Saturday, January 21, 2017

yet another unnecessary improvement

So what do you think about self driving cars? In my humble opinion, unless every vehicle was self driving on well maintained roads, I feel we'd be just as well off as Crow was the day he went for a ride with Mr. Toad at the wheel.

"Have you ever noticed that anybody driving slower than you is an idiot, and anyone going faster than you is a maniac?"
~ George Carlin

Every time I read about some miraculous new development that's bound to make our lives perfect my first reaction is suspicion. Perhaps I've become a little too cynical about technology, but if so, that's only because I've never had to look far to find proof for my misgivings.

“But I don’t want to go among mad people,” Alice remarked.
“Oh, you can’t help that,” said the Cat: “We’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.”
“How do you know I’m mad?” said Alice.
“You must be,” said the Cat, “or you wouldn’t have come here.”
~ Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland

For one thing 'self driving' is in actuality a misnomer when it pertains to cars even more so than the auto-pilot systems used by commercial airline pilots. After all, an airplane flying at thirty thousand feet is unlikely to be sharing the sky with cyclists or ten tonne trucks making lane changes.

"Even from the greatest of horrors, irony is seldom absent."
~ H.P. Lovecraft

First, let’s get this out of the way: Tesla’s Autopilot is not meant to be a self-driving technology. It’s a 'driver assist' function only, and the driver is intended to be in control of the car at all times, holding tight to the steering wheel and continually second-guessing the machine despite its apparently flawless driving ability.

“For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong”
~ H. L. Mencken

And that’s where it goes wrong. The human brain is pretty quick to draw conclusions, and very bad at estimating low-probability events. If you drove on Autopilot five hundred times over a year, and nothing bad happened, you’d be excused for thinking the system was safe. You’d get complacent and take your hands off the wheel to do something else, like reading a book or watching a movie. Then you get an emergency signal from the confused computer.

“Death is the last enemy: once we’ve got past that I think everything will be alright”
~ Alice Thomas Ellis

Self driving cars only work on paved roads with clearly defined line markers. Admittedly, while so far there haven't been too many accidents, the thing to remember is there haven't been many of them on the roads yet. Automobile safety wasn’t invented yesterday. There are protocols and standards based on meeting established reliability and safety measures that can't possibly have been met by self driving cars.

"If everything seems to be going well, you have obviously overlooked
~ Steven Wright

So far I prefer Mr. Toad.. and he really enjoys teasing self driving cars.
The little devil. No wonder Crow likes him.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

mysteries abound

Have you ever heard of the Longyou Grottoes in China? As a longtime admirer of a good mystery this one caught my interest when I first read about them a year or two ago, but unfortunately, there isn't really a lot of information other than some pictures and a few articles to be found on the internet.

Discovered in 1992 by a curious farmer (or an old lady called Grandma Wu depending on which account you accept), who wondered if the pond near his village was one of the legendary 'bottomless' ones, he convinced his neighbours to share in the rental on a pump so they could see for themselves. Now while I can't really understand why poor villagers would want to disrupt their supply of fresh water, they apparently kept pumping water from the squared off hole long enough to discover it was actually a purpose made cavern of pretty enormous size. Already ninety-eight feet deep, the floor itself sprawled to enclose an area of nearly thirteen thousand square feet - supported by carved pillars. The ceiling, wall and pillar surfaces are all finished the same way with a series of parallel bands between ridge marks about twenty inches wide and containing parallel chisel marks set at an angle of about 60°.

Once the first grotto was reported to the authorities a further twenty-four (or thirty-five) were found, all isolated from one another and often separated by less than two feet of stone. One fact from Wikipedia was curious. “Despite their size and the effort involved in creating them, so far no trace of their construction or even their existence has been located in the historic record.” Carved in siltstone, a medium-hard rock, the grottoes are thought to date to a period prior the Qin Dynasty in 212 BCE. However, there is not a single ancient text that describes the underground complex nor its creation or its purpose. Furthermore, there's no sign anywhere given the fact that the Ancient Chinese were extremely meticulous record keepers, of where nearly thirty-five million cubic feet of excavated rock went. When it's mentioned it would have taken a thousand workers each carting one hundred buckets twenty-four hours a day for six years (going where?) I can only shake my head in perplexity.

Commenting on the Longyou Grotto Caves, Yang Hongxun, an expert at the Archaeological Institute of Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, explained:

“At the bottom of each cave, the ancient builders wouldn’t be able to see what the others were doing in the next grotto. But the inside of each cave had to be parallel with that of the other, or else the wall would be holed through. Thus the measure apparatus should have been very advanced. There must have been some layout about the sizes, locations, and the distances between the caves beforehand.”

