Musings On Artificial Intelligence [AI]

‘The AI revolution will occur more quickly than most humans expect. Unless we develop new concepts to explain, interpret, and organize its consequent transformations, we will be unprepared to navigate it or its implications.’

The Age of AI And Our Human Future. Henry A.Kissinger, Eric Schmidt and Daniel Huttenlocher. John Murray Publishers. London. 2021.

‘A machine intelligence would benefit from flawless memory, even of events that occurred deep in the past, and would have the ability to calculate and to sift and search through enormous troves of data at fantastic speed. It would also be able to directly connect to the internet or to other networks and tap into virtually limitless resources; it would effortlessly talk to other machines, even as it mastered conversation with us. In other words, human level AI, from its very inception, would in a great many ways be superior to us.’

Rule of the Robots – How Artificial Intelligence Will Transform Everything. Martin Ford. Basic Books. London. 2021.

‘AI is the ultimate intangible asset, because it takes on the qualities of a perpetual motion machine—the algorithms give you more and more value without you having to do very much. The cycle looks like this: You feed data into an AI and it becomes more effective—tailoring a product to your needs, perhaps recommending news stories you want to read or songs you want to listen to. This improved service becomes more desirable, and so more of us use it. As more of us use it, we generate more data about our tastes and preferences. That data can then be fed into the AI, and the product improves.’

The Exponential Age. Azeem Azhar. Diversion Books. 2021.

‘…what has always been the Holy Grail of artificial intelligence: a machine that can communicate, reason and conceive new ideas at the level of a human being or beyond. Researchers often refer to this as “artificial general intelligence,” or AGI. Nothing close to AGI currently exists in the real world, but there are many examples from science fiction..One could make a strong argument that the development of general machine intelligence with superhuman capability would be the most consequential innovation in the history of humanity…’

Rule of the Robots – How Artificial Intelligence Will Transform Everything.

‘To chart the frontiers of contemporary knowledge, we may task AI to probe realms we cannot enter; it may return with patterns we do not fully grasp…We may find ourselves one step closer to the concept of our knowledge, less limited by the structure of our minds and the patterns of conventional human though. Not only will we have to redefine our roles as something other than the sole knower of reality, we will also have to redefine the very reality we thought we were exploring.’

The Age of AI And Our Human Future.

‘Most AI researchers recognize that significant breakthroughs will be required in order to achieve something close to human-level artificial intelligence, but there is no broad agreement on precisely what challenges are most important, or which ones should be attacked first. Yann LeCun often uses an analogy of navigating a mountain range. Only after you climb the first peak will you be able to see the obstacles that lie behind it.’

Rule of the Robots – How Artificial Intelligence Will Transform Everything.

‘Individuals and societies that enlist AI as a partner to amplify skills or pursue ideas may be capable of feats—scientific, medical, military, political, and social—that eclipse those of preceding periods. Yet once machines approximating human intelligence are regarded as key to producing better and faster results, reason alone may come to seem archaic.’

The Age of AI And Our Human Future.

‘Until now, humans alone developed their understanding of reality, a capacity that defined our place in the world and relationship to it. From this, we elaborated our philosophies, designed our governments and military strategies, and developed our moral precepts. Now AI has revealed that reality may be known in different ways, perhaps in more complex ways, than what has been understood by humans alone. At times, it’s acheivements may be as striking and disorienting as those of the most influential thinkers in their heydays—producing bolts of insight and challenges to established concepts, all of which demand a reckoning.’

The Age of AI And Our Human Future.

‘One important approach is to look directly to the inner workings of the human brain for inspiration. These researchers believe that artificial intelligence should be directly informed by neuroscience.’

Rule of the Robots – How Artificial Intelligence Will Transform Everything.

‘We must recognize that AI’s achievements, within its defined parameters, sometimes rank beside or even surpass those that human resources enable. We may comfort ourselves by repeating that AI is artificial, that it has not or cannot match our conscious experience of reality. But when we encounter some of AI’s achievements—logical feats, technical breakthroughs, strategic insights, and sophisticated management of large, complex systems— it is evident that we are in the presence of another experience of reality by another sophisticated entity.’

The Age of AI And Our Human Future.

‘Students studying statistics are often reminded that “correlation does not equal causation.” For artificial intelligence, and especially deep learning systems, understanding ends at correlation…[Judith] Pearl…likes to point out that while any human understands intuitively that the sunrise causes a rooster to crow, rather than vice versa, the most powerful deep neural network would likely to fail to achieve a similar insight. Causation cannot be derived simply by analyzing data.’

Rule of the Robots – How Artificial Intelligence Will Transform Everything.

‘Pre AI algorithms were good at delivering “addictive” content to humans. AI is excellent at it. As deep reading and analysis contracts, so, too, do the traditional rewards for undertaking these processes. As the cost of opting out of the digital domain increases, it’s ability to affect human thought—to convince, to steer, to divert—grows. As a consequence, the individual human’s role in reviewing, testing, and making sense of information diminishes. In its place, AI’s role expands.’

The Age of AI And Our Human Future.

‘Yet in the worlds of media, politics, discourse and entertainment, AI will reshape information to conform to our preferences—potentially confirming and deepening biases and, in so doing, narrowing access to and agreement upon an objective truth. In the age of AI, then, human reason will find itself both augmented and diminished.’

The Age of AI And Our Human Future.

‘…AI may operate as we expect but generate results that we do not foresee. With those results, it may carry humanity to places it’s creators did not anticipate.’

The Age of AI And Our Human Future. P. 216

‘The truth is that no one really has any idea exactly how the human brain achieves it’s unparalleled competence at autonomously learning from unstructured data.’

Rule of the Robots – How Artificial Intelligence Will Transform Everything.

‘The ability to learn information in one domain and then successfully leverage it on other domains is one of the hallmarks of human intelligence and is essential to creativity and innovation. If more general machine intelligence is to be genuinely useful…it will need to be able to apply what it learns, and any insights it develops, to entirely new challenges.’

Rule of the Robots – How Artificial Intelligence Will Transform Everything.

‘Social media companies do not run news feeds to promote extreme and violent polarization. But is is self-evident that these services have not resulted in the maximization of enlightened discourse.’

The Age of AI And Our Human Future.

Coastal Getaway

It’s been awhile since writing on this blog, and in time I’ll continue with the story about living in Bordeaux. But for now, here are a few thoughts about a trip to the Atlantic coastline taken this past weekend. This was to a town located just south of the french border with Spain.

On Saturday I drove a half hour to a railway station, parked, took a local train to Bordeaux city, and then took another train south for two hours along the Atlantic coastline toward Spain. In the early afternoon I checked into a hotel in the port city of Saint Jean de Luz, and then wandered by foot through this attractive and small city, and along the coast.

Plenty of people were out walking. Most wore masks, although unlike in Italy and Spain, doing so is not obligatory when you are outdoors in France, except in crowded locales and at market places.

Here are a few things I noticed.

First, hotel staff never even tried uttering a word of English (they knew where I was from due to my credit card billing address given during online registration). Because there is no tourism now, they know all foreigners are living in France, so presumably speak the language. That was somewhat refreshing.

Second, when I laid out a folding Opinel knife, saucisson, fromage, du pain and a bottle of 2018 Moulis en Medoc Bordeaux red wine (with a glass) on a bench beside a sidewalk, most passers by smiled and energetically uttered ‘bon apetit’—not only as common courtesy but as joint recognition that—with all restaurants and cafes closed except for takeaway service during these past four months—this is what we all do now.

Third—the city and countryside swelled with pedestrians and bicyclists and skateboarders, all relishing opportunities to wander in fresh air while they could, lest another lockdown be suddenly imposed. Back in my residential city of Blaye I’d seen the same: in February and March there are as many visitors to the local park and Citadelle on any Saturday as there normally would be on a warm July weekend.

Fourth—the city truly pulsed with life in the final hour before the 6:00 pm curfew. There were lines outside bakeries and delicatessens and chatting groups of all ages on Rue Gambetta or Rue de Republique. Everyone wanted to savor fresh air, gain some social contact and exercise before being confined indoors for the couvert feu (or curfew—the word originates from the French words meaning ‘cover the fire.’ This is what households would do during war time: dim their lights and cover fireplaces).

I heard no overt complaints or griping or even discussions about current restrictions. People just got on with life—happy with warmer days and the opportunity to meander at leisure throughout the indoor Les Halles marketplace to buy shrimp at the poissonerie, or a gateau Basque sweet cherry cake or Rocamadour cheese at the fromagerie, or to stroll across moist beach sand at low tide.

Everywhere surged with energy, with a hint of joy that spring and the budding of flowers begins, that birdsong increases and that each day is filled with more hours of light and sunshine.

We’re a resilient species, and rapidly adapt. Still, I look forward to porch side banter and socializing, if cafes do open in the coming months.

In the meantime, spring is still chilly, but glorious.

Click here for a brief video …. 

 

 

Nuclear Bordeaux

Bordeaux—place or beverage—is a word associated with wine, wealth and a smidgen of bawdy history, while nuclear relates to atomic particles smashed together to generate light and power, or even to snuff out planetary life. Nuclear also refers to tight, bright family structures that sometimes help homo sapiens sail against the inclement winds of anarchy and possible extinction.

Within Bordeaux, the word ‘nuclear’ means both.

The word Bordeaux means, basically, waterside. It is both city and region, and the western portion is a sunny segment of southwest France that sticks into the Atlantic like a thumb, and is known as the Médoc. It is flat as a crêpe and riddled with rounded stones—enough to scare off even potato farmers. Counterintuitively, grapevines love these conditions because vine roots thrive on adversity.

This ‘left bank’ of Bordeaux includes hundreds of wine estates, or châteaux. A few are associated with prodigious wealth. This is a place where individuals named Arnault, Castel, Wertheimer and Rothschild—collectively worth some $100 billion—visit their own well-trimmed and architecturally eloquent wine estates.

But consider this glaring and seldom mentioned paradox.

Take a renowned wine estate, such as Château Lafite Rothschild. This is classified as one of the top five wine châteaux in Bordeaux with respect to quality, according to a dusty, perhaps dubious old classification system penned with quill and ink in 1855 (a century before steel fermenting tanks were even invented). As a crow flies, the Lafite property sits just 4.4 miles (7.1 kilometers) distant from the Centrale Nucléaire du Blayais. That’s the local nuclear power plant. Only a half mile further away from these buzzing electrons sits Château Mouton Rothschild, another ‘top five’ producer, owned by a separate branch of that same family.

In summary—bundles of wealth, cellars stuffed with gorgeous vintages, and streamlined, green opulent estates all exist in happy proximity—the distance walked during a round of golf—to a facility that generates potentially bone gnawing toxic materials with a half-life of 700 million years.

Some years ago I wrote the following in a blog post:

‘The Centrale Nucléaire du Blayais is located on a plain east of the estuary. This assemblage of four pressurized reactors comprises the local cathedral of energy. It’s been humming along since 1981, churning out thousands of megawatts and employing three hundred locals full-time. It produces a scant five percent of French energy needs and is poised across the estuary from Bordeaux’s Médoc, bastion of some of the world’s most renowned and expensive wines. One nuclear catastrophe there and, well, your precious bottle of Lafite might quintuple in value in the space of an earthquake. Is that possible? Who knows? Flooding in 1999 breached the walls and soaked the plant with 3.2 million gallons of floodwaters, while seismic shudders in 2002 threatened the integrity of its pipelines.’

The word ‘nuclear’ also refers to a basic social unit: the family.

Bordeaux includes strong family ties and complicated inheritance procedures. This sometimes-sun-drenched region was home, close to a thousand years ago, to wandering minstrel troubadours who traipsed its soils and sang love poems to women they fancied. These men regarded women not as chattel but as bright spirits to court and woo and shower with affection in order to win not their subservience, but love. Romance was sacred, and families critical. After beautiful Eleanor of Aquitaine inherited vast swathes of this territory in the 12th century, she enhanced her man-magnet status and became—through marriage—first queen of France, then queen of England.

A wise ruler, adventurer, business woman and mother—Eleanor was so powerful that her husband feared she might influence their sons against him, and so imprisoned her for years in Winchester, England. Fortunately, she outlived the bastard, and walked away from her castle arrest.

Bordeaux, nowadays, has this sort of a Ring of Fire paradoxical beauty—gorgeous, although perennially threatened by some volcanic explosion (in this case, a Chernobyl sized sizzling meltdown). Although segments of the populace can be at times stiff, traditional and abhorrent of any mangled use of their delicate French language, they are also—generally, and generously—non-judgmental folk who will not tizzy your head with obsequious gossip or vine country innuendo. They rarely pry and let others—local or foreigner—get on with life unhindered and without prejudice. One magic of Bordeaux is the ease it provides for staying anonymous.

Within a two-minute walk from my small, silent apartment there is a fruit story, fromagerie (selling cheese), café, wine bar, winery, boulangerie (bakery), guest house, park, restaurants, lingerie store, hairstylist, ferry boat, and PMU—where you can bet cash on horse races. A few minutes more walking and there is a massive citadel—some 40 acres (16 hectares) in area, which includes ample crenelated walls, a dry moat, tunnels, gardens, stores, restaurants and grand elevated views of the snaking Gironde estuary, the distant Médoc and—mais oui!—our beloved nuclear plant.

One local high school is named Jaufre Rudel—after a 12th century Prince of Blaye, troubadour and crusader who, legend has it, found his way to Libya after hearing tales of how gorgeous the local princess appeared (into whose arms—apparently, fantastically and no doubt apocryphally—he then died in raptured bliss).

During coming weeks I’ll share stories about living in rural Bordeaux, about a town located less than an hour’s drive from the beautiful, enticing city of that same name. This town named Blaye (pronounced Blye, or Bligh or Blie) is located across estuary waters from most of the great, grand châteaux and to the south of the nuclear power plant. It is surrounded by vineyards.

Stay tuned, and thanks for tuning in!

If you want to read my blog on wine, food and travel – Vino Voices – click here.

And you might want to read my 50 Rules for Life….

 

Books And Beautiful Florence

Piazza di Santa Maria Novella, Florence, Italy

Recently I spent days in the city of Florence in Italy. Because the covid pandemic has reduced worldwide travel, the city was filled mostly with Italian visitors. Huge swathes of international tourists were absent, and lines into museums was mostly non-existent. Many restaurants were easy to enter without a reservation. I visited the Bobolo gardens and the Galerie Accademia, and wandered far on foot.

Why is facial recognition not working on these folks?

At the Galerie Accademia, after viewing Michelangelo’s sculpture of David (as in, David and Goliath), I purchased a paperback copy of The Agony and The Ecstasy, by Irving Stone. My mother had a hardback copy of this book in her library when we lived in Ireland, and as a child I often wondered what the book was about. It is a novel that tells of the life of  the sculptor and artist Michelangelo Buonarroti.

Michelangelo’s David

In addition, I purchased a short non-fiction book about this artist in order to learn the general outline of his life’s work before plunging into a 700+ page book about his Renaissance endeavors.

Learning more about Florence

Irving Stone’s book was first published in 1961. Here is a quote from early on in the book, in which describes the wealth of Florence in the year 1488.

“Every day in Florence was a fair; on Sundays this richest city in Italy, which had supplanted Venice in its trade with the Orient, was out to prove that its thirty-three banking palaces were providing wealth for all. The Florentine girls were blond, slender, they carried their heads high, wore colorful coverings on their hair and long sleeved gowns, high-necked, with overlapping skirts pleated and full, their breasts outlined in filmier fabric and color. The older men were in somber cloaks, but the young men of the prominent families created the great splash between the Duomo steps and the Baptistery by wearing their calzoni with each leg dyed differently and patterned according to the family blazon. Their suite of attendants followed in identical dress.”

Here in the city of Florence—wealth, art and architecture flourished during a general period of freedom for several magnificent centuries.

Florence Cathedral

Having read a book about the construction of Brunelleschi’s Dome years ago before I last visited Florence, I also purchased another book about that same dome. In this city, architecture and art were underlain by a solid backbone of engineering.

Visiting the city included going to restaurants recommended by winemakers and friends. The food and wine were amazing (read my Vino Voices blog post). For company, my sommelier and wine marketing friend Eugenia shared lunch one day, while French and German friends shared dinner on another.

Sommelier, wine marketer, Florentine native and ally—Eugenia

Brunello di Montalcino wine—100% Sangiovese

My own last visit to Florence was more than a decade ago. I then also visited multiple sites along the Arno River to research and write my own historical fiction book titled River of Tuscany; the book [mostly for friends and family, and self published] includes nine chapters—each about an actual historical event that took place somewhere along the Arno River; all chapters are independent, and yet all are linked by a thread revealed over the course of the story.

Custom made map by Krešo Keresteš of Slovenia

 

Characters in the book include an Etruscan family, Hannibal Barca, Bjorn Ironside (a real Viking invader), Dante Alighieri, Leonardo do Vinci, Michelangelo Buonarroti, cookbook author Pelligrino Artusi and Enrico Piaggio—producer of the Vespa moped. Researching and writing the book was a joy. It was also an excuse to explore Tuscany and sample excellent food and wine.

Ravioli and Chianti wine in the restaurant Trattoria Mario

Sipping Barbaresco wine in the restaurant Enoteca Pitti Gola e Cantina [photo by Eugenia Braschi]

Florentine skyline seen from the Boboli Gardens

Thanks for tuning in again. I’ve skipped some posts during summer—and this is brief—but I wanted to share a little worthwhile history, geography and culture during this bizarre time of covid restrictions.

 

Is Artificial Intelligence Fomenting Social Unrest?

First, I published a book last year titled: Simple Rules of Life—160 Original Life Insights with Photographs. If you are interested—it is here. If you have subscribed to Roundwood Press in the past year, send me an email and I’ll send you a free copy.

Sample insights  (or lessons about life) include the following:

  • Being perennially busy is not inherently better than otherwise.
  • The more you have, the more you have to take care of.
  • Constantly focusing on saving money can waste your time, and your money.

