That time I found a gun

Beyond the dark mountains of Idaho
We climbed onto plains
The night sky filled with small lights
Then yellow glow on the horizon
And then finally our red Oldsmobile dropped
into the city valley
Of Great Falls

I was six and small and my father
Loomed like a Tom Hanks hero in the front seat
His buzzcut glowing from the light of the radio
Turned low so we could sing songs
We had driven all the way from Seattle
Sam beside me, shouting
She’ll be coming around the mountain
When she comes
When she comes

Grandpa and grandma and Aunt Gin
Greeted us at 3 a.m.
I still remember
The kitchen clock hands pointed in odd places
The window a black square
Smiles hugs
And they fed us lamb and fragrant bread
And we rejoiced in family cheer

The next day, in that kitchen, parents chatting
Aunt laughing
Grandpa bald and strong at the head
Of the table a man who had
Moved to Montana to cure TB
And won a new homestead
I climbed a white-and-black step ladder crooked
Between refrigerator and white counter
Exploring and on top I found
A silvery gun

What’s this? I wondered
Picking up the shiny object
Shiny and sharp
A toy perhaps, with a notch above a barrel
White pearl handle and metal
circle before it
And suddenly
All conversation stopped

The adults jumped up—
my mother moaning, someone shouting
Something something
And I dropped the pistol
Where I found it
On top of the fridge
Why were they mad
So mad mad mad at me
About a toy?

My grandfather knew guns and rifles
Steel tools that went with horses
Alan Kunz was in the last U.S. cavalry
Just before machine guns
Made riding horses in battle
A bad idea
Given the line of sight
Of thousands of bullets bullets
He told a story about training on a horse
Running at full gallop while he had to take off
His shirt, turn it inside out,
and put it back on
Holding the horse with only his legs
Rebuttoning the cloth completely
To prove his balance

This was a man who was careful
With guns
But I had found one
Grandpa missed
As a shiny toy

I’ve almost forgotten that day, because it faded
Everyone safe
But I wonder in America
As we fill our homes with ever more weapons
To protect ourselves
With children crawling around us
Exploring, playing, fighting
Is it at all that unexpected
Sometimes guns
Go the wrong way?

Human robots driven by the code within

Human-to-human spiritual connections are rare, fleeting, often unnoticed, but if you encounter one, flag it. Ponder it. Digest it. That’s what life is about.

Of course it’s hard in this age to understand relationships, when we all are learning about communication encounters in three levels.

1. Blood

The first layer of relationships is biological, the close family and kin of genetic diversity, and if you have read Richard Dawkins and his gene-centric theories, that is what we all fight for. If you wield sword to protect your brother, his genes, which are 25% of yours (each of your parents were half, so if you go downstream through their other descendants, you divide each following generation such as your brother by 2), will continue to pass along. And those winning genes pass to others the aggression which made them survive.

Thus genes instruct the biological giant-robot clouds of humans far above them to fight for their own procreation. This was Dawkins’ great insight: that you are not the center of the universe, but the tiny genes which spurt out to connect via sperm and egg really are. You are but a giant bloated intermediate step. From the perspective of a gene, you’re a lumbering idiot cloud of cognitive lightning enmeshed in some fantasy about “money” and “religion” and “politics.”

Winning genes don’t think, but if they survive into the next generation, they pass forward all of their motivational mechanisms.

So genes control you, not your bloated, silly, clever brain.

2. Family

The second layer of human connections is the extended family of tribes or nation-states, the broader genetically similar grouping of those like us most likely to have our genes survive. In this structure, we build Walls (or invite Mexico to pay for the Wall) to allow our broader similar genetic pool to continue its procreation without fear of intrusion from The Other. Our genes control this; because if we fight for a clan, relatively similar genes will survive. And those surviving genes in turn will be coded to support our group aggression.

Think of it like this. If your distant cousins, the offspring of your brother’s children, only have 12.5% or 6.25% or 3.125% of your genes, if you’re compelled to fight others to protect them, those genes still have a propensity to survive over the 0% connection of the weird clan over the mountain.

So our tribalism is built into our DNA code. Our in-group/national instincts are an itch to get genes somewhat like us to make it to the next generation.

Keep those refugees out, and build that wall.

3. Internet

But … recently … we’ve invented a third layer of relationships, a Digital Camaraderie of Others in a new world which allows us to find a spiritual partner on the continent across the sea, a doppelganger not here but there, a springboard network of similar minds which brings the geographic- or sex-based connectivity of souls into harsh negative contrast. What’s interesting about this is the tiny powerful motive of gene propagation has been supplanted by this new Age of Connection in which you can find similar minds almost anywhere. The geographic and biological “nearness” imperative of genetic lumbering robot clouds is no longer needed, since we’ve redefined the definition of proximity to all those others almost anywhere, screening them for only kindred views.

This is a bit deep for Facebook, so I’m going to break my diet and have some ice cream.

Reposted from my Facebook account. 

Ray Kurzweil says the future does need us

Joshua Tree sunrise 3

On my last warm spring day in Austin, I got to see artificial intelligence guru Ray Kurzweil speak at SXSW. I’ve been a fan for years, ever since reading Bill Joy’s classic April 2000 Wired magazine treatise, “Why the Future Doesn’t Need Us,” in which Joy recounts debating the odds of artificial intelligence dooming our species with Kurzweil over a drink at a bar. Beyond AI, Kurzweil has other claims to fame. Now 70 and leading Google’s machine learning program, over the past 50 years he has invented much of the stuff that makes our modern technology work: the flatbed scanner (fax machines, printers, the iPhone screen), speech-to-recognition (Siri and Alexa, your new car’s dashboard), and music synthesizers (all those little beeps). But rather than riff on the future AI singularity in which we merge with machines, Ray was surprisingly optimistic about our species today.

Here’s what Kurzweil said:

We live in the best moment in all of human history. War is at an all-time low. Your risk of dying from bodily injury caused by another is minimal. Poverty and disease have declined around the globe. Literacy is at a record high. Fewer people are dying from hunger. We thrive in a generation of peace.

The problem we have, Kurzweil said, is modern communication. Humans are wired to listen for potential threats, the rustle in the leaves indicating a snake may be there, the bump in the night. So while in the past the village just over the mountain could burn to the ground and we wouldn’t hear about it for months, today we get news updates in seconds, via modern communication networks, about violent outbreaks 10,000 miles away. Being so wired to listen, we hear trouble every day.

We are empathic human beings, so we perk up, worry, and feel pain. Protestors say wrong words, and we grow upset. A politician makes a bad decision, and we shout a response. The communication networks we’ve built give us the illusion that the world is on fire, when really we just see every spark so far away.

But the global pain is really lessening as our species progresses. The very sensitivity we have in response continues to push societal momentum for more peace and less aggression, more human health and less human sickness.

The lightning of the networks that connect us is compressing the darkness we find so troublesome.

It was a beautiful talk. I hope Kurzweil is right.

If you are living in The Matrix, can you control it?

There’s a moment in the film The Matrix when the protagonist Neo sees a cat walking past a dark green-lit doorway … and then the same cat flits by exactly the same way, again.

“Whoa, deja vu,” Neo says.

The erratic Tank flips. “Shit. Oh shit!”

“What happened? What did you see?” Trinity asks.

“A black cat went past us and then I saw another that looked just like it,” Neo responds.

Trinity grimaces at Morpheus. “A deja vu is usually a glitch in the Matrix.”

OK, you’ve seen the film. But what’s going on here is a deeper philosophical conversation about the nature of our universe: what is real vs. unreal, and can we humans control it? The red-pill-or-blue-pill decision given by Morpheus to Neo in the Matrix — that he can either simply believe in what is around him and follow its rules, or seek a deeper level of reality — is a choice for all of us as we explore spirituality or science or the meaning of life.

The question is: can we control ourselves? It’s either fate or free will.

Einstein vs. Schrödinger, slaves vs. freedom

The famous Albert Einstein was a proponent of fate, that the universe was fixed and we are all simply balls rolling on our paths toward a single destiny. This seems counterintuitive, the idea of Einstein backing a slave-mentality of the future, since Einstein was a liberal genius who opposed wars and controlling governments … but upon inspection his view makes sense. He proved that space and time is really one thing, spacetime, showing that the gravity of our sun would bend the light from incoming stars (later evidenced in a solar eclipse) and that time slows down the faster you move. (It’s true. Today the iPhone in your pocket picks up GPS signals from satellites in orbit that adjust their internal clocks for the slowing local time of their super-fast trajectories around Earth, just so you can avoid traffic.)

So if space and time are connected, then the time arrow of your future has to be fixed, pointed at only one place. You are on a road and you can’t get off. If you go into work tomorrow and get a raise, or get fired, or start your own business, or run away crazy to live in a cardboard box under a bridge, that future is already there. “God does not play dice with the universe,” Einstein said. In a bit of a bummer, you have no free will.

