Haere mai, kia ora tatou … eh, whatever

I’ve just come from a thin strip of volcanic ash near Antarctica, on which no mammal except bats set foot until a thousand years ago, and which today is mostly inhabited by sheep and by people who say “nigh-oh” when they mean “no.” I’m referring, of course, to New Zealand — or as the locals call it, “Middle Earth.” My colleague Andris Ambainis and I were in Auckland for four days, en route to QIP’2007 in Brisbane. While there, we were fed and sheltered by our friend Miriam and her boyfriend David. Miriam was both my housemate and officemate my first year at Berkeley; she now does user-interface research for a web-design company called Shift. You can see some of her handiwork, and learn more about her sheep-intensive homeland, by visiting this website. Hey, if Miriam took you around a place like this

you’d shill for her too.So, now that I was surrounded by one of the last relatively-intact wildernesses on Earth, what did I do there? If it were up to me, mostly blog, eat, and check email. Fortunately Miriam didn’t let me get away with my default ways, and repeatedly dragged me by my ears on Cultural Learning Experiences. And that’s what allows me to present the following Shtetl-Optimized New Zealand Educational Supplement.

  • Auckland is almost certain to be destroyed sometime in the next few millennia by one of the fifty or so active volcanoes it’s built on. On the bright side, like most of the world’s current cities, it will probably be underwater long before that.
  • New Zealand is the first place I’ve visited where the ozone hole is a serious everyday concern. Especially now, in summertime, when the hole over Antarctica is largest, you’re not supposed to go outside for even a few minutes without sunblock.
  • I’d always imagined the Maori as a nearly-extinct people who lived on reservations doing tribal dances for tourists. Actually they’re ~15% of the population, and have so assimilated with the pakehas (whites) that these days Maori kids get sent to special schools, weekend programs, etc. to retain something of their language and culture. (Like Hebrew day school but with more jade weapons.) Andris and I did see a traditional Maori war-dance, but you could tell that the people doing it were going to check their text messages as soon as it was over.
  • New Zealand was pretty much the last habitable landmass on Earth to be reached by human beings — not even the Maori got there until 1000AD. By comparison, the Aboriginals were already in Australia by 50,000BC. So why was New Zealand so much harder to reach than Australia? When we examine a map
    a possible answer suggests itself: because New Zealand is so friggin’ far from everything else. Australia is practically in swimming distance from Southeast Asia by comparison. Because of this, reaching New Zealand and the other Pacific Islands took advances in boat-building and navigation that only happened recently in human history. Here’s another thing I never really appreciated before: the people who did get to these islands weren’t just drifting around randomly in their canoes. They knew exactly what they were doing. Like the Europeans who came later, they were setting out repeatedly on large, organized expeditions with the specific goal of finding new islands, returning to where they started from, and then coming back to the new islands with a settling party. Ideally the new islands would be chock-full of tasty animals like the moa that, unused to land-based predators, could then be hunted to extinction.

Alright, enough book-learnin’ — let’s see some more pictures.

NerdNote: When I first published this post, it mysteriously refused to show up. Finally I figured out the problem: I’d listed the date as January 29 (which it is here in Australia), but the WordPress software thought it was still January 28, and that it should therefore wait a day before updating!

16 Responses to “Haere mai, kia ora tatou … eh, whatever”

  1. Sam C Says:

    Are you still in New Zealand? You mention Australia in the note. If you are and you feel like just watching a movie make sure it’s a New Zealand classic: Braindead (or perhaps Bad Taste).

    Not quite ‘unused to predators’ they were preyed upon by Haast’s eagle. This humorous quote from the wikipedia: ‘a large, fast bird of prey that specialised in hunting large bipeds may have been perceived as a threat by Māori — being a creature that could kill a moa weighing 180 kg (400 lb), an adult human may have been a viable prey alternative.’

  2. Andrew L. Says:

    A road labeled “NP” with no commentary? The joke potential is too big to let this one pass. What’s the story?

  3. Dave Bacon Says:

    Apparently Scott is Nondeterministic and Andris is Polynomial-Time. Seems about right, I think.

  4. andy Says:

    does the toilet water go the opposite direction down there?

  5. Scott Says:

    What’s the story?

    Alright, the Maori had a tradition of marking each sacred hilltop with a different complexity class, depending on which oracle they were querying on that hill. The white gate behind the ‘NP’ symbolizes, of course, the intractability of NP-complete problems in the physical world, which is an extremely strong belief in the Maori tradition. Andris and I did, however, step over the gate and ascend to the summit, whereupon we were rewarded with the chance to submit any NP question and have it supernaturally decided for us.

