The Lead Balloon

November 26, 2022

It all began on election night.

The orange man publicly announced er… an announcement.

Predicting election results is a mug’s game, so it was thoroughly in character for the orangutan to let his cultists know, sandwiched in smirks, that there would be a big announcement the following Tuesday.

However, American voters did the unthinkable—they returned the US Senate to the Democratic Party, and almost did the same with the House of Representatives. Governors? the balance shifted from 28 (GOP) – 22 to a more even 26 – 24.

In a characteristic confirmation of unsound judgement, Trump told the nation on Tuesday, November 15th, that he would run for president in 2024. He didn’t do this with clipped, professional delivery but by launching on an endless rant worthy of your cantankerous uncle who specializes in ruining everyone’s Thanksgiving.

The Democrats didn’t say much—when you have a guy in a hole with a spade, digging furiously, why interrupt?

The Grand Old Party, however, was none too pleased with the electoral outcome—not only was the Senate lost, but the candidates that helped lose it were in some cases Trump-endorsed choices. Even before the mid-terms, the orange man came out and said he should ‘get all the credit’ for wins and ‘not be blamed at all’ for losses.

Again, this is a predictable position for a man who never took blame for anything. Not the way Russian aggression escalated, not the pointless antics with the Korean mini-nuke, not the pandemic response and mass deaths, zilch!

The orang-u-tan is part of a political class that doesn’t apologize—sorry is not part of the vocabulary. This is an elite club that has an exclusive membership, including Boris Johnson and Jair Bolsonaro.

A very young Elton John explains why politicians don’t apologize.

I struggle with people who can’t say sorry—since it’s a straightforward observation that everyone makes mistakes or gets things wrong at some time or other, then clearly politicians also do.

I find it pathetic to be unable or unwilling to apologize for behavior that misleads, hurts, or injures others, and even worse to start off by saying ‘Even though you can’t swim, I’m going to throw you in the deep end. If you survive, I’ll take the credit, if you drown you can’t possibly blame me.’

At least four Trump-endorsed Senate candidates: Oz, Bolduc, Levy, and Malloy couldn’t swim. In the House, the number was double—eight drowned. In the gubernatorial race, nine candidates sank without a trace—now that’s a whole lot not to take blame for.

The change to abortion rights is one of the factors you can blame for the Republican debacle, and there you can lay the blame squarely at the feet of new Trump-appointed judges like Amy Coney Barrett—whose appointment Trump evidently can’t be blamed for.

In passing, it’s ironic that a segment of the Republican party is so insistent about banning abortion in the U.S. Since lower-income families are more in need of local options to terminate a pregnancy, and presumably would have more challenges bringing up kids (Coney-Barrett has seven), then surely keeping abortion legal would reduce the expansion of the immigrant vote.

Over the next two years (well, one and a bit, really), the GOP has a lot to think about. Many within the party cannot countenance a Trump run—though a segment of the American public still adores him, for reasons I can’t work out.

Republican pols know very well he is a demagogue, but more importantly, they now know he’s a demagogue who cannot lead them back to power—even though he can lose them their seats.

In this crazy game of politics, with its incredibly serious consequences, the needle of the backstreet abortionist punctured the orange Trump balloon and the mid-terms watched it zigzag madly through the air, whistling its demise.

Like an ageing boxer too punch-drunk to see straight, the man doesn’t know when he’s beat.

The India Road, Atmos Fear, Clear Eyes, and Folk Tales For Future Dreamers. QR links for smartphones and tablets.

The Climes They Are-A-Changing

November 12, 2022

I gave a seminar this week for one hundred and fifty high school students.

I began by telling them I’d never spoken in a conference hall with signs announcing it was forbidden to jump—they didn’t find it amusing—perhaps all their classrooms are jumpless.

Their teacher apologized for the restlessness of the students, but actually they were very good—no one jumped and everyone listened.

I told them I accepted the invitation because they are the future, and then apologized for the appalling performance of my generation in addressing climate change—in many cases even accepting it.

When you type ‘is climate change’ into Google, the first suggestion reads ‘is climate change real’.

I tried ‘is the pope’ and ‘does the bear’, but instead of ‘is the pope Catholic, does the bear shit in the woods?’ I read ‘does the bearing straight freeze over’.

I can address that sans click.

The bearing straight does not, but the Bering Strait freezes a lot less that it used to.

Climate change isn’t on the curriculum of the 15-17 year-old science students I addressed. In the US, it is also not part of the program in many high schools.

The problem begins there—if a formal education isn’t provided, there’s a highway of hype waiting to be explored.

Why is the issue of climate change so intractable?

It’s non-linear, but in a rather subtle way. We struggle greatly with anything but gradual change.

