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The Stoner sonnet

Friday, 30 September, 2016 0 Comments

The central character in Stoner, a 1965 novel by the American writer John Williams, is William Stoner, who begins life as a farm boy in Missouri. His parents send him to the University of Missouri to study agriculture, but after reading Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73, Stoner switches to studying literature. After receiving his Ph.D. he continues at the university as an assistant professor of English, the job he holds for the rest of his career.

“In his forty-third year William Stoner learned what others, much younger, had learned before him: that the person one loves at first is not the person one loves at last, and that love is not an end but a process through which one person attempts to know another.” — John Williams, Stoner

The novel sold poorly when it was published but that changed at the beginning of this century, when it became an international bestseller. Stoner was reissued in 2006 by New York Review Books Classics with an introduction by John McGahern, who wrote that Stoner is a “novel about work.” This includes not only traditional work, such as Stoner’s tasks on the farm and his academic duties, but also the work he puts into relationships. It’s also a book about passion, and Stoner’s passions are knowledge and love. According to the critic Morris Dickstein, “he fails at both.” It’s Shakespearian.

Sonnet 73

That time of year thou may’st in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruin’d choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.
In me thou see’st the twilight of such day,
As after sunset fadeth in the west,
Which by-and-by black night doth take away,
Death’s second self, that seals up all in rest.
In me thou see’st the glowing of such fire
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the death-bed whereon it must expire
Consum’d with that which it was nourish’d by.
This thou perceivest, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well which thou must leave ere long.

William Shakespeare

September


Language guilt

Thursday, 29 September, 2016 0 Comments

The alleged crimes of the West are many and hardly a day goes by without the prosecutors discovering new examples of their oppression at the hands of Goethe and Emily Brontë, which are then paraded with the “-ism” suffix. The ensuing press release from the aggrieved will contain all the usual Stalinist/Maoist clichés: “The hegemonic power of capitalism propagates an increasing gravitation to English…”

Yes, English.

Why English? Confronting the Hydra Why English? Confronting the Hydra is a collection of essays edited by a group of remorseful scholars and English teachers, which begins with an abject apologia: “There is, indeed, huge irony in the fact this collection is written in English and published in the United Kingdom. Such is the power of the global publishing industry and the pervasiveness of English-language hegemony that this critique needs to emanate from within its very realm.”

Ah, yes, hegemony. A true trigger word. Just like “Orwellian” and “imperialism”. Talking of both, the publisher’s site has a glowing review of Why English? Confronting the Hydra by Dr. B. Kumaravadivelu, a member of the Department of Linguistics and Language Development at San José State University in California. Snippet:

“The contributors to this volume expose the Orwellian overtones that mask the linguistic imperialism that is being peddled in terms of growth, development, partnership, volunteerism, and aid. The many examples of innovation and success stories they offer give hope that resistance is not futile after all.”

This is the same Dr. B. Kumaravadivelu who, in June 2012, delivered the plenary talk at the 4th International Symposium on Teaching Chinese as a Second Language for Young Scholars at Peking University in Beijing. The title? “Global Mandarin: Promoting Chinese language and culture in an age of globalization.” Did he warn the eager cadres about the Orwellian overtones that mask Chinese linguistic imperialism now being peddled in terms of growth, development, partnership, volunteerism, and aid? Monosyllabic answers on a postcard, please.


Google Translate goes AI

Wednesday, 28 September, 2016 0 Comments

From now on, Google Translate will rely more on AI (artificial intelligence) when it translates languages. Alphabet, the parent company, claims that its brand new Google Neural Machine Translation system will reduce errors by 80 percent compared to its current method.

Google Translate Until today, Google has used what is called “phrase-based translation,” which is standard for the industry. With this method, a hand-coded algorithm breaks down a sentence into words or phrases and tries to match them a vast dictionary. The new system will use that same large dictionary to train two neural networks, one of which will deconstruct the original sentence to figure out what it means, while the other generates text in the output language.

Because AI algorithms don’t rely on human logic, they can often find better ways to do the job compared to the hand-coded algorithms, say the engineers. And as the network learns how to translate, no longer spending time dividing sentences into words or phrases, it discards the rules that humans thought were best and concentrates fully on the outcome. Such is the nature of AI. As Alan Turing wrote in 1950: “I believe that at the end of the century the use of words and general educated opinion will have altered so much that one will be able to speak of machines thinking without expecting to be contradicted.” (Computing machinery and intelligence). We’re getting there.

Google is releasing its new translation system for Mandarin Chinese first, and then adding new languages over coming months.


Who secures the securers?