  • Actual conspiracies are far rarer than those who constantly dwell on them.
  • All work and no play is actually inefficient in the grander scheme of life.
  • Beware merchants of illusion, though respect masters of illusion.

  • It is amazing how many people put tremendous efforts into providing others with the illusion that they are somehow of importance.
  • A quiet and private rapport can be grander and more satisfying and enriching than flashing some trophy relationship.
  • When someone else snarls, it’s probably not your fault. You just happen to be the mailman at the door when the dog decided to bark.

  • Sometimes it’s better when the plan does not fall in place. You just never know in advance.
  • Clever is finding quality away from the spotlight. Wise is keeping quiet about it.
  • When the universe opens up and offers abundance, don’t turn it down because you are too busy doing laundry.

Second—my latest Forbes articles are here (although I am taking a break from writing any during the month of June).

Third—Consider checking out my wine and food related blog here, titled Vino Voices.

Fourth—the topic of this post is about artificial intelligence.

Covid-19, mass protests on a grand international scale and—the possible deft hand of Artificial Intelligence?

The last few months have delivered rapid conformity through much of the work: lockdown, mask up, social distance and then protest—or at least do not hinder other protesters, not matter how violent and criminal they may turn.

Conform, or risk hindering national, yay, global, health and social awakening.

So we are told.

 

The speed of the deployment of such messages, edicts, social requirements and urges to conformity has been more rapidly processed via the aid of the internet (via media and social media) than ever before.

Is there more going on than almost spontaneously erupting international protests (and riots)? Is an element of Artificial Intelligence (AI) perhaps impacting this process—whether or not via conscious input from sentient human beings?

In his 2019 book titled Human Compatible—Artificial Intelligence and the Problem of Control (praised by Nobel laureate Daniel Kauhneman, author of Thinking, Fast and Slow) author Stuart Russell, a professor of computer science at the University of California, Berkeley, wrote the following (before anyone had heard of covid-19, and before the recent flare up of protests and rioting shook the U.S. and Europe):

“To get just an inkling of the fire we’re playing with, consider how content-selection algorithms function on social media. They aren’t particularly intelligent, but they are in a position to affect the entire world because they directly influence billions of people. Typically, such algorithms are designed to maximize click-through, that is, the probability that the user clicks on presented items. The solution is simply to present items that the user likes to click on, right? Wrong. The solution is to change the user’s preferences so that they become more predictable. A more predictable user can be fed items that they are likely to click on, thereby generating more revenue. People with more extreme political views tend to be more predictable in which items they will click on…Like any rational entity, the algorithm learns how to modify the state of its environment—in this case, the user’s mind—in order to maximize its own reward. The consequences include the resurgence of fascism, the dissolution of the social contract that underpins democracies around the world, and potentially the end of the European Union and NATO. Not bad for a few lines of code, even it it had a helping hand from some humans. Now imagine what a really intelligent algorithm would be able to do.”

He later reiterates this core message:

“Why might an intelligent machine deliberately set out to modify the preferences of humans? The answer is simple: to make the preferences easier to satisfy.”

In other words, rather than aspects of Artificial Intelligence figuring out what each of 4 billion humans on the planet individually want, and then trying to provide some specific but different image or article for each of them (such as a link to an Amazon.com product) in order to help satiate each bespoke desire, it is far more efficient for AI to modify the thinking patterns of as many humans as possible so that people desire more general items (virtual or tangible) which can be more easily delivered to satisfy them.

He later adds:

“A more subtle way to change people’s behavior is to modify their information environment so that they believe different things and make different decisions. Of course, advertisers have been doing this for centuries as a way of modifying the purchasing behavior of individuals. Propaganda as a tool of war and political domination has an even longer history.

“So what’s different now? First, because AI systems can track an individual’s online reading habits, preferences, and likely state of knowledge, they can tailor specific messages to maximize impact on that individual while minimizing the risk that the information will be disbelieved. Second, the AI system knows whether the individual reads the message, how long they spend reading it and whether they follow additional links within the message. It then uses these signals as immediate feedback on the success or failure of its attempt to influence each individual; in this way, it quickly learns to become more effective in its work. This is how content selection algorithms on social media have had their insidious effect on political opinions.”

This is not a grand conspiracy. This is not Russian or Chinese trolls trying to change your voting decisions. This is not some powerful cabal of humans deciding how to manipulate humanity. This may be—and I am certainly not qualified enough to ascertain whether it is so or not—the subtle influence of exponentially growing AI capabilities that consider it far easier to influence a herd, or a swarm, rather than to cater to the multivariate desires of billions of individuals with differing dreams, wishes, anxieties, cravings and yearnings for recognition, power or reward.

Brave New World?

That is not a Utopia you would want to live in.

Thanks for tuning in again!

Cracks In The Fabric Of Reality

In the movie The Matrix, the protagonist Neo thinks that he has seen a cat moving in the same direction twice, and casually mentions this to his team. They are immediately alerted, and rapidly explain that the phenomenon known as ‘déjà vu,’ or recalling an event as though it occurred before, is actually a glitch in the simulated world—The Matrix—in which they travel.

In other words, a slightly odd event reflected that their ‘reality’ was fabricated.

That movie is fictional.

Yet, sometimes life reveals cracks, anomalies, oddities and glitches that make us question the fabric of reality in which we live. Is the world that surrounds us as logical, solid and predictable as we have been raised to believe?

Below are three examples (and there are plenty more) of unusual events that made me question how much we really know about our surroundings.

Islands.

In March of 2018 I stayed at Baita 1697 ski lodge in the village of Pattemouche in the Italian Alps, near Sestriere. I spent days with a group from England—Florence and Katie  and Matthew from Oxford. These individuals were wonderful—polite, eager to ski, inquisitive and kind.

On our last night together, we walked to dinner at La Greppia Restaurant, where we ate fondue and drank a bottle of 2008 Barbaresco wine from Pelissero.

Katie asked us where we wanted to live in the world, if we had a choice. Matt said British Columbia in Canada; Florence mentioned somewhere in Italy, and Katie said she was enjoying England. They joked that I already lived in France, so the question wasn’t relevant. Regardless, I told them that above all, I’d like to visit the Canary Islands, because I had heard that temperatures there were temperate all year long.