The climate has changed dramatically over geological time—two billion years ago, in the pre-Cambrian, the Grand Canyon was underwater. sixty-five million years ago, dinosaurs vanished from the earth. So what’s the big deal?

That is! After the dinos, it took millions of years for hominids to emerge, and now we’re here, but for how long?

Climate change isn’t a big deal for the planet, it’s a big deal for humans. If the world gets too uncomfortable for us, we will disappear. How will that happen?

It’s clearly happening already—droughts, floods, messed up seasons, and rising water levels are all symptoms of this disease.

If we follow the Gaia hypothesis put forward by the late James Lovelock, the planet is fighting back. It’s as if Earth recognizes the root causes of the disorder, i.e. humans, and is therefore making it very uncomfortable for the offenders—food shortages, environmental catastrophes, and mass migrations are some of the weapons in its arsenal.

We get confused about climate and weather—humans are short-term thinkers, and because a gradual change in the climate leads to extreme shifts in weather, the signal gets eclipsed by the noise. Noise has a random component, and the weather effects are extreme—it’s perfectly possible to have an abnormally cold winter or a cooler summer although the planet is warming.

A sea level rise of three feet is enough to make most of Miami Beach disappear.

The next fallacy accepts that the climate is changing, but refuses to admit that human activities are the cause—despite the fact that the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide is the highest ever. You can’t measure atmospheric CO2 from 100,000 years ago—at least not directly—but scientists take Antarctic ice cores that are hundreds of feet long and measure the concentration of deuterium, which is a good proxy for CO2.

The real question, once we dispense with the dross, is ‘What are we prepared to do about climate change?’

Note that I’m not asking what we can do. We have an old mind for an old world, and cannot deal with global issues, especially if it means foregoing our quotidian comforts.

When gas prices go up, do you hear any cheering for less car journeys and lower greenhouse gas emissions?

How many humans would put up with a two-hour daily electricity cut so we can save energy?

The exact same considerations apply to air travel, beef consumption, and other potential pathways for mitigation.

Humans act short-term, which is how politicians win elections—no ‘good’ politician is up for a plan that only works in the medium term, long after he’s voted out for inconveniencing our daily life. The planet, on the other hand, acts long-term.

Earth’s reaction will be profound, lasting, tragic, and unforgiving.

Good job we won’t be around to see it.

The India Road, Atmos Fear, Clear Eyes, and Folk Tales For Future Dreamers. QR links for smartphones and tablets.

For Ladies Only

November 5, 2022

Reza Pahlavi, Shah of Iran, fell in 1979. His successor, the hard-line Islamic cleric Ayatollah Khomeini, set the scene for the Iran of today—by any yardstick, a miserable place for a woman to grow up.

When the radical Shia took power, they imprisoned a BBC correspondent who was accused of spying for MI6. When the journalist was finally released from the Tehran prison, he told reporters at Heathrow about his ordeal.

“Anyone who has spent time in a British public school or served in the British Army can never feel totally out of place in a third world prison.”

Since I spent a couple of years in one of those cherished British institutions, I have to agree.

During my time there, I knew a handful of Persian kids—obviously pro-regime, children from wealthy families that were clearly supporters of the Shah.

I then witnessed the regime change and the taking of the US embassy—at the time, there continued to be an intake of Persian (now Iranian) kids to US universities. One night I came out of a bar to see a brand new BMW flipped on its roof—some American kids had upturned the car in revenge for the hostage taking.

The vehicle belonged to a wealthy Persian student—the following weekend he bought another one.

Through the decades, the Islamic regime has brutally enforced its stranglehold on the nation, exorcising any semblance of freedom and plunging society back into the dark ages.

The youngsters who once shouted death to the Shah have reaped the fruits of their toil—students as I was then, who are now fathers and mothers, possibly grandparents.

Islam is not kind to women, no matter what the narrative is.

Steppenwolf are now almost unknown, but I highly recommend them—one of the classic bands of the late 1960s.

Step by step, Iranian governments have consigned increasingly draconian measures into law.

The Islamic Republic initially set the age of marriage for ‘women’ to an eye-watering nine years, reducing it from fifteen, which had been approved in Article 23 of the 1974 Family Protection Act. In 2002, parliament raised the age to thirteen.

However, special circumstances put forward by the father or paternal grandfather can reduce this age. Furthermore, in what seems cynical to say the least, the definition of one year shifted from solar (365 days) to lunar—twelve lunations, each lasting twenty-nine and a half days, i.e. 354 days. By gaining 11 days over 12 years, girls can be married off a few months earlier.

