Thursday, April 14, 2016

3 days after surgery - pain, breathing, diet. Thursday April 14

Recovery from RP surgery has shown me some new things about breathing and diet important even to life before/beyond surgery. Breathing exercises and control of breath are a central part of yoga and of yoga-like exercises all over the world, so I was surprised to learn a little something of real value this week that I didn't know before. Diet likewise, though the week raises questions more than answers. I will go into detail below.
As for the surgery itself - I had high expectations for my surgeon, Dr. Chung of INOVA Fairfax, but outcomes exceeded even those expectations. One result: much less pain than expected. I still remember the awful pain I felt for a week back when I turned 14 and had my appendix taken out; this has been far less. Operation on Monday 8AM , out on Tuesday 2PM (though they offered longer stay if I chose). As I left, I asked when last I had Tylenol or percocet for pain. The nurse said "none at all today. You asked it be used only as needed, that you would tell us if you needed it."  From then to now, I still get pain easily if I make the wrong move. Some people just don't move if they risk pain, but we can move by choice and will. The pain signal allows me to move with less damage to the body than without it. Does pain also turn on reflexes bad for a person recovering from surgery? I am glad my pain has not been so serious that I have to worry about that.  Even on Monday, when I woke up on the same intravenous (IV) hookup they inserted at 730 that morning, dispensing some pain medication, Luda noted that I was clear and normal, not like others under heavy narcotics at that stage.
That's the good side. On the bad side, living with catheters turned out to be more restrictive and obnoxious than expected, and diet issues are tricky. I am glad it comes out in 6 days at 9AM! At the hospital, until I left, I was wired up in 4 ways - catheter, IV, and two "sequential compression" sleeves on my legs.  The sequential compression sleeves felt really great and really right for doing their job (massaging legs in the best way to prevent clots or Charley horse) - until I saw how they were hooked up, with plastic pipes, not consistent with medical orders to just walk around 5-10 minutes each hour (partly to avoid leg clots but not only). One reason I decided it would be better for my recovery to leave the hospital: the IV. Hard enough to move around with big catheter avoiding pain; IV was too much and unnecessary by then.
Another reason: diet. As I prepared last week, I found a recent paper explaining what is really known about digestive systems relevant to surgery and more.
 My ex wife, who recently went through more serious surgery, said she wished she had seen that paper in advance. Issues like strain, nausea and bloating can be problems after any kind of surgery, or even in normal life. But a broad spectrum of nutrients is also vital to the rate of healing, and to the "microbiome".
From day one, I knew I should drink lots of water, and I made a pest of myself asking for refill after refill of the water pitcher. But: I think this helped improve my score in one key metric of progress after RP: the color (blood content) of the liquid in the bag. As Dr. Chung looked at that, he said the catheter could indeed come out Wednesday or even Tuesday.
But the paper also stresses the need to use the natural digestive system more, while taking foods and medicines tailored to minimize problems. Maximum fiber, minimum fat (though many oils help), protein. Lots of pious stuff exists on the web about sacred beans and rice, and I remember still the crackers and tea for flu decades ago, but last week I simply checked numbers I hadn't paid much attention to. At DC Costco, ever so many cracker boxes proclaiming great fiber benefits and such.. but the real labels didn't fit the hype. At Costco, we did buy kashi, dried apricots, and a zero-fat bag of crackers/pretzels. But at home.. canned salmon is more stellar than I realized. 
And so, for these tricky initial days, I prepared juice and broth, Miso soup with canned salmon instead of my usual clams, and a bowl of plain yogurt with heated frozen berries and kashi. That fit the research a lot better than the choices at the hospital, and was one more reason to leave.
But today I still wonder. Even the best scientific knowledge about the body leaves very basic questions unasked, let alone unanswered. I suppose I shouldn't get too deep on that right now.. but I still don't know yet what the first solid output will be like or how feeding the microbiome factors into this. Those questions (and some loud "meows" from the abdomen) persuaded me to give in and say yes this morning when Luda offered me to share the delicious duck soup she made for breakfast this morning.
Breathing... Since my pain was low and my consciousness intact even as I woke up in the recovery room Monday, I was bemused and curious when they asked me to inhale through a plastic device called an "incentive spirometer." They wanted to be sure my lungs didn't suffer from surgery/anesthesia. I was happy and proud I could pull the blue disc almost all the way to the top, and happy to see surprise on the face of the nurse. But then she said: "OK, but now you must do your homework. Every hour, you must do this ten times. It strengthens the lungs, but more important, it prevents you from having too much coughing. Coughing could really hurt your sensitive internal organs trying to heal." A kind of treadmill for the lungs.
Later when they finally moved me up to the GI Ward on the 11th floor, I saw another one of those plastic spirometer in a plastic bag, sitting next to the one I had used already. It seems they give these out like soap in a package in hotels. I wish I had asked whether they planned to discard the one I had used, and, if so, just taken out home. It did not look big or expensive. Training for the lungs, to reduce coughing, pghlem and snoring, could be very handy. More seriously, the kind of deep breathing which this device trains plays a key role in all kinds of activities. The Wikipedia article on incentive spirometer notes that people who play wind instruments, who really have to get their breathing right, already use this training tool. Of course, one can do deep breathing without the artifice, but extra feedback can be very helpful. Many people may do breathing exercises and other exercises over and over.. getting it wrong always due to lack of feedback. Still, a trick would be to use the device in a way which does not distract from other dimensions of such exercises/experience.
Just last night, I realized I might be about to risk a painful cough... and remembered to do that kind of deep breathing, which did work.
So many other details which I should cut short. I wish instructions had been clear to bring small extra bag to hospital (toothpaste, Kindle, cell phone). Was impressed how the whole surgery depended on one older nurse, Irene (maybe Latin American) who could insert IV so much more than others. A supply problem with beds left me hear other conversations in the recovery room a long time, and in the DC area they were interesting. Less intensity upstairs on the ward, and less hand washing. Luda searched months ago for best urologist in DC area, and showed me just two choices, one reason my expectations were high. But now my GP warns what all this could do to kidneys... Oh well, man is still mortal.
No pictures. Would violate esthetic standards. I write this on my Galaxy Tab. Laptop too heavy; desktop violates rule against sitting with legs not elevated. I copy this standing in front of desktop. Heavy fluid intake rules out use of small leg bag – constraining but healthier and i need to be as healthy as possible about this.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Last Day as a Normal Person Before RP Surgery

YESTERDAY was my last normal day before radical prostatectomy tomorrow.
To celebrate the last day of an era... and remember/honor the kind of full normal life it was before, we decided to go first to the DC arboretum and fully soak in the vibes, before going to DC Costco for some final shopping. As it was, we also put in a quick early trip to Target to fill two more prescriptions, as I will explain. Life was 100% normal even today... until I got out of bed, and new orders went into effect.

By the way, I recently discussed this with a guy who ran all of DOD’s health programs around the world. He said: “Every man gets prostate cancer sooner or later, if he lives long enough.” So I will discuss a few lessons learned below.

These pictures were from the arboretum. The first is self-explanatory, and had an amusing resonance with my situation. I very much remember Luda’s laugh when she suddenly noticed the parallel. But the second was actually taken earlier. We would have wanted to say hello to the eagles at a high point we have often visited, which has a dramatic view of Capitol Hill through the trees, but the area was closed off with very strict warnings. As we stood on the azalea trail looking at the new fence and signs warning us to go no further, someone friendly came up from behind and quietly pointed. There, just behind us, was the male of the eagle family coming out to visit US.

Luda says that people call the nesting eagle couple “Mr. President” and “Mrs. President.” Should I add a caption to the picture, saying here is the new Mr. President... or just the new eagle father?

Beyond that, doctor’s orders are to do nothing really heavy today, just relax and amuse myself... and stick to the very specific preoperative regime. “Clear liquid diet.” Luda and I have debated just what that means. I even did a bit of web search, for example leading to an important technical paper:  

Luda I need to figure out better what this really tells us... but I get the impression that “clear liquid diet” is a kind of ancient mantra, that different operations call for different restrictions, and we don’t really know. For example, is dark grape juice OK or not? What about...? Until I reread the instructions for a third time, I will just assume the worst, and limit to water and broth. Yeshua ben David suggested I experiment more with water, and maybe this would be a good time. Even one of my more mundane physicist/brain university friends says he lived OK for a month on nothing but water in the Sinai, so why worry? But would more nutrients help in a serious way with healing?

No caffeine, no alcohol, no aspirin, not even vitamins – just for one day now. No problem, really.

I was very happy at the preoperative visit last week, with a nurse practitioner, to learn that 5-year survival rate for patients in my situation having this kind of operation (radical prostatectomy, RP, by robotic surgery) is over 99%. I had learned lots of stuff on the web (including journal articles) and read three books, but still learned new things from what she gave me last week, and from material my ex-wife was kind enough to give me yesterday. I learned the importance of exercising the WHOLE strip of kegel muscles all the way from the far back to the very tip, and learned that some papers saying it is only the “larger of two muscles, in back” to exercise was flat out wrong. (It is fortunate that our recent cruise encouraged exercise of both.) I learned that “natural fertility is now almost impossible in any case,” but that in all other respects the lilacs could fully come back in about a year. Also that I should not pay any mundane attention to that aspect for about four weeks now, because it is premature, and I need to focus almost entirely on the more immediate risk factors which need to be taken care of. Also, as the nurse practitioner advised, I visited, and downloaded the book.

