Archive for the ‘Technology’ Category

Nian

January 19, 2020

I was going to call this article the Year of the Rat, since Monday marks the beginning of the Chinese New Year. If you were born in 1996, 1984, 1972, 1960, 1948, or points south, this is your year.

However, I found a previous article by that name, and the rule is no repeats. It’s worth recalling why that name was given, back in 2013.

…apparently rats, and a host of other vermin, masquerading as mutton, have been consistently sold to consumers in China…

The Middle Kingdom doesn’t do things by halves—nine hundred arrests, twenty thousand tons of fake meat products. In these days of austerity, ten million Portuguese would eat for a week!

Twenty thousand metric tons of rat? A fair-sized rodent weighs in at about half a pound, or 250 grams, so we’re talking eighty thousand rats—you’d need a pretty large sewer.

Oops, I hope you’re not reading this over lunch!

The Chinese New Year is celebrated as the Spring Festival—a little early in 2020, because it is set by the lunar calendar, and this year the date falls on January twenty-fifth, almost two months short of the astronomical spring.

But don’t you believe for a minute this dampens their enthusiasm.

China is a country that moves together—it’s a collective system, a highly cooperative society. It needs to be, otherwise 1.4 billion people could not coexist—individualism is frowned upon, as reflected in the aphorism ‘man who shine too brightly cast a long shadow.’

I’m not being jocular about the grammar, I’m making the point that Mandarin doesn’t have any. No articles, definite or otherwise, no prepositions, no verb tenses, no capitals, no punctuation—if you want to ask a question you tag ma on the end of a sentence.

nǐ dē míng zì shì shěn mé or 你的名字是什么

your name is what (question)

The capacity and motivation of the Chinese to act collectively is potentially very dangerous—when the country moves, it really shifts. On the other hand, individual opinions and ideas are frowned upon, so Western education, innovation, and technology have an edge there.

The Middle Kingdom shuts down during the festival. Contrary to the West, red is a lucky color, so that’s what you wear—and of course, no Chinese celebration would be complete without fireworks—after all, they invented them.

The Chinese perform a ritual cleaning of their homes and their bodies for the Spring Festival, a true ‘spring-clean‘, and go forth to visit family—today and much of next week will be extremely busy at all Chinese airports, on the road, and on the huŏchē (火车), or train.

Chinese and German are similar in that both languages are based on compound words—in Mandarin there is little choice, since a ‘word’ is just a sequence of characters: car is a vapor vehicle, train is a fire vehicle, and bus is public common vapor vehicle (4 characters, 公共汽车 spoken gōnggòngqìchē).

The traditional greeting at this time of year is guò nián hăo, literally ‘celebrate year good.’ Of course, with so few sounds available, a slight variation of guo means something entirely different.

guo means dog in Mandarin. When I reviewed the usage examples in my Chinese app, everything was going so well until that last one…

nian (年), pronounced nien, as in Vienna, is a monster whose favorite pastime is eating people and animals all year round. The annual monster can be driven off with the color red, and the Chinese exchange the greeting in the hope of a monster-free year.

This is a time to buy new clothes, matching the clean house and body, and of course to give presents. In Xi Jinping’s China, gifts and banquets have become a sign of corruption, but this time of year is special—the Chinese manufacture and sell all the West’s Christmas products, from cellphones to sellotape, then they have another shopping boom before their own new year, then they clear inventory—now’s a good time to grab a good price on consumer electronics from the Middle Kingdom.

Everything in China comes with rules, and guò nián is no exception. There are rules for food, as in the West, but there are other interesting restrictions—it is forbidden to speak of death or illness, and the character 四 (, pronounced shèh) cannot be spoken, for it is the number four, and the word for death is also sǐ (but a different tone, indicated by the diacritical mark).

The ‘4’ superstition actually merits a Wikipedia entry for tetraphobia! I don’t suffer from it, but I made sure my phone number has no fours in it—no creo en brujas, pero que las hay, las hay.

Out of all the foibles related in the Wikipedia article, this is the most fascinating one.

The British Medical Journal reported in a study that looked at mortality statistics in the United States over a 25-year period. They found that on the fourth day of the month, Asian people were thirteen percent more likely to die of heart failure. In California, Asians were twenty-seven percent more likely to die of a heart attack on that day.

Twenty percent of the world’s population will go nuts next week, forgetting all about Trump, trade deals, and Taiwan-China conflicts.

Shanghai is the ‘fun’ city, by contrast with Beijing. In 1946, this is how they ushered in the Year of the Dog.

At the very end of the last day of 2019, to mark the start of 2020, they laid on an amazing drone display for the Western new year, broadcast on TV all over the world—except it never happened.

Let’s see what they come up with next weekend. I could be something like this.

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

Glossolalia

January 11, 2020

It sounds like a medical condition—so much so that I’m going to try it on some friends next week in Amsterdam and see how it flies.

“Sorry, I’m off the red wine at the moment—diagnosed with a stubborn case of glossolalia, I’m afraid.” Perplexed looks, perhaps the odd sympathetic murmur.

“No, no, it’s a mild liver infection, not too serious.”

But in fact, this is a word concocted by some particularly cunning linguists (as opposed to master debaters, to quote the legendary Austin Powers).

I’d forgotten how good the original clip is—it meets my exacting standards for sophomoric humor.

So… glossolalia it is, my friends—known to mere mortals as speaking in tongues—an amazing gift first revealed in the gospel of St. Mark, Chapter 16, Verse 17.

And these signs shall follow them that believe; In my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues;

Jesus performed the miracle of glossolalia on his disciples, who then held forth to their audiences in tongues—contrary to Babel, where a cacophony of different languages was understood by none, in the Jerusalem square where the apostles preached the gospel, everyone heard it in their own ‘tongue.’

In this context, the word ‘tongue’ is itself interesting. In several European er… languages, it’s synonymous with ‘language’, as in the French ‘langue’, Italian or Portuguese ‘lingua’, or the Spanish ‘lengua’. In English, phrases like ‘mother tongue’ do not refer to a protuberant piece of maternal anatomy but presumably to an older word for language—today, ‘What is your favorite tongue?’ might well be taken the wrong way.

The gift is clear—you hold forth in Hebrew and are understood in Somali. One assumes that those who possess such a gift can also reverse the process—when addressed in one of the sixty-six indigenous languages of Burkina Faso, the plain English equivalent is readily understood.

There is a caveat to this narrative—the Apostle Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, Chapter 14, suggests that glossolalia may be a different beast altogether.

For anyone who speaks in a tongue does not speak to people but to God. Indeed, no one understands them; they utter mysteries by the Spirit

If the apostle epistle is to be believed, then it is almost as if there is some kind of telepathy at play, rather than simultaneous translation.

Whatever the mechanism, the concept and consequence are the holy grail of communication. In 1887, a Polish doctor attempted to resolve the problem of universal comms with a second, or auxiliary, language—Esperanto; but the number of speakers today is only estimated to be between sixty-three thousand and two million—after one hundred thirty years? I don’t think so.

Enter AI, which is rapidly slicing through all sorts of hitherto intractable problems. The combination of computational speed and artificial intelligence makes translation on the fly a reality today.

In 2003, a Swede and a Dane invented Skype. Unlike Esperanto, Skype needs no introduction—usage numbers in 2010 were around six hundred and sixty million, about ten percent of the world population, but after Microsoft bought it in May 2011 for 8.5 billion dollars, things went downhill.

Partly, that speaks to Microsoft’s penchant to screw things up—I’ve used their products for decades, but no one would ever call them sexy. Cool stuff like Zoom, Facetime, WhatsApp, and Hangouts stuck the knife in deep over the last decade, but Microsoft’s gift for complicating stuff hasn’t helped matters.

They have, however, made giant strides when it comes to tongues. Microsoft has used its AI capacity to add simultaneous translation to Skype.

But the process hasn’t all been a bed of roses. To validate the quality of the translation—a point well made by Austin Powers when discussing his rod—mickeysoft involved humans in its translation analysis, with little consideration for the private nature of conversations.

An article in Motherboard recently discussed the software giant’s use of private contractors to verify translation accuracy, with what appeared to be minimal security when it came to data protection—contractors were privy to intimate conversations, and this will undoubtedly anger many users.

It may be cold comfort, but the Snowden leaks revealed in 2013 that Microsoft already shares data from its Skype supernodes with the NSA and other intelligence agencies—no translation required.

These little hiccups aside, once the door opens, ideas will come flooding in. Enter Snapdragon 865, the new 5G chip from Qualcomm, which was recently showcased in Maui. the AI product boss, Ziad Asghar, spoke into a cellphone in English, and his words were simultaneously broadcast in Chinese.

The new decade will produce phones that allow you to speak in tongues, opening up a whole new world of communication. There are downsides—the main one being that this will reduce the incentive to learn new languages.

When you speak another language or two, it helps you learn more about your own. It also opens your mind to new peoples and cultures—breaking down barriers destroys silos and promotes peace and harmony.

But change is inexorably coming, and as Churchill said, ‘We must take change by the hand or rest assuredly, change will take us by the throat.’

Or, as my Chinese friends would say, we’re all grossorarians now.

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

Red Tape

December 29, 2019

The idiom originated in Spain, during the reign of Emperor Charles V—ruler of an empire on which the sun never set.

Red tape was used to bind important official documents—it emphasized priority; the concept and color were taken up by governments across the world, and the expression is still used to describe any bureaucratic excess.

In Europe, the southern countries, including Italy, Greece, Spain, and Portugal are regarded as an administrative nightmare when compared to the Netherlands, Scandinavia, or Britain.

This reputation is well deserved. Decades ago, whenever I had to deal with any matter related to documents for jobs, houses, cars, or anything else, I used to pack a royal flush of materials before setting out.

It was a joy to pull out the most unexpected items from my briefcase—as in any proper game of poker, there would be some bluffing involved, and cards would be requested by the civil servant sitting opposite you—if you had enough aces, you might carry the day.

This is a high stakes game, where you can jeopardize a three-hour wait in a queue in a space of three minutes because you don’t hold a strong hand.

In China, India, the Mid-East, and South America, the situation is far worse. And then there’s Africa. Because policy guidelines are in many cases unclear, the process of acquiring something is often discretionary—money is an integral part of getting anything done.

Many years ago, I was told about a man who presented himself at the border station of Ressano Garcia, the gateway from Mozambique into Gauteng—formerly Transvaal—and was confronted by a border official, who fixed him with a steady gaze and demanded, “Documentos!

The man replied, “Está tudo aqui menos a certidão de óbito“—it’s all here except my death certificate— and handed over a sheaf of papers. After a protracted examination and much rubber-stamping, the official pushed the papers back over, glared at the man, and said, “Para a próxima não se esqueça“—next time don’t forget.

The Komatipoort border post, made famous through the escape of Winston Churchill from the Boers in the late XIXth century.

Although Komatipoort is a pain—I braved the crossing in 2003 and the memory lingers—there is far worse.

One major difference between the Anglo-Saxon nations, such as the US, Canada, and Britain, and their Latin counterparts, is the concept of an ID card. Those nations have always seen the card, and its associated fingerprinting, as symptomatic of a police state—why should a citizen need to be identified by the authorities unless he or she is convicted of a crime?

Of course, since nine-eleven, with the enormous progress in computational image processing, this has become a moot point—in fact, some fascinating work is underway on an e-nose, which combines AI, chemistry, and biology—soon a robot will sniff you out as readily as your dog does.

In the US, the lack of ID to track the general population has led to the use of driving licenses as a proxy police database—what the  cops really want are  photos of drivers, because automated image recognition of suspects at a crime scene will readily provide them with names and addresses.

Presently, according to a piece in the Washington Post, there are one hundred twenty million pictures in searchable photo databases—these are widely used by the police and can be accessed from a laptop inside a prowler.

This is tantamount to a national ID system, practically indistinguishable from the Spanish DNI or the Italian Carta di Identitá. The UK and Ireland don’t issue ID, but undoubtedly the authorities in those countries will follow the lead of their American cousins—by and large, faces are almost as good as fingerprints as an identification technique, and they’re a lot easier to capture on CCTV.

All this sounds very ‘Big Brother’, but in Southern European countries, the ID cards are now serving another purpose—in this case, a force for good.

It’s practically impossible to change civil service mentalities, which perpetuates the petty and punitive dictatorship that encumbers citizens at every turn, but the internet has arrived to save the day.

An ordinary credit card (or ID) reader costs about fifteen bucks and throws open the door to endless possibilities. With a simple PIN verification system, any citizen can deal with an increasing number of bureaucratic nightmares, turning them into a swift and gratifying experience—matters that took days to solve are done in minutes.

Presential verification of identity can now be replaced by a card reading, a PIN code, a digital signature… the drive to simplify administrative procedures means that documents that previously needed to be generated in parallel agencies, then handed in and filed, can now be directly retrieved through connected databases that work within government.

I first discovered this when I renewed my driving license a few months back. I was sitting in a public waiting room, watching numbers on a screen move at glacial speed, when I decided to fire up my laptop and look for alternatives. In minutes I’d dealt with the whole process online—I happily trashed my ticket and went on my way.

Since then, I’ve found more and more options—updating your address and other personal details, obtaining birth, death, or land registry certificates, getting court filings, buying and selling cars, booking an appointment at a health center, and of course all things related to tax. In Portugal, and no doubt elsewhere, the financial authorities were the first to launch an internet platform where such matters can be dealt with.

A few years ago, the platform was clunky and mercurial. Now, it’s slick and consistent. Whenever the language is convoluted and arcane, you know some red tape trapeze artist was behind the formulations—but at least there’s only one version, and once you learn the recipe, success is assured.

Gone are the Russian roulette days when each bureaucrat behind the counter  turned their own opinion into the law of the land—citizens often took multiple ticket numbers, and when they were unsuccessful with one civil servant, would try again when called to the adjoining booth, hoping for better luck.

In Portugal, the full list of services is available at the ePortugal website, and in Britain, the GOV.UK site appears to be the equivalent. However, whereas the Portuguese site is completely focused on doing, the UK one is much more oriented towards information. Nevertheless, I played around with their online passport app.

After a brave attempt to upload my passport photo, the image analysis software provided some disturbing feedback.

I got as far as the photo upload part, with a little help from my friendly (and unsuspecting) canine co-conspirator. I find the last comment perplexing—if I have a medical reason for not opening my eyes, then surely I can’t read the feedback.

And for the record, it was a perfectly good photo, although the hound looks mega-guilty after trashing her bed.

I tried to apply online for a Spanish DNI. The only page I found promises four steps, but unfortunately the first one is… go to an Oficina de Expedición. In all fairness, there’s a further site for obtaining a cita, or appointment, but it doesn’t look like an online renewal form to me.

I don’t honestly think it matters.

What does matter, as I write my last article before the new decade, is that technology is vanquishing bureaucracy. Governments are born copycats, and as soon as one gets it right, others will follow, sooner or later.

This will be driven by three factors.

The first is centralization of digital data—online administration will provide a wealth of consolidated information, and the hook for many people will be avoiding long queues and soul-destroying pettiness—all the forms will get filled.

The second is finance—many jobs will go, but in this case, I for one will rejoice. Of course, as soon as the right software model is in place, the IT companies can sell it far and wide—that’s where lobbying and ex-politicians come in.

The last one is votes. In any country where bureaucracy rules, a paradigm shift toward a simplified set of consistent procedures, in an environment that is calm and friendly—I hope that’s the definition of your home—will be popular with citizens and employers.

When a problem is solved, no one talks about it. Why talk about something that isn’t there? One hundred years ago, people talked about refrigerators. Where you put what, who manufactured it… Today, no one cares. Veggies in the bottom, ice on top, a bunch of other stuff in between.

I cherish the day when no one in Southern Europe talks about bureaucratic nightmares, because they don’t exist. And that day is coming.

Now there’s a resolution for the New Decade.

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

Energy

December 14, 2019

Pistons, cylinders, and wheels are at the heart of civilization.

The movement of piston and cylinder is pretty obvious from our own sexual behavior—and humans think of sex all the time—but when Man invented the wheel, it was definitely a game-changer.

It can’t have taken long to realize that you could couple a wheel to a shaft, that the wheel could drive the shaft, and that the shaft could drive the wheel.

From then on, the possibilities were endless—vehicles, pumps, and tools of all kinds became available to society.

The next challenge was to harness the energy for operating these creations. Humans enslaved other humans to do that work, and in addition they enslaved other animals.

In much of the world, slavery is a thing of the past, but in most countries mammals such as donkeys, mules, oxen, and yaks still discharge those duties. They perform their services in exchange for food and lodging, whipped into submission, indentured to servitude from womb to tomb, bound by a contract in which they had no part.

In my children’s book, Folk Tales For Future Dreamers, a yak explains the issue in plain language to his incredulous daughter.

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.

Natural sources were the next step in harnessing energy. Water, wind, and tide powered mills—in Al Andalus, the Moors were experts in using nature to drive these devices, a good many of which survive to this day.

But eight centuries before the Arabs invaded the Iberian Peninsula, a Greek named Hero of Alexandria described a steam-driven device that was capable of rotating a wheel. Nevertheless, it took one thousand eight hundred years before the Frenchman Savary built a working steam engine.

Savary’s engine was not efficient, and it was significantly improved upon by a little known Portuguese scientist—Portugal has never been kind to its own, and although Bento de Moura Portugal was a member of the Royal Society, and even bore the nation’s name, he died in prison in Lisbon due to his political ideas, courtesy of the inquisition and the Marquis of Pombal.

The collected writings of Bento de Moura Portugal, a great scientist who was scorned by his country.

Thomas Newcomen further improved the steam engine, and towards the close of the XVIIIth century, the Scotsman James Watt finally developed a machine that could be used efficiently.

Factories no longer needed to be located next to rivers—a huge push for industry—and mobility on road and rail had arrived. The success of steam was relatively short-lived, as the external combustion engine was overtaken by the internal combustion engine, ushering in the age of oil.

The whole of the last century has been predicated on black gold—the viscous mess has been responsible for the rise of the Middle East, and the reason for countless wars.

This week, Saudi Aramco (formerly the Arabian American Oil Company) was floated on the Tadawul stock exchange, but you’ll have a job buying shares if you’re in the West. Aramco touched a valuation of two trillion dollars on the second day of trading, so oil is still a thing—but the writing is on the wall.

Renewables are becoming increasingly popular and competitive, and we are returning to natural sources—the wind, the sun, and the tides.

All over Europe, the push is for electric cars, with Germany, the leading European manufacturer of diesel and petrol automobiles, leading the pack. With that comes a shift away from fossil fuels, which has now become a generational cry championed by XR, the Extinction Rebellion. Right now, the United States is on a different tack on this issue, but that too shall pass.

Perhaps the era of oil will last a total of two hundred years, maybe less—just as with steam, much depends on the next big thing, but by the year 2050 electric vehicles will be strong competitors, helped by major improvements in battery technology, cheap renewable energy, taxation on carbon emissions, and the votes of Generation Z.

The consequences for the Mid-East are not hard to envisage—I made a stab at those in my book Atmos Fear.

The next steps will come with marine engines, and of course, air travel.

A few days ago, a Canadian company called Harbour Air became the first to offer commercial flights on electric planes. The engine is made by Seattle-based Magnix, and promises to save around half of the fuel costs of conventional aircraft.

Plane tickets will be cheaper, and you’ll say goodbye to Doha and Dubai.

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

Touted

October 26, 2019

Last Saturday night, I got touted.

I’m using the verb in an unusual way—by convention, when something is touted, it is promoted or claimed.

But when I say I got touted, I wasn’t in any way the object of promotion. On the contrary, I got screwed.

Back in the day (and they’re still around) a tout might approach you at the subway exit, or in a park next to a sports stadium or a concert venue. The show may vary, but the game is unvarying.

I grew up with analog touts—always guys, always shady, slightly more presentable than a heroin dealer, slightly less pushy than a mugger.

The typical tout would operate on behalf of someone else, the toutmeister—the guy with the capital to purchase a stock of tickets in the first place, and to take the financial risk—just as with drugs, and so many other businesses: risk it, buy it, flog it.

But where a human tout might nag and cajole you, there were only three ways he could scam you—falsely persuade you that box office tickets were sold out, hike the price, or sell you a fake ticket.

That last one is a little tricky—to the extent I will only find out in December if the tickets I was touted with are genuine—there may be a Touted Part II.

Many years ago, an English guy I knew was driving along in southern Portugal. A traffic policeman flagged him down and he pulled to a stop by the side of the road, by a row of olive trees. The day was hot, and the cop waited until the dust settled on the verge; then he walked up to the Ford and saluted.

Documentos,” he said.

The Englishman only knew two words in Portuguese. Cerveja—beer, and obrigado—thank-you. In those days, Portuguese people got by in French better than in English, but the two words, together with a little mime, usually did the trick.

Documentos,” the cop repeated.

The man handed him the car registration. The policeman wanted ID.

The Englishman reached into his wallet and produced a single quarter-sheet of paper. It was official-looking, contained his name in an underline at the top, and a list of items below that, together with some numbers and a signature.

The traffic cop scrutinized the British driving license—he had never seen one before. He examined the document again, unable to fathom what any of the words or numbers meant.

Boa tarde.” Satisfied, he handed back the documents, saluted, and headed to his vehicle.

The Englishman put the paper back in his wallet and drove off, grinning. This would make quite a story in the pub. The quarter-sheet was a laundry bill from a Hertford dry cleaner, made out to Mr. Jack Ramsey. Itemized were one pair of trousers and three shirts.

Fake tickets are not easy to spot.

Last week they finally got me—I was touted online. I paid eight times more for a rock concert ticket than the face value printed on it. No redress, no way back.

From time to time, we all find ourselves in situations where we spend more than we planned—I have two cures for that: don’t make the same mistake twice, and work a little harder the following week.

So, I can’t get my money back. But I have a weapon. The pen is mightier than the scam, so let’s get into the weeds.

I was touted by Viagogo, one of a number of sites that specialize in the secondary market for tickets. The company is legally based in Geneva, and therefore neatly dodges EU regulation on consumer protection.

