Whispers & Screams
And Other Things

If You Can't Beat Em Join Em

Yesterday evening (Pacific Time), while we in Europe were tucked up in our dreams, Elon Musk hosted a press conference for one of his most exciting ventures yet. The organisation is called Neuralink and its stated aim is to develop implantable brain-machine interfaces.

Those who are aware of Mr Musks previous statements in this field will know that he has been a vocal Cassandra when it comes to the fate of mankind against the rise of the machines. Indeed for the imaginative among us it doesn't take too much of a leap to envisage a future where hyper capable and mechanised super intelligences are able to see our flesh and blood existence as nothing more than a primitive curiosity to be regarded perhaps at the level of a pet.

So when I heard about the press conference and the hubbub that its announcement had aroused in the cognoscenti press my own curiosity was thoroughly piqued. You see, since I myself began to muse about this potentially existential threat to mankind I have always seen it as a distraction as I have felt that the process of human augmentation, who's origins can be traced as far back as Long John Silver, would be the future where any 'rise of the machines' would carry us with them. Indeed it is more likely that, if we are to seek out a dystopian slant on this discussion, the horror future would be one where augmented humanity (wealth) and vanilla humanity (poverty) were at odds with each other.

Notwithstanding the philosophical discussions however, the announcement last night, as is so often the case, has proven to be a lot less than the aficionados predicted and a lot more than the sceptics expected. The company (Neuralink) appears to be making solid progress albeit not in human bodies. Indeed Mr Musk himself appeared to blurt out to the chagrin of the scientists around him that they had successfully tested their tech in a monkey. Putting aside my own personal misgivings about trialling these things on unsuspecting lab rats or monkeys, this would appear to be pretty significant news. If we are to take the claims at face value, the technology has now been proven in principle and we should not underplay the significance of this revelation.

Science has been integrating tech with flesh and bone for decades but it is the incursion into the last bastion of the unexplored, the human brain that makes this so important. We need only look at the global attention that has been given to The Human Brain Project to understand the way this captures our attention. Neuroscientists have been studying for years to understand the workings of the supercomputers we all carry around with us and in connecting machines to our brains we would seem to be a whole lot closer to that day. Questions of the nature of consciousness and the existential nature of what we may call our identity or soul fly around the perimeters of this discussion but at its heart lies the notion that our bodies and indeed our brains are chemical machines and when we can understand the systems in action we can begin to harness them and make them work to our greater good (and bad).

Mr Musk has announced that he and his company of pioneering scientists intend to place their systems into a human in 2020 and this if accomplished will indeed be a day that will go down in history for the long term. So we wait and we watch. A world now used to the headlong nature of progress will perhaps be wowed once again as science takes us to new heights. The future is ours to shape and as with any new technology in the hands of us human apes it will not be a question of what the technology CAN do that will be the measure of the science but rather what we as a species CHOOSE to do with it. Lets hope we're up to the challenge.

Neuralink website here

Livestream of event here

Much more here

 

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Murder at Crufts

thendara-satisfaction-jaggerThe recent news about the suspicion that a dog has been poisoned at Crufts is pretty disturbing on many levels. Before I go any further let me be clear. I think the Kennel Club is a wholly worthy and respectable organisation which, apart from a couple of areas where I believe there is an intrinsic value problem, does nothing but good for dogs in the UK and beyond.

I'm a dog lover, a dog owner (although I've never quite felt comfortable with that term), and a firm believer that human interaction with dogs down the generations has made an enormous difference to the advancement of both species. Judicious breeding of dogs has led to a wide variety of breeds which has served to enable dogs to fit into almost every facet of human life from tower block flats to the front line of far off war zones. Dogs truly are our best friends. They love us more than they love themselves and sometimes heartbreakingly despite and in the face of terrible mistreatment from their human idols. They ask for almost nothing from us but our companionship and in return give us everything they can, everything they have and everything they are. The human race is truly blessed to have such a wonderful relationship with the canine race.