For the next month ... it seems that the two most life-threatening risks are, in order: (1) blood clots in the leg, due to general immobility; and (2) infection. These are important for most major surgeries.

Luda says: “follow instructions, but don’t worry too much about (1). You didn’t even really know what a ‘charley horse’ is until a couple of years ago, and you certainly have exercised your legs a lot this month.” Sounds right to me. I remember ancient Red Cross lifeguard classes, where they said a lot about how to handle charley horse in the water, but it never meant much to me... until one night a few years ago, I felt... one day a lockup in my leg, and another day in a foot. I was worried, but Luda laughed and explained what to do. Massage some, gently put weight on it, get fluid, and then exercise it a bit to clear everything. It sounds as if the risk here is basically from more of the same, from more immobility and not enough water. Drinking lots of water should be no problem, or following the prescribed regime of 5 to 10 minutes walking every hour. “No prolonged sitting either on hard surfaces, or with legs dangling down. If you sit, sit in bed, or in that soft leather easy chair in your living room.” That sounds doable.

Infection... ex-wife (about to get her PhD finally in a medical area, after decades of experience) suggests they should have done more to emphasize what to do to prevent that, above and beyond the showers tonight, tomorrow morning at 5AM, and sometime on the day (Wednesday) after I return from the hospital (Tuesday).  The importance of keeping more parts of the catheter absolutely germ-free. The difficulty of properly instructing someone on narcotic painkillers just before discharge on all the important details. "Make sure they show you that injection system, and make sure they actually have you do it in the hospital." 

Lots of emphasis from everyone that in the first ten days (before the catheter is removed) that I really should take three medications every day and not wait for things to impel them: (1) dulcolax twice a day; (2) a prescription blood-thinning shot; (3) percocet, a narcotic pain killer. I chose not to fill the percocet prescription at first, because I have a real, deep horror of narcotic drugs, and mistrust of how they are being used. But after lots of pressure, reassurance, and arguments that my healing will be slower and more problematic if I don’t, I gave in, and we ran to Target/CVS to fill the prescription.  I am also a bit puzzled about the blood-thinner injection, since simple aspirin is also a blood thinner, but I suppose my liver may be working overtime with the other medicstions, and I will follow instructions in any case; no real problem. I also need to control my diet very firmly for a week, and less firmly for a month, and my level of exercise. (Essentially... none except walking, complex liquids management, and rare walking up stairs carrying nothing over 10 pounds.) They say people can go back to work in 4 weeks, usually, on average, but it varies from person to person. Even kegel is out until catheter is out.


And that’s all. I do begin to see interesting things in the cortical electrode data (from Jennie’s rats) I was starting to look at... but I may have troubles following up in a timely way with all these distractions...

Also, it hits me how my blood test (PSA) was not so scary, only 4, just a year ago, but spiked up suddenly not long after our trip to India last year, which certainly was hard on my digestive system both at the time and at a kind of time of revisit a couple of weeks later... I wonder.

Friday, April 8, 2016

Cartagena: From Human Sacrifice to Freedom to Gog and Mag

Cartagena: From Human Sacrifice to Freedom to Gog and Magog

This is one of 137 pictures we took in Cartagena, Spain, 

on Thursday March 17, the day of our first shore excursion from our cruise last month on the Norwegian Epic. It was a great pleasure that day to walk off the ship to the main road leading away from the port – a very broad, clean, bright pedestrian-only street, leading up to many other things. Aside from walking through town and looking around from high points, we focused on four main historical sites, in order: (1) Cerro del Molinete, the beautiful well-marked archeological area containing excavations of a Roman forum and also the site of an ancient Phoenician and Roman Temple, back to back; (2) the strange dark building, Monte Sacro, in the picture above; (3) the well-reconstructed Roman ampitheater in the center of town, next to a nice local free art museum and friendly cats who acted like guides to us; and (4) Castillo de la Concepcion. Both (2) and (4) were visible from (1), dominating the two closest hills, but interesting-looking buildings were atop all the far hills as well.
            Going to Cerro del Molinete was a very nice experience, but Monte Sacro was basically just a loose end even at the end of our cruise.  (At the Castillo, I think, they wrote the term “Cantarranas” for Monte Sacro.) At the Cerro, they recounted how that historic hill was nothing but a low-class neighborhood full of whore houses and such just a century ago, and how the modern beautiful site was the result of a lot of digging and work, still ongoing. I wondered whether Monte Sacro might be the same kind of thing, still undug.
            After the Cerro, we walked towards Monte Sacro, but it began to seem odd. As I walked along one of the paths you see in the picture, Luda cried out and urged me to leave, when the second of two very odd characters started to appear. I was sad that I never got a close look or picture of the big plaque you see behind a pole where a lower trail branches off, a plaque which... well, it seemed to have a lot of Chinese characters??? As we walked down to the parking lot below, and to the main road, we also saw people in headscarves heading in the opposite direction to an enclave below. Crossing the street, we saw a big church, which proclaimed it was the center of Cartagena, and felt like a strong, defiant outer wall.
            NOW that we know what to look for... most of the mystery is explained on the web, in plain Spanish, IF you know where to look. This hill was actually used as setting for a movie on Iraq! More seriously – UNDER the modern brick building, there was an ancient temple to Saturn, where human sacrifices were performed. (Also on the web are pictures of the bed used by a vagrant in the trashy interior of that modern building in the picture.) It sounds as if they might indeed excavate and beautiful this hill too in the future... but what about that (Chinese?) plaque? All this I learned just now from Luda, who showed me the Spanish web site. (“Who knows? Maybe that plaque was for the water system they used the building for in the past century..”)
            Human sacrifice. This is not the first time I have run across that grim reminder of our past, a reminder which often is suppressed from sanitized textbooks. I also remember in Xian, in their main museum, the plaque which calmly and briefly discussed how routine that was in the great enlightened new Zhou dynasty (new in about 700BC, a great march forward in progress at the time). I remember how sad I was last year or so, in visiting the Stonehenge of New Hampshire (Salem, New Hampshire, in terrible repair since I saw it in the 1970’s, when the documentation and evidence was much stronger), coming face to face with the sad reality that even “our people,” the daring people of the boat civilized even in ancient megalithic times, propagated that same terrible error. And yes, we have seen such things in Hawaii and Mexico.
            The histories of human sacrifice reminds me that very elementary errors in logic can have huge impacts on the fate of an entire civilization. Today’s cultures are making similar such errors in logic, just as serious and just as dangerous. The core error in this case was to assume that “psychic energy” or “mana” is conserved just like physical energy, and can simply be stolen or abused without ... risk or loss. Enough on that for now. This Temple of Saturn reminds me of the two paintings of Saturn devouring his children, which we saw just three days before that in the Prado in Madrid. It is appropriate that our ego, and the higher self of the noosphere, should reassimilate and defuse specific memories and archetypes/prototypes in the mind, but this kind of excess... is very serious and very sad. Simple category confusions can cause so much damage in so many parts of life!
            Much more pleasant was our first walk that day, from center city to Cerro de Molinete, leading up the site where we saw this plaque...

As we walked off the ship onto the big pedestrian road, we saw a tourist information place on the left side of the road. They were very helpful, giving us a map and showing how to walk to reach the place where we saw this plaque. It was not entirely trivial where to enter the archeological area! We turned right after awhile onto a less inspiring side street, where the new Roman forum excavation is taking place on the left. We did not pay to enter that area, though we did look at it, but continued ahead as the guide had told us, even though it was somewhat discouraging. Two cats appeared... an interesting story... but in any case, we continued, and turned left after we passed the excavation site. And then on the left, as we climbed, we could see the great site. It was very inspiring there, either to look up to where the Temples were, or to look down from there all the way to the water, with a view dominating the whole city. But our pictures do not really capture that.
            I did try to meditate on what the ancient Romans and Carthaginians were doing and feeling in that place. It was amusing at one point, when I felt I was tuning in, to hear out-of-sequence loud church bells reminding me that  there is also more modern history in that place. The Romans, in defeating the threat from Punics (“the purple people”) who wanted to take over Rome itself, felt they were bringing more enlightenment and freedom to this part of the world, and defeating ancient forces of totalitarianism and superstition, providing a kind of open and enlightened order to the world. How sad the Romans must have felt later, when the new Roman forum was constructed below, with places for plebs at the bottom and an altar for the Emperor God at its top. Was it more enlightenment or just a stronger form of the same old ancient poison?
            Recently a friend said... the power of the dole, of Roman citizens depending on the dole, was at the core of Rome’s degeneration and fall. Not really. That was a later stage; WHY were so many Roman citizens on the dole, after all? Not so many independent farmers were left after large landowners exploited the POLITICAL economies of scale in taking over the land, and using slaves to do the work, supported by “reforms” on Rome’s Capitol Hill very similar to what many in Washington are now moving towards.
            On our way back from Monte Sacro (point 2 of our 4), we found our way first to the back door (with help from a white cat when we were a bit lost) and then the front door and paid entry of the Roman ampitheater. It was nice and clean, but such a standard site I will not elaborate here. It was easy to visualize the power of the place when it was full and colorful and new. Some of the wall slogans praising Caesar and his family reminded me a lot of things some people have been saying about Trump and his family lately. More seriously, it was interesting to read more about Caesar Augustus’s effort to promote and restore true Roman values (???) through lots of such communication efforts all over his empire. “Well, at least he brought peace.” (But to what extent does Jesus get more credit than people know, and to what extent was Augustus leading to the peace of the grave, of a path to inevitable death of his entire civilization?)
            Point 4 – Castillo del Concepcion. There was a nice statue in front of the Carthaginian founder of Cartagena, whose name I already forget, predecessor of Hannibal. But inside, the museum was mainly about modern history. There was a great view, and access to ancient cisterns whose history seems not fully known. Were these cisterns there in very ancient times, somehow connected to Asclepius and healing? The museum suggested it. The peacocks were also very friendly, and we have pictures of them. They even had conversations in “meows”. We had intended to walk down at least by the cliff trail, but it was blocked off, so we took the elevator both up and down. After we took the elevator down, we were back to our usual routine of running and fast navigating through semi-familiar streets, to make the “all aboard” of the ship.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Finding the Real Jesus in Agrigento, Sicily??!!

