Miss American Pie

July 19, 2020

The great mysteries of human existence are two—life and death.

Of the two, life is by far the greater one for me, for a couple of reasons: the first is the biological basis for life, and there’s no greater wonder than biology. The second is because I am agnostic, which means I don’t know (a gnosis).

You can use that word in several contexts—like the terms ecosystem and DNA, which I see used in business and marketing—I still cringe when these two terms are used out of their core context, but I’ve come to comprehend that the general use of words such as virus means science becomes more mainstream, which is a good thing.

But agnostic, used by itself, denotes a religious context—many people think it means you don’t believe in God—in Islamic terms you’re a kuffar. This is incorrect—if you’re agnostic, you’re not sure, so I view death as the end of the mystery.

When life goes out of you, everything stops working against a gradient and descends into a state of randomness. What were once organs, tissues, and cells are reduced to molecules—going down that road releases energy—making money requires work, spending it doesn’t.

In that sense, life is a complex word—it stands for all the things that make you a living organism, which, as you know from grade school biology, are seven: growth, respiration, nutrition, excretion, reproduction, movement, senses.

I see these simple concepts from my childhood have graduated into more complicated definitions, such as ‘have complex chemistry’ and ‘are made up of cells’. So do antibiotics and prisons, and I don’t see a need to overthink it—when you teach kids, simple is best—they’ll have plenty of time for complications.

This cartoon from ourworldindata.org shows us how small we really are.

Humans only make up 0.01% of the earth’s biomass—jellyfish are almost double that. So it would be fair to say that practically no one on this planet has any concept of death—no other animals on god’s green earth (there’s that agnostic thing) know they will one day die.

Unless you’re ill, mentally or physically, you don’t typically have a death wish—and as we live longer, and understand better the forces in play between life and death, we start to wonder if it would be possible to know when that fateful day will be.

That raises the metaphysical issue of whether you want to know, or whether you prefer blissful ignorance. If you know you’re going to slip and break your leg tomorrow, how will that change your today?

Even if the other organisms, from bacteria to chimpanzees, were aware that they are finite, most species on earth fit somewhere along the food chain—at some point, these guys are going to get eaten, but neither a Brussels sprout nor a springbok knows when.

I may be destined to die in a plane crash, and if so I can’t predict when—although I’ve stood on the tarmac in Tangier and Tete and wondered if it was smart to get on that particular tin can.

But when it comes to dying ‘naturally’, whatever that means, there are quite a few predictive tools out there.

Governments, life and medical insurance companies, employers, and the military are some of the clients that come to mind.

Whoever manages you, or manages the risk of you, has a vested interest in knowing when you’re expected to kick the bucket. Back in the day, basic actuarial tables did the job—then mortality curves for a population began to be decomposed, if you excuse the pun, into men and women, black and white, rich and poor, fat and thin, tall and short, gay and straight, rural and urban, married and single, even happy and sad.

As soon as that much data are available, statisticians go into orgasm mode—you can calculate the probability of death of a short, gay guy who smiles a lot while feeding the chickens.

Death predictors are of course available on the internet.

Now, I caution you about this for two reasons. First, because I am specifically suggesting you don’t use them—although I did, since in order to write this article I needed a guinea pig—moi. Second, because I’m pretty sure the sites I tried harvest and share my data, including my IP, or internet location, which is unsettling.

If you search for ‘lifespan calculator web’, the first link you come across is, surprisingly enough, called Lifespan Calculator.

Amusingly, it tells you that how long you’ve lived is one of the best predictors for how long you may live. Note the may. If you tell them you’re forty-five, then the predictor knows you’ve lived at least forty-five years, which is pretty informative. I don’t suppose folks who’ve not lived that long go on the site much…

The calculator is run by Northwestern Mutual, an insurance company. I did pretty well on my run, or at least according to what they showed me. No nasty questions on cancers or Alzheimer’s to ruin it all, but a couple of questions on my driving record—I suspect those go straight to the motor insurance dept.

I also played around with a British site called Ubble. Their ‘longevity explorer’ politely enquired as to my cancer record, but didn’t give a damn about my BMI—they too seemed optimistic about my longevity, and estimated my age as anywhere between eleven and six years younger than the true number.

On the whole, my survey results made me suspicious—a pessimist is an optimist with experience.

Ubble has some cool stuff—they use a set of ten categories and their respective indicators. Categories include for instance early life factors and psychosocial factors. Some questions are better (usual walking pace) than others (number of days per week of moderate physical activity) at predicting death within five years. And some variables are better correlated with age (weekly usage of mobile phone in last 3 months) than others (salt added to food).

There is one way to solve the mystery of death, and perhaps of life itself—cryogenics. To explore those possibilities, I found my way to the Life Extension Foundation.

Alcor will freeze your body or your brain for a fee. Their focus is the United States and Canada—if you’re Chinese they charge an extra fifty thousand bucks—maybe they know something we don’t!

It’s not cheap to get frozen, and of course once they defrost you we’re not sure whether you’re destined for the oven or the barbecue.

Two hundred grand for the body, eighty grand for the brain. The inference is that your body will be pretty fucked anyhow when they bring you back, so you will literally need reincarnation—the word comes from the Latin carne (flesh)—buddy, they’re gonna re-meat ya!

So, when all that happens, you’ll find the answer to the second mystery. Do you have a soul, where is heaven, and what is hell.

For now, I’ll stick to the classic definition. Hell is a place where French are mechanics, Americans are lovers, and the English are cooks.

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

Deposition

July 12, 2020

There are six monarchies in the European Union.

Back in the days of the EU28, The most emblematic monarchy, and certainly the one that had most Netflix seasons, was the British royal family—a source of parody as far back as I can remember.

Some of the European monarchies are so self-effacing as to be almost invisible externally. I doubt that many Europeans could tell you whether Denmark is a monarchy or a republic, and the same is probably true of Belgium or the Netherlands.

Kingdoms are a paradox for me, having grown up in a republic. On the one hand, European kings have been institutionally neutered, so the practical consequences of having a head of state who is elected or one chosen by god are similar, at least in systems where the executive power lies with an elected government. On the other, divine right has always struck me as an aberration.

In countries such as France, which have a presidential system, power is vested in one man—this requires strong institutions to ensure balance and equity. if there’s one thing humans discovered over the last three thousand years in their quest for social structure, it is that you cannot put too much power in the hands of a single person.