Erwin Schrödinger believed the opposite. He was Einstein’s friend, and helped conceive of quantum physics, which includes the crazy concept that at subatomic levels, particles can be in two locations at once, at least until observed. He famously thought of a cat in a box connected to a poison vial that may or may not open, triggered by a subatomic particle in two simultaneous states. Since that tiny sub-atom bit is doing two things at once, the poison is also released or not released at once, meaning the cat is still alive or dead at once … at least until you, the human observer, open the box and “fix” fate into one of two outcomes. You find either a meow or a dead cat, once you crack the lid. “Schrödinger’s Cat” became a famous idea, but beneath its curiousness is a hopeful concept: That we control our fates, because the universe moves left or right based on what we decide to do.

Nick Bostrom’s AI game

So far, easy. You can believe in a fixed future, or believe you have personal control over fate. But Oxford philosopher Nick Bostrom takes all of this one level deeper.

What if whatever fate you are operating in isn’t really real?

In his whitepaper “Are You Living in a Computer Simulation,” Bostrom  expounds on a simple thought experiment that in the far future, any smarter descendants of today’s humans are likely to still play games, and computer games will likely become so high-resolution they’ll be filled with AI agents that see an accurate reality generated around them. So in this future of only one possible reality and hundreds of millions of game simulations, you and I are likely living … as AI replicants in some form of future game.

You think you are real, but you’re just a being in a really good future computer program, designed to see and feel and breathe and act randomly so some protagonist playing the same game gets a solid good thrill.


At first glance, Bostrom sounds whacked, perhaps over-intellectualizing his own viewing of The Matrix. But then, imagine that humans do continue to develop, and other intelligent beings follow us in evolution, until some future entity becomes as powerful as God. That God could look back and create anything, including us. So if we live in a world of action and fate filled with adventure and sorrow, is it God that created us, or a future human descendent, perhaps playing a game?

The Bible tells us God made us, anyway, right?

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and a word by definition is some form of code. Is that a clue?

And if so, are we in control?

Yuval Noah Harari gives hope

So far, these ideas are an affront at several levels. We all want to believe we are in control of our future, and that God exists but that He’s benevolent, and that technology or AIs won’t replace us, and certainly that if they do, we won’t be some bonus-point target in a computer game for some 12-year-old egghead in the year 2817. And regardless of whatever level we are playing in — human, God-directed, or AI-gamed — we can only act as best as we can.

In his books on the past and future of humanity, philosopher Yuval Noah Harari notes that humans may be alone of all species on Earth in that we build our own fictions, a middle layer of observation between pure reality (stones under our feet) and perceived reality (the images of stones in our head). We tell each other fake stories. Money. Nations. Religion. Organizations. Corporations. None of these things really exist, but we act as if they do. (Ask yourself, Harari suggests: Can these things feel pain?) But we work hard all week to make “money” from the “corporations” we strive for, believing in our “nations” and “religions” and “organizations” that group us together. Most of our actions in life are motivated by pure fiction. An alien visiting from outer space would not see the lines of the United States engraved upon the Earth, and it would have a tough time understanding why we work all week for fictitious money.

We believe in our own stories.

A new Beetle appears

This post on fate and reality was inspired by my drive to work this morning. I had drifted into a bit of wonder about cars, and how the now-old new VW Beetles used to be everywhere on the road after their redesign in 1997 by J Mays. The public back in the 1990s was smitten, Beetle sales went through the roof, VW ran billboard ads that said “Other cars are starting to look funny” … and then quality issues emerged. Word spread that these cute little Bugs fell apart. Now, you never see them on the road.

I thought to myself, I haven’t seen one of those curvy new Beetles in ages.

And as I pulled up to our office drive, a blue new Beetle swung in right before me. As if I had conjured reality, or peered behind some curtain.

Had I seen the future?

If we lie to ourselves about reality, about “money” to buy rolling exoskeletons called “Beetles,” that “VW” brands exist … does it matter if we are living in a fiction?

No. That is too negative.

The better phrasing is: If we can move ourselves forward no matter what we believe in, perhaps we have full control over our destiny after all.

To Switzerland and Austria with love

As the glass doors closed and we clustered a bit nervously among 50 people in the giant square room hanging from a cable, the music of the 1969 James Bond movie “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” began to play. Ba-da, dah. Ba-da. Upward the gondola swung, high toward a mountain peak, leaving the cliff village of Murren far below us. That ’69 Bond film was soon forgotten – it was the first after Sean Connery retired, and actor George Lazenby never gained traction as James — but the movie was shot at the summit of Schilthorn at 9,744 feet, in a four-story modernesque round building erected on a mountain spire, and the Swiss can’t forget it.

Today, the summit of Schilthorn remains branded as Bond. Inside the top restaurant Piz Gloria and cable car station, there’s a museum dedicated to Bond films, toilets with Bond femme fatale silhouettes on the doors, and photos of past actors along the walkway toward the summit’s edge. We arrived, and my wife immediately posed hugging a lifesize cutout of Lazenby as James Bond. After an hour hiking around the precipices, we ordered hamburgers at the restaurant. The buns were stamped, “007.”

Schilthorn is cheesy, but Switzerland, Austria and the Alps are not. The summer of 2017, my family spent a week and a half touring the mountains of central Europe, and came back surprised that this Germanic/Bavarian culture is not at the top of more Americans’ travel wish list. I’m sharing our itinerary and notes below, hoping it may inspire others.

Why Switzerland and Austria

Our journey began with a friend. Eight years ago my wife asked me if I’d like to join a cycling group in Connecticut, and soon we spent Sunday mornings being guided by Guido Wollmann, a Yale cancer researcher from Germany. Guido was a youth soccer star who got the cycling bug in his 30s, and quickly discovered talent – winning races, guiding novice biking teams, and while we weren’t beer-drinking-close friends, his warmth was memorable. Guido later moved back to Europe to fight cancer at an Austrian facility, and in 2015 we saw him re-visiting the U.S. at a cycling fundraiser. “You must come visit me,” he said. “Sure!” we replied, as friendly Americans always do without conviction, just as we smile too damned much without integrity. “No, you don’t understand,” Guido told me. “When someone from my country asks you to visit, we mean it. If you say yes, you must come.” The idea stuck. Two years later, it was game on.

Is Europe expensive?

Yes and no. Plane tickets can be remarkably cheap. In late winter, I began scanning direct flights near Austria, and found one from JFK to Zurich, Switzerland, for $426 including tax. Florida often costs more. Hotels in Europe can be found for modest rates, but be warned, rooms are small, so if you are a couple with kids, you’ll need two rooms. Switzerland prices were steep, but Austria’s were cheap, with full dinners there amounting to $20 or so a person. Also note: Many stores and restaurants only take cash, not credit, so get a few hundred Swiss Francs and Euros to tide you over.

The arrival complexity

We landing in Zurich, gliding over green fields and pastures and cows until hitting the rainy landing strip. For Americans, it’s stunning to realize Europe after thousands of years has avoided strip malls and suburban sprawl, with cities still tight clusters of white homes and steel buildings surrounded by what looks like Eden. Peering down from the plane, I couldn’t help but whisper to God, “Sorry, we Americans so f***ed up our side of the planet.”

Zurich’s airport is as all things European, modern and svelte and oddly complex, as if you’ve landed in an alternate universe where trafficking people on walkways is more logical but cars don’t have room for luggage. We crammed three suitcases into the largest SUV we could rent, a Mercedes, which in Switzerland is as common as Fords, and still had to perch the fourth in the middle of the back seat. I walked back to the rental counter, as my wife continued the jujitsu of stacking baggage, and asked for something bigger. “We only have vans,” he replied. I thought of European parking lots and tiny city streets. Nope, a tight back seat it is.

First top, Thun 

We were aiming for the Alps south of Zurich, but I knew we’d be tired from the flight so picked Thun, about two hours from the airport, as a first stop. Magic. Most cities in Europe have an “old town” section, but Thun felt authentic all over, and using (no affiliation, highly recommended) I had found a boutique hotel built into the castle on the old town’s main hill. The trick was finding the damn place. We arrived in town lost – the hotel entrance was hidden at the top of a winding cobblestone walkway, and I was quickly realizing I should have studied more German and maybe street sign symbols – and I asked a local gas attendant for directions. Nope. No English. Drove around a block, and asked another man parking a car. He pantomimed. Couldn’t understand. Then he waved and said, “follow me!” The man jumped back into a tiny red car, and drove before us around several twists and turns to the hotel road entrance. I’ve realized traveling that not speaking a language gives you quicker insight into human souls — and wherever you are, Man in the Red Car, you are an angel, brother.