Another of the grottoe's mysteries is that there’s no evidence of lighting having been used. At Longyou there are no traces or remnants of the lamp bases, oil plates or other lighting equipment that have been found in other Chinese caves. Carbon residue remains on rock permanently. How did the builders see what they were doing when excavating and how did they breathe? The entrances are small and the caves deep, there would have been little to no natural light. It's a mystery.

Most of the spectacular mysterious ancient caverns are still full of water and neglected. This may be a good thing since Trip Advisor states the most bizarre thing is the level of destruction that has gone on in the ones that are open to the public. Concrete has been poured over them, lights and speakers installed, large fish ponds built inside the grottoes, and modern carvings have been added to the walls. By trying to attract tourists the government has destroyed and defaced the ancient cultural historical and architectural wonder. Alas, the Chinese were once understood to be very sensitive to ancient culture.

The general assumption about the grottoes is that they were man made about twenty-five hundred years ago, but I wonder. Not so much that people couldn't have made them, but the timing of their fabrication. While our race is estimated to be two hundred thousand years old our history dates back less than ten thousand years. Many ancient and mysterious artifacts and constructions have been found and are still being found. We don't know everything.

Maybe I'll ask Crow.

ps: article of the week

Saturday, January 7, 2017

Crow delivers

My friend Crow,  off on his annual winter visit to his distant relatives the condors, sent me some thoughts about modernity to share with you:

It would appear new technologies are generally being sold as essential ones in the coming of either a future leisure-oriented paradise or your inevitable domination under the control of AI Algorhithmic overlords. Take your pick.

One of the more recent developments has been Amazon's patent for “An unmanned aerial vehicle delivery process that utilizes an airborne fulfillment center” (AFC). Their patent goes on to describe "an airship, or dirigible, is a type of aerostat or lighter-than-air aircraft which can navigate through the air under its own power. ... An AFC may be positioned at an altitude above a metropolitan area and be designed to maintain an inventory of items that may be purchased by a user and delivered to the user by a UAV (drone) that is deployed from the AFC.” We won't go into how they plan to stock the thing (people wearing jet packs, perhaps), but I'll tell you right now we birds aren't for it at all.

This is the kind of idea that, if described to you by your precocious nine year old nephew, you'd be likely to chuckle about later and forget. I remember susan's father on ambitious yet ill considered plans remarking, 'One day that man will be doing great things.. like washing elephants'. Instead, because it's Jeff Bezos' monstrously huge and wealthy Amazon corporation, the news media is taking the idea perfectly seriously (and anything they take seriously, you must too).

What none of them seem to consider is the chaos that would be unleashed should this delivery method actually go into effect. Imagine trying to enjoy the peace and quiet of nature on a bright summer afternoon while hundreds of delivery drones swoop down from the sky carrying Amazon's quite literal version of 'instant gratification' to customers who just can't wait for a delivery through normal channels. The ability to have warehouses floating around in the sky also has them considering the idea of delivering “perishable items or even prepared meals.” In other words, Amazon is positioning itself to be in direct competition with Domino’s Pizza. I can almost see the hunters poised with their shotguns or bows and arrows looking to bring home the pepperoni and meatball extra large.

Amazon describes your soon-to-be-old fashioned system of retail delivery in the following way: Using a “human controlled truck, bicycle, cart, etc.” which delivers items from a “ground-based building,” and continues with “a human who hands the item to a recipient, places it on the user’s porch, or stores it in a post office box, etc.” I wonder if the drones will ask after your health or remark about the weather as real people do.

Now I'm reminded of yet another grand plan devised by the technological overlords, the widely reported, soon to be instituted, advent of fully automated driverless trucking. Considering the fact that truck driver is the number one occupation in North America I see more problems ahead. But I'll leave that topic for another time.

Meanwhile, the weather is lovely here in the Andes and you'll be pleased to hear the Remy and fruitcake you sent by dogsled arrived safely. The dogs are currently napping at the fireside while the condors are waiting in the wings for our afternoon flight.

Until next time, dear friends and susan, stay warm and keep smiling. The world may be a silly place,
but we are well so long as humour and affection remain.

Saturday, December 31, 2016

between maelstroms

May things stay the way they are
in the simplest place you know.

May the shuttered windows
keep the air as cool as bottled jasmine.
May you never forget to listen
to the crumpled whisper of sheets
that mould themselves to your sleeping form.
May the pillows always be silvered
with cat-down and the muted percussion
of a lover’s breath.
May the murmur of the wall clock
continue to decree that your providence
run ten minutes slow.