Put another way: if you give someone power, they will abuse it.

The political castration of the European monarchy does project the power of the prime minister—in the UK, Bojo is not concerned with trivialities such as presidential vetoes, as the head of government of a European republic might be.

The monarchy generates affection, even love, whereas presidents don’t—hardly anyone knows about the family of the head of state of Austria or Portugal, but the comings and goings of blue blood are a source of constant discussion—almost as if their antics are happening in your own family, or to a close friend.

The Brit royals supply an endless source of gossip—internal plots and power grabs, financial scandals, adultery, and even the recent Epstein drama—plenty of material for the coming Netflix n’chill season.

Spain, and particularly the ex-king of Spain, comes a close second. I’m not sure the Spanish love their royals as the English do, and the country has twice been a republic—it’s first bout lasted exactly one year, when the king was replaced by a dictator in 1874—not a huge improvement on the status quo.

On April 14th, 1931, a second, ill-fated republic was born. It led to the gruesome Spanish Civil War—less than four generations ago, for anyone who thinks this is ancient history! Many young people these days are lucky enough to have a grandparent in their eighties, and they will recall these events from childhood memories.

Franco, who was a big part of my youth, took power in 1939 and became the longest-serving dictator in modern European history, from 1939 until 1975. In 1947, the Caudillo declared that he was in fact a regent for the Spanish king—in so doing, he took a leaf out of history—many an illegitimate ruler has used the umbrella of regency to govern.

In the meantime, Prince Juan Carlos was educated in Spain, after some resistance from Franco. In 1975, just after the Portuguese revolution, Juan Carlos Alfonso Víctor María de Borbón y Borbón-Dos Sicilias finally ascended to the Spanish throne.

Franco’s hold on power was over. In next-door Portugal, where the new king of Spain had spent his childhood, revolution was in the street.

Demonstration in central Lisbon for gay rights in 1974. Revolutionary street art, seen on walls that had never been touched by graffiti, was often very funny.

The anarquists, known locally as Anarcas, had some of the funniest wall art, and certainly the most pithy sayings. Liberdade às sardinhas em lata, or freedom for tinned sardines, was one of them—another was Franco no espeto, a play on the phrase ‘chicken on the spit’, a local delicacy.

The concept of the ageing Spanish dictator on a rotisserie skewer was irresistible to a country with new-found freedom, rooting for its neighbors who were still imprisoned in the straightjacket of fascism.

Over the years, the Spanish king has been involved in a number of scandals, in true royal tradition. Several of these involved the fair sex—a Castilian Catedrático once told my father, lowering his voice to a stage whisper, “Los Borbones son muy mujerengos!

Whether or not that’s a general trait of the male members (excuse the pun) of the House of Bourbon, it certainly applied to Juan Carlos. Spain doesn’t have the tabloid enthusiasm of the British press, but of late the more ‘serious’ papers have been referring to the retired monarch’s ‘ex-friend’ Corinna Larsen.

The Spanish have a habit of dropping the hyphen, so the lady in question, once married into the aristocratic Wittgenstein family, is euphemistically referred in the Spanish press as the king’s examiga, or exfriend—the implication is she dropped more than a hyphen.

The scandal now consuming Spain provides some much-needed light relief from COVID-19, and adds some spicy seasoning to the whole affair.

It includes alleged threats to the examiga by the Spanish intelligence agency CNI, and more recently, revelations that Juan Carlos received a one hundred million dollar gift from Saudi Arabia’s king, Abdullah bin Abdulaziz, for his role in ‘facilitating’ a contract for a high-speed rail link between Mecca and Medina, known as AVE del desierto.

The project cost sixteen billion dollars, so a hundred mil is small potatoes—less than one percent—but the king apparently placed his gift in Switzerland, and subsequently used the money to help his examiga buy property. The lady in question allegedly told a prosecutor in 2018 that she received sixty-five million euros from the monarch—at the time still king of Spain—out of ‘gratitude and love.’

Now that’s a whole lotta love.

And it probably explains why the former king decided to step down in 2019.

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

Kitchen Wars

July 5, 2020

In the West, Russians are often depicted as dour and humorless—but humor is one of the great weapons in fighting tyranny.

The best jokes—and the best music—come out in times of adversity, and all tyrants hate to be laughed at. From pocket-bullies like the orange man to proper meanies like Uncle Vlad, mockery is their kryptonite.

Never has so much fun been poked at an American president, but after he loses the November election, no one will ever laugh at him again—that’s the way of the world. Putin, on the other hand, has just achieved the ambition of every putative dictator—the lifetime award.

Xi Jinping pipped him to the post, but then no one in their right mind would call China a democratic society—and in their defense, the Chinese government makes no pretense of it.

In China, memes, video, and indirect references—particularly puns—are all the rage when it comes to political pushback—witness the banning of Winnie The Pooh, for obvious reasons, and the use of the number 2 in protest of Xi’s push for more than two terms, such as in the mathematical inequality N>2.

A classic, reproduced from my article over two years ago.

In the Middle Kingdom, the term is egao, or evil works, and internet egao is rampant.

In 2009, the ‘grass mud horse’ appeared, with Chinese characters cǎo ní mǎ. The word ma is one of the best known to Mandarin beginners, with its five meanings depending on the character tone: mother, hemp, horse, and scold. The final ma is the equivalent of a question mark.

Of the set above, I was unfamiliar with mud, or cǎo. A small change to cào nǐ mā converts the sentence into ‘fuck your mother’—the grass mud horse first appeared to poke fun at government censorship of vulgar humor.

Hu Jintao was very keen on harmony—dissenters often quipped they’d been ‘harmonized.’

In Mandarin, harmony is made of three characters: bèi hé xié, or simply hé xié. In this vein of humor, the Chinese speak of being ‘river-crabbed’, or bèi hé xiè. Note the only differences are the character river (), and crab (xiè).

The river crab is an ecological foe of the grass mud horse—at least to Chinese netizens.

This particular harmony takes the piss out of Jiang Zemin’s three represents: economic production, cultural development, and political consensus.

More on all that here, but let’s move east to the banks of the Volga. As you might expect, state TV paints a rosy picture of life in Russia that isn’t matched by the food in the kitchen. Russians call it the ‘battle between the television and the fridge.’

Putin’s robust approach to foreign policy, together with expert media manipulation and disinformation, is giving the victory to the TV, even if supplies are dwindling from the chiller drawers to the icebox.

