J.D. Moyer

beat maker, sci-fi writer, self-experimenter

Month: June 2010 (Page 1 of 2)

Working Abroad Experiment Wrap-up, Part I — What We Did Right and What We Did Wrong

A young friend from the Iguana Verde Center.

Today is the last day of our Costa Rica “workation“; right now we’re at The Hemingway Inn in San Jose (CR) and we fly back to San Francisco tomorrow.  Six weeks flew by — at least that’s how it feels now (at times, time crawled at a snail’s pace).  Six weeks was certainly long enough to feel like we were truly living, and working, somewhere else.

Was the Trip a “Success”?

Kia and I had pretty similar goals going into this trip, and our two-year-old daughter was along for the ride.  Here is the short list of what Kia and I hoped to get out of the experience:

  • Perform a test … does “workationing” (a longer stay in another country, working remotely at least part of the time) work for us?
  • Be out less money than we would on a regular vacation.
  • Change things up; experience living in a new place; break out of our Oakland routines.
  • Have a good time, enjoy the foreign country we’re visiting.
  • Be creatively inspired; do creative work.
  • Do paid consulting work; meet client expectations; don’t fall behind on obligations/work responsibilities.
  • Meet new people and make new friends.
  • Avoid the boredom and aimlessness both of us have often experienced on longer vacations (no matter how beautiful the location).

Our daughter didn’t have “goals” for the trip, but it was important to us that she enjoy the experience as well, and grow from it.

File under "what we did right"

The short answer to the “success” question is yes, absolutely.  We performed the experiment, we got work done, we met new people and made new friends, we had some incredibly fun times, we totally broke out of our regular routines, we experienced creative inspiration, we avoided boredom, and we didn’t break the bank.  That said, there were some difficult elements, as follows:

  • We only had sporadic childcare, and this made working difficult.  It was rare that either of us got a clean three or four hour block of uninterrupted time, the kind that enables a person to get into a groove and experience deep concentration.  We had to work in fits and starts, and hour here and an hour there.  Having two of our daughter’s grandparents around for part of the trip was a huge help, as was Sylvia, a new friend who also did some babysitting.  Still, there wasn’t enough time to work.
  • The Puerto Viejo area is home to multitudinous hordes of insects that want to eat you for supper, including mosquitoes, sand fleas, and biting flies.  Some people get used to this, or cease to care, or stop having reactions to the bites.  Some people, but not us.  We suffered.  Mosquito nets helped somewhat, but I had a terrible reaction to neurotoxic DEET spray, and I actually preferred the insect bites to the sharply fragrant stench of citronella.  I would have tried Avon Skin-So-Soft in a second if I could have found some.
  • Internet speed and reliability has a long way to go in the Puerto Viejo area.  I realize this is true for many parts of the United States as well, but the slowness and drop-outs were frustrating when we were trying to deliver projects, check email, download files, etc.  It wouldn’t have been an issue if we were just on vacation, but it made workationing difficult.  I no longer buy into the false “first-world/third-world” dichotomy (see Hans Rosling’s TED talk for more on that), but there is progress to be made in Costa Rican internet service.
  • Tesla Rose, our two-year-old daughter, was bored and frustrated at times, and sometimes acted out.  When she had enough to do, and had friends and grandparents to play with, she did really well, but at other times she complained about missing her Oakland friends, threw more than one glass on the ground, and often exclaimed “I’m getting bited!”

Tesla Rose and the Dellinger girls doing their best to get us kicked out of Casa de Carol (great food -- recommended)

These difficult elements were easily outweighed, at least in my view, by the positive highlights of the trip, including:

  • Going to the beach two, three, or even four times a day to play in the waves, kick the soccer ball around, build sand castles, and admire the tropical Caribbean view.
  • Being in close proximity to Costa Rican flora and fauna; hearing and seeing howler monkeys, sloths, agouti, iguanas, giant blue morphos, etc.
  • Seeing old friends and meeting new friends, including a fellow workationing family, The Dellingers, from Virginia.  Tesla Rose got along great with their daughters Eli and Annika, and we had some excellent times at the beach, eating out, and seeing the local sights.
  • Good food!  Restaurant food was always at least decent, and several times exceptional (and this is coming from two Oakland food snobs).  Basic food quality is great too — for example, regular eggs from the local market in our area rivaled super expensive organic eggs from free-range pastured chickens in California.
  • Seeing Tesla Rose get braver, stronger, wordier, etc. — she grew up a lot during the trip.  Kia has done a full post on this.

What We Did Right, What We Did Wrong

Will we do it again?  Will we take another workation?  Yes, absolutely.  And there are some things we’ve learned from our first foray into this area.

What We Did Right

  • We chose a place where we knew somebody (Eric Haller) who was already living there.
  • We chose a place where rent and other prices were reasonable (or at least cheaper than U.S. prices), and we went during low season.
  • We chose places to live with internet.
  • We chose an area that’s easy and enjoyable to navigate via walking and biking.
  • We chose an incredibly beautiful location.
  • We chose a place where Kia speaks the language, and where Tesla Rose and I could get by with our Spanglish.
  • We maintained a generally positive attitude, even in the face of difficulty.
  • We were outgoing and met new people (Kia and Tesla Rose were especially good at this)
  • We heeded local advice regarding area to watch out for (in terms of crime) and managed to avoid trouble.
  • When we found that the original house we rented wasn’t ideal, we moved.
  • We rented out our place in Oakland to someone we knew, which both eased our minds about our house, and also relieved some financial pressure.

The excellent little preschool in the jungle we would have loved to send Tesla Rose to (unfortunately, they were full up)

What We Did Wrong

  • We ignored the advice of our local friend, and rented a jungle house separated from the main road by a long, hilly, rocky, often muddy trail.
  • We rented a place, sight-unseen, for the entire six weeks; we should have rented a place for just the first week and gained more local knowledge before committing.
  • We chose a place with lots of biting bugs, and didn’t have a good strategy for how to avoid getting eaten alive.
  • We didn’t choose a low-crime area (even though this decision turned out not to have consequences, the constant tales of gangs of machete-wielding youths kept us a little on edge).
  • We didn’t plan, or find, an independent activity for Tesla Rose.  Going to the local preschool, even part-time, would have been fun for her and would have made working easier for us.
  • We didn’t arrange enough childcare for the “crunch periods” (Kia had a couple of intense deadlines for her motion-graphics work).
  • We came in needing faster and more reliable internet service than was currently available in our area.
  • We didn’t choose places with enough desk space.
  • We packed much too heavily, bringing warm clothes we didn’t need, and a car seat we only used once.
  • We didn’t bring enough of certain clothing items.  Some things we planned to get when we arrived in Puerto Viejo, but discovered those items were either unavailable or very expensive.

