Caveat: using the free wifi at Starbucks

I have in my life gone to Starbucks mostly to use the free wifi.

This was especially true before I went to Korea in 2007. Starbucks rolled out their free wifi quite early relative to other businesses, so I remember using the free wifi at Starbucks while on various trips in the mid 2000’s.

Apparently, using the free wifi at Starbucks is still a thing in 2019. And apparently the FBI does it, too.

This article (link) on the emptywheel blog describes how the FBI used the Starbucks free wifi to download leaked documents about CIA hacking. Interagency cyberwarfare conducted over the airwaves while enjoying a nice nonfat soy latte.

Caveat: a Lamarckian fantasy

I did something unexpected over the last two days: I read a novel.

For whatever reason, I don’t read much fiction anymore. I used to read it continuously. But over time my reading diet has become more and more focused on non-fiction. I mostly read history, philosophy, sociology, and what is sometimes called “cultural criticism,” which subsumes things like literary theory, postmodern cultural analysis, etc. And it remains the case that I read at least several new wikipedia articles every single day. As an utterly random example – I happen to have a tab on my phone’s browser open to a fragment of WWII history, at the moment: the Battle of Monte Cassino.

Anyway, in fact, I think it’s safe to say this was the first novel I’ve read in at least two years.

But it’s a bit of a “cheat,” actually. The novel is one I read before. Maybe a bit over 30 years ago, when I read a novel every few days.

The novel I read is Dune Messiah, by Frank Herbert.

Why did I (re-)read this book?

As has been mentioned, Arthur and I have a custom of watching television for a few hours each evening. We don’t have “broadcast TV” here (whatever that even is, anymore), nor cable, nor any of those many internet subscription TV services like Netflix that dominate the modern media markets. Arthur keeps and constantly expands a library of DVD series and movies, which he rips onto a plethora of external multi-terabyte harddrives, shared through the “My Library” functionality of his MacBooks’ iTunes application. It’s a pretty expansive library.

So over a few nights starting last week, we watched the 3-part Dune TV miniseries from the year 2000. With respect to the show, I can say that I may have seen it before – the aesthetics of it were vaguely familiar. In some ways it’s an impressive production for a non-blockbuster-level TV production. The costuming and some of the set design is excellent, capturing the the exoticism of the novel, while the acting is inconsistent, and the special effects are often alarmingly jarring – special effects rarely age well due to the rapid changes and advances in that domain. Overall, as a sci-fi adaptation, I’ve seen both worse and better.

But of course I’m more interested in commenting on the Dune books. Having just watched the TV show, which was an adaptation of only the first book in the series, I was walking past my collection of books and there it was, sitting on the shelf: the second book in the series. So I took it down and started reading. Perhaps curious, with the mileau and characters fresh in my mind, as to how it played out.

And I read it straight through.

I had been expecting to find that the Dune books had not aged well. Certainly, my memory of them had not aged well. I recalled them as impressive at the time I read them as a teenager, but pretentious and implausible in retrospect.

In fact, in actually reading the book, it’s better than I imagined, while nevertheless allowing my retrospective criticism to stand unchallenged.

The novels were always famous for being philosophically “deep” and for being quite innovative in their view of possible futures for humanity. They deserve that. And I think some of their “predictions” (although really, being set in a 10000+ years future, “predictions” is probably a bad standard to apply) have actually aged remarkably well.

The books are best viewed as a collection of philosophical aphorisms bound together by an implausible plot but strung along with compelling characters. Being much more conscious of the “craft” of writing than I was as a youth, I see how the books are stitched together, now – more than I did then. I speculate that Herbert wrote his aphorisms first and added the plot as best he could around them. I might be wrong, but it has some of that flavor to it.

Some of the philosophy has aged very well. I read glimpses of some of my most respected more contemporary philosophers: Gilles Deleuze, Frederic Jameson, etc. Yet much of what they wrote came after the Dune books. Was this type of thinking merely “in the air” of the 1960s and 70s? Perhaps so.

One of the more notable things about the Dune books that I have for a long time felt aged very poorly is the aspect that might be termed “Lamarckian fantasy.” I just invented that term, but I use it to refer to the dominant themