Island Mallow, you grow up so fast

Botany-geeking time! Over two years ago, I brought home a tiny young island mallow (Malva assurgentiflora), and planted it in a shady spot across from my desk window.

I had first learned about this species during an environmental horticulture class I took in college, and, several years later, I found one for sale (at the amazing plant nursery Annie’s Annuals). The species is endemic to California, originally growing only in the Channel Islands, and it is quite a lovely plant.

Here’s how it looked then:


Since then, it has grown slowly but heartily, surviving two winters and a pack of rowdy squirrels. It is now almost as tall as my shoulder. And today, I glanced out the window and thought I saw something pink near the top of the plant. I investigated, and indeed: my island mallow has opened its very first flower!


This is a small thing, but this is a thing that makes me very happy.

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Montréal: Technology! Language! PyCon!

Earlier this month, I was in Montréal for PyCon 2015, a conference about Python. In case you don’t know of it: Python is a very flexible, powerful programming language with amazing support for everything from web development to scientific computing. It is one of my very favorite technologies, so I was genuinely excited to be at this event.

I attended as many talks as humanly possible, because om nom nom Python. Here are the talks that I found the the most interesting and enjoyable. (The full talks list is here, with many of the videos available on YouTube.)

My very favorite talk, hands-down, was Michelle Fullwood’s talk on building a linguistic street map. She is a linguistics grad student who decided to make a map of Singapore color-coded by the linguistic origin of the street names (e.g. Malay, British, Chinese). I loved this talk because, in addition to the topic being fascinating, she struck an excellent balance between theory and example. The talk covers a lot of good machine learning concepts, and it illustrates these very well with bite-sized, effective code snippets. It was great. Even if you haven’t the faintest idea what Python is, it’s worthwhile:

Isn’t that the coolest darn thing? For the curious, you can see the final linguistic streetmap here, and the code is on her GitHub.

Here a few other talks that I enjoyed:


(Previously: I saw the city of Montréal a little bit.)

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Montréal: Exploring the City

I just went to Canada! I spent five days there, over the last weekend, attending a conference for work. Despite having managed to find my way to far-flung places like South Africa and Chile, this was the first time I had ever been to any part of Canada. I am glad to have remedied this.

I was staying in Old Montréal, which is a placidly beautiful part of the city, with handsome, giant old stone buildings scattered around like it ain’t no big deal. My coworkers and I ate splendid food (foie gras, quail, rack of lamb, a wide range of crème brûlées), and were able to see Montréal both shrouded by grey, wintry rain at the start of our visit, and enlivened by comfortable sun on the last day.

Since I was there for a conference, I spent most of my time there traipsing around inside one very, very large building. On the last day there, however, I did get to explore the city itself a tiny bit. We rode the Métro to a quieter part of town, to investigate a shop there, which was a pleasant step off the normal downtown track. We also wandered around Old Montréal itself, by the edge of the Saint Lawrence River, admiring the piles of only-slightly-dirty snow piled up here and there, stumbling upon a maple sugar museum, and enjoying the architecture and the earnestly-posed statuary.

Here are a few photos:


I also wrote about the conference itself and all of my favorite technical bits thereof.

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O Desert! My Desert! (Anza Borrego & Joshua Tree)

The California desert is one of my favorite places in the world. It is an exquisite, stark, minutely-lush, harsh landscape, and I feel instantly at peace when I am there.

A week and a half ago, I was wistfully thinking: ah, it’s the very end of wildflower season now in the desert, and I haven’t been back there in years… and, after a bit of logistical back-and-forth, Ali and I decided that—why not?—we could gallop down there for a few days. And, three days later, with a car full of food and books, we headed to the desert.

We spent two days in Anza Borrego Desert State Park, then meandered up to Joshua Tree National Park and spent a day there too.

In Anza Borrego, we did two fine hikes: a beautiful (albeit hot) canyon walk to one of the park’s finest palm oases, and a fascinating hike through a higher-elevation transitional zone (half-desert, half-chaparral) where there were still wildflowers in abundance. In Joshua Tree, we walked through a conifer-lined rocky canyon where cattle rustlers used to hide their illicit cow-loot. In both areas, we explored: scaling rocks, admiring spiky cacti and ocotillo, spotting tiny isolated wildflowers, and basking in the heat. It was all wonderful.