Finding the Real Jesus in Agrigento, Sicily??!!

Years ago, I had a friendly conversation with a Moslem woman, a professor of engineering, who asked me what I believe about Jesus. I said: “I really believe he was an important and authentic spiritual leader, full of real connection and energy, and what you might call a prophet, but I don’t believe what it says in Santa Sophia, that he was co-creator of the universe.” (The plaque in Santa Sophia appears to depict him and the Roman Emperor as co-creators of the universe.) “I remember how they asked him ‘Are you the son of God,’ and he replied: ‘You are all the children of God.’” “Ah,” she said, “Then you really are a Muslim.” But in truth, every major attempt to incarcerate spirit in political power tweaked by big money has led to critical wrong decisions so far on earth; those imams who try to enforce the idea that Mohammed was “the last prophet” and enforce a nonviable fixed point control system, sharia, are just as dangerous to the soul as the idols which Mohammed smashed in Mecca. Above all, those political religious leaders who lack all spiritual depth are naturally terrified by things they do not understand and do not control, like the actual natural function and flow of spirit in the world, through all humans and all nature; the worst crime is when they try to stamp out all spirit, for example by suppressing the practice of “itzjihad”... but the same happens in Christianity, as I will discuss. (By the way, don't try to figure out who this female Moslem professor was. I have known quite a few of those.)

But no, I do not worship Jesus as an idol. To worship him that way is to lose the possibility of making a more real connection to him and his thoughts as a kind of friend. That would be a very big loss.

But who is the real Jesus?

I do not pretend to know, but bit by bit I do get some impressions. On March 21, Holy Monday, Luda, Chris and I had a couple of hours to walk through the ancient center of Agrigento, the highlight of an official ship tour from the Norwegian Epic. We took a number of pictures of the three official temples along the way... but the strongest feelings I got were actually based on probing the way itself, combining the temples, the path, the ancient Christian crypts and even the area of the great destroyed ampitheater. Our guide did a magnificent job of explaining all the history... but for this city the main thing I remember was how it was once a very large democratic city-state, second only to the old Greek capitol city of Sicily (Syracuse), permanently destroyed and depopulated by sea raiders like Punics and Saracens. And how at its height it was the base of Empedocles, one of those Greek thinkers I read about long ago just briefly in colorless textbooks. A smaller, modern city still exists in the area, away from the sea, but we walked through the ancient city.

Tuning in to the temples and the various streams of thought... all had plusses and minusses, things to support and things to guard carefully against, like most mass fluctuations of thought on earth... but at some point... suddenly an inrush of something very powerful. No, it does not seem that Empedocles ever joined the Order of Pythagoras (which curiously I was initiated into many years ago, briefly but in a technically correct manner)... but certainly the power of the image of the theorem of Pythagoras was really palpable here, and full of qi... and I felt all the energy of a returning relative to a very, very serious family. The sheer depth of the spirit of truth and the spirit of mathematics was very, very palpable here; qi is a flow of energy (accompanying forward thought propagations), not a static state, and there was a lot of flow at this time and place.

In the old history texts, they describe how Empedocles was author of the old fire, water, earth, air atoms idea – now associated more with folk witchcraft and such, but very different then. But it seems that more central than those four elements was his emphasis on attraction and repulsion as the great, mathematically understandable forces which he saw as governing everything from the smallest elementary particles to mundane macroscopic reality to the planets and stars to the level of existence we now call “spiritual.” In fact, many of the Greek and Egyptian schools talked a lot about “the law of attraction” in magic and in life.

Magic? Was Jesus a practitioner of “magic”? This is the kind of situation where people really need to be very, very careful how they use words, to avoid going off the deep end. For example, there are people who gush with enthusiasm about “miracles” but also righteously say “suffer not a witch to live.” What is the difference between “miracles” and “witchcraft?” For many bosses, the important thing is that miracles are anything which support their power, and “witchcraft” is anything which threatens it. Yuk. But there is another important distinction, between trying really hard and humbly to understand what one is doing, versus wild uninformed stabs in the dark. As the song has it, “If you believe in things you don’t understand, you suffer.” That is true of today’s quantum and nuclear physics just as much as it is true of hedge witchcraft!!! It is even more true of the scary things many people want to do with electrical stimulation of the brain. But Empedocles and Jesus were not of that kind. Jesus took the moral high ground, but he did not refrain from developing what many people call “miracles.”

Some of what I feel about Jesus comes from Yeshua ben David, and his description of that old Jewish family, which has pushed for more love and peace of mind for millennia. But one can also tune into his words (recalling that many of the words which come to us in Greek were tuned by that same Roman Emperor I mentioned, and other politically biased folks like Iraeneus (sp?)), correlating them with experience available today. And Aramaic sources . And there is an old question from all the various schools descended from the Greek and Egyptian mystery schools: namely, what was Jesus doing between the time when he was 12, already impressing leading professors in Israel, and when he returned? It is said that he spent many years in Egypt, but what was he doing there? Did he receive any esoteric training the help him as part of his path?

I tend to think he did. One part of his training was the meeting with John the Baptist, and the various things they did with water, which extends naturally to the world of healing. (That's not my specialty... even though I could use a lot of it this week!) But it hits me that of course the relatively new concepts of Empedocles were then a major force in serious thinking.

The most amusing thought: how much does the full spirit of love, manifested and promulgated by Jesus, actually owe an historic debt to the spirit of truth as from Empedocles and his school, which radiated out well beyond Agrigento itself? (Is it now time for the spirit of love to return the favor, and support more the spirit of truth and mathematics, in mutual support?)

It also gets me to think: how much analogy is there between Jesus, on the one hand, and three otherwise very different people (with more questionable associations) – Liebnitz, Snowden and Raiffa? (I believe very deeply, with grounded mathematical foundations, that all kinds of comparisons like this are important to our understanding and balance, even if we need to control ourselves when we make them.) Let me start with Raiffa, the one with the fewest enemies and the one least well known to the general public. The analogy might be Jesus: Empedocles:: Raiffa: Von Neumann. Von Neumann, the greatest mathematician of his century, developed many fundamental concepts crucial to a deep understanding of life, such as the notion of a cardinal utility function (a better, cleaner reformulation of the ancient idea of telos). Raiffa played a crucial role in explaining and popularizing the power of those concepts of Von Neumann, inventing “decision analysis” (decision trees) and other tools connecting the ideas to more of the full power they offer to real people engaged in real life. In the same way, the idea of “attraction” and “love” as very powerful, very fundamental forces deserved much more than academic treatment with benefits to the elite of society; Jesus worked hard to bring out the full power of this vision to all the rest of us. (What about the dark side, or repulsion? Not today, please. We see enough repulsive stuff on TV right now, important but... not today.)

Leibnitz and Snowden? Well, certainly there were folks who wanted to crucify THEM.  But even I get that honor at times, and it’s not what I mean to emphasize here. I suppose that Newton felt about Leibnitz in the same way that many at NSA feel about Snowden.

I have seen authoritative, serious history texts (long ago, sorry) which state that Leibnitz was a secretary of a Rosicrucian body years ago, and some folks say that Newton and Francis Bacon were also involved in such groups. Think about it: Newton saw people he knew mistreated and executed for not subscribing to the trinity doctrines enforced by the Church of England, even after the reformation, and he knew he was much further from the usual views than the ones being killed; why WOULDN’T he feel a need for discussions and learning out of sight of such murderers? Why wouldn’t he and people like Bacon quietly but effectively support the creation of more mass organizations, like the freemasons, to counteract that kind of oppression? And yet, the emphasis on an enlightened elite did have its downsides.

Leibnitz seemed to have come to a great moment of resolve, as irritating to Rosicrucians and to Newton, when he decided that this stuff should not be just for the elites. It needed to be brought out into the open, for the sake of all the people of the world.

