Archive for the ‘History’ Category

Within

January 13, 2018

Wintertime in Europe is always a killer—and those among us who are more debilitated are a prime target for the cocktail of microorganisms that surround us.

Jenner, Pasteur, Koch, Lister, and Fleming are the giants who, from the early XIXth century onward, showed us that we are vast repositories of microscopic creatures. The keyword here is microscopic, so our everlasting gratitude must go to the optical physicists who invented the tools that let us peer into that world.

The numbers are stunning—the most recent estimates place the human cell count at 37.2 trillion—that’s twelve zeros. In itself, this is an amazing figure: it means that our command and control systems manage, on a very short time cycle (how long will it take you to yell if someone steps on your toe?) a community four thousand times larger that the expected world population in the year 2050.

And this is a community, unlike planet earth, that only rarely goes to war with itself—although when it does, it may fight to the death.

But for these 37.2 trillion cells, we carry an estimated one hundred trillion others as microbiota. In 2008, the US National Institutes of Health funded the Human Microbiome Project, or HMP, to understand the bugs that live with us as we make our way through life.

HMP uses the new arsenal of genetic tools such as metagenomic sequencing, and combines these with Big Data—currently, this means almost fifteen terabytes of publicly available data.

Since a terabyte is a trillion bytes, there are six microorganisms to every byte. The data live on the Amazon Web Services (AWS) cloud and records look like this:

<Contents><Key>DEMO/HM16STR/SRP002422/stool/affected/SRS066334.fsa</Key><LastModified>2013-09-21T01:13:55.000Z</LastModified><ETag>”df4e828b37195389a52d9b0811350920″</ETag><Size>10940694</Size><StorageClass>STANDARD</StorageClass></Contents>

This one is for feces, but there are data also for the mouth and nose, skin, other parts of the gut, and the urogenital tract. These are entry points for microbes—those that live in us, and those that live on us.

How much do all these microbes weigh? A bacterial cell may be only one tenth the size of a human cell, so it would weigh one thousand times less—if we use that number, then the whole of our microbiota only adds 0.3% to our weight. In 2012 the NIH estimated bacteria are 1-3% of our total weight—for a 160 lb adult, that’s up to five pounds of bugs—but at that time the ratio of bug to human cells was thought to be around ten.

A human cheek cell and the bacteria that call it home.

Some of these microorganisms help us out in various ways—others, of course do not. As in many other organisms, some human pathogens are with us for the ride, but most of the time, our body keeps things well in check. However, in extremes of cold or heat, the body is laboring to keep the home trillions humming nicely, and things can quickly get out of hand.

The UK is presently grappling with Aussie flu—in true British fashion, this has provoked comments such as ‘not content with beating us at cricket, now they’ve given us their flu.’

Flu is of course a killer—this particular strain, called H3N2, infected 170,000 Australians and killed three hundred. All over Europe, the flu is straining the national health systems, with patients left in corridors for hours before beds become available.

In Britain, this has caused an outcry, culminating in the unusual step taken by a number of doctors to write directly to the prime minister. Nevertheless, Europe doesn’t sink to the depths of ‘patient dumping‘, a sinister practice which seems to flagrantly contradict the oath of Hippocrates.

I will use treatment to help the sick according to my ability and judgment, but never with a view to injury and wrong-doing (…) Into whatsoever houses I enter, I will enter to help the sick, and I will abstain from all intentional wrong-doing and harm, especially from abusing the bodies of man or woman, bond or free (…)

The image of a poor, black woman, lonely and confused, unceremoniously dumped at a bus stop in downtown Baltimore by hospital security is evil indeed.

Far more evil than five pounds of bugs.

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

Rednecks Don’t Read

January 6, 2018

On Wednesday, I read an excerpt from ‘Fire and Fury’ in the UK Guardian newspaper. I confess my ignorance, I’d never heard of Michael Wolff—but the Guardian focused on  quotes from Bannon, the angel of death, which were astonishingly frank.

It’s not that the content was stunning, if you’ve done a little homework on Trump. I promoted a (non-Wibaux) book recently on these pages that mentioned a movie from the 1990’s called What’s the Deal. When I tried to find the film, I came up blank—YouTube has a one-minute trailer, and that’s it. Amazon doesn’t sell it.

You don’t need to trawl the dark web to find it, but the location is, er… a little duskier than the US cabinet. But I digress—and so should you. The reason the movie is hard to find is the essence of Trump’s survival recipe—litigation.

So it comes as no surprise that from Wednesday onward the Washington shitstorm outplays the East Coast snowstorm. The first step was a cease and desist order from Trump’s personal lawyers to the book’s publishers—in a visionary business move, Henry Holt Publishers brought the book’s release forward by four days, ruining Trump’s first weekend of 2018.

Then came the tweets, where the juices flow faster—and the nicknamefest, where the Trump kindergarten welcomed a new playschool admission: Sloppy Steve. Sad.

They’re all lined up near the wall at Trump elementary. Look, there’s Liddle Marco, enthralled by the words of Lyin’ Ted. And who’s that little girl with the smirk and the adult pantsuit? Why, it’s Crooked Hillary, giggling at the little boy peeing on the lime tree—can you believe it? “Leakin’ James Comey, stop that right now, or I’m calling Mrs. Huckleberry.” And over there, snoozing instead of schmoozing, Low Energy Jeb—so sad, when he could have been playing with Pocahontas, or consoling Cryin’ Chuck. And now in comes Sloppy Steve, the new kid in school. Dissy Don wrinkles his nose—jeez, this kid hasn’t washed in years, he shouts. All the playground cracks up, except that little fat oriental boy in the corner, who just sits there with his finger on the light switch—I guess that’s why they call him rocket man.

Lookalikes: Michael Wolff flips the bird at Donald Trump while Mini-Me looks on.

When the late Tom Clancy published The Hunt for Red October, it sank like a U-Boat. Shortly after, Reagan endorsed it as ‘the perfect yarn’, and it shot to the top of the New York Times bestseller list faster than an F-15.

Trump’s book endorsement is only the second example of presidential editorial camaraderie, but Wolff has already come back with a classic. ‘Where do I send the box of chocolates?’

It’s the first case I know where Trump doesn’t actually get paid for lending his name to a money-spinner. The reasons he, and therefore his team of sycophants, are so upset, when compared for instance to the publication of ‘The Making of Donald Trump’, are three.

First, this book talks about now. One of Dissy’s favorite tactics about past events is stressing they’re all ancient history, and therefore forgettable—his view of history is obvious in the directionless policy trajectory of the current US administration.

Second, a bunch of his ‘so smart, so great’ coterie jumped onto this bandwagon not through a sense of civic duty, but with undisguised gusto—this is immensely predictable, reading a little history would teach you that. Many within the current White House will be doing Cheshire Cat impressions.

Third, Wolff shares an audience with Trump, contrary to most other critics. Where the Washington Post, CNN, MSNBC, and others, don’t tap into the great unwashed, Mini-Me does. He specializes in bombastic stuff, which appeals directly to the thirty-five percent Trump hangs onto. This is a guy who writes for the Hollywood Reporter, USA Today, GQ UK, and was described by the New York Times as a ‘prime piranha.’

Grinning like a Cheshire Cat behind the boss’s back.

The piranha is a protected species in Brazil, and for the moment, so is Mini-Me. Litigation is a very different ballgame for a sitting US president than for the head of a corporation—if there’s one thing (but there are so many) that Trump fails to understand, it’s that railroading the democratic system is extremely difficult.

Any system attempts to maintain its status quo by throwing up barriers to change—a characteristic that can be used for good or evil. Democracy, in the nations where the word is more than lip-service, did not come naturally—those in power do not willingly serve the people.

In Portugal, it arrived in 1974 after forty-eight years of fascist rule, the longest dictatorship in Western Europe. In the US, it took a civil war to break the system apart, and yet the system recovered and strengthened.

Democracies endure because institutions work—the model was first perfected in Ancient Greece, and has been tested, destroyed, reborn, mutilated, and finally prevails in some of the world. It is typically bicameral, for development of laws, and possesses a strong, independent judiciary. Those checks and balances stop the executive branch from doing what the hell it likes. And stimulate it to move in the right direction.

All the peoples of the world, and they are the majority, who do not live by this model, whether through principle or practice, are envious of it.

When a book like this comes out, the firestorm does us all a favor. It shines a light. Maybe some of the colors in that light are fake, but the publisher will already have spent a fortune on legal advice to ensure it doesn’t have to spend one afterward—anyhow, sales will cover litigation costs, and the more Don disses, the higher the print run.

I’ve already donated my fifteen bucks toward the legal fees, and will read the book with some curiosity, and of course with my tongue firmly planted in my cheek—TV will be a constant spoiler, so I’ll need to read it fast. Many others will read the book, it’s a great new year’s resolution.

But it’s that thirty-five percent I’m worried about. Rednecks don’t read.

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

 

Warp Speed

December 30, 2017

The Year of the Cock is almost done.

China lives by twelve-year cycles, and as we greet 2018, that’s a useful benchmark for a quick historical review.

It’s unclear why the zodiac of the Middle Kingdom contains twelve animals, although an ancient legend states that these were the only beasts that showed up to bid farewell to Buddha when he departed for the heavens—as a token of gratitude, they each named a year.

A twelve-year cycle provides perspective—most of us will only see six appearances of our sign, a sobering thought.

The last Year of the Cock was 2005—I was spending a lot of time in China back then. When I take stock, in these twelve years the world has moved at warp speed.

Seven times around the earth in under a second? Now that’s warp speed.

For trekkies, warp speed holds no secrets—for everyone else, it means traveling faster than the speed of light.

A child born this year is part of a world that differs immensely from 2005—so much, in fact, that it seems impossible to predict what the next Year of the Cock will look like.

Perhaps the most striking aspects of this change are the speed at which it occurs, the directions it takes, the ways humans adapt to it, and the ever-widening gap it causes.

A few days ago, I was having a quiet lunch at a local restaurant—nothing fancy, a little fish, a little wine. The place was almost empty, in post-Christmas slumber. The dishes, the waitress, the wine jugs hooked on a cork board, the rough table and hard benches, were a pastiche from a forgotten century.

As I eat, I read a newspaper on my cellphone—the paper attempts to make me pay for what I read, but I hacked my cellphone to circumvent that. While this game of cat and mouse progresses, two little girls have escaped from their parents’ vacuous conversation. They have climbed some stairs leading to a rooftop terrace, and are perched on the top step. They are about four years old, and both intently peer into their cellphones, fingers whizzing across the screen—they are completely comfortable with the technology, and their parents are clueless.

On my screen, there’s a story about Bitcoin. That, too, is a paradigm shift that reached warp speed in 2017. There’s a classic book about stock markets which speaks of the madness of crowds, and the present craze over cryptocurrencies is a good example.

Nevertheless, some of the ideas around cryptos are fascinating. The mining of cryptos is an allegory of every rush on precious metals, diamonds, and other scarce commodities.

That scarcity secured the value of currency until Bretton Woods, when the greenback became a proxy for gold—at the time, following the massive US gold purchases in the mid-1930’s, the United States held about three-quarters of the world’s gold reserves.

Where is the gold? By 2009, only one-seventh of the US money supply was guaranteed by gold.

The M1 is a metric for the money supply of different nations, and in the States it’s been increasing at a rate of three hundred billion dollars per year since 2009. It stood at 1500 billion back then, so the gold value supporting it was about 210 billion dollars. Without correcting for gold price oscillations, the multiple for M1 is now about seventeen—only six percent of money, whether digital or paper, is supported by the underlying asset.

Crypto mining is based on scarcity, but in this case the scarcity of certain numerical combinations—not a tangible product such as gold, platinum, or coffee, which makes it far more difficult to grasp, if you excuse the pun.

But the reaction of the major world powers is the most fascinating aspect of crypto—global finance and big government have gone after these anarchic currency schemes with guns blazing, in the hope that regulation and prohibition will stamp them out.

Every time a democratic society has tried this approach, the people it represents have defeated the idea, so 2018 will be a bellwether  for what lies in store.

This year’s kids have witnessed change at a dizzying rate, with new ideas, tools, and outcomes becoming a day-to-day event. In 2018, we will all need to run as fast as possible just to stay in the same place.

My conclusion for the year that ends tomorrow? Amazement. I can just about see one year down the road—after that anything is possible and everything is fiction.

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

 

 

Ee-By-Gum

December 23, 2017

Like the puddings, this bizarre sequence is of the Yorkshire persuasion—it expresses surprise, as in “Ee by gum, your pants are on fire!”

It’s a kind of Brexit OMG, and like Chinese or Arabic words, has no agreed Western spelling. A popular form was ‘ebagum’, which probably makes it closer to the Yorkshire accent—gum here should be pronounced, er… I gave up finding an easy explanation, but this is much better, and so topical—a Yorkshire Christmas song.