Returning though to my earlier qualifier about the Kennel Club, there is one area of the spectrum of human/canine society that I have always found a little disconcerting and that is the preoccupation with pure breed dogs. Dog breeds are like ethnicities in human society. For alsation,poodle,labrador and pug read african,chinese,european and indian. The rules which we superimpose on our value system as it relates to dogs would be considered repugnant were they applied to human society. This as we seek to ensure that those within canine society in whom the best examples of the genetic traits associated with the particular ethnicity are lauded the most.

IMG_1094I am not suggesting that we need as a society to begin to treat dogs exactly like humans although I must say that we do need to elevate them a long way up that spectrum in order to ensure that we afford them the structure and care that they deserve. No, that is impractical and irrational. Rather, I seek to express my desire that we as a society perhaps seek to embrace diversity and multi ethnicity in canine societies as much as we seem to be preoccupied with it as a priority in the human world today.

The Kennel Club (and others like it around the world) places a benchmark set in stone against which it decrees (apart from a sideshow) that only those dogs which are pure of breeding are even worthy of inclusion in their networks and activities. This, I believe is to their enormous discredit as an organisation which espouses itself as being "dedicated to protecting and promoting the health and welfare of all dogs".

I mentioned a sideshow in the previous paragraph and this refers to their recent attempts at inclusivity in holding awards such as crossbreed of the year however these are only ever lip service. Indeed the award is known as "scrufts" which only serves to emphasise the belief that such dogs are somehow of less intrinsic value.

The tragedy of dogs like Jagger who has, it would seem been poisoned at Crufts is not, I would contend, that he has died at the hands of a jealous and bitterly consumed human. Utterly appaling though that is and tragic for the dog who may have suffered terribly as well as those who loved him, the greater tragedy is that we as a human species in our own right (that seems to be slowly learning to see all humans as equals) cannot seem to apply the same ideals to our closest friends. RIP Jagger.

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Thoughts on the ISIL destruction of Nimrud

nimrud-banner

So ISIL are back in the news this morning although to be fair it seems that they are never far from the news these days. This time its because they are destroying or rather, have destroyed, the ancient Assyrian city of Nimrud.

My first thoughts on reading this were initially shock which quickly morphed into pragmatism. Yes its terrible that these artifacts are being destroyed but lets face it, better this than destroying more human lives although sadly no doubt it will not be long before they're back in the news for doing that too.

I have to admit I hadnt even heard of Nimrud before today so any outrage I felt at its destruction was always going to be tempered by that however I wanted to look into things a little and see exactly what it was that was being destroyed.

Nimrud is the Arab name for an ancient Assyrian city once called Kalhu which sits just south of Mosul on the river Tigris in northern Mesopotamia. After Nimrud had existed for about 400 years, the city became the second capital of the ancient Assyrian Empire in 879 B.C.

nimrudIt remained as the Assyrian capital for about 170 years, until the capital was moved -- first to Dur Sharrukin and then to ancient Nineveh.

It continued to be a major Assyrian city and a royal residence until it was destroyed during the fall of the Assyrian Empire in the seventh century B.C. at the hands of an alliance between the ancient Babylonians, Chaldeans, Medes, Persians, Scythians, and Cimmerians.

The ruins of Nimrud had covered an area of about 360 hectares and were located about 1 kilometer from the modern-day village of Noomanea in Iraq’s Nineveh Province.

So by the looks of the pictures and description, this place was quite the big deal in archaeological and historical circles.

It is indisputably a tragedy and arguably a war crime however I think its important to bear in mind that everything that was valuable enough to be moved had been moved to the Iraqi National Museum in Baghdad.

The sooner the cancer on humanity that is ISIL or, as they are known more commonly in the Arabic world, Da'ish is excised and destroyed the better. One hopes that Arabic powers and indeed more global powers are doing all they can to achieve. I fear the world will have to cry a lot more tears for human lives however before that is achieved and in that context, tragic though this story is, it represents a sideshow in the terrible story of the Middle East in the 21st century.
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Newmilns by Bill Jamieson Executive Editor Scotsman

Who can tell exactly when the places of our childhood begin to die? I was born in the Irvine Valley in Ayrshire. Once, it was a string of thriving, happy-go-lucky little towns made famous by lace manufacture.