May nothing be disturbed
in the simplest place you know
for it is here in the foetal hush
that blueprints dissolve
and poems begin,
and faith spreads like the hum of crickets,
faith in a time
when maps shall fade,
nostalgia cease
and the vigil end.

~ Arundhathi Subramaniam



Saturday, December 24, 2016

santa Crow visits the rich (reprise)

Crow here. It's been nearly a year since the night I agreed to help the old fellow from the north with some deliveries on Christmas Eve. Quite frankly the dear gentleman was at his wits end, knowing as he did that so many poor children needed gifts and food that night and much more besides. He did what he could as he always does. My task was the much less arduous one (or so I thought) of taking presents to the children of the rich. As you well know there are far fewer of them, such a tiny number of good rich children, in fact, that I was quite confident of being home well before midnight.

At twilight several of his more experienced reindeer arrived pulling a spare Santa sled and off we tootled into winter's darkening sky. Our first stop at a gated community provided my first inkling that this job might not be quite the doddle I'd imagined it would be. As I slipped down the chimney I'd been happy to see the glint of festive lights in the the hall and the living room, but when I stepped across the grate I discovered they weren't holiday decorations at all but motion detectors. Suddenly sirens sounded, steel barriers dropped down to cover the windows and three snarling dogs rushed into the room where I'd just begun to open my sack. I barely made it back up the chimney with my trousers intact.

Having never been one to renege on an obligation I set off with a will to the next mansion on my list. The living room there was a grand space filled with art and fine furniture but once again, just as I set foot on the floor, before I could begin opening my bag, alarms sounded, a spotlight lit my person and a nasty smelling fog filled the room with blue smoke. Coughing and choking I scrambled back up that chimney too.

As I'd had no success at the gated community I decided instead that we'd try for a country house on the list. Knowing nothing about private security systems that employ infrared cameras that read thermal heat signatures, nor about radar detectors - both of which can detect anything larger than a mouse up to five miles away - the reindeer and I were surprised when portals in the roof opened and out popped a brace of cannons. Although we attempted to signal our good intentions by ringing sleigh bells and singing carols, we were forced to turn away when the heavy artillery opened fire.

We made our sad way back to Santa's workshop in dread of his disappointment. How surprised we were by his merry laughter as he commended us for our attempts and said, 'Don't worry boys, next year I'll let them fight it out with the Amazon drones'.

Happy Christmas everyone!

Originally posted three years ago I thought this would be neat to show again. Besides, as Crow remarked, drone delivery systems being closer to reality (horrors!) will bring a whole new crop of hunter gatherers to the fore. Humans are almost as adaptable as crows.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

lighting effects

In my ongoing effort to pretend winter doesn't exist and that it doesn't really get dark at 4:30, I've been mucking around with a lamp making project. Before everything outdoors got covered in several layers of ice and snow (about three weeks ago), I carried a pair of secateurs and a shopping bag along on a couple of park walks. Now this is the semi-wilderness park I'm talking about and not the outrageously well maintained Victorian Public Garden. Anyway, I collected some sticks in order to make an 'artistic rustic box lamp'.

The attached pictures will show you just how far I got with the stick lamp - not very as you'll notice. In the second shot the appearance that it's standing upright is deceptive, well actually an outright lie, since it's partly leaning on the black desk lamp behind. Otherwise, it folded into a parallelogram no matter how I tied the strings. I used to be good with geometry too. The idea was supposed to be that a card paper square shade (with cutouts for coloured acetate) would wrap the outside with the other open square tied on top to hold it together. Since it proved to be unstable I tried another plan which was to make the upper square smaller, figuring that would make it less likely to tip. Instead, it twisted. No pictures were necessary as I took the whole thing apart. If we had a fireplace the remains would have made a nice bit of kindling.

Never mind, at least now I can use my table for its regular duties as a drawing and painting space. Have you ever had projects fail that originally seemed to be really good ideas? At least I wasn't attempting to build a fountain in the living room.. this time.

The above is a picture done a couple of years ago called 'Eustace's Gift' (Eustace being the dragon).

Let's hope for an early spring.

Saturday, December 10, 2016

a turn on Crow Lane

"I believe that maturity is not an outgrowing but a growing up: that an adult is not a dead child, but a child who has survived. I believe that all the best faculties of a mature human being exist in the child, and that if these faculties are encouraged in youth they will act wisely and well in the adult, but if they are repressed and denied in the child they will stunt and cripple the adult personality. And finally, I believe that one of most deeply human, and humane, of these faculties is the power of imagination: so that it is our pleasant duty, as librarians, or teachers, or parents, or writers, or simply as grownups, to encourage that faculty of imagination in our children, to encourage it to grow freely, to flourish like the green bay tree, by giving it the best, absolutely the the best and purest, nourishment that it can absorb. And never, under any circumstances, to squelch it, or sneer at it, or imply that it is childish, or unmanly, or untrue.

