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True Love on the Faroe Islands

Saturday, 14 February, 2015 0 Comments

“The world is indeed full of peril, and in it there are many dark places; but still there is much that is fair, and though in all lands love is now mingled with grief, it grows perhaps the greater.” — J.R.R. Tolkien, The Two Towers.

Tolkien is not your classic Valentine’s Day quote source, but his timeless sagas have much more to do with the true nature of enduring love than the modern industry that’s devoted to churning out “romance.” Our guess is that he would have loved Eivør Pálsdóttir, who sings in English and Faroese, one of four languages descended from Old West Norse spoken in the Middle Ages, the others being Norwegian, Icelandic and Norn. Life on the Faroe Islands may be hard but this does not mean that it lacks passion. Even Death can be persuaded to reconsider his grim business if shown True Love there.

Pamplona rises again

Friday, 13 February, 2015 0 Comments

The brand-new Museo Universidad de Navarra is expected to bring a stampede of art lovers to Pamplona and it might, in time, rival the economic impact of the annual running of the bulls during the festival of San Fermín. Talking of matters taurine, there’s a wonderful moment in The Sun Also Rises where the protagonist, Jake Barnes, arrives in Pamplona, sees the cathedral, enters and prays. This is Hemingway at his finest:

The Sun Also Rises “I knelt and started to pray and prayed for everybody I thought of, Brett and Mike and Bill and Robert Cohn and myself, and all the bullfighters, separately for the ones I liked, and lumping all the rest, then I prayed for myself again, and while I was praying for myself I found I was getting sleepy, so I prayed that all the bullfighters would be good, and that it would be a fine fiesta, and that we would get some fishing. I wondered if there was anything else I might pray for, and I thought I would like to have some money, so I prayed that I would make a lot of money… and as all the time I was kneeling with my forehead on the wood in front of me, and was thinking of myself as praying, I was a little ashamed, and regretted that I was such a rotten Catholic, but realised that there was nothing I could do about it, at least for a while, and maybe never, but that anyway it was a grand religion, and I only wished I felt religious and maybe I would the next time.”

Rarely has irony been expressed so elegantly.

Strong tobacco from Stark

Thursday, 12 February, 2015 0 Comments

“The truth is that, in contrast to many eurozone countries, Germany has reliably pursued a prudent economic policy. While others were living beyond their means, Germany avoided excess. These are deep cultural differences and the currency union brings them to light once again.” So writes Jürgen Stark, a former board member of the European Central Bank, in today’s Financial Times. “The historical and cultural differences that divide Europe’s union” is the title of the piece and it reveals all one needs to know about the division and disunion at the heart of the euro experiment.

In some ways, the comments are more revealing than the article.

This man needs to read Michael Pettis.The self satisfaction is nauseating.While the “bailout” of the German banks was going on, Siemens was flogging submarines and other much needed rubbish through a vast system of bribery and corruption. senior muppet

For the Greeks it was wonderful for many years to be able to run a political system of patrimonial privilege funded by transfers from outside the country, but that is a self-exciting system in need of a negative feedback loop – which it finally got. The upshot is that now the Greeks are being compelled to consider a choice between maintaining their old social contract or continuing to receive transfers from outside, but not both. In such cases one would normally expect a society to make the most strenuous efforts to avoid the choice. But in their anger at the unfairness of it all, the Greeks now look capable of actually, voluntarily making that choice. Amazing! This moment will not last, but in this moment all kinds of potential surprises now lurk. Whatever

Nice piece of Teutonic my-opism. German non-keynesian economics work as long as there are other countries willing to generate excess demand through borrowing and you can export to (US, China, Souther Europe). It is recipe for disaster for continental size economies. This is not a theoretical debate, the results are painfully obvious. True Finance

Sorry the disasters of the early twentieth century were German disasters. No other country was so bad. You simply cannot read across from a completely awful Germany to anywhere else. Nicki

If Mr Stark is right about the “deep cultural differences” between Eurozone countries, then why on earth did they create a common currency in the first place? This article is basically a list of all the reasons that the Euro should never have come into existence. If the Euro is to succeed, Eurozone countries must work more closely to coordinate their economic policies. It is obvious now that they cannot do so. I have always hoped that the UK would eventually join the Eurozone, but Mr Stark has finally removed the scales from my eyes. Gordon Brown was right after all. Little Briton

Meanwhile, in Spain, six years into its depression, 5.46 million people don’t have jobs, two million households have no earned income, youth unemployment is at 51.4 percent and home prices are down 42 percent. No surprise, then, that the neo-Bolivarian Podemos party is pulling ahead in the polls. The latest Metroscopia survey gave it 28 percent. The ruling conservatives have dropped to 21 percent and the once-mighty PSOE, the Spanish Workers Socialist Party, has fallen to 18 percent. The message to Jürgen Stark is clear: The elites can defend the euro, but they will lose their political base.