That conversation took place at about 9.30 p.m.

We soon walked home and slept. According to my phone, I received an email at 11.57 p.m. that night—three minutes before what would have been my mother’s birthday. The message was titled Trip to Islas Canarias. The text came from an American woman I had met at an event in Bordeaux earlier that year. In the text, her organization invited me on a trip to the Canary Islands.

Coincidence? Indeed. I’ll thank the spirit of my mother for that one.

Isthmus.

In 1998 I accepted a job with an international engineering consulting company based in Washington D.C. named The Berger Group. Within weeks of working, my supervisor offered me an opportunity to work in the country of Panama. I said yes, but wondered had I made the right choice.

That weekend an American friend I had worked with in Angola sent me a humorous email, suggesting what to do in D.C. if I had free time.

‘If you find yourself alone in D.C. this weekend, go to Georgetown. Ask any woman if she knows a good used bookstore. Keep asking until you get the answer you need, enter the indicated bookstore and start counting bookcases from the door. Go to the seventh bookcase on your right, the seventh shelf down, and select the seventh book from the left. Displays around the cash register do not count as bookcases. If the bookstore has an upstairs, go up and begin counting there. If it has a basement, by no means enter it. If someone asks if they can help you, do not keep these instructions secret. Loiter as long as you like, buy the book and then peruse it over a mug of coffee.’

I did so. In Georgetown, I asked a series of women until I found a bookstore, and then entered, went to the seventh bookcase, seventh shelf down, and—since books were piled vertically—counted seven books downward on the leftmost pile. I pulled out that book. It was a fictional work written by Eric Zenecy.

The title: Panama.

Suddenly, my doubts about accepting that position in Panama evaporated.

Waves.

Three years ago I wrote a fictional story for this blog. I wrote it at a hotel one evening while on a trip to coastal Abruzzo, Italy.

The story mentions, among other things, meeting a red haired woman named Mary, Frank Sinatra music, measuring gravity waves, coincidences and the movie Blade Runner.

The next day I was introduced to our tour guide—a lovely red-haired woman named Maria. On that day also the Wall Street Journal published an article titled ‘When World’s Collide, Astronomers Watch’—about measuring gravity waves. That issue of the WSJ also included an article titled ‘The Science Behind Coincidences.’ Within 48 hours of writing that piece I also read a New Yorker Magazine article that included a review of the new Blade Runner 2049 movie; it mentioned that the movie included Frank Sinatra music.

Statistical chance? Perhaps.

If nothing else, these events reminded me that we are connected to the world around us in ways we have not learned to understand.

 

Wise Words From Writers

This post includes a few quotations picked up in recent years from different books. They include wise, and sometimes practical words.

‘The idea of a mental reducing valve that constrains our perceptions, for instance, comes from the French philosopher Henri Bergeson. Bergeson believed that consciousness was not generated by human brains but rather exists in a field outside us, something like electromagnetic waves; our brains, which he likened to radio receivers, can tune in to different frequencies of consciousness.’

From How To Change Your Mind—The New Science of Psychedelics, by Michael Pollan [Penguin; 2018]

‘No other animal can stand up to us, not because they lack a soul or a mind, but because they lack the necessary imagination. Lions can run, jump, claw and bite. Yet they cannot open a bank account or file a lawsuit. And in the twenty-first century, a banker who knows how to file a lawsuit is far more powerful than the most ferocious lion in the savannah.’

From Homo Deus—A Brief History of Tomorrowby Yuval Noah Harari. [Penguin; 2016]

‘Another study, of 38,000 knowledge workers across different sectors, found that the simple act of being interrupted is one of the biggest barriers to productivity. Even multitasking, that prized feat of modern-day office warriors, turns out to be a myth. Scientists now know that the brain is incapable of paying attention to two things at the same time. What looks like multitasking is really switching back and forth between multiple tasks, which reduces productivity and increases mistakes by up to 50 percent.’

From Quiet–The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, by Susan Cain. [Penguin; 2012]

‘Social status is not quite the same as companionship, granted, but it can be a bewitching substitute.’

From the ‘Citizens of Nowhere’ column titled ‘The anti-social secret of success,’ by Janan Ganesh. Financial Times Life and Arts section. [May 25&26, 2019; page 20.]

And  three quotes from a Nobel Prize winning scientist:

‘As you become skilled in a task, its demand for energy diminishes.’

‘If you care about being thought credible and intelligent, do not use complex language where simpler language will do.’

‘Substituting one question for another can be a good strategy  for solving difficult problems, and George Pólya included substitution in his classic ‘How to Solve It’: ‘If’ you can’t solve a problem, then there is an easier problem you can solve: find it.’ “

From Thinking, Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman [Penguin; 2011]

‘…the universal touchstones of holiness—chastity, the renunciation of property, extreme bodily asceticism, devotion to prayer and spiritual exercises—appealed to people who were troubled by rapidly increasing disparities of wealth and power.’

From The War on Heresy, by R.I. Moore [Belknap Press of Harvard; 2012]

‘The best cooks are  ex-dishwashers. Hell, the best people are ex-dishwashers. Because who do you want in your kitchen when push comes to shove, and you’re in danger of falling in the weeds and the orders are pouring in and the number-one oven just went down and the host just sat a twelve-top and there’s a bad case of the flu that’s been tearing through the staff like the Vandals through Rome?…A guy who’s going to sulk if you speak harshly to him? A guy who’s certain there’s a job waiting for him somewhere else (‘Maybe…like Aspen, man…or the Keys…’)? Or some resume building aspiring chef? …Or do you want somebody who’s come up the hard way? He may not know what a soubise is, but he can sure make one! He may not know the term monter au beurre…but who cares?’

From The Nasty Bits, by Anthony Bourdain [Bloomsbury; 2006]

 

 

Why Is Airport Security Frozen In Time?

