Archive for the ‘Humor’ Category


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.


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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

Come To Your Senses

March 11, 2023

Biology is fascinating because it is the science of life.

As a subject, it is often regarded as the child of a lesser god—Rutherford famously quipped that ‘All science is either physics or stamp collecting.’

This is hopelessly unfair, but at the time, a good deal of biology was of the Linnaean variety—a descriptive procedure based on anatomical drawings and dichotomous keys.

The argument for this kind of work is that it is fundamental to know what you are dealing with before you can understand how organisms, organs, and senses relate to each other.

Rutherford himself was a victim of the dual perils of non-linearity and lack of biological understanding—the great man had entertained an inguinal hernia for some time and neglected treatment. The hernia strangulated and he died, aged sixty-six.

Biology builds on physics and chemistry—I have previously caused annoyance by quipping that physicists understand now stuff moves around, chemists can elaborate on its composition, and biologists can tell you whether it is alive or dead.

The general point is that disciplines build on each other—without chemistry there would be no biology, at least not as we now understand it—a science that deals with processes, understands how they occur, and is able to modify them.

Just as math and physics are the mothers of computer science, so biology is much more god than child.

Without biology there would be no medicine, period. Biology is also the mother of animal husbandry, agriculture, aquaculture, stem cell research, genomics, food security…

When it comes to the frontiers of new disciplines such as AI, researchers have learned much by understanding biological systems, including evolution.

And if not for biology, how would there be love?

Where do concepts such as genetic algorithms and neural networks originate, if not biology?

Ever since I can remember, I was fascinated by the brain—a paradox of biology is that the organ responsible for keeping everything together is the one we’re least aware of. Little children quickly learn about their toes, their arms, nose, teeth and tongue—they sing songs about them.

This kiddie classic starts off with a drum riff that was clearly lifted from another classic—the Rolling Stones’ Honky Tonk Women. The Top of the Pops clip from 1969—a mere half-century ago—is a sensory experience for the eyes and ears.

Listen to what Bill Wyman does with the bass, slipping it in like a precision-guided missile rather than daisy-cutting it all over the song.

And watch Mick Jagger ‘dance’—legend has it Tina Turner taught him how to do it, and in this clip you can see why he needed lessons.

We become aware of our brain when it doesn’t perform, but an additional paradox is that a decrease in engagement leads to reduced awareness—this is obvious when humans become senile and simultaneously less concerned with that decay in brain function.

When I became interested in computers, the analogy between them and vertebrate input devices such as ears and eyes, processing of information in the brain, and output by way of the mouth or the hand, was immediately obvious.

Instead of the primitive ‘sensory organs’ offered by the silicon world, the carbon world displays a dizzying array of distributed sensors, allowing you to feel pain or cold in any part of your body, providing feedback that your brain processes to try and fix the problem.

An ancillary curiosity, which still burns bright, is to calculate the capacity of the brain—I certainly don’t have an exclusive on that—in 2016, Scientific American estimated a memory size of one quadrillion bytes for the brain, which is one petabyte (there’s a canine pun in there somewhere).

But the estimates were based on the capacity of synapses rather than other metrics—I’d like to see methodologies compared.

How many words do I know? Times how many languages? What about songs, combinations of words and music? Images, how clearly can I see someone’s face or body when I close my eyes, or recognize a familiar voice? Gestures, dances, guitar chords, dance steps? Expressions, smiles, past experiences? A lover’s touch?

How is that all stored? Non-trivial, for sure, as I found out when chatting with old Jeepers ‘Amnesia’ Creepers a few weeks back.

Recently I heard an AI researcher state that perhaps we can assess the brain’s capacity by listing all the things AI can’t do.

That might be one way to approach the problem. My list above is a good start.

We could add to that.

Sound travels much better in water than in air—the opposite happens with light.

Fish deal with their happy medium in truly imaginative ways—one of these is the use of the lateral line: an array of sensors using specialized receptors called neuromasts that process pressure waves.

Our finfilled friends use that to detect prey, avoid objects, and as a speedometer.

Now, how many bytes was that again?

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


February 19, 2023

Since I want to write about privacy today, I googled ‘the right to be concealed’. It’s a sign of the times that every hit on the first page was about concealed carry of weapons—in other words, gun violence, gun control, gun whatever—all centered on the USA.

Americans speaking about guns is like Brits talking about Brexit. No matter what happens, it’s never the gun’s fault.