After a girl gets married, trouble starts in earnest. If she wanted to get divorced, Sharia law required her to go before a judge to present her case—now she can get a divorce if her husband is imprisoned for over five years, mentally ill, physically abusive, or a drug addict.

How about a guy? He just has to decide to walk away, no reason required.

Article 1133 of the Civil Code: “A man can divorce his wife whenever he wishes to do so.”

When the couple do separate, the woman has custody of the kids until their seventh birthday, at which point custody goes to the father. However, if the woman remarries, she automatically loses custody—even if her ex is dead.

But of course there’s many a happy marriage (or even an unhappy one) that ends only with the death of a spouse—and there also the widow gets the short straw: she is entitled only to an eighth of the husband’s possessions.

Guys? When they are widowed… you guessed it, they get all the dosh.

Is this all wrong? Of course. What could be done? Many things, but not in a radical Islamic state. Put another way…

Philosophy poses questions that have no answer, religion provides answers that cannot be questioned.

The India Road, Atmos Fear, Clear Eyes, and Folk Tales For Future Dreamers. QR links for smartphones and tablets.

Where Are You Now?

October 30, 2022

The bunker is dank, the cement walls harsh and forbidding. The entrance is down a flight of steps that doesn’t seem deep enough to protect us from the MK82 and M117 bombs dropped by the B-52, aka BUFF—Big Ugly Fat Fuckers.

“Forty people can take shelter here,” the lady says—I’ve wangled a private tour of the bunker where Joan Baez hid on Christmas Eve, 1972, as the bombers flew overhead. In a small room, my guide turns on a tape—sirens moan and children cry, a piano tinkles in the background. A Vietnamese voice tells everyone to put on their helmets.

“…that the most sacred of Christmas prayers was shattered by the bombs,” Baez recites, before breaking into song. Where Are You Now My Son? she asks, singing of a Vietnamese woman whose boy lies buried beneath the rubble.

The setting is the famous Hotel Metropole in Hà Nội—Vietnamese is a tonal language, like Cantonese and Thai, but like Bahasa it uses the Roman alphabet. That means the tonal vowels are represented by diacritical marks—a single vowel can have two different accents, one related to the vowel itself, which counts as a different letter, and one for the tone.

The hotel hosted the likes of Somerset Maugham and Graham Greene—I reread The Quiet American, a much more powerful experience in Vietnam—more recently, the Metropole hosted the 2019 summit between micronuke and the orangutan.

I remember the Vietnam War surprisingly well—partly because I listened to shortwave broadcasts from Radio Hanoi—but the Vietnam War Remnants Museum quickly showed me how little I knew.

A massive Chinook graces the courtyard of the museum. My first thought was how well kept the chopper is, despite the tropical weather—a tribute to Boeing manufacturing.

The courtyard is full of American hardware—a Huey, an F-4 Phantom, a Skyraider, and the enormous Chinook. There’s a conspicuous absence of Vietcong materiel, although they had Russian MiGs and SAMs aplenty. I didn’t realize the US was dragged into the war by the French, first as arms suppliers and advisers, and then as actual troops.

Air force general Curtis Lemay, who I’d read about in the biography of Joseph ‘Vinegar Joe’ Stillwell, had some choice words to say about the enemy.

They’ve got to draw in their horns and stop their aggression, or we’re going to bomb them back into the Stone Age.

The war museum omits any mention of Vietcong atrocities—truth is the first casualty of war. But it shows some impressive images, and equally impressive numbers—the US dropped five million tonnes of bombs during World War II, but almost triple that in Vietnam—over fourteen million, living up to Lemay’s dictum. The cost of the war was six hundred and eighty billion dollars, double the second world war, and had about one third of the casualties, but only an eight of the deaths—this attests to the fact that it was an air war.

One of the key weapons of the North Vietnamese was art. Many posters, some of which rich in both humor and irony, told the story of American invasion.

Air wars are convenient but unwinnable, as was found by the Luftwaffe in England, the Americans in Vietnam and Afghanistan, and now the Russians in the Ukraine. Inevitably, there are boots laid on the ground, and that’s when the body bags pile up.

One of the most interesting aspects of the war were the correspondents—many died, the most famous perhaps being Robert Capa, but the one that impressed me most was the Englishman Larry Burrows, who photographed for Life Magazine.

And while we’re on the subject, here’s a tribute to The Killer, one of the fathers of Rock n’ Roll—I bet Great Balls of Fire was heard often in ‘Nam. That said, I found no evidence, but I did spot this.

Burrows left behind the most courageous quote of the war.

“I will do what is required to show what is happening. I have a sense of the ultimate-death. And sometimes I must say, ‘To hell with that.'”