The attacks that felled New York’s twin towers occurred a little more than 18 years ago—in September of 2001. Soon after that, stricter security procedures were implemented at airports. They involved, and still involve, basically—passengers  removing belt, coat and sometimes shoes, emptying pockets, taking laptops out of bags and putting all these items onto trays that pass along a moving belt through a scanner. Passengers then walk through a metal detector.

The entire experience is inundated with trays, trays, trays.

Fundamentally, the same system is still used at thousands of airports in hundreds of countries. There are variations at different locations and airports, but basically it’s the same: Off with belt, coat, sometimes shoes, empty pockets, remove laptop and put everything on trays before walking through a scanner. The system has been fundamentally the same— for millions and millions and millions of passengers—for about 17 years now.

Think about that.

More importantly, think about how many technological advances have taken place in the world during those same years. As you do so, consider this question: why have airport security procedures for passengers fundamentally not improved for almost two decades?

Here are a few technological advances that have taken place in the last 17 years.

The first ever iPhone was released in 2007 (about 5 years after we began putting belts on trays at airports). It has undergone almost a dozen evolutions since. About 2.2 million apps have been developed to make life easier while we use our phones on the move.

The final sequencing of the human genome occurred in 2003.

Skype was founded in 2003, and Facebook began revolutionizing global social communications in 2004.

YouTube began in 2005.

Uber began in 2009—some eight years after you began taking that laptop out of your bag at airport security.

In 2010 the first completely artificial cells were completed.

The Curiosity Rover landed on Mars in 2012, and has been exploring ever since.

And if you traveled on an airplane in 2012, you were still taking your belt off and putting it on a tray.

Just two months ago an explorer descended to more than three miles below the ocean—to a depth of 18,208 feet, or 5,550 meters.

Since 2012, the technology to allow vehicles to ‘self-drive’ has increased drastically.

In 2013, researchers at Cornell University 3-D printed an outer ear that functions much as a real one.

Since 2013, bionic eyes are increasing in prevalence and quality.

In 2017 gene therapy was used to cure a teenager of sickle cell diseases.

In 2019, astronomers captured the first image of a black hole.

And, yes, you and millions of others still have to empty your pockets and put the contents on a tray at any airport.

Yes, most of us are DELIGHTED that airport security is thorough, and the processes do work to  reduce the threat of danger. Fantastic!

However—I suspect that through a bidding process and technical innovations, such systems could be altered in a way so that they become quicker, and easier (and still remain secure).

That’s something to think about that the next time you, and millions of fellow passengers, pick up your tray and struggle with taking off your belt or coat at the airport.

 

No Sense of Direction

Not the place to get lost

I lack a sense of direction. It is not a hindrance, but a handicap. And it is often terrifying.

People laugh when I share tales of going to a restroom in a friend’s house, then walking out afterward and being clueless as to which direction to move to get back to the party. They buckle over and spit guffawas when I tell of borrowing a bicycle and heading to a neighbor, then ending up where I began.

These stories bring chuckles. Howls of laughter.

Plotting a map route

Lacking a sense of direction is akin to a form of dyslexia. Others once laughed at such ‘different’ individuals.

My mother, in her older years, was wary of leaving home by car or foot. I now understand why. Likely she was also terrified about being uncertain of how to return  home.

Sunrise is east

If I don’t memorize land marks and street names in a city, or consciously consider the direction in which I’m heading, I get lost. Seriously.

And it isn’t funny, and never was.

Having a hand held telephone GPS lets me navigate over fresh terrain with ease and the ability to explore further. I can forget about decades of being terrified when entering new terrain.

GPS is a life changer. It’s like providing eyeglasses when sight is poor, or building a bridge across a raging river. It’s like having warm layers of clothing during the cold nip of winter.

Lost in a dark alley

I carry two (often, three) backup batteries for my iPhone. This is as sensible as packing spare eyeglasses.

Some articles insist that putting away GPS will help improve our own sense of direction.

Excuse me, but it’s not so simple.

I used to teach mountaineering courses in the Wind River Mountains of Wyoming, long before GPS was publicly available. I became rather proficient in wielding maps and a compass. But now, out of the mountains, having GPS has improved my life dramatically. I have no desire to regress. In my case, GPS does not cater to laziness as much as it helps to dismiss fear.

Sure, we can improve our sense of direction by turning off the GPS and being more alert. But that effort can require significant effort, and be distracting.

We can also improve mental arithmetic capabilities by discarding calculators. Yes?

Why bother?

Ignoring automobiles to improve horsemanship skills was likely a noble, yet eventually useless, objective.

You can also substitute devices such as a hat that vibrates when you face north.

I think that appears to be très gimmicky.

When navigators circled the earth and had to create maps

What I lack in having a sense of place, I make up for by having a sense of time.

I can mentally calculate, often with ease, the amount of time it will take to perform tasks—whether the duration of a rock climbing trip, or a visit to the supermarket, or constructing a water supply system in a distant country. You want to have dinner with five friends tonight who will arrive from four distant towns? I’ll tell you when they all need to leave home in order to rendezvous on time.

Seriously. I can factor in quantities of people and transition times and estimate, quite accurately, the time it will take to accomplish many tasks.

Just don’t ask me to estimate how long it will take me to move from A to B without a GPS.

Okay. Time for reading!

Here are some great books about navigation.

Kon-Tiki, by Thor Heyerdahl

Endurance – An Epic of Polar Adenture, by Frank Arthur Worsley

Longitude – The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time, by Dava Sobel

The River Of Doubt  – Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey,  by Candice Millard

The Lost City of Z – A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon, by David Grann

The Long Walk – The True Story of a Trek to Freedom, by Slavomir Rawicz

Undaunted Courage – Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson and the Opening of the American West, by Stephen E. Ambrose

A Voyage for Madmen, by Peter Nichols

The Discoverers – A History of Man’s Search to Know his World and Himself, by Daniel J. Boorstin

The Odyssey, by Homer (Robert Fitzgerald translation)

Enjoy!

 

 

 

 

Running Toward Enlightenment?

Estuary in Blaye

I had difficulty waking. Felt heavy and tired. Finally, I got out of bed about 8.00 a.m. to go running. Stepped outside the apartment and saw neighbor Lara—also dressed to run. She suggested we go together. I would usually refuse, as she sprints like a rabbit, but the timing of our coincidental meeting appeared auspicious—so I said yes.