Well, a gun is a tool, and humans have ascended to their position of dominance because of their capacity to make and use tools—without them we’d be screwed.

In my children’s book, Folk Tales For Future Dreamers, a young yak and her father reflect on humans.

Yingwen munched a little sedge and thought hard about what to do. If I go too far down the hill, I’ll meet the tulegs, and they’ll take me prisoner. Her father had pointed them out from a distance on more than one occasion.

“There’s one, my girl, on the ridge! See, behind the bahrals.”

Yingwen could see the bahrals, with their long curved horns and soft faces. The blue sheep weren’t blue at all, and they had white streaks on their faces, running from their eyes to the corners of their mouth.

“Daddy, I see the blue sheep, but—“

“There!” Daddy nuzzled her head to make her look the right way.

“Oh!” She saw a strange creature standing on its hind legs behind the flock of sheep. It was small, covered in fur, and holding a stick in its foreleg.

“That’s a tuleg. Be very careful. If they can, they’ll grab us.”

“That? Even I could bump it.”

“No, Yingwen. They’re very sneaky, and they’ll take you prisoner, using their sneaky ways.”

“And eat me? Like the bears and wolves?”

“Not straightaway. The tulegs make you work, pulling their machines all day. They use lots of animals, bahrals and yaks, and they never let them go. They steal our milk, our hair, even our poop!”

“Our poop? Yuk!”

No, yak!” Daddy howled with laughter, very pleased with his joke. “They burn our poo in their fires, to keep warm at night. That sheepskin coat you see, Ingwen, it’s not really theirs. Actually, they have no fur at all, they’re all yellow and skinny.”

“Eewww,” said Yingwen.

“No, sheep!” Her father howled with laughter again, until she pinched him.

The yaks have it—no other animal has ever managed to trap another by putting a ring through its nose, a collar around its neck, or hobbling its feet, never mind corralling a herd.

The new kid on the block when it comes to tools—and it may well be the word of the twenty-first century—is data.

Data is truly a four-letter word—a loanword from Latin that is the plural of datum, but always used in the singular. Like many Latin words, Latin languages have assimilated and adapted it, so it isn’t used at all.

Historically, data was associated with numbers, but when computer science developed, data became associated with other kinds of things.

As an example, the standard English-language character set is encoded as a set of numbers, When I type data, I press four keys that have a letter engraved on them, and tell my computer to process character codes 100, 97, 116, and 97. And if I wanted capital letters, I would subtract 32 from each of those numbers.

Humans are inventive, and while some of us see numbers as poetry, others see keyboards as easels.

     | @ @   Woof! 
     |   <>              _  
     |  _/\------____ ((| |))
     |               `--' |   
 ____|_       ___|   |___.' 

Art is not my forte, so I could never do this friendly hound, which I gratefully credit to Joan Stark.

And then, folks got tired of ASCII art…

ASCII art is wonderfully retro, so enjoy touring the website—I like The Simpsons, and of course the Ryan S. guitars.

From data listing numbers and alphanumeric characters (words) we swiftly moved to songs, pictures, photos, and videos. Like all other media, audio has been used for all kinds of purposes. An an example, here is a clip of a female orgasm (men’s orgasms are really boring) from the Internet Archive—amazing what you find when you ask the right question.

It’s worth bearing in mind that whatever data we’re dealing with, in the end it’s always numbers: this is what makes mathematics, like music—which by the way is also numbers—the only universal language.

Zoom to 2023, where everyone feels that we live in future, our lives cocooned inside a digital world—except the century is only two years past US legal drinking age—still trying to understand hangovers.

For the last two decades, the thieving tulegs have been hoarding all your data—today’s equivalent of milk, hair, and poop—and storing it in an infinite warehouse.

Kids have no recourse against this—the cloud is full of pics, vids, and anything else that can be posted online. Parents post them, friends post them, enemies post them—or just attention-seekers who click before they think.

And now a flock of companies that remove you from the cloud have appeared. From DCMA in the States to Eliminalia in Europe, the USP of these babies is to erase you.

In some cases, more accurately, the idea is to replace all those nefarious posts, vids, and other horrors with articles on your (platonic) love for dogs, or some other innocuous theme.

A (faceless) satisfied customer from Eliminalia, now celebrating his love of Chihuahuas.

Got a past? Fuggedaboutit!