Anti-government humor has no place in Russia, whereas it is used as a tool by the regime to great advantage. When the UK suggested Russian involvement was ‘highly likely’ in the Skripal poisoning, the typical Brit understatement grew wings and appeared everywhere as a source of mirth.

The Soviet Union gave us some classic anti-tyranny anekdoty, such as this gem.

On a sunny morning, Brezhnev goes out on the balcony of his apartment, looks to the east, and says, “Hello, sun!” The sun replies, “Good morning, dear Leonid Ilyich, the beloved leader of our glorious socialist motherland, the hope of all progressive humanity, and the guardian of peace on Earth!” In the evening, Brezhnev admires the beautiful sunset and fishes for a compliment: “Hello again, sun!” The sun answers, “Poshyol na khuy—go fuck yourself—I am in the West now.”

The Putin equivalents don’t seem to target the man himself, so much as taking the piss out of his counterparts.

Vladimir Putin is calling the White House. Hello, Donald? I would like to discuss Ukraine with you.”
Trump: “What’s Ukraine?”
Putin: “Thanks, Donald!”

There are, however, a good many jokes circulating about Putin that are not so flattering—the emphasis is on corruption and the president’s immense wealth, and on his strong-man foreign policy, predicated on occupation.

America’s strength comes to the fore when compared to the examples above—even a Fox anchor suggested to the Republican National Committee chair that MAGA should stand for Masks Are Great Again, and managed to get a smile.

Trump is physically incapable of smiling at something like that—I doubt he’d manage a grimace—but ever the opportunist, he’s now declared support for masks, even joking he’d wear a Lone Ranger one. Never mind that the famous radio show character from the 1930’s covered his eyes, rather than his mouth and nose—I prefer to focus on his Comanche sidekick, called Tonto—in Latin America that means ‘idiot.’

If the COVID stretch continues, you’ll soon hear the orang-u-tan tell you how he’s always loved masks, and that he was one of the great instigators of mask-wearing. Folks will gasp in amazement, and clips will be played stating the opposite, but none of that will count.

Everyone’s a sucker for the old reality show. Yet all the humor persists, from late show hosts to YouTube memes, and the virus insists on chasing Trump’s re-election into the grave.

The RNC is coming soon to a non-curve-crushed venue near you. After that, it’s a whisper to November. And on that day, the US will begin to recover from it’s worst mistake in decades.

I could write this article in the States. I couldn’t write it in Russia or China. And that makes all the difference.

By the way—what MAGA should stand for, if folks come to their senses, is Masks Are Good for America.

Trump will be defeated by a nanoparticle.

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

Wonderful World

June 20, 2020

If you look for Sam Cooke’s Wonderful World—an absolutely wonderful song—you’ll find a whole page of Louis Armstrong’s homonymous tune, so you need to dig a little deeper.

Cooke goes through a series of school subjects and topics—I’ve always found the lyrics poignant and amusing, and when I play it I change the line ‘don’t know what a slide rule is for’ to ‘don’t know what a spreadsheet is for’, to reflect modern scholastic ignorance.

Toward the end, the young Sam Cooke informs us that he ‘don’t know much about the Middle Ages’, which is fair enough—no one does.

The Middle Ages are widely seen as a period of historical darkness, sitting somewhere between the end of the Roman Empire and the Italian Renaissance, and no one is quite sure of the start and end dates.

We’re talking about a period that spans a thousand years—no mean feat. Between the Vth and XVth centuries, Europe lived through systematic violence and abuse—France came up with the three estates—clergy, nobles, and commoners—and that convenient concept (if you weren’t a peasant) was widely adopted.

The first two estates, clerics and nobility, were largely exempt from taxes—these were borne by the peasants—a movie that could never end well, as Marie Antoinette found out.

My first book was about the Age of Discovery, associated to the renaissance, and my account of the marvels of Portuguese naval exploration was followed by a book on the travails of Columbus, a man who is overrated in his achievements but not in the consequences of his discoveries—for centuries, the English, French, and Spanish preferred to fight their battles in the Americas and left Asia and Africa to the Portuguese, and to a lesser extent to the Dutch.

Now, I’m sinking back into the dark ages, the Hundred Years War, and the great lords of France—violent and intractable men who thought it shameful to die in your bed, and that adultery was the only true form of romantic love.

The nobility and its troubadours coined the term ‘courtly love’, and in De Amore (About Love) the XIIth century courtier Andreas Capellanus (the surname means chaplain!) wrote that ‘marriage is no real excuse for not loving’—part of this concept stems from the fact that nobles entered into arranged marriages to consolidate property, wealth, and power—love didn’t come into it.

My mentor is Barbara W. Tuchman, a lady who, like me, took up history and made it fun, and was criticized by professional historians who resented the inroads of an amateur and the easy and humorous style of her prose.

Tuchman died in 1989, on the cusp of digital discovery, and I am sure if she were still writing today she could report on amazing things—I could never have been a writer without the internet: it’s given me facts, made me friends, and opened doors.

In the medieval period, education was predicated on seven ‘liberal arts’, and I quote:

Grammar, the foundation of science; logic, which differentiates the truth from the false; rhetoric, the source of law; arithmetic, because ‘without numbers there is nothing’; geometry, the science of measurement; astronomy, the most noble of the sciences because it is connected with divinity and theology; and lastly music.

I find the choice as bizarre as the definitions—certainly science depends as much on mathematics as on the study of natural phenomena such as the flow of a river.

The question “How much water comes out of the Mississippi River?” has a standard answer: “As much as goes in.”

This may seem glib, but a complete answer requires an understanding of precipitation and evaporation, drainage basins and gravity flow, and percolation through the soil. After those topics are mastered, in other words with a working knowledge of geography, geology, and meteorology, a reasonable approximation can be produced without ever actually measuring the flow of the Mississippi.

The relationship between astronomy and religion is typical of the misconceptions of the era—God above was taken literally, and astronomers formulated deeply flawed models where the sun went round the earth and the atmosphere was a pathway to a set of seven heavens.

Medicine was not classed as a liberal art (duh) but considered analogous to music because its purpose was to promote the ‘harmony of the human body.’

History was straightforward and finite—the world began with Adam and Eve and would end with the second coming, which would be followed by judgement day. Perhaps that’s the genesis of the T-Shirt slogan ‘Look Busy, Jesus Is Coming’.

