What Comes Next

We’re back now, the big trip behind us, getting ready for the next part of our life journey. But over the next couple of weeks I’ll try to get back on here and tidy up a bit. Better photos will come in places, texts will be smoothed out and expanded, and there were some philosophical areas planned but never gotten to – particularly the Buddhist idea of reincarnation, the antecedents of awareness, a couple of other alternate futures of Man, and loose ends in the discussions of karma and free will. Yes, it is all going to be tied together (I hope). Don’t drop that RSS feed yet!

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Down from the North

Today, at long last, we were homeward bound. We took the 15 south out of Smiths Falls and then switched to a county road for a shortcut down to the 401 along the north side of the St. Lawrence. This proved to be an ultra-busy highway for some reason. It is probably the route between Montreal and Toronto, but that’s a long way and not a commuting route. But anyway we worked with nearly bumper-to-bumper but flowing traffic for the mercifully-short 10 miles we had to the highway. Then it was a left turn to a pair of bridges (actually 5, but 2 major ones) crossing the St. Lawrence via a large island. This was the so-called “Thousand Islands Seaway”, and it lived up to its name. The view we had from the first bridge going over to Hill Island was incredible. Unfortunately there was no shoulder or any place from where to stop and take a picture. None of my web searches have turned up anything either, so apparently it’s not easy, although it might be one of those cases of two broad a view to be adequately captured in a photograph as well.

We then went through the customary job-justifying US border grilling (but thankfully no searches), and made our way down into the far windier (for some reason) US. There were all sorts of beautiful routes we could be taking at this point back home, but in our road-weary state we chose the quickest and easiest: I-81. It was a grey, rather cold run back, not helped by the wind, but we put our heads down and ground it out, with only a single stop for a late lunch to break the journey. Then we were welcomed into the arms of our neighbors, and a day later moved down to the rental house we’d spend our last two weeks on US soil in relaxing and getting ready for the big move to Finland.


175 miles.

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Day Second-Last: Somewhere in Canada

Before when we talked about the future of Man, we talked about higher-order, slower-moving organizations of life. Cities were one clear example. But many think the future lies in other directions. For instance, artificial intelligence.

The human brain, our main example of natural intelligence, is a marvel of connectivity. Roughly ten billion neurons, divided into dozens of architecturally distinct modules, each connected to thousands of others. But, by the standards of modern electronics, it is not a marvel of speed. Neurons can signal one another at most 1000 times a second, and while it is not actually known how these signals convey information, the time for something significant to actually be communicated is probably 10′s of milliseconds. Stack that up against a typical GHz class microprocessor, for example the one in your phone. That’s a billion operations per second, on the order of a million times faster. Of course, this is a single processor; to catch up with the immense parallelism in the brain, you would need 10^10 * 10^3 / 10^6 = 10 million of them. But that’s with general-purpose hardware. With semi-specialized hardware such as is found in a modern graphics card, or GPU, you can knock a factor of 4000 or so off of that, so that only 25,000 or so are needed – in the range of existing supercomputers. With specialized hardware, the requirements would be even lower, but the problem is we don’t understand enough aboout how brains work to build such specialized hardware.

Eventually we will though. Both computing hardware and software / algorithms have been improving at a massive rate over the past few decades. The resources going into space have been absolutely peanuts compared to what has been poured into information technology (IT), because this is where our cultural motivations have lined up. Our society is resource-driven and due to its capitalist structure therefore money-driven. And because IT is able to make so many other money-making activities more efficient, a dollar invested there returns more than one invested anywhere else (not counting financial leverage; see also here and here), and therefore our industrial and intellectual capacities have focused in that direction. IT also enables games (virtual realities, escapes), extends our social experiences, and contributes to the creation of entertainment, all of which tend to motivate us.

So the resources for artificial intelligence are assured, and so, I would argue, is the desire. We, as I have said, are cave men. We work together, we compete and stretch ourselves, and we also raise children. Every one of us has the innate desire to procreate and raise a child; to raise a child who will have a better life than ourself – to raise a child who will be better than ourself. We don’t all achieve this goal, but whether we do or do not, the impulse is there. Just as fire-building and competing manifest in ways far abstracted and beyond these humble concrete origins, so our procreative urges manifest in a creative urge. We have the undeniable drive to create, to breathe life into that creation, and to send it skyward. Given the resources, we will no more be able to restrain ourselves from creating artificial intelligence than we can from breathing.

The only question is whether the future will come to be dominated by pure machine intelligences, or by versions of ourselves transferred or ‘uploaded‘ via simulation to electronic form.

Another interesting idea about the future is that we’ll create not just intelligence, but life. Life that is more intelligent than us, lacks our physical and moral failings, and is perhaps longer-lived. This possible achievement lies at the intersection of bioengineering and artificial intelligence, and again I would argue that it is almost inevitable. Why create life rather than simply raw intelligence? Reproduction for one. Machines constructing other machines will always be a clumsy process, unable to match the elegance and efficiency of self-organizing chemical reactions, molecular patterns sustaining and reproducing themselves on a micro scale. Mortality for another. We may think that destiny lies in immortality, but with immortality comes stagnation, while dying and rebirthing life can evolve more radically. Any immortal intelligence, no matter how impressive, will inevitably be surpassed sooner or later, just like the fastest, most expensive PC of today will become junk some number of years later. Many science fiction authors have explored the idea of human creation of life, most memorably to me Olaf Stapledon (Star Maker) and Gene Wolfe (Book of the New Sun, Fifth Head of Cerberus).

We got up and had breakfast at a local coffeeshop, taking our time so that the temperature would warm as much as possible. Then we both finally put on the last layers that we had been carrying for the entire trip, in case the going got rough – for me it was a set of expedition-weight long-john bottoms, for Päivi a quilted insulating liner for her motorcycle pants. It was around 30 when we woke up and 40 when we set off, but the wind had died down from yesterday, and this ended up making a huge difference. Sixty mph of wind chill is much more benign than ninety mph. The sun was more consistent as well. We were almost too warm for the first part of the ride, but the seeping wind and the sitting still eventually had their effect, and we ended up just comfortable.

We arced above the top of Algonquin Provincial Park, a place I had long heard stories about from friends who had visited, but had so far eluded my own efforts. From the outskirts though it reminded me in some ways of the Adirondacks, so I felt like that Lake Superior hiking trail we saw might still be my first destination in this area.

We stopped for lunch around 1, more from a desire to rest for a while rather than any actual hunger, and then carried on again, finally finishing off the 17 in the funnily-named “Arnsprior” and switching to the smaller 29/15 south towards the Saint Lawrence. We made it more than halfway down and called it a day in Smiths Falls (no apostrophe). Tomorrow, if our bikes would give us one more day, we’d end the trip.


227 miles.

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Don’t Mess with Canada

We awoke to beautiful views right out our window to the lake, but ours was not a life for lingering, and we dragged ourselves out of bed to get ready to leave. D. was planning a ride of some 400 miles down to Port Dover and a motorcycle rally there, and we felt it best to leave with him, even though our ambitions were much more modest. Unfortunately, although sun was peeking through the clouds here and there, it was also 40 degrees and windy. So the heat had been replaced with rain, and now the rain replaced with cold and wind. It seemed like we weren’t going to be winning any time soon. Maybe we shouldn’t have messed with Canada, we thought.

We gamely bundled up and set off, bidding first P. and then D. farewell, and again having breakfast at Tim Horton’s. We lingered over this, hoping the temperatures would warm up, but this didn’t really happen. Eventually we decided we’d just have to settle for sun, which brought cheery light at least if not warmth. We got on the bikes and gamely belted out the first hundred-odd miles, periodically stopping to warm ourselves up in gas stations.

Finally we made it to Sudbury, had lunch, and planned our next move. We decided to go as far as North Bay, a big-ish city on the north side of a smaller lake inland from Huron. This was about 80 more miles, and though we wouldn’t quite be at our usual quota of 200 for the day, we figured our two big days just recently should make up for this.

With the reassurance of our goal of a warm hotel room ahead we knocked off the remaining distance and straggled our way in to accomodation in North Bay. (Camping was basically out of the question now, since our summer sleeping bags weren’t really going to be up for the 30-degree temperatures the evenings were now getting down to, let alone the unpleasant wind.) Two more days and we’d be home!


190 miles.

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“Great, Except for the Weather”

We got up and walked to the local Tim Horton’s for breakfast, grateful for what would probably be our only exercise today. When we got back and were looking over our bikes, an Indian guy from Toronto was loading his bag onto a metric cruiser nearby. He and three friends had been doing a circuit of Lake Superior on the occasion of one of their 40th birthdays. “Yeah, it’s been great,” he said brightly, then added, “Except for the weather.” Somehow he managed this with a straight face, and we all pretended that the prevailing conditions were only a minor damper on the great times of a motorcycle trip. But whether it’s a long or a short trip there’s usually not much you can do about the weather you get dealt. Fate determines which areas you get to see the beauty of in sun, which ones you ride through hunched over in cold, and which you see only through a film of raindrops on the visor and worries over traction and sudden obstacles. We were all in the same boat, but for both of our groups, seeing that it wasn’t “just us” cheered us up.