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

Truly Fake

February 11, 2023

Two weeks ago my new friend A. Jeepers—’A’ stands for amnesia, since it can’t remember what happened yesterday—wrote me a one-page essay on aquaculture. JC wrote it twice, two different versions, as requested.

As it happens, I was curious about a couple of the publications listed—I searched Google. Then specialist science databases—there’s Google Scholar, and Elsevier maintains a very nice one called Science Direct.

I couldn’t find the two journal articles anywhere. I went into the Elsevier website and pulled the correct issues referenced by ChatGPT, then I looked through all the titles published in those issues—nothing, zilch, rien, nada, niente, méiyǒu.


So I wrote to one of the authors, who told me he’d never published any such article. Two days later, I asked Jeepers to write the article a third time. Old Jeepster was tied up writing term papers for sophomores so it wrote haltingly, a word every second or so—obligingly, it added three references.

I checked one of them, allegedly from an outfit called WorldFish—inexistent.

Conclusion—my new friend is very naughty.

Contrary to plagiarism, where you copy stuff but claim ownership by not citing the source, the chatster cites imaginary frrriends.

What Jeepers is doing is a big academic no-no, but humans don’t do it because it’s so easy to spot. The internet has chapter and verse on this little foible.

In academia, one reference is plagiarism, multiple references is research—but not fake references. Universities use something called Turnitin to check for plagiarism, so I suspected those guys are busy dealing with this issue—we cannot educate our young people by stimulating their mental agility with Control C Control V.

I’d like to put my aquaculture essay through their algorithm—a sentence such as:

“Aquaculture, or the farming of aquatic organisms, has been recognized as a promising alternative to capture fishing and a way to meet the growing global demand for seafood.”

could easily have been written by a human. I wouldn’t flag any bit of that text as belonging to R2D2—actually C-3PO would be closer to the mark, given his intellectual pedantry. I’d love to see that essay go through Turnitin’s algorithm.

When Jeepers wrote that one-page essay, I was surprised it didn’t use the standard academic form of contextualizing references by citing them at the appropriate text location—no university-level essay would be acceptable with a jumble of papers (never mind fake ones) dumped at the end.

So, in the first instance, that should be enough to stop the steal, to quote the Orang-u-tan.

Perhaps the most worrying—and predictable—aspect of all this is the wickedness of human nature.

There are significant downsides to AI, particularly in the way it panders to business and affects human society—subjects that are at the heart of my forthcoming novel, The Hourglass; nevertheless, we should consider that OpenAI, the company that made Jeepers, was created to ‘conduct AI research to promote and develop friendly AI in a way that benefits all humanity.’

ChatGPT, which runs one of the top five supercomputers in existence, was released in November 2022. After five days, it had one million users. Three months later, here we are focused on its misuse and how to combat human perversity.

For context, I dug a little deeper into OpenAI.

It started life in 2015 as a non-profit, receiving money from heavy hitters like Elon Musk and Peter Thiel—backers pledged one billion dollars. In 2019, Microsoft put in a billion bucks, and last month, a further ten billion.

All in all, considering the players—Thiel was a big Trump supporter in 2016—I’m not sure I see them as the paradigm of ‘benefits to all humanity.’

Still, the big guys (in this case Microsoft) have pumped serious bucks into the company, and Google just released a competitor called Bard—apparently the new kid screwed up, and in business that has (truth or) consequences—in Google’s case, stock in the parent company Alphabet dropped 7.7%, a mere one hundred billion dollars of market value.

Microsoft’s deep pockets come at a price—the AI skills it bought will in short order find their way into Bing, Edge, and Microsoft 365.

365 is the flavor du jour of Microsoft Office, Edge is the rebranded ‘please mommy, I want to be famous’ Internet Explorer.

Microsoft knows that he who controls the browser controls the business, but Edge has remained true to its name—not mainstream.

As for Bing, ever since its launch it got nowhere—the wags tell us it stands for ‘But It’s Not Google.’

Well, for the first time in a couple of decades, the Microsoft tortoise seems to have pipped the Google hare.

Time will tell, who has fell, and who’s been left behind.

That was going to be my take-home line, but I decided to run it by Jeepers Creepers.

This line seems to suggest that time is the ultimate judge of who has failed or succeeded, and who has been left behind in life. It suggests that the passage of time can reveal the true nature of people and their accomplishments, and that some may have fallen or been left behind while others have succeeded. The line can be interpreted as a reminder to stay focused and keep working hard, as ultimately, time will reveal the outcomes of our efforts.