Overall, the experience was positive, with some glitches.  Some of the glitches were major, but most were avoidable.

I think we’ll enjoy our home in Oakland more than ever for awhile.  I could see trying another workation sometime this winter, or maybe we’ll go somewhere cold next summer.  We have friends and/or family in Switzerland, France, Norway, The Netherlands, and Argentina.  We’re also curious about Iceland, Denmark, Chile, Peru, Japan, and New Zealand.  A number of U.S. and Canadian cities are on the short list too.

If you have recently gone on a working vacation, or are planning one, I’d love to hear about it — please comment below.

The Singularity Already Happened – Part II

The Singularity -- The Rapture for tech nerds?

In Part I of this post I challenged the idea of Vernor Vinge’s Singularity.  I also promised a response from Vinge himself.  While he hasn’t yet responded to my email inquiry, he did write a brilliant follow-up essay, in 2008, entitled What If the Singularity Does NOT Happen? The article includes dramatic section headings including The Age of Failed Dreams, A Return to MADness, and How to deal with the deadliest uncertainties? Recommended reading for anyone who likes to speculate about the future.

Rise of artificial malevolence.

In Part I, I attacked Vinge’s premises from the original 1993 paper, all of which center on the inevitability and exponential acceleration of technological progress along various vectors (computer/brain interface, artificial intelligence, biological intelligence enhancement, and the possibility of “emergent” intelligence from very large networks such as the internet).  I argued that improvements in the computer/brain interface will offer limited gains (because brains and computers actually aren’t that much alike).  I pointed out that A.I. progress has stalled out, at least in terms of “general intelligence” (some specialized information processing applications are moving forward).  I also floated the idea that the kind of “superintelligence” that futurists and science-fiction writers like to speculate about, mega-minds that operate on entirely different levels that our own puny minds can’t even conceive of; that kind of intelligence might be a fantasy.  The cognitive space might be a closed space, like the periodic table of elements (we probably don’t know all of them, but we know most of them).  Lastly, I presented the blasphemous postulate that raw intelligence might be overrated.  Major upgrades in civilization are probably more a result of other human qualities, like persistence, ambition, stubbornness, fantastical imagination, and curiosity (though the last two are arguably subsets of intelligence).

But what if I’m wrong?  In what shape would my wrongness most likely manifest?

I think there is a real possibility that The Singularity will happen, but it won’t radically change life for corporeal human beings.  Instead, an additional layer of reality will operate “on top” of life-as-we-know-it.  In order for this scenario to unfold, the following preconditions would need to exist:

  • significant advances in quantum computing, and a continuation of Moore’s Law for at least another decade or two
  • successful simulation/modeling/reverse engineering of the human brain (and entire nervous system) to the extent that human consciousness can exist/operate on an artificial substrate
  • the creation of truly immersive virtual worlds (Star Trek holodeck level and beyond)
  • migration technology; bioware systems that allow consciousness and identity to gradually shift from wetware systems (body-brains) to hardware systems (quantum computers)

The blue elves are here to stay.

Full virtualization of brains, bodies, and worlds — this is one facet of Kurzweil’s Singularity scenario.  To me this scenario seems much more likely than the rise of superintelligent (and possibly malevolent) machines.

Imagine dozens (or hundreds, or millions) of fully immersive virtual worlds, each with their own flavor, physics, social norms, etc.  Each would have numerous virtual denizens — real people who experience life just like we do.  The worlds would also host a number of part-time characters, people living simultaneous corporeal and virtual lives.  Imagine what kind of new experiences and possibilities could exist within this new layer of reality:

  • extreme longevity/immortality
  • travel via instant teleportation (effective FTL travel)
  • mental manipulation of “matter”
  • the option to share thoughts/perceptions/memories (mind-melding)
  • freedom from disease, disability, and physical suffering
  • full range of options for physical appearance (supermodel?  winged unicorn?  Godzilla?)
  • a “variation explosion” for humanity (not unlike the Cambrian explosion); many new types of humans

The list goes on and on.  Some of these you already see cropping up in existing virtual worlds (World of Warcraft, Second Life, etc.) — what is obviously missing in these cases is virtualized consciousness — players are not really in these worlds — they’re still looking at them from the outside (though imagination goes a long way).

Another Big Dodge

At various times in the history of civilization, human beings have escaped population collapse via technological trickery.  The invention of agriculture and dawn of the Neolithic age is one example (though it came at a great cost).  The invention of synthetic nitrogen fertilizer (via the Haber process) is another example.

Without Haber–Bosch, you probably wouldn't exist.

The gradual migration of humanity into virtual worlds might be our next “big dodge.”  There is a limit to the number of human beings our planet can comfortably support, and there is evidence that we are getting uncomfortably close to that limit.  We have thinned the ozone layer, triggered a process of global warming, damaged the oceans, destroyed most of the world’s forests, polluted the air and waterways, and so on and so forth.  We risk collapse of natural and food-producing systems.  How are we going to solve this problem?

It’s possible that humanity will clean up its collective act, provide better stewardship of the planet’s natural resources, and avert disaster.  It’s also possible that human population will naturally decline due to socio-cultural factors (education of women, increased literacy, reduction of world poverty, access to birth control, increased economic burden of child-raising, etc.).  But what if population keeps growing and environmental stewardship doesn’t radically improve?  We’ll have a big problem.

Will the Singularity be the next big dodge?  Perhaps virtual population will increase into the hundred billions, or trillions, while corporeal population gradually declines to one or two billion, or perhaps stabilizes around six or seven.  An ever-growing virtual population is one way we could continue economic growth (virtual people would still produce and consume “goods” and services) without negatively impacting the planet (digging up metals, cutting down trees, sucking up oil, etc.).

The Singularity Already Happened

There was a moment in human history, long ago, that irrevocably changed how human beings would experience the world.  This change was momentous; it completely destroyed “life as we know it” for all of humanity.

Early arms race artifacts.

The Singularity I’m referring to happened approximately 45,000 years ago.  It is, of course, the birth of human technological culture.  For tens of thousands of years, anatomically modern humans lived their lives with the same simple tools and the same traditions; culture was frozen.  Something (perhaps trade amongst cultures, perhaps specialization of labor, perhaps a genetic mutation related to imagination) triggered what we now call progress, that disconcertingly rapid cascade of technological and cultural change that makes each generation appear somewhat alien to the next, in its habits and proclivities.

That’s what the birth of a new evolutionary layer looks like.

Multiple Singularities

All reality can be described in terms of complicated desserts.

