Archive for the ‘Finance’ Category

Tinderella

March 26, 2023

Now that social media has become a weapon in the fight for world dominance between the USA and China, the gloves are off—not that folks are listening, they’re far more concerned that their favorite apps might be struck off.

The exchanges in the TikTok congressional hearings this week were of historical significance—a deluge of accusations and rebuttals that left both sides unmoved.

There is no doubt in my mind that any company registered in China—a country that nominally advocates a command economy fitting to its Marxist-Leninist roots—is beholden to government.

Just as any company in the USA that has strategic interest is beholden to its government.

Google is a good example: since 2012, it manages email for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), a federal agency with 25,000 staff.

The Google Cloud is now widely used by the US government, as is AWS (Amazon Web Services). There is equally no doubt in my mind that Google and Amazon are part of the US national security infrastructure—although it will be far easier for the Chinese government to tap into data from a company registered in the Middle Kingdom than the US equivalent.

Since I think social media is a pervasive force of evil—in many ways it’s the dark side of the internet—I find it amazing that the nefarious consequences are not more obvious to users.

Boasting is part of human nature—more so when people are insecure or immature. Much of the pain on social media is self-inflicted, from drunk dicpics to humble brag.

To make things worse, there are whole essays out there telling you how to photograph your penis. Here is one of the more amusing contributions.

A dick pic is like meatloaf: It has a pretty bad rap, but when composed correctly and served consensually, it can be delicious.

So from the tool who sends his tool to the office WhatsApp group when he’s blitzed at 3 am to the girl who shares a pic of her dog and accidentally includes her vagina’s reflection in the bathroom mirror to the idiot watching porn on Zoom while sharing a work screen… they walk among us.

And then there’s third party shit—soooo predictable. The disgruntled bedmate, the high school kid showing off his girlfriend’s tits to the guys… the list is long, imaginative, cruel, and horribly persistent.

As school or college morphs into job, all this crap comes back to byte you (sorry) in the butt—the web has plenty of companies dedicated to finding out (all) about you. PC Magazine did a review of those options a couple of years ago.

If I was applying for a job, the first thing I would do is get someone I trust to contract a review, so I could find out the worst before the interview. If only I hadn’t done that stag night in Vilnius…

But the big brother stuff is what we miss out—the systematic harvesting of information by the corporations who own the apps.

The TikTok CEO is called Shou Zi Chew—his name (周受资) in pinyin is Zhōu Shòuzī—the ‘Chew’ bit is just an effort to get Americans to pronounce his family name properly.

His ‘chewing’ this week by the congressional committee was a display of politeness and rational argument from the CEO and blatant xenophobia from some committee members. Zhou was repeatedly cut off and insulted, as both Democrat and Republican lawmakers catered to their base and the elephant waltzed unhindered in the room.

Facebook—on record as saying that pre-teens are a ‘valuable but untapped audience’—gets a free pass. Likewise, Instagram, Twitter, the orangutan’s TRUTH social… it’s a long and tedious list.

TikTok is a problem, along with all the other social media platforms—if America bans TikTok, the next day TikTak, TokTik, and TukTuk will emerge, all proudly made in the USA and all selling your location, age, friends, hobbies, purchases, vibes, and vices to all comers.

Wired magazine concludes that the TikTok hearing reveals congress is the problem. I couldn’t agree more.

The US can sacrifice the sino-scapegoat all it wants, but the enemy is within. So is the solution, much like gun control.

In Europe, privacy is a four-letter word.

GDPR.

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

Oops, I Did It Again

March 18, 2023

I wonder if some angst-filled teen will wander in here in the misguided hope that Britney Spears may be lurking in the undergrowth.

Depart, ye, be gone! For our notions are not your emotions, we come hither to reflect on the human condition that is known as greedity—a mythical monster that is half greed and half stupidity.

That’s right, this week we did it again.

The problem is ‘Oops’ doesn’t cut it—we are fully cognizant of the consequences of poor financial management, we have tools in place (but clearly not the governance) to prevent financial debacles like the collapse of Silicon Valley Bank, and yet… we did it again.

My novel Atmos Fear is set in the period of the Lehman Bros. collapse, and although the core of the story is about planetary change driven by technology—a slight change in the acceleration of gravity, the last physical force that remains a mystery to physicists—there is a lot in the book also about the financial world.

So, the banking system, stock market, and the wider public suddenly became aware that a California bank, which by virtue of the pandemic had grown into the sixteenth-largest US bank, was in deep shit.

The bank was special, because unlike retail banks that have many small depositors, it had relatively few, very large accounts—tech companies that piggy-backed the pandemic. Reuters mentions Roku, Buzzfeed, Alkami, and Trustpilot as examples.

That meant that the loss of confidence in the bank triggered a run by large clients—the bank’s liquidity vanished. Why did an apparently solid bank sublimate?

The immediate reason was that it could only meet the withdrawal requirements by selling assets, which were largely invested in long-term US government bonds.

Since bonds have a fixed rate of return, when inflation goes up, bond values go down. If a ten-year bond has a two percent return and you own a thousand dollars of bonds, you earn twenty bucks per year, two hundred over the decade, and at the end you get your grand back.

But you have to wait ten years.

When inflation increases, as it has been doing, companies and governments borrow money—issue bonds—with higher remuneration rates, so your 2% bond looks pretty sad.

Bonds are bought and sold like anything else and the only way you can get your money back quickly is by selling your thousand dollars of 2% bonds for less, possibly a lot less. Cinderella has morphed into the ugly duckling.

As always, time and money have an intimate relationship—and usually a non-linear one.

So here we have a perfect storm. Inflation goes up—patently obvious to anyone who pays bills—interest rates rise to control it. Bond prices go down, particularly for those with long-term maturity. Folks are saturated with pandemic domesticity—they want to travel, eat out, dance, beach, socialize, socialize, socialize, make up for all that lost time.

Closet digitalia, underwear Zoom, and virtual vicariousness have quickly lost their appeal—not overnight, but not over years either. How quickly words like confinement, quarantine, and—yes—covid, have vanished from our thoughts, words, and deeds.

US inflation between 1914 (start of the First World War) and 2022 (‘official’ end of the COVID 19 pandemic).

Firms that catered to our enforced domesticity suddenly let go thousands of employees. All that tech suddenly replaced by analog pursuits like water parks, rock concerts, and football games.

All those checks and balances put in place, the buzzwords—too big to fail, too fig to bail, yaddayaddayah…

Before the SVB collapse, Moody’s gave it an A1 rating, according to Reuters. After the bank collapsed, credit ratings were slashed to Caa2—presumably there is no C-r-a-p rating.

So, ratings agencies totally missed the boat on this one—who knew? Banking regulators also, it would seem. And this is where the greedity comes in—the sector understands these issues— they are not unknown unknowns, they are known knowns.

Since the FDIC only insures up to two hundred fifty thousand dollars per deposit, the US government came in to bail out the bank—the same day, tech shares soared on the US stock markets, a run that still has legs—sprint, ye lemmings…

The whole thing is shocking in its lack of foresight—we’re used to economic predictions based on the rear-view mirror rather than the crystal ball, but this collapse is a financial crisis—eminently predictable.

Much more interesting, but very dark, is the historical macroeconomic picture—and my articles are rooted in history.

Every time in the past hundred years that the world suffered major economic shocks, inflation sky-rocketed. You see it after the two world wars, the oil wars of the 1970s, and the recent pandemic—with a regional-cum-European-cum-world war thrown in the mix.

And after each inflation peak, there are rate hikes to control the beast, and far-reaching economic consequences as ordinary people despair of the gap between earnings and living costs.

Strikes, job losses, extreme social discontent, and civil unrest are the handmaids of despair.

Those presents plunge politicians from pedestals and promote pundits of populism.

There is much more to come.

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

Universal Exports

January 15, 2023

The island of São Vincente is a place of culture—music, dance, gastronomy—the performing arts.

The locals quickly tell you that St. Vincent is the soul of the ten-island archipelago, and I suspect they’re right. The influence of the legendary singer Cesária Évora is pervasive—a huge wall near the harbor projects her image to the nation—and to the sailors that abound in the bars and restaurants dotted on the seafront.

Any country that projects a singer as its emblem, rather than the face of some erstwhile dictator, is clearly on the right track.

Despite her international projection, Cesária Évora always spent a couple of months each year in Mindelo. One of her favorite activities was cooking for her island friends and visitors who showed up at her house.

And yet, this is a nation that fights the odds—not just here in St. Vincent but on all the islands.

The approach from the northwest contemplates a lunar landscape, with the island of Santo Antão to our lee. Whitecaps are so fierce they turn the ocean into a reticle—we’re coming in from the barlavento. Here and there, little towns are shoe-horned into the cliff faces, surrounded by brown peaks thrown up by the angry crust of the earth.

I look at the whitecaps and picture the Phoenician and Roman galleys attempting to return home, swirling in the wild seas, and sinking without a trace.

It fell to the Portuguese to discover how to return home—this was the torna viagem, a long sail west until the northeast trades waned, and then north to the Azores to catch the (hard) westerlies home—os ventos duros do oeste. In between the two are the infamous horse latitudes.