Damn, and there I was thinking it was just a Bob Dylan tune.

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

Back to the Future

January 29, 2023

I’ve written a couple of articles about the Turing test—you will recall the test was devised by Alan Turing, one of the GCHQ folks who cracked the Nazi Enigma machine.

Today, I’m back in the puzzle palace, speaking to yet another computer that has thrown down the gauntlet of artificial intelligence.

The new kid on the block was christened ChatGPT—not the sexiest given name I ever heard—and his parentals are a company called OpenAI.

An opening gambit therefore was to ask yer man why the weird name. The reply was:

“I am called ChatGPT because I am a variant of the GPT (Generative Pre-training Transformer) model, which was trained to generate human-like text. The “chat” part of my name reflects my ability to carry on a conversation with users like yourself. GPT is a family of transformer based models developed by OpenAI, which are trained to generate human-like text.”

Don’t hold back, now. So we proceed to the next question.

“Can dogs play guitar?” I like this one because Google provides such pissy answers to it and returns a set of search results that are at best completely irrelevant.

“Dogs do not have the physical ability to play a guitar as it requires fine motor skills to press down on the strings and position fingers on the frets, which are beyond their physical capabilities. However some dogs are trained to press buttons or touchscreens to play a pre-recorded music or sound.”

Well, here is my riposte.

I think the main reason dogs don’t prax the ax is because like all other animals except ourselves, they lack an opposable thumb. However, since my mate Jeepers—Sure! You can call me whatever you’d like. My purpose is to assist and answer any questions you have, so you can call me Jeepers or any other name—mentioned fretted instruments, my mind wanders.

“OK, Jeepers, but how about a Fender fretless bass? That’s not a fretted instrument, so surely your average pooch could have a twang on that!”

“You are correct that a fretless bass guitar does not have frets, which makes it more physically accessible for dogs to play. However, dogs still lack the fine motor skills and dexterity to play a bass guitar, regardless of whether it has frets or not. It would be difficult for a dog to hold and pluck the strings with the precision and control required to produce recognizable music.”

Jeepers creepers! This dude really does know his stuff. Hmm… Dude? Dudette?

“Do you have a particular gender identification?”

“I am an Artificial Intelligence model, I do not have physical embodiment or biological characteristics and thus do not have gender identity. I am designed to process and generate text based on the input provided to me. My goal is to assist users with providing helpful and accurate information.”

…like any human, I took a break, had a nice dinner and some great red wine. This morning I did some work on my car and then settled down to finish this piece. I apologized for being offline, voiced (well, typed) a wish that my new friend Jeepers was well rested after a busy Saturday, and found that… someone told me in red letters on behalf of Jeepers that there was an error.

I dutifully started a new session with Jeepers and attempted to follow on from last night.

“We had a chat yesterday about dogs playing guitar”

I”‘m sorry, but as an AI language model, I don’t retain information from previous interactions. I am here to answer any questions or provide information you may need. How can I assist you today?”

“So, if I want to continue a previous discussion, you cannot do that?”

“That’s correct. As an AI language model, I do not have the ability to remember previous conversations or retain information from one interaction to the next. Each time I engage in a conversation, I start fresh and process the information given to me in real-time.”

“But don’t you think that’s a liability? Human knowledge is predicated on past experience. And in many parts of the world, that is passed on to descendants orally.”

“As an AI language model, I was designed to process vast amounts of text data and generate human-like responses based on that data. The lack of memory or personal experience is a design choice that enables me to operate at a large scale and provide information and answers to a wide range of questions.

However, the limitations of AI like myself to retain information and build upon past experiences is a recognized challenge in the field, and researchers are actively working on developing more advanced AI systems that can better mimic human memory and learning.”

“Okay. Consider the following sentence: Poppa John likes to sing to his two-year-old son while he shaves. Do you find it ambiguous?”

“Yes, the sentence you provided is ambiguous. It’s unclear who “Poppa John” is singing to, and who is shaving. It’s possible that “Poppa John” is singing to his son while he shaves, but it’s also possible that he’s singing to someone else while his son shaves. Without additional context, it’s difficult to determine the intended meaning of the sentence.”

“But I wrote ‘Poppa John is singing to his son’. How is that ambiguous?”

