Friday, September 30, 2016

San' – Erich

There is a sequence from the movie Raising Arizona that I enjoy quoting.

“When dere was no meat, we ate fowl. When dere was no fowl, we ate crawdad. And when dere was no crawdad to be foun', we ate san'.”

“You ate what?”

“We ate san'.”

“You ate sand?”

“Dass right!”

What does that have to do with anything? I don't know. Let's hope I have a point in that.

Two days ago marked the one year anniversary of when we left the United States, an entire year abroad. Yesterday marked the one year anniversary of our arrival into South Africa. And today is one year from when we finally reached Cape Town. It's been quite a year. We are now on our third continent of the trip and our eighteenth country.

How does one celebrate such a year? How about with a visit from Grandma and Grandpa?

Yes, on our one year anniversary of leaving the U.S., my parents arrived here in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. They are staying with us for three weeks. We're so excited. Neither kid could get to sleep the night before they came, and honestly, I had a tough time too.

Yesterday we had another new experience. Eating on sand.

I imagine that the first time I ate with my feet in the sand was as a little boy sitting in a sandbox. And probably what I was eating was the sand itself. (Dass right!) But since then, I have certainly had picnics on beaches. And I may have eaten sandwiches, but not sand itself. I've got a more discerning palate at this point.

Yesterday, we all ate a restaurant with a floor of sand. You take off your shoes as you enter (which a barefoot restaurant is very un-American.) And then you walk across the sand. And your tables and chairs are in sand, so they don't seem entirely level.
I know you can't see the sand in great detail, but it is there. On the floor. It is the floor.
As it turns out, I did have a sand-wich as my meal. But that wasn't required.

But sandwiches are one of the neat things about Vietnam. East Asia is generally not a bread culture. I mean, we were able to buy bread in the grocery store in Thailand and in Malaysia. But it wasn't really a part of their culture. Not so in Vietnam.

Vietnam was once a French colony, and they inherited the French love of bread and cheese. (Cheese is another thing you don't see much in Thailand or Malaysia.)

What this means is you can get bread and sandwiches here that are very delicious. The bread is often in the baguette style with a crispy thin crust. It's all quite good.

Also enjoyable are some of the symbols used to alert you to the presence of the bathrooms. I will include some here. Carver's favorite is the Man Wraith in which our man has no legs, but just a long torso that trails off.
The Man Wraith. Beware!
A Man Wraith with no arms
If the man is a wraith, apparently the woman is a bell? Or an upside-down exclamation point?
What do you get when you cross a man wraith and a woman bell? A big baby!
One year in and we are doing great. No malnutrition. We have plenty of meat and fowl. Haven't really looked for crawdad. And if all else fails, now I know where to get san'.

To get what?

To get san'.

To get sand?

Dass right!

Saturday, September 24, 2016

The More You Know – Erich

One of the best things about travel is getting to have new knowledge. Sometimes it is just memories of different experiences. Sometimes it is a deeper understanding of how people are alike and different around the world. And sometimes it is just that jokes get funnier.

Yes, sometimes knowing more means laughing more. Some jokes are just better if you are in the know. I will tell you a story about this, my ultimate example of what I mean. Plus, it includes the shortest joke in the world.

When I was a student and instructor at the Courant Institute for Mathematical Sciences (which was the Math Department and Graduate School at New York University), I learned, though I don't remember where I learned it, the shortest joke in the world.

One night we hosting at a Passover Seder with a lot of our friends in attendance. This included some of my fellow colleagues from the Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences and several others who were not from that math world. And I told the shortest joke in the world.

(Is the suspense building it up properly? I hope so, because suspense is really all I have to offer with this particular joke for the majority of my readers.)

I said, “I'm going to tell you the shortest joke in the world.” Everyone turned to hear with bated breath or other expression of tense anticipation.

I continued, “Let epsilon be less than zero.”

(In case you are waiting for more, don't. That's it. That is the shortest joke in the world. It's short, right?)

At this juncture, all of my Courant friends lost it. They were laughing so hard, some of them had tears coming out of their eyes. Meanwhile, Alrica and our friends who were not mathematicians were looking at me like I was a two headed idiot in which one head had suffered brain death and the other head was jealous at the superiority of its compatriot.

Okay, so that was my point. The humor in the joke depends entirely on the knowledge of a specific slice of humanity, in this case mathematical proofs. The greater your knowledge of that slice, the funnier the joke is. The less your knowledge of that slice, the more inane the joke-teller seems. (This, by the way, is a fine example of a positive correlation.)

Yesterday Alrica showed me a comic strip. I post it here. It is a comic from Itchy Feet at
Had I seen this comic a year ago I would have said, “Oh yeah, that's cute.” I would have understood what it meant at an intellectual level. But it would not have been funny. But now, after seeing so many signs in various Asian languages, as well as many products at the grocery store labeled in all kinds of scripts, I laughed.

So knowing more really can mean laughing more. As I am also a writer of comedy scripts, I hope it also means making other people laugh more. Though if all my jokes are as inaccessible as the shortest joke in the world, I'm not too likely to succeed.

No matter how much I know.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Sai-going, Sai-going, Saigon – Erich

You know how Istanbul was Constantinople, but now it's Istanbul, not Constantinople? Well, the same is true in another major city that isn't its nation's capital. Ho Chi Minh City was Saigon, but now it's Ho Chi Minh City, not Saigon. Been not quite as long a time gone for Saigon. Now it's Vietnamese delight on a tropical night.

The other day we flew into Ho Chi Minh City. Though the airport code is SGN, a throwback to those bygone Saigon days. Our arrival was not smooth, which is not a complaint about the plane. The landing was very smooth. It was after we exited the aircraft that things got rough.

Vietnam is one of the nations that requires U.S. citizens to have a visa to enter. You don't have to get it ahead of time, you can get a visa on arrival, but to do so you must have a visa approval letter done ahead of time. We had done this, we had our visa approval letters all printed out and ready.

Now, we were approved for a 90 day visa which would cost $25 per person (so $100 for the four of us.) This has to be paid in U.S. dollars. You do not pay this in Vietnamese dong. I do not know why this is. But it was not a problem because I had $200 in U.S. currency.

However, on 1 September (which is how the world aside from the United States writes September 1), Vietnam changed it's rules regarding visas for U.S. citizens. Now, upon arrival any U.S. citizen gets a one year visa. This is, I'm sure, very convenient for U.S. citizens who want to retire to Vietnam where their money goes far. Now they only need to do a border run once a year, instead of every three months. However, it isn't so convenient for anyone who wants to come for only a few weeks. Because a one year visa costs $135 (which is much greater than buying four or even five 90 day visas. I don't know why this is – again.)

We had gotten our approval letter before 1 September, and we were assured that this change in the law would not affect us. Guess what, those assurances were wrong.

We arrived on 14 September into Ho Chi Minh City and went to get our visa on arrival. But the immigration officers explained that we had to get one year visas at a cost of $135 a piece. That is a total of $540! (I'm sure all of you worked that out in your heads before I told you the total, but my math boy in me couldn't leave it uncalculated.)

Now, as I'm sure you have also worked out in your heads, this meant I was $340 short of the amount I needed. Panic is now beginning to set in. Don't get too upset. I am writing this from Vietnam, so somehow or other I got in. (And to set your heart at ease, so did the rest of my family.)

The immigration officer allowed me (but only one person was allowed to go) to go through immigration and customs out to the part of the airport where there are ATMs. Then I was able to get money in Vietnamese dong, and they would take the remainder in dong rather than dollars. I don't know why this is, but I was grateful for it.

I suppose that was very nice of them. The immigration officers were all friendly, and I know they are just doing their job. So yes, it was nice. But it was also not so nice. Now entering Vietnam had cost me 5.4 times as much as had been previously indicated. That is an increase of 440%.