And in fact today it seemed the rain was at least temporarily going to give us a break. We finally got to see Superior in some of its glory on the east side heading down. We also discovered a “Coastal Trail” along the shores, partly in Lake Superior Provincial Park, which continued for so long you could actually backpack. Päivi and I hiked along a couple of hundred meters of it going in. Sun splashed onto a carpet of pine needles, granite, and moss through tree branches above, and the lapping of Superior against the shores reverberated off the rock rising above us. Beautiful. This was the way to see the lake, all right. We even had our backpacks with us. Too bad we weren’t equipped with either time or food though. We made promises to return another time.



We carried on, but as we drew in to Sault Saint Marie, the clouds closed in overhead, and we were back to cold and damp motorcycling, though not actual rain. A lunch stop did little to warm us up, so we just buckled down and continued east, now leaving Superior behind.

We passed an electric sign stating that Highway 17 was closed east of Thessalon. This seemed scarcely credible – how could the most major highway in the region actually be closed? But I remembered Päivi mentioning she’d seen a story about flooding on the news last night, and I started to worry a little. Thessalon lay about 50 miles east of where we were.

Sure enough, when we came to the place, there were detour signs, and it took us a bit of fumbling around before we came to grips with the scope of the detour, which ate a visible chunk out of the map. After a couple of false attempts to detour around the detour, we completed the full 40 miles on questionable roads and found ourselves 20 miles east of where we’d started. We only had energy to continue for another 10 miles before stopping at a Tim Horton’s to assess our chances.

I’d just been emailing a friend the night before that while we were having a good time on this trip, it was far from a bed of roses. And this had certainly been true for the past couple of days. But now a stroke of good luck befell us that made things roses again. Another motorcyclist had gone into the Tim Horton’s just before us, and as often happens, we found the occasion to exchange a few words. Päivi generally leads the way in these, since I tend to be shy, and this was no exception. This time though the man joined us at our table and I became involved in the conversation too.

It turned out he was an Ohioan up visiting his summer house for a few days before leaving his wife up here while he went down to work for another week or two. He was on a red Honda VFR 800 Interceptor. Definitely capable of smoking either of our two bikes without breaking a sweat, but he was old enough not to feel the need to make a number out of it. Instead we talked over our common interests in motorcycling and told a few things of our trips. Then he asked us if we had a place to stay, and invited us up to his house. Ordinarily I would be cautious about something like this, but since we was riding a motorcycle I thought he was OK, and in addition we were feeling a bit desperate about finding an end to our day’s journey. We’d already asked at two motels along the road and found them too expensive, but were starting to get the idea we were going to have to break down sooner or later.

Instead we hopped on our bikes and followed D. up some winding narrow roads a few miles above town to a beautiful lake house in Scandinavian style with light wood, large windows, and airy, open spaces. We couldn’t believe our luck, nor that D.’s wife didn’t seem too put-out by the unexpected guests. D. did mention this was not the first time he’d brought home wayward motorcyclists, and I guess it hadn’t turned out badly in the past.

We ended up having dinner with D., his wife P., and several of their friends / summer house neighbors. Company was good and the surroundings were pleasant and rustic. Very, very little to complain about indeed.


256 miles.

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Uncivilized Motorcycling

We got up and had breakfast at Tim Horton’s, the same place we’d had dinner at the night before. Simple, reasonably healthy fare, decent coffee, wi-fi – what more could we want?

We managed to get on the bikes and head off while the still-grey skies remained dry, but that lasted for all of about 5 minutes, and it started drizzling by the time we reached the main highway. Unlike last night, however, we were determined to make progress, and so we stuck on the bikes, and the rain died away after 15 minutes or so. Unfortunately, it was replaced by fog and mist, and we had to slow down. Of course, cars didn’t do the same, so I put my hazard lights on to warn them something was up. We’d just read about a massive pile-up in the UK recently due to fog. It must be something about driving inside a box made of tons of metal that gives one the security to barrel on full-speed ahead despite being unable to see far enough to stop in time should an obstacle arise. On a motorcycle though, one is painfully aware of what would happen should something loom out of the fog ahead, although even this does not always instill enough caution.

We did OK though, not meeting with any mishaps (and only one roadside deer, which we avoided), and we continued along Route 17 (the impressively-named “Trans-Canada Highway”, a humble 2-lane road her as along much of its length). After an extended lunch stop though to warm up as much as anything else (it was only 60 degrees, but with the wind and dampness a chill was getting to our bones), it started raining again, this time looking in earnest. It never rose above a drizzle, fortunately, though it continued (mostly) on and off for the rest of the afternoon.