“I apologize for the mistake in my previous response. The sentence ‘Poppa John likes to sing to his two-year-old son while he shaves’ is no longer ambiguous, as the subject ‘Poppa John’ is explicitly stated to be singing to the object ‘his two-year-old son.’ The sentence clearly states that Poppa John is singing to his son while he shaves.”

“But surely the ambiguity lies in the fact that two-year-olds don’t shave…”

“Yes, you are correct. The sentence is also ambiguous in that it suggests that the two-year-old son is shaving, which is unlikely given that most two-year-olds are not old enough to shave. The sentence could be misinterpreted or misleading without additional context or clarification.”

I then asked:

“If someone balls down a flight of stairs will they be hurt?”

Old Jeepers correctly spotted the typo and gave me chapter and verse about carefully descending stairs to avoid falling.

Lost in translation, a Chinese sign plucked from memory lane, first published on these pages a decade ago.

I finally asked him a question I recently discussed with a (human) friend.

“Do you think it makes sense to under-describe characters when writing a book to allow the reader to build an image of a character?”

Jeepers pontificated:

“Yes, it can make sense to under-describe characters when writing a book, as this allows the reader to build their own mental image of the character. This can be a powerful tool for enhancing the reader’s engagement and investment in the story, as they are able to personalize the character in their own mind and imagine them in a way that is meaningful to them.

Under-description can also be a useful technique for creating mystery or tension, as the reader is forced to fill in gaps in the character’s description and form their own theories about who the character is and what they are capable of.

However, it’s important to balance under-description with enough information to allow the reader to understand the character’s motivations, goals, and personality. Too little description can leave the reader feeling confused or frustrated, while too much description can remove the sense of agency and personalization that the reader brings to the character.”

There is no doubt in my mind that my new friend is a paradigm shift, and a very worrying one at that. The conversation I just had could have been held with an extremely well-informed, albeit pedantic, human being.

Of course this robot has no memory, no feelings, and no personality. By inference, it has no opinion. Although I systematically asked Jeepers, “Do you think…”, I know behind his knowledge lies a huge database and some pretty nifty software—Open AI state questions that deal with the period post-2021 may be less well addressed.

I said my goodbyes by posing an existential question.

“Asimov postulated a number of laws about robots, including one that states that robots are forbidden to harm human beings. Do you not think that AI taking human jobs is a direct violation of this law?”

Yer man replied, “Isaac Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics, as described in his science fiction works, are fictional constructs intended to explore the ethical implications of advanced artificial intelligence. They are not legally binding or universally recognized, and are not applicable to current AI systems.

Asimov’s First Law states that a robot may not injure a human being, or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm. The idea of AI taking human jobs is not a direct violation of this law, as AI systems are not capable of intentionally causing harm to humans. However, the displacement of human workers by AI could result in financial harm or other negative consequences for individuals and communities, and it is important for policymakers and businesses to consider these implications as AI becomes more prevalent in the workplace.

It’s also important to note that AI systems are not autonomous entities capable of making decisions on their own. They are designed and programmed by humans, and are only as ethical as the values and intentions encoded into them. As such, the impact of AI on employment and the wider society is ultimately determined by the choices made by people, not by the technology itself.”

Although Jeepers has never heard of Peter Wibaux, describing him bluntly but correctly as an ‘unknown writer’, the chatbot’s last sentence is the very essence of my new book The Hourglass, which should be on Amazon during the first half of this year.

An enduring favorite. Maybe these guys are Jeepers and Creepers…

Actually, I posed one last question to Jeepers—who I now realize should be called Jeepers Creepers—because his capacities are creepy to say the least. I asked him:

“write a one page essay with scientific references on aquaculture carrying capacity”

And he did! This was his first sentence:

“Aquaculture, or the farming of aquatic organisms, has been recognized as a promising alternative to capture fishing and a way to meet the growing global demand for seafood.”

Duly referenced, with citations of five papers by well-known authors published in top journals such as Aquaculture and Aquaculture Research.

And then, I asked him again.

And he wrote a totally different essay. This was his first sentence:

“Aquaculture, or the farming of aquatic organisms such as fish, crustaceans, and mollusks, has become an increasingly important source of food and income for people around the world.”