The India Road, Atmos Fear, Clear Eyes, and Folk Tales For Future Dreamers. QR links for smartphones and tablets.

Arabs and Harrods

October 25, 2022

I’m sitting at a departure gate in Qatar at two in the morning. Around me are a multitude of Vietnamese, yakking excitedly.

Whenever I go through Doha, it’s always the middle of the night, but the airport is a gigantic, pulsing, sleepless place.

Like most of the Gulf states, the engine that moves Qatar is immigration—this is where the poor of Asia come to work, whether it’s building football stadiums or checking boarding passes.

The lines above were written just before I got on a plane—one week ago—and I’m picking up again in Saigon.

Every fishing village has a temple to protect the men who go out to sea—across the water it’s called the Nan Hai, or South China Sea, but you’d get into a lot of trouble calling it that here.

It’s the rainy season, and last night the skies opened, as if Buddha himself drew the curtains to let the bolts of lightning strike. I sat in a restaurant on the Mekong, watching the water hyacinth drift by in clumps and mounds as thunder crashed all around. The ceiling above was corrugated zinc and I wondered just how good a lightning conductor separated me from a charcoal grill.

Vietnam is very different from its neighbors—people here are very focused and it took me just a day to understand why so many products are Made in Vietnam—yesterday I went into an office at midday and found it completely empty, only to discover the place was almost full but the workers were snatching a post-lunch snooze under their desks.

Although the official name is Ho Chi Minh city, everyone sees it as Saì Gòn. As soon as you get into town, you know you’re somewhere special.

Scooters have a dedicated lane where they ride six abreast, but occasionally the cement walls part and a swarm of Vespa clones descends on you from a cross-street.

A few tunes from Vietnam’s Bob Dylan, Trinh Cong Son. Unlike his erstwhile namesake, this Bob Son does not have ‘a voice like sand and glue.’

Saigon has a well-deserved fun-town reputation going right back to the French days and it certainly catered to US servicemen during the Vietnam War—when the GIs weren’t migrating to Bangkok R&R in Soi Cowboy.

I was told by a friend that the Vietnamese were unassuming, friendly people, small in stature and big in heart. But it is worth remembering they defeated both the Chinese and the Americans.

“And don’t forget the French,” I said.

She smiled. “Oh, even the English managed that!”

The India Road, Atmos Fear, Clear Eyes, and Folk Tales For Future Dreamers. QR links for smartphones and tablets.

Snake Eyes

October 9, 2022

In 1977, a Polish immigrant called Zbigniew Brzezinski became President Carter’s National Security Adviser.

Zbig, as he was known in the US, was a diplomat’s son—Thadeusz Brzeziński was posted to Germany in 1931, and three year old Zbig spent the next four years in a country that was undergoing intense nazification.

But the actions of Stalin’s Soviet Union and its ruthless occupation of Eastern Europe were the formative drivers of Brzezinski’s ideology—the boy grew into a man possessed of a deep hatred of communism.

When Brzezinski joined the US government, he set out on a mission to dismember the USSR. His first move was to set up the Nationalities Working Group, dedicated to inflaming ethnic tensions, particularly in Islamic nations—the Soviet Union had six such ‘stans’: Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kirghyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan.

Along the way, he added one more ‘stan’—a nation that is synonymous with violence, oppression, and terror.

In the late seventies, Afghanistan was doing well—it was self-sufficient in food and showed promise politically—the troubled nation was heading for democracy. Enter Brzezinski. The Polish russophobe convinced the peanut farmer turned president to pile weapons into Afghanistan, destabilizing the USSR’s southern border.

Zbig was busy laying a trap—if he could get the Russians to fight in Afghanistan, his aim was to mire them in an endless war. As the Soviet Union saw increasing evidence of threats to their territorial stability, Brezhnev ordered the Red Army to invade.

Let me know if anything sounds familiar.

Not a weapon from the Afghan war, but a vintage vibrator from 1908 used to cure depression in ladies—the tool, if you excuse the pun, is on display at a Venetian restaurant east of the Piazza San Marco—this picture honors a promise made in an earlier article, Diletto‘.

On Christmas Day 1979, the USSR invaded its southern neighbor—the Russians stayed for a decade, during which the US and Saudi Arabia systematically increased their aid to the mujahiddin.

Perhaps the major game changer was the shoulder-fired Stinger missile—the toll it took on the Soviet MI-24 ‘Hind’ helicopter gunships is one of the legends of the war.

The effect of the Afghan war on the Soviet economy was earth-shattering.

The war ended in February 1989, and by early November the Berlin Wall had fallen.

Two years later the Soviet Union imploded.

Zbigniew Brzezinski’s trap was complete, although the man in charge back home was now Ronald Reagan.

Fast forward to early 2022—once again, Russia feels compelled to attack one of its neighbors, but this time it cannot conquer the country. Instead, the war becomes an orgy of sophisticated weaponry, and the Ukrainians bite the bear’s ankles and calves—now they’re dangerously close to the thighs.

Although I tend to take conspiracy theories—and especially conspiracy theorists—with an extremely large pinch of salt, I can’t help wondering if we’re watching a re-run of the same movie, and if we are…

Who wrote the script?

The India Road, Atmos Fear, Clear Eyes, and Folk Tales For Future Dreamers. QR links for smartphones and tablets.

Venezia la Serenissima

October 2, 2022

I arrived in Venice and the rain poured down. The night was black, the canal was choppy, and there were dark mutterings of acqua alta as I clambered aboard the vaporetto.

I’d spent four hours behind the wheel, including a pit stop in Bologna where I got soaked buying wine—in northern Italy, there is some contempt for the offerings of the south—after all, these are the lands of Sangiovese, Chianti, Amarone, and of course Barolo.

The new prime minister may be a neo-fascist cantaloupe with a name that rhymes with minestrone, but honestly? No one here gives a shit. Unsurprising, since this is the seventieth government since WWII, or World War Eye Eye, as a friend of mine is fond of saying.

I’m sitting in an airline lounge and the Venetians are mobbing the drinks counter—as I write, I hear a litany of requests for espresso, Aperol, Prosecco, and an endless refrain of prego. This lust for libations is contagious—all around, Germans, Brits, and Iberians join the fun.

I haven’t been here in five years, during which the city shut down, gagged by the mascherina—only Italians could turn a pandemic into a fashion statement.

Even in good weather, getting into Venice is a royal pain in the ass—but the most serene republic has a way of taking you in her arms—in five minutes you’re in awe of… everything.

How can you resist the combo of anti-Mafia banner and lagoon police as you stroll over the Rialto bridge?

Today’s Venice is once again full of tourists—thirty million was the annual intake before COVID. Germans, Americans, and a smattering of other folks from Western Europe.

Conspicuous by their absence are the Chinese, still smitten by the Xi Jinping pandemic policy, and the Russians, enslaved to a latter-day psychopath—so at least there’s only the Italian Mafia to worry about, though the Prada and Gucci stores are aching for the oligarch gold.

The stop-start queue between Rialto and San Marco is governed by Google Maps, but at least no one gets poked in the eye by Chinese selfie-sticks.

The food is as good as ever, and the locals are cheery and friendly—tourism is the life-blood of the city, although the Venetians mainly commute on the vaporetto from Mestre and the surrounding suburbs—there’s no way they can afford the cost of living in this town!

As I trudge through the rainy alleys, duly equipped with an Indian-sold umbrella, in search of a bit of pesce and a glass or two of Ripasso, I chance upon a jazz bar—inside, I hear an indifferent version of Johnny B. Goode—someone thought it sounded good with a swing beat.

A classic Chuck Berry line comes into my head.

I got no kick against modern jazz, unless they try to play it too darn fast. I lose the beauty of the melody, until it sounds just like a symphony…

So here’s a masterclass from the best guitarist you never heard of.

She only did three tours with the late Michael Jackson.

The India Road, Atmos Fear, Clear Eyes, and Folk Tales For Future Dreamers. QR links for smartphones and tablets.

Knight Moves

September 25, 2022

Chess got sexy during the pandemic when Queen’s Gambit was released by Netflix.

Gambit comes from the Italian word gambetto, meaning to trip someone up. Leg in Italian is gamba—in Spanish and Portuguese it means prawn, which means that the popular Spanish dish gambas al ajillo literally means garlic legs—but I digress.

The term gambit was defined in 1561 by Ruy López, a Spanish catholic priest—it represents a sacrifice made by one player in order to gain a strategic advantage—but it is documented as a chess opening at least since 1490, around the time Bartolomeu Dias returned from his voyage to the Cape of Good Hope.

Ruy López ater beating Leonardo di Bona. Sitting opposite the priest is King Philip II of Spain, later to become Philip I of Portugal.

Through the centuries, chess remained a game where two opponents pit their wits against each other—may the best man win. I chose my phrasing carefully—I can feel my female readers narrowing their eyes at this outrageous sexism.

In all my life, I’ve only ever met a handful of women who played chess, which has always perplexed and saddened me—chess is a Machiavellian game, and ladies are at least as scheming and unscrupulous as men—the fair sex should be extremely good at chess.

The gender statistics are awful: there are at present one thousand seven hundred and twenty-one chess grandmasters, of which only thirty-nine are women—about two percent.

So, yes… for millennia—since the VIth century, in fact—chess has been a man’s game.

But in 1996, all that changed—that was the year Russian world champion Gary Kasparov was beaten by a computer. The machine was called Deep Blue, and it was manufactured by IBM—it now seems that the reason Kasparov was beaten was because of a software bug—the computer got confused and made a sacrifice—a gambit.

Nowadays, a fifty buck app can beat a grandmaster—I have a free app on my cellphone that regularly trounces me—it’s downright insulting.

If you don’t play chess, you probably can’t associate the game to emotion—but you’re wrong, there is a palpable tension between the players and body language counts—and tension leads to error.

Despite the fact that humans are now whipped by machines, we still organize tournaments that pit two players against each other—but now machines are getting in on the act.

Top players all use chess simulators to practice and improve—a bit like pilots use flight simulators or tennis players use ball machines.

But machines have as usual been appropriated by humans to dirty work—again, I choose my words carefully, for the latest tale involves the use of vibrating anal beads.

If you google those three words you’re led to sites touting ‘bondage for beginners’ and other astounding pursuits—and since any kind of colonic insertion is anathema to me, I have so far focused only on beads used for external adornment.

To avoid being plagued by anal advertising after spending a few minutes researching this stuff, I turned to DuckDuckGo, a faithful friend for private browsing—recommended.

My findings are multiple, much like the orgasms that are apparently enhanced if you like to wear your beads on the inside. Amazon sells them—I’m always amazed they don’t sell wine, there’s a Mormon vibe there—and they caution you to ensure you check your outlets for voltage, like the good stewards they are.

Magnus Carlsen is the current world chess champion. Recently, the defeat of the Norwegian grandmaster by 19-year old U.S. player Hans Niemann sparked a vibrant (sorry) debate on whether the young American was using anal beads to receive instructions on his moves.

Strenuous denials have ensued, but whatever the outcome, social media embraced the story—and suddenly added an erotic dimension to dull image of top-level chess matches.

Whether or not the vibrating beads were the weapon of choice, the key is that humans are using AI to cheat at chess in much the same way they use steroids to enhance performance in athletics.

Will chess players need to be placed in a Faraday cage to electronically insulate them, or subjected to a compulsory body cavity search?

AI has opened up a new can of worms that cross-cuts many competitive areas previously the province of the human mind, and can now be ‘computer-assisted’—card games, board games, memory and knowledge quiz shows, the best angle or place on the court to place a tennis ball—the limit is human ingenuity and our unsurpassed capacity to do evil.

From a software bug to an anal plug, the road to cyborg is here.

The India Road, Atmos Fear, Clear Eyes, and Folk Tales For Future Dreamers. QR links for smartphones and tablets.

Little Britain

September 18, 2022

I just took off from the United Kingdom’s flagship airport—tomorrow, Heathrow will alter flight paths to avoid disturbing the procession leading Elizabeth II to her final resting place in Windsor palace, so flight chaos will be de rigeur.

I came over on a whistlestop tour—I was only in England one full day—but I depart saddened by the country’s predicament. Instead of ‘Glorious Britain’, ‘Cool Britannia’, ‘Brexit freedoms’, and all the other bollocks dished out by politicians and the media, I mostly saw a nation frozen in time, its citizens living in a make-believe world where nobody does it better.

I drove to a small town in Kent to attend a wedding—a church service followed by a reception—which in the UK is bizarrely called a breakfast, even though this meal began at six in the evening.

The trip down was arduous—not due to the distance but because of bank holiday traffic on a Friday afternoon. England has a tradition of calling any holiday a bank holiday, with the exception of Christmas Day and a couple of others.

This means the queen’s funeral tomorrow is a bank holiday Monday—wisely, I escaped a day early and am thirty thousand feet above the confusion—leaving just as all the pols arrive for the funeral. When the Met, as the London cops are called, describes it as the largest operation in their history, you really want to be eight miles high and heading south.

To get to my destination I had to drive down the M25 freeway—driving (an optimistic word) around London floods back memories of my close friend Russell, who died of cancer in early 2018. He was poleaxed by something called signet ring cell carcinoma—in five weeks he was dead.

I’d never heard of this cancer, but believe me, it has my full respect—if pancreatic cancer is a killer, this one is a KGB assassin.

Russ called the M25 the world’s biggest car park—I’ve been ‘driving’ it for decades, and it’s still one giant parking lot. My friend’s sense of humor was drier than a New York martini—one time he picked me up at Heathrow—doing seven miles an hour eastbound, he observed, “…bit of a racetrack here today”.

Both outbound and this morning—it has a half century of congestion that no amount of antihistamines can cure—many cars had only the driver, so the US car pool lane would be a great idea, but an American invention would not do at all, dahling.