In the United States, creationists live by these rules, despite clear evidence to the contrary—they deny natural selection, and speculate on the end of the world based on opinions uncontaminated by facts.

Tuchman’s interpretation is that in a world of finite history leading to an examination on judgement day, there was no requirement for humans to improve themselves morally or socially in this world—that would come in the next. This is nicely captured in the song ‘The Weight’, where the narrator and Luke sit waiting for the judgement day.

 

My interest in the Medieval Period, which in many ways is paroxysmally boring, came from the present pandemic—I’ve avoided mentioning it so far, but it seems obvious that more’s-a-comin’—and in particular my interest in the Black Death.

It’s impossible to analyze the Middle Ages in Europe without considering the plague. The disease was first observed in October 1947, when a Genoese merchant ship full of dead and dying men anchored at Messina, Sicily. The ship had come from Caffa in Crimea, a trading post owned by Genoa—the town is now called Feodosia, after the old Greek name Theodosia—it was once part of the Greek empire.

Caffa was one of the world’s most important slave markets, and the bubonic plague arrived from the east, brought by the Mongolian Golden Horde.

Just as with COVID-19, the pestilence spread with great speed—slower due to the lack of globalization, faster due to the lack of hygiene and hospitals.

The Welsh talked about the ‘shilling under the armpit’, a reference to the egg-sized buboes (thus bubonic), or swellings, that appeared in the groin or armpit.

The buboes oozed blood and pus, and the skin quickly developed black splotches due to internal bleeding. The black blood that appeared in the lungs, sputum, urine, feces, and buboes gave the disease its name.

Europe lived in perplexity about many phenomena that are well understood today—which makes it all the more remarkable that cretins like the orange man and his tropical cousin refuse to act on that understanding.

To the medieval populace of Europe, the plague was the end of the world.

It was inevitable, in the religious fervor of the age, that the Jews would get blamed. As a consequence, well before the time of the Spanish Inquisition, widespread pogroms ensued.

Jews carried the plague from Toledo in little packets or a ‘narrow stitched leather bag’. These messengers brought with them rabbinical instructions for poisoning wells and springs. Many Jews were burned alive.

The word that best describes the Middle Ages in cruelty. Ignorance comes a close second.

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

Main Street

June 6, 2020

American folk music speaks of simple things: love, loss, the yen to up-and-go. Often, the travel is about running away—because deep down, those simple things aren’t simple at all.

Families made and broken, war and death, the call of the highway, the freight train, or the wild country—that’s Main Street.

Those are values people understand: a job, a place, watching a boy become a man, a girl turn into a woman…

So how did it all go so horribly wrong? What made simple things not matter?

I took a trip down memory lane to revisit the market meltdown of 2007-2008, a result of extraordinary institutional greed and regulatory neglect. On Wall Street, even traders who saw how fragile the system was continued pushing it, like a heroin addict who knows he’s killing himself but can’t stop.

My journey down that road began with an English trader of humble Pakistani origin and a book called Flash Crash by Bloomberg journalist Liam Vaughan.

Navinder Singh Sarao—Nav, to his mates—was accused by the US Department of Justice of cheating the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, or CME, and causing the stock market flash crash of May 6th, 2010. The fact that he did it from the comfort of his own home, located in an immigrant neighborhood near London’s Heathrow Airport, was even more remarkable.

That got me into the fascinating world of automated trading—in other words, computers. Put it this way—if you trade shares manually, it’s like running the hundred meters in flippers.

As I revisited the sub-prime mortgage scandal of 2007 and 2008 that led to the worldwide collapse of the banking system, the bankruptcy of Lehman Bros., and the bailout of AIG—the world’s largest insurance company—by the federal government, all I could think about was venality and greed.

And what the fuck was an insurance company doing in the sub-prime housing market anyhow? Greed, greed, fucking greed!

At a speech in Houston in 2008, George W.Bush—an intellectual stalwart by today’s presidential standards—went off the record:

Wall Street got drunk, that’s one of the reasons I asked you to turn off the TV cameras. It got drunk and now it’s got a hangover. The question is how long will it sober up and not try to do all these fancy financial instruments.

When you look at the way things are going now, with Wall Street on a tear and Main Street in the ditch, it’s pretty clear the market is back swigging from the poisoned cup.

For a fee, brokers supply a mechanism called web services that allows anyone with the money or the know-how to design and implement their own trading strategies—that’s the way the game is played in the new millenium.

In the lead-up to the mortgage crisis, traders were looking at the most bizarre stuff. This is how rogue trader Mark Wendale sums it up in my 2013 book, Atmos Fear.

“You got property goin’ up a steady six points or more, re-fi in suburbia is hotter than wife swapping. Yup, we’re good for a while yet,” said Wendale, the consummate trader.

Only one or two of the more clear-headed understood that the ship was headed for the rocks. After all, selling mortgages to sub-prime clients, charging the interest on only half the principal and then adding the unpaid part to the total owed, so that the new homeowner’s debt went up over the years instead of down, was bound to end in tears. But for pretty much everyone in finance, it was boom time. Dot com all over again.

“Some of those products we reviewed, I rather think they might put one in a spot of hot water.”

More Brit pinstripe-speak.

Wendale was now trading CDOs squared, and even cubed, where the product was supported on an identical product, making it increasingly difficult to grasp what the exposure was.

The height of bizarre, both in name and purpose, was called the Gaussian copula—I’ll spare you the sex jokes.

In 2000, David Li, a Wall Street mathematician employed by the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce—a touch of the Raj, methinks—worked out a formula to co-correlate probabilities, and the formula became a Wall Street darling.

But the formula was flawed—in worked well in some circumstances, in others it was disastrous.

Don’t blame Gauss—he’s one of my heroes. At three years old, Johann Carl Friedrich Gauss was correcting his father’s arithmetic. At seven, he came up with a lovely way to add consecutive numbers.

If you want to add the numbers between one and a hundred by hand (or mentally), it’s a tedious job. Bear in mind we’re in 1784, when the child prodigy was seven—no calculator. No Excel.

One of my math teachers told me that all good mathematicians are lazy—that’s why they find quick ways to solve problems.

Young Carl realized that 1 + 100 = 101. No prizes there. But he also figured out that 2 + 99 = 101. Better. And 3 + 98. And 4 + 97. And 50 + 51. Wow!

So, after he discovered that every convergent pair added to 101, he understood that 101 multiplied by 50 (one hundred numbers gives fifty pairs) gave the result he was after: 5050.