Reality is a layer cake.  Each layer is dependent on the layer below, and operates within the rules of all lower layers, but also has its own unique set of rules.  For example, biological interactions can be described in terms of chemistry, or even physics, but you won’t really understand what’s going on in the biological realm unless you understand Darwinian evolution.

My hypothesis is that the evolution of the universe can be described in term of multiple Singularities, with each resulting in the birth of a new evolutionary layer.  The story so far might look something like this:

1st Singularity: Big Bang
Evolutionary layer created: Atomic (stars, gaseous clouds)

2nd Singularity: covalent bonds
Evolutionary layer created: Molecular (planets, solar systems)

3rd Singularity: self-replication of long nucleotide sequences, and/or cell membrane
Evolutionary layer created: Biological (prokaryotic lifeforms)

4th Singularity: development of cell nucleus, and/or cell/tissue specialization
Evolutionary layer created: Somatic (eukaryotic lifeforms, animals with bodies, Darwinian evolution)

5th Singularity: development of complex nervous system, emergence of interiority/emotions/motivation/intelligence
Evolutionary layer created: Social (tribes, families, mating rituals, early culture, primates/hominids, also cetaceans, dogs, etc.)

6th Singularity: tool trading and/or specialization of labor, emergence of technology/cultural progress
Evolutionary layer created: Cultural/technological (memetic evolution)

7th Singularity: virtualization of consciousness?  fully immersive virtual worlds?
Evolutionary layer created: Synthetic intelligence, programmable reality

8th Singularity: ???

The bubbleverses.

Note that each Singularity is local, it happens multiple times in multiple places (including the Big Bang, if you believe any of various theories of multiple universes).

What really interests me is this: are there any generalizations we can make about Singularities?  What causes them?  Can they be predicted?  Can they be modeled/simulated?  I’ll discuss my thoughts so far on that subject in a forthcoming post entitled The Game-Changing Algorithm Nobody Is Looking For (Part III — Mutant Nodes).

Working Abroad Adventure: Weeks 3 and 4

Path to the beach at the Caracola Hotel.

I can’t believe there are only ten days left in our 6-week working abroad adventure — the time has zipped by (for the most part — it has also crawled along at times).  We’re in the home stretch of an experiment in which we rented out our house in Oakland, rented a house in the coastal jungle of Costa Rica (near Puerto Viejo), and brought our work with us.  We wanted an extended change of scenery without breaking the bank, and we wanted to experience a new place without dying of boredom or sinking into a sea of listlessness.  I acknowledge that boredom and listlessness are not everyone’s experience of extended vacations, and also that not everybody is going to get the “workation” concept (and it has had its ups and downs) but for us it has worked pretty well.  Later, once I’ve had a chance to run the numbers, I’ll share what the trip looked like financially, and also share some thoughts about what we did right and what we did wrong.  But for now I’ll just bring you up to date on the last couple of weeks.

Life is Easier by the Beach

Soon after my last post we decided to move away from our house in the jungle (Casa El Jardin), and rent one of the Caracola Hotel beach houses for the remainder of our stay.  We met Issac, the manager of the Caracola (via another local friend — Matt Grinnell); Issac offered us a very good “low-season” rate for the beach house.  By that point we’d had our fill of jungle living, and jumped at the chance to move to the beach.

Don’t get me wrong, the jungle house was “as advertised”; incredibly beautiful, a giant colorful garden, fast (if somewhat unreliable) internet, and intimate proximity to nature.  The downsides were 1) the mosquitoes were pretty bad, 2) the sheer number, mass, and intensity of insect life in the jungle can be overwhelming to a temperate-zone city dweller, and 3) it was exhausting biking up and down the long, muddy, hilly, slippery-stone covered road (made more difficult with our toddler in the bike seat) every time we wanted to go the beach, buy food, or take our laundry to the lavandería.  Our favorite place to hang out, we discovered, was at the beach in front of the Caracola Hotel; the gentle waves were perfect for Tesla Rose.

One of the bugs up in the jungle house.

As an aside, for those of you who have tried to get me to drop four grand on a mountain bike so we can get our muddy trail thrills on (Dan Pardi), let me recommend navigating the steep downhill stretches of Margarita Road on an old fixie with one bent wheel, with your toddler attached, carrying a bag of groceries (including eggs), while it’s raining, with brakes at about 20% capacity.  Now that’s thrilling.

In any case, life near the beach is good.  When we want to get our feet wet we just walk about a hundred feet and hop in the water.  Usually we hit the beach about three times a day; maybe a little soccer in the early morning (before it gets too hot), a quick dip in the afternoon, and usually a long visit in the early evening to enjoy the sunset.  Somehow the sky and the water take on almost the same color; the light is stunning.

Dog running on the beach.

The Two-Dimensional Town

The topographical arrangement of the Puerto Viejo area is line-like; the vast majority of businesses and destinations (including the beaches) are along a single road.  One side effect of this configuration is that whenever you go out, you’re likely to run into everyone you know (unless they’re home in bed).  You’ll either see them on the road, going one way or the other, or you’ll see them hanging out somewhere; maybe at Cocles Beach, or Caribe del Sol, or Caribeans.

This line-like arrangement seems to spill over into the social realm as well; all people here are connected; everyone knows everyone (and has an opinion about everyone); there is nowhere to hide and there are no secrets.  In other words, it’s like small towns everywhere.

On another layer, there are the busloads of backpackers and tourists that come through every day; people are constantly shuttled in and shuttled out.  That includes us, of course, but our longer stay puts us in a slightly different category.  We’ve been here long enough to get friendly greetings, or at least nods of recognition, from many of the locals.  We’re getting to know the place, and the people.

The little school in the jungle.

We’ve entertained the idea of coming back for a longer stint.  We even looked at a little school in the jungle where Tesla Rose could go.  The school was charming; a beautiful location and warm and friendly staff who obviously knew what they were doing.  Get this — tuition is $100.  A year.  The average wage here is only $2 or $3 an hour — that’s why (some) of the prices are so low.  But it’s those jaw-dropping comparisons — the cost of preschool here vs. the cost of preschool in the Bay Area — that really make you think twice about where you live and why.

Invite The Family

We invited the whole family to visit us during our workation, and two family members took us up on the offer.  My mom, a reluctant adventurer (she complains about all the risks of traveling, and then goes and does it anyway), and Kia’s dad (who is fluent in Spanish and has traveled a great deal in Central and South America) both came to visit (at different times).  For each of them it was vacation (as opposed to workation) and both grandparents enjoyed their visits.  It was great having them here, both to enjoy time together as a (larger) family, and also for the extra help with Tesla Rose.  Having enough time to actually work has been a consistent challenge.

with Nana Ina

On Crime, and Swords

Our friend Eric Haller carries a sheathed machete with him at all times.  He claims its a deterrent; so a would-be miscreant will “pick the other guy.”  As a fellow ex-Dungeons & Dragons player, I’m dubious — I think the guy just likes carrying a sword around (and he’s finally found a place where that’s socially acceptable).  But there is crime in the Puerto Viejo area.  At least, that’s what everyone tells you.