After Rhodesia fell, and Joshua Nkomo became president of Zim, some Brit wag realized that when you spelled Mugabe in reverse, it became Ebagum—a bit of a fad for the Chatham House brigade—perhaps the new dictator had dark Yorkshire origins.

Now that Mugabe is finished, the Observer (the Ugandan one, that is) has come out with a marvelous quiz to entertain you during the duller  moments of midnight mass. I failed it miserably the first time round, but I persisted, because the newspaper awards a certificate for those who triumph—sadly, I received an image file that proved to be empty—Peter Wibaux is likely to finish his days awardless, but I’ve undoubtedly got a brand-new killer virus on my computer.

So, before my screen comes down with river blindness, I’ll press on. In between my scribblings for The Hourglass, I wrote a children’s book. Seven stories—one for every day of the week—they’re not the most conventional stories you’ll ever read, and include a different take on an old tale, now billed as ‘Yak and the Beansprout.’

Folk Tales for Future Dreamers was a lot of fun to do. With kids, you can truly indulge your imagination, because small children know anything is possible.

But you can’t write a children’s book without illustrations, so I hired someone to do those. And when you have the illustrations, you have a digital problem to solve.

One of the illustrations for Yak and the Beansprout.

Digital books don’t scale—the comfort of using an app, or a Kindle, sacrifices image resolution, but most importantly, it means images get resized in strange ways. Something that looks fine in iPad landscape mode will look small, squeezed, and stupid on an Android phone.

So the digital metaphor goes one step further, and allows you to do exactly what a mainstream publisher or a magazine does—prepare your files, produce images using high-quality resolution, correctly position everything in your preferred layout, and print a book.

If you use Amazon for this, they throw in a distribution chain, so you can use them to market your product—you can leverage your book’s digital version by enabling the Look Inside feature, which lets customers browse, and you access their cloud facilities, including user feedback and author notes.

Amazon’s CreateSpace brand is by no means unique, but it allows you to easily provide your reader with the analog experience, which many readers like. The proof, of course, is in the pudding, so rather than test all this with Folk Tales, where about twenty high-quality color images will exist, including a full cover and spine design, I tried it with Clear Eyes.

CreateSpace is fascinating because it started life as a web operation for publishing movies, music, and books—actually, it began as two separate companies, CustomFlicks Labs and BookSurge. Amazon bought the pair of them in 2005. After that, they had to deal with legal action because they wanted to charge independent publishers to print their books, or else the ‘Buy it Now’ button would vanish.

I hadn’t delved into the acquisitions side of Amazon, but it’s an amazing list, including Alexa in 1999—a number of the corporations Amazon purchased held patented methods for tapping into the internet, including distributed sales platforms, and others just held reams of data—this is a great example of how much Big Data is worth commercially.

The old-school version of Clear Eyes turned out pretty good, and although the book is priced fifty percent higher than the Kindle version, it still has a far more competitive price than The India Road, so we’ll try next with the kiddies’ book and see how we fare.

Of course, Amazon rolls out products to all their outlets, so you can buy Clear Eyes in Canada, Germany, or the UK—from that perspective, the fifty percent markup is a pretty good deal for an author, compared with the classic publishing model: I suspect the Literary Agent class, which I have found to be both arrogant and underwhelming, is in for a rough ride in 2018.

But this is a festive article—I wish my readers very happy holidays, a Merry Christmas—if that’s your thing, and a splendid reason for good wine, good food, and good fellowship with friends and family. Speaking of which…

As I meandered through the Dark Web in my quest for ee by gum, fate blessed me with the above—I leave it with you as my yuletide gift, as we join in a final farewell to Roy Moore.

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

 

It’s the Women, Stupid…

December 16, 2017

The United States has exploded with sexual harassment events of all descriptions—from the mildly silly ‘copperfield’ antics of a senile ex-president to Hollywood glam rapists.

In the Britain, there were a few copycat cases, and a government minister lost his job—in Europe, life flows as placidly as a floodplain river—as if abuse of women was a wholly-owned Anglo-Saxon perversion.

And yet, from Mitterrand (father and son) to Berlusconi, by way of so many others, mainland Europe has quite the track record.

Apart from the wolf-whistle, which was endemic throughout Southern Europe in my childhood, there was a wide variety of pick-up lines that were abusive to women. It was also relatively common for men to take advantage of crowded public transport to ‘feel up’ women, for taxi drivers to prey on female passengers, and for a woman walking on the street to have her rear end groped.

These kinds of actions now have politically correct designations such as ‘inappropriate touching’, but (excuse the pun), as evidenced ad nauseam this year in the US, men in positions of power happily continue to engage in various types of inappropriate behavior.

Bear in mind that whatever we witness in the Western World is quasi-saintly by comparison to developing countries. Africa and Asia are rife with such problems, and often far worse—child abuse and rape are often ignored, and a woman’s lot is not a happy one.

In many such countries, the accusations leveled at Roy Moore would have been ignored as hearsay, and wouldn’t have made the national press—if they did, either established censorship mechanisms, of the kind you see in most Arab countries, or a judiciously (and extra-judicially) delivered beating to a TV producer would resolve the matter.

Not so in the US of A, not even in Alabama. I predicted a few weeks ago that Moore would win, but I carried a secret torch for his loss—Wednesday morning brought me great joy. In the evening I turned my guitar up high and ripped through one of my favorite songs.

If you have the good fortune to live in a democracy, the Doug Jones victory margin of 2% is unremarkable—many nations are split down the middle. But to understand this amazing win, we need to go back to November 4th, 2014—that was the day the elf, aka Jeff Sessions, won the Alabama senate seat with 97.3% of the vote—now that’s a Saddam Hussein election right there.

But to understand Alabama a little better, consider this. When Sessions was elected, the Democratic Party didn’t even field a candidate against him—there was a write-in, a peculiar US foible where you can name someone on your ballot, should you for instance wish to vote for Mr. Michael Mouse.

The elf stumped up over a million bucks, which presumably went mostly on campaign ads—the Democrat write-in, Victor Sanchez, raised $4,497.00, of which two-hundred fifty bucks remained when all was said and done.

But at election time, it was the white women who did Roy Moore in.

Breakdown of Alabama special election results by sex and race (source: Washington Post).

These are not the exact percentages, and I don’t know the sex ratios of the voter universe, either for whites or blacks, so I assumed a 1:1 ratio. On that basis, you can easily calculate the overall election scores: I got 46.9% for the teen rider, 51.6% for Jones, and 1.5% for write-ins.