Pretty cool.

I played around with his trick and worked up a formula. Then I tested it in Excel. I’m sure any mathematician will laugh—this is old hat. But it made me happy, and the Gauss formula will add any list of consecutive numbers, for instance 102346 to 2487371. Instantly.

The answer is 3 088 271 188 821. This would take you a while in Excel. On a calculator, if you entered a number every five seconds, never made a mistake, and didn’t sleep, it would take you twenty-three days.

If you want to try a simple example, add the consecutive numbers from 1 to 4. Gives you 10. So does (1+4) X 2 (there are four numbers in the series, or two pairs). Try 3 to 6. That’s 9 X 2, or 18. I am easily amused.

What I don’t find nearly as amusing is the market rock ‘n roll. That’s how simple became complicated, and how we all got screwed.

Greed and irresponsibility is what I see. Trading mountains of mickey mouse money leveraged on virus bailouts.

I’ll leave you with a country tune, maybe we’ll get back to our roots.

Kind of crazy, with summer coming on, but all I see is black clouds.

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

Reboot

May 31, 2020

Anyone who’s been through a life change knows exactly how this year feels right now.

The kind of change I’m talking about is a crappy thing—a battle against cancer, the death of a child, total financial loss, an acrimonious separation, a jail sentence. A good plan for life is to minimize the chance of such things happening—but of course they do.

But Mousie, thou art no thy-lane,
In proving foresight may be vain:
The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men
          Gang aft agley,
An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain,
         For promis’d joy!

Robert Burns, November 1785

I’m sorry to hurl a Scottish poem at you without warning—I always had a hard time with poetry, unless someone put it to music—then it becomes lyrics and all is well.

Interpreted: The best laid plans of mice and men often go astray and leave us nothing but grief and pain instead of promised joy.

Nils Lofgren put the concept into a song called Black Books that has one of my favorite acoustic solos—it’s a very dark tune, which earned it a slot in Season 2 of The Sopranos.

The main problem with a reboot is that things never seem the same—what the pundits like to call the ‘new normal.’

To a lot of folks, it seems like the first half of the year simply disappeared. Vanished. Travel plans. Weddings. Vacations. Puff! All gone.

2020 is about to reboot.

I see people around me coming out of this in a kind of daze—you start to do stuff but you’re not used to it any more. It happens to me. I don’t have the appetite to get on a plane—it’s become a big deal instead of an everyday thing.

You have questions. If I go, will restaurants be open? Will I be comfortable riding a subway or a bus? In a meeting or a conference, will I want to sit in a small, packed room?

Eating out feels weird. For about three months I’ve been eating at home, playing guitar over my lunch break, and I’ve adjusted to it. I like it. One quarter of a year. My days have been (over)stuffed with Webex and Zoom. I don’t like that, but I deal with it.

I’ve started going out. All the waiters wear masks. Every place is like Zorro’s trattoria. I’m not sure how I’d prefer it. With or without. But it feels weird. I sense it all around me—every table—it makes me uncomfortable.

I can only compare it to the austerity years of a decade ago. And some things linger since then—I still don’t buy newspapers—I found another way, and I doubt I’ll go back.

There is much speculation on the economic recovery—will it be v-shaped, as the orang-u-tan preaches? Or perhaps u-shaped, as many others believe? If there’s a second peak, maybe it will be w-shaped. And there are another twenty-three letters in the alphabet—it could be an m.

The key difference between this plague and the previous ones is connectivity—in 1918, commercial air travel was a millionaire’s pastime, now it’s everyone’s god-given right. A century ago, hotels and restaurants were scarce—there was no such tradition, and there was no disposable income—now there’s Airbnb.

I’m worried it’ll be people like me who’ll stop the recovery—we’ve changed, and all it took was three months. John Le Carré made a revelation about his father, a celebrated English conman called Ronald Cornwell; after being released from jail, Ronnie would stop in front of a closed door waiting for someone to open it—we are easily formatted.

There seem to be a lot of people like me—I was supposed to be in Maine right now, but instead I ended up on a video conference this week with twenty people—two whole days, it was like pulling teeth. Someone was delayed due to a traffic jam. I asked, “What’s a traffic jam?”

Once in a while, one of the tiny squares on the screen would bemoan our predicament. “Won’t it be great when we can meet again in person? At next year’s meeting…” As the ever-hopeful business owners tirelessly tell us, we are social animals. We’re gregarious, we love company.

But despite these moans, not one person was able to suggest a meeting venue and date. I suspect that if they had, others would have been quick to point out that ‘well, at this stage…’

People ask me about flights and I tell them that I now own a collection of vouchers. I have no appetite to add to my collection, particularly since the vouchers all need to be used within one year.

Memorial Day weekend was supposed to mark the start of economic recovery in America—throngs packed the beaches and citizens went on camera with the usual fallacies. The president doesn’t wear a mask, so I don’t either, said a youngster from Alabama. We all have to die of something, said an older man sitting in his deck chair.

That weekend, the one hundred thousand mark was closing in—by Wednesday, May 27th, the virus that populists invariably labeled ‘a small, seasonal flu’ blasted through the barrier—as I write it’s already three percent higher.

Around that time, fueled by tweets, America erupted. Lots of folks going out, but not on a shopping spree—the flavor du jour was looting. The orange man was quick to capitalize on the tragic death of George Floyd—nothing like a spot of rape and pillage to divert attention from the pestilence.

The poor are dying from ‘rona, the rich are taking a staycation. And many of those poor are black—there’s no evidence of health links to minorities, it’s spurious correlation.

Spurious correlation

This excellent (but spurious) correlation (r=0.955) between train wrecks (how appropriate) and oil imports reminds us of something every lady knows—statistics are like men: properly manipulated, they’ll do anything you want. View more wonderful stats here.

As an American friend told me this week, the level of support for the orang-u-tan, given his lack of condemnation for such abhorrent acts, suggests racism in the US may be endemic in half the population—who knew?

America is now truly going through ‘fire and fury’. Instead of campus protests, hordes of youngsters who were confined at home have suddenly been let loose by social media and are busy tearing the place apart. Effective protests have a start and an end point, and a collective goal—riots, on the other, are a typical consequence of the madness of crowds.

As successive cities descend into chaos, the stark consequences of populism are on display. The great nation of the United States of America has become a populist plaything.

And now it truly is broken.