"For fantasy is true, of course. It isn't factual, but it's true. Children know that. Adults know it too and that's precisely why many of them are afraid of fantasy. They know that its truth challenges, even threatens, all that is false, all that is phony, unnecessary, and trivial in the life they have let themselves be forced into living. They are afraid of dragons because they are afraid of freedom.

"So I believe that we should trust our children. Normal children do not confuse reality and fantasy -- they confuse them much less often than we adults do (as a certain great fantasist pointed out in a story called 'The Emperor's New Clothes'). Children know perfectly well that unicorns aren't real, but they also know that books about unicorns, if they are good books, are true books. All too often, that's more than Mummy and Daddy know; for, in denying their childhood, the adults have denied half their knowledge, and are left with the sad, sterile little fact: 'Unicorns aren't real.' It is by such statements as, 'Once upon a time there was a dragon,' or 'In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit' -- it is by such beautiful non-facts that we fantastic human beings may arrive, in our peculiar fashion, at truth."

From The Language of the Night
by Ursula K. Le Guin

We too often forget that tale-telling is thousands of years old. Parents who read to their children or who make up stories are giving them the finest gift in the world.. next to letting them outdoors to play and dream their own stories.


Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Crow in space - reprise

"Apologies for the late arrival but the last time we dropped by this sector, perhaps a thousand years ago, things seemed to be going along swimmingly with your development and it would appear we put your planet a little further down the list for follow-up than would now appear to have been wise. Oh dear, you have dug quite a lot of holes down there, haven't you, and what's all that smoke and nasty colored stuff in the water? Didn't there used to be quite a lot of trees just over to the left and where are the tops that I'm sure were on those mountains last time?"

This, dear susan, was how the conversation began when I renewed my acquaintance with Bijou Son Dopazine Al'ka Quil (you can call me Dope) on his/her/its most recent visit to Earth. Dope, a freelance pan-galactic cryptozoologist by profession, has returned to Earth to see how you people are getting along and to invite any interested members of the planet's intelligent species to join his/her/its cosmic venture. This invitation isn't being offered to humans, by the way - at least not quite yet. Crows, whales and many more, however,  are busy packing their picnic baskets and breathing great sighs of relief.

I first met him/her/it centuries ago when I was on a grand tour of the the outer spiral arm. Dope doesn't actually come from a planet. His/her/its people gave up planetary living so long ago that none of them even remember  which part of the galaxy was once called home. Instead, they live on giant ships, by that I mean ships that could house the Death Star half a dozen times with room left over for several oceans and many forests. They find living on planets to be far too much of a constraint to their natural curiosity. 

Not to worry, I won't be going on this trip. Once our friends have been comfortably accommodated on the mother ship 'Seen Enough Yet?' (currently orbiting at L1 and safely outside missile range - haha, fireworks!), I'll be returning home. In the meantime Dope offered a suggestion for humanity that he/she/it hopes will be acted upon before their next visit in 500 years or so:

"Be nice to each other and look after this place. After all, even you should be able to see it's the only planet you've got since all the other decent ones are too far away for you to get to. Besides, they all have their own people anyway.

If you do that and don't accidentally kill yourselves we may be able to provide you with some assistance when we return. Most important is to stop digging all those holes!"

I'll be flying in tomorrow evening, my friend. Don't forget to warm up the Remy and chill the fruitcake.

I'm dedicating this post to another good friend I've never met, Iain M. Banks, whose books about the Culture describe life in a star-spanning "empire" organized along socialist/libertarian/anarchist principles, achieved through post-scarcity technology. The seven or eight humanoid species that founded the Culture along with the others which joined later live without want, and without the need to work; practically anything they can ask for, they can receive. This is largely because the organic Culturniks are under the benevolent de-facto dictatorship... ahem, guidance of the A.I. Minds that control the starships and space habitats the entire Culture lives on.

Could the future be like that for us? As Iain Banks once answered "Only if we're lucky". He is far more clever than me and the books are a treat. I'm hoping we get lucky.


The above was posted originally a couple of years ago but Crow and I like the picture, besides which, the message seems as appropriate now as it did then. Iain Banks died of pancreatic cancer a few months later. His books remain among my favorites.