When I looked into Viagogo, I found out that it has been publicly condemned by the UK’s digital minister, Margot James—I didn’t realize Britain had such a thing, and she’s also notched up points in my book by resigning from government on July 18th, 2019, to vote against the prorogation of parliament.

I really didn’t want to go down the hellhole of Brexit today—compared to that, a tout is but a fart: smells foul but disappears quickly—but Margot further warmed my heart by having the whip removed on September 3rd, in what will become known as the Boris Brexitovsky purges.

So, Ms. James told BBC Radio 5 Live that she warned consumers away from ticket reselling platform Viagogo, branding it “the worst”. Apparently, the company had already fallen foul (there’s that smell again) of the British Advertising Standards Authority for imposing “hidden” fees on customers.

Ed Sheeran has also condemned the Viagogo touts—didn’t cheer me up much, but at least I’m in good company.

Digital touts, or more accurately, internet touts, have provide a major disservice to music—and that, friends, is a capital crime in my book.

You may be familiar with the concept of bots. Just as you can read me on your tablet or cellphone, so a bot can access this page, traverse all other links, and collect a history of my mentions of the words ‘sex’, or ‘China’, or ‘orang-u-tan’.

Bots are what allows Google to index pages and process them to help you find stuff. They’re also responsible for the annoying Captcha stuff, and the occasional requirement to click on images with buses—Boris could do that for a living rather than managing a dog’s breakfast.

The secondary market sites got into the bot business—they sent out bots to buy online tickets to concerts, sports events, you name it. Digital touts therefore sucked out the primary market—by the time you heard about a concert, the primary market was empty.

Musicians want fans, and fans want affordable music. This sets door prices, until robotouts screw the whole system—at that point, ticket prices skyrocket, and the audience shifts towards the wealthy—as Lennon famously said in the Albert Hall, ‘the rest of you, just rattle your jewellery.’

Viagogo traps you using four tricks. First, they have a bar at the top of the page where you select the number of tickets you want. My magic number was 2, and I was shown a price. In very small print, and a discreet color, the column header says:

(each)

No matter what number you select—customers in good faith will choose the one they need—the price never changes. Even when they break down net costs and tax, they only ever use the single ticket price, with e.g. 4X slyly inserted off to the side.

Second, as soon as you make a choice, a timer window appears, counting down the seconds to pressure you to complete your purchase.

Third: never, throughout the process, are you ever told the face value of the ticket you are buying.

Finally, the total amount you’re spending is not shown at checkout, only in a post-purchase confirmation screen, aka a gotcha screen.

Touts in the UK, Scalpers in the US. Scum of the earth anywhere.

After I fell for this scam, I wondered if I was the only fool in the market… sadly, no. An excellent article published this August in Wired tells us:

Favourite band coming to town? Good luck getting tickets. The touts have already snapped them up – and they’re now listed for ten-times the face value on Viagogo and StubHub. But digital touts may be facing extinction. New technology is making mass buying more difficult, governments are closing in on rogue resellers and even Ticketmaster is shutting down its own resale sites. The only problem? Getting hold of on-demand tickets is unlikely to get any cheaper or easier.

I found out Viagogo has company. Like the four horsemen of the apocalypse, there’s Viagogo, Stubhub, Seatwave, and Get Me In. Four unpolishable turds.

Notice how often I’ve written Viagogo’s name—ordinarily I wouldn’t do this, but I want Viagogo imprinted in your mind, and I want to increase the visibility of this article when some poor sucker searches for Viagogo on the net—I just refuse to link them.

Companies like Viagogo are a collective danger—they disenfranchise the less well-off, make culture less accessible and more elitist, and help widen the gap between the appointed and the disappointed.

These are the recipes for the politics of extremes that has invaded Western society, only three generations after World War II.

As for Viagogo? To use a popular, if unfulfilled, promise, may they die in a ditch.

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

Atomkraft

October 13, 2019

The Germans love a good compound word. Actually, back in the day they were also pretty fond of a good compound.

The young folks (and the not so young) are also partial to a good demonstration—being German, even youthful protesters go for it with supreme organizational skills.

I’m writing this in Tegel, which for a German airport is surprisingly poorly organized, but then this is Berlin—the city is probably the most un-German of them all, which also makes it the nicest.

I was here for a week, and then last Friday I marched east to Poland—it’s a local tradition. I’ll tell you about that next week, but meanwhile I’ll share two tidbits with you.

The first is that the Polish airwaves were full of martial speech over the weekend in preparation for today’s election, though I got the feeling many Poles were far more interested in tonight’s Euro 2020 qualifier against Macedonia.

The second is that I visited the birthplace of Catherine the Great—you are probably aware that she was a man-eater, and even at the ripe age of sixty (perhaps equivalent to eighty-five now) was still cavorting with sixteen-year-old boys (mind you, back then they were twenty-five, so don’t you me too me).

More on both of those (topics, not boys) next weekend.

Berlin was utter chaos, and my chosen means of transport was Lime—I’d tried them briefly in Spain, but by any standard I was a Lime virgin. In this flat city, I was occasionally the leader, or führer, as the locals say, of a posse of like-minded Limeys, linked together in a group ride—sharing is caring.

A little free publicity on account of all the fun I had with these babies.

But the chaos had merit—the city center was paralyzed by climate change activists. The meetings were called by an organization called Fridays For Future. Along the way, fellow travelers from the self-styled Extinction Rebellion also settled in for the duration.

By the time I left Berlin, at which point, for reasons I won’t go into, I had four guitars in the back of the car—Lime has its limits—the tents were everywhere.

The cops did their job, roads were blocked, traffic was infernal, and Liming your way through town was just the thing. And the demonstrations were pithy, colorful, and necessary.