Tuesday, 27 September, 2016 0 Comments

Last week, the respected cyber-safety research site, Krebs on Security, was taken down by one of the most severe DDoS attack (distributed denial of service) assaults ever recorded. Worryingly, it was launched using a botnet of vast numbers of IoT devices — web cams, home routers, digital video recorders, door locks and so on.

Dan Goodin at Ars Technica pointed out that makers of these devices design them to be as inexpensive and easy-to-use as possible, but there’s a downside:

“As a result, the devices frequently come with bug-ridden firmware that never gets updated and easy-to-guess login credentials that never get changed. Their lax security and always-connected status makes the devices easy to remotely commandeer by people who turn them into digital cannons that spray the Internet with shrapnel.”

Goodin notes that IoT malware is creating a tipping point in the denial-of-service area that’s equipping relatively unsophisticated actors with capabilities that were once reserved only for the most elite of attackers. “And that, in turn, represents a threat to the Internet as we know it,” he adds.

The good news is that Krebs on Security is back online, but the take-down is alarming.


How to Win an Election with Cicero

Monday, 26 September, 2016 0 Comments

It is being reported that the television audience for tonight’s debate at Hofstra University in New York between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump could top 100 million. At this point in the US presidential race, many voters will have made up their minds but there is always the chance that one of the candidates might say or do something tonight that could influence the media’s interpretation of the debate. And it is the media that will decide the “winner” and the “loser”.

Whatever the reading of the debate, however, the battle will continue tomorrow. With the polls suggesting that the outcome is too close to call, it’s all to campaign for, which means it’s time to consult Cicero.

In 64 BC, the great orator Marcus Tullius Cicero ran for consul, the highest office in the Roman Republic. He was 42 and successful, but he was not a member of the ruling elite, and that was a major disadvantage. Still, he had a trump card, so to speak: the Commentariolum Petitionis, or “Little Handbook on Electioneering,” which some historians believe was written by his brother Quintus. Regardless of the authorship, the writer knew his Roman politics, which sound remarkably familiar.

How to Win an Election: An Ancient Guide for Modern Politicians by Quintus Tullius Cicero was translated by Philip Freeman and published in 2012 by Princeton Press. Snippets:

  • Running for office can be divided into two kinds of activity: securing the support of your friends and winning over the general public. You gain the goodwill of friends through kindness, favors, old connections, availability, and natural charm. But in an election you need to think of friendship in broader terms than in everyday life. For a candidate, a friend is anyone who shows you goodwill or seeks out your company.
  • There are three things that will guarantee votes in an election: favors, hope, and personal attachment. You must work to give these incentives to the right people. You can win uncommitted voters to your side by doing them even small favors. So much more so all those you have greatly helped, who must be made to understand that if they don’t support you now they will lose all public respect. But do go to them in person and let them know that if they back you in this election you will be in their debt.
  • You must have a wide variety of people around you on a daily basis. Voters will judge you on what sort of crowd you draw both in quality and numbers. The three types of followers are those who greet you at home, those who escort you down to the Forum, and those who accompany you wherever you go.
  • You desperately need to learn the art of flattery — a disgraceful thing in normal life but essential when you are running for office. If you use flattery to corrupt a man there is no excuse for it, but if you apply ingratiation as a way to make political friends, it is acceptable. For a candidate must be a chameleon, adapting to each person he meets, changing his expression and speech as necessary.
  • Keep the doors of your house open, of course, but also open your face and expression, for these are the window to the soul. If you look closed and distracted when people talk with you, it won’t matter that your front gates are never locked. People not only want commitments from a candidate but they want them delivered in an engaged and generous manner.

Cicero famously defeated Catiline, but he made many enemies during that race for consul and both he and his brother, Quintus, were murdered two decades later during the strife that accompanied the fall of the Republic and the rise of the Empire.

Cicero


When Dublin had buses

Sunday, 25 September, 2016 0 Comments

The capital of Ireland is being subjected to a ransom, er, strike by drivers employed by Dublin Bus. The five unions representing the drivers are seeking a whopping 15% pay increase over the next three years along with a 6% rise they say they were due to get under an agreement in 2009, but which was deferred. They have rejected a recommended 8.25% increase over the next three years. Meanwhile, the helpless commuters are being exposed to further misery and humiliation by one of Europe’s truly sub-standard public transport services.

In the 1970s, when Dublin was considerably less prosperous than it is today, the city had buses and their erratic presence was captured by John Wilfrid Hinde, an English photographer, whose nostalgic postcards of Ireland have acquired cult status.