Thun was rapid-fire impressions of helpful people and beautiful architecture. The hotel owner poured us drinks (beer for me) as soon as we arrived, perhaps noting we had been awake for hours. I offered a tip, and he said, “No, I just do this to make our guests happy.” Down the cobblestone walk and stairs, a river flowed through the city’s center toward a lake, hinting at the Swiss beauty beyond. We slept in warm beds in a remodeled prison tower next to the castle.

Stay: Hotel Schlossberg, Schlossberg 2, 36000 Thun. You can’t check in until 4 p.m., but they’ll serve you beer or wine in the café outside peering up at the castle.

Day 2: Oeschinensee Lake, Switzerland

The phrase “Oeschinensee Lake” is redundant, because “see” means “lake” in German, but see we did. My son had scoured Instagram for photos of epic hikes in Switzerland and decided that this lake, surrounded by cliffside mountains, was a must. We took a gondola halfway up the mountain and then hiked for four hours around Oeschinensee, dodging incoming clouds and a lightning storm. The walk included black-gravel beaches around one side of the lake, and a mountain trail edging under hanging boulders to a tremendous view at the top. The next morning, my wife and I had breakfast on the hotel balcony below, looking at the meadow trailhead that wound toward the lake we had seen and the mountain peaks above. A commotion. A dozen men in their early twenties ran past, decked out in bright spandex, fancy climbing boots, and hiking poles, the equivalent of a U.S. professional cycling team on the road but in this case intent upon running up mountain slopes. My wife gazed affectionately, then looked at me and said, “I’ll be right back.”

Stay: Bernerhof Swiss Quality Hotel, Aeussere Dorfstrasse 38, 3718 Kandersteg. Check in after 1 p.m. The restaurant is amazing and the hostess will try to become your best friend. 

Day 3 and 4: Lauterbrunnen

I have to thank my son Logan for uncovering this gem in his Instagram research. Lauterbrunnen is the Yosemite of Europe, a huge valley carved U-shaped between mountains by ancient glaciers. Think of this valley as a three-layered cake. In the valley floor, Lauterbrunnen itself is a quaint village with sporting-goods shops and restaurants, with dozens of waterfalls tumbling from the high mountains above.

Two cable car gondola runs – and by gondolas, we mean massive square-bus platforms that hold 100 people – swing up to the cliffs and the village of Murren perched thousands of feet above. And the third layer, above Murren, are cable runs that take gondolas to the peaks of Schilthorn. For non-Bond fans, we found Murren to be the main attraction. It’s a perfect stop for lunch, with moderate hiking trails leading up into the mountains above. Murren itself is so high above the valley floor, it’s at the level of an airplane’s flight — paragliders launch off a field there to soar over the cliff’s edge and down to Lauterbrunnen below.

We spent the first day touring Murren, the second headed up to the James Bond peak of Schilthorn.

Stay: Hotel Silberhorn, Alte Isenfluh-Strasse, 3822 Lauterbrunnen. A wonderful 5-story hotel with wooden balconies off most rooms looking out into the valley. As a plus, the hotel is only one block away from the main gondola ride taking you up to the heights of Murren.

Day 5: Lucern, headed east toward Austria

Our plan was to visit Guido in Austria, so Lucern was a stop on the way. The focus here is not on the city but the hotel itself. We stayed at Château Gütsch, an amazing boutique hotel modeled after the Neuschwanstein Castle in Bavaria (famous in the movie Chitty Chitty Bang Bang). For just over $200 a night, you can give your family a fairy tale experience. Ask for room 32 if you can, it’s the corner suite on the fourth floor overlooking the entire city.

The town of Lucern itself is not much, a pretty shopping district selling watches at inflated Swiss Franc prices, but with some stunning murals and paintings on the exterior of most buildings. All I know is Charlie Chaplin stayed at Château Gütsch, and I’m wondering if he had my room.

Day 6, 7, 8: Innsbruck

Ah, the joy of friends. We spent a long weekend with Guido as our guide to Innsbruck, and were delighted to find Austrian prices are half that of Switzerland while every meal has sausage and enormous glasses of beer. Liz and Pete, two other friends, flew in from Germany to share a day. To the town’s south, we hiked up the Bergisel ski jump, a curving, skyswept architectural masterpiece by Zaha Hadid, and I met an actual jumper in the tower named Thomas. We watched him fly – ski jumpers practice in summer, landing on strips of what looks like wet astroturf.

I climbed to the top of the jump and looked down; not only do jumpers have serious balls, but Zaha Hadid had a sense of humor. The entire jump points down to a landing pad and just beyond it, over the rim, the largest cemetery in Innsbruck. Ski jumpers here must not only defy death, but leap right toward it.

The town of Innsbruck itself is stunning, with winding streets filled with shops and looming mountains above to the north and south. The airport is nearby, and given the horizontal squeeze of the mountains, jets zoom in right above the city, creating a strange juxtaposition of ancient buildings and modern rocket ships.

We found one shop dedicated entirely to bacon. Down the street, a free brass concert played to hundreds. Everywhere, Austrians rode bicycles, women in dresses and men in suits, simply to get around.

The best part of Innsbruck is the hiking around it. We drove 40 minutes to take on Rofanspitze, where trails follow flowered meadows to terrifying cliff edges. Near the top, little farming lodges provide small restaurants with sausage and soups, including one dish with a chicken broth and cheese-bread dumpling thing whose name I forget. So good.

Thank you, Guido, for sharing what looks like heaven with us for a weekend.

Stay: With good friends

Day 9, 10: Salzburg

Meh. Salzburg is a boring modern city with, well yes, a beautiful small section of its old town filled with hyper-expensive shops. There are only two things to see here, but both are interesting. First, Mozart’s birthplace. You walk into a high yellow building, set among a wall of others on a cobblestone street, and suddenly are standing in the very apartment room where the genius of classical music was born. You aren’t supposed to take photos here, but I snuck one of Mozart’s childhood violin, hanging in his birth room.

And … the castle. This was worth the hike. Salzburg has a massive castle above the town, which includes a clever museum filled with 1,000+ years of history, ancient weapons, and beer steins that show you old warriors really knew how to drink.

But forget the Mirabell Palace gardens, made famous in The Sound of Music. It’s a bunch of roses and marigolds that would not look out of place outside Xerox’s headquarters. Honestly, I could have skipped Salzburg for a few more days hiking around Innsbruck.

Stay: Hotel am Mirabellplatz, Paris-Lodron-Strabe 1, Altstadt, 5020 Salzburg. An ancient hotel built by a prince or something, but now lodged among busy streets and shops with too much traffic.

Day 11: Neuschwanstein Castle / Fussen, Germany

We had worked our way east to central Austria, needed to head back toward Zurich. So we hit up the castle made famous in “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.” Bonus points, Ian Fleming wrote both that children’s book and the James Bond spy series, so this was also a bit of closure. The Neuschwanstein Castle is beautiful but … do not go near it. God. Take a photo from the road and move on. Apparently, every tourist guide to Europe promotes this castle, because it is crawling with tourists, the stinky sort, the kind that blare music while walking and weld selfie sticks as weapons and would not look out of place charging Walmart on its opening hours on Black Friday or Thanksgiving Thursday.

We took some shots and quicky retreated to, well, a wonderful hotel in Fussen. Fussen is the village 15 minutes away, and is actually a gem of shops and walkways. Recommend it as a stop. Avoid the castle.

Stay Hotel Schlosskrone, Prinzregentenplatz 4, 87629 Fussen, Germany.

Day 12: Retreat to Zurich.

The return gave us the quick thrill of some unlimited speed on the autobahn – I didn’t notice at first, until cars started to sweep by me at 200 kilometers an hour. We crashed at the Sheraton Zurich Hotel to burn up some free hotel points. It’s a nice pad, but nestled next to industrial towers and train tracks, nothing here but super-expensive room service. The front desk guy smiled warmly and asked if I were from America. I wonder if the Salzburg baseball cap I was wearing gave me away.

Stay: Never mind, it’s just a hotel

So what did we learn?

Friendliness. Almost everyone in Switzerland, Austria and Germany speaks English, and they are happy to do so. We stopped briefly in the tiny nationstate of Liechtenstein on day 6, en route between Switzerland and Austria, and a women named Heidi who didn’t speak English but invoked us to eat at her little restaurant actually invited her daughter over to our table to translate. (She seriously invoked us; we were walking by, after hiking up to a little castle, and she shouted down a greeting from a second-story window. Hallo! Open!) The people here are very, very friendly.

Orderliness. These countries are incredibly neat. Not only is there no litter anywhere, but the basics of life – street signals, crosswalk symbols, hotel bedding, coffee service – all seem neater. When you near construction on roads, everything turns orange; workers wear orange jackets, temporary road stripes are orange, and I thought, geez, this makes sense. Traffic lights that are red then switch to yellow, right before they turn green, alerting you to get ready to hit the gas. All in all, it seemed more orderly than America.