But Jesus, unlike Leibnitz and unlike Snowden, was not breaking any promises when he decided to take it public.

Enough on that aspect.

Is there really some kind of powerful “law of attraction” and objective power of love as a spiritual as well as mundane principle operating in our lives? Does this make any kind of sense?

Absolutely. It is so all-pervasive it is hard to know where to begin. For me here and now – since everyone has personal experiences of love and attraction, and they are all very varied, maybe I should focus on how we can make sense of this, logically.

Let me begin by referring to my starting point,, uniting science and spirit. Instead of calling things “spiritual,” maybe I should now use the word “noetic,” referring to flows of information (ala IT?!) within the noosphere (including even its connections beyond itself). The claim is that the noosphere, like the brain and like working “deep learning systems,” is an intelligent learning system, and must therefore rely heavily on a backwards flow of information to steer its learning. This backwards noetic flow may be called “higher qi,” or “higher psychic energy” or “noetic modulated backpropagation.” As part of his very extensive work, Freud developed a theory of “psychodynamics” in which every forwards thought or recognition is accompanied by a backwards flow of “psychic energy” conveying affect or “cathexis.” Just as mundane brain cathexis drives the development of human personalities, noetic cathexis drives the development of the noosphere which, working through all creatures on earth and even some aspects of the mundane physical world directly, drives more and more of what happens on earth. In fact, the strength and will to survive of the noosphere is my main reason for not giving up on the survival of the human species right now, given the overwhelming clear mundane challenges which face us.

And so... a few years ago, by reflex, I couldn’t help sending out strong positive feelings to a nearby movie theater where I could see movies in stunning 3D IMAX. (like Avatar, first.) And since my mundane and noetic aspects are coupled together to a greater degree than most people experience... and modulated up... it did not totally surprise me that... suddenly Congress announced that the whole agency where I worked would be moved to exactly the parking lot of that movie theater. Many other forces were at work, and I really did not intend inappropriate indiscriminate support for the parking lot of the theater... but as they say in ADP design, very precise credit assignment is hard to learn. Or, as they say in higher Confucianism, the CORRECT direction (zheng) of qi always requires more learning and more discipline, for all of us, to get it right and to survive. Love, but love more powerfully and with more focus on what is really important. This is as fundamental as it gets.


And some minor things...

The other day, someone was grousing about science. And now, I can even see an analogy between science and the monkey god of India. (Analogies can be such amusing and risky but instructive entertainment!) Someone was grousing about how science is not everything, and should know its place. In Mind_in_Time, I think I remembered a stricter analogy, between science and poetry. Logically, poetry is just a subset of the larger discipline of putting words onto paper; in a sense, it is a small subset of prose, just as squares are a small subset of rectangles. But it is an extremely important subset, important to cultivate for its own sake.. so long as it is held within the right context. It is essential to understand how poetry is a subset of prose (to the extent that squares are a subset of rectangles), partaking of properties of the larger set, but also to appreciate its unique benefits and get full value from them. Third-person science is a strict subset of the larger first-person science, described in Mind_in_Time. And third person science is basically a vital crystallized manifestation of the spirit of truth, which we really need much more of in order to survive our challenges as a species.

Is this a hierarchy here? Third person science to first person science to spirit of truth, like monkey god to Vishnu to atman? In formal study of intelligent systems, I worry that hierarchical thinking has often gone ‘way too far; for example, in managing large organizations, it is crucial somehow to keep an eye on the larger goal, and NOT set up each agency to pay attention only to its own stovepipe mission. (My paper on space policy with Ed McCullough, posted earlier on this blog, gives an example of how one could reduce the most fatal stovepipe problems.) Yet we really need to be able to focus very hard on very specific subgoals and missions, as PART of how we cope with the larger whole; this is a practical necessity in a supercomplex world. We need the ability to focus forcibly on subgoals, yet also the ability to hold them in suspension to some degree, and balance with other subgoals. I do regret that Mohammed and Freud and I were just a little but too mean and thoughtless in our approach to such Jungian archetypes as the monkey god, in past years... and I thank Orson Scott Card and Annie Besant for a bit of balance. But... still... we do all need to work together more towards our common survival, or...

At least I have never been mean to Jesus, or vice-versa...

But where do spirit of truth and spirit of love (even mutually supporting) fit in in the very largest context?

Here I must be careful, because I do not wish to stimulate technologies more dangerous than the little things I have talked about before (like how to build planet-busting bombs). These are actually related to the kinds of things described in the science fiction The Hermetic Millennium by Wright, which discusses the key idea of partitioning information into the most dangerous part and the part important for eveyone. Wright uses the odd word “devarification” for a very crucial concepts in the areas of self-organization (life!) and systems. Does that sound academic? Well, life and survival are so closely related, it’s hard for me to empathize with folks who don’t immediately see that this is what I’m going to talk about.

If Teilhard de Chardin’s view of the noosphere were the whole story, and if the noosphere were the outcome simply of natural processes (even with dark matter and energy entering in) on earth, I would really be giving up on this planet at this time. As in “eat, drink and be merry... and hope for some independent soul...”. But his picture is simply not plausible. Like most sanitized, politically correct versions of things... it sounds good but would never work, and depending on it too much would get you killed. (Kind of like relying entirely on SpaceX or Lamar Smith’s missions to Mars.) The problem is... in a word, entropy. Yes, folks, I have done lots of advanced mathematics on what entropy really is, and even posted a recent simple overview for mathematicians at But no equations in this blog...  You can see enough about entropy just by watching TV news these days. Entropy is also the core reason behind aging and cancer in human bodies. The only way bodies can resist entropy as long as they do is because evolution across MANY MANY bodies has caused the development of special mechanisms, like what Wright calls “devarification”, which effectively fight the relevant types of entropy. Noospheres would never have reached even the childlike, immature capabilities we see in the earth noosphere, if they too did not have a larger interstellar history, just as we know dark matter does. We have to bite the bullet: live totally in the ultramundane universe of Karl Marx and Ayn Rand, or accept that reality may be really that “crazy”.  This is not to discredit the very important partial insights of Marx or Rand, or even to discredit the idea that all reality may be governed by nonlinear PDE. (Do go to that web site!) But .. well, life experience has convinced me we do need to “go over the cliff,” and face up to the complex nature of the emergent reality we are living in.

And so:

Survival in our complex cosmos is NOT consistent with any fixed point notions of order (whether sharia or canon law as they sit today). For any such complex, effectively stochastic realm, survival and stability (“devarification”) require something more like what Yorke and Ott call “chaos control” – strict on SOME dimensions but compatible with great variation, as is true for ordinary mundane life itself on earth. This implies specific mechanisms within the noosphere, which might be called “higher order,” more like mental discipline than like the mundane rule systems designed today to try to freeze an unfreezable world. And so, the spirit of truth and spirit of love... are themselves basically just manifestations of that order, the manifestation of which is our best hope for survival.

Much more is needed... but this blog entry already reached its word limit.

Added later: I wish in retrospect that I had had a camera with me years ago when I visited Hagia Sophia (San Sophia) in Byzantium, and taken just one picture: that plaque I saw in the entryway.
This morning (day after initial post) I did a google image search on terms like San Sophia emperor. It mainly yielded filtered orthodox images of Islam and Christianity, but when I focused on the emperor or entry part, it returned a lot of Erdogan, a cat on a pedestal, and even a masonic lodge, as well as a tourist about to pick his nose. But Luda and I have ideas for how to find it... 

Monday, April 4, 2016

Mathematical economic thinking as one key need for survival

Mathematical economic thinking as one key need for survival

Last night I meditated some on the larger implications of some technical discussions we have had within IEEE, on the future of automotive technology, with direct implications for the larger issues of climate change and global security, which will substantially affect whether the human species survives or not. More concretely: on the Lifeboat list, I have summarized the most serious threats of human extinction as “H2S/NUC/AI/(bio?)”. The threat of death by H2S is not so simple as worrying about our carbon footprint, but reduction in greenhouse has emission is certainly one of the important variables affecting our probability of death by the same H2S mechanisms we have discussed before, which have several times already caused mass extinctions of species on earth. Likewise, conflicts related to oil directly affect the issue of death by series of nuclear wars and nuclear terrorism, more than most people understand when they live their lives in narrow stovepipes and try not to think too hard about scary unpleasant realities of life. Finally... I do not mean to discuss the scenario of death by Terminator AI,  but there actually are some connections to what I will discuss here now.

To understand these concepts, starting from square one, really takes a lot of background. Therefore, this blog entry will be long, and I will send much briefer bits of it to a couple of places – referring to the blog for a more complete discussion.

One reason why this is important: Yesterday, at a Quaker discussion group, someone raised the question: “What good is it for retired people like us to speak truth to power anyway? We are not the ones doing what really matters.” I pointed out that folks who develop policy statements in the White House (like OSTP, which I visited a number of times in earlier years) could say the same thing. They speak... but are always in the shadow of the people who do real things. Real things like actually developing new types of space technology or solar technology, or coping directly with large scale realities of issues like education, health and poverty.

Auto industry technology is one of those places where real things are happening, or not happening and possible. It sounds small to many people to talk about AC versus DC in 480 volt recharge stations, yet this impinges directly on all three of the things which might kill us all or not.