At Art Cafe, not worried about crime.

I think every single person we’ve met has warned us about crime in one way or another.  This is the beach where you will get mugged at sunset.  This is the stretch of road where machete-wielding youths will rob you blind.  Let’s write down the serial number of the bike you are buying so that when it gets stolen you’ll have some record of purchase.  The manager of our jungle house insisted that we should be locking up the open kitchen every time we leave the house (the kitchen area closed up like a wooden cube with heavy, medieval-style hanging doors) or thieves would come take everything — our blender, our plates — everything!  We ignored his warnings, and nobody stole our blender.  In fact, we haven’t yet experienced or witnessed any crime at all (with one exception — see below).

My ideas about crime in the Puerto Viejo area are as follows:

  1. The crime rate is not particularly high — certainly not any higher than Oakland.
  2. Residents are very concerned about crime; one reason is that any crime is a huge threat to the main industry (tourism).
  3. People look out for each other and feel responsible for each other (and thus warn about crime).
  4. Tourists are the main targets, especially drunk, obnoxious tourists (there is some sense perhaps, among the locals, that these types have it coming).
  5. Crime is highly localized — just like anywhere else.  There are areas that are quite dangerous to hang out in at various times.  Visually, these areas don’t look seedy or dangerous or rough — they look like an idyllic stretch of beach or a meandering coastal road.

The last point is the most important.  I think it generally is important to heed the warnings of the locals.  They may be overcautious, but they know what’s up.  If I saw a Japanese tourist wandering around West & MacArthur, with a three thousand dollar camera hanging from their neck, I might direct them a few blocks northwest towards the Temescal District.  The Temescal area used to be a pretty rough area itself, ten years ago, but now it’s a thriving, relatively low-crime commercial district.  But West & MacArthur, just a few blocks away, is a fine place to buy drugs.  A quick check of a statistical crime map of Oakland confirms this suspicion.

Armed with a rapier, yet somehow … not intimidating.

So, the real question — if I lived here, would I carry a sword?  Hell yes! I mean, why not?  In Oakland, if you carry a sword and try to defend yourself from getting mugged, you will just get shot.  But guns are uncommon here.  The muggings we’ve been warned about are either at “machete point” or via beating by fist.  In both cases, a sharp blade could be a real deterrent.

But I don’t think I would opt for a machete.  With a rapier, I could utilize my fencing training (don’t laugh — I ranked in the top ten of all Bay Area youth fencers in one tournament).  On the other hand, while a rapier might have inspired fear in 17th Century Italy, it might appear to be a bit foppish these days.  Putting parry-ripostes and double-disengages aside, a katana, with its historical reputation as a decapitating device, would probably be a better bet.  I would love to draw a samurai sword against a machete-wielding mugger and see the look on his face.  You want a sword fight?  Bring it on.

I did have a run in with a motorcycle gang.  I was bicycling up Margarita Road towards the jungle house, my laptop slung over my shoulder in a red grocery bag, when a guy ran by me, at full speed, with a look in his eyes that can only be described as abject terror.  Up ahead, a man had gotten off of his motorcycle and was hacking at something, or somebody, with a machete.  These weren’t little chops — they were full overhead swings.  Was somebody being chopped to pieces?  The something turned out to be a bicycle.  I watched, with equal parts trepidation and fascination, as the man picked up the mangled bike and hurled it over a nearby fence.  He saw me, and glared.

Giving me stink-eye the whole time, the man sheathed his machete and got back on his motorcycle.  Farther ahead, toward the top of a hill, another man waited on an idling motorcycle.  The guy closer to me looked mean, and the bicycle chopping made me question his sanity.

I considered my options.  If I turned and biked away, he could easily overtake me and cut me down with his blade.  It did seem in my favor that the blade was sheathed.  His beef had been with the other guy, and the hapless bicycle, right?  Still, he looked dangerous.  I ultimately opted to bike by slowly and say “Hola.”  The man grunted in response, and he and his friend rode off.

Later, riding back home from the jungle house (I’d ridden up there to use the fast internet), I encountered the guy I’d seen running away, along with his friend, retrieving his worse-for-wear (sliced tire, shredded seat) bicycle from the brush.  I wasn’t sure what to say, but I felt a need to say something since I’d obviously been a witness to at least part of the drama.  I settled on something like “That guy was loco!”

“I’m gonna keeel him,” said mangled bicycle man.  “I’m gonna cut him up good.”

“Okay!” I said.  I added “Motorcycle gangs!” with a shrug, as in “You never know what those kooky motorcycle gangs are gonna do,” and pedaled on my way.

Update: I got the scoop from Eric H. on the reason for this altercation; it was a case of mistaken identity.

Wall-climbing lizard.

Physical Costs and Benefits

Living in tropics can be rough on your body.  Even though the risks of malaria and dengue are very low, the mosquito bites are still a drag.  I’ve lost some muscle mass — I’m generally too tired from bike-riding to want to do any kind of strength training.  On some days I’ve suffered a general malaise and mild tourista — no doubt my body adjusting to foreign (for me) strains of microbes.  The water is Costa Rica is generally considered “drinkable” by U.S. standards, but we’ve felt better since running it through a Brita filter.  We’re probably consuming more pesticides than usual, considering we’re making zero effort to eat organically, and we’re also doing other things that are probably horrible for us, like using aluminum cookware.

On the other hand, I’m tanner, leaner, and fitter than I’ve been in a long time.  The challenges to my immune system will probably serve me well in the long run.  In terms of both health and safety, most parts of Costa Rica fall into the “reasonable risk” category, at least in my book.  I don’t want to be the type of person that avoids entire countries and cultures because there is a very small chance of getting a horrible disease (like Chagas), or getting machete chopped, or eating a few extra doses of pesticides.  Life is rough on your body.  Life is, indeed, a terminal disease.

Will We Do It Again?

Yes, definitely.  Workationing is a blast.  Now that we’ve done it once, we have some good ideas for how to improve the experience.  I’ll get into those in detail in the wrap-up post.

Why hello there big beetle.

Bananas at the farmer’s market.

with Grandpa at the beach.

The Singularity Already Happened – Part I

Buckle your seat belts, here we go.

