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April 30, 2007

Rob Roy

While I was in Scotland, my hosts, Richard and Gill, and I watched Rob Roy, all of us for the first time, though they live only a mile or so from Rob Roy's grave in the churchyard in the village of Balquhidder.

Rob Roy
Their opinion of it was that it wasn't at all historically accurate, but that it nonetheless did a good job of portraying the kind of man they thought Rob Roy to be, and the times he lived in. They also felt it was far better than that other film of Scotland, Braveheart. When I asked why, they talked about how Braveheart perpetuated every cliché about the Scots. The next night, neighbors of theirs visited for dinner -- people who live in a house built on the site of a house once owned by Rob Roy himself. When they heard what we had watched the night before, the husband said, "Good film, that. Much better than Braveheart." Apparently that's a sentiment of Scots, of Highlanders, or perhaps just of the residents of Balquhidder.

I had visited Rob Roy's grave earlier in the week, but having seen the movie, I stopped by it once again during a hike the last morning of my stay. It was early and there was no one out -- Balquhidder is a sleepy village at the best of times, doubly so before breakfast.

Robert Roy MacGregor

I stood in front of his grave and said aloud, "If you were half the man I saw in that movie, I salute you," then did so. It seemed the right thing to do.

While doing research for this entry, I found a poem by William Wordsworth, "Rob Roy's Grave", which I hadn't known of before. The poem opens with these lines:

A FAMOUS man is Robin Hood,
The English ballad-singer's joy!
And Scotland has a thief as good,
An outlaw of as daring mood;
She has her brave ROB ROY!
Then clear the weeds from off his Grave,
And let us chant a passing stave,
In honour of that Hero brave!

April 29, 2007

"Vanti", "Vanila", "Frappino", and "Rasbery"

A post on Starbucks Gossip asked:

One of the big Starbucks customer-service mantras is "Just Say Yes," which means the customer can pretty much get whatever he or she asks for. Judging by comments posted on various Starbucks Gossip threads, this policy is causing more and more problems as customers try to exploit it. Should "Just Say Yes" be dropped? Altered? (How?) Or kept in place to keep Starbucks a customer-service leader?
In response, a commenter replied:
We had to say no the other day to a Japanese family who'd brought in those godforsaken printable iced coffee coupons from last summer -- not only was that only good for a grande of our actual iced coffee, and NOT iced mochas, lattes or caramel macchiatos, this family had THEMSELVES altered the coupons to say they were getting free VENTI iced beverages and a complimentary slice of lemon raspberry loaf...

Ah, and when I said they "themselves had altered the coupons", I meant anyone of us could have opened Notepad on the computer and typed out the following in 24pt Times New Roman font.

This is word for word what the coupon said, spelling mistakes noted:

"This coupon entitles the bearer to one free Vanti(sic) iced coffee, iced mocha, iced latte, iced vanila(sic) latte, iced americano, iced caramel macchiato or frappino(sic) of their choice, plus one piece of free lemon rasbery(sic) loaf. The summer are here at Starbucks."

April 26, 2007

United Airlines Edits 9/11 Reference

British Airways has been in the news recently for editing Sir Richard Branson (and his airline Virgin Atlantic) out of its in-flight version of Casino Royale. But United Airlines has done something that I find more curious to its in-flight version of the same film.

While flying back home from London on United earlier today, I had Casino Royale playing on my video monitor. There was, of course, all the editing one would expect, though even sillier than I would have thought, as if they were trying to make Bond into a Saturday morning cartoon. But amidst the edits of violence and sexuality, both large and small, there was another edit that I found much stranger.

Note that spoilers follow.

In the film, the villain Le Chiffre takes out put options on an airliner manufacturer, "Skyfleet", intending to destroy the prototype of the company's new passenger jet, sending its stock plummeting and making a fortune for himself. Bond foils the plot, the puts expire, and Le Chiffre loses over $100 million (though Bond is unaware of this larger plot at the time). The next day, M (played by Judi Dench) talks with Bond (played by Daniel Craig). This dialogue is from the DVD version of the movie:

M: When they analyzed the stock market after 9/11, the CIA discovered a massive shorting of airline stocks. When the stocks hit bottom on 9/12, somebody made a fortune. The same thing happened this morning with Skyfleet stock, or was supposed to. With their prototype destroyed, the company would be near bankruptcy.
Here's the same stretch of dialogue in United's in-flight version:
M: When they analyzed the stock market this morning, the CIA discovered a massive shorting of Skyfleet stocks. With their prototype destroyed, the company would be near bankruptcy.
Am I the only one who's curious about this? From what, exactly, is United trying to protect its passengers?