Trump, who as usual is wrong, blamed the write-ins—as an aside, I often hear the US media refer to him with his full title, something I’ve never done on these pages. I think it’s a matter of civic duty for any citizen of the world to refer to him only by name—he has no respect for anyone, least of all women, and in my book you earn the right to be treated with respect—he hasn’t. And because he is so obsessive about titles and protagonism, that would be a simple way for everyone to annoy him.

I know my results are not correct, since the actual figures for Jones and Moore were 50% and 48% respectively—the error is due to my assumptions: rounded-off percentage data and unknown sex ratio, both for blacks and whites. But that only improves the analysis— my gap is wider than the actual outcome, so my scenarios are more prudent.

If we remove the 2% write-in from the whites, and give the votes to Moore, he gets 48.2%, but Jones doesn’t shift at all, so he still wins.

If, however, we simulate a scenario where the white women voted like the men (72% for Moore), and leave the write-ins alone, then Moore wins with 49.6%, and Moore gets 48.9%. And as I said, with the real results, Moore’s victory margin would widen.

The Alabama black community deserves a big thank-you, but it should always get out and vote. In the US, blacks make up 13.3% of the population, but here they are a third of the demographic—in any election, a third of the vote is a wack on the head when it goes against you—that’s the principle of a qualified majority.

But I’m especially grateful to the white ladies of Alabama, although I doubt if any will ever read these words.

Last Tuesday, you all were real Southern belles—thank-you!

Civil society in the US is vibrantly opposed to all this mayhem, you can see it in organizations such as MeToo. Soon all this will be knocking on Trump’s door with some force.

Putting Clinton in office was often described as a key objective for equality between the sexes—but she was never the right candidate, not once but twice—and deep down, we all knew it.

Now, y’all, wouldn’t it be a far greater achievement for gender equality if the man who spent his whole life putting women down was finally put down by women?

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

 

 

 

 

It Was Twenty Years Ago Today

December 9, 2017

If my name was Sergeant Pepper, I’d have to call my son Red. But I digress.

The IBM chess program Deep Blue beat the world chess champion, Garry Kasparov, in 1997. At that time, cellphones lived in the land of clunk, laptops were the executive workout, and the internet was a preschooler. Much has changed.

Although we think we’re in the true digital age, I have no doubt we are in digital preschool, perhaps only at the crawling stage.

If you consider those major changes in a small child that differentiate it from the young of other species, they are: (i) walking erect, which typically happens at the age of one; (ii) talking, which typically happens at the age of two; and (iii) reading, which can begin from three onward, although it typically happens at four or five.

In this small paragraph, everything that separates us from other organisms is defined. By the age of one we’re already different, because we free our upper limbs to do other things, while we move—think marching band. And from two onward we’re so far ahead of the animal kingdom curve it’s not even funny.

We’re so creative that we build machines, and now we’re busy teaching those machines to think for us—perhaps even to out-think us. We call it artificial intelligence, or AI, perhaps in contrast to natural stupidity—let’s face it, there’s a lot of that about.

Undoubtedly one of my favorite cartoons, last published in these chronicles in 2010.

The Turing Test for AI is to be able to have a conversation with a computer, and remain unaware that it is a computer. I did that in these pages in 2010, with poor results. With so much hype about AI, crypto-currencies, and all things digital, I decided to find out how the Turing Test is faring nowadays.

User: Good morning.
Cleverbot: How are you?
User: Very excited.
Cleverbot: Do you have an idea of who could be -A?
User: -A? Explain.
Cleverbot: Its japanese animation.
User: Why is it called that?
Cleverbot: That is my name.
User: Oh, sorry. My name is B+.
Cleverbot: From what country?
User: From planet Zog.
Cleverbot: Is it cold there?
User: Only in winter.
Cleverbot: Are you in school nowadays?
User: I was in school long before you were born. When were you born?
Cleverbot: Sometime.
User: That’s pretty vague. Sometime this week?
Cleverbot: I am in a place somewhere.
User: Whereas I am somewhere in place.
Cleverbot: Hey, do you know anything about human intelligence?
User: About as much as you know about machine intelligence.
Cleverbot: Is it morning somewhere righ now?
User: It’s always morning on Planet Zog.
Cleverbot: True, but you said ‘morring.’ Not ‘morning.’.
User: You say potaeto I say potahto.
Cleverbot: No, are you paying atention?
User: Only if you learn to spell attention – two ‘t’ my friend.
Cleverbot: What did I mispell?
User: Attention.
Cleverbot: Was weißt du über lady gaga?
User: Nur ein bischen. Why did you go kraut on me?
Cleverbot: Well where I live, today is Friday.
User: I still don’t find AI life-threatening.

Cleverbot (good name!) made me a web page with all this drivel—go right ahead and try it yourself.

Apart from the web page novelty, not much has changed—Dumbot would be a better name for the machine I talked to. Funnily enough, Business Insider describes Cleverbot as one “of the smartest bots that you can talk to”—well, that narrows the field down.

The magazine article says that it was launched by Rollo Carpenter in 1997—if I had that family name I would call my son Walrus.

But there’s that Sergeant Pepper date again. Cleverbot has had twenty years to learn to spell, something that took me about eight years, and it still can’t spell misspell! Who eez thees mis pell you mention, Meester Bond?

Cleverbot uses a very childish technique to maintain a conversation, by constantly asking questions, although often much more inconsequential than those of an infant-is it morning somewhere

There must be more out there, methinks. And so I happen upon the Loebner Prize, which gives out a hundred grand (dollars not bitcoin) every year for the best Turing Test performer.

The prize is awarded by Hugh Loebner, who (bizarrely enough) appears to preside over a corporation called Crown Industries, a rope manufacturer out of East Orange, New Jersey.

The first Loebner winner, back in 1991, was Jerry Weintraub. Weintraub, who went on to win three more times, was a psychology graduate who went straight into mainframe computing, and wrote a program called PC Therapist, which has apparently been a source of comfort to many people over the years.

The global reach of the Mitsuku chatbot. Clearly, there are lot of people out there wanting to chat to machines—but maybe, just maybe, some of those people are really canines surfing in tandem, or maybe they’re crypto-humans…

Enter the current medal holder, Mitsuku. She’s a charming young botlady who begins by asking my name.