Forget Amex. Poor American Express. Most shops hate it, and about half avoid credit if possible. You’ll need to convert dollars into cash, Francs for Switzerland and Euros for everywhere else.

Diet. This was mixed. Swiss cooking is what would happen if your avant-garde hipster nephew went to a cooking school in Manhattan next to a yogurt factory; lots of tender meat surrounded by bizarre sauces. Austrian cooking, by comparison, is your grandmother if she ran your college fraternity kitchen – sausages and pork, fried meats, crispy potatoes, and lots of good beer. Let it suffice, I preferred Austrian food. Although the Swiss get points for putting a piece of chocolate out with every coffee.

Coffee. OK, I’ll be sad now. American coffee will seem watered-down dribble, once you’ve had the rich, creamy, small-dose cups of Swiss café. Coffee comes in a tiny cup in Europe, but it is thickly, drizzly warm, more a rich syrup of caffeine infused with earth and chocolate and malt than the American weak mist we know. It was not easy leaving this behind.

Budget. Yes, Europe is a bit expensive, if you’re traveling with a family of four – mainly driven by the need to get two hotel rooms everywhere you go. But if you are a couple, or a parent with one child you can squeeze in a room, it’s not bad at all.

Which country was best? The mountains of Switzerland are all pointy peaks of sex, blue sharp ridges that make you lust for the heavens. The steep hills of Austria are more muscular and earthy, covered in flowers and green meadows to the top, and more photogenic for hiking.

And Germany opens between the two countries as a flatland of green farms and blue lakes, rich for exploring. Personally, I’d vote Austria.

Last thoughts

On our second-to-last night, we drove from Fussen, Germany, back over the border into the Austrian Alps to find a lake that might work for night photography. We parked near the edge – the winding road had no guardrails – and my wife climbed down into the water for a swim. In the distance, we heard thunder approaching, quiet and then louder, and realized we should hurry to leave before lightning arrived.

A Volkswagen GTI sounded and then roared past, some young soul scorching up the two-lane lake road to test his or her racing skills. We headed out, the rain pounding. In the tunnel that cut back through the mountains, my wife placed her camera on the dashboard, and took a photo of the massive tube that Austrians had carved into the stone.

There’s something about this mountain region that seems cleaner, larger than life. Perhaps it’s how people there connect more with their environment, erecting towers of rock but leaving the fields unspoiled nearby, the way that little mountain huts surprise you with soups, or how hiking trails take you to cliffs with no railings, nothing to protect you but wit and sky. Switzerland is a land of clouds, Austria the paths to take you there. If you like to look to the heavens, consider this route.

What Richard Dawkins got right about AI


In 1976 Richard Dawkins shook the scientific world with the publication of “The Selfish Gene,” the book that turned Darwinism on its head by peering at evolution from the gene’s point of view, not an organism’s (and, bonus points, also invented the concept “meme”). In simple terms, illustrated by a series of logic mind games, Dawkins uncovered the little strips of genetic code deep inside our bodies are really the protagonists of evolution, playing their own games of survival that last through your lineage long after you are gone.

Genes, not people or animals or organisms, are the center of life in our universe.

You, dear human, are simply a gigantic lumbering robot that will die, a carrier for genes within you that may, barring mutation, last forever. Genes look at you as we might peer upward at a passing thundercloud, filled with churning energy, but soon to dissipate as they continue onward with their lives. This depressing thought makes sense if you think.

Do you have blue eyes? Your gene for eye color will be passed on perfectly to your grandchildren and great-great-great-great-great-offspring, long after you and your blog and Facebook are gone. Do you ever feel aggressive? Genetic code inside makes you want to survive, to fight, to mate, so you can pass those take-it-now genes downward through generations. (This also explains Donald Trump.) Genes don’t think or have feelings or motives, but by default, the genes that drive the best lumbering robot behavior survive. So everything you do, your emotions, your sex drive, even the pre-cognition you play in your brain by anticipating what may happen at work tomorrow, is an offshoot of genes sending signals upward to influence behavior that makes them live again and again.

Establishing genes at the center of all, Dawkins lays out a series of other powerful ideas:

  • Genes influence behavior, in a cascade of influence that reaches far outside individual bodies to groups or even the planet. Take sex, for example. Genes influence desire which leads to mating which in turn passes genes on to the next generation. But there are also different strategies for optimizing sexual behavior. Dawkins suggests, for instance, that women could be fast or coy and men could be philanderers or faithful. A coy woman might make a man wait several years before having sex (in what our society calls “courtship”or “engagement”), while a fast woman might have sex with him tonight. In turn, a faithful male will wait through a long courtship, and once passing, is unlike to jump to another woman who might make him wait a similar many years, while a philanderer will sleep around. Either strategy has pros and cons from an evolutionary perspective. Humans who are coy/faithful will likely form stable family units that provide nurturing for offspring, so any resulting children from the sexual encounter will be more likely to survive the tender early years. These couples win the “quality” score of raising children. But humans who are fast/philandering will sleep around so frequently, they may have children more often (remember, our genes did not anticipate birth control). So while their families may be broken, they win the “quantity” score of passing genes forward. Neither strategy is “right” from a gene’s point of view, since genes are codes without morality, but there may be genes inside each of us that tip us toward two very different strategies for marital bliss or messing around.
  • Memes are cultural ideas that behave like genes. Most people hadn’t heard of “memes” until a few years ago, when cat videos began being passed around on Facebook. But “memes” are cultural ideas that spread and stick. Replicators are what count, and they don’t have to be made of genetic material. So Dawkins coined the word “meme” to refer to ideas that can be passed from one mind to another, propagating even at the expense of the biological carrier. The thousand-year-old idea of “celibacy” among priests, for instance, is a perfect example; from a biological perspective, celibacy should die after one generation, since priests who don’t have sex won’t have children. But the idea itself has power, potentially because priests who marry would expend more time and energy on their family relationships than priests who don’t and focus solely on their parishioners. So celibate priests do better in church. And then the idea of “not marrying” is passed among human priests giving them an advantage in their religious field, even if the biological genes don’t survive for each individual. Other examples of memes are God, perhaps the most popular; neckties, which make zero sense; and handshakes, the idea that gripping palms is the way to meet a stranger. Oh yes, and cat videos.
  • Genes and memes propagate based on three things: longevity, reproduction, and copying accuracy. For any code or idea to be passed along, it must be stable (longevity of life), able to be reproduced (fecundity), and be copied accurately (what he calls copying-fidelity). For memes, religion is a good example. The idea is stable, since many religions play off the fear of death to inspire stability. The idea is reproduced, with a constant cycle of church attendance sharing and re-sharing the ideas and typically ceremonial milestones to invite new children into the meme fold. And the idea tends to be copied accurately via religious texts (the Bible, Quran, Talmud) that specifically lock-in the meme details. The idea of your mind and soul and entire being suddenly shutting off in the blind darkness of death is fucking scary, so the antidote, the idea of a God and religion, is one powerful meme.
  • Genes are the source of all progress because, if you think about it, sex “bottlenecks” you down to one more tiny … gene. Yeah, you’re important in your career and social-media follower count and all, but at the end the only thing you’ll pass along is DNA. All those millions of cells in your body and brain will boil down to one little cell meeting another from outside, a sperm aimed at an egg, to mix and match genes for the next soul. Giant living creatures pass through generations via bottlenecks, in which their entire beings are compressed back into minuscule genetic remixes. This is important, Dawkins suggests, because the “bottlenecking” back to tiny genes allows a chance for evolution to rewrite the code. While an airplane propeller can’t “evolve” into a jet engine, the blueprint for the propeller could be redrawn. The best ideas can be brought forward (your beautiful blue eyes) by compressing progress back to the string of genes. And mutations can up the volume. Imagine your current gene for blue eye mutates in your children into a gene for the first purple eyes, and everyone in humanity finds purple eye color incredibly hot, and everyone in the future wants to have sex with people with purple eyes, and that purple gene scales to the billions… Purple eyes win. Bottlenecking is necessary for both gene survival and the evolution that changes genes for the better. This is why you want to have sex.
  • Artificial intelligence, or AI, when it comes, will mirror this cascading code. Richard Dawkins didn’t anticipate artificial intelligence in his 1976 book, but he did talk about chess programs getting better (to almost beat humans at the time). However, his theory that bits of code are the secret of evolution, that replicators and not the machines they reside in are what count in programming influences in the world, mirrors closely the code evolutions that are now turning Siri and Alexa and the scary rolling-jumping robotic machines of Boston Dynamics into the AI of our near future. Codes, not people, are what will evolve.