At the end of a long listserv discussion, one person argued hard that pure electric vehicles like Tesla are much better than plug-in hybrids like the Chevrolet Volt or the BYD Qin, because they have a better carbon footprint. “Therefore we should make it a policy simply to shift directly to pure EV like Tesla.”

In my view, his argument is just one more example of the fact that humans in all walks of life can be brilliant about the details of what they are doing, and how they achieve their subgoals, even as they get totally mixed up about what their goals do to the larger reality of human life. I saw that over and over again at NSF, when many proposals were brilliant and world leaders in “how” to achieve some goal, but totally confused about the importance of the choice of goals, the “broader impact,” and the connection between their own work and that of others.

Yesterday, I responded to his argument using the same old valid but fuzzy principles which any well-informed energy economist would use. I wasn’t altogether stupid in my reply, but I was operating at my usual late afternoon level of consciousness:


I worry about climate change more than 99% of the population does, but even so I view national security, nuclear proliferation and emerging conflicts in the Middle East as adding up to a problem just as big and just as lethal as climate change.

Another way to think about EV versus PHEV is to think about how to use rational market design to get a kind of optimal mix. In reality, silver bullets and single products have always never been the best arrangement/mix for any major energy market; there are lots of segments. If we don't intend to pass laws requiring everyone to buy EV and not PHEV, the challenge may be more figuring out what kind of incentive or "externality payment" (ala tax breaks) would be appropriate for both. EVs and PHEVs both benefit if there are good and proper incentives for both. Also, the development of the two technologies is synergistic.

But again, a lot of the details (at least for the national security side) are in the transportation addendum already out there. (On the web site of, an addendum to the National Energy Policy Recommendations, NEPR, for which I was one of the many original authors.)

For climate change... I personally worry a lot about whether anything we can do now is enough. So far as I can tell, our best hope lies in finding ways to get the technology ready so that we can move quickly when and if people smell... not the roses... but the poison. That would include not only new energy technology, but also technology to make various types of geoengineering better and more available. Despite all the colossal lip service, most of what we need to be doing to make such breakthroughs possible is still not being done, due to all kinds of politics at many levels, and I find it ever more difficult to visualize a way forward with hope. I am glad that some of you still have hope and energy, at least for part of this.


But this morning, in meditation, I see that this reply, while valid, was shallow, and did not capture some of the real issues of life which will decide whether we live or die. One of those issues is our ability to think mathematically... something which STEM education should be trying to advance, at least for those of us able to learn to think more mathematically. People say “tell it like it is” – but when reality is ultimately mathematical in nature, that means making a place for the real truth, even when it means being more mathematical. Local priests and shamans, when trying to defend their power have often pushed the idea that ancient Hebrew or Arabic or Latin or Greek or Aramaic or Tagalog are the one true language of power of the spirit and the cosmos – but I would predict that none of those languages, even English and Spanish, would have much traction beyond the earth, but that mathematics (albeit with minor notational differences) is the one language we speak on earth which connects to the entire galaxy. Mathematics and images. So maybe I need to speak real truth, mathematics, at least to IEEE folks in such discussions.

Human species extinction is not the only big issue before us. There are also issues of spiritual growth, quality of life, etc. They also deserve attention, but to survive we need to be able to think about mundane survival, to focus with laser-like intensity on the issue of avoiding human extinction. In this post, I will limit myself to the issue of extinction.

The issue of extinction may reasonably be operationalized by trying to minimize the probability that the human species goes extinct within the next 10,000 years or so. (Why 10,000 years? To avoid distraction FOR NOW on issues like the Darwinian evolution of humans into some other species, and that kind of thing.) This is mathematically just one example of the classic problem of maximization over time in a nonlinear stochastic system. The most complete overview of workable methods to address such problems in given in the IEEE book, Handbook of Reinforcement Learning and Adaptive Dynamic Programming (RLADP), edited by Lewis and Liu, for which I wrote the first chapter giving an overview of the entire field.

Some people view RLADP as just a branch of control theory, but there are many areas of human endeavor, like economics, which also address optimization problems. Norbert Wiener, one of the founders of modern control engineering, explained a lot of the mathematics of what it takes to make a working thermostat which doesn’t go unstable, but he also had discussions with Von Neumann about how to push ahead to solve more difficult problems, leading, for example, to the creation of the neural network field. (Buried somewhere in my house I have a book containing dialogues of Von Neumann, Wiener, Warren McCullough and others which led to the McCullough/Pitts neuron model and the birth of that new field of research.)

Many people in control theory and in fundamentalist religion (two closely related streams of human thought!) got as far as the thermostat in their thinking, but find it uncomfortable to push further the way Wiener and Von Neumann did. “What is a probability anyway? What is the connection between what Von Neumann talked about  and real life? Either we survive or we don’t. Where is there a probability?” But more realistic branches of engineering understand that there are stochastic factors even for humble systems like thermostats, and we need to cope with them. One of Von Neumann’s followers, Prof. Howard Raiffa of the Harvard Business School, did a magnificent job of teaching people the real meaning of probabilities and optimization in real life; his simple, readable book which created the field of “decision analysis” and decision trees gives lots of real world examples based on new work he did for real oil companies, where wildcat drilling is an uncertain game of probabilities – a game without which we wouldn’t have an oil industry.

One of the “thermostat people” complained to me a few years ago: “You optimization people are ‘way too optimistic. You say you want to make outcomes better, but in the real world it is hard enough to keep things from falling apart altogether. In the real world, we need a system of order, a stable state which may not be the best, but won’t fall apart. We need solid, ironclad linear degrees of stability – something we can prove, because only when we assume things are linear can we really prove anything with confidence. Stability is all.”

I even remember as workshop on electric power where one of the power engineers (NOT representing all power engineers!) said “you guys can forget optimization. If someone comes to me talking about anything but stability and provably stable linear systems, I won’t even talk to him.” At that same meeting was an executive of a power company who had funded his work, and he said: “I’m glad you told me that, because you need to know that no one will get any more money from US unless they show they can include maximizing value added and consumer benefits in the equation.”

More seriously, when the thermostat guy spoke to me, I replied: “No, it is YOU who are too optimistic. Life is not really certain or linear. There is NO WAY that you can actually give an absolute guarantee of survival or stability under realistic assumptions. The best we can in the real world is to maximize the PROBABILITY of survival, and that’s an optimization problem. Even a mouse in the field cannot guarantee it will survive the next day; the best it can do is to maximize the probability that it survives, and its entire brain evolved to cope with that kind of real-world problem as best it can.” (I tend to view sharia and certain kinds of Vishnu thinking, and JudeoChristian fundamentalisms, all as a search for a stable fixed point solution – to challenges which do not have that kind of solution.)

So – what happens when we look at the problem of maximizing the probability of human survival through the lens of ADP mathematics, the mathematics which is appropriate to that kind of problem? To get real, I need to get a little mathematical.

It turns out that there is a very tight connection between economics and ADP. In fact, there is a Greek letter “lambda” which embodies that connection in a very powerful way. In first year market economics, people sometimes use the letter “p” for price and “q” for quantity, but more advanced work (like Ken Arrow’s seminal books) the vector “lambda” represents a vector of prices. In optimal control theory, there is something called the “Pontryagin equation”, which uses essentially the same lambda vector – but obeying a condition which ensures optimal policies and allocations across time. (Microeconomics usually pays more attention to optimal allocations in equilibrium, as in general equilibrium theory or the newer dynamic stochastic general equilibrium.)   In RLADP, I developed a stochastic generalization of the Pontryagin equation, first described in chapter 10 of the Handbook of Intelligent Control (White and Sofge eds, Van Nostrand, 1992). That generalization is the basis of Dual Heuristic Programming (DHP), the algorithm which led to the breakthrough in hit-to-kill missile interception by Balakrishnan, and a number of other successes.

A well-trained energy economist would explain to my IEEE colleague that real markets entail a diversity of prices and suppliers, reflecting the diversity of costs and consumer preferences across a complex world. That’s embedded in what I actually said. But in actuality, to maximize the probability of human survival across a dynamic changing landscape... the real story is that we face a future movement in prices/lambdas if we follow a policy course which really maximizes our probability of survival. Now only are there mixes of prices across the world, as the economist envisions, but there is a trajectory of future prices. The best strategy is not simply to just make believe we are living in utopia now, but ... it’s like planning the orbit of a spacecraft (one of the real applications of DHP!)... and yes, I agree with my old colleague that we do need to be especially careful to develop what we need to be flexible, to be able to survive and prosper under a wide range of unexpected conditions, good and bad. That’s reality... and we need to be able to be clear about it, and not fall back into unrealistic, unviable fundamentalist ways of thinking when we make the move from general principles to actual implementation and action and market design. Market design itself is absolutely fundamental, as is honorable and open competition in general. If we only have honor, or we only have competition, we die.