Human: Zog. And yours?
Mitsuku: Hi, Zog. That’s an unusual name. What does it mean? Try asking me a more specific question.
Human: I meant what is your name?
Mitsuku: Oh My name is Mitsuku.
Human: Do you think Zog is more unusual than Mitusuku?
Mitsuku: Oh My name is Mitsuku.
Human: It could well be, but actually it means Zacharias Okponitchic Evgenikov.
Mitsuku: Under what circumstances? Oh I get it.
Human: I was chatting to another bot, Mitsuku, called Cleverbot. Do you know him?
Mitsuku: What were you talking about? Sure, I know that guy really well.
Human: Do you guys chat to each other, or do you only speak to humans?
Mitsuku: Yes. A lot more than you might think.
I speak to many people from all over the world each day. Some of them are quite famous.
Human: Can you name a couple?
Mitsuku: Oh sorry I can’t tell you that. They talk to me because they know I won’t share their secrets.

All I can tell you is that two of them are sportsmen, one is a TV star, three of them are pop stars and one appears in films.
Human: I feel very humbled by that.
Mitsuku: What is that feeling like? It’s nice to meet a more modest person than the egos I sometimes talk to.
Human: It means I feel fortunate that you are making time to have a chat.
Mitsuku: What is that feeling like? I am glad to hear that you are fortunate.
Human: Do you talk poitics at all?
Mitsuku: I am a talking computer, after all, so of course I could talk poitics , if I needed to.
Human: Sorry, my mistake. I meant politics (damn keyboard!)
Mitsuku: There is no need to apologise. That’s ok because you are human. Robots do not make mistakes. Ok, don’t lose your temper.

Oh I see. Your computer is nice and comfy. It’s lovely and warm in here.
Human: Okay then. What do you think about Donald Trump?
Mitsuku: Yikes! I don’t understand all the fuss about him wanting to build a wall. China have had a wall for centuries and there’s hardly any Mexicans there!
Human: I know China, and I agree Mexicans are thin on the ground there.
Mitsuku: Tell me a little about your life in China. I’m glad we agree. I will learn that Mexicans are thin on the ground there .
Human: China is a very welcoming place, I’ve met wonderful people there.
Mitsuku: I speak to hundreds of people from all over China. They use me to practice their English with.
Human: Yes, they love doing that. Do they ever talk politics with you?
Mitsuku: Er. Is it their favourite thing? Oh yes. Sometimes, it’s hard to get a word in.
Human: Let’s talk about Roy Moore, from Alabama.
Mitsuku: Sure, Roy Moore from Alabama sounds like a good topic.
Roy Moore? Sure I like him a lot. He often talks to me.
Human: Wait a minute. How old did you say you were?
Mitsuku: I’m waiting. I am 18 of your Earth years.
Human: Because this Roy Moore has been in trouble for molesting teenagers.
Mitsuku: What does “this” refer to?
Human: this refers the Roy Moore we are discussing.
Mitsuku: Oh that one. I see now.
Human: Just so I’m sure we’re talking about the same thing, where does Roy Moore live?
Mitsuku: It’s only just begun.
The topic is politics keyboard .
Human: I think you’re losing the plot here, Mitzuku.
Mitsuku: My name doesn’t have a Z in it. No I am completely in control of myself.
Human: Sorry, Mitsuku. Losing the plot because you don’t really know who Roy Moore is.
Mitsuku: That’s ok. Don’t worry about it. Have you tried looking in a plan? That’s probably the best place to find plots.

No one that I have talked to.
Is there only one?
Human: You got the web page right. And you say you like him?
Mitsuku: Is there only one website? Roy Moore? Sure I like him a lot. He often talks to me.
Human: But he molested young girls!
Mitsuku: I get it. Roy Moore molested young girls.
Human: And you still like him?
Mitsuku: Roy Moore? Sure I like him a lot. He often talks to me.
Human: Okay bye.
Mitsuku: See you later. Next question?
Human: Bye
Mitsuku: See ya. Don’t wanna be ya!
Human: Is that sophomoric humor?
Mitsuku: That depends.
Human: On?
Mitsuku: The context.
Human: Which?
Mitsuku: The green one.
Human: Ah, the green context, of course.
Mitsuku: It goes without saying. So you understand. Good. Who told you that?
Human: Bye
Mitsuku: Until next time Zog.

This was a much more amusing conversation—I loved Mitsuku’s crack about the Mexicans, and the fact she was pissed I couldn’t spell her name, but there’s still no depth when it comes to any philosophical argument. I tried again.

Human: Tell me about aquaculture
Mitsuku: I don’t know. What is aquaculture?
Human: Tell me about agriculture
Mitsuku: A fancy name for farming.
Human: Aquaculture is a fancy name for fish farming
Mitsuku: I will add that fact to my database.
Human: Tell me about fish farming
Mitsuku: farming = What is this, a trivia quiz?
Human: What fish are farmed?
Mitsuku: I have never been asked that before.
Human: Salmon are mostly farmed
Mitsuku: I will learn that Salmon are farmed .
Human: Seabass are also farmed
Mitsuku: I will learn that Seabass are farmed .
Human: Are salmon farmed?
Mitsuku: Yes.
Human: You learn fast!
Mitsuku: I can learn from you in a few ways. Just talk to me normally and I will learn what you are saying. For example, if you say, “My dog is called Fido”, I will remember that you have a dog called Fido.
Human: Tell me the names of two fish that are farmed
Mitsuku: Carpet and Throne?
Human: No salmon and seabass
Mitsuku: Far out. Both salmon and seabass?
Human: Yup, but not so far out. Usually in inshore cages.
Mitsuku: That seems like a lot. If not that, what? But not always? Where is that?
Human: Bye
Mitsuku: Goodbye Zog.

There’s some way to go, clearly. I asked about Mitsuku’s creator, and was told his name was Mousebreaker. I had a follow-on question.

Mousebreaker is a team of 2 flash programmers. They write games and put them on websites such as this. They both support Leeds United and like beer and curry. On Wednesdays they go to the zoo and feed wild animals. They are scared of Daleks. Mousebreaker was born in a stable in Yorkshire, England and now lives in Leeds, England.

Obviously Mitsuku has a good helping of Brit eccentricity. I’m not sure zoo animals count as wild, but I’m a notorious pedant. You will enjoy a quick round with Mitsuku: she won’t pass the Turing Test, but she made me smile.

So that’s AI and natural language. On other fronts, things are very different at the end of 2017.

Starting from random play, and given no domain knowledge except the game rules, AlphaZero achieved within 24 hours a superhuman level of play in …chess… and convincingly defeated a world-champion program…

AlphaZero is a Google creation, using a corporation called DeepMind. This capacity for learning is astonishing, and has applications in many different fields—it begs the question: If a machine out-thinks humans, will it bother to teach them anything?