Finally around 5 we rolled in to the town of Wawa, where we had been told to get gas before a long gap in stations before Sault Saint Marie. While getting gas we decided we were pretty much out of gas as well, and in the cold and damp again opted for a motel.

292 miles.

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Civilized Motorcycling

Today dawned grey, but rain-free. It took us a while to get ourselves rolling after what felt like a long time resting in Duluth, but we finally did so. Getting out of Duluth proved to be pretty easy, and soon we were heading northeast along the shore of Lake Superior. The lake would have looked a lot better under a sunny, blue sky, but that was about the only thing we had to complain about. The road was in good condition with a nice shoulder, and it periodically made close contact with the lake. Every once in a while we’d pass small towns with boutique coffee houses, smoked fish shops, and hotel/resorts overlooking the lake. In between there were well-kept houses presumably owned by well-to-do Duluthians. It was all very pleasant and civilized feeling, in great contrast with the places we’d been passing through lately. It also reminded us of the roads around the Finger Lakes back home, and home was one thing we were looking forward to at this point. Not that we weren’t enjoying things despite the heat, rain, etc., but it’s only natural with 5 days left in a 6-week trip to look a little bit towards the end.

We continued up along Superior to the Canadian border, past which the road unfortunately left the lake and headed through a somewhat rough, tree-filled inland: typical Canada from my (limited) experience. This lasted for about an hour until we hit the city of Thunder Bay, along with drizzling rain. We stopped to check the radar and found it was slated to continue for a couple of hours and around a hundred miles east of us. This proved enough to discourage us from camping, and we found a motel in town.

Thunder Bay seemed a bit beat up, but there was a nice park near us that I went for a run in, and the Seattle-like weather was perfect for that. Sometimes happiness lies in a pair of sneakers.

On a different note, Thunder Bay was supposedly home to over 14,000 Finnish immigrants – the highest concentration in Canada, but we didn’t run into any. Maybe we were in the wrong section of town. We did see a lot of folks who seemed to be of Eskimo descent, however, which surprised me – I didn’t think we were that far north. Some examination of maps confirmed this thought, but it turned out there just weren’t that many other cities north of here, probably none of any significant size.

200 miles.

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Resting in Duluth

Today we were planning to leave late and have a short day just going a short way up the coast. But the weather outside quickly led us to change our plans from short to none. It was raining steadily and this promised to continue heavier or lighter for much of the day. After riding fairly long days for nearly a week straight, we’d been thinking about a break anyway; nature didn’t have to work too hard to force our hand.

Nothing much happened worth writing about. We lounged and relaxed, and I managed to finally catch up on this blog. Tomorrow we’ll start moving again, and we’ll skip over our planned short day and go straight up into Canada along the north shore of Lake Superior. We should be about 5 days out from home – we’ll see.

0 miles.

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Rain to Duluth

It rained a bit during the night, but the skies were dry in the morning when we woke up. We went ahead and had our breakfast, but when we started packing up the tent drops started coming down again. The whole sky was grey, and we had the sinking feeling this was rather a long-term rain then some short passing shower. But it was light enough not to deter us from riding, so we packed up the bikes, donned our raingear, and set off.

This gave the ride a muted character, and we rode smoothly across most of Minnesota to Duluth. Because we were going west to east, we probably paced the rain to some extent and so kept ourselves in wet, but light rain is not that bad on a motorcycle once one has gotten all suited up and taken off.

Once we got to Duluth, we decided to splash out a little bit and spring for more luxurious accomodations than normally. We didn’t go wild, just a “Comfort Inn”, but it did have a pool, hot tub, and a sauna, and it had those little amenities like afternooon cookies and free morning papers like the fancier places have. These, and being warm and dry were more than enough for us, so we were happy.

170 miles.

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The End of the Plains

Today it was finally supposed to cool down. And indeed, when we woke up it was grey and cloudy – which would help. We breakfasted and mounted our horses for another day’s riding east.

We stayed with Highway 200 and for a long while we just had more of the same North Dakota: flat-to-rolling grasslands and wheat fields (mostly now harvested) with basin ponds scattered throughout. There were so many of these that they didn’t even bother routing power lines around them. They just plopped the poles down into the water and kept on going. The ducks and other various inhabitants of the ponds didn’t seem to mind.




On a completely different but geographically-related subject, after the U.S. shocked Japan into submission in 1945 with the two 20-kiloton nuclear bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the military world’s attention was focused on nuclear weapons. Research was done in many places, and scientific publication as well as espionage spread the knowledge further, of how to build reliable, effective mass destruction weapons and delivery systems. The U.S. and the Soviet Union emerged as the world’s top military dogs, and, fearing each other, poured great efforts into developing nuclear arsenals. The amount of destructive power amassed by each side was ludicrous, estimated by many to be capable of wreaking sufficient havoc to snuff out the human race, if not immediately, then by side effects such as fallout and so-called “nuclear winter”.