Saturday, April 2, 2016

Highs and Lows of Life on Norwegian Epic

Highs and Lows of Life on Norwegian Epic

First, the bottom line: if we were billionaires, we might well spend about ¼ of the rest of our lives on Norwegian Cruise lines. As it is, living off a pension but with platinum status and with Luda finding good deals, we will probably continue at about one cruise per year. This year, we went on two cruises within the past few months, each very different. The highs and lows would be very different for different people, at different times, on different ships. On this cruise, the food, the drink and the spa were the high points on board the ship for us. The clear, absolute low point was the setup of the room, with nothing but a thin glassy partition between the sleeping space and the toilet, forcing all kinds of gyrations for all three of us at night.
       On our previous cruise, on Norwegian Escape to the Caribbean, I spent a lot of time on the ship meditating, especially about deep issues in basic physics. All three of us (Luda, me, Chris) used the rope-climbing system on the ship, and other exercise options. The setup of the room was no problem. To our local Quaker Meeting, I described the experience as “being at the quiet fulcrum of four great forces of nature – the sun, the stars in the galaxy, the ocean of life, and Luda.” But this cruise was quite different. With 13 days on board the ship, and only 4 sea days, I decided to focus more on the unique opportunities on-shore, which Luda organized and optimized to a degree which would curl the hair of people who believe in orderly predictable robust control (except on Majorca, where we walked into the ship two hours before the all-aboard deadline). This time, the ship was more for food, recovery and sleep – though we did see two live shows, both of which included interesting dancing girls and other engaging skits. Because I am scheduled for prostate surgery in 9 days, I resolved not to let hormones flow in my bloodstream the way I used to when watching such sights, but there was still a lot of room for the normal, safe flow of thoughts and qi.
            We arrived at the ship on the afternoon of Wednesday, March 16, taking the local port bus from Barcelona city center. The lines seemed long to me. (20 minutes?). There were friendly local girls managing the lines for NCL, and they did not implement the fast lines for gold and platinum customers we had used before. When we finally got to a check-in position, however, the girl was quite friendly and asked what we had seen in Barcelona. “The new cathedral, the arc de triomphe, the far market, the Picasso Museum, the street from the plaza down to the harbor circle, the whole path down the middle of Joan of Arc boulevard, and ...” “How many days did you spend here?” “Oh, we just arrived this morning, by overnight Alsa bus from Madrid.” Ah, the look on her face! And the feeling of pain in my feet... I had agreed with Luda that I needed to build up my body for the coming surgery, so I followed her intense itineraries all the way, and felt pain in my feet every single night... and often more than just my feet.
            On board, they were unusually religious about blocking entry even to the floor of our stateroom, before all assigned cleanups were done. (I never saw that before on Norwegian.) So Luda and I went straight to O’Sheehan’s, where we ordered Thai chicken wings and I ordered Newcastle ale. (Norwegian now offers four types of chicken wings, of which Thai is the spiciest. They were very good, and we came back many times on later days. I slightly preferred their older system, with just one type of wing and a spicier dipping sauce, but it seems most customers do not want as much spice as we would.) O’Sheehan’s food is free for everyone on Norwegian ships, and available without reservations almost any time of day, but the ale would have cost money – except that Luda had gotten a special deal including unlimited free food and drink for all three of us all days. Just that day, they did not have Newcastle, but they had Guinness and Boddington as backups. By the way, Chris went up to the Garden Cafe up top, where there was a broader selection and a great view, where he could have his personal freedom.
            I don’t like the geometry of O’Sheehan’s on Epic, with a noisy bowling alley visible close by on the good side, and noisier video games on the other side. I preferred the old “Ocean Blue” from earlier ships. They say that Norwegian will be renaming O’Sheehan’s back to Ocean Blue in the future, maybe because other folks felt the same, but I doubt they will be able to fix this geometry on Epic! Whatever... It wasn’t so bad, and the food tasted great right then.
            As I eased my feet, Luda eased into some news she worried about. “Well, Paul, we got the food and drink packages free, and we are paying less than half what other people paid for our kind of stateroom, so... I hope you don’t mind... it only adds up to $15 per person per day... I ordered the total spa packages for both of us for the whole cruise.” A month earlier, I would have said.. “better not.” In fact, Luda did ask my feelings in advance, and I pointed out that we have a much better spa right in our own neighborhood (“Spa World”), and that we would have other uses for our limited time aboard ship. But I also told Luda years ago, without reservation or retraction, that she could have absolute top control over our finances (in part because she really knows how to add and subtract a lot more than most people do).           At that moment.... with serious pain in my whole body...I was very relieved to hear we could go straight from O’Sheehan’s to hot showers for both of us, and a jacuzzi and so on. But we decided to go to our stateroom floor first, and were pleased that it was open and Chris was already there. He could use the one (exposed) shower in the stateroom, while we headed up to the spa. After we checked in at the spa, we each went to sex-segregated areas first, for bathrooms and showers. (The plumbing was great and modern, but the water was never as hot as I would have liked – or even needed for sore feet in need of lactase purging – and at a few times not hot at all. Still, on most days, the hottest water was ... OK, I guess... even when I pressed the safety buttons to get to the meager hottest water available.) Next, wearing robe and bathing suit, I entered the common area, where there were oranges, fruity cold water and hot water for tea at the entry. I went straight to the mid-sized baden pool, my rendezvous with Luda. It had six traditional jacuzzi jet stations, three of which had jets as powerful as the average home jacuzzi system, enough to be useful in massaging my feet and knees and other places I didn’t even realize needed it... It also had a bubble pool, much better than other bubble pools I have experienced even in Spa World, powerful enough that I could let my whole legs float and really benefit. And it had a traditional hot tub jacuzzi kind of enclave, an overhead shower post in the middle, and a long row of pipes set up like a very wide water chaisse... (something I never saw before) which is where I met Luda on most days. Our normal routine was for me to start with a shave, a prilosec and some glucosamine, then go out and get sore feet ... and come back to spa and then dinner.
            After the baden pool.. on later days we would go to the dry saunas with spectacular view of the sea and shore (from port side of the ship), one hot and one moderate, and the wet sauna, ending up on the big aft outdoor deck with fresh air and even better view. (Other folks used the regular chaisses and warm chaisses inside, just to read or rest, but not us. We preferred to read outdoors when we did read.)
            Dinner was the main time we used our unlimited meal package to go to specialty restaurants, which did require reservations. (But we were able to switch reservations the same day, on the one day when we wanted to.) For four dinners (starting on day two, coming back from Cartagena), we ate at Cagney’s steakhouse, which was the favorite for Luda and Chris. Chris especially loved the two-pound porterhouse steak, for many reasons – flavor, macho challenge of eating it all, and a good quick breakfast for the next day on the one day he couldn’t eat it all. On our first day there, I did have the two-pound prime rib, which was quite good, but not quite as flavorful as the very best prime ribs I had had decades before; I gave some to Chris’s breakfast plate for the next day, but still I ate too much. The brownie desert with port wine was excellent, as was the appetizer... but the next day my blood stream felt as awful and scary as it did a few years ago when I had too much coffee. I started to worry about sudden onset Type II diabetes... but it was a sea day the next day, and I worked hard on the treadmill, limited food, and went to LeBistro instead of Cagney’s that day. I swore I would not overeat like that again, and the strange blood feeling did not come back; it reassured me that I had survived that feeling with coffee in years past, with no long-term problem, so long as I learned my lesson.
            Later at Cagney’s, I had surf and turf, 12 ounce strip steak with oysters Rockefeller, and 18 ounce bone-in rib-eye without desert or appetizers – all with no ill effect. Luda said those oysters were the best she ever had anywhere. Luda and I agreed that none of the lobster anywhere in the ship would be worth trying again, but we are both spoiled by our memory of really fresh big lobsters and lobster stew we had before in Maine. It may be that the lobster in the lobster bisque at Cagney’s was the best lobster we had on the ship, but the liquid reminded me more of typical bland gravy than any lobster bisque I ever had.
            On the next day after that first Cagney day (i.e. dinner of our first sea day), we went to Le Bistro. I really looked forward to ordering bouillabaisse, which I once viewed as my most favorite food. (Life has spoiled me with many other great meals, but I still love a good bouillaibaisse). I was still cooling down from overeating, but I figured that bouillabaisse after a day of exercise and less food would be OK. It was, but the bouillabaisse was quite strange. They made a show of it, first dumping a big pile of seafood into my bowl, and asking if I wanted any fluid with it. It was good seafood, but not at all what I think of as bouillabaisse. They were surprised I asked for all of the fluid. (“How much gravy does the guy want on his pile of seafood?”) It reinforced a certain stereotype of what kind of customer they might be catering to, but no, not the ugly Americans; Americans were very much a minority on this particular cruise. (We have lots of memories of Australians, British, Irish, Iberians, even Russians. The Australians complained more than the others, but the Iberians used more body language to get what they wanted.) I enjoyed the French onion soup and the escargots much better than most of what I have experienced elsewhere, but I only ordered them that first day, as I gradually resolved to eat less. The escargots were especially tasty and calorific.
            The dinners I enjoyed most myself were in the Brazilian restaurant, Moderna, the churrascaria. This was the old Brazilian custom, where they come around with meat again and again until you turn over your card to red, which means “stop.” No need to overeat. Many excellent choices, which you can sample and return to, at least if they are on a good mood. At one time, in the spa, a fellow passenger asked: “How do you like the restaurants? Some people say they like the food, but not the service especially in Moderna.”  Well, the food was so good in Moderna that I still preferred it, and I did not mind spending more time there. The people were also very friendly, but only half the time were they happy to make sure to offer more of whatever we liked most. Especially good was the picanya, visibly pink/red. I had bad luck the first time with filet mignon, medium (too well cooked for me), but later they specifically came to me with filet mignon medium rare. The cooked pineapple was a nice surprise. There were other good meats, though the ribs were really, really overcooked. The salad bar was also an amazing spread, but oh did I make a silly big mistake the first time taking an innocuous looking green pepper from the salad bar. I also liked the Acai cocktail, which really did soothe my mouth a lot after that burning green pepper (but not enough by itself).
            Beyond Cagney’s... there was a time when Chris might have said that Tepenyaki was his favorite. He loved the basic (asuka?) surf and turf hibachi dinner, with filet mignon marinated in soy sauce. I ordered that too, but next time I would probably have ordered what Luda did: “edo”, a combination of really delicious jumbo shrimp and scallops, maybe even the tastiest scallops of my life. The “surf” part of akura was lobster, cooked OK, but when lobster is not fresh enough, that’s like stale sushi. The cocktails were both very tasty, and Luda declared the miso soup to be the best she ever had. (Well... I have had more miso soup in my life.)
            On sea days, for lunch, they also opened a sushi type bar, “Wasabi.” Even with our plan, we had to pay $7 total per person to gorge ourselves on their stuff, but we got more than our money’s worth. In fact, that was the best food of all, to my taste. Luda and I began with their cocktail and with a plate of salmon and hamachi sashimi. A restaurant in McLean has the best salmon sashimi we have eaten anywhere on earth (including Japan and China), but maybe this was next best. But the hamachi was unearthly good. (Chris also loves salmon sashimi and was excited by the hamachi, his first.) After that first round, I ordered “Hawaiian poke,” but the chef was wise enough to serve me hamachi poblano instead. That was not so large, but it was probably the best tasting dish I had in this entire trip. Later (we didn’t just run away from this place!), the chef on the second shift actually served real Hawaiian poke – probably better than any other poke I ever had, in mainland US or Hawaii, but still not as great as the hamachi poblano.
            The menu at Wasabi was a little confusing, however. I never saw any normal sushi rolls. Chris got a nice array of (Niri) sushi, but the only rolls I saw were the kind I think of as American supermarket fish-free rolls. The poke was listed on the rolls page.
            We also ate at La Cuchina, the Italian specialty restaurant, a couple of times. On a previous cruise, I had ordered osso buco at La Cuchina – and was a little surprised it was so different from the osso buco I had before in two restaurants in Italy. This one had more meat, like a big veal shank, which Luda liked, but it was a bit heavy for me. I tried the lobster diavolo, which Chris liked... but I didn’t. Uninspiring lobster and big pile of noodles I also found uninspiring, with spice-free red sauce.
            On the previous cruise, I spent a lot of time in the garden cafe, especially for a “cruise ship breakfast,” with hot tea, smoked salmon, herring, stewed berries in fresh yogurt, and accoutrements like tomato slices, lemon and capers. The smoked salmon in Norwegian is still much better than in the old days, but I didn’t feel like gorging on it as much this time, in part because I couldn’t balance it out as much as before, and in part because of our tough schedule on this trip. The herring was still excellent, better than what we get at home, but I ended up balancing it out with a strip of sausage (and tomato slices). BUT – the horror story on yogurt, milk and berries was one of the greatest disappointments on this trip, second only to the bathroom geometry. In all fairness, Luda did note something new and good – fresh blackcurrant berrries, with redcurrants and whitecurrants. OK, but I only felt like a little. But the only milk and yogurt was in horrible plastic little packages, much more plastic and tasteless than even the worst supermarket yogurt one can find anywhere in the US. (It reminded me a bit of the “wimpy” hamburgers one would find in the “Wimpy” chain in England in the 1960s, which made McDonald’s look like porterhouse steak by comparison.) Not EXACTLY tasteless... the assertive taste of chalk was pretty strong.   
            Does that cover it all? Well, not quite. Especially, what of that unlimited drink package? What a double-edged sword that is! On the earlier cruise... it almost seemed that “waste not want not” would call for us to get our money’s worth, and consume the most alcohol we could. But really? Still, we did have a fair number of drinks on most days. We missed the wonderful wine bar on Norwegian Escape, which let us enjoy sampling across all the wines onboard, but we remembered what we liked, even though they used a trick of making many wines available only by the bottle (for which they charge even under unlimited drinks!). Sometimes they let me order my favorite moscata on the package, sometimes not. The standard ship mai tai was a lot blander than the usual average real thing, but SOME nice bartenders would listen to Luda when she asked for a specific improved recipe. (My favorite Mai Tai is not Trader Vic’s, which is still quite good, but the special blend at a restaurant called Peking Gourmet Inn near our house. Luda could come close...). I also liked the Hazelnut Pina Colada up at the H2O bar, and even the Long Island Ice Tea which Luda ordered on several days.
            Onshore, we did buy a few bottles of wine to bring back as presents to friends. The ship would not lose anything if we were dumb enough to buy wine onshore instead of consuming their wine at no cost to us, but their “corking” policy has no exceptions even for people on the unlimited drinks package! So we checked in the wine on each such port visit as we entered the ship. Their policy says we can’t get it back until the morning we disembark; that would have caused us real risk and trouble in our case, when we needed to depart early on Monday March 28 to make our flight, but they made an exception and allowed us to pick it up and pack it away the night before.
            What of the nice pool and slides in the picture? (No rope climbing here.) Luda did use the slides, and even went to some of the late parties. I joined her half-conscious at some of the atrium events (like big trivia and karioke contests) in the evening, but mostly went to bed earlier and exhausted. I used the pool just once: on the day we embarked, as the pool was just filling up with cold water, about three inches deep, I used it to cool down my aching feet, actually before we went to O’Sheehan’s.
            About half the time when we went to O’sheehan’s, they tried to seat us on the bad side, by the arcade machines, where most seats were high bar type seats. But I remember Chris’s shock when the  menu there did not include his Chicago style hot dog, his favorite in that place. The waiter took us back to the seater, who then offered us a choice of “sharing table” or bar-style high table in the good area... but changed her mind, and let us have a normal table. Later I asked for sharing table (a big round table where they can seat multiple groups).
            That’s all I can remember of significance of the on-board part of the trip. Probably Luda and Chris remember more... well, we had a nice balcony with a view of the aft and room for two chaisses and a couple of chairs... part of Luda’s agile advance planning, and monitoring of the ships and the company.