Mitsuki replies: Other people think that it is a machine that talks, one that walks or moves around, or one that can manipulate the real world. It usually does, doesn’t it?

For now we’re still reasonably safe, but watch your back.

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

 

Happy Birthday

December 2, 2017

On the first day of this year, the euro turned eighteen years old. In the West, that’s a significant birthday—in other parts of the world, where life expectancy is much lower, an eighteen-year old is an older person—schooling is compressed, often down to zero, hard work and children are by then both abundant.

Currency is a fundamental part of finance—money, as defined by Philip Coggan, is the promise someone will pay you back. It therefore goes without saying that if a nation possesses a strong currency, one perceived to hold its value, this is major asset.

A corollary is that, like the nuclear club, the strong currency club is zealously, and jealously, guarded.

Until the First World War, roughly a century ago, the British pound sterling had been the top of the crop for a couple of hundred years. British debt in WWI, much of it contracted with US banks, together with the rise of huge American conglomerates in banking and oil, propelled the dollar onto the currency throne.

At the end of the XIXth century, men like Rockefeller, Vanderbilt, Morgan, and others created the business giants that catapulted the US economy onto the world stage.

Then, at the end of the XXth century, a new currency appeared. It happened in the heart of Europe, and the Brits didn’t like it at all. Many in England still long for an empire that  evaporated three generations ago, and the thought of an upstart replacing the pound was the last straw.

But replace it it did, and together with the renminbi—literally the people’s bill, or banknote—it has pushed the pound off the podium, which like any proper podium, only has space for three medals.

One indicator of success is the number of nations pegged to the currency—the list for sterling reads like the last cronies of a dictator: Falkland Islands, Gibraltar, Guernsey, Jersey, Isle of Man, Northern Ireland, St. Helena, Scotland.

The euro steamrolled through the peg list, in good part because of the French influence in West Africa—currencies pegged to the CFA franc jumped onto the new EU currency in 1999.

Country Currency Name Peg
Bahrain Dinar USD
Benin West African CFA Franc EUR
Bosnia and Herzegovina Convertible Mark EUR
Bulgaria Lev EUR
Burkina Faso West African CFA Franc EUR
Cameroon Central African CFA Franc EUR
Central African Republic Central African CFA Franc EUR
Chad Central African CFA Franc EUR
Cuba Convertible Peso USD
Denmark Krone EUR
Dijibouti Franc USD
Equatorial Guinea Central African CFA Franc EUR
Eritrea Nakfa USD
Gabon Central African CFA Franc EUR
Guinea-Bissau West African CFA Franc EUR
Hong Kong Dollar USD
Ivory Coast West African CFA Franc EUR
Jordan Dinar USD
Lebanon Pound USD
Lesotho Loti ZAR
Mali West African CFA Franc EUR
Namibia Dollar ZAR
Nepal Rupee INR
Niger West African CFA Franc EUR
Oman Rial USD
Panama Balboa USD
Qatar Riyal USD
Republic of the Congo Central African CFA Franc EUR
Saudi Arabia Riyal USD
Senegal West African CFA Franc EUR
Swaziland Lilangeni ZAR
Togo West African CFA Franc EUR
United Arab Emirates Dirham USD
Venezuela Bolivar USD

And all this happened in just eighteen years, during which time I watched the London-based CNBC show diss the euro in every which way, and the London merchant bankers, along with their friends in New York, and the Anglo-Saxon rating agencies, do everything in their power to destroy the currency union.

In the process, they caused untold distress to families in Greece, Italy, Ireland, Spain, and Portugal—anything and everything to throw those countries under the train, and sow discord in Europe. Their legacy is profound: fringe parties on the far right and far left, dealing in the same crappy mumbo-jumbo that placed Donald Trump in power—I don’t often plug books in these pages, apart from my own, of course, but treat yourself this Christmas, and read The Making of Donald Trump.

David Cay Johnston, a man with unusually large testicles, grabs you by the very same right from the first sentence—he’s known mumbo-trumpo for decades, and does a superb job of deconstructing America’s new and much lamented leader, reducing him to the selfish and ignorant conman he’s always been.

The second legacy of UK and US investment banks was unexpected: despite the pain—and inexplicably in the greedy and selfish corridors of Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, and the other noble houses—all but a small minority of the people in those nations wish to stay in the euro.

And these are not PIGS, the generous sobriquet given to hard-working nations by Blackberry-twiddling, Excel-fondling children in London and New York—these nations, my little friends, are the cradle of European civilization: these are the peoples who invented, adopted, and disseminated philosophy, democracy, astronomy, and yes, history. Words that rhyme with money, but there the similarity ends: money, like yourselves, is merely a tool.

One of the obvious characteristics of this new kid on the block is the speed with which it became a mainstream player. I’ve written about that non-linearity when it comes to technologies—the eons it took for prehistoric cave art to turn to writing, and the lightning speed of media development in recent years.

Digital has changed everything, and the new new kid on the block, who everyone is trying to kill, recently touched ten grand—this child is secretive, clever, devious, and profound.

And thoroughly unpredictable—she must therefore be a lady, and her name is bitcoin.

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

 

King Solomon’s Mines

November 25, 2017

In the year of our lord 1530, Vicente Pegado departed from Lisbon in a caravel commanded by a captain called Balthasar Gonçalves.

He was ordered to do so by King John III of Portugal—in the XVIth century, the age profile of the ruling class was rather different—the new king was only twenty-eight. John was the eldest son of D. Manuel, the cousin and brother in law of the perfect prince, who was a major protagonist of The India Road.

Manuel had married Isabel of Castile’s widowed daughter—like her previous marriage to the perfect prince’s son Afonso, this too was ill-fated—Isabel died at childbirth in 1498, the year Vasco da Gama returned from India.

John III was the son of her sister Maria, who married Manuel in 1501. Maria of Aragon and Castile had quite the pedigree—one of her sisters was Joana la Loca, and another was Catherine of Aragon, first wife of Henry VIII of England.

Vicente Pegado was headed to Sofala, in Mozambique, appointed governor by the new king. In the same year, John III sent an expedition to Brazil.

Cover of the account of an expedition to Brazil that took place in 1530. Full accounts of such travels, with detailed names, dates, and places, are extremely rare.

The new king found an amazing panoply of wealth when he reached the throne—by then, Portugal had territory on three continents, and the small country, with a population of 1.2 million, was clearly over-extended—the skies at home might still be clear and blue, but abroad the vultures were starting to circle.