The most generous explanation I can imagine is that as an airline, United doesn't want to remind its passengers of a terrorist incident that involved two of its airplanes. And in that context, I can see why no airline would want to show a movie like United 93 or World Trade Center. But a momentary reference that doesn't mention any specific airline?

There's another possibility, less favorable to United: that they believe the concept of 9/11 to be controversial and edited out the reference because of this. It would be as if they edited out film references to the Holocaust because not everyone believes in it, or because some people believe it was justified. I truly hope this isn't the case.

(As a side note, according to the 9/11 Commission (via Snopes), the shorting described by M didn't take place.)

April 24, 2007

What Would Douglas Adams Be Doing Now?

As mentioned in previous entries, I'm staying with my friend Richard Harris (and his partner Gill) here in the Scottish Highlands. Richard and I met in the mid-1990s, when I was VP and GM of Virtus Studios (prior to spinning out as Red Storm Entertainment) and he was CTO of The Digital Village, Douglas Adams' media development firm.

Over drinks last night, I wondered aloud, "What would Douglas be doing if he were alive today?" In addition to collaborating closely on technical issues, Richard and Douglas were good friends. Also, given Richard's wide-ranging technical knowledge, Douglas involved him in most (if not all) discussions about future opportunities. So it was with hope that I wondered aloud.

Richard thought for a bit, and then said that Douglas' interests were growing wider with time. "Did you know," he asked, "that the thing that Douglas was most proud of was Last Chance to See?" I replied that I didn't. Richard talked about how Douglas was profoundly interested in ecology, specifically in the loss of habitat and the resulting extinction of species, and how he was speaking out more and more often and more and more eloquently on the topic.

More generally, before his death, Douglas was becoming more ever-more respected for his ability to speak intelligently and authoritatively on scientific topics -- as Richard put it, though Douglas had no formal science training, he was a natural scientist, inquisitive, analytical, and a natural synthesizer of ideas from multiple disciplines. So in addition to ecology, Douglas was speaking more forcefully and regularly on climate change. He also had an ongoing interest in the intersection of science and religion, and was speaking on that subject as well. It's particularly sad to me that we lost his voice in that particular discussion, because it's so difficult for me to imagine anyone being truly angry with Douglas. How can you hate someone who's making you laugh? It would be a great balance to the thoughtful but serious Richard Dawkinses, Sam Harrises, and their like to have Douglas around, disarmingly poking holes in religion without truly offending anyone.

Of course, at the time of his death, Douglas was living in Santa Barbara, close to Hollywood in an effort to get the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy movie made. (On that topic, Richard felt that had Douglas been alive when it had been made, it would have been longer and more thoughtful, to its benefit. "Or," as Richard says, "possibly not made at all.") Hitchhiker's was close to Douglas' heart. But it seems to me that, were he around today, he would be known in a far larger context than as its creator.

I'm sure the world is poorer for Douglas' absence. I'm also sure that it's up to us to continue working on the issues that were so important to him. If anything, those issues are more critical today than they were when he was alive.

April 23, 2007

Impressions of Scotland

I'm near the end of my fifth day in the Scottish Highlands. I can tell already I'll miss being here when I'm gone.

Everyone I've met -- not just my wonderful hosts, Richard and Gill, but their friends and acquaintances as well -- has been kind and gracious. If all Scotland is this welcoming, it's even more extraordinary than I know.

Scottish Pasture

I can't get over how completely, how inescapably, how finally green it is here. It's greener than the Puget Sound area of Washington, or the Lower Mainland of British Columbia, and those are green places to be sure. I mentioned to Richard and Gill the apocryphal story about Eskimos having 23 (or 42, or more) words for snow, and said that perhaps Scots should have 23 words for different shades of green.

Loch Voil

The loch beside which Richard and Gill live, Loch Voil, is small but utterly fits with my vision of a Scottish loch -- narrow (less than 500 meters at its widest) and long (about 6 kilometers), steep hills on either side, with just enough room for small sheep farms along the slopes.