I missed you so much, desert. Here are my photos:

(Click here to view the photo album directly.)


Hikes with names:

  • Borrego Palm Canyon Trail (Anza Borrego)
  • California Riding and Hiking Trail, above Culp Valley (Anza Borrego)
  • Hidden Valley Trail (Joshua Tree)


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New Year's Eve. Valparaíso, Chile. 2011.

Happy New Year

Every year, I find great enjoyment in reading Neil Gaiman’s New Year’s wishes. This year, I want to offer a few wishes of my own.

Wherever you are in your life: I hope that you make further progress in identifying the things that intrigue you, that thrill you, and that fill you with genuine delight.

Recognize when you need to be gentle with yourself. And recognize when you are being lazy or complacent. Practice the distinction between these. Hold yourself accountable for your own action (or inaction), but do so with compassion.

I hope that you kick your own butt and work towards doing the things you privately dream of. Build your own momentum. Push yourself. Realize that bravery is often no more than this.

I hope that you grow.

All my best,


(Pictured above: New Year’s Eve. Valparaíso, Chile. 2011.)

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Things That Made Me Happy in Oaxaca

In mid-September, I spent a week in Oaxaca State in Mexico, with my noble co-adventurer Ali. It was a fantastic, fun trip in every possible way.

We spent half the time in Huatulco, a coastal region of nine bays, numerous stretches of carefully-protected jungles and beaches, a handful of upscale resort hotels, and several smaller communities. We stayed in La Crucecita, a smallish town where many of the tourism workers live, which was pleasant and friendly (and which did not feel artificial or over-touristed). Huatulco was days of seeking small adventures and wading through the hot, humid, beautiful air, followed by evenings of wandering around the town center, and nights of fruitbat-watching and night-street-overlooking from our hotel’s balcony.

Halfway through the trip, we took a rainy, winding night bus trip from Huatulco to Oaxaca de Juárez. Oaxaca is the state’s capital, an excellent place for food, arts, and culture, with veritable oodles of colonial-era architecture all throughout its historic center. As in Huatulco, we spent much of our time contentedly walking around and exploring the streets. We also did some food-ish and culture-ish things, as one must.

I haven’t the time or attention to do a day-by-day recap, so instead, I’ll just touch on the main highlights of the trip:

Things That Made Me Happy in Oaxaca:

  • Snorkeling and leaping about in choppy waves at Playa La Entrega, spotting hundreds of colorful fish—even one handsome wee pufferfish!
  • Going canyoning on the Zimatán River: a mixture of hiking through wild jungle (so many cool plants! including wild Tillandsia / air plant), jumping off & rappelling down alarmingly tall rocks, swimming through rushing rapids, and floating placidly down quieter, gentler green currents.
  • Visiting a coffee farm in the mountains: walking through overgrown jungly trails cut into the hillside and getting to nibble on passionfruit fresh off the vine.
  • Also: a surprise zipline! Surprising both because we hadn’t known there was one at the coffee farm, and because it crossed high above a deep jungle valley… a fact we did not learn until we reached a certain curve in the zipline’s path, after we were already zipping wildly through the air. Startling. But so much fun.
  • Meeting up with my mother’s friend Enrique (a native Oaxacan), who led us through the dense and fascinating Abastos Market. He then traveled with us to a pottery studio in San Bartolo Coyotepec, a town outside Oaxaca famous for its barro negro, or shiny black decorative pottery.
  • The coolest museum ever: Museo de Filatelia / Museum of Philately. A deeply engrossing museum of stamps and postal paraphernalia from all over the world. It had a great exhibit on cartophilately (stamps with maps), as well as a vault full of centuries’ worth of interesting letters and stamps. If you’re ever in Oaxaca and have the faintest interest in travel, graphic art, or happiness, you should go.
  • A final night in Oaxaca spent sitting on a sheltered rooftop during a gorgeous thunderstorm. Then, retiring to a small cafe which had quotes from Latin American writers painted all over its walls, listening to excellent live music and striking up mixed-language conversations with the other patrons.