When I got to my hotel, I discovered my room was located on the fourth floor, but the elevator was missing. There was in fact no concern at all for any disabled guests.

In all respects, the hotel resembled the classic Fawlty Towers British comedy series.

I reminded the receptionist that in the old John Cleese series, older people would occasionally die due to various mishaps such as climbing ten flights of stairs, and it would be a great shame for their establishment to re-enact the script.

My quip was wasted on the staff—they are now all Brits, presumably as a consequence of Brexit—the more service-minded contingent of southern Europeans, Poles, Czechs, and the like has departed.

I wasn’t struck by any desire to provide a service or explore the finer points of the term ‘hospitality’—my room’s shower was incapable of competently dispensing hot water, the freezing room reflected the challenges British people have in paying their gas bills, and the road accessing the car park was cut off at 9:30 this morning due to a race—no one warned any of the guests…

The wedding ‘breakfast’ took place in a castle—a rather grand setting in the beautiful British countryside—a plaque outside sported the gold stars of the European Union, whose regional development fund contributed to the building’s restoration.

Kent is a bastion of Brexit, so the irony is not lost—in keeping with signs in my room advising that ‘the radiator can get extremely hot’, when they should have told me that it can get extremely cold!

The fast-track security line at Heathrow couldn’t get passengers past the barcode reader gate because the queue was five rows abreast—I expected casket-viewing to be imminent—and as I reached the checkpoint after a forty-minute wait, a sign proudly informed me that Heathrow fast track was a world-class experience. Unlike Miami, Lisbon, and many other airports, in Heathrow, ‘world class’ means liquids in plastic bags and laptops out, further delaying everyone.

It’s this arrogance, patently detuned from reality, that stops Britain making the changes it needs to regain its position as a first-world country.

The queen was much-loved, to the extent that ordinary citizens felt the need to write poems mourning her passing, and Jacob Rees-Mogg, aka the sinister minister, proposed that Britain return to its former imperial glory by er… becoming imperial.

I don’t mean he intends to reconquer the entire commonwealth—even he’s not that dense—but that he feels the urge to roll back Britain’s decimal system of weights and measures to pre-1969.

For a minister regurgitated from Victorian times, the return to pounds, ounces, gallons, and gills, is only natural—part of the Brexit freedoms, dontcha know.

In truly democratic spirit, this enlightened mind asked the public to decide between the imperial system or the imperial system with metric sub-titles—the third option, i.e. whether a metric system should remain in place, was not part of the list—perhaps three choices would confuse the great British public.

The French opted for the decimal system in the late XVIIIth century and a movement for decimalization began in Britain in 1841—it took well over one hundred years to accept that a system based on multiples of ten was preferable to one predicated on twelve pence to a shilling, twenty shillings to a pound—but twenty-one for a guinea—sixteen ounces to the pound, and fourteen pounds to a stone.

And don’t get me started on spirits dispensed in multiples of one sixth of a gill—all sounds a bit fishy to me.

Many things are done better elsewhere in Europe, in North America, and other parts of the world, but Britain is unable to accept this—to do so would somehow imply that Brits are a lesser people, which would be outrageous.

Of course, that assumption is total nonsense—nations should profit from each other’s wisdom rather than follow a course of enlightened autism.

But how can you find a cure if you can’t find a problem?

The India Road, Atmos Fear, Clear Eyes, and Folk Tales For Future Dreamers. QR links for smartphones and tablets.

Dumbing Down

September 11, 2022

Some books I read slowly and some I devour.

Humans are natural classifiers—we love pigeon-holing. He’s an idiot, she’s beautiful, a naturally happy baby, that dog was born angry… it’s how we roll.

Some people never read books—take the orangutan—in fact when you look at that pile of classified papers strewn over the carpet, you wonder how many light years it would take for those materials to be read. They’re pretty much his equivalent of a presidential library.

Others read books occasionally, some feel they should read regularly, so there’s always a book—what book are you reading at the moment?

Into the last pigeonhole go people like me who read various books concurrently—some apace. Ray Kurzweil’s book ‘The Age of Spiritual Machines’ is one of my slow books. Anne Applebaum’s ‘Red Famine’ is another, and Alvy Ray Smith’s ‘A Biography of the Pixel’ is yet another.

For different reasons.

Applebaum because the horrors comrades Lenin and Stalin committed to the Ukraine in the first half of the XXth century are worse than what the current dictator ending in ‘in’ is doing in the first half of the XXIst—I just can’t read it at one sitting—it’s too brutal.