The roads here remind me of those in the Dordogne: narrow and twisting, and people drive them fast. They're great fun when in Richard's BMW station wagon or Gill's Golf, but I wouldn't want to think about driving a lumbering SUV, much less a tractor-trailer along them -- and yet the roads are packed with such vehicles.

The food here is good, even very good. Richard and Gill's favorite pub down the road, The Munro Inn -- equipped with free computers, a library, and HDTV -- does a good steak sandwich and chips, I have to say. In Killin, at The Falls of Dochart Inn, I had an outstanding meal of oatmeal-crusted salmon in Drambuie sauce, with sticky toffee pudding for dessert. (If only they had let us take our food in the pub area, with the fireplace roaring behind us, rather than in the less-atmospheric dining room -- but that's picking nits.)

I can't imagine a better introduction to a place than to be welcomed by natives who warmly open their doors to a visitor, introducing him to their friends and neighbors, showing off their country to him with pride, and patiently answering his every question, no matter how inane it might sound. I'm incredibly fortunate to have this time here.

Pheromones for Scots

Yesterday, Richard Harris, his lovely partner Gill Allan, and I drove down to the town of Callander to pick up a few supplies. Gill and I were in the local whisky shop when this exchange occurred:

Gill: Look at this -- it's whisky soap.

Me: Is that the sort of thing a Scottish girl would use when she's trying to get a man?

Gill: I suppose so. She could put some on, stand in the middle of the road, and see what happens.

Me: So is it like pheromones for Scots?

Later in the car, we recounted the conversation for Richard and asked him what he thought:

Me: What do you think? Is the scent of whisky like pheromones for Scots?

Richard: Well, for discriminating Scots.

April 20, 2007

At the Red Carpet Club

Wednesday afternoon, I was in a United Red Carpet Club at Dulles International Airport, waiting for my flight to Heathrow. I had a few minutes before I needed to grab dinner, so I found an unoccupied corner, took a seat, and proceeded to log on and get some work done.

I hadn't been there long when a large group came in and sat down across from me. It consisted of one American male with a group from an Asian country -- a leader of the group (male) and three aides (one female and two male), the entire group in business attire. I kept on working, but couldn't help overhearing that the group was from Indonesia, the leader was the Indonesian Minister of Defence, and the American was an escort from the State Department, assigned to see them to their onward flight (to Rome).

The Indonesians seemed far more knowledgeable about world events than did the American. Their discussion turned to Poland at one point, and one of the aides explained to the American that the Polish Prime Minister and President are identical twins. "Really?" asked the American. The Indonesian repeated it. "Really?" he said once again. I piped in. "Yes, it's true," I said. "They're identical twins." Then, in a jokingly conspiriatorial tone, I half-whispered, "But they're kind of crazy." The Indonesians all started laughing, including the Minister. The American looked nervous and said, "Uh, he's not an official representative of the State Department." I said, "Well, I think the word The Economist used was 'unstable', actually." More laughter. More nervous looks from the State Department functionary.

(Actually, The Economist didn't use the word "unstable". What they called the Kaczyński government was "vengeful, paranoid, addicted to crises, divided and mostly incompetent" (article here). But I was close.)

I had to leave for my flight soon after that -- though not before the Indonesians nearly had to explain to the American what a blog was. Ah, civil service.

April 18, 2007

Off to Scotland

I'm off to Scotland for a week's stay with my friend Richard Harris, who recently purchased a home on the shores of Loch Voil, in the village of Balquhidder, about an hour north of Edinburgh. Our plan is to use our time together to brainstorm, hike in the surrounding hills, and drink great Scottish beer -- if I'm lucky, in about equal proportions.

April 16, 2007

The Launch of Acrobat, TED3, Monterey, 1992

I registered for the new TED.com site today, which has a personal profile section (looks like they're moving rapidly towards social networking). There's a field on the profile page for "My TED story", which led me to think about my TED experience. I couldn't fit the whole story there due to their 1,000-character limit, but here it is in its full glory.

I've been to one TED conference, TED3 in 1992. I was the product manager for Adobe Acrobat, which we launched at TED3. John Warnock gave a talk on the future of digital documents, and I did the on-stage demo.