Do all the things! Here’s a slideshow of many of the trip photos:

(Or click here to view the photo album directly.)

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Dominican Republic: Final Round-Up

Whew! Now that I’ve finally finished posting all the Dominican blogs, here are a few final links and miscellaneous tidbits.

Here’s my entire Flickr set from the trip, which includes many photos ne’er before seen here on the blog.

Would you like to know where exactly all those long bus trips carried me? I made a basic map of the distances we traveled:

The total distance between the rightmost and leftmost points is about 160 miles. (Click on map to see it larger.)
The total distance between the rightmost and leftmost points is about 160 miles.
(Click on map to see it larger.)

If you’d like to go through and read the posts in some kind of order:

If you just want highlights, here are two of my favorite days of the trip:

And one final comment, which didn’t fit in anywhere in the blogs, but which is very useful nonetheless: there is one marvelous bit of Dominican slang that has fully insinuated itself into my Spanish repertoire. This useful word is un chin, pronounced /tʃin/ (rhymes with “sheen”). This means “a bit /a small amount,” and is synonymous with the more common Spanish un poco. You can also say un chin chin, to mean “a teeny tiny bit.” Wikipedia tells me that the word may have been borrowed from an African language, although it does not specify which or when. A fine and handsome word.

¡Gracias por tu tiempo, y espero que te alegrara el día un chin!

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January 25, 2014: Nos Vemos, República Dominicana

My very last morning… I’m sad to leave, but it will be good to be home. Elana and I woke a little early, packed up all our things, and then headed downstairs to the hotel’s kitchen to see if they had breakfast. They put together a nice plate of mangú (mashed green plantains) and fried egg for each of us; we ate, drank several cups of coffee, and talked.

After breakfast, we wandered out into the streets of Santiago for a brief walk. The sky was beautifully cloudy, a light sprinkling of misty rain had just begun, but the air was pleasant and warm, as always. (The Spanish word for a light mist is neblina, in case you were wondering.) We poked through a few food stalls in a plaza, and glanced at a shop, but really, we were just out for the sake of being out, for the sake of getting a little more city time in before my departure.

At 11:30am, Rubén’s cousin (the same one who had rescued me from the airport after my arrival) came to pick us up in his taxi. (more…)

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Outside the Brugal factory.

January 24, 2014: Rum Oxen & Stormy Skies

Today was my final full day in the Dominican Republic—such a strange thought! Elana and I agreed both that it feels like I’ve been here for months, and that it feels like all of those “months” passed by in the blink of an eye. We woke a little early so that we’d have time to pack and go out for breakfast before our hotel checkout time. The main street was all clean and puddle-lined; last night’s rainstorm had continued well into morning, unlike most of the rain I’ve seen here. We ate at a little café, where the breakfast plato del día included perfectly ripe papaya and delicious café con leche.

When we had previously had breakfast at the café adjoining our hotel, two days ago, the proprietress had told us that she’d been working on a gluten-free brownie recipe. On the way back from today’s breakfast, we popped by, and she had indeed created black-bean brownies! She gave us one for free, since she recognized us; it was so mild and perfectly-textured that we bought several more for the road.

Our plan for the day was to bus to Santiago before dark; we had left everything else open-ended so that we could explore a bit more before leaving the coast. (more…)

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January 23, 2014: A Raft in the Mountains

Elana and I stumbled out of bed at 5:40am, and were waiting at the curb in front of our lodging by 6:00am. Today, we had booked a whitewater river rafting adventure tour on the Río Yaque del Norte, up in the Central Range mountains. After our tour van collected us, we attempted to snooze a little more, while the van collected a few other people for the rafting. The sun sidled into the sky, in shades of pink, and I realized that this was the first proper Dominican sunrise I’d seen.

The total travel time to our rafting site was about 2.5 hours. During that time, I slowly ventured into full consciousness, read a bit of my book, then watched out the window as we passed back through Santiago and as the low tropical forest trees began to be interspersed with pines and other mountain-esque trees.

When we arrived at the rancho that hosts the rafting, we were delighted to discover that they were feeding us breakfast, including endless coffee. (more…)

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