On the upside, my year long visa is multiple entry, so if I decide any time after we leave Vietnam and before 14 September 2017 that I am just dying for a bowl of phở, I can come back without paying for another visa. Booyah, right? (Note: I spelled phở the way it would be spelled in Vietnamese. It is pronounced foo where the oo is more like the oo in book. Or I learned that this vowel is like the i in sir.)

Let this be the worst problem one encounters at immigration when traveling the world. It's done, we've got visas, and we're safely ensconced in Ho Chi Minh City.

That, by the way, is the English name for this municipality. In Vietnamese they call it Thành Phố Ho Chi Minh. Thành Phố means city, so it is the same name. And here, it should be noted that Phố is pronounced foe with a long o. See the o with the apostrophe like tag on the right side above is a different vowel than the o with a hat above it.

What this does mean is that often on maps, this city is abbreviated as T. P. Ho Chi Minh. But don't giggle, those of you who are immature. You see, T. P. in the States might bring up images of bathroom hygiene, but not so here. First, the Vietnamese phrase for toilet paper is giấy vệ sinh which doesn't even have a t or a p in it. (Plus it ends in sinh, the mathematical abbreviation for hyperbolic sine. Pretty great, right?) But beyond this fact is another. Toilet paper, while available in South East Asia, is a very western thing. The natives don't use it.

Now, don't say ew. They have a different method. Every toilet has a flexible hose with a sprayer at the end, much like you often find connected to kitchen sinks back in the States. You use this, when you finish, to spray yourself clean. I assume you then dry off with a towel. I'm not sure. As a Westerner, I am sticking with my use of giấy vệ sinh. But they seem to primarily stock it in the stores for selling to Westerners.

Just a few of the differences in our cultures, and part of the fun adventure of getting to know the world. After all, you know the saying: Let Saigons be Saigons. 'Cause if you've a date in Saigon, she'll be waiting in T. P. Ho Chi Minh.

Saturday, September 17, 2016

The Improbable Baby – Erich

Often, though not always, people have a terrible understanding of what is and is not probable. I should probably state the probability that a randomly chosen person will have a terrible understanding of how probable an occurrence is. But then again, that is layering the probabilities, and will most likely only confuse people further.

Let me give you some examples of what I mean.

I was in a faculty meeting at an institution where I worked. We had a visitor from learning support speaking to us. The incoming students had taken placement exams in writing and mathematics. And this speaker was talking about the results.

“What percentage of the students do you think scored below average on both tests?” the speaker asked.

One of the faculty guessed “Twenty-five percent.” And he was exactly right. Then she went on and on bemoaning this fact, saying we had to better support those students.

I raised my hand and asked, “When you say they scored below average, you mean the national average on these tests or just at our institution?”

“Just at our institution.”

And then I was perplexed. On any set of test scores, the median is the score for which half the students did better and half the students did worse. The average, or the mean, may not be the same as the median, but for most sets of data, they're close to each other. So you would expect about half of the students on one test to score below average.

If there are two tests, making no other assumptions about any connections between the scores on the two tests, you would expect about a quarter of the students to score below average on both tests. Why? Because one quarter is one half times one half.

So 25% was exactly the number one should have expected. Why was our speaker going on and on about how terrible this was? I more or less asked this question and got an unsatisfactory answer. Our speaker didn't understand my objection. The curse of thinking mathematically, I guess. At least when others don't.

There are plenty of other examples in society. We concern ourselves with incredibly improbable things while ignoring probable things that just don't seem as catastrophic to us. Some people insist they must be allowed to have guns in the home for protection against home invasion. It sounds reasonable, home invasions would be terrible. But probabilities don't really bear it out. In fact, the probability of being a victim of a home invasion is much smaller than the probability of a death or injury occurring caused by a gun kept in the home.

Still, sometimes we recognize the improbable for what it is, especially when it is improbable with a positive outcome. These things we call miracles.

We learned about a miracle baby on the Island of Penang in Malaysia.