As an industry, it couldn't begin to rival the scale of Clyde shipbuilding or the romance of tourism. But my valley was good at lace. The climate is damp. And that meant that the thread was less liable to break. Here was the last remaining cluster of producers of high-quality "Nottingham" lace.

Today, almost all trace of this manufacture has gone. The factories have closed and many of the little shops and livelihoods they supported have fled. There are clusters of well-kept houses and tidy gardens, and the occasional spear of fresh start and new endeavour. But there are long stretches, too, where my disappearing valley runs like a frayed, grey thread of boarded-up shops and dereliction. In between, there is an ever encroaching latticework of trees and hedgerows as, with every year, through an insidious, relentless stealth, nature reclaims a little more of its own.

My valley now is little more than a ragged, untidy slow-down, a forgettable depression as the traffic on the A71 thunders through on a longer journey to somewhere else. Coming from Edinburgh on this road, the valley starts in the east, with the dramatic volcanic plug of Loudoun Hill, scene of battles fought by doughty patriots and Covenanters. In the westward lee of Loudoun Hill can be found the farmhouse home of Scottish artist Glen Scouller. It was his wonderful paintings of the valley - full of colour and freshness and light - that reminded me what a cheerful place this was in my childhood, and still may be.

After Loudoun Hill comes a swift procession of little parishes and towns: Priestland; the "lang toon" of Darvel, birthplace of Alexander Fleming, with its gaunt, grey, terraced houses and long, mournful windows; then Newmilns and the prettily maintained Flora Institute; Galston; Hurlford and Crookedholm. These were distinct places as I remember them. Now they are part of an understated same.

The incessant traffic rumbles on through, for there is no obvious reason or attraction to stop. Parts of the valley have succumbed to dormitory status for the bigger conurbations of Kilmarnock to the west and Glasgow to the north, and other parts have succumbed to social dumping. The sense that prevails is of a valley that has fallen to a quiescence of ghosts.

Sometimes, it seems as if the valley has never looked more pastoral and serene as it reverts to a pre-industrial state. But, to those who know the valley, those brought up in it, it is impossible not to sense the decay, the spooky presence of abandonment. Old landmarks have disappeared. Shops have long closed, houses boarded up. With each year, the streets become more run down and forlorn.

I was born in Newmilns, next to the printing press of the local newspaper, which inspired me to journalism. And I went to its proud little school. I remember the bustle of its main street on Saturday mornings, the smell of sacking and coffee beans in the grocers and the magical ice-cream machine in Mr. Perry's café. Mr. Perry was a voluble Italian of Pavarotti proportions. When his shop was open, it seemed the street was full of sunlight - and his imprecations when we stole his cones. When it closed, the entire valley darkened. I was told that when he died, he was so full of ice-cream and macaroni, he exploded. How could I not believe that?

Now, the main street is marked by boarded-up doors, down-at-heel shops and an off-license with a bleak steel grille across its windows. The process of tumbledown took such hold that even the Edwardian sandstone Co-operative store - the only building in the main street with any swagger - had given way to chickweed and buddleia sprouting out of its gaunt and gaping windows.

The worst depredations have now been cleared, thanks to the Irvine Valley Regeneration Partnership's clean-up work. Other glaring eyesores have been removed. But it is a battle against hopeless odds. Regeneration work has not reversed the damage, just daubed lipstick on a dying mouth.

In my youth, Newmilns was a bustling town. It had a quiet busyness and purpose, and a beat to its heart. There was a cinema, a railway station, a handsome school, and the wonderful local newspaper, the Irvine Valley News, with its Wild West masthead and long columns of unbroken type. The editor was Bertie Green, a former Glasgow Evening Times staffer with a face not so much lived in as bounced on, like a wrinkled trampoline.