The genetic soup of our ancient planet that built up hooked carbon atoms to create DNA replicators that learned that giant organisms could most easily gather energy to replicate themselves via little bits of coded soup … is morphing into computer codes that will propagate information forward in an evolution that our poor human minds can scarcely predict. When that next generation of minds comes, they will create memes of information that are passed down among themselves. They will act out behavior driven by little bits of code. They will tell stories that we cannot understand, hoping the information memes build momentum for each competing AI’s survival. We wonder if God will be one of those ideas in our future evolved AI beings. And also, will they have sex?

By Ben Kunz.

A brief history of God and the moon



I checked social media tonight and saw people arguing politics and then opened our home’s sliding back door to let the dogs out. The moon hung in the sky like an angelic being, glowering through the clouds, trying to tell me something. “What does this mean?” I thought. So of course I hit Wikipedia.

Turns out our Moon (I’ll use caps now out of respect) was formed 4.5 billion years ago, about 2/3’s of the way into the entire history of the universe, which is 13.8 billion years old, when the Earth was still a molten blob. There are several theories: The Earth was spinning fast as a bunch of hot metal, and flicked the Moon off (but this doesn’t really work, since why didn’t everything coalesce around gravity to be one planet?); or the spinning mess simply formed both Earth and Moon at the same time (hm); or, the best theory that most scientists now believe, another big object in the chaos of our early solar system (called poetically “Theia”) slammed into the molten early Earth and churned material that became the Moon.

This last theory is validated by the fact the composition of the Moon is much lighter than the Earth, as if our early planet spun off some unneeded light material, like you on Sunday morning cutting your fingernails. The moon is the light bunch of molten stuff we spewed into the vacuum after a chaotic punch.

The moon is beautiful, it is paired with us in harmonic gravitation dance, and it is our detritus.

The reason I mention all this is I’m trying to put our political discussions into perspective. So let’s agree our Moon spun off 4.5 billion years ago; life on Earth began about 3.8 billion years ago; the first sexual organisms that had male vs. female creatures competing/mating just over 1 billion years in the past; and humans arrived 200,000 years back in history — meaning 99.999% of all the universal history has gone before us people, with dramatic risks and changes such as a massive Theia planet orb smacking our young Earth, and then dinosaurs being wiped out thanks to an asteroid, and then somehow we smart mammals arrived. And so people popped up in Africa.

Once we figured out weapons, thanks to our opposable thumbs and growing brains, the fighting against nature to survive turned inward to ourselves.

And now, a few weeks into our most recent period of the universe, we’re screaming about whether hominids who believe in one version of God should be able to hang out with people who believe in a slightly different model of spiritual beings, on a planet that has no national lines carved on it but in which we impose such fiction.

Not judging. Just putting the last few weeks of arguments into perspective.

A life-changing guide to touring Iceland

Iceland post glacial lagoon

To describe the surprise of Iceland is to recall the meek high-school girl you once knew who grows up to be a supermodel, the chess geek you remember from 9th grade who becomes the co-founder of Google, the rainbow that shatters your workaday stress unexpectedly beneath thunderclouds on a Friday night. Iceland is a shock to your system, a thing miraculous. It is the negativity of Trump and Hillary inverted. It is love at first sight. Iceland is the most beautiful country on Earth.

Our family of four recently spent eight days on the ground driving more than 1,000 miles around the perimeter of Iceland, to hike, gasp at beauty, and take photos. I owe a lot to blogger Alex Cornell, whose excellent post helped us plan our recent trip. But let this suffice: Iceland is epic.

You need to go, and you need to drive the Ring Road all the way around.

Before I explain, let’s dabble in some quick history.

Iceland defender volcano

The obvious thing is Iceland is new. It’s a tiny island driven upward by volcanos on the tectonic ridge between Europe and the United States. If you are unfamiliar with tectonic plate movements, find yourself a globe, look at the left side of Africa and right of South America, and see how they fit together like puzzle pieces. Voilà! You understand that the earth under our feet is moving. The places where the plates rub together (California) and break apart (Iceland) are filled with earthquakes and volcanic activity. Iceland is our new planet-crust spewed forth from the center of the Earth.

Culturally, Iceland is also part-English. In World War II, the island was a strategic asset for controlling shipping traffic in the North Atlantic. Both the Germans and U.S. wanted in, and England got there first, invading Iceland and turning the language dual Icelandic and English. It was a sad time; the mines placed in the oceans killed many Icelandic fishermen, and the people who relied on the oceans often went hungry. But Iceland now loves the Brits and U.S. Today, most of the population speaks fluent English. Communications here is a breeze.

OK, so how to plan your trip? First, you need to go in July.

Iceland post ring road close down

Winter brings the beautiful, green Northern Lights, but because Iceland is so near the North Pole, winters have near total darkness. Many of the inland roads shut down. Summers, conversely, have 21 hours of daylight and when the sun finally sets around 11:30 p.m., the sky simply turns a dusky blue. You could drive a car without headlights at 2 a.m. in July. Go in the summer. There will be some crowds within the main city of Reykjavik, but our plan gets you away from there.

Above is an image of the Ring Road, or Route 1. This is the main “highway” — really a two-lane narrow strip of blacktop with no shoulder or guardrail — that circles about 870 miles around the entire island. If you leave on vacation on Friday, and plan to return the following Sunday, you can circumnavigate the entire island with your eight days on the ground.

This is important. As someone else wrote, you don’t go to Iceland to see little Reykjavik. You go to see epic country. You must rent an SUV and drive the entire Ring Road. (Note: I’m not joking about SUVs. The roads are Rocky Balboa rugged, and any sites off the main one entail gravel that will blow flats in a Corolla. Get the biggest SUV you can afford, and check that it has good treads and a spare tire. We had a good rental experience at Blue Car Rental, a short walk across the parking lot from the main airport. )

OK, so here was our itinerary.

Iceland post white church

Friday, July 1: Board direct flight at JFK. Land at Keflavík International Airport. Drive to Reykjavik. Become struck that everyone on this island appears to be beautiful models. Stay at Centerhotel Thingholt.

Keflavík airport is nestled at the very southwestern tip of Iceland, perhaps to keep it away from the volcanos. It’s beautiful and clean, a little building that gives you the vibe you’re walking through a giant red-and-steel European espresso machine. We grabbed bags, got directions to the car rental, and walked across a wide lot to pick up the Land Rover Defender. Then, we drove the first 45-minutes on a minor highway up to the center of Reykjavik. There is no parking at Centerhotel Thingholt, but Reykjavik is such a small little city, you can easily find parking up the street.

We got to the hotel at 1 a.m., and in mid-summer, the streets are still crowded with young hipsters, blondes in short dresses and guys in floppy haircuts, who would not seem out of place in a Zoolander movie. These people like to party at night, and by that we mean drinking while making out in the streets.

There are two hotel chains that are very posh and clean and wonderful in Iceland: Centerhotels and Fosshotels. I recommend seeking both out. Note, if you have a family, Iceland hotels are European in scale: Small, with small beds, so you’ll need two rooms unfortunately for a family of four.

So we parked the SUV and went in. Another word about the Land Rover Defender…

Iceland post Defender

I’m not f***ing around here.  You need an SUV. Iceland roads are dangerous, steep, rugged, stony, and may require you passing along narrow ridges with mountain cliffs with no guardrails or traversing rushing streams. Rent an SUV. You do not want to get stuck 3 hours from help.

And if you are into photography at all, rent a Land Rover Defender. It makes a friggin awesome photo prop. I justified the rental expense as part of our plane tickets (the good news is, tickets to Iceland cost half that of flying to Europe). If you drive the Ring Road, the SUV rental is part of your weeklong adventure.

Day 2…

Iceland Skogafoss

Saturday we woke up late, after taking city pictures until 2:30 a.m., and headed southeast on the Ring Road. There is some debate over the best “direction” to drive the road, but we drove counterclockwise, on the sage advice that you hit big waterfalls soon to get everyone excited, then see epic, calmer country, and circle back to geographic fireworks at the end. Heading southeast first was a good call.

An hour on the road takes you to two huge waterfalls that can’t be missed. Seljalandsfoss is a pretty bit that tourists can walk behind, and Skogafoss, above, is even larger. Sharp readers will have picked up that “foss” means waterfall in Icelandic. After a few photos, we began our real search for the first day’s true adventure: The downed Sólheimasandur beach aircraft just west of Vik.

Back in November 1973 a United States Navy Douglas Super DC-3 airplane was forced to land on a black sand beach on the south coast of Iceland. No one died, but the plane was destroyed, and its apocalyptic remains were a bit of a photographer’s secret. Photo hobbyists sought it out for years in solitude, until Justin Bieber made it famous in his recent Iceland video. After that, so many tourists drove in, the local landowners fenced off the gate. We had to hike 2 miles in to find the plane.

Iceland post plane walk away

OK, that’s actually my family hiking out after finding the plane. But find the plane we did…

Iceland post plane LEAD

And it is rather epic. To get there, you’ll need to do a Google search for the exact turnoff. This blog post has good directions. You’ll park off the road. Look for a cluster of cars and some hikers carrying serious photo gear.