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

The Four Horsemen

May 24, 2020

Over the past weeks, my articles have been a bit of a covidfest. Mea culpa (sound of chest beating), my friends, but since in a roundabout way I write about history, I think what we are all (hopefully) living through is a planetary event of huge historical relevance.

There I was thinking I’d invented a new word, when an obscure group of idiots (yup, covidiots) from an obscure town called Ipiaú in Brazil shattered my illusions.

A collection of young fools on the way to their ‘covidfest’, stopped by Brazilian military police.

These geniuses—I count fifteen, six boys with hands behind their heads and nine girls—were all breaking curfew on their way to a self-described covidfest, but the most fascinating bit of irresponsibility is the white pick-up.

All fifteen, and there may be a couple of extra off-camera cretins, were in that pick-up, some possibly already on top of each other.

In the Book of Revelations, the four horsemen of the apocalypse ride out on white, red, black, and pale horses. In the New Testament, these guys carry pestilence, war, famine, and death.

In today’s metaphor, white is Trump, red is Putin, black is Bolsonaro, and pale is Boris. The colors of the nags are quasi-serendipitous: the white supremacy, the ex-KGB (an oxymoron in itself), the country that gave us the mulatto, and the pale English rose.

These four strong men, peerless populists of the new century, exemplify everything that is wrong with… populism. So did Hitler and Mussolini, so did Napoleon, so did the others who twist down the tunnels of history, back to the Roman Empire, to the Egyptian pharaohs—ever since men were able to lead other men, right back to the creation of the species, populists have been the ruin of societies.

Populism thrives on discontent—in our times, this stems from job erosion, widening of the wealth gap, competition with immigration, and globalization. For Western working class and middle class families, hope shall be restored by a strong man—not a lot of populist women out there if you exclude French wannabe-has-been Le Pen—whose firm hand will guide a vessel lost at sea.

If the pre-pandemic perspective was a society devoid of compass and sextant, casting citizens adrift in an evermore choppy ocean, I wonder how all those good people feel now.

Those four strong men represent ten percent of the world’s population.

They are collectively responsible for forty-nine percent of the planet’s COVID-19 cases, and forty-seven percent of the world’s deaths. Case closed on geopolitical and historical significance!

Worse, I fully expect these numbers to change, and not in a good way. Time for a bit of music…

This old tune brings back memories of simpler times, when a payphone operator requested forty cents to keep a romantic call going for a period of three minutes—phones don’t have periods anymore, it’s all good clean fun nowadays.

The US and Brazilian case fatality rates, or CFR, hover at around six percent, two to three points above the best testers. In the meantime, a video made public over the weekend shows the Brazilian president swearing like the proverbial fishwife—an edifying example of what populism is really about.

The UK and Russia sit at opposite ends of the CFR spectrum—it’s pretty clear that the UK has a lot more cases than those reported, but the Russian number is the most interesting.

Putin’s nation seems indestructible—at one percent, it has the lowest fatality rate in the world. Right now, it has the same number of cases as Brazil, but you just can’t kill off the Russians—only three thousand six hundred dead have been reported.

Russia attributes this to a rigorous forensic approach—every casualty is autopsied, and if the cause of death is for instance found to be pneumonia, even when the victim tested Covid-positive, the death is flagged as non-rona.

I call BS on that one—if I have a heart attack while driving and die in the resulting crash, what was the cause of death?

Rona is much like AIDS, a disease that is mostly an indirect cause of death. An immune system weakened by HIV provides an entry point for opportunistic diseases to kill the victim—conditions including pneumonia, tuberculosis, and Kaposi’s sarcoma, a viral cancer, are just some examples.

That’s why many nations use a straightforward assessment: if a coronavirus-positive patient dies of respiratory failure, it’s a coronavirus death. Just as with the Spanish flu one century ago, the COVID-19 strips the body of its defenses and the opportunists come knocking.

These discrepancies in assessment, caused by politics rather than public health considerations, only have one winner.

Not the world, nor the country, not the people, not the populist.

The virus.

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

Stormy Monday

May 17, 2020

In the European Union, countries are tentatively opening up. Like an old man after a bad fall, it’s all small steps and handrails.

Outside my window I can hear an airplane—first time in weeks—and a high-pitched whistle brings back childhood memories and sets the neighborhood dogs off.

A common sight in Southern Europe back in the day, and a creative use of a bicycle wheel.

It’s a knife-sharpener making his pitch—one long tone followed by a short burst of lower notes—guaranteed to tickle the tympanus of any red-blooded hound.

In Southern Europe, cafes and restaurants begin to open their doors, loosening the garotte that has strangled the hospitality industry over the last months—and increasing the risk of a new wave of virus cases.

Next Monday,  May 18th, begins a phase known in many EU countries as ‘regional responsibility’—we’ll see how it goes.

A six-day moving average shows the decline in new cases and fatalities in Portugal, back to the situation in late March, but this time on the good side of the curve.

The basis for this ‘deconfinement’—part of an outbreak of new Coronavirus terms—lies in charts like the one above; data are always ‘noisy’, so a simple smoothing method can be used for trend analysis.

Portugal has been a shining example of common sense and public responsibility, which accounts for the fact that it has less than forty percent of the Irish death rate, relative to total population.

I know a number of people who have been tested, and could easily have been tested myself—the county where I live currently offers a free test to establish whether residents have had the virus.

This is in sharp contrast to the UK, where some doctors who do frontline work for the National Health Service have been unable to get a test.

If you consider the UK deaths in proportion to Portugal, the equivalent population of Britain would be two hundred ninety-four million, rather than the existing sixty-six million—this is because the death rate in the UK is about five times the Portuguese number.

A similar analysis for the United States would mean an equivalent population of seven hundred sixty-two million, about double the actual number.

The troublesome part of all this is that while the EU curves are all flattening, the UK and US are still going up, so these calculations are over-optimistic.

Boris is safe in his seat, having just won a general election, but the orange man is on the wrong side of the cycle—November is just a heartbeat away.

The history of the Spanish influenza continues to amaze me—there is so much to be learned about the current pandemic if we would only read a little history.

The estimated fatalities in the Spanish flu of 1918 were fifty million worldwide—the US number was six hundred and fifty thousand, around 1.3% of the total.

The equivalent number today? Over twenty-eight percent of fatalities worldwide are in the United States—an extraordinarily high number, considering America’s status as a ‘developed’ nation.