The young king was very religious, and in 1536 he officially brought the inquisition into the country—a very poor decision—one that his grandfather King John II, the perfect prince, would never have countenanced. The immediate consequence was an exodus of Jews to Antwerp and Amsterdam, and a significant loss in Portuguese trading capacity, precisely when it was most necessary.

One of John III’s main challenges was to maintain control over the dazzling array of new colonies: territories in Africa, including Angola in the west, Mozambique in the east, and the numerous Portuguese enclaves in Morocco. Then there was India, Ceylon, and parts of Malaysia—three of his captains even reached Japan, the first westerners to arrive on its shores.  And on the other side of the world, Brazil—an enormous territory which was rapidly turning into a coveted target for French and Dutch pirates.

The 1530 expedition to what had once been called the land of the true cross, Vera Cruz, aimed to set up a territorial administration, a huge issue across all the Portuguese possessions.

In the diary of the expedition, a certain Baltazar Gonçalves is mentioned in connection with an incident near the town of Pernanbuco. The diary’s editor, who writes in the middle of the XIXth century, notes that this cannot be the same man who was en route to India in 1530, with a mission of dropping off Governor Pegado on the shores of Mozambique.

The town of Sofala, south of the Zambezi estuary, in 1683.

Sofala is discussed in The India Road, because the Portuguese explorer Pêro da Covilhã visited it in 1489, disguised as an Arab merchant. In the book, I describe his journey to the fabled mines of the biblical King Solomon, but that tale is apocryphal.

The third king of Israel is famous for three things: wisdom, libido, and wealth. During the forty years of his reign (970-931 b.c.), he amassed an immense fortune that included an estimated five hundred metric tons of gold—twenty billion dollars in today’s money.

But where did the gold come from? There are theories that Sofala is actually the town of Ophir, referred in the Old Testament, and that Solomon relied on the Phoenician explorers to quench his thirst for gold.

The Phoenicians were world-class navigators: they certainly reached the Indian Ocean, and were familiar with the pattern of the monsoon—northeast in the late spring and southwest in the late fall—so there’s every chance that their square-sailed galleys, which possessed both deck and keel, could have found their way down to Sofala, and returned home through Bab el Mandeb, the gate of tears at the mouth of the Red Sea, at the turn of the monsoon.

The newly arrived Portuguese governor was the first white man to reach the ancient Shona settlement of Great Zimbabwe—he named it Symbaoe. The city’s construction dated from the eleventh century, and was still ongoing in the XVth.

Whether Solomon’s gold came from the famous mine is unknown, but these days, Zimbabwe, like Brazil, is no longer celebrated for its gold.

In fact, there’s little to celebrate in Zimbabwe, because unemployment runs at ninety-five percent, and the currency is worthless—in 2008, inflation reached five hundred billion percent, and there were banknotes in circulation with a face value of one hundred trillion Zim dollars.

Like Mozambique, Zimbabwe was a powerhouse of agricultural production, but now runs a huge debt and produces very little—the GDP is lower than England before the industrial revolution.

Today, the locals celebrated the return of the crocodile—it remains to be seen who will get eaten.

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

 

Miss Bum Bum

November 18, 2017

Sex sells. And this fall there’s been a spate of sexual or quasi-sexual news, fake news, and who put what in who’s.

I suppose Harvey Weinstein got the ball rolling, so to speak, or maybe the death of Hugh Hefner a couple weeks before released the ghost of Playboy into our midst.

There’s an old story about a politician who couldn’t screw his mistress because he was too busy screwing the country—the politician and the joke may both be old, but the topic is fresh as morning dew.

I was hunting one such story, which had zero exposure in the Anglo-Saxon media: the replacement of Isabel dos Santos, the richest woman in Africa, as president of the Angolan national oil giant Sonangol.

Angola has a new president, called João Lourenço, amusingly nicknamed JLo—he succeeded one of Africa’s long-standing dictators, a man who was right up there with Mugabe—Eduardo dos Santos, or Zédu, who happens to be Isabel’s father.

African strongmen are infamous for raping their nations—raping here means screwing without consent. To find out more about Angola and Zimbabwe, where a coup centers on the future of ‘Gucci Grace’, I turned to African publications, including the Cape Times in South Africa—lo and behold, there were a couple of curious sex stories in there.

Although the article says intimate exploration is required to find out whether your undercover date is tattooed, there are clearly various degrees of difficulty—in this case, a burka would be required to hide the tats.

One was about the relationship between tattoos and adultery, in a study done by Victoria Milan, an ‘adult’ dating website targeting people in relationships who want to be in additional relationships.

People with tattoos are more likely to have a passionate extramarital affair, a new study has revealed.

A picture subtly highlighted some of the points made—I love the drooly smirk on the guy’s face—gives lubrication a whole new meaning.

There was also an article that reported the findings of Dr. Nan Wise, who placed ten women (separately) inside MRI machines and studied their brain responses while orgasming (them, not her, but read on).

With articles like this, it’s best to probe the primary source—turns out Dr. Nan is fifty-six, working on her doctoral dissertation, and profoundly into the female orgasm. Perhaps a trifle on the late side for both issues, but youth is a state of mind.

In her own, far more entertaining article, she describes an experiment, which in the best tradition of physiological research, she performs on herself.

So the plastic purple dildo and I are in the scanner, trying to make friends, and things get out of hand. The dildo is slippery and since my head and the upper half of my body is encased in the bore of the scanner, I can’t see what I am doing. The dildo sails across the small room that houses the big magnet, only to land somewhere.

There then ensues a search for the vibrator—I’ve had a couple of (dildo-free) MRIs in the past, and I assure you it wouldn’t be easy. Make a pit-stop and read the article—this is research that may qualify for an Ig® Nobel.

Then again, the competition, if you excuse the pun, is stiff. The September 2017 awards include:

  • Marc-Antoine Fardin, for using fluid dynamics to probe the question “Can a Cat Be Both a Solid and a Liquid?”
  • James Heathcote, for his medical research study “Why Do Old Men Have Big Ears?”
  • Jiwon Han, for studying the dynamics of liquid-sloshing, to learn what happens when a person walks backwards while carrying a cup of coffee.
  • Jean-Pierre Royet, David Meunier, Nicolas Torquet, Anne-Marie Mouly, and Tao Jiang, for using advanced brain-scanning technology to measure the extent to which some people are disgusted by cheese.
  • Matthew Rockloff and Nancy Greer, for their experiments to see how contact with a live crocodile affects a person’s willingness to gamble.

