with the Devil: The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda. In it, he slams both the international community and himself for their conscious decision to just stand by and watch.

The ICTR was established in late 1994 to investigate the genocide and prosecute its leaders. It’s been criticized generally for its cost, its inability to successfully prosecute some genocidaires,and because it is perceived as serving only to salve Western guilt. Whether it was a success or not, the ICTR is scheduled to close in the next year or so, and at that time, its staff will return to their homes around the world. Once this happens, only documents describing its proceedings will remain, and so last year a team from UW went to Tanzania to interview members of the court in an attempt to capture its human side.

In this course, we’re exploring ways of disseminating these interviews, as well as ways of supporting re-use, commentary and annotation by the various groups to whom it is of interest, including Rwandans, UN staff, international legal experts, and the public at large. We’ve got about 70 hours of video in total, comprising interviews with about 40 members of the ICTR, and we want to make it available online in such a way that people can watch it, comment on it, mark it up using tags or other more formal taxonomies, search it, or re-purpose it.

It’s quite a fun problem area – we’ll get to play with folksonomies and crowd-sourcing, and while the content is rather melancholy, it’s also extremely interesting.

Anyway, as part of the class, I’m doing a lot of writing both on the the genocide and about design theory in general. Since I think a lot of this is probably interesting to others, I wanted to re-post snippets of it here; last Saturday’s post on wicked problems was the first example of this.

PS – I’ll get back onto the music appreciation stuff soon, I promise!

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Posted in History, Life | No Comments »

This week, I decided to make sure that Sunday was a day where I wouldn’t have to do any work so that I could actually relax.

Normally, I’m really bad at relaxing. I’ll spend most days stressing about work, and this saps my motivation such that I get less work done. In turn, I stress more, and my motivation lowers even further. And so on. This is neither pleasant nor productive, and is one of the central stupid things about the way in which I function. So, I’m trying to change it.

The plan is to take one day a week where I don’t stress about work. What’s important is not that I don’t work, but that I don’t feel I have to work. Nor is it even specific to work – I want it to be a day where I don’t feel I have to do anything – where “I just don’t feel like it” is a valid excuse.

The idea is that, by doing this, I’ll be less stressed through the rest of the week, have a little time for reflection, and generally be happier and more motivated. It’s really just the third (or fourth) commandment taken as practical advice – “Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy”.

This morning, then, I woke up, had breakfast, listened to music for a while, and generally just chilled out. But then, something interesting happened – I thought to myself, “Y’know, maybe I might just read that paper I’ve been avoiding”, then ended up reading it through thoroughly, taking notes and everything. By way of contrast, during every previous attempt to read it, my mind was constantly looking for a way out, and no distraction was too small. Today, though, it didn’t even feel like work.

The conclusion I want draw, then, is that, for me at least, motivation has a lot to do with choice. If I choose to do something without coercion, then I feel better about it, do better at it, and generally get it done faster. I’ve heard this idea before and I vaguely recall seeing it mentioned in a paper on motivational theory I read a while back, but I’ve never seriously applied it to myself before.

So, for the next month or so, I’m going to try to treat Sunday as my own personal holy day, even though I’m not religious.

As an aside, I wonder if this is partly why I find task lists so useful for motivating myself. That is, I wonder if part of their value is the fact that they with choices of what task I should do, improving my sense of ownership over the decision to do them, and therefore my motivation.

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Posted in Life, Mind & Society | No Comments »

Finally, it is time to rest.

Last Wednesday, I randomly wandered in to visit Seth‘s office, where he’d just discovered a design competition for applications using Google’s new programmming environment for smart phones, Android. He had an idea of sorts which turned out to be similar to something else I’d been working on, and was keen to enter if he could find people to help write it. It sounded like fun, and I figured it would be nice to learn a bit about the toolkit. Details of our effort are in his blog.

Long story short – after about 70 hours of coding across four days, we submitted our entry this evening. If, through some miracle, we’re in the top 50, we get US$25,000. If not, well, I now know a great deal more about Google Android than I did before I started.

That wasn’t the end of the madness, though – after finishing work on it at about 5pm today, I raced off to the new and improved Christchurch Game Developer’s get together that I had organized with the help of Jeff Nusz from Zodal. Turnout was awesome (20+ people for an event I expected 5-10 at), and the response was great. I led a design discussion talking about Aquaria(review) and ran a panel of sorts talking about the games industry in Christchurch, the ways in which events like that could inspire people and grow a community, and then a bit about how we could eventually start to market the group and lobby government for industry development support. There were several volunteers to host the next one, so hopefully the ball will keep on rolling.

Now, though, I’m going to sit down, watch a few episodes of Yes, Minister, and decompress. Tomorrow’s another busy day, so rest sounds pretty good right now.

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