The trade winds blow hard most of the year, and the schooners, ketches, and catamarans follow the wind to the Caribbean Sea. It was from Cabo Verde that Vasco da Gama began his foray into the unknown, and it was from here that Cabral reached Brazil.

In summer, the wind drops—this is the chosen season to sail east from the Americas to these parts. Some of the catamarans stay longer than planned—cocaine from Colombia and Brazil is regularly apprehended, the confiscated boats provide a much-needed boost to local infrastructure, and the crew spend time on the island as guests of the government.

Cape Verde is a land of evaporation—fresh water is scant. Energy is very expensive and little has been made of the huge solar and wind potential—each island could be a gigantic wind turbine embedded in a solar cell. The volcanic soil is fertile, but water scarcity and the sloping landscape make agriculture a challenge.

Despite this, there is delicious market produce—maize, plantain, papaya, and all the greens. Here and there, goats and chickens appear, but this nation’s love affair is with the sea. And Portugal has left a legacy of calm, good food, and… wine.

I never got a chance to taste the local red—it comes from an island called Fogo, or ‘Fire’, so it might be a pyroblend, to coin a phrase. But Portuguese wines are wall-to-wall in convenience stores—and I was told more than once that white wine isn’t a proper drink, just a refreshment—a very traditional Iberian postulate.

Hard liquor is based on the axiom: if you can grow it, ferment it. The weapon of choice here is sugar cane, just like in the Caribbean nations, but in Cape Verde the potion is called ‘grogue‘. The etymology of grog is rooted in cloth—coarse cloth, to be precise, or ‘gros grain’ in French.

Admiral Edward Vernon (1684-1757) of the Royal Navy was the first to administer rum to his sailors, to the tune of a pint a day—rather a lot in today’s alcohol unit straight jacket. The admiral, known as ‘Old Grog’ due to his grogram cloak, gave his name to the drink.

Mindelo is a town where folks smile, where there are no bars on ground floor windows, and where there are windswept ground floor bars.

Made for each other, Portuguese Fado and Cabo Verde Morna intertwine in this swinging, sexual lilt of love.

This land has two universal exports: hurricanes and music. The hurricanes form as tropical storms in this evaporation nation and, like the carracks of the Perfect Prince, catch the trades and make their way west, gathering energy along the way. By the time they get to the Caribbean and turn north to hurl themselves at the American coast, they are powerhouses of destruction.

The United States met office names them after women, which begs the old—and thoroughly incorrect—joke: when they arrive they’re wet ‘n wild, when they leave they take your house and your car.

The music has traveled with the people—Cape Verde is a land of diaspora. A land with music is a land with identity, and the people of these islands are spread over Europe and America, taking with them their lilting siren songs.

At the back of the fish market in Mindelo, a tower pays homage to the Torre de Belém in Lisbon, from which the Portuguese ships left to explore the great oceans.

At a local shrimp farm, smitten with the hardships of water shortage and energy costs, the owner introduced himself with an apology. “I’m a singer,” he told me, “and right now my voice is hoarse.”

Later, he took my arm and confided, as we looked at the blue sky and the infinite sea.

“I’ve lived for one hundred and fifty years. But I intend to live another fifty.”

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

Mare Clausum

January 2, 2023

In my first article this year, I’m sailing south into the closed sea of the Romans. I have no idea where I’ll end up—the only thing I’m sure of right now is the music that will accompany my text.

The Roman galleys, with their square sails and captive oarsmen, sailed west past the pillars of Gibraltar—they reached the port of Gades, named Agadir by the Phoenicians in 1100 B.C.

This is where my train of thought mimics life itself—the path is festooned with byways—hardly the ‘chartered course‘ of Paul Anka.

There is a classic quiz question about the first year of the century—any century.

It’s a double trick question: the year always precedes the century (e.g. the 19th century was the eighteen hundreds) and the answer always ends in ‘1’, i.e. 1801, 1901, 2001… because the very first century A.D. started on year 1.

Europe didn’t know about the zero until the Middle Ages—the zero was an Indian invention exported to Arabia, known to the Jews and Arabs of Iberia, and exploited by the magicians of The India Road in their conquest of the Mare Clausum and the maritime route to India.

In a way, the Portuguese closed the circle and returned the zero to Calicut.

It seems odd that the West understood 10, 20, 100, or 1000, but not zero—such is life. As a consequence of this arithnesia (first new word of the year, contracting arithmetic amnesia), the year before Year 1 AD was… Year 1 BC. There is no year zero. A further consequence was that there was no ‘zeroeth’ century, making the first century years 1-100, the second 101-200, and so on.

And here we are in the XX1st century, tentatively stepping into 2023—a species with a recorded history of six thousand years, still potty-training its way around a toxic mix of wars, pandemics, and artificial intelligence. Around us, our earth mother, exhausted by our antics, has decided it’s time for a little tough love.