Every Thursday, when the paper was put to bed, I would scramble over the wall to watch a demonic machine turn hot metal into slugs of type. When the press clattered into life, mayhem resulted, because it made the television pictures in all the nearby homes flicker and frizzle. But the Irvine Valley News press was a magical thing: words flowing on to lead, flowing on to type, flowing on to paper; an unmissable weekly record of births, marriages, deaths and crime and punishment and life all through the valley.

Even by the 1950s, it was clear a premonition of decline was setting in. Yet exploring the history of the valley now, going back through old photographs and descriptions of the first half of the last century, the valley never really had prosperity. Here was a valley that rose and fell with the business cycle; only this cycle seemed to have a buckled wheel and permanently flat tyre, a constant bias towards rundown. There were spikes of activity. But the period since the war has been a long, slow, remorseless exodus of businesses, activities and people, so that, with every new decade, that premonition of decline was made more real.

And it didn't seem to matter what happened in the outside world. Recessions or recoveries, consumer booms or busts, Labour eras or Tory ones, or devolution with all its promises. All have left my valley if anything poorer than before. And the biggest loss of all has been the valley's young people. As with so many areas of Scotland, they have upped and gone.

Nothing has made an impact, or stopped the loss and decline and decay. No lick of paint has touched that meaningless little milestone in the main street, just by Ronald the Bakers that proclaims "Edinburgh 54 miles". For what did Edinburgh ever mean to us? Very little, then. And little more now, I suspect. The valley was, and is even more, in a time warp, or in a place where time has ceased to matter.

The only times the valley makes the headlines is when it is hit by floods, which it often is. But few care to recall the flood of 1954 when a blocked stream above Newmilns suddenly burst and bore the entire contents of the town coup in a wall of mud through the Morton & Inglis lace factory and down through the main street. The avalanche had been preceded by a mass scuttling of rats, and for weeks afterwards hundreds of little wooden bobbins from the lace mill floated down the Irvine river: a livelihood, and an era, literally bobbing away.

The school, the newspaper, the railway station, the cinema and the big department store has all gone. So, too, are most of those cafés and shops that crowded many of the high streets in Scotland in that age before out-of-town stores and car-centred shopping. These are among the disappearances: the Clydesdale Bank branch, Pollock’s shoe shop, the Co-op hardware store, Skeoch's Garage, Greene's the printers and newsagents, Papini’s Italian ice-cream and sweetie shop, the Rex cinema, Cochrane's china and fancy gifts, Gilmour's Dairy and milk delivery, Oliver's the dentist, Johnston’s Grocers, Hamilton's fruit and vegetable shop, MK Stewart TV and electrical retailers and now, even the local ironmonger, the shop where everything could be found, and at times nothing because of its crowded shelves and crammed cupboards: the screws and nails and widgets and sprockets that kept every house in the valley together.

On the list rolls, like the fallen in some forgotten war, columns of casualties through time and circumstance. Cultural diversity is what is proclaimed now. But what happened to that rich and wonderful diversity that once we had?

I cannot say I enjoy going back. My visits are short. It is like listening to Gaelic music, evocatively pleasing for five minutes and terminally depressing after ten.

My valley, in truth, has not really vanished. Indeed, the reason for its sadness is that it has not greatly changed. There is much that has struggled on, through that unsparing degradation of the years, fighting an insistent loss of livelihood and purpose. My disappearing valley has clung on, like so much in Scotland has clung on, forever haunted by a hope that something would somehow turn up. It never did, of course.

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Economies of scale

We all know what's supposed to happen in the global economy: we get more of everything: more stuff manufactured, more coal dug up and burned, more "aggregate demand" i.e. insatiable desire for more of everything, more innovation, more wealth, more money printed, more debt taken on to buy more stuff and more education, more tourists occupying more beaches sipping more drinks, more shopping malls built, more airports expanded, more jobs created, more taxes collected-- more "growth" of everything, in every way and every day.