In 1993 science-fiction writer Vernor Vinge authored a paper introducing and describing the idea of The Singularity, a near-future Rubicon for humanity; we create machines with superhuman intelligence, thus changing everything forever.  In the post-Singularity world, all the old rules are thrown out, progress accelerates exponentially, and the real action shifts away from humanity and towards our cybernetic spawn.  Human beings are relegated to the sidelines as intelligent machines take over the world (or, in darker variations of the scenario, humans are enslaved or exterminated).  In the best-case scenario, super-intelligent, immortal man-machine hybrids peacefully co-exist with the “unaltered” (i.e. regular humans).

Vernor Vinge -- this joker makes up wacky ideas for a living.

Vinge’s paper on The Singularity is clever, thought-provoking, and insightful.  It’s exactly the kind of “how big can you think” speculation a good science fiction writer should come up with.  Unfortunately, some groups of otherwise intelligent people seem to have swallowed Vinge’s paper whole and uncritically, elevating his fevered speculations to a kind of futurism gospel.  Vinge’s paper is loaded with tantalizing specificity; The Singularity will probably occur between 2005 and 2030; it will be preceded by four “means” that we can currently observe unfolding in our technology newsfeeds (biological intelligence enhancement, advancement of computer/human interfaces, large computer networks becoming more intelligent, and the development of machine intelligence and the possibility of machine consciousness).  This specificity gives the paper the feel of prophecy, at least to the unsophisticated reader.  Science-fiction connoisseurs, on the other hand, will see through the purposefully affected serious tone of Vinge’s paper; in fact he is riffing, presenting a range of wild possibilities as if they might actually happen.  That’s what science fiction writers do.

V.C. wunderkind Steve Jurvetson at The Singularity Summit, explaining how The Singularity will involve lots of corporate logos.

The inventor/entrepreneur Ray Kurzweil is particularly fond of the Singularity concept, and has written extensively about the subject in books such as The Age of Spiritual Machines and The Singularity Is Near.  He is also a co-founder of the Singularity University. Recently featured in the New York Times, Singularity University describes its mission as  “to assemble, educate and inspire a cadre of leaders who strive to understand and facilitate the development of exponentially advancing technologies in order to address humanity’s grand challenges.”  I’m skeptical; Singularity U seems like a really good way to separate rich white male tech nerds (for the most part, anyway) from fifteen thousand dollars, in exchange for nine days of hyperactive white-board scribbling, gallons of free coffee, and a bag of Silicon Valley schwag (including a personal DNA test kit).  Exponential technological progress is going to change everything.  We don’t know how exactly, but there’s going to be a big change and then everything will be different.  It might have something to do with your smart phone, social media, artificial intelligence, anti-aging technologies, space travel, and/or renewable energy!

There’s probably no harm in the existence of Singularity University.  By all accounts the people who run it are idealistic (not hucksters), and the people who take the courses can generally afford it.  But what is it, really?  It’s just more riffing, just like Vinge’s original paper.  The professors at Singularity University aren’t going to bring us any closer to The Singularity, because The Singularity is illusory.

WHY THE SINGULARITY WON’T HAPPEN

Let’s examine some of the premises of Vinge’s original paper, and discuss them in turn.

Premise #1: Improvements in computer/human interfaces will result in superhuman intelligence.

We’ve already had some improvements in computer/human interfaces, and they’ve proved to be fun and convenient.  The mouse is nice, as is the trackpad.  The portable computing device (laptop or smart phone) comes in really handy.  And we can easily imagine an implant that allows us to access the internet via thought alone, or a contact lens micro-screen that projects data over our visual field.

Oh -- that's where they are.

But let’s get real for a second.  Those of us with internet access already have near-instantaneous access to a good chunk of the world’s knowledge, right at our fingertips.  Has it changed us that much?  Instead of arguing about who was in what movie, we just look it up.  Where are the Canary Islands, exactly?  Just look it up.  What’s the four hundredth digit of pi?  Just look it up!

Having access to unlimited knowledge hasn’t changed us that much.  It’s fun, and enormously convenient, but it’s not revolutionary.

Well, what about access to computing power?  Computers can run enormously powerful simulations, and do enormously complex computations in the blink of an eye.  Won’t that make a difference?

Once again, look at how we currently use the enormous amount of computing power available to us, and project forward.  What do we do with it now?  We watch TV on our computers.  We play computer games that accurately represent real-world physics.  Maybe our screen-saver analyzes astronomical data, in search of signals from ET, or folds proteins with the spare cycles, but in neither case do we pay much attention.

Improving the interface between brain and computer isn’t going to make a big difference, because the brain/computer analogy is weak.  They aren’t really the same thing.  We’ve already gone pretty far down the computer/human interface road, with the big result being increased access to entertainment (and porn).

Premise #2: Increases in computer processing speed, network size and activity, and/or developments in artificial intelligence will result in the emergence of superhuman intelligence.

Daniel Dennett has an interesting counter-argument for people who like to speculate about superhuman intelligence by comparing human intelligence to animal intelligence, and then extrapolating to superhuman intelligence.  The speculation goes something like this; cats can’t do algebra — they can’t even conceive of it — but people can do algebra.  So couldn’t there exist an order of mind that can perform complex operations and computations that human beings can’t even conceive of? Some kind of super-advanced alien (or future A.I.) mathematics that would befuddle even the Stephen Hawking types?

Dennett points out the problem with that argument; humans possess (we have evolved) a completely different cognitive faculty that cats don’t possess.  We have the ability to think abstractly.  We have the ability to run simulations in our minds and imagine various futures and outcomes (we can run scenarios).  We can think symbolically and manipulate symbols (words, numbers, musical notation, languages of all sorts) in infinite numbers of configurations (why infinite?  because we can also invent new symbols).  In short, human beings can perform abstract mental operations.

Cats have a different relationship with symbols.

This is not to say that cats will never evolve symbolic cognition, or that the human brain has stopped evolving.  But once we possess the imaginative faculty, once we evolve the ability to perform abstract mental operations, once the cat is out of the bag (so to speak) then there can exist no idea that by its very nature is off limits to us.  Sure, some areas are difficult to contemplate.  Quantum mechanics falls into this category.  Quantum mechanics is entirely outside of our range of sensory experience (as human beings).  It’s counter-intuitive; it doesn’t necessarily make sense.  But this doesn’t mean we can’t think about it, and imagine it, and create analogies about it, and perform quantum calculations, and conduct quantum level experiments.  Of course we can.

I believe Dennett makes this argument in Freedom Evolves (but I don’t have it handy to check — it might be in Darwin’s Dangerous Idea).

I’m not saying that humans are the “end of the line” or the “peak of the pyramid.”  It’s possible, even probable, that our descendants (biological or cyborg or virtual) will be smarter than us.  It’s also likely that the future of evolution (and I mean evolution in the broadest sense) holds “level jumps” that will change the very nature of reality (or rather, add layers).  Perhaps our descendants (or another group’s descendants) will be able to manipulate matter with their mindsAkira style.  Now that would change things up.