Alvy Ray Smith because the parable of the pixel has a lot of math in it, and although I read a lot professionally, this kind of reading (and writing) should be both hobby and relaxation. The Pixel is a brilliant book, and the history of images, video, movies, and Pixar is compelling, but it is a journey.

Kurzweil is a futurist, inventor, and deep thinker. One of his big ideas is the singularity—a point when machines surpass humans in intelligence, which opens up the wriggly, elusive, and stinky can of worms called Artificial Intelligence.

AI is a recurring topic of mine and an integral part of my new book, The Hourglass—yes, I’ve finished it, after six years work—well, there’s an epilogue left to write, and that will happen later today.

I have very mixed feelings about AI—it’s the classic case of the sorcerer’s apprentice. We don’t know where we’re going, but we’re pushing on. It’s kind of weird—when humans emerged from prehistory, other animals must have thought, ‘These dudes don’t stand a chance.’

Elephants, lions, gorillas, wolves, and eagles did a two-minute threat assessment and concluded, ‘Look at these little rodents scurrying around. They can’t run, jump, trample, fight, or fly. I wonder if they even taste good.

Ever since that trivial underestimation by the entire animal kingdom, courtesy of a bizarrely brilliant brain, the opposable thumb, and tool development, we have engaged in controlling every other life form on the planet through domestication, mastication, and extermination.

In the case of AI, we seem inordinately keen to develop our new masters, and are well on the way to do so. This is Kurzweil’s singularity—he predicts it will occur by 2048—a mere quarter-century from now, or the generation time for humans.

In practice this means that any child born today will be subjugated by machines by the time they become an adult.

We see AI at work every minute of the day, for both good and bad—it helps simplify tedious tasks, improves medicine, grants access to knowledge… and replaces jobs that can be well performed by humans with impersonal and remote interaction.

I have speculated that humans will never be dominated because we are just too evil—we’ll never manage to make machines that nasty.

But there’s another side to AI that doesn’t work at all—it relates to ambiguity and interpretation, and of course that dovetails with humor.

Fallacious argument—not to be confused with fellatious argument—is one example.

The duchess has a beautiful ship but she has barnacles on her bottom.

This classic fallacy only works because in English ships are female, and it is quoted in guides for better writing, but humans can of course tell the difference—AI could analyze the statement and conclude that a barnacle is a marine crustacean—it would attribute a low probability to the assumption that the duchess regularly parked her ass in seawater, allowing the free-floating barnacle larvae to settle, review anti-fouling literature in the context of navigation, and draw the correct conclusion. A human would smile at the ludicrous statement and move on in a millisecond.

About ten years ago, researchers pointed out that simple questions whose answers are evident to humans give AI a run for their money.

Do alligators sew?

How long does it take a wolf to bake a cake?

Do newts play piano?

Can a ridgeback strum chords?

The above are my versions—Google made a pig’s ear of all the replies and the images it returned when answering that last question are dumb.

The most interesting features of this Google search are (i) that the global search showed no relevant hits and only produced a half-page of images; and (ii) there is no connection between dog and guitar. I called the file ridgeback rock to throw AI off the scent. Proper AI would suggest I’m taking the piss.

And yet, my last question is a refinement of ‘can dogs play guitar?’, a question any playful four-year old might pose. And if you said yes—I would, explaining dogs do that by squatting, extending their (fretboard) tail across their body and strumming with their right paw (unless they’re left-handed)— the child would giggle and tell you you’re teasing. Duh.

Oh, and FYI dogs never use thumbpicks.

But AI could explore the fact that ridgebacks are dogs and a chord is played on a stringed instrument such as a ukelele, mandolin, or guitar. The lack of association between dogs and musical instruments might give the computer a hint that I was taking the piss.

Incidentally, if you ask Google: Can cats take the piss?

It comes back with piffle such as ‘is my cat urinating inappropriately?

My deepest sympathy to folks who wander through life asking those sorts of questions.

Researchers into the dumb side of AI formulated ambiguous questions such as:

Joan made sure to thank Susan for all the help she had received. Who had received the help?

a) Joan
b) Susan

or

Sam tried to paint a picture of shepherds with sheep, but they ended up looking more like golfers. What looked like golfers?

a) The shepherds
b) The sheep

It tickles me particularly to imagine sheep looking like golfers—maybe they stole the crook.

Such questions, which are classified linguistically as anaphora, are AI kryptonite.

One of the foremost proponents of AI is IBM—forever embarrassed when its poster child Watson told Jeopardy that Toronto was a US city.

Perhaps they should have called it Sherlock.

Watson, I mean, not Toronto.

The India Road, Atmos Fear, Clear Eyes, and Folk Tales For Future Dreamers. QR links for smartphones and tablets.


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