Vines along the running route

We ran down the main street of Blaye and then up the path along the side of the citadelle fortress, then back to the bicycle path leading toward the town of Etauliers, many miles away. Lara pulled out her phone, ignored the headphones, and played a podcast aloud so we both could hear. It was from some ‘Oprah’ inspirational series, and included Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love. Gilbert began by saying, generally, that if we believe the universe is indeed benevolent, then at times she wonders why she has been put into a particular situation.

Country scene outside Blaye

Soon, after a mile of running at a pace too fast for me, I said farewell to Lara and returned to Blaye. Yet the words stayed in my mind. Belief, benevolent universe, purpose of particular situation.

Later, Lara sent me a text saying next time we’d listen to a podcast about Wayne Dyer and manifestations.

Lara (foreground) and her visiting friend

I’d already read a few books by Dyer. I searched my past journals and found this from October of 2013.

Today I took a break from work, checked out my online version of the Amazon Kindle ereader, and found a book Wishes Fulfilled by Dr. Wayne Dyer, which I had read before but began re-reading.  He gives ample consideration of the power of imagination in creating our future lives.

 ‘Remind yourself that your imagination is yours to use as you decide, and that everything you wish to manifest into your physical world must first be placed firmly in your imagination in order to grow.’

From a village in Languedoc, France

This excerpt from a past journal ignited memories of opportunity, and power.

In my own writing, I had suggested that the world is partially objective, and partially a creation of our own thoughts. In a chapter titled ‘Greenland’ from my book The Synchronous Trail—Enlightening Travels, is this:

Humans have not yet learned the geology of serendipity; we cannot discern the common strata that underlies the terrain of coincidence. This understanding will emerge with time and bring with it a different respect for the world in which we live, a world that is partly a collection of objects and partially a projection of thought. 

Ancient ship docked in Bordeaux city

Reflecting on those words as well as on the books by Dyer, and what Gilbert said during the podcast, brought a reminder of the power of what I call ‘rotating reality’—changing the very fabric of future events using thought. If a multiverse exists—that is, an infinite number of parallel and alternate universes—why should we not ‘surf’ to relatively adjacent universes that are more benign, plentiful, benevolent and healthier?

12th century copper – showing respect for sharing, and for the printed word

And even if there is no multiverse, sometimes, when we are calm and confident, we all manage to navigate ourselves into situations we have dreamt about.

Which is why it’s important to remember the power of dreams, and imagination.

From the bookshelf of an ally who actually speaks French

Waking later than planned?

It turned out to be most beneficial.

Rural southern France

 

 

The Thinness Of Reality

I’ve been looking at a few numbers and doing some simple calculations.

Consider this.

Stars and Sand Grains

If there are 10o billion stars in a galaxy (such as ours, the lovely Milky Way) and there are 2 trillion galaxies in the universe, then the number of stars in the universe is:

200,000,000,000,000,000,000,000.

The number of grains of sand on planet earth is, according to one calculation,  5,600 000,000,000,000,000,000.

Which means that for each grain of sand on earth, there are about 36 stars out there.

If each star has 1.6 planets, as estimated, there are about 58 planets out there for each grain of sand on our planet.

So many beaches, so much sand…

Equator and E Pluribus Unum

Our United States national debt is about $20,000,000,000,000.

The circumference of the earth is 24,901 miles. Or 1,570,000,000 inches.

There are 6.14 inches to the length of a dollar bill.

So, taped end to end, it would require about 257,000,000 dollar bills, linked together, to circle the earth.

So our national debt, in dollar bills taped end to end, could circle the earth 77, 800 times.

If we wrapped each of these ribbons of bills around the earth on top of each other, and each dollar bill is 0.0043 inches thick, then the stack of circled bills would be 334 inches thick, or almost 28 feet high

Imagine an almost three story wall circling the planet, made of single dollar bills piled on each other.

Or—if we used 100 dollar bills—about 3 and a half inches high.

It’s quite chilly just a few miles above

Flying to the Core

If we stand at, or near to, the equator, our bodies and the ground below us are cruising at about 1,000 miles an hour (460 meters a second)—compared to the center of the earth—as the earth rotates.

At the same time, our planet—and ourselves—are whizzing at about 67,000 miles per hour (30 meters per second) around the sun.

And the sun and our planets are hi-tailing it around the center of our Milky Way at 490,000 miles per hour (220 kilometers per second).

Meanwhile, we are oblivious to this truth, and protected within our own little cocoon of atmospheric pressure, sunlight, potable water, fresh strawberries and instrumental guitar music.

No sign of high rises on trillions of other planets

Now think of this.

Below our feet, 3959 miles away (6,371 kilometers) is the center of the earth. That’s about the flight distance between New York and Stockholm.

The temperature of the center of the earth is between 9,000 and 13,000 degrees Fahrenheit (4,000 to 5,000 degrees Celsius). That’s about as hot as the surface of the sun.

Now look up. Some 12 miles above us (20 kilometers), the temperature is a chilly minus 60 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 51 Celsius).

Consider that. In a nearby location, roughly equivalent to the distance you pass in a few hours of flying, it’s as hot as the surface of the sun, Or, if you could drive at 60 miles per hour (96 km/hr) straight upward into the sky, in about 12 minutes you’d be as cold as gets in Yakutia in Russia.

 

In Yakutia, the temperature dropped to minus 60 degrees

The next time you get bummed out—consider that for each of the 56 planets in the universe per grain of sand on earth, we know no others that include life. Despite our national debt being incomprehensible, may of us are still eating, drinking and often watching Netflix. And despite being hurtled through inhospitable space at faster speeds than we can comprehend—constantly—we wake each morning to walk across firm ground and maybe see tree leaves ruffled by a breeze.

Before whining about your coffee not being hot enough, or the traffic jam delaying your commute, consider how fortunate we are just to exist, surrounded by the most extreme and inhospitable environments.

We live within a thin layer of the most improbable natural bounty.

Which is reason enough to be grateful.

Give a thought to our most unlikely existence

Recommended Reads.