As an aside, the messages coming out of the States are increasingly bizarre—the president has gone from being a national embarrassment and international joke to becoming a public danger.

I was particularly bemused by the statement ‘If we didn’t do any testing, we would have very few cases.‘ While that is certainly true, surely the number of corpses is the real issue, not the cases—and dead bodies are pretty obvious…

The recent comments about a ‘warp-speed’ vaccine are also bizarre. There are steps that must be fulfilled in order to ensure a vaccine is both safe and effective. Some of these are concurrent, but most are consecutive—you cannot test in animals and humans simultaneously.

The science behind vaccine development is so critical I enjoin you to read it here right now. This should make it clear why ‘vaccine’ and ‘warp-speed’ cannot be used in the same sentence. As Warren Buffett famously said, ‘some things just take time and patience—you can’t make a baby in one month by getting nine women pregnant.’

The truth is that the orang-u-tan feels the election slipping away from him—but it actually slipped away at the start of the year, as soon as it became clear that the danger and consequences of a potential pandemic had been horribly misunderstood and hopelessly mismanaged—a triumph of science over ‘gut-feeling’ at a terrible, terrible cost that pleases not a single scientist.

I guess that makes him the index case when it comes to covidiots, one of the new words spawned by the pandemic. Others that I like are blursday, since everyone loses track of time, quaranteams for teams WFH (working from home), and rona—a short name for the virus itself.

Even better, if you like cockney rhyming slang, is Miley. Miley Cyrus? Coronavirus… As in “Boris came down with the Miley.”

During the Spanish flu pandemic, some doctors tried ‘remedies’ like the typhoid vaccine, or quinine—then widely used to treat malaria. Here again we see history repeat itself with the hydroxychloroquine spoof.

Most US states are about to reopen—considering where they sit on the curve, they should consider that Miley is also ready to reopen.

In the West, Stormy Monday awaits, and there is some expectation that the EU will see a resurgence in virus cases—in the US, you can drop the prefixes—it’ll be a surge.

A further snippet of pandemic history provides food for thought. Although the index case of Spanish influenza was registered in Haskell County, Kansas, in January 1918, not only did that spring—like this one—prove tragic, but the disease emerged with far greater lethality in the fall.

Unfortunately, it did not stop there. Every subsequent year until 1922 had serious outbreaks and many deaths.

Some of the greatest medical minds continued working on the disease for decades after—during the pandemic itself the causative agent was often thought to be a bacterium called Bacillus influenzae, also known as Pfeiffer’s bacillus. The bug is now called Haemophilus influenzae—it took until 1933 to unequivocally establish the viral nature of flu.

By then, many of the great scientists who worked on the problem were getting old.

The great XIXth century  British biologist Thomas Henry Huxley once quipped, ‘A man of science past the age of sixty does more harm than good’, but Oswald Avery was sixty-five when he published a seminal paper that established that it was desoxyribonucleic acid (DNA)—rather than proteins—that carried the genes.

The year was 1944, and Avery had been working on influenza for over twenty years—he should have won the Nobel Prize (all his close colleagues did); Avery was nominated in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s, but died at the age of seventy-seven without the prize—one of the great injustices of the Swedish academy.

We must thank science for the advances of the last one hundred years, and for the chances that a vaccine somewhere in the middle of 2021 will get ‘rona’ under control.

After that, we’ll need to rebuild the shattered lives of so many people whose income, family stability, and self-esteem have been destroyed by the heartless selfishness and cavalier attitude of snake oil politicians.

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

Blue Notes

May 9, 2020

My love affair with music got off to a rocky start when I was eight or nine years old. The Rabbit decided it would be a good thing to put me in a conservatory—no, not a greenhouse enclosure, though lord knows I deserved it, but a music school. Apparently in the UK it’s also called a ‘conservatoire’—oh, how posh!

My memories are of cold, wet nights in the hilly, old part of town, rain shining off the black and white cobblestones, and a musty ancient building with large wooden double doors. Inside, various rooms with high ceilings and crumbling plaster, containing serious and aged people tasked with teaching kids music theory and making them repeat vocal exercises that numbed everyone into oblivion.

I cannot remember a single thing I was taught, so I can conclude I learnt nothing.

But a couple of years later I discovered rock ‘n roll, and it changed my life forever. By then I had developed a life-long aversion to structured learning and a great interest in learning by doing—the Rabbit bought me a fifteen dollar guitar.

It was made by the Suzuki Violin Company of Nagoya, Japan and bore the number 34. Now, Suzuki may sound exotic, but it’s the second most common name in the land (as opposed to the house) of the rising sun—the equivalent of Johnson in the United States.

Suzuki means bell wood, and Johnson means er… Johnson, so I can see a connection there also, but I digress. I now had a guitar and an epiphany—the guitar was right-handed but I was a southpaw.

Some decades—and many guitars—later, I found the Suzuki Spanish guitar, hundreds of miles from my home, and in surprisingly good shape. I had it properly set up—a number of changes needed to be made to turn it into a leftie—and in the process added another guitar to my collection.

More than one guitar.jpg

School was very different in those days—I had a teacher who played guitar during woodwork lessons—the students would begin sawing and nailing and he would chill out and play a beautiful dreadnought steel-string instrument. Those of us in the class whose interest in music exceeded our enthusiasm for carpentry almost sawed our hands off in excitement.

My first chords were learnt from the photocopied sheets he gave to his music students. I didn’t get those from the classes, I got them from a girl who took the classes—I was all done with lessons. He was a cool teacher, with long hair and hippie ties, in a Portugal that was paralyzed by fascism, dark suits, and short back and sides.

Not long after, I got hold of a book that showed the five pentatonic scales—the mothership of playing the blues. There was a big black guy with a Gibson electric guitar on the cover, and the book was full of weird and wonderful names I’d never heard of—Robert Johnson, T-Bone Walker, Elmore James, Albert King, Freddie King, B.B. King—in fact a whole courtload of kings.

And the little book illustrated how they played—their style. The bending, the hammer-ons, pull-offs, slides, everything that turned a guitar solo into a quasi-sexual experience.

And it didn’t have a single sentence on music theory—I was in heaven.

After many years of playing the blues without a care in the world (oh, the paradox) I’ve used the triple C—Coronavirus confinement context—to get into some of the music theory, and it’s been fun.