I re-read one of my articles from 2009 and my conclusion is that ten years after, we are nowhere near where we need to be—in fact, the orange man and his gang of gut-feeling buffoons have made it worse.

Those kids out on the Berlin sidewalks, blocking Potsdamer Platz with the aid of couches and flowerpots, were only eight or nine back then—now they’re laden with righteous anger, bless ’em.

The last time I was here was during my pre-blog days, and evidence of the Berlin Wall was abundant, as were derelict five-year plan communist apartments, as vacuous and grey as Walter Ulbricht‘s ideology.

Now, the memories are spotty. But I was taking the autobahn daily to the Grenzallee exit—that means border alley, so you do the math.

Berlin is undergoing a frenzy of construction, roadworks, and general improvement—you’d think the Germans had a bit of cash to spare. The center was pretty glitzy, but the Grenzallee bit was rather different.

Gastarbeiter (there’s another of those compounds), or guest workers, are the norm, along with an abundance of kebab spots of dubious lineage. My gut survived those, although I did have a couple of gut feelings.

Not your regular campsite, five minutes away from the Bundestag, but maybe someone, sometime, will change something…

And because of my guitar escapades, I saw some truly dubious areas. The music guys I dealt with are serious gearheads—their clients include the Rolling Stones—but their compound (hmm…) features some pretty suspect establishments, including one stocked with old American limos, Caddy convertibles, and other unusually well-appointed vehicles.

All in all, Berlin remains a great place—head and shoulders above the rest of Germany.

In the immortal words of President Kennedy, I am a donut.

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

Giving Back

October 6, 2019

Whenever I start an article, I always do two things: I re-read my previous one (and often find a rogue typo to fix), and I look at the stats.

Statistics are  like a bikini—what they show is suggestive, what they hide is vital.

My blog stats usually spike the day I write and the day after, then they settle down. Roughly what statisticians might call a Poisson distribution—well-matched to my fishy nature—or even perhaps a Pareto curve.

Pareto is a darling of marketeers, and underpins the mantra that twenty percent of the products generate eighty percent of the sales. I’ve written on this previously, because of the way the internet flipped the distribution and produced the Long Tail.

Wired magazine published this image in 2004—it’s a wonderful illustration of the Long Tail, and explains why you can buy anything on ebay.

Vilfredo Pareto was born in the mid-XIXth century, and is described as a civil engineer, economist, and sociologist—quite a guy. But my blog is testimony to his distribution, because I see random articles from the past showing up from time to time—this week, perhaps because of the events in Hong Kong, this amusing one popped up.

But today I went further and had a look at the people who follow my writings regularly, rather than the ones who drop by.

What I found is heart-warming, and I want to thank you all for making time to come here and read. There are two groups, the first of which uses WordPress to make a connection. The others are folks who signed up and ask for a notification whenever I hit Publish.

In that second group, there are a number of people I don’t know, and who have never commented on here. The first group is entirely filled with folks I don’t know, but who write.

I spent some time this morning trawling their blogs, looking at what makes them tick. There’s a guy in the Philippines who is studying journalism, another gal who blogs on food—one of her posts extolled the virtues of a meat restaurant, and that got me thinking.

The whole food thing is changing quite rapidly, and in particular beef cattle is coming under fire from climate change activists. The feed conversion ratio (FCR) for beef is 6.8, which means it takes almost seven pounds of feed to produce one pound of steak. This doesn’t compare well with the FCR for salmon, which is around 1.2 in Norway, Scotland, and Canada.

However, when it comes to the carbon footprint, things get worse: cows come in at thirty pounds of CO2 per pound of edible meat, whereas salmon registers 2.9, one tenth of that number.

The high CO2 emissions for cattle are in good part due to the methane released by ruminants—their diet is not particularly digestible.

The attack on meat, particularly red meat, has recently led to a review that contradicts the advice given by doctors and nutritionists over the past decades, i.e. an excessive consumption carries significant cardio-vascular risks.

The dynamics of the food system are fascinating—in several European and North American countries, 5-10% of the population is vegetarian, and out of the remainder, there is a proportion that never buys or eats fish.

One interesting consequence is that the data on per capita consumption of fish may underestimate rates by 10-20%, which means that a proportion of the population should be healthier than the numbers show.

Conversely, the rest of that meat must be supplementing meat-eaters’ diets—if you’re skeptical about the Johnston article, then that’s bad news.

Whatever you eat, wherever you live, it’s a pleasure and a privilege to share a few thoughts with you every week.

But writing can be a lonely business—if you ever feel like writing back, come on in.

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

Double-Oh-Seven

September 1, 2019

I’m working my way through a Thomas Friedman book.

The book is called ‘Thanks For Being Late’. Weird title, and unconnected to the subject matter, except in one aspect—pausing lets you think.

This is a book my readers should read—I can tell you that right now, even though I’m only twenty percent through the story.

I’ll throw in a couple of stories from the text in this piece, but one of the key messages is that we need time to reflect, to concoct, and to combine—when we pause, we accelerate. Sleeping on problems is extremely useful because our brain atomizes issues, decomposing them into soluble globs that are, well… soluble.

Our racing society takes away our thinking time, accelerating us into continuous communication—as in music, sometimes less is more, our brain needs the space to expand its thoughts.

Sometimes, all of us is better than some of us, or one of us, but sometimes it’s not. Uwe Ross, the founder of Ross-Tech, which manufactures the VCDS VW diagnostic software, states “Meetings: None of us is as dumb as all of us.”

As a veteran of many meetings, I tend to agree.

Pause is key, and frenetic comms are a disservice—it becomes habit-forming to fire out questions you really know the answer to, if only you bother to pause and think.