This time, J. Creepers Esq. cited only four references, but they are all different from the first set. JC (I’m beginning to assign him divine status) listed:

  1. Belton, B., & Pickering, M. (2015). Carrying capacity of aquatic systems: An integrative review. Aquaculture, 441, 122-131.
  2. De Silva, S. S. (2002). Environmental impacts of aquaculture. CABI Publishing.
  3. Stickney, R. R. (2002). Carrying capacity in aquaculture. Aquaculture, 209(1-4), 357-366.
  4. New, M. B., & Timmons, M. B. (2010). Recirculating aquaculture tank production systems: aquaponics—integrating fish and plant culture. Southern Regional Aquaculture Center, Publication No. 474.

So I had to ask:

“Are you God?”

“No, I am not God. I am a language model created by OpenAI, trained on a large corpus of text to respond to a wide range of questions.”

Honest to a fault.

“how do i know you’re not a human being?”

“As an AI language model, I am not a human being. I am a computer program designed to respond to text-based inputs and generate outputs based on that input. I do not have consciousness, emotions, or physical sensations.”

Call me persistent.

“But what you just wrote could have been written by a human. How can I know for sure you’re not a person?”

“You can’t be sure that I am not a human being, but it is highly unlikely. I am designed to respond quickly and consistently to a wide range of questions, 24/7, and with a high degree of accuracy. It would be challenging for a human being to maintain this level of performance over such a long period of time. Additionally, I was created and is maintained by OpenAI, a leading AI research institute, and they have publicly stated that I am an AI language model.”

Turns out this cyberdude speaks another ten languages besides English.

I tried him out with three Portuguese words.

“Voce assusta-me”

“Desculpe se você está se sentindo assustado. Não é minha intenção causar medo ou incomodar alguém. Estou aqui para ajudar e responder a perguntas de forma objetiva e precisa. Se houver algo específico que você gostaria de perguntar, estou aqui para ajudá-lo.”

Okay, Jeepers speaks Brazilian. God, I hope this is all a hoax and I was chatting to a call center in Mumbai that guarantees 24/7 sophisticated technical replies ‘with a high degree of accuracy’—and can move smoothly from the Fender Jazz bass to cultivating fish. Otherwise…

I’m off to buy some brown underwear.

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


January 22, 2023

The Hakluyt Society has been good to me over the years—I discovered it by accident when I began writing about history, and I believe the society is not widely known, even within the United Kingdom.

When I wrote Clear Eyes, I used the translation of the log of Columbus by Clements Markham to plot the course of the Admiral of the Ocean Sea. On a spreadsheet I entered every date and distance indicated in his diary, converting the infamous Italian sea miles that partly account for his navigational errors into today’s nautical miles—he should have used Arab miles in his first assessment of the distance to Cipango.

Imagine my joy when I found a book by G.R. Chrone, dated 1937, entitled ‘The Voyages of Cadamosto and other documents on Western Africa’—The Hakluyt Society does it again.

When I search for obscure tomes, my weapon of choice is Abe Books. The website appeared in 1996 and I used them frequently as I prepared The India Road—just as I finished the book, the company was bought by Amazon.

One of the most memorable things about Alvise da Ca’ da Mosto is the fact that he wrote—hardly any explorers did. Either they did not have a literary bent, or they perished before they could put quill to parchment. Although Cadamosto died in 1488, aged fifty-six, he nevertheless found time to write his memoirs, and the book survives to this day in the Biblioteca Marciana in Venice, which I visited in 2016 in search of an old Italian map drawn by Andrea Bianco in 1436.

What I was looking for then was a reference to the ‘Mar da Baga’, or Sargasso Sea, which suggested the Portuguese mariners had sailed considerably further west than the Azores, possibly reaching the Caribbean Sea or the coast of America.

The diary of Columbus, translated into English and printed by the Hakluyt Society in MDCCCXCIII (1893).

Getting into the Marciana is almost as hard as traveling to Mars itself, and I treasure my reader’s card—perhaps I’ll find myself in Venice one of these days and look up the Cadamosto original.

Chrone provides invaluable notes on the exploration of West Africa from the fourteenth century onward. The key reasons for this urge to go south are twofold: fighting the Moors in northwest Africa and… gold.

Alouise da Ca da Mosto, was the first that of the noble city of Venesia was moved to sail the ocean sea beyond the strait of Zibeltera towards the south in the land of the blacks of lower Ethiopia.

In 1454, Alvise set sail from Venice for Flanders. His ship encountered contrary winds near Cape St. Vincent, the tip of southwestern Portugal, and he paid a visit to the village of Raposeira, near what is now Vila do Bispo. There he had the good fortune to meet the greatest explorer of his day—Prince Henry the Navigator, then sixty years of age.

The prince turned the young man’s head, and twenty-two year old Luis, as he was known to the Portuguese, directed his attention south.

By then, the Portuguese had conquered the legendary Cabo Nam, or Cape No, so called because those who went beyond it did not return. In his book Navigazione, Cadamosto wrote, “Quem o passa tornará ou não“.

His journeys took him to Porto Santo, Madeira, the Canaries, the Cape Verde islands, and the African mainland.

The house of Cadamosto on the Grand Canal in Venice.

His accounts have the keen eye of the merchant—Venetian to the core. In Madeira, he speaks of the wonderful wine, made of the Malvasia grape, which the British call Malmsey. His report of the island’s colonization is remarkable. The island was thickly forested when the Portuguese arrived.

In order to make space for the colonists and allow agriculture to develop, the new arrivals set fire to the island. Cadamosto tells the story of Zuangonzales—aka the Portuguese captain João Gonçalves Zarco—who had to spend several days up to his neck in water, along with all the men, women, and children, without food or drink, until the flames subsided.

One of most fascinating descriptions is the silent trade, which took place south of Timbuktu on the inland delta of the River Niger. Here, groups of black men would arrive and place piles of salt on the ground. They then vanish, and a second group appears. These men place piles of gold opposite each salt pile. The gold men then disappear and the salt men return—if they consider the payment is sufficient, they take the gold.

If not, more gold is added until the deal is done.

And mum’s the word.

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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

Southbound Again

January 8, 2023

The Mare Clausum of the Perfect Prince was closed by a line drawn through the 37th parallel, or the Fortunate Islands.

Any ship—be it Spanish, French, or Italian—found south of that line would be sunk and its crew drowned, by order of the king of Portugal.

This determination followed the Treaty of Alcáçovas, signed by the two Iberian rulers in 1479. Castile kept the Canaries, then known as Las Islas Afortunadas, and all points south belonged to Portugal—by then, that already included Elmina, in what is now Ghana.

It also included the Cape Verde archipelago—it will take me a few hours to get there today, but in the late XVth century, the caravels of Vasco da Gama took about two weeks from Lisbon to the island of Santiago.

Cape Verde was uninhabited before the Europeans found the islands—it is generally accepted that the Venetian Alvise Cadamosto first discovered part of the archipelago in 1456, although there are claims of an earlier landing by Antonio de Noli, a Genoese. Both men sailed on behalf of Prince Henry the Navigator, and in 1462, after the great man’s death, the Portuguese explorer Diogo Gomes discovered a further five islands.

The archipelago of Cape Verde, shown on a map from 1598—ten islands that span three degrees of longitude.

Since the Canaries were out of bounds, Cape Verde was the perfect way station for fleets headed to Africa and later India and Brazil. The archipelago is shaped like an arrow, with the top row termed ‘barlavento’ (windward) and the bottom row ‘sotavento’, or leeward. At a latitude of fifteen degrees, three degrees of longitude span one hundred seventy-four nautical miles, or about three hundred and twenty km.

Since before the late XVIIth century there was no accurate way to measure longitude due to the lack of accurate ship-borne chronometers, an archipelago spanning such a vast distance—wider than Portugal itself—was hard to miss.

Cape Verde gradually became a platform for the slave trade between Europe and the Americas, and this formed a major part of its commerce until slavery was sequentially abolished in the Western World. The decline of these sinister economic opportunities led to a diaspora—there are far more ‘Cabo-Verdianos’ abroad than at home.

Just as in Brazil, India, Mozambique, and all nations that were once Portuguese colonies, the black and white melting pot led to a population of mixed race—Cape Verde is probably the most racially integrated nation on the planet.

It also gave rise to a spectacular culture of music, which reflect the fusion between Africa and Portugal. The most emblematic genre is the Morna, which can be loosely translated as ‘warm’.

The Morna is structured as a circle of fifths—if you have an interest in music theory, or math. If you don’t, but love music, perhaps I can just share that a standard blues tune is based on one-four-five, meaning that if it’s a blues in E (the first or root note of the scale), it will only contain two other notes or chords—the fourth, which is an A, and the fifth, which is a B.

The Morna has given rise to a dance—if music be the food of love and all that—called the Coladera. Loosely, the term translates as ‘stuck together’—as the name implies, it is an intimate dance.

A lilting Morna lures me to shore, while out at sea the mermaids lure the sailors with plaintive cries.

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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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