On December 26, 2004, there was a tsunami, as I'm sure many remember. Penang was one of the places hit by that tsunami. And most of the people on the island had no idea it was coming until the waters hit.

This includes a couple who were working at a beachside restaurant. They had brought their baby with them to work and she was laying out on the beach on a mattress. This was just a tiny baby, not old enough to roll off the mattress or crawl away. I know, this sounds like a tragedy in the making, but it's not. Remember, miracle baby.

Yes, the waters rose and somehow, miraculously lifted the mattress up rather than flinging it for miles. And then, just as miraculously, when the waters withdrew again, they set the mattress back down on the beach. The baby was still there, perhaps jostled a bit, but unharmed. Her parents grabbed her and got away.

I wasn't there, so I can't say how it happened. I was only hearing the tale told now, years later. But this girl is called, by the people of Penang, the Miracle Baby. Every year on December 27th, the local newspaper publishes her picture as a baby and her picture at whatever age she is. They tell how she has grown over the past year and give the readers an account of her life.

What would that be like? This girl is local celebrity, she's famous among the people of Penang. And she has been since before she can remember. She won her fame through an act of nature that she had nothing to do with and has no personal memory of it. Do you think it's great? Or do you think it's tons of pressure? Or is it basically like being anyone else, except once a year newspaper reporters come to question you and get your picture?

I don't know. We should calculate the probabilities of each possible outcome.

Nah, why bother? Most people wouldn't understand it anyway.

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Egg Plop and Bus Chases - Carver

Yesterday, we went to George Town. Penang is an island and George Town is the big city in Penang. We took bus 101 to Chinatown. There we wandered around and ate lunch. I tried something new! It turned out to be hideous-ish.

I very much dislike under-cooked egg

The honey in the wine glass is a fake end of a spoon. Too bad!
As you can see in the picture there, the bottom was slimy. It was like egg-drop soup. But not the same so I called it egg-plop soup. Because when you drop eggs it would make a plop and I thought the name should be similar to drop but not the same and my line of thought in that instance was very confusing. But I ate the crispy noodles and the crispy pork. My drink was honey lemon, something I discovered in KL and really enjoy. And I'll show you what everyone else ate.
Braised Pork Belly

Scallop Minced Meat

Steamed Chicken Chinese Sausage

Butterfly Pea Flower Barley Juice

Nutmeg Juice

Iced Milo (Syarra and I tried this in KL and liked it)

Next, we walked around, got our visa approval letters for Vietnam printed, ate ice cream bars, and saw street art. We also saw many things about the heritage of George Town. I'll show you one but with the sun’s angle, you can't read what it says. I thought it was hard to read when I was standing right next to it! Here are some things we saw.

After that, we saw Chew Jetty, a place where a certain Chinese clan lives. There are many jetties with different clans living on each one. The houses are on stilts in the water. But now the jetty is a tourist attraction. Do the people living there like that? Many make money off of the tourists but we walked down an area without tourists and I wonder if the people there like it. They had visiting hours from 9-9 so tourists couldn't come at night.
Then we got a free bus that goes around the center of town and rode almost the whole loop just to see stuff. Then we got back on the 101 and went home. But getting on the 101 was hard. We saw a 101 coming but then a big truck blocked out view of it and then we saw it had passed. So we chased it. It got stuck in traffic. We found the next stop. The traffic was so bad that we had time to get there. A bus (it might not have been the same) came. He told us to go to a big bus station. That was odd but we did. Except, we stopped to go grocery shopping. We got to the station and a bus came. But it was packed full of people and many people were waiting for it including a wheelchair. So we didn't want to get on such a packed bus. We waited for the next one. And on the next one, we passed the packed full bus. The full bus passed us. We got very close but never made it past. But it was a bus chase. And I said I would cry if we didn't beat the bus. But it would be a big cry if we took longer than 5 minutes after it passed the stop we got off at. I wanted to know if we spent longer on the bus because we didn't wait. The 101 bus was supposed to come every 5 minutes. As it turns out, we probably arrived half a minute later than the other bus.