"So, again no, we didn't discover aliens on Europa. This shouldn't come as a huge shock to anyone. We told you repeatedly that today's announcement wouldn't be about aliens. But every time we do one of these things with the press, inevitably you guys think it's going to be about aliens. So I'll let you in on a little secret. NASA will literally never hold a press conference announcing we have discovered aliens. Because we are never going to discover aliens. Aliens are going to discover us, and when they do it won't be pretty. You can take that to the bank. There certainly won't be enough time for a press conference about it. You probably won't even have time to blink. Just a hot white flash in the sky and then lights out. As far as the universe is concerned, relatively speaking, we're infants. Lord knows we act like it. I mean you guys see the same garbage we do, right? Would you tolerate any of this? If you were them? I know I sure as shit wouldn't. Not even for a second. We're basically infants and when the adults show up - and they will show up sooner or later - it's game over. Best case scenario, we wipe ourselves off the face of the planet before they get a crack at us. You want an announcement about aliens? Here it is: Be careful what you wish for. If you guys knew even a fraction of the shit we do, you'd never sleep again. I promise you that."

Paul Hertz, Director of the Astrophysics Division at NASA

Paul Hertz is real and this quote may be his but I'm guessing some wag made it up since scientists aren't known to be funny in front of reporters - except for Richard Feynman and, occasionally, my friend Andrew.


Today we live in a society in which spurious realities are manufactured by the media, by governments, by big corporations, by religious groups, political groups... So I ask, in my writing, What is real? Because unceasingly we are bombarded with pseudo-realities manufactured by very sophisticated people using very sophisticated electronic mechanisms. I do not distrust their motives; I distrust their power. They have a lot of it. And it is an astonishing power: that of creating whole universes, universes of the mind. I ought to know. I do the same thing.

Philip K. Dick (1978)


Tuesday, November 22, 2016

memories with Crow

We all have worries, some common to everyone and others simply things that seem vaguely wrong about the way things are in our modern world. One subject Crow and I have talked about at length while sitting by his fireplace sipping Remy these cold and wet evenings of late autumn is the problem of storing what people have learned and made. Music, for one example in my lifetime, has been available in a number of formats over the years. I'm a bit too young (not by much) to remember wax discs but I do remember 78s, the flat discs made of a brittle material that broke all too easily. After them came 45s and albums made of longer lasting plastic. You needed a phonograph to play discs. Next came tapes which required the listener to have a special player. The next big innovation was the the cd, another disc but this one could only be interpreted by a laser disc machine. Now most of us have mp3 files that we access on our electronic devices - no discs, no tapes, no cds, in fact, theres nothing really to see or hold at all. It's pretty much the same for printed matter of all kinds. Now I know this isn't true for all of us, since books are still pretty common as are dvds, but it's largely true overall.

One can't help but wonder what next and, moreover, what if something happened that made all of our electronic information as inaccessible? A major solar flare, which apparently aren't all that uncommon, could destroy much of what's stored in the cloud. Besides music, movies and personal pictures almost all scientific documents are are written and saved on computers. Makes one think, doesn't it? Then, of course, there's just the general course of progress I already described where formats and the means of accessing them disappear.

I was very happy to discover that it hasn't just been Crow and I who have noticed these things. Not long ago on one of my voyages of discovery around the internet I found a website called 'The Memory of Mankind', a group that has dedicated itself to preserving much of our culture using a modern version of the clay tablet. The idea is that information deemed significant is being printed on ceramic microfilm and is being stored in an ancient saltmine in Austria. It's pretty interesting and most definitely a worthwhile project.


Once a king asked his wise men to give him something that would make him happy when he is sad, and sad when he is happy. The wise men spent days thinking about it in silence and watching the clouds go by. On the fourth day, they wrote on a piece of paper and handed it to the king. When the king read it, he thanked them. What did it say?

    “This, too, shall pass.”


Sunday, November 13, 2016

in memoriam - Leonard Cohen

"We are so small between the stars, so large against the sky."

"We are so lightly here. It is in love that we are made. In love we disappear."

"I've often said if I knew where the good songs came from, I'd go there more often."

"I greet you from the other side of sorrow and despair, with a love so vast and shattered it will reach you everywhere."

"There is a crack in everything, that's how the light gets in."

"I wish I could say everything in one word. I hate all the things that can happen between the beginning of a sentence and the end."

"Prayer is translation. A man translates himself into a child asking for all there is in a language he has barely mastered."

"A woman watches her body uneasily, as though it were an unreliable ally in the battle for love."

"What is a saint? A saint is someone who has achieved a remote human possibility. It is impossible to say what that possibility is. I think it has something to do with the energy of love."

"This is the most challenging activity that humans get into, which is love."