So far, so good, and all a matter of public record.

What you might not know is that, at the time, Acrobat was still well over a year from release, and as a result, wasn't completely stable. We could open PDF documents, including fairly complex files, but we suffered from intermittent and unpredictable crashes. And I truly mean unpredictable: I could do a clean restart, launch Acrobat, and open a document with perfect results, then do another clean restart and perform exactly the same steps and get a crash. This was made worse by the fact that, as part of the demo, we wanted to show conversions of some of Richard Wurman's ACCESS guide files -- extremely complex maps and the like that were destined for press use.

Not good.

At the time, the Macintosh was our leading development platform, so we did most of our demos on it. But we also had less-advanced versions running on Windows and DOS, which we showed mostly in static form -- "look, here's the same document we showed you on the Macintosh, already open in Acrobat for Windows". So if we were going to suffer from a crash, it was going to be on the Macintosh.

At the time, Apple shipped a debugger for the Macintosh that would intercept a system error and bring up a debugger window instead of an error dialog. I had this running on my machine when I discovered the existence of a configuration file that allowed the user to set the foreground (text) and background color of the debugger, which was full-screen. I realized that if I set the foreground and background colors both to black, a system error would immediately display a blank screen.

I explained the situation to John, telling him, "If the screen goes blank and I say something like, 'It looks like we have a video feed problem, so could we please switch the projector to the Windows machine?' that means that Acrobat crashed, so please talk for a moment while I reach down and reboot the Macintosh. Also, could you not ask me to switch around too much between documents, or scroll around the really complex ones? That seems to cause problems fairly regularly." He didn't complain or criticize at all and said it wouldn't be a problem.

Now, after all that, when we went up on stage, Acrobat worked like a charm -- my debugger trick turned out to be unnecessary. Of course, John was enthusiastic and wanted to show off his baby, so he had me switching back and forth between documents, zooming, scrolling, doing everything. Not a problem in sight.

After the presentation, Richard walked up and handed me a TED3 speaker's 'TED bear', which I have to this day.

A postscript to this story is that when we showed Acrobat at a Seybold conference not long after, and ran essentially the same demo, it did crash -- and thankfully, I was still using the same debugger trick. Acrobat crashed, the screen went blank, I gave John the verbal signal, and he covered for me perfectly.

April 13, 2007

Heard in the Valley

While in Silicon Valley this week, I saw a couple of old friends who were once entrepreneurs, now venture capitalists.

Over breakfast, one said to me:

I used to be a whore. Now I'm a pimp.
He said that it was definitely better to be a pimp. I wouldn't know -- I've always been on the other side.

I had lunch with the other at Sundeck, the restaurant that sits quite literally at the center of the high technology venture investment universe -- it's in the middle of a circle of Sand Hill Road buildings filled with venture capitalists. My friend and I walked in at noon to a packed house. He turned to me and said:

You will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy.
Well played, sir.

April 12, 2007

Life Is Still Good

Waking up to the first day of a short break with my brother and sister-in-law in Austin.

Coffee and a cranberry orange scone for breakfast at Starbucks.

On a picture-perfect springtime-in-Austin day, lunch at Chuy's Hula Hut on the banks of Lake Austin -- grilled salmon tacos and a Corona Light.

Working out with my brother at Life Time Fitness -- my first look at a branch of my new gym, opening at home next month.

A dinner of smoked chipotle salmon, artichoke-feta-lemon fritters, and steamed asparagus, all picked up at the Whole Foods landmark store earlier in the day.

Dessert at Amy's, my favorite mix-in ice cream anywhere -- malted vanilla with Nutter Butters and Reese's cups for me.

Watching Casino Royale in high definition.

That's two amazingly good days in the last week -- and the days in between weren't bad.

Life is still good.

In the end, I think maybe it always is.

April 08, 2007

Life Is Good

An exit row seat with the middle seat empty on my flight from Chicago to Seattle.

A room at the new Silver Cloud Inn across from Safeco Field, upscale and a great bargain.

A beer and calamari strips while watching the end of The Masters at Pyramid Alehouse across the street.

A coffee at the original Starbucks.

Walking in off the street without reservations and nabbing a window table at Etta's Seafood, on Easter Sunday, no less.

Seared rare albacore tuna with sesame noodle cake for dinner.