The Phoenicians, Greeks, and Romans reached Gades—modern-day Cadiz—and sailed on to the Algarve, then north to Lisbon, which the Greeks named Ulyssippo. There is a suggestion in the toponym that the great Ulysses of Homer’s Odyssey may be at the heart of the name, which the Romans later changed to Olisipo.

But the Romans never sailed south. The northeast trade winds blew them offshore, where they were as helpless as a child on a moonless night. Without the lateen sails of the Arabs, the galleys could not tack. Strictly speaking, the ancient navigators of the Mediterranean did sail south, they just couldn’t sail home again.

It took the Lusitanians to do that.

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

The Demo Variant

December 4, 2022

In 2010, the Rockefeller Foundation published a report called ‘Scenarios for future of technology and international development.’

It explored four scenarios, including one called LOCK STEP: A world of tighter top-down government control and more authoritarian leadership, with limited innovation and growing citizen pushback.

The description begins like this.

In 2012, the pandemic that the world had been anticipating for years finally hit.

…even the most pandemic-prepared nations were quickly overwhelmed when the virus streaked around the world, infecting nearly 20% of the world’s population and killing eight million in just seven months, the majority of them healthy young adults.

The report became a conspiracy theorist’s dream—a world where governments curtail the rights of citizens by using a pandemic pretext.

Of course, the conspiracy monkeys suck the marrow, casting aside bone, meat, and veg. Never mind that these are scenarios, that there are four of them, and that 20% of the world’s population (a mere 1.6 billion today) is about half of the number infected, according to CIDRAP.

Or that the death toll is half of the lock step scenario.

In the West, government strategy has been prudent but not authoritarian. Faced with a critical public health emergency, many governments did the best they could. With the exception of the orangeman, Boris the scarecrow, and Brazil’s tropical trump, all now busy marching around their little back gardens rather than playing dicktator, the game plan was simple.

Keep folks away from each other to stop them dying, make sure people got vaccinated as soon as possible, ease up on lockdowns and masks as hospitals recovered and death tolls subsided. Many mistakes were made along the way because, as more than one pol put it, ‘we’re flying the plane as we build it.’

And then governments began to abolish Covid—I first saw it in Denmark last February.

Travel is booming and all the world accepts that Covid will remain with us—folks are vaccinated, many have caught the disease twice and three times without major consequences, and herd immunity is a now a reality.

All the world…

Except China.

The great leader set the policy, predicated on zero Covid—a kind of viral five-year plan—featuring massive lockdowns, testing, and infection control.

While the rest of the world caught Covid, China did not—but while you can control the ideology and the internet, viral infection is a little more difficult.

The Middle Kingdom has 5229 reported Covid deaths, resulting from a reported 1.5 million infections out of a population of 1.4 billion. The infection rate is one per thousand inhabitants, and the death rate is 3 per million.

Elsewhere, in the UK ninety percent of the population has had Covid at least once and the death rate is 2400 per million.

The issue here is the law of large numbers—in the UK, that means one hundred thousand fatalities, but in China the equivalent is three million dead. Because the US followed (poorly) the Western approach, one million died—large numbers are a killer.

So, China kept its fatality rate low, but after a successful nationwide vax plan, it should be able to release its citizens back into the wild, as epidemiologists say, and expect widespread contagion and minimal death—the recipe for opening up.

Instead, it mandated isolation without explanation, as only a dictatorship can do—perhaps because in a communist country, central planning is by definition entrenched, but also maybe due to the lower efficacy of the Chinese vaccines in preventing death.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the US Covid Czar, is on record that Sinovac and other offerings based on the inactivated virus are considerably less effective than Western mRNA vaccines.

At the same time, Xi Jin Ping declared that zero Covid was China’s containment policy and that it would save the Chinese from the predicament that befell the USA. In doing so, he turned a public health policy into a political paradox of the highest order, worthy of the conundrums facing a chess grand master.

  • If there is no Covid (zero) people won’t take the vaccine;
  • If people are unvaccinated in substantial numbers they will die;
  • If lockdowns end and vaccinated people die, the vaccine is no good;
  • If China accepts Western vax it tacitly admits its product is crap.

The Chinese government made serious mistakes, both in politics and public health, and from blank sheets of paper to massive unrest, China is pushing back.

Free speech. Elections. Choice.

These simple things that the West takes for granted, forfeiting the vote for a day at the beach, are more precious than life itself—they are the lifeblood of a successful society.

Wouldn’t it be nice if after inventing the Coronavirus, China invented the democracy virus?

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

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.

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.

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.

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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