            Our first cruise, long ago, was on Carnival. That prevented any further cruises for years. But once we started on Norwegian, we had little interest in trying other lines. We are open-minded in principle, but...  


Later addition: oh yes, no internet and very limited TV. On the previous cruise, we did pay for a few minutes of internet at the business center, just to print our boarding passes, but it was a huge mess. No more. Chris had MSNBC on a lot, while he also tried to catch up on school assignments in the room, but he hated the really strong liberal commercials. The BBC News available was much more sports than news, and there was nothing like the France24 we watch at home when CNN goes off course. But MSNBC certainly covered the terrorist bombings in Belgium and Pakistan, which made us wonder how our own airport might be affected. Some things made no sense until we got home and got more information. The solid free wifi at Barcelona airport was in many ways our first news in weeks (not counting the brief mobile wifi in a van, discussed in my blog post on Positano). That helped make it a real vacation, though it was interesting to hear what Australians and Canadians thought about the US primaries, at the sharing table in O'Sheehan's.

Even later: for completeness, I should have said something about the garden cafe and the Chinese restaurants, and more about the garden cafe. The Garden cafe, on the top floor, is in many ways the core of NCL's free style dining strategy; we also think of it as including the food and tea stands just outside of the cafe proper, by poolside, open for more times. In past cruises, we spent a lot more time in the Garden Cafe and Manhattan Room, but this time we mostly would just grab a quick plate at the garden cafe for breakfast, because of our port day plans. There were a lot of choices aimed at a general audience; the eggs benedict were something of a lifesaver for me, but I also was able to take the cottage cheese and blueberry compote just once. We had breakfast at Manhattan Room just once, on a sea day, but only used specialty restaurants (and the circus show) for dinner. Luda was very happy when they advertized a Latin American dinner night at the Garden Cafe, and gave it an early try; she liked the pork, but there was no sign of anything like the sopa da mariscos, the food I really enjoyed most in Mexico.
     I'm not sure what it would be constructive to say about the Chinese restaurants. We have learned that there is not just one "true authentic" style of Chinese cooking, but even the poorest rustic Chinese restaurants we have visited, or American strip mall Chinese restaurants, have a certain flair or tang. These did not. Chinese cooking does deserve to be on the ship, but we only went once to each of these restaurants, and later felt sad that we wasted time in the attempt.

Friday, April 1, 2016

Positano: From Misty Spirit to Comedy/Surgery

Positano: From Misty Spirit to Comedy/Surgery

Positano was just one of three or four places we visited on one day of our 16 day visit and cruise to Spain and Italy. No politics, policy, science or heavy philosophy. Just looking at beautiful sights and relaxing – a window into the ordinary life of this cruise. March 23. (Don't know why camera says March 22.)