Dangerous as this was, it at least captured the attention of the press and the common people so that there was painful awareness of the problem. The U.S. and the Soviet Union were said to be in a “cold war”, which is to say a protracted passive-aggressive build-up, as opposed to an actually fought “hot” war. It’s fairly safe to say that no one was really happy with the situation, aside from the military contractors getting rich off it. Books and films like Fail-Safe and Dr. Strangelove graphically portrayed the ridiculously high risk to which humanity was subjecting itself.

Then came the “thaw” of the Cold War. Mikhail Gorbachev, one of the greatest leaders in recorded history, played the heroic and courageous role of making the first steps, and forging bonds with other world leaders and building their trust to reciprocate. The first agreements in the 1980′s were the start of a process that has continued in fits and starts in the years since then.

The U.S. nuclear arsenal consisted and consists partly of bombs and partly of warheads on long-range missiles. Approximately two thirds of these missiles are on nuclear submarines, which prowl the ocean continually, in limited, coded contact with higher military command, as the ultimate indefusible threat. The other third are housed in silos scattered throughout the Great Plains of the continental United States. November-33 was one of these, holding a nuclear armed Minuteman missile a few miles outside Cooperstown, North Dakota. It was ultimately decommissioned in the mid 1990′s as part of one of the START treaties. The Federal government was just going to destroy the site and remove all traces of its existence, but, so that we might remember our follies, the state of North Dakota acted to preserve this and several other sites.

November-33 was a missile launch site only. A silo buried in the ground, a protective cover, and automated machinery to allow the missile to be launched from a remote command center controlling several launch sites. The cover consists of around three feet of steel-reinforced concrete, and is built to withstand a nuclear blast. It has a track and a chain connected with a winch motor allowing it to be opened for servicing. The motor is powerful and the cover can be ratcheted open in a few tens of seconds. But for launching the missile, this was felt to be too slow, so a complex system of compressed gas and explosives was installed, doubtlesss at great cost, to allow near-instantaneous (but permanent) opening of the hatch. The government-produced sign at the site reports that 250 silos similar to this one have been destroyed to date under treaty. It also reports that 450 such silos still remain. The report here corroborates this information, and also states, as I mentioned, that this is just one third of the missile-deployed nuclear arsenal, and there are more than a thousand missiles on nuclear subs.

Let us continue to pray these weapons are never used. But regardless, we are paying for this insanity. Unimaginable billions of our tax dollars are building and maintaining submarines, buried launch facilities, missiles, and the nuclear explosives carried by them. And yet somehow, with the demise of the Soviet Union, the fear of nuclear war has gone. Terrorism, chemical weapons, and Islamic extremism capture most of our military-related attention, and Chinese posturing and rogue proto-nuclear states the rest. But the nuclear amassment remains even though the Cold War has supposedly gone. We the people are asleep at the wheel, and who knows how trustworthy the people and systems in charge are. Worrisome.



At any rate, back to the trip at hand. Eventually as we started getting towards Minnesota we started seeing stands of trees here and there. Much of this was highly regulated due to this being completely reformed farmland, but I supposed this area must have been like the Aspen Parkland in Alberta, a kind of battleground area where grassland and trees are both partially favored by the conditions and compete for space. (In fact I later found that I was not far off.) The resulting mixture of grassy areas with groves of trees ends up feeling much like a park to such humans as may meander through it, hence the name.

Finally as afternoon as getting towards evening, the grassland gave up altogether and we were left riding through trees. As before with the transition from the mountains to the plains, we were simultaneously glad and regretful of the change; prairie is not the most common terrain in the western world, and we were not sure when we’d be coming across it again.

We rolled in to Itasca Lake State Park to spend the night. We’d just picked this place randomly as being at a convenient spot along our particular road of travel, but it ended up being pretty interesting. A few miles before the park we crossed over a bridge over a small creek, maybe 10 feet wide. The sign on the bridge said, “Mississippi River”. We both did double-takes, but later checking up verified the truth. Itasca Lake is the officially-accepted origin of the Mississippi River. (Although several tributary streams flow into the lake, there’s no way to adjudicate amongst them, so the lake itself takes the title.) Also interestingly, we were only at around 1400 feet here, but over 2500 miles from the Gulf of Mexico. If that’s not an efficient use of gravity to move water, I don’t know what is.

276 miles.

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