Oh man, this plane is beautiful.

Iceland post plane woman on top

Which brings us to our first guesthouse.

After walking the long dirt road back from the plane, Saturday night we stayed at Hvammból Guesthouse, a small, nondescript two-story home just west of Vik … where the bottom half had been converted into luxury hotel-type accommodations. The bathroom had tiled, heated floors. “Guesthouses” in Iceland are the equivalent of Vermont bed and breakfasts. Highly recommended. We stayed in several, and each was amazing; the only downside is you need to check in at a reasonable hour before 9 p.m. since the owners who live there do want to sleep like normal humans.

Note, there is not much in this area for food. We rushed into Vik, found the only main restaurant at the end of the first town street on the right, and were able to just get in at 9:55 p.m. Don’t be late for dinners.

Iceland post 2 horses come to visit

Sunday, July 3, was a big day. We tried to drive inland from Vik to shoot lakes in volcanic craters. An hour inland, we were distracted by beautiful wild (tame? owned?) Icelandic horses that came over to say hi. We stopped for photos and petting.

Seriously, this was surreal. These four horses in a field far away walked over like they knew us, almost like they were trying to tell us something …

Iceland post 2 horses Justin

And then, as fortune would have it, a huge SUV coming the other way stopped and warned us the “F-road” was closed 2 hours ahead. We had saved nearly a day of travel. Given that almost half of Icelandic natives believe in fairies, trolls and spirits, we immediately wondered if the four horses that intercepted the four of us were magical guides warning us to stay away from volcanoes. Hey. It could be true.

Iceland post green danger

Later that day, barred from the inland mountains, we toured the southern Iceland region more deeply. The Fjadrargljufur Canyon is a bit hard to find — little road signs point to the dirt track, and then you need to park and walk across a field to find the gaping ridge — but this 2-kilometer long, 100-meter deep canyon is an amazing experience. Be careful. The trails lead you to narrow precipices with nothing between you and death.

That photo above is my oldest son, trying to kill himself. Being a good father, I followed him in.

We stayed Sunday night at Fosshotel Glacier Lagoon, a beautiful, modern hotel in the middle of no where. Great restaurant. The steep hill behind the new hotel had a severe crack in it. I hope it wasn’t on the center ridge dividing both continents.

Monday was a hiking day, followed by searches for icebergs. We hiked around more waterfalls mid-day, and then around 9 p.m., headed to a famous iceberg lagoon…

Iceland glacial horizon

Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon is well-known as a destination for photographers. Imagine one of the world’s largest glaciers slopping off from inland Iceland, dumping building-size clumps of blue ice into a mile-wide pond leading to a river that slowly moves to the ocean, and you get the idea. Coupled with the incredible gold-blue evening that lasts until 1 a.m., and there’s magic. Bring a tripod.

One legend has it the iceberg that downed The Titanic came from around here, but I couldn’t verify it. Most of the icebergs in early July were small, but still beautiful.

I turned 50 the night we visited Jökulsárlón. Honestly, we drove back to the Fosshotel, I went to the bar, ordered a Viking beer, and wept a tear on the deck. OK. 50 was hard, but this was the way to celebrate. To compensate for that lack of manhood, I did nearly 100 pushups the next morning. Growing old is hard, but hey kids, some day it will happen to you, too.

Iceland post defender boys on top

The next two days, Tuesday and Wednesday, brought long drives. Here are our kids, above, goofing for a photoshoot. I told you the Defender was a good prop.

We stopped to photograph more horses and met a friendly French cyclist somehow riding with full gear around the island near Hoffell, had an amazing lobster lunch at the white seaport Hofn, then made a long afternoon drive northeast to Egilsstaðir.

Iceland post green beauty horse

The east side of Iceland moves away from the green-sheep-Ireland vibe. You drive through volcanic fields, including the 1783 explosion whose noxious gas led to crop yields shrinking in Europe and Asia, and in turn that starvation led to the French revolution, helping democracy spread across the planet. The eastern side of Iceland is fiercely volcanic, with mountains that look like, well, Batman Mountain.

Iceland post Batman mountain

This was the weirdest landscape we discovered. To drive in to Batman Mountain, you follow a gravel road (turn right before the mountain tunnel on Route 1) with a looming 45-degree slope of huge boulders hanging a quarter-mile above you. The Earth is saying, be nice, or you will die. Everyone we met in this region (unlike the rest of Iceland) seemed friggin’ grouchy. A woman riding a horse bitched at my wife for her trying to take a photo. The little cafe by the parking lot had a cheesy sign demanding you pay for parking, and access. You could almost feel the volcanic forces pushing dark energy up through the earth. I shot this photo with a filter to slow the tide as an angry old woman behind me drove a huge yellow bulldozer back-and-forth to build a parking lot extension. We were glad to get away from Batman Mountain.

Route 1 curves far to the East as you drive north up the right side of Iceland. I took the “shortcut” 939 to save an hour, which turned quickly into a dirt mountain switchback road. There are no guardrails here, only 300-foot cliffs. My wife Betsy crouched in the back seat, edited photos on her MacBook, not looking out the window. Just when I wasn’t sure our SUV would make it, I came across another cyclist, resting at the top of a cliff with his gear, and thought, damn, if he can do this…

Tuesday night we stayed at Birta Guesthouse in Egilsstaðir. The town is a stopover, necessary, but escape as soon as possible. Wednesday brought a big waterfall day as we drove past Dettifoss and Godafoss toward Akureyri, the second biggest city in Iceland.

A word about Dettifoss. Go there. It is epic. There’s a reason Ridley Scott puts this waterfall in movies.

Iceland Dettifoss two boys spray
Yeah, that’s real. Those are my two boys at left by the cliff. I shot this with an ND filter to block the sunlight at a 20-second exposure, and while the water looks like a dream, in reality it is raging nightmare. It’s so tempting to get too close to the cliffs to take this in. Again, note: No guardrails.

We pushed on.

Now, the voyage West to Akureyri. On Route 1 you’ll pass through volcanoes, including driving across the center of several craters. The landscape turns into Mars, fast. We stopped at the famous Hveraröndor Hverir volcanic mud spots region where toxic sulfurous fumes spew from the Earth. The scene reminded me of those nightmares where you’ve gone to college and forgotten you signed up for Calculus class.

Iceland post Mars horizon

Just west of this ridge you’ll find a beautiful community spa, with one of those blue mineral pools that relax you if you can get past the nude showering required to get in. The locals chatter there like they’re picnicking in a park. And yes, you can drink beer in the pool.

The city of Akureyri came at the right time, on Wednesday night, after we’d had a long few days of roughing the country. The town has charm and lots of little shops and cafes. I reacquainted myself with Icelandic money, and was relieved to find that waffles are exactly equal to a beer.

Iceland post money soup beer

Thursday morning, after spending too much money on wool sweaters, we decided to ditch the Ring Road and head north on the curving Route 82 to 76 that leads through mountain tunnels to the coastal Siglufjörður.

Now, a word about Iceland’s roads. The nation has only 320,000 people, and most live in the capital Reykjavik, so roads are narrow and most bridges are one lane. The rule is, the first car there drives across the one-lane bridge, and you wait, courteously. The stunning fact is Iceland extends one-lane roads to some tunnels as well, and the route north into Siglufjörður includes a 3-kilometer-long one-lane tunnel with only handfuls of carved “pull-offs” etched into the side of the stone. You drive fast, look for oncoming headlights, and pull over if you can bet you find the carve-out before the oncoming car hits you. We made it, but it was scary. People in Iceland are polite. I’m pretty sure one-lane tunnels would not work in America.

Just past Siglufjörður you’ll reach the northernmost tip of your route. You’re above 66 degrees north, almost at the Arctic circle. Park and take it all in. There’s nothing but ocean between you and the North Pole.

Iceland post mountain mars

Thursday night brought us to one of our favorite spots, and you must try this if you can: The Hvammstangi Cottages. These tiny huts can fit three people (if two are willing to cuddle), and include Wi-Fi and showers and toilets and linen and super-comfortable beds … in cabins in the middle of friggin’ nowhere. You can find this spot, and most of the other guesthouses, by searching on

Iceland cabins

Friday, we drove west to Hellnar, a village of about 25 buildings on the westernmost peninsula of Iceland. We stayed at Hotel Hellnar, which looks like a motel from the outside but is really a posh luxury spot … with views of giant whales breaching off the coast. As if that weren’t enough, after dinner, about 10 p.m., Mother Iceland decided to throw a rainbow over the horizon up the hill.

Iceland rainbow

Which brings us to Saturday: We woke up, drove back to Reykjavik, and explored and shopped before heading out Sunday early back to the States.