Even the polarphant must obey the rules of Darwinian evolution.

My point is that we should question the idea that superhuman intelligence can even exist.  Certainly superhuman something-or-other can exist, but intelligence and consciousness are the wrong vector to examine.  Sure, it’s probable that something out there (either elsewhere in the galaxy, or in the future) is or will be smarter and/or more aware/sophisticated than we are, but I question the idea that an entirely different order of cognition can exist.  The cognitive space is like the chemistry space; there is not an entirely different set of elements somewhere else in the universe (or in the future or in the past).  It’s all chemistry: hydrogen and helium and lithium and so forth.  Same for the quantum physics space, once we have all the quarks and gluons figured out on our end we can surmise that it’s pretty much the same stuff everywhere.  Same for the biological space — of course not every animal in the universe is going to have a genetic code sequenced out of adenine, cytosine, guanine, and thymine, but I’m guessing the rules of Darwinian evolution are universal.  The same is true for cognition/intelligence/consciousness — it’s a space that includes manipulating abstract symbols, imagining and simulating possible futures, performing calculations, and being aware of one’s own perceptions/thoughts/emotions/identity (meta-awareness or self-consciousness).  Of course you can divide up the cognition/consciousness space into various developmental sub-levels (Ken Wilber is a big fan of this) but I don’t buy the idea that there are vastly different orders of cognition and consciousness that exist somewhere out there, in the realm of all possibility.

A very large truck ... but still a truck.

The other problem with Premise #2 is the idea that making something bigger or faster changes its nature or function.  If you increase the speed of a computer, then it can do what it already does much more quickly.  With the right programming, for example, a computer can explore a logical decision tree and look for a certain outcome; thus computers can be programmed to be extremely good at chess.  A very large network is just that — a big network — it can facilitate communications among billions of people and quasi-intelligent agents (bots, computer viruses, and so forth).  But it doesn’t become something else just because you make it bigger or faster.

New functionality does not emerge unless new structures emerge.  In nature, new structures can emerge via the process of evolution.  In the realm of technology, new structures and functions are designed, or they evolve out of systems that are designed.  We’re not going to see spontaneous intelligence (superhuman or not) emerge from the internet unless we turn the internet into a giant evolution simulator.  You could of course argue that is already is, but if so, the evolving agents are funny cat videos and naked lady pictures.  It’s memetic evolution; the funniest or sexiest or most heart-warming videos and pictures and posts thrive (get reposted/replicated) and the more complicated long-winded posts (like this one) enjoy the anonymity of obscurity.  It’s not the kind of network that is going to spontaneously generate superhuman intelligence.

Only the strongest (lolcat) will survive.

Premise #3: The emergence of superhuman intellect will result in a radical transformation of the world.

Smart people, rather myopically, tend to take this idea for granted.  Of course super-intelligence will be super important!

Historically, extreme intelligence only amounts to something when it is paired with other human qualities, like ruthless ambition, innovative inventiveness, disciplined practice, or preternatural persistence (Thomas Edison, for example, had all of those qualities).  Look around — don’t we all know someone with a shut-in uncle who got a perfect score on their SAT’s?  Or an unemployed, weed-dealing neighbor with a PhD in Semiotics?  Intelligence is a nice thing to have, but on its own it’s just a brain burning brightly — until it’s all burned up.

Can you read? Thank Johannes.

When extreme intelligence is paired with motivating factors, the world does get changed.  Gutenberg’s movable type printing press has proved influential, to say the least.  The ambitious work of Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla gave us cheap, universally available electricity, long-burning light bulbs, and dozens of other important inventions.  Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, The Woz, and many others ushered in the era of personal computers.  Maybe one day we’ll have a particularly ambitious A.I. contribute a new mobile gadget or something.  But FTL travel?  Teleportation?  Singularity-level tech?  I don’t think so.

Look at the A.I. curve.  It’s much different than the processor speed curve.  The latter is going straight up; the former goes up and down in fits and starts.  The most promising approaches to A.I. are those that are attempting to reverse engineer the brain, and how the brain learns (artificial childhood).  Maybe, if those go really well, we’ll get an artificial inventor who will invent cool stuff.  But maybe we’ll get an A.I. that majors in Semiotics, proves unemployable, and deals weed for a living.

This post is getting too long, and I don’t want to completely doom its chances of reproductive success.  I’ll save the rest of my thoughts on this subjects for Part II, which will include:

  • When and where the real Singularity happened
  • Why I might be wrong (and in what way)
  • Vernor Vinge’s response

Radical Work Autonomy In Marriage

 

Want to experience zero-G marriage?

Kia and I have recently stumbled across a principle that has significantly altered (for the better) our dynamic regarding who does what work and how we each feel about it.

To be clear, I’m not talking about the work of marriage.  Honestly, I don’t think being married to somebody should be that much work.  It should be fun (at least most of the time), and relatively easy.  The real work is finding the right person — someone you love for who they are, someone you feel relaxed around, and someone you’re physically attracted to (and vice versa in all cases — which is sometimes the harder bit).

What I’m talking about is the work in marriage; who takes out the trash, who does the dishes, who takes care of the kid, and so forth.  Most of this work exists for single people as well, but if you’re married (or live with your romantic partner) then questions surface — questions of division of labor.

Secret Balance Sheet — A Dysfunctional System

Keeping track in your head?

Division of labor is often a source of conflict in a marriage.  A common dynamic is for one (or both) partners to feel like they are doing more work, or more valuable/important/difficult work, than the other person.  Maybe they have a secret balance sheet in their head, on which they are constantly accruing credits on their own side and debits on their partner’s side (or it is the other way around? — I always get those accounting terms mixed up).  If each partner has a secret balance sheet (one that is never discussed), then there’s never any chance to reconcile the two.  A giant blow-up argument is inevitable; the secret balance sheets are eventually brought out into the open and are found to differ massively.  The “you owe me” dynamic is destructive — it leads to resentment on both sides of the relationship.

Do you know any couples where one person supported the other one financially through a degree program, and then as soon that person graduated they dumped the partner that supported them?  From the outside it looks cruel and callous; the student who was being supported was obviously just using the other person, right?  Well, maybe.  But an alternate interpretation is that after graduation, the secret balance sheets were compared, and didn’t match.  The partner who was being supported financially was presented with a gigantic “you owe me” bill which didn’t line up with their own view of things.  Perhaps they felt that while they were in school, being financially supported, they were contributing to the relationship in other ways.  Or maybe they felt that because they were working so hard, things must have somehow been equal in the relationship.  When they suddenly realize that the other partner has been expecting something in return for financially supporting their broke ass for all these years, they freak out.  Faced with the giant debt, they bail.