Robotic hamburgers

Wednesday, 11 February, 2015 0 Comments

McDonald’s posted a worse-than-projected drop in global sales for January, reports Bloomberg. The fast food chain has just replaced its CEO in an attempt to grow sales, but what if that fails? Perhaps it will consider replacing workers with robots.

“Excited about disrupting a $60 billion a year industry with robotic automation,” says Avidan Ross, founder of Lion Wells Capital and an advisor to Momentum Machines, a Bay Area start-up that designs and develops hamburger-making robots for restaurants, shops and food trucks. On its website, the company is somewhat coy about its disruptive potential: “Founded in 2010, we are a stereotypical group of San Francisco foodies and engineers with decades of robotics experience… Our various technologies can produce an ever-growing list of common choices like salads, sandwiches, hamburgers, and many other multi-ingredient foods with a gourmet focus.”

In fact, its robots can grill a piece of beef; layer it with lettuce, tomatoes, pickles and onions; place it in a bun and and wrap it up to go. Momentum Machines says its robot “does everything employees can do, except better.” Might that be the solution to the headache that Steve Easterbrook has inherited? It could be, but if those entry-level jobs flipping burgers are taken by robots, we’ll have a bigger problem on our hands.

Hamburger

Come all ye Bob

Tuesday, 10 February, 2015 0 Comments

“Come all ye loyal heroes and listen unto me / Don’t hire with any farmer till you know what your work will be.” So begins The Rocks of Bawn, a 19th-century Irish ballad about the exploitation of rural labour. Migrants from the British Isles took this song form, with its appeal to attention, across the Atlantic and it found an audience in the New World. When Bob Dylan was honoured as the 2015 MusiCares Person of the Year last Friday night in Los Angeles, he recalled in his acceptance speech the role these songs played in his own musical development. Snippet:

“I sang a lot of ‘come all you’ songs. There’s plenty of them. There’s way too many to be counted. ‘Come along boys and listen to my tale / Tell you of my trouble on the old Chisholm Trail.’ Or, ‘Come all ye good people, listen while I tell / the fate of Floyd Collins a lad we all know well / The fate of Floyd Collins, a lad we all know well.'”

If you sung all these ‘come all ye’ songs all the time, you’d be writing, ‘Come gather ’round people where ever you roam, admit that the waters around you have grown / Accept that soon you’ll be drenched to the bone / If your time to you is worth saving / And you better start swimming or you’ll sink like a stone / The times they are a-changing.'”

Russian word of the day: maskirovka

Monday, 9 February, 2015 0 Comments

The contours of the European response to Putin’s aggression are emerging and at this stage one can say that the strategy for the Minsk talks seems to be based on a zero-leverage approach. Athens is threatening to block new sanctions against Russia and Berlin to striving to prevent new defence aid reaching Ukraine. Grim.

Moscow, on the other hand, is deploying maskirovka: deception and propaganda. And it is winning on both fronts. Maskirovka is the trademark of Russian warfare and the word, which translates as “something masked,” was made flesh last year in the form of masked unmarked soldiers in green army uniforms carrying Russian military equipment. Those who dreamed of perpetual peace and prosperity in Europe got a rude awakening when the little green men popped up in Crimea and Ukraine. Maskirovka had arrived, and it won’t go away if all that greets it is appeasement. Before sitting down with Putin on Wednesday, Chancellor Merkel and President Hollande should brush up on the central components of maskirovka:

Dezinformatsia: disinformation
Kamufliazh: camouflage
Demonstrativnye manevry: manoeuvres intended to deceive
Skrytie: concealment
Imitatsia: the use of decoys

maskirovka in action

Finalities

Sunday, 8 February, 2015 0 Comments

The past week was dominated be one image: The burning to death in a locked cage of captured Jordanian pilot Muadh al- Kasasbeh by the Islamic State. Even by the brutal standards of radical Islam, this was barbarous beyond belief. Other harrowing images from recent days came from the town of Debaltseve, where terrified people were forced to flee their homes by Russia’s hybrid war against Ukraine.

In Finalities, CP Cavafy uses irony and skepticism to address the calamities that can so swiftly sweep away our certainties. His poem was written at the beginning the of the 20th century but it has lost none of its relevance.