And here are some additional pictures that are funny.
This was next to the heritage panel about Nasi Kandar

Where did this come from?

Apparently, to some people, you do look like a rubbish bin

Monday, September 5, 2016

Trash Talk – Erich

As we travel, we realize that English truly is becoming in the international language. There have been a few exceptions: In Osaka, Japan, few people spoke English. In Istanbul, Turkey plenty of English was spoken in Fatih, the old city with the most popular tourist spots. At Dolmabahce Palace, you had to take a tour and tours were offered in Turkish and English. But out in the neighborhoods away from Fatih, hardly anyone spoke English, and those who did had a very limited vocabulary.

Still, in most of the nations we have visited on this adventure, you find many people who do speak some, or quite a lot of, English. Malaysia (we are currently in Penang, Malaysia) is no exception. Malaysia was once a British colony and so English on signage is as common as Malay. Children begin learning English in school at the age of five or six.

This is convenient for us, of course. But I do have to keep one thing in mind. When I say English is widespread and is the international language, in truth, that is British English and not American English. Why the distinction? I'll give you an example, though, in my long-winded way, it will take a few paragraphs to do so.

If you are a tourist and living in a hotel, you don't worry much about garbage. You throw it in a little can and the maid comes the next day and it is gone. But when you are living in a place, living in an apartment (or flat as those speaking British English would say) or in a house you have to throw away your garbage somewhere.

I had never much thought about how trash might be disposed of before departing on this journey. I assumed garbage was handled like it is in the U.S. You bring it to the curb, and garbage collectors take it away. Well, there are variations on that.

In Marrakech, Morocco, we were living in the basement of a private house. We asked our host about where to put the garbage. He told me to take it out the door and turn right. So the first time I had garbage I went out the door and turned right. But this was just the street. No garbage can. No one else had trash here. But I did as I had been told.

The host must have found my trash and thrown it away for me, because I discovered later where it was really supposed to go.

They do have garbage trucks like we do in the U.S. But those garbage trucks do not come into the neighborhoods on the narrow streets. They stick to the arterial roads. What I was supposed to do with my trash was go out the door, turn right, walk to the end of the residential street where I hit the arterial road, turn right again, walk another block, and there I would find a dumpster. All the neighborhood homes brought their trash to this dumpster on the arterial road, and it would be picked up here periodically.

In Lagonisi, Greece, we experienced something similar. You took your trash down the block to a dumpster. Again, this was true in Bistritsa, Bulgaria. In Barnet, United Kingdom, a suburb of London, it was more like home, bringing the trash out to the curb.

Some places that we have stayed in large apartment buildings have had a trash room on our floor. This was true in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia and Chiang Mai, Thailand. In others, the trash had to be brought to a series of garbage cans on the ground floor. This was the case in Cape Town, South Africa.

Now we are in Penang, Malaysia. Again we are in a large apartment building, and when we checked in, I forgot to ask where the garbage goes.

So Carver and I went hunting. We found no trash room on our floor. We went to the ground floor, but we found no dumpster nor garbage cans. So we asked at the guardhouse.

Calling this guardhouse by that appellation is generous. There is a man inside who theoretically guards the place. But he never stops anyone from coming in or going out. That's not entirely true. There is a bar over the entrance to the parking area. So any cars or trucks would be forced to stop. But anyone walking or (the most common we've seen) driving a motorcycle just goes around the barrier and no one from the guardhouse makes any attempt to communicate.

Still, in this instance, we did communicate. Because I asked the man inside “Where do I put the trash?” And this is where my American English failed. He looked at me curiously and had no idea about what I was speaking.

But I am far enough into this trip that I immediately realized my error. I asked again, but this time rephrased my question. “Where does the rubbish go?”

Now he knew exactly what I was asking. It turns out there is a little shed across from the guardhouse. You open the door to the shed and inside you find garbage cans. Or, to be regionally appropriate, inside you find rubbish bins.

Oh the power of language. It's not just trash talk.