I’m not trying to justify the behavior of either partner in my hypothetical situation — I’m just saying that the secret balance sheet method is a bad system — one that leads to disappointment and heartbreak.

Open Balance Sheet — A Less Dysfunctional System

A somewhat healthier dynamic (which I think describes my work-sharing dynamic with Kia before we discovered our new principle) is to communicate regularly about who does what and who is responsible for what, in essence frequently reconciling the balance sheets.  Thus, no hidden debts accrue.

This kind of arrangement can exist with varying degrees of symmetry.  Maybe one partner contributes more money, and the other contributes more household work (childcare, cooking, cleaning, shopping, social planning, vacation planning, handling finances, etc.).  Kia and I both work — she earns a bit more hourly but I have more passive income (from music royalties), so we contribute the same amount of money to our household fund.  On the other hand, she spends more time with Tesla Rose (two-year-old girls tend to be slightly more focused on mommy — I try not to take it personally) so I try to make up for that by doing more cleaning, and more household organizing.  It doesn’t really matter what the division of labor is, as long as neither partner feels like they’re getting the short of the stick.  It’s important to remember that 1) there’s a built-in efficiency boost to co-habitating; if you didn’t live with someone you’d both be taking out the garbage and paying the electricity bill, and 2) some degree of asymmetry is probably a good thing; what is difficult for one person might be easy for the other.

Sounds like a pretty good system, right?  It is — but with the extra work generated by parenthood, Kia and I would still sometimes get irritated or snippy with each other around work issues, despite the fact that both of us were working hard.  Was there just too much work to do?  Maybe some disharmony is inevitable for parents of a young child (or children) who also both work, and who also both have artistic pursuits.

Origins of the Principle — Home Improvement

The prequel to our new work-sharing principle came about as we were contemplating our long list of home improvement projects.  We were making very slow progress on our list, while at the same time constantly adding new items.  We’re in the process of converting our garage into an office for Kia (so that Kia’s current office can become a bedroom for Tesla Rose).  It’s a lot of work, but our logic was that it would be easier and cheaper than selling our house and buying a bigger one.  The logic still holds, but the project has been dragging on for many months.  In addition to that project, the house needs painting, the deck needs some work, the gate needs fixing, and so on and so forth.  There’s no end to it.  We started to feel overwhelmed.

In response to these negative feelings, we devised three principles of home improvement, as follows:

  1. Only do one disruptive project a time. For example, don’t try to remodel the kitchen and the bathroom at the same time.  Regain total functionality in one area before tearing up the next thing.
  2. Make it better than it was before. You’d think this would be obvious.  It’s home improvement, right?  But sloppy work is all too common.  Spesh has dubbed the previous owners of our house “The D.I.Y. couple”; there is evidence of sloppy paint jobs, unfinished mouldings, unevenly placed electric outlets, etc.  This principle helps us resist the urge to rush jobs just to “get them done.”
  3. Only do what you feel like doing. The list will never be completed.  All houses are in a constant state of decay, and all you can do is stem the tide.  Keeping this in mind helps take the pressure off.  Each person can work on whatever they want to work on — whatever they feel like needs doing.

We found ourselves enjoying the last principle in particular.  If one of us feels like painting, we put on our painter pants and pick up a brush.  No artificial deadlines, no schedules, and no nagging.  Do what you feel.

We’re making progress at the same rate as before, if not slightly faster.  I’m not sure when exactly, but I’m confident that Tesla Rose will eventually have her own bedroom.  If she starts demanding it sooner, we may hand her a paint brush.

 

An earlier home improvement project -- The Light Bar (designed and constructed by Dave Shanks and featured in Ready Made magazine)


Getting To The Principle

Recently, for various reasons, Kia was thinking about the term “guilt-tripping” and what it meant exactly.  She asked me for my definition, which resulted in the following conversation (this version is much condensed):

Me:  ” ‘Guilt-tripping’ is what you do when you want the other person to want to do something, as opposed to just asking them to do it.”

Her:  “Do I do that?  Do I guilt-trip you?”

Me:  “Yeah.  Sometimes.”

Kia has an unusual, one might even say preternatural, to instantly change her behavior once she makes up her mind to do so (I, on the other hand, usually have a time-delay of one to ten years).  Kia completely stopped guilt-tripping me from that moment forward.  Instead, if she wanted me to do something, she would just ask me to do it, politely and directly.  Usually I don’t mind doing something even if I don’t want to do it, so the new dynamic worked better (much more so than the previous dynamic, wherein she would drop hints about what she wanted me to do, and I would miss or ignore those hints, and then be confused as to why I was in trouble).

This was a big step towards our new principle, but we weren’t quite there yet.  We arrived at the other half of the equation when I recently asked her if she could finish putting away some dishes I had just washed.  I’d been pulled away from my dish-washing task mid-stream — some time-dependent errand I needed to run (I forget what) — but I really wanted to job to be completed (in a slightly OCD kind of way).  Since I had to run off and do something else, I asked Kia if she could finish the task for me.  I may or may not have said please.

Be very glad they are smaller than you.

I returned from my errand (whatever is was) to find the dishes not yet put away, and my wife feeling resentful about the request.  She explained why.  It has gotten dark in my absence, and Kia had felt nervous about working downstairs in our wide-open-to-the-jungle house (we’re temporarily living in Costa Rica).  It wasn’t an unreasonable fear; we had already sighted howler monkeys and agouti nearby, giant jungle rats running through the kitchen, and one morning we found a paw print on the table (either dog or jaguar — the two look remarkably similar).  In addition to the jungle proximity issue, she had witnessed a horrifying drama unfold on the kitchen counter; a live moth being forcibly dismantled by large black jungle ants.  We have since moved to a beach house.  In any case she had felt the burden of my request quite heavily.  It hadn’t helped that I had delivered it a little tersely.  In my mind it was just an off-hand request, a preference — no big deal if she didn’t feel like doing it.  But she had perceived the request with more weight, and was a little upset.

We talked about it, and came to a joint realization.  It’s a drag to have someone else control your agenda, even a little bit.  I had tried to use Kia’s work units as my own, assigning a task the way I might assign a task to myself.  In the process, I had circumvented her work autonomy.

Not that different.


The Breakthrough Principle

Psychologists who study motivation have known for a long time, via numerous, oft-replicated experiments, that one of the best ways to motivate a person is to give them more autonomy.  People, in general, like to work.  They especially like to contribute and to feel needed and appreciated by their peers.  What they don’t like is to be told exactly what do, how to do it, and when to do it.