Life is indeed good.

RDU-SEA-SFO-AUS-RDU

I'm off this morning for two days of meetings in Seattle, a day of meetings in San Francisco, and then four days with my brother and sister-in-law in Austin. A bit whirlwind, but I'm looking forward to all of it.

April 05, 2007

The Kora of Mount Kailash

When I wrote this entry about seeing The Police in concert this summer, I wrote that I had 119 goals in life, with 26 down, leaving 93 to go. Make that 122 goals, 26 down, and 96 to go -- I forgot visiting Nepal, visiting Tibet, and making the kora around Mount Kailash.

Mount Kailash is a holy site for multiple religions, including Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, and Bön. All these religions hold that circumambulating (circling on foot) Kailash, known as the kora, has special significance. Buddhists believe that making one kora washes away the sins of a lifetime. (They also believe that 108 kora confer instant nirvana.)

The summit of Kailash is 6,638 meters. The various religions that revere Kailash believe that to climb to its peak would be sacreligious, and it's not clear whether this has ever been done. The highest point of the kora is a pass at 5,630 meters. There is an inner kora that leads to a special pilgrimage site at 6,096 meters, Serdung Chuksum, the Cave of the Thirteen Golden Chortens. By tradition, this inner kora cannot be attempted unless one has made 13 kora (also known as the outer kora).

Luckily for those of us with busy schedules, there's a Buddhist Monopoly "get out of jail free" card. Every 12 years, during the Year of the Horse, one outer kora counts for 13, so one trip around Kailash and you get to attempt the inner kora. (There's an excerpt from a good National Geographic Adventure article on the topic here.)

According to the Chinese astrological calendar, the next Year of the Horse runs 31 January 2014 to 18 February 2015. I don't know if I'll be capable of attempting the inner kora -- even the outer kora is said to be extremely difficult. But if one were planning on going, going during the Year of the Horse would at least give the option of attempting the inner kora -- and how many people in the world can say they've been to Serdung Chuksum?

The obvious question in all this is "why?" I've long considered myself agnostic, though truth be told, I'm closer to atheism than agnosticism. If I don't believe in Buddhism, or nirvana, why make the kora? The answer for me is that I can appreciate the symbolism of a religion without accepting its core beliefs. It's why I ritually cleanse myself before entering a Shinto shrine in Japan (link here, scroll to the bottom of the page). And while I may not believe in the supernatural aspects of any religion, I have particular respect for Buddhism as a philosophy. One doesn't have to be mystical to see the principle of karma at work every single day.

So I'll go to Tibet, make the journey to Kailash, and attempt the outer kora. If I make it, I may go on to try the inner kora. And while I won't literally believe that the sins of my lifetime are being washed away, I'll appreciate the symbolism of it all. I'll admire the faithful who make the kora without North Face jackets, without Vasque boots, without LaraBars or Jetboils or Katadyns. I'll be amazed by the faithful who make the entire journey prostrate, crawling their way around their holiest peak. And I'll come back a different person.

In what way I'll come back different, I have no idea.

April 04, 2007

SFO Memories

This is such a beautiful view of SFO, photographed from a private aircraft, that I couldn't resist linking to it.

SFO at Night
As I looked at the high-resolution version (click the photo, then click on the "ALL SIZES" button), I thought of how much time I've spent in that airport over the years, and it wasn't gray and monotonous as one might expect of airport memories. Some of my memories of SFO are good ones.

In December 1980, I was stuck there for a few hours, on holiday leave from Russian studies at the Defense Language Institute, waiting for a flight to Spokane to visit my father. I had bought one of the first Sony Walkman cassette players, the TPS-L2, and spent my layover time in a large seating area in the middle of a junction between two wings (now the food court in the United departure area). At that time, most people hadn't listened to a Walkman, or even heard of one, and it's hard to remember now, but back then, we associated portable headphones with transistor radios. No one thought much of them -- we assumed anyone with them was listening to a tinny AM station.

Every so often, someone would walk up to me and ask, "Are those earphones? Are you listening to the radio?" The first few times, I'd explain what I was listening to, but after a while, I would just hand them the headphones and say, "Listen for yourself." They'd put them on, their eyes would go just a bit wide, and then they'd smile and say, "That's amazing!" And for an extroverted gadget geek like myself, that wasn't a bad way to spend five or six hours.