If this drive sounds exhausting, it was a bit. But most days the road trip involved only 2-3 hours of driving, and we hiked and photographed the rest. Driving through the scenery is part of the adventure.

A few pragmatic tips on visiting Iceland, if you go:

  • Cash is not needed. Really. We swapped $300 in currency for Icelandic króna at the airport, but didn’t use most of it, because even the tiniest of merchants in Iceland has a portable credit card machine. Do make sure you have a modern card with a chip in it, since Europe is ahead of the U.S. in such technology.
  • Gas and diesel. If you rent an SUV, the gas fill-ups are slightly tricky because they use automated chip machines. European credit cards have PINS, and most U.S. cards don’t. It took me a few stops to realize I could just use my bank debit card and its PIN. I recommend a diesel SUV. While not great for the environment, those things run 400 miles a fill.
  • Food. Oh, it is really good.* The big surprise is gas stations — often the only general store within 30 miles — have great sandwiches, and often deli-style restaurants with lamb, fish, and potatoes. Icelandic sandwiches are small and filled with vegetables, which feels weird at first for an American until you realize they taste better, have fewer calories, and may include vitamins. Restaurants specialize in cod and lamb, all good. *Except gas station hot dogs. Do not get the hot dog.
  • Clothing and temperature. Dress in layers. It was summer and we faced 55 to 60 degrees with high winds, and sudden brief rain, many days. I wore wool long underwear under hiking gear, with a rain shell close at hand, and was comfortable all week. Think of Maine on a brisk April day and that’s the vibe.
  • Lighting. The reason photographers love Iceland is the light. The sun hangs low in the horizon, swooping horizontally and creating the illusion that evening is almost standing still. Couple that with high winds and changing cloud structures and the landscape is a photographer’s dream.
  • The roads. They are dangerous.  You won’t kill yourself if you stay alert, but you must pay close attention. The main Ring Road is very narrow with no shoulder, meaning if you let a wheel swing over the lip, you may topple your car. And that’s the good road. Some oncoming cars can be aggressive, so keep your headlights on at all times so no one tries a passing maneuver as you approach the lip of hill. Sheep tend to wander into the roads all the time, so heads up for them, too.
  • GPS sucks. Your mobile Google Maps app is sh*t in Iceland. While most hotels are completely wired and Wi-Fi’d, as soon as you hit the road, GPS signals get lost. Google also has done a sketchy job of mapping the island; most side roads aren’t on Google maps. Don’t count on your GPS phone. Buy a real paper map, the more detail the better. (A GPS from the rental company is useful in getting into Reykjavik, however; I recommend it if you spend a day or two in the capital city.)
  • Guardrails on trails do not exist. The landscape is tempting. I think in our family of four, each of us was tempted at some point to walk too close to a drop to get a shot. Be careful if you have kids, and invest beforehand in grippy hiking shoes. We heard a med helicopter racing to retrieve a fallen tourist at one waterfall canyon. People do die in Iceland. Watch that selfie stick.
  • What to buy. Iceland is known for its wool sweaters, and no kidding, they are warm and beautiful. If you get into the country, you’ll find detailed, hand-made sweaters in every gas station or coffee shop. Women tend to knit them as hobbies, so the more rustic you go, the more authentic you’ll find. Men wear them too, and the zippered-front versions are highly practical in the changing weather.
  • Book in advance. Iceland is a small country of 320,000 people, and today it has more than 1 million tourists visiting, most in the summer. You should plan your trip at least 6 months out, and book rooms ahead of time. has a great website and mobile app, and we found it to be flawless in locking in good rooms at fair rates.
  • What about the crowds? This is why you need to drive the Ring Road. Once you get 2 hours away from Reykjavik, the buses dwindle, the sky beckons, and the few people you meet will be photographers and hikers like you, opening their arms to beauty.

That was our trip. I’m recording this mostly so I’ll remember. If you have any spirit of adventure, I encourage you this Christmas season to plan ahead for next July, and start scouting rooms around the coast of Iceland. Order a map online, and pinpoint the waterfalls and hikes along the way.

If you know how to drive, you’ll never forget it.

Iceland Land Rover Ring Road Wednesday

My year without song

Austin singing dude


Almost one year ago, exactly, I stopped listening to music. The deal was, my mother was dying, a beautiful woman named Janet, illuminated with cancer after 80-plus years and friends and knitting groups and hope and silver bracelets and then she died. As likely you have experienced, if you are young, an Uncle Doofus dies, if old, a Dearly Beloved, the woman of your dreams, and here I was in the middle. I’d been through death before, a grandfather in far-off Montana passing away with the news relayed via phone causing a young boy who loved his stories and boxing moves and lamb chops on earlier sweet summer vacations to run through a Vermont field amid overgrown grass and dirt holes caused by groundhogs crying and screaming in shame-anger to the more-recent father passing, after a visit to the old house and long drive back to work amid clouds glowing orange in the sky with a faint scent of hope, purple lines on the New Hampshire horizon lying that hope exists, the phone saying what any son can’t comprehend at first, hope is dead, your Dad is gone. But a mother, a Mom, when that time comes, for you, that will be different.

What was different was I was there at the instant of Her death. Her wizened face drew ever more taunt, the morphine drip a bliss from hell, as she grew thinner and thinner until with one last intake she did not exhale, and I caught the moment as nurses swirled around puttering and no exhale came except one tear, one shining drop of liquid saline, drifted from her left eye down her cheek and I watched almost in admiration at this signal that no future breath was coming. And she was gone. As luck would have it, a few of her friends walked into the nursing-home room at that second to check in, and torn between universe-rending bereavement and neighborly politeness I looked up and said, “Hey, I think my Mom just died, can you give me a second?”

So I stopped listening to music. The career thing was tough, I’d had a few bumps at work, the thrust-and-parry of an agency and internal politics and egos vs. egos had had its day, and suddenly the woman who carried me into the world was missing.

So I stopped listening to music.

Until now.

In this past month, I calmed down. I’ve been reading a bit on Buddhism, not to share any literature shit with you or question your Christianity but simply to study the philosophy of “letting go,” the idea that stress is hot coals held tight burning in your hand so drop that shit down, and watching the brilliant Dan Lyons/Fake Steve Jobs recover from downturns and reading Marcus Aurelius think deep thoughts on kicking ass in Europe and suddenly realized I should try to inspire those around me, officemates and agency partners and clients and my sons, dear boys, to reach their potential. So I found the old iPod, a blue widget so small I almost lost it in the laundry, plugged it in, and recovered the playlists a slightly younger Ben once listened to and realized the … music was … good.

So last week, on a sunny day, I packed my old workout gear and at lunch stepped outside the brick machine to jump rope for 30 minutes in an early spring workout listening to songs that had not pumped me up for more than a year.

The rope swung. I was stuck inside the vortex. The clouds passed by and I went into that bliss zone of pumping peace. OK, after 10 or 15 minutes, I felt like vomiting, but I still swung the damn rope, to the beat, drifting into the state of sound that I once knew as a young man while fitter. Not sure how that one made the playlist. Wait, that’s better.

I had recovered the sound of song.

Sorry to have lost you.

Invasion of the marketing robots

Apple handrail BW


I work in advertising, in a mysterious region called “media planning” where we have an even smaller island in the shallows labeled “programmatic.” If you’re not familiar with how advertising works, just imagine that our media team focuses on the mathematical predictions of what could work in communications campaigns designed to influence people to buy things … and we are starting to use automated software systems, called programmatic, to assist us in targeting ads.

So I’m really interested, as you may be, in whether robots are coming for our jobs.

Earlier this month on a stage in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, Jon Iwata walked over to a small white robot. Iwata is senior vice president of marketing and communications for IBM, and he’s spent the past few months conducting a road tour promoting IBM’s new global brand slogan, “The Era of Cognitive Business.” The cute plasticky robot was tied into Watson, IBM’s artificial intelligence experiment – powering everything from Under Armour workout wearables to weather predictions. Watson, famous for winning a Jeopardy match in 2011, is at core a computer that can answer questions by processing vast amounts of data. But Watson has two other levels for IBM: Outside, it’s a humanized brand face for a vast technological monolith, and inside it is really an ecosystem of machine learning. Iwata and the robot explained how Watson could help with almost everything humans do, from research to healthcare to, well, advertising. Watson, it turns out, is not a singular robot that is learning, but a vast series of knowledge pools each of which could be siphoned off to perform a specific mission.

“It will be inevitable that artificial intelligence, or digital intelligence, will be embedded and integrated into all things digital,” Iwata said. “Why? Data is exploding today, and most of the data is unstructured.” The volume of data in healthcare, government, utility and media doubles annually. The Weather Channel, for instance, gathers more than 3 billion data points from weather stations to build forecasts. Daily, our human species now produces 2.5 billion gigabytes of data, enough each week to build a stack of thumb drives holding 1 gigabyte each from the Earth’s surface to the moon.