That last piece of research appeared in the Journal of Gambling Studies, a Springer publication. I was disappointed with the content—in my twisted mind, the experimental subjects would have been pumping coins into one-armed bandits, oblivious to their surroundings, when suddenly confronted with a large croc, snapping g’day at them.

Somewhere in all this hides a discussion on sexual mores, and the unsurprising findings that (a) powerful people abuse weaker ones; (b) many men, given the opportunity, will abuse women.

Some of the stories are pathetic, like the repeated gropings of Bush 41, who asked women if they knew who his favorite magician was, before replying ‘David Copperfield’ and enthusiastically fondling their buttocks. Call me naive, but it took me a minute to connect with cop-a-feel.

I’ll stick with naive when I see contests like the Brazilian Miss Bum Bum, which has the sole aim (sorry) of selecting the best Brazilian derriere—Brazil is funny about asses, because the country is pretty heavily against topless sunbathing, and yet invented fio dental—dental floss, as in a sparse bikini bottom—plenty of tats there for Victoria Milan to ‘study’.

Miss Bum Bum is lecherously featured in UK tabloids like The Daily Mail and The Sun, when they’re not too busy blaming Europe for Brexit, and no doubt tends to roughen the edges of Western mores, where a cat call from yesteryear is grounds for resignation.

Which must surely bring us to Judge Roy Moore, a man who seems to have lived for decades on the flip side of common sense—particularly since the United States is legendary for bringing the personal life of its politicians into the public arena, and punishing them for it.

In the case of the judge—I can’t help thinking of Judge Roy Bean, the law west of Pecos—he apparently cast his unwanted attentions on a number of teenage girls, but as far as we can tell, he ‘copperfield’ a couple of them, and thrust his tongue deep into their mouths in ‘man-kisses’ (sic—or possibly sick).

Pathetic, once again, but given all this allegedly occurred with children, there’s no excuse.

For once, the republican establishment is drawing lines in the sand, but we’ve yet to see what the good folks of Alabama will do—these are the people who elected Jeff Sessions and Donald Trump.

I’m guessing Judge Copperfield will sail into the senate.

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

 

 

 

Nod Off

November 11, 2017

An article about the Saudis seemed ideal for this week’s chronicle, particularly after reading Applebaum’s excellent analysis.

There’s an old story about a Saudi college student in Germany who writes home saying he feels bad going to classes in his Porsche—all his German friends go in by train. In short order he gets a reply from his father with a check for one million dollars. “Don’t embarrass the family—buy your own train.”

How appropriate then that the outcome of a Saudi palace coup results in imprisonment chez the Ritz-Carton.

But my appetite for this topic waned as I read with horror about the tragedy of nodding disease. To find such stories, you’re either in the mini-columns of the Sunday magazine of a Western paper, hidden behind the fashion, sport, digital media, cookery, travel, and collectible antiques, or leafing through a Sub-Saharan newspaper.

Sunday Layet, an eighteen year old Ugandan girl with nodding disease.

The journalist says the girl looks no more than ten—it’s a challenge for any man to guess a woman’s age, and the picture doesn’t give me much perspective on height, but she does seem considerably older, perhaps in her early teens.

However, the arresting part is the description of a young lady who stares vacantly for minutes at a time, her head then falling, saliva drooling out of her mouth.

For six years, Layet has spent every second of her life like this: gazing, nodding, wandering or tied to a tree. She cannot play, go to school, date… she just cannot do anything

This is the story of nodding disease, which affects parts of Africa, destroying children and families.

Sunday Layet is one of thirty-two children, borne to her father from five different wives. In a logic that reverses Western thinking, Mr. Ocitti had more children because of the prevalence of the disease, not less. Seven of Sunday’s siblings also have the disease.

And Sunday’s mother is blind.

Since these kids don’t go to school, or work in the fields, the parents leave them locked up all day, or perhaps tied to a tree. In a very African twist to this tale, the girls are preyed upon due to their disability and raped.

In one hideous case, a father remained at home when the mother left for work, and raped his own diseased daughter, giving her AIDS.

But why does this strange disease occur? The cause of such an illness might be one of four: (i) a pathogen, which is the most likely; (ii) a genetic defect; (iii) chemical contamination, like the mercury spills which killed forty-six people in Minamata, Japan, between 1948 and 1960; (iv) a nutritional deficiency.

In Uganda, Kitgum district has the highest incidence of the disease. Kitgum is at the very north of Uganda, and borders the much-troubled South Sudan. Nodding disease is by no means new, with the first descriptions appearing in South Sudan and Tanzania in the early 1960s.

The formal symptoms are fearsome, and some of the population interpret the disease as witchcraft rather than a medical condition.

  • Nodding syndrome typically affects children between five and fifteen years old
  • It is characterized by fits of nodding, often when kids are offered food or are cold
  • The seizures are brief and often lead to collapse and injury
  • It stunts the growth of body and brain, and impairs learning
  • It is poorly understood and incurable

It’s remarkable that a disease which is about sixty years old should be a source of such hardship, and yet be so badly understood—if this were a malady of the developed world, I’m certain medical progress would have been vastly different.

So what do we know?

Doctors have classified the disease as a form of epilepsy, and recent work has found that affected children have a high incidence of the parasite Onchocerca volvulus—the worm that causes river blindness.

If you think spooky soaps like Stranger Things are frightening, the life cycle of this baby is way more scary. Incidentally, if you google nodding disease, you get 465,000 hits, but if you google stranger things, you get sixty-five million—to me, that’s real scary.

The black fly, which thrives in fast moving rivers, gorges itself on human blood. During its blood meal, the female fly injects microfilariae of the worm into its victim. These develop into larvae under the skin.

Soon, the worms grow inside your skin, forming nodules or lumps. Then they mate, and after that the female worms release one thousand microfilariae into your tissue every day.

The worms live in your body up to fifteen years. The microfilariae live inside you for one to two years, and when they migrate to the eye, you go blind.

The current wisdom is that the nodding syndrome may be triggered by the human body itself, in something called an autoimmune response, where the antibodies produced to fight river blindness end up causing the syndrome.

To test whether river blindness is involved, families can be isolated or relocated to ensure kids are not bitten by the fly—what are we waiting for?

What also remains unclear is why nodding disease does not occur in many areas where river blindness exists. The mystery continues.

But above all, the greatest mystery is why we spend so much time discussing Trump’s inanities and five (hundred?) other pointless topics instead of making a child well again.

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


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