April 02, 2007

Postmodernist Technobabble

I was reading Richard Dawkins' review of Intellectual Impostures -- a book that, in Dawkins' words, "disrobes" postmodernism (in the philosophical and literary senses) -- when I came upon a follow-up comment by Dawkins himself pointing to the work of a Fellow at the University of Toronto, Carolyn Guertin. The abstract of her dissertation and her teaching philosophy are both must-reads. From her dissertation:

Within quantum mechanics, the science of the body in motion, the intricacies of the interiorities of mnemonic time -- no longer an arrow -- are being realized in the (traditionally) feminized shape of the body of the matrix. This is the real time realm of cyberspace where the multiple trajectories of the virtual engender a new kind of looking: disorientation as an alternative to linear perspective. Where women have usually been objects to be looked at, hypermedia systems replace the gaze with the empowered look of the embodied browser in motion in archival space. Always in flux, the shape of time's transformation is a Möbius strip unfolding time into the dynamic space of the postmodern text, into the 'unfold.' As quantum interference, the unfold is a gesture that is a sensory interval. In this in-between space, the transformance of the nomadic browser takes place; she performs the embodied knowledge acquired in her navigation of the world of the text. Quantum space in hypertexts is shaped as an irreducible knot, an entangled equation both in and out of space-time, spanning all dimensions as a node in a mnemonic system. Wanderlust is the engine driving the browser on her quest through the intricately knotted interplay of time and space in these electronic ecosystems. What the browser finds there is rapture -- an emergent state of embodied transformation in the experiential realm. What she acquires is not mastery, but agency, and an aesthetic interval of her own.
Can anyone understand this? Seriously? Either Guertin and her postmodernist colleagues are dramatically more intelligent than the rest of the human race, or this is pretentious gobbledygook, meaningless-yet-impressive-sounding nonsense -- the humanities equivalent of Star Trek technobabble ("Treknobabble"), as in 'uncoupling the Heisenberg compensators', or 'interplexing the comm systems to create phased carrier waves'.

As Dawkins writes:

Let us hope this woman is not occupying a position that might otherwise be held by a genuine scholar doing worthwhile research. It is tragic the way humanities departments have been taken over by second-rate fakes.

April 01, 2007

Republicans on Habeus Corpus

Via Andrew Sullivan comes this blog entry from Ramesh Ponnuru:

Crane says he was disappointed with Romney's answer to his question the other night. Crane asked if Romney believed the president should have the authority to arrest U.S. citizens with no review. Romney said he would want to hear the pros and cons from smart lawyers before he made up his mind. Crane said that he had asked Giuliani the same question a few weeks ago. The mayor said that he would want to use this authority infrequently.
This is staggering. Two Presidential candidates were asked a direct question about a fundamental right guaranteed to us by the Constitution -- the right to seek relief from unlawful imprisonment -- and gave negative or waffling answers. We don't have transcripts of the original conversations, but if this entry is accurate, they might have gone something like these imagined exchanges:
Crane: Mayor Giuliani, do you believe the President should have the authority to arrest US citizens with no review?

Giuliani: Yes, but I would only use this authority infrequently.

...and...

Crane: Governor Romney, do you believe the President should have the authority to arrest US citizens with no review?

Romney: I would want to hear the pros and cons from smart lawyers before making up my mind about this.

What? You would use this authority only "infrequently"? Is that supposed to make me feel better? You want to hear "the pros and cons"? What pros and cons? This is habeus corpus! It can only be suspended in case of rebellion or invasion.

As Sullivan said in commenting on this:

I never thought I'd read a post like this in America in my lifetime. Isn't this power of a sovereign to detain any citizen without charge at any time part of the reason this country was founded? And now it is simply assumed that this kind of monarchical power is fine. A country that grants its executive the power to do this is definitionally not a free country. It really is as simple as that.
I guess at this point, we're just waiting for Alberto Gonzales to call habeus corpus "quaint" and be done with it.

By the way, I have no idea what Ponnuru's stance on this is. By "Crane", I presume he means Edward Crane of the Cato Institute, and anyone from the Cato Institute would be a strong defender of habeus corpus rights. On the other hand, Ponnuru has called Democrats "The Party of Death", so who knows?