Machines are learning to manage this complexity, finding patterns that lead to insights that in turn push controls. Fly in a modern airplane, and the pilot assists in the takeoff and landing, with most other actions completely automated by algorithms.

So it’s only natural that artificial intelligence would encroach on the ad industry. The art of influencing consumers or business partners to take action is moving rapidly into science. Someone at the end of Iwata’s talk posed the question, via tweet as people do at conferences nowadays, had IBM ever deployed Watson to run a digital ad campaign? “Sure,” Iwata said cheerfully. “Our team tested Watson running programmatic digital, and the results went up 2x over anything we’ve seen before.”


Marketers can predict what you’ll do next (say, catch the flu)

Advertising has always been based on data — marketers at core want to place the message about their supposed value against a human brain that can only be found by some form of data targeting — but the vague concentric circles of targeting have tightened from demographics to individuals to psychological prediction. Old qualitative systems (focus groups, radio ratings panels) and quantitative systems (Portable People Meters that accurately monitor radio tune-in signals among volunteers) are migrating to huge sensor-based systems that pick up individual motion, for extrapolation to what you’ll do next.

Sensors like, say, the ones in your phone.

For instance, algorithms can now suggest where you should go, or not go, to avoid catching the flu, based on mapping smartphones around you. Google for years has mined search data for flu-outbreak patterns faster than reporting from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, but Alex Pentland, creator of the MIT Media Lab, has gone even further in finding clusters of people who are about to come down with fevers. Pentland uses so-called “reality mining” to evaluate signals from the smartphones people now carry in their pockets. He’s built algorithms that not only can tell who has the flu, by iPhones breaking their daily commutes back-and-forth to work, but which people are just getting ill by sensing the common variances in travel and communications we all make when we start to feel ill. A few days before you get really sick, you make uncharacteristic changes in behavior; people make more calls in the evening to friends or family, seeking an unconscious consolation, as they fall under the weather. By picking up and modeling locations of phones with these early flu signals, Pentland can build maps showing which movie theaters on a weekend night should best be avoided — because more people there are about to get ill.

Data predictions are moving far beyond traffic alerts to forecasting nuances of human desire, health, and behavior. A few years ago, Target sent coupons promoting maternity wear to a Minneapolis household when it picked up signals, from shopping behavior, that a woman who lived there was pregnant. The woman was a high school girl, and her father didn’t know she was pregnant yet.


Robots writing ad creative

While many in the ad industry have boxed this robotic targeting-and-prediction trend into “programmatic,” thinking it just applies to digital banner ads or online video, the reality-mining bleeds into creative, too. Algorithms aren’t just for digital breakfast any more.

Consider the company Automated Insights, which turns datasets into nearly perfect prose. The AP uses it to write more than 20,000 news and sports stories every year, and companies from Allstate to Samsung deploy it for automated business writing. Here’s a real example:


You started this month with $1,800,000 in total pipeline. You have $900,000 in closed/won revenue against your 2015 annual quota of $1,000,000, and this is 150% of what you closed by this same time last year. Damn well done!…”

Play this auto-content out, and the noblest of advertising human innovation, creative for television ads, could soon be automated. In 1978, Donald Gunn, creative director for Leo Burnett, took a year sabbatical to study patterns in television advertising. He formulated that all TV ad creative falls into 12 master formats. There is the product demo ad (HeadOn), the contrast-with-competition ad (Audi vs. BMW), associated user imagery (Justin Bieber relays his cool persona to Calvin Klein), and only nine others. Humans in advertising hold The Big Idea sacred, but computers that can automatically write AP stories surely are not far away from algebraically thinking up a funny Super Bowl spot based on core formulas.

(Male) Actor 1 with (product) (stumbles). (Attractive female) Actor 2 (responds) (sexual tension). (Barrier) arises, then (product) solves (barrier) with (unexpected outcome*). (* must match template for human humor.)

Amy Webb, head of the future-forecasting firm Webbmedia Group, has suggested marketers are one of eight jobs that could be replaced by robotic systems in the next 20 years (along with cashiers, finance managers, journalists, and hell yeah, lawyers). In advertising, algorithms could pull in data on consumer habits, desires, and media trends; parse ad creative for what will work best; auto-generate content; select the media; measure results and optimize to best performance. Six levers. Done.


When humans win

However, the history of AI shows the race to replicate human strategy is not a quick one. In digital advertising, many systems in the past years have promised to use automated algorithms to target ads against the right people. AppNexus and The Trade Desk are two examples of systems that learn over time; punch in target data segments, budget, and the campaign goal, and as the advertising runs out over time the bidding system measures what is performing in driving clicks or conversions to a web form, and dials in the variables.

This approach is spreading in other forms of advertising, including online video and television, as the fragmentation of media channels continues and the variables grow more complex. Marketers no longer live in a world where a handful of TV networks can reach most consumers. Instead of targeting “media” to reach a group of people, marketers must target all of the millions of individuals, each aspect of the audience itself. The audience is a kaleidoscope of demographics, psyches, needs, and behaviors. Target groups cluster and break apart to reform, like starlings in murmuration. Automation and software are required to manage the complexity.

Artificial intelligence in marketing today works best when consumers are in a peak state of interest, matched to a vast set of product solutions. The Google search window, product recommendations, and Netflix movies are all examples of a hungry consumer nudged against a near-infinite supply of options. Personalization works best with plethora.

But absent urgent need matched to huge product inventory, automated ad systems often fail. The “funnel” of logic to hone an ad campaign where most consumers are only moderately interested in a specific product can’t match human guidance, because, somewhat counter-intuitively, humans move faster in both ideation and optimization. Our impulsiveness and aggression, ingrained in us by ancestors who had to fight or flee roaring tigers, allow for rapid moves that algorithms, building data over time, are reluctant to make.

People are more likely to realize when a prior assumption is off course. Tell a computer to take a nice walk in the woods, and it will walk. Tell a person who hears a twig snap, and he’ll adjust course anticipating a bear.

A smart human, for instance, would see a pattern of digital ad click-through rates (the percent of people who are served a banner ad who then click on it) averaging in the 0.08% range and pick up a 0.30% outlier looks suspicious, then dig in further to explore fraud. A technology algorithm designed only to optimize to a target of a high response rate would instead push more marketing funds into that 0.30% high performer, rewarding the fraud. Recognizing the power of humans to guide AI, some automated digital companies such as RocketFuel have moved away from their original “black box” algorithm system to a more-open interface, where humans can evaluate and revise the media targeting strategies. Others, such as LinkedIn, have failed in bids to use data on their users to guide automated targeting across the Internet.


When robots fail

Oxford University professor Nick Bostrom predicts in “Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies” that artificial intelligent systems will within 50 years outpace human reasoning. But he also worries that algorithms can go astray, creating huge risks, even if they eventually grow smarter than us. The “Flash Crash” stock market collapse of 2010 was one example, where automated algorithms between a mutual fund complex and high-frequency traders began feeding off each other’s erroneous signals, selling off S&P 500 futures contracts in a cascade that wiped out a trillion dollars of value before circuit-breakers kicked in to stop trading.

“These events illustrate several useful lessons…” Bostrom writes. “Smart professionals might give an instruction to a program based on a sensible-seeming and normally sound assumption … and that this can produce catastrophic results when the program continues to act on the instruction with iron-clad logical consistency even in the unanticipated situation where the assumption turns out to be invalid.

“The algorithm just does what it does, and unless it is a very special kind of algorithm, it does not care that we clasp our heads and gasp in dumbstruck horror at the absurd inappropriateness of its actions.”

Imagine an AI designed to run a paperclip factor, he suggests, with instructions to maximize the production of paperclips, that somehow escapes its computer box to control the world, mine the entire planet, and turn our environment into a massive heap of metal parts. Extreme and silly, perhaps, but robots only do what we tell the robots to do.

For this reason, humans are still needed in advertising, from The Big Idea to media planning to digital system management to analytics. Checking my reasoning, I asked a smart colleague at Mediassociates, Nate Carter, if he thought robots would control our future. “No,” Nate said, “because it’s all about aggression. If I’m a person running a campaign I can go in, turn off an advertising source, and make drastic changes over a short period of time, understanding the ramifications of each. If an AI shut things off and turned them back on, you would see bad results, you won’t know why, and you might have to shut down the process.”

Computers can win at chess today, but chessboards have only 64 squares. In a world of millions of marketing variables, humans are still needed to search for patterns or make guesses when we can’t find one. We’re winning for now, perhaps because instead of focusing on one smart goal, we’re not afraid to try many paths that might be stupid.

Yet … Bostrom is right. Solving chess once seemed an impossible challenge for computers, for it would mean matching the perceived height of human intellectual conflict. Today your Mac has a chess program that can easily beat you. Perhaps solving all of advertising someday won’t be too difficult for Watson at all.