I found this out many years ago—making myself less available made those (not) around me more self-reliant, and empowered them to think their way out of problems. Our discussions became centered on higher level issues, or on particularly thorny ones.

Friedman provides a rather lengthy intro, which is eminently skippable—the fun doesn’t start until page eighteen, when the focus on the year 2007 begins.

2007 did ring in many changes, including social media platforms, networking software that catapulted Big Data onto the world stage, and cellphone broadband data improvements.

However, rather than focusing on a particular year, the decade should probably be the highlight—I was using Skype to call China in 2005, but it didn’t work very well. Arguably, it still doesn’t—as soon as there are more than two people on, things can snarl up.

Let’s recall that the software was written by Estonians, Swedes, and Danes—not the most talkative of souls. When you aim Skype at a bunch of South Americans, Italians, or Turks, all hell-bent on talking at the same time, the app withers and dies.

Face it, Microsoft has done it no favors either—every time I use Skype, something new, and usually perplexing, crops up. Possibly, this is featuritis caused by a bunch of kids with spreadsheets who are devoted to brainstorming the hell out of monetizing the app.

Pause.

Pause.

Think. Alone.

Pause some more.

Stability. Features. Schedule. Those are the vertices of the iron triangle of software as I know it—nowadays, stability has been replaced by cost, and quality (stability) sits at the center of the triangle, but it’s not clear how it depends on the others. Quality is definitely a vertex, not a consequence—if anything, resources should be in the middle.

The iron triangle of software, drawn correctly. Why complicate matters?

The book’s theme is acceleration, drawing on three major forces: markets (globalization), technology, and environment. I’m keen to read the environmental component, and particularly to see it contextualized with the other engines of change.

I don’t believe technology will resolve the environmental issues we face on the planet, and I think the mantra of economic growth is incorrect, because it doesn’t follow the simple laws of thermodynamics.

Higher productivity ties into higher unemployment, as globalization and AI kick in, and anyhow job creation as a numeric metric is not the correct approach. As an analogy, many universities push for professors to teach a set quota of weekly hours—but if you’re a bad teacher, either because you don’t know your subject matter or can’t communicate it, then teaching less hours will cause less harm.

The subject of growth in human societies is far more complex than the magic numbers distilled by politicians, and change is the biggest challenge we face as a society.

Friedman points out that the social mechanisms we possess to cope with this upheaval are inadequate—he’s right, much of the world is wrapped up in Napoleonic law, and systems designed to accommodate change on a scale of multiple decades.

In medieval times, society didn’t change much from century to century, but now we see paradigm shifts every few years. This makes political systems inadequate and generates acute social imbalances because these changes are disruptive—a paradigm shift is by definition non-linear.

I think you should hear it from him, but read the book. It’ll give you pause.

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

Baked Alaska

August 5, 2019

If you’re familiar with UK cuisine—now there’s an oxymoron—you might know this as a type of ‘pudding.’ Bear in mind that puddings can be savory, as in steak and kidney pud, but in British vernacular, “Will you have pudding?” means will you eat dessert.

Brits have some bizarre names for their dishes—my favorite epithets include toad in the hole and spotted dick.

Baked Alaska is yet another one. However, given my penchant for puns, today’s title was driven by the picture below, which scared the crap out of me.

The European satellite Sentinel 3 shows the continent burning up, in some cases quite literally, on July 25th 2019.

The extreme west (Portugal) and Eastern Europe have dodged the bullet, but eastern Spain, the northern part of France, the Benelux countries, and the southern UK were a veritable frying pan on that day.

Little did I know that the English newspaper, The Guardian, had headed an article on July 3rd with exactly the same title—the topic is more confined, but the emphasis is the same—after years of political dodgems, the planet has finally hit us on the head with a giant frying pan.

At the present time, raging wildfires are lighting up the north—in latitudes where the Northern Lights are a wintertime event.

From Siberia to Alaska, the Arctic is ablaze. Most people don’t realize that different parts of the planet are warming at different rates—changes in the boreal regions are swift. The article in the Washington Post is from the Climate Weather Gang—at first I thought this had to be Trump & Acolytes, but no, these guys are worth listening to.

For the past week, a high pressure system has blocked the roaring forties, the high latitude westerlies that bring Atlantic storm systems to Europe—Bergen, Norway, a city known for its wet and generally chilly weather, sported ninety-one degrees.

Scientists were publishing research papers on the slowing or even reversal of the Gulf Stream well over a decade ago—the inference was that it would trigger more extreme temperatures. Citizens of Western Europe take the North Atlantic Drift for granted—twenty-three years ago I was on a beach in Qingdao, northeast China, watching the snow fall in December, marveling at some insane locals stripping down to their underwear and diving in.

Qingdao is at 36o N, the same latitude as Ceuta, a Spanish enclave in northern Morocco, but has far more extreme weather—now we’re getting it here. As the land surface temperature rises, the flashpoint for forest fires is triggered, and the planet is hit with a double whammy—more fires mean more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and an increase in the greenhouse effect, but they also mean less trees, and less capacity to remove carbon dioxide from the air.

A rise in temperature massively increases evaporation of ocean water, which means more cloud, higher humidity, more heat-trapping, and ultimately more warming—positive feedbacks we could very much do without.

Baked Alaska, Fried Siberia, Poached Scandinavia… But that ain’t all. Marine plants are having a bit of fun as well—the star of the summer is a brown seaweed called Sargassum. The weed gives its name to the Sargasso Sea, and, for a seaweed, it has one very unusual characteristic—it floats.

The Chinese green tides are caused by the green seaweed Ulva, which loosely attaches to the bottom, but can also survive as it floats in the ocean—giant blooms are documented annually since the 2008 Olympics.