The major doh-re-mi bla bla scale—which most of us can have a sporting try at humming—was corrupted by the early bluesmen by ‘flattening’ some of the notes. The entire major scale (including the first and last doh or C) has eight notes, and the blues flatten the third (mi or E), fifth (sol or G) and seventh (si or B)—which is why they’re called blue notes.

Its always struck me that the guitar fretboard is a picture of mathematical logic—a direct consequence of the mathematical basis of music—and I’ve always liked math, so maybe that’s why I like music.

What I didn’t realize is that there are seven scales, and they all have Greek names—the ancient Greeks were good at math, and they figured all this stuff out. So the major scale is Ionian, and the minor scale is Aeolian, named after the Greek god of winds.

And there’s even a Lydian scale—I’d love to think it was named after my Rabbit.

I like the seven scales—it goes with the seven days of the week, the seven heavens of Christianity, and the seven notes of each scale. It all has a nice ring of Illuminati and conspiracy theory.

The master of the seventh is of course Muddy Waters, as you will see from the second verse of his classic tune, Hoochie Coochie Man. And when you’ve seen that one, watch Clapton put it to bed.

As for me, it’s time to go see how my Suzie is doing.

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

Deep Dream

May 2, 2020

About five years ago, Google published a set of images produced using neural network software.

Neural nets are the heart of Artificial Intelligence, and image recognition is a holy grail of computing. I know there’s only supposed to be one holy grail, but in AI there’s a few—I suppose the unifying one is to teach machines to think, in the broad sense of the word.

In human terms, thought encompasses speech—though talk without thought is commonplace—but also image interpretation and recognition.

The legendary British mathematician and wartime cypher breaker Alan Turing theorized that defining ‘thought’ was too complex a problem, and in a 1950 paper entitled ‘Computing machinery and intelligence‘ he formulated his now-famous test.

A set of questions and answers would establish beyond reasonable doubt whether your interlocutor was man or machine—or even something else.

A classic cartoon that I love to publish in these articles.

Interrogator: Is it a beautiful day where you are?

Witness: Yes, I’m surrounded by all the smells of spring.

Interrogator: Ah. What are your plans for today?

Witness: Well, I’ve had my breakfast, and now I’m planning to go for a run. And then a good snooze.

Interrogator: Eggs and bacon, was it?

Witness: A bit of a mishmash, actually. Left-over meat, biscuits, that kind of thing. But I wolfed it down.

Interrogator: No accounting for taste, I suppose.

Witness: It’s more smell, really. After that I had a really good poop.

Interrogator: That may be too much information, my friend.

Witness: On the grass. Took me a while to find the right spot. You know how it is.

Interrogator: Gross. And I certainly do not.

Witness (panting): Nothing beats the smell of a good poop.

By then the interrogator might begin to suspect his interlocutor was actually a dog—on the internet, everything is possible.

In the paper, one of Turing’s conversations began with:

Interrogator: In the first line of your sonnet which reads ‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day’, would not ‘a spring day’ do as well or better?

Witness: It wouldn’t scan.

Interrogator: How about ‘a winter’s day’ That would scan all right.

Witness: Yes, but nobody wants to be compared to a winter’s day.

I can think of very few people nowadays who might reply in this fashion—the days of sonnets are distant indeed.

There’s a lot of work on speech recognition, and also on speech reproduction. Microsoft Word takes dictation, and Amazon makes available a speech engine for WordPress so that an article might be read to you—I may well add that here one of these days.

But these features are the simpler side of speech ‘thought’. The sonnet dialog is far more complex, and if speech rendering machines exist, then it matters little whether the words are written or spoken—the key issue is the interpretation.

My ‘Turing test’ for that is to ‘wash’ a colloquial sentence through various languages before returning to the original one. Here is an example from Google Translate.

English: Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day
Russian: Должен ли я сравнить тебя с летним днем
Bahasa Indonesia: Haruskah saya membandingkan Anda dengan hari musim panas
Norwegian: Skulle jeg sammenligne deg med en varm sommerdag
Italian: Dovrei confrontarti con una calda giornata estiva
English: I should face you on a hot summer day
Polish: Powinienem stawić ci czoła w gorący letni dzień
Chinese: 我應該在炎熱的夏日面對你
Welsh: Dylwn eich wynebu ar ddiwrnod poeth o haf
Uzbek: Yozning jazirama kunida siz bilan yuzlashishim kerak
English: I have to face you on a hot summer day

It gets a lot less poetic pretty quickly. The holy grail of speech is thus glossolalia—you open your mouth in English and the other guy hears Japanese.

If you are biglot (I searched on Google and got endless links about ‘big lots’), you’re occasionally asked whether you think in a particular language—my brain regularly does that in two distinct languages—and there’s no doubt the thought pattern is intimately connected with language.

If you can choose between two or more, particularly if the language structure is different, it conditions how you examine a problem and reach a solution—this is an asset because if you are true biglot or triglot, you have the cultural experience of those languages also, and that experience colors your judgement—being a bigot is not sufficient, you must be a biglot.

Google and many others have been trying to do interpretation with images. They used the classic training approach—provide a computer with thousands of images and let it crunch so it can tell you what a tree looks like, and how it differs, say, from a house.

Google called their project Deep Dream. In the process of recognizing an object, the AI software draws its own vision—the results are straight of Aldous Huxley’s Doors of Perception and Albert Hofmann’s lysergic acid diethylamide.

An example of Deep Dream art which brings back a few memories of my misspent youth.

Incidentally, April 19th is celebrated every year by LSD fans as Bicycle Day, to commemorate Hofmann’s famous bicycle trip, if you excuse the pun. As an aside, I normally only provide links, but in this case I’m endorsing the link—not because it’s Scientific American, but because it’s a hilarious read!

A couple of years after Deep Dream art began appearing—Deep Dream video also, like this total freakout version of Hunter Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas—an even freakier idea appeared.

A guy called Gabriel Goh decided to put two neural networks together. The first engine was produced at MIT and does a similar job to Deep Dream, but the second is an open-source AI pornography filter made available by Yahoo.

When the images were processed using this combination of neural nets, the computer developed a salacious streak. Pictures of towers became penises, sand dunes became vaginas—all with that Orange Sunshine tint that the AI computers seem so keen on.

An assortment of computer-generated penis and vagina pics to please all audiences.

The images generated become more or less explicit depending on the scoring algorithm. Low scores are considered work-safe, high scores are likely to cause a bit of a stir at the office.

Good job we’re working from home.

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


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