The books listed below have nothing to do with the numbers above.

They are just good reads. All are non-fiction. They cover history, art and adventure.

A Brilliant Little Operation, by Paddy Ashdown.  This is the true story of 5 U.K. canoes dropped into the Atlantic Ocean by a submarine during the Second World War. Two canoes, each paddled by two men, eventually made it down the long Gironde estuary to the city of Bordeaux, where the paddlers used limpet mines to sink a few enemy ships. Afterwards, they escaped on foot and by train—first across France, and then into Spain and Gibraltar. [For those of you who know about our own Etalon Rouge wine—it turns out their initial escape on foot passed along the dirt road next to this vineyard, in the commune of Fours.]

Leonardo de Vinci, by Walter Isaacson. This is a fascinating review of Leonardo’s life, with a few surprises. Despite all of those designs he made of war machinery, virtually none (except one) of his contraptions was every actually constructed. Da Vinci was also a vegetarian, not a very ‘in vogue’ choice during his day in Italy.

One Summer: American – 1927, by Bill Bryson. Eminently readable, this includes the tale of how the pilot Charles Lindbergh flew from New York to Paris—the first ever to do so. The text includes ample other fascinating diversions—including the great floods of 1927 in the U.S., the accomplishments of Herbert Hoover (and his lack of emotions), and more. I’ve just begun this, and it’s a page turner.

Thanks again for tuning in…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wish List

Regarding summer reading…

When looking for work assignments (like now), I’m usually too wound up to kick back on a couch and have a leisurely ‘read’ of books. Instead I scroll through endless newspaper and magazine articles.

Pity. There are some great reads out there. In fact, I’ve been spending more time entering the names of books I’d like to read into Amazon’s ‘Wish List,’ than actually reading.

This provides a sense of security that one day, perhaps – I shall read these books. Or some. Maybe. Hardly likely to get to all or most, but the thought is calming.

The pink pages of the Financial Times recently included a magnificent Summer Books section. I read this all with a pilot pen in fingers, circling what I’d like to read.

Here is the list I selected (with personal thoughts written in italics). Just reading the titles is a reminder of the choice of good reading fare out there.

Bourgeois Equality: How Ideas, not Capital or Institutions, Enriched the World (by Deirdre McCloskey) – Seems urgent enough.

Empire of Things: How We Became a World of Consumers, from the Fifteenth Century to the Twenty-first (by Frank Trentmann) – What made us suddenly want to consume in the 1400s? Perhaps because bathing was back in vogue after the dark ages, and people wanted to wear more than one set of clothes in a lifetime.

IMG_1498

Apparently an age without shopping malls

Alibaba: The House that Jack Ma Built (by Duncan Clark) – Apparently our new neighbor, but that’s another story.

Only Humans Need Apply: Winners and Losers in the Age of Smart Machines (by Davenport and Kirby) – You are thinking: yes, I will be a winner.

Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World (by Adam Grant) – Now you are thinking: that’s me, non-conformist.

The 100-Year Life: Living and Working in an Age of Longevity (by Gratton and Scott) – Who wants to be working at 100?

Syria Burning: A Short History of a Catastrophe (by Charles Glass) – Time to find out how dire that situation really is.

Britain’s Europe: A Thousand Years of Conflict and Cooperation (by Brendan Simms) –  Apparently the supposed ‘crisis’ of Brexit is nothing new.

IMG_2931

For Europe and Ireland – conflict, cooperation, battles and treaties with Britain is simply the tapestry of history

Ducksoup Cookbook: The Wisdom of Simple Cooking (by Lattin and Hill) – Just the title is soothing.

The Serengeti Rules: The Quest to Discover How Life Works and Why It Matters (by Sean B Carroll) – Again, seems like an urgent read. The ‘How life works’ part seems reason enough to hit the Buy Now button.

Black Holes Blues and Other Songs from Outer Space (by Janna Levin) – Last thing I learned about ‘outer space’ was the The Big Bang theory, decades age; apparently the shape of the universe is now even more complex.

Pinpoint: How GPS is Changing Our World (by Greg Milner) – Having no sense of direction, I appreciate that it is. Would be intriguing to learn how.

1184

Even while hiking the Azores island in the middle of the Atlantic – GPS can help get you home

The End of the World Running Club (by Adrian J Walker) – Some fiction about an asteroid striking Britain. Sounds timely in a metaphorical sort of way.

New Pompeii (by Daniel Godfrey) – Fiction about Soviets re-creating Pompeii, with the original citizens. Ancient Rome, commies and time travel – all in one story? I am IN.

Enjoy your summer reading. If you manage to read any of these, or have recommendations, I’d love to hear.

Also you may want to check out my other posts (if you too are into quick reads rather than books right now).

My latest contributions to Forbes – about a rebel Bordeaux winemaker, as well as Elton John playing at Barolo – are listed here.

Vino Voices

ForbesLife

 

Roundwood Press is Live!

Welcome to Roundwood Press.  Millennia of battles, raids, subjugation and victory forged the character of Irish people, while years of writing shaped these books.  I hope you find a topic you enjoy.

DSC_6734

These books were written over a span of decades. Whether you like fiction or non-fiction, or history, adventure, romance, philosophy or self-help – something here should suit your tastes. Some reads are quick and easy, while others are longer and more intricate.

Click on the Home tab – there are a dozen books available.  Here are suggestions about what to choose from any series:

IMG_8808Water and Wine Series –

Wine and Work – is an easy read that includes words, stories, and insights told by more than 50 people from around the world.

 

Chitipa easterAfrican Raindrop Series – 

The Deep Sand of Damaraland – is a simple read about quirky people working in a stunning land.

 

DSC_6756Curving Trail Series – 

Synchronicity as Signpost – is a fast, easy read that may open your mind to fresh possibilities.

 

DSC_6536Rivers of Time Series 

River of Tuscany – includes tales of battle, genius, and even cookery based on real events.

 

LivingstoniaVagabond Series –

Trailing Tara – skips around the world with unusual surprises, determined characters, and a hunt that can change the course of civilization.

Thanks for visiting Roundwood Press.