We came to Positano as passengers in a van, starting earlier in Naples and going to Sorrento before Positano. Besides Luda and Chris and me, there was a couple from Ohio, three folks from Texas (including the guy who made the arrangements) and a driver, Giovanni.

            As we came towards Positano, Giovanni pulled over to place where we took many beautiful pictures, like this one. But no two-dimensional picture can capture the full breadth and scope of the full experience. (Click on the picture to get full detail.)
Giovanni told us a lot of things about Positano. For example, he told us there are many stories about where it gets its name. Greeks lived there before Christian times, but Giovanni was not an historian or archeologist (unlike our guides in Sicily and Tuscany). We had heard that the name might have something to do with Poseidon, but he told us that the Greek Temples were dedicated to two goddesses (Athena and Vesta I think), and even the main Christian Church is dedicated to Maria. One story is that the city was founded by Greeks moving along the coast from a sister city dedicated to Poseidon. Another story, the favorite in the city itself, is that a ship with Christian passengers got into a terrible storm, and that the icon painting they were carrying magically said “posi! posi!,” teleported itself to the beach you see in this picture, and thereby led them to safety. “Ever since, they have an annual boat parade carrying that icon, now in the main church, and named the city “Positano in its honor.” It is curious to me that people believe that so much when they know the city was settled before 0AD. We do have a picture of that icon, but I am stretching things to include three pictures.
            But humble human reality: while we all experienced this great view, I quietly walked up to Giovanni and asked: “Is there a WC I could use in that little restaurant here?” He said: “Not really, and we are on a tight schedule. But don’t worry, we are going down to the center, and there are places there.” From leaving the ship to “all aboard” was about ten hours – and I am in the embarrassing position of having a prostate problem, actually prostate cancer, for which I get operated on April 11. More on that below.
            Giovanni told us that there is actually only one road for cars in the entire city – mainly a one-way one-lane loop road. Naturally, it is not a 60mph road. When we got down as close to the center as one can get by car, he pulled off into a paid public parking lot, and told us how much time we had on our own, to get back there. So much beauty... but time had passed and I really, really needed to find a WC. “Giovanni, where is that place you mentioned?” “Oh, he said, just down there... and if that doesn’t work, there is also one down by the beach.” “Down there..”... I walked as fast as I could, down stairs after stairs.... and then... when I felt I would burst... I saw it, to my left... and it was a machine operated turnstile to get in, requiring exactly a 50 eurocent coin.  Luda, back at the parking place far away, had all the coins packed somewhere... so... OK. People had told me that recovery from prostate surgery is a whole lot quicker and more reliable if one does kegel exercises BEFOREHAND, so I took this as an opportunity to put in energy to do those exercises intensely and firmly for awhile. So I walked back up, exercising firm control, and got back to the parking area where Luda had been a bit puzzled about my disappearance. I did say I needed to find a bathroom, but only briefly, and tried to avoid compromising the experience, as we walked down more picturesque stairs towards the main church and the beach, looking at lots of things and taking pictures on the way down.
            Near the bottom, at the church, we took the picture of the icon inside (through the closed door/window), and then looked for a way to the beach – an urgent issue for me at that point. Two stairs went down – one on the right, away from the water, with a sign saying “beach”. The other actually went to the left, where the beach was. So with some urgency I went to the left, which led to a long narrow pedestrian shopping street and finally to the beach.
        Luda and Chris then looked around, and enjoyed that area immediately, as you can see in the rich next picture:
Please look closely. Luda is in front, and Chris is closest person to the left of her, looking at the water. Behind Chris is a long, wide stone pier. Towards the right side of that pier are two yellowish big announcement boards, under a restaurant-cum-hotel called “Saracen’s Cove.” But the sloped pedestrian street/ledge leading up to that restaurant and beyond to a small fort/tower is called something like “road of the Americas.” Near the middle of that pier, behind the other people, is a big anchor and a kind of special dedication from the city. Later, on that pier, I felt the maximum level of qi or spiritual input I did in this whole episode (not close to the maximum at Rome). I wondered if perhaps this really had once been a kind of powerful shrine to Poseidon, and certainly I remembered my concern for what H2S-producing archaea might do to the oceans of the world starting within just a few decades. I also remembered Orson Scott Card’s “Alvin” series, where Alvin always feels attacked by bodies of water – rather different from the story with me and my ancestors (one of whom, Mortimer Donohue, gave his relative Commodore Barry the ships which were the first mainstay of the US Navy). Maybe Card’s community, for all their great good intentions and positive aspects, still have very bad karma related to political causes which unwittingly make the H2S risk a whole lot worse; “ignorance of the law is no excuse.”
            But before that, though I still tried to be open to other things, I focused my mind on alleviating the sheer physical pressure becoming harder and harder and more painful. “Where is that WC Giovanni promised me?” Just to the right of Luda, behind, you see two very small buildings and a stairway to their right. I saw the word “WC”! I ran, ran to the door at the base of the stairs... and there was no knob. Only an odd piece of rope to where the knob was supposed to be. A man came over and said, “No. No WC. No more.” That blended with the physical pain!! “HOW can I find a WC SOMEWHERE.” “Oh... go to the park (he said, pointing to the beach and the water)... and follow the yellow.”  Then he turned away.
            So I ran that other way (past Luda, after she dug out two 50 eurocent coins for me just in case) and looked frantically all around, seeing nothing. At the far, far end I saw the Texan in our group who had made the arrangements and knew the area, but he had no idea. I saw a row of beach lockers a bit inset, and hoped THEY might be something else, and even tried a door... no. Coming back... I saw no yellow markers or park, but I did see a couple of restaurants, as in the picture below, taken after I recovered a bit:
 Fortunately, this was not the crowded dinner hour, and many restaurant people knew a bit of English, so I walked into the restaurant you see on the right and asked for WC. (Now I know I should have used the word “toilet.”) A guy pointed in a fuzzy way up to the left. I went, and saw nothing. Another person sent me to the restaurant on the left. They sent me to the right, up towards stairs away from the beach to the city. (“Uh-oh! Yes I know there is a WC ‘way, ‘way back up in the town... oh no... I hope that is not it... enough to bust my entire time budget for the city!”) But as I was about to despair... there were yellow arrows on the stone stairs! And they did lead to a nice, free public municipal WC, deeply surrounded by city buildings, otherwise not marked. I wondered: does lack of clear marking help that other guy by the beach, for times when there are more tourists and he chooses to open his cash cow?
   Anyway, I then walked back calmly to the beach, where Luda took that third picture, and many others. We did have some time, but also had to run hard up the long system of stairs (a little shorter this time, coming up the right stairs to the church). Giovanni next drove us to the restaurant Costantino overlooking Positano, with a fantastic view (more pictures!), where Chris had a Neapolitan pizza and Luda and I shared “fried fish”. Chris and Luda loved that pizza, and even used the phrase “best pizza in my life”; they let me have a slice, but I prefer lots of others in the US. But the “fried fish” did include a lot of the best tasting calamari I have had anywhere, by a big margin. (Later in Rome and Tuscany, I had cappuchinos which were also much better than anything I had anywhere else, which surprised me, since I have been to pretty good places in the US.)
            Then back into the van, where we saw the sad lengthy efforts of some busses (including the poor official tour bus from our ship) to navigate the one and only road. (In better shape was the regular city bus which some people use to get to Positano.) We even had mobile hot spot wifi for a little while, my only internet connection during the whole cruise, and I whipped off just two brief urgent messages on my Galaxy Tab, which turned out to be extremely handy on this whole trip (less than half the cost of new cell phones!). Next stop Pompei, then return to ship. 

I did promise to say more about the prostate issue and surgery. I already posted some things about that issue on this blog, so I won’t go too deep now.

With any cancer, it is extremely important to catch it before it metastasizes. Because mine was caught early enough (“overall Gleason score 3+3”), everyone agrees that there is less than a 10 percent chance that I will ever have to worry about this cancer again after the operation. How much less than 10%? I don’t feel inclined to agonize over that number. The actuarial stuff predicts an expectation of 20 more years for me, but the percentage of uncertainty will grow with time so long as I live. I worry more about the survival of humanity as a whole and of our “spiritual” component, for which there is at least some chance of long-term survival and growth.

I recently discussed this with a guy who used to run the US public health service, and the health programs of DOD. He said: “Sooner or later, we all get prostate cancer, if we live long enough.” Actually, my PSA blood score was only about 4 a year ago, just before we took a trip to India. The discrete jump up to 8 occurred after our return, and I remember a surprising hard day just a couple of weeks after that, and wonder about the connections. But I suppose I should not get too far into that, as it again reminds me of Orson Scott Card’s world. (He has his karma, and I have mine; I have adapted, but still need surgery.)
            Luda tells me that John Kerry already had exactly the same kind of surgery (RP), years ago, and it’s clear that it is not incapacitating!!! And she has found other examples.
            Per McCallum’s great book on prostate cancer for regular folks... I also expect the unpleasant side effects of the surgery to be temporary, with probability more than 90%. But we will see. Soon enough.