Beneath this expansive more-of-everything splendour, the power structure is supposed to remain unchanged: a small political-financial Elite holds all the reigns of power, a manufacturing-consent propaganda machine (a.k.a. mainstream media) persuades the masses all is well, wealth continues to accumulate in the top 1/10th of 1%, money is printed/created and distributed to the State-financial partnership's thiefdoms and cartels, moderate inflation eats away at the value of wages but makes debt cheaper to service, and the Upper Caste of technocrats continue their well-paid enabling of the Aristocracy's dominance.

The dream of tens of millions of young people is to join the Upper Caste of lackeys, factotums, toadies and apparatchiks serving the Aristocracy's cartels and thiefdoms.

In sum, the pie of wealth is supposed to expand so fast that the 10% left for the bottom 90% will be enough to satisfy their high expectations of endlessly rising prosperity.

That is Baseline Scenario #1: the Status Quo remains as it is, unchanged. This is what's supposed to happen as a result of central bank money-printing and central government borrowing and spending: the Status Quo of endless growth ruled by an Elite will continue on the same trendline it has traced since 1946: more growth, more financialisation, more concentration of wealth and political power, more technological innovation, and so on.

Baseline Scenario #2 is the centre cannot hold, and the Status Quo devolves.Those living through Scenario #2 will not notice any sudden changes; financial, political and geopolitical crises become the background noise to daily life.

The changes will be gradual and incremental: things will stop working as well, the homeless population will increase, shops will close, government offices will shorten their hours of operation, streets will remain unrepaired, hours will be cut, benefits will be trimmed, stadiums will no longer be filled during sporting events or musical extravaganzas.

There will be less of everything, not more, and a gradual but steady erosion of all "growth" baselines: fewer jobs, lower wages, fewer taxes collected, less profits, fewer retail outlets.

Faced with a shrinking pie to plunder and skim, the Aristocracy and its Upper Caste of technocrats will be forced to increase their share of the dwindling national surplus. Taxes and junk fees will rise, squeezing legitimate small enterprises into the informal economy, and the gulf between the Aristocracy/technocrat Upper Caste and the bottom 90% will widen: this can be characterized as the "third-worldization" of developed economies.

The disposable income of the top 10% will continue to rise, enabling them to retreat to the security of gated communities and luxury urban highrises, just like in Third-World megalopolises, while the gradual impoverishment of the bottom 90% erodes life outside the protected circles of the Elites and their well-paid worker-bees.

Anger and frustration rise, but food stamps, unemployment and transfer payments privatize the social mood: people are paid to stay home and watch TV or otherwise amuse themselves in political isolation. Nothing is sharp enough or drastic enough to spark a politically meaningful response. As long as the bread and circuses are ample, the masses are content to "get the best of what's still around" and go about their business without threatening the top 10%'s dominance of the national surplus.

Baseline Scenario #3 is something breaks: perhaps the trigger is a global credit event or a war, or perhaps it is the price of oil spiking on some disruption. The basic dynamic is this: increasingly fragile systems are increasingly vulnerable to sudden disruption and breakdown. On the surface, everything looks secure, until some event unleashes a cascade of unintended consequences.

The ultimate driver of Baseline Scenario #3 is diminishing returns: the political-financial Elite will respond as it did in 2008, by printing money to bail out banks and private cartels, by reassuring the masses via the propaganda mills, and so on, but these responses will have lost their initial effectiveness: the saturation of debt and propaganda will have reached 100%.

Printing more money and spewing more reassuring propaganda will no longer damp down the crisis. Rather, the failure of these Status Quo responses will unleash an even more destabilizing crisis.
Baseline Scenario #3 will result when one of a network of highly interconnected systems breaks down, and all the other systems fall in a domino-like cascade of instability.

The key dynamic in Baseline Scenario #3 is the standard-issue official responses (print more money and issue more reassuring propaganda) will fail to stem the destabilisation, and this failure will unleash an even larger wave of instability and breakdown.

Order will eventually be restored, but at a much lower level of wealth and prosperity. Baseline Scenario #3 will be replaced by Baseline Scenario #2--another period of erosion--until structural changes are allowed to reshape the political and financial landscape of power and wealth.
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