    Our question: “Is there a proof of P!=NP in ZF set theory with at most 10 million symbols?”
    The answer: “Yes.”

  6. Scott Says:

    does the toilet water go the opposite direction down there?

    The WikiGod knows all.

  7. Scott Says:

    Sam C: Duh, I forgot about Haast’s eagle!

    I’m in Brisbane now. (In NZ I was too busy sightseeing — Miriam wouldn’t give me a spare nanosecond to blog. :-) )

  8. Kea Says:

    Greetings from the South Island – we have fewer volcanoes, but more chance of being wiped out by a massive earthquake. Funny post (LOL) and, believe it or not, you’ve basically got the facts right.

  9. Kea Says:

    ….except that NZ is NOT near Antarctica.

  10. Scott Says:

    Kea: I’m so glad to hear from a real Hobbit that I basically got my facts right! :-)

    I still regret not making it to the South Island — I’ll have to go next time!

    You might not be “near Antarctica” in absolute terms, but you’re certainly the closest I’ve ever been…

  11. Chris Says:

    except that NZ is NOT near Antarctica.

    Well, according to the official “notice to mariners” they have icebergs. I think that’s near enough for most people :)

    I’ll never forget the last time I moved house, the removalists were three Maori guys. I asked one if he wanted a hand with the (large) fridge. He replied “she’s right bro”, picked it up and walked down the stairs with it. The pakehas are lucky they weren’t chucked back into the southern ocean on arrival.

  12. Kea Says:

    Unfortunately, for the bloody history that resulted, it wasn’t luck – they had guns.

  13. John Sidles Says:

    Scott’s comment “reaching New Zealand and the other Pacific Islands took advances in boat-building and navigation that only happened recently in human history” brought back vivid memories. My own Saul-like conversion from scientist to engineer took place on precisely such a “small-boat” voyage (as they are still called).

    Here are some shots from a small-boat voyage from Namenweito Atoll to Chuuk (the same Chuuk that is visible on Scott’s map). The stern is close and the bow is closer. The clouds ahead are from Typhoon Chaitin, which caught us by surprise. But we survived, and my family met me at SeaTac Airport, thirty-five pounds thinner.

    The circumstances of how I ended up on that small-boat voyage would take too long to relate. Sometime people ask, if you get in trouble, do passing ships stop to rescue you? Like they rescued Tom Hanks in Castaway? The answer is “no.”

    So thank you, Yamaha, makers of the redoutable outboard engine, the “Enduro 40″, cherished by small-boaters across the Pacific.

    And yes, it was on this voyage that I began to think seriously about the role of quantum physics in job-creation. “The past is prologue.”

  14. ano Says:

    John Sidles:
    you went several hundred km in that boat? I’m impressed
    Here’s a map http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Image:Chuuk.png

  15. John Sidles Says:

    Here’s a map http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Image:Chuuk.png.

    Yes, we voyaged from Onoun to Chuuk on that map. My teenage son Alex was living there … visiting him required involuntary total immersion in third-world life. Two typhoons passed over; I believe the one in the picture was “Chata’an,” not “Chaitin” (doh!).

    On a totally different subject—or perhaps, a subject that is related only in my own mind—perhaps someone who was at QIP-07 might summarize Ignacio Cirac’s talk on efficient quantum simulation? Also Michael Bremner’s poster on the role of noise in simulation? Much obliged!

  16. John Sidles Says:

    Ho hum … how I’m hoping for a lively QIP post from Scott!

    Meanwhile, what quantum-limited device can you make out of coconut trees, sand, and sunlight (which are the only resources that the FSM Outer Islands have to offer … they are nothing but small sandbars that are sparsely scattered over a vast Pacific Ocean). Or to make it more plausible, what can a culture make out of nothing but organic molecules, silica, and solar power?

    I’m glad you asked, `cuz here’s a picture. Thank you, Garmin GPS Corporation, ya saved my life more than once.

    And what does every outer island want? Want much more than they want a money economy, a legal system, or even a physician? Easy … a fast internet connection maintained by Microsoft-certified system administrator. Like Max on Unanu.

    `Cuz gosh-golly, just because these islands are third-world and desperately poor, doesn’t mean the people living there are hicks, or that they are uninterested in quantum information technology (and it is a pretty considerable thrill to login to the arxiv server from one of these islands).

    As it turns out, the Outer Islanders are plenty smart, and they realize that information technology is just about the only hope their culture has of escaping the desperate isolation and poverty of the third world, while continuing to live on their beautiful islands.