Dublin buses in the 1970s

Dublin buses in the 1970s

Dublin buses in the 1970s


Season of mists and mellows

Saturday, 24 September, 2016 0 Comments

Autumn mist

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;
To bend with apples the moss’d cottage-trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
For Summer has o’er-brimm’d their clammy cells.

To Autumn by John Keats


Havana Moon

Saturday, 24 September, 2016 0 Comments

Good Friday, 25 March 2016: The Rolling Stones play a huge, free outdoor concert in Havana. The show was filmed by Paul Dugdale and the result, HAVANA MOON, was premiered on cinema screens around the world for one night only, last night. It was a mighty concert and the film captures the essence of the history it represented. Standout songs: Midnight Rambler, with Mick Jagger at his balletic best; Gimme Shelter, with Sasha Allen providing backing vocals and sexy interaction, and a stunning version of Satisfaction that will forever be remembered by those who have had the good fortune to see and hear the greatest rock band, ever.


Bruce Springsteen: Tougher Than the Rest

Friday, 23 September, 2016 0 Comments

Bruce Frederick Joseph Springsteen was born on this day in 1949 in Long Branch, New Jersey. In his new book, Born to Run, he reveals that far from being tougher than the rest always, he’s struggled like the most of us at times. You see, Springsteen suffers from clinical depression, for which he has sought relief through therapy and antidepressants. This makes his resilience and endurance all the more remarkable. But he’s never quit, he doesn’t give up and then there are all those fans: “Waiting for you to pull something out of your hat, out of thin air, out of this world, something that before the faithful were gathered here today was just a song-fueled rumor.”

“She was Italian, funny, a beatific tomboy, with just the hint of a lazy eye, and wore a pair of glasses that made me think of the wonders of the library.” — Bruce Springsteen, Born to Run


Robots: The Warehouse Workers of the Near Future

Thursday, 22 September, 2016 0 Comments

The story involves a logistics company and grocery empire run by a modest New England billionaire. Most people will be unfamiliar with Symbotic LLC and Rick Cohen and C&S Wholesale Grocers but they are at the forefront of a move to show that that robots can manage the storing, handling and hauling of goods that retailers deal with in vast amounts each year.

Fully Autonomous Robots: The Warehouse Workers of the Near Future by Robbie Whelan of the Wall Street Journal describes Cohen’s brave new vision: “His strategy has two prongs: Install robots in C&S warehouses to serve grocery chains, and sell them to companies that have their own distribution facilities. Over the next year, Symbotic plans to roll out nearly a dozen fully-automated food warehouses across the country from Pennsylvania to California, serving grocery chains.”

One of Symbotic’s selling points is what it calls “Capital Recovery”, which goes like this:

“Often companies find that an automation system optimizes their operations enough to justify combining two warehouses into one. Additionally, the capital they can recover from selling the second warehouse can offset the cost of the system. The capital recovery model allows customers to exceed their operational demands while recovering capital from unnecessary facilities and/or resources.”

Robbie Whelan points out that Rick Cohen’s success is driven by his fascination with fat — not of midriff variety, but of the administrative kind:

Mr. Cohen said he became interested in robotics because of a lifelong passion for cutting fat at his family business. His grandfather, Israel Cohen, founded C&S in Worcester, Mass., in 1918. Mr. Cohen became CEO in 1989 and is sole owner.

“Taking waste out is fascinating to me,” Mr. Cohen said. “I walk through a warehouse, and everyone sees what’s happening, and I see what’s not happening.”

Typically, the Daily Mail trashed Rick Cohen’s privacy when it published “Revealed, America’s most modest billionaire: Tycoon worth $11bn is so down-to-earth that neighbors don’t recognize him – on street where average home is $294,000.”


The Fourth Industrial Revolution

Wednesday, 21 September, 2016 0 Comments

Mobile super-computing, intelligent robots, self-driving cars, AI, neuro-technological brain enhancements, chatbots, the Internet of Things… It’s a revolution! “The evidence of dramatic change is all around us and it’s happening at exponential speed,” says Marta Chierego, who directed this clip for The World Economic Forum.

“The second industrial revolution has yet to be fully experienced by 17% of the world as nearly 1.3 billion people still lack access to electricity…

…The fourth industrial revolution, however, is not only about smart and connected machines and systems. Its scope is much wider. Occurring simultaneously are waves of further breakthroughs in areas ranging from gene sequencing to nanotechnology, from renewables to quantum computing. It is the fusion of these technologies and their interaction across the physical, digital and biological domains that make the fourth industrial revolution fundamentally different from previous revolutions.” — Klaus Schwab, The Fourth Industrial Revolution