Finalities

Amid fear and suspicions,
with agitated mind and frightened eyes,
we melt and plan how to act
to avoid the certain
danger that so horribly threatens us.
And yet we err, this was not in our paths;
the messages were false
(or we did not hear, or fully understand them).
Another catastrophe, one we never imagined,
sudden, precipitous, falls upon us,
and unprepared — there is no more time — carries us off.

CP Cavafy (1863 — 1933)

The sound of lesser conflicts

Saturday, 7 February, 2015 0 Comments

High-stakes talks last night between Vladimir Putin, Angela Merkel and François Hollande failed to produce an agreement to end the fighting in Ukraine. Attention turns now the annual Munich Security Conference in the hope that some kind of deal can be hammered out over the weekend. Meanwhile, the fighting in Mali continues.

At least 10 people have died so far this week in the country’s Tabankort region during skirmishes between the separatist National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad and the rival Tuareg Self-Defense Group. And in the Adrar des Ifoghas mountains, French troops killed a dozen Islamic terrorists. This is the world from which Tamikrest has emerged. The Tuareg band, led by Ousmane Ag Mossa, sings in Tamashek as it mixes traditional Malian music with Western blues and rock influences. The sound offers a glimmer of hope in a region wracked by violence and plagued by despair.

Working with Beansprock and SAFFiR

Friday, 6 February, 2015 0 Comments

As we come to the end of our week of looking at developments in the emerging robotics/AI area, all signs indicate that the subject is moving from the technology pages to the mainstream. A sample of today’s headlines from Al Jazeera, Slate and Reuters: Hotel staffed by robots to open in Japan, Automated journalism is no longer science fiction, China to have most robots in world by 2017, an on and on and on.

Where is all this taking us? Well, take a look at Beansprock, a machine learning-based job search platform. Slogan: “Our artificial intelligence evaluates thousands of new tech jobs while you sleep and emails you only the best one.” When it knows a user’s skills, Beansprock can then predict which jobs are a match and which ones are not. The focus is on the tech industry in San Francisco, Boston and New York, and the company claims that it’s processing tens of thousands of job postings every day. Long term, the founders hope to expand the platform to include non-technical jobs.

Another example: “It’s what we call the hybrid force: humans and robots working together.” The person being quoted there by The Verge is the program manager at the US Navy’s Office of Naval Research. Thomas McKenna was speaking at the unveiling of the Shipboard Autonomous Firefighting Robot (SAFFiR). What can it can that humans cannot? Well, it’s loaded with sensors such as infrared stereo-vision and laser light detectors, which enable it to find its target through thick smoke. The creators imagine a future where human-robot hybrid teams will work together as first responders when fires break out. This, then, is the near future. It’s a world where robotics and AI will be working for us and with us.

Text mining is the next fracking

Thursday, 5 February, 2015 0 Comments

Oren Etzioni, Executive Director of the Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence, invites us to consider the following sentence: “The large ball crashed right through the table because it was made of Styrofoam.” What was made of Styrofoam, Etzioni asks? The large ball or the table? The answer is clearly ‘the table,’ but if we change ‘Styrofoam’ to ‘steel’, the answer is obviously ‘the large ball’. In other words, if we want computers to instantly answer this kind of question, they’ll need a massive corpus of knowledge and Oren Etzioni believes that they’ll get it from text mining. Listen up.

Might text mining lead us down the road to the beloved Star Trek universal translator? It would be more socially acceptable than the ear-insertable Babel Fish imagined by Douglas Adams in his Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Utopians say that by removing language barriers world peace would become a near certainty. But beware, in his comedy science fiction series, Adams warns that perfect understanding of language would cause “more and bloodier wars than anything else in the history of creation.”

Nao speaks 19 languages. TUG delivers drugs.

Wednesday, 4 February, 2015 0 Comments

It’s Day 3 of our look at robotics/AI. “Japanese bank introduces robot workers to deal with customers in branches.” That’s a story from today’s Guardian. “Hello and welcome,” Nao said. “I can tell you about money exchange, ATMs, opening a bank account, or overseas remittance. Which one would you like?” Note: The humanoid was developed by French company Aldebaran Robotics, which is a subsidiary of the Japanese telecoms corporation SoftBank. Its slogan? “Happiness for everyone.”

Talking of robots and happiness, a team of robots programmed to transport meals, medications, linens and lab specimens began their 24/7 jobs on Sunday when the new $1.52 billion San Francisco Medical Center at Mission Bay opened to the public. The 25 TUG robots were created by Aethon Inc. and cost about $6 million. They will enable the human staff to spend more time on providing medical care and less on moving stuff around the hospital. Happiness for everyone? Certainly not for those supplying cleaning, catering or laundry services in hospitals. But just in case our white-coated friends think that they can ignore these changes, the Big Data doctor will see us soon.