Lost Continent Discovered

In our jaded age, an increasingly rare pleasure is the thrill of discovering something new - like maybe a nifty restaurant in your own neighborhood that you had overlooked for years, or a piece of classical music that stirs you.

I sometimes wish I were living 100 years ago, when the world was a much bigger place, with many more exotic and hard-to-reach corners. Good old pulpy stories like Allen Quatermain, Lost Horizon, or Terry and the Pirates can't take place in the modern world; everything is too familiar and too interconnected. In those days you could almost believe there might be an uncharted island somewhere inhabited by dinosaurs and an enormous gorilla.

In the mid 1930's the pulp writer William L. Chester published a series of wilderness adventure stories about the hero Kioga, sort of a pseudo-Tarzan, who inhabited an uncharted land called Nato-wa, north of the Arctic Circle. Imagine my surprise to learn (just yesterday!) that there is in fact an inhabited landmass close to the North Pole, called Svalbard. When I found it on the globe, I went whoa. It is the farthest-north permanently inhabited location on Earth. This instantly made it onto my list of "must-see" places.

This is the lost continent. Okay, okay, both "lost" and "continent" are exaggerations. But - although officially discovered in 1589, it's new to me. And it's big enough to keep me busy for the all the time I might be able to spend there.

What does Svalbard have to offer? Well, for one thing, it gives you a chance to combine adventure with relative comfort. It's practically the North Pole, and offers plenty of arctic-type scenery such polar bears, walruses, and glaciers. Check out this bit of local color (courtesy of Wikipedia): Since polar bears are common on Svalbard and hunt humans on occasion, people need to take precautions when outside the settlements: this includes carrying a rifle. Nevertheless, the law protects polar bears, forbidding anyone to harm or disturb them unless it is necessary to avert personal injury. At the same time, they have a tourist bureau. They have commercial air service. They have hotels. They even have ATM's.

One slightly spooky but interesting landmark: Svalbard is home to an underground doomsday vault holding samples of all kinds of crop seeds in case the crops are wiped out by some kind of plague.

The "Mexican Sushi" Phenomenon

I just coined the term "Mexican sushi" to describe a phenomenon that I witness around me more and more frequently. I doubt that it is really happening more frequently, but I am probably becoming more attuned to noticing it. It's based on the following little parable:

Suppose you own a restaurant--a Mexican restaurant, with an excellent native-born Mexican chef, but business has been falling off. You do some research and discover that nobody eats Mexican food any more. Sushi is all the rage. So you decide to switch over to sushi. You gather the restaurant's staff together to discuss it and they all show 100% enthusiasm--especially the chef: "I've never had sushi but I'm ready for a new direction in life." So you fax her the recipe and she goes out to buy the ingredients and puts her first order of sushi together according to the directions.

How much do you want to bet that somehow the sushi will not be what you are expecting. There are just too many unconscious assumptions made while cooking. Maybe the rice will have cumin in it, or the chef won't have wasabi on hand but figure jalapenos to be a good-enough substitute.

Can a native-born Mexican learn to make authentic sushi? Of course, but it's going to take more than just a recipe. Maybe someone needs to be looking over her shoulder on the first attempt. Maybe you need several cycles of try-taste-feedback-try.

[End of parable.]

Then again--a real-life story--about ten years ago I was at scout camp with my son. He was working on a Scouting requirement, something about constructing a useful device by lashing together sticks. Some of you may not know that in order to lash two sticks together "correctly" you don't just wrap a rope around until it looks "pretty good." Rather you make each joint according to one of several precise recipes depending on the type of joint desired. For example, a "square lashing" (see video above) is designed to connect two sticks at right angles and is constructed according to the formula: clove hitch--three wraps--three fraps--clove hitch.

I sent my son off to practice constructing something and after a while he brought back his creation. Sure enough, the lashings were made according to the "wrap a rope around until it looks pretty good" method. Thereupon followed the following exchange:

"What is this here? How many times did you wrap this?"

"I don't know. It doesn't matter, does it?"

This illustrates one contributing factor to the "Mexican sushi" phenomenon--a human penchant for interpreting a requirement in a set of instructions as a mere "guideline." Conversely a statement intended as a guideline may be interpreted as a strict requirement. Or the instructions may be incomplete and the listener interprets the ambiguity in an unexpected way. Surely you have had experiences such as this when giving directions to the driver of a car: "Take the next right... no, not that one! That's just a parking lot!"

As a rule, getting and giving advice or instructions is a much subtler art than is usually appreciated. I am particularly interested in the Mexican sushi phenomenon as it applies to learning how to make major life changes--weight loss, confronting phobias, financial planning. It's probably both more common and more destructive in such contexts because fundamental attitudes come into play.