The same is true in marriage.  Unless you’re married to a lazy bum or a mammoni, your partner probably likes to work; to contribute to the household.  They also have a strong desire to do it — the work — their way.  Nobody likes being micro-managed (or even managed, when it comes down to it).

So what’s the principle?

Both partners are free to do, or not do, whatever work/tasks they feel like doing, when they feel like doing them.  Asking your partner to do something is allowed, but only as you might ask a friend (politely), and the other person is free to cheerfully decline without fear of repercussions.  No guilt-tripping, delegating, or nagging allowed.  Do what you feel.  Radical work autonomy.

So How Does It Work?

Pretty well, so far.  It’s not that there isn’t a balance sheet — of course there is.  We’ll still have conversations about who is responsible for what — a constantly moving target.  So it’s not that different from the Open Balance Sheet method discussed above.

What’s different is the moment-to-moment dynamic.  There’s a new respect for the other person’s emotional state, in regards to work.  Sometimes a person is out of willpower, and the smallest request can feel like a giant weight.  So now … there’s more slack.  What if something needs doing and nobody feels like doing it?  Usually someone steps up.  If not, it gets done later, or maybe it didn’t really need doing.  Sometimes tasks just go away.

For the most part, I think we’re more efficient.  What needs doing gets done more easily, and we have more energy and attention to do what we enjoy, and to enjoy each others’ company.  There’s definitely less resentment and struggle around division of labor issues.  It’s like R.O.W.E. for the home — you immediately weed out the bums (neither of us, fortunately), and after that it’s all increased productivity and happier people.  It’s free freedom.

I don’t mean to imply that we’ve discovered some kind of magical, argument-free zone in which we live in perfect harmony, subtly communicating our preferences with loving non-verbal signals and sharing the household work with perfect equality and efficiency.  That would be a little too precious, wouldn’t it?  Nah, we still sometimes bicker and get irritated with each other.  But there has been a real breakthrough — a mutual realization that any attempt to delegate, manage, or in any way control the other person’s work autonomy is going to backfire.  Of course we still ask each other to do things (very politely).  Of course we each have a different awareness of what needs to get done in certain areas.  But we’ve committed to abandoning the habit of directing each others’ actions.  We still backslide at times, but we catch ourselves at it (or call each other on it) more often than not.

Freedom In Marriage

It’s a truism that what you sacrifice for the stability, comfort, and warmth of marriage (or any long-term, committed, intimate relationship) is freedom.  A more nuanced view is that each couple decides how much freedom they want to grant each other in each area of life.  Turning up the freedom dial in a given area usually has both costs and benefits.  If you crank up the sexual autonomy dial (open marriage, to whatever degree) then you might gain excitement and the thrill of sexual novelty, but the cost might be jealousy, emotional distance, and long complicated conversations about what is and isn’t allowed and how everybody is feeling (what The Ferret calls “the sex bureaucracy“).  If you turn up the spatial/geographic autonomy dial, perhaps living in different houses (or even different cities), or traveling separately for extended periods of time, then you might experience alienation, or just drifting apart (“separate lives” — that’s probably what happened to Al and Tipper).

The work autonomy dial seems to operate differently.  I don’t see what the costs are when you turn this one up; they’re illusory.  If you’ve married a person who likes to contribute and feel needed (and most people do — watch the video below), then the work still gets done.

So why not crank the dial to eleven?

Jaguar Rescue Center (with baby sloth videos)

An incredibly cute baby three-toed sloth; these guys are responsible for a significant percentage of Costa Rica's eco-tourism industry.

I’m currently living in Costa Rica with my family, near Puerto Viejo, in the midst of a working abroad experiment (we’re calling it a “workation”).  Recently, on the recommendation of several friends and acquaintances, we visited the Jaguar Rescue Center.  This unique organization, started by a herpetologist and a gorilla expert, functions to rescue and rehabilitate injured, mistreated, and/or confiscated animals from the local area.  During our tour we met baby howler monkeys and baby sloths who had fallen from the trees (otherwise a death sentence for both types of animal), snakes discovered by residents who would have otherwise met the sharp side of a machete, big cats rescued by customs agents otherwise destined for lives as leashed pets in Kuwait, a baby cayman discovered in a local creek, and numerous frogs, who, as far as I could tell, were just enjoying the giant, lily-pad covered pond.

A young ocelot -- note the giant eyes for night hunting. He looks cute, but this guy recently went after a large dog.

The Jaguar Rescue Center is not-for-profit, and receives no government support.  They’re not really part of the eco-tourism industry (though they of course attract eco-tourists); their mission is solely to protect and heal at-risk animals and help them return to their natural lives in the jungle.  The cages open at least once a day (or night, for the big cats) to allow the animals to leave if they wish.  Some leave and then come back for a time, like the young orphaned jaguar who had never had a mother to teach him not to hunt porcupines.  He slunk back to the rescue center to recover from a faceful of quills, then left again, a fully healed and much wiser beast.

It's always nice when someone feels comfortable around you.

The baby howler monkeys regularly interact with a couple of local troops who live in the nearby trees, and eventually leave the rescue center to join one of them (usually monkey romance is the deciding factor).  One feature of the tour is the option to enter the cage where the baby howler monkeys hang out, and let them climb on you.  They’re quite friendly and fearless, and immediately clamber onto the visitors.  One of the monkeys started chewing on one young woman’s hair.  I was used more like a tree branch, as you can see in the picture.  It’s a strange feeling to have a monkey hanging off of you, supported only by its tail wrapped around your neck.  Not uncomfortable, but weird.  Those tails are incredibly strong.

Lying in the food bowl = acceptable sloth table manners (youtube video below).

The baby sloths were the highlight of the tour, especially for our two-year-old daughter.  As you can see, they’re cute.  Really cute — cuddly and adorable.  The two-toed sloth (the orange one), has a peak of fur on its back that helps the rainwater drain off.  It looks just like a faux-hawk.

Both sloths and monkeys often get injured in power lines.  There have been efforts to get the government to install “collars” at the base of the power line poles to prevent animals from climbing them, a relatively cheap fix that could save hundreds of animals from life-threatening burns.  You would think the Costa Rican government, with its generally strong commitment to protecting the environment and supporting eco-tourism, would be all over this.  Evidently there is still progress to be made.  I can hardly be critical, coming from nation that has just hosted what might be the worst environmental disaster of all time, but I’m glad the Jaguar Rescue Center is working hard to protect the stunningly beautiful wildlife of Costa Rica.

Unfortunately their website doesn’t have an easy way to donate, like a Paypal button or credit card form, but if you feel moved to support their efforts I hope that doesn’t discourage you.  Give them a call and arrange a donation.  And if you’re ever in the Puerto Viejo area, by all means do the tour.  It’s informative, fun, and monkeys might chew on your hair.


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