But Sargassum only floats, and now it’s escaped the confines that becalmed Columbus and gave their name to the Horse Latitudes. Scientists estimate there are twenty million metric tons of this species in the ocean, and have termed the event Great Sargasssum Atlantic Belt. I would have called it GASP, replacing Belt with Phenomenon, Proliferation, Problem, Peak…

I’ve worked with brown seaweeds like Sargassum, and it wouldn’t be unusual to have ten pounds in a square meter. Doing the math, the weed plague might occupy 4,000 km2, which is downright scary.

Mind you, if you like stats, Siberian wildfires this summer occupy an area the size of Belgium.

Why has this seaweed suddenly been able to spread all the way from the Cape Verde islands to the beaches of the Caribbean? And more to the point, is this a one-off or a trend?

Tourist destinations in Florida, Mexico, and the Caribbean islands are pretty concerned—humans have a very flaky relationship with nature—it’s okay to lard fertilizer onto crops, or to produce five hundred million chickens in the Chesapeake Bay, and thereby generate 500,000 metric tons of chicken shit.

All this adds nitrogen and phosphorus to the ocean—too much of that, mixed in with shifting patterns of global circulation, and we have a perfect storm.

Like the Chinese blooms, but on a grand scale, scientists have detected the Sargassum flare-ups since 2011. Every year except 2013.

We live too preoccupied with the latest Instagram post, and with extended navel-gazing, to see what hides in plain sight.

Citizens of the West, the chickens have come home to roost.

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

Classic

July 28, 2019

I recently rebuilt a classical guitar—with a touch of irony, the guitar was made by Suzuki, a Japanese corporation.

This is the Suzuki Violin Company, not the automobile manufacturer, and like good wines, the guitar is numbered—Number 34, to be precise—the company itself was formed in 1887.

The classical guitar is traditionally a concert instrument, but it’s also the workhorse of popular music in Southern Europe. The cheesy duo that drifts into your beachside restaurant and starts yodeling interesting covers of Paul Anka songs—in the sense of the Chinese curse, ‘may you live in interesting times’—will most likely be armed with a Spanish guitar.

It’s a winning strategy, because you must pay them urgently to shut them up—if the local fare doesn’t paralyze your digestion, their version of Dean Martin’s ‘That’s Amore’ most certainly will.

Most boys learn to play guitar for a simple reason—to pick up girls. By and large, if the strategy works, their musical pursuits are quickly abandoned as other interests raise their head, so to speak.

Classical, or Spanish, guitar is a pretty basic instrument. In its original form, the strings are tied to the bridge using a fisherman’s knot, and there is no cutaway. My Suzie has eighteen frets, but above the twelfth you hit the treble end (or upper bout) of the body—whatever you can play above that line depends on the length of your fingers, but forget bar chords.

The neck is thick, particularly when compared to the slim fretboard of an electric guitar, and the nylon strings are also thick—and difficult to keep in tune—when compared to steel strings. Truss rods are almost unheard of and the action is too high, which affects the playing speed.

All this makes Suzie difficult to play, which is a mixed blessing—frustrating when compared to more modern guitars, but if you get it right on a Spanish guitar, playing it on an electric is real easy.

Guitars are a good investment—this one is now set up as a lefty, and probably worth about three hundred bucks. If you get into the pre-war Gibsons or other lofty heights, start adding zeroes.

Although a classical guitar is more of a challenge, it has a lovely, warm sound—you can get a lot out of it by finger picking, rather than using a flat pick. A good number of rock guitarists started life learning classical guitar, and the Spanish guitar influence is obvious when they solo—one example is Robby Krieger, from The Doors.

The young Argentinian boy who plays this classical guitar version of Titanic—a tune I don’t much care for—demonstrates what you can do on a Spanish guitar. Apart from the cutaway, which gets him to a couple more frets—but he’s eleven, and has small fingers to match—the guitar you see is a pretty basic job, just like my Suzie.

Compare that to the Music Man played by Albert Lee in this amazing version of ‘Country Boy’. The Music Man electric guitar company was bought by Ernie Ball, a well known string manufacturer—and a great example of a name that matches a profession. I keep a list of those—one day they’ll make it into an article.

Albert Lee’s guitar—he’s so good this is the Albert Lee signature model—has twenty-two frets, which is normal for an electric, and it’s pretty obvious from the shape he can get at all of ’em!

Along with that, there’s all sorts of electronic wizardry, including Seymour Duncan pickups, as well as a tremolo arm. You’re looking at about two grand, and no exotic woods—ash for the body, maple for the neck.

The history of the guitar goes back four thousand years, but Suzie is only forty-seven years old. When you compare her to an offering from the early XIXth century, she looks pretty much the same—the only major difference is in the strings, which are nylon rather than sheep gut.

When you consider how far electric guitars have developed in the last fifty years—not to mention all the wonderful gadgets that project, modify, and record sound—you get a feeling for the warp-speed of technology change.

The most wonderful thing about this evolution is the symbiosis with humans—we have developed and mastered a vast range of techniques that only shine when you pump up the amp. Hammer-ons, pull-offs, slides, bends, vibrato, all manner of arpeggios…

And now there’s a very deep YouTube—a tribute to learning, and to the joy humans have in sharing knowledge. How much better to do this than fight all the time.

I use the YouTube knowledge daily, and every time I do, I wish it was around the first time I ever learned the chord of G, when Suzie and I first got acquainted.

Any twelve-year-old boy who wants to impress the girls by picking a tune now has YouTube at his fingertips. And the girls can do it too!

When it comes to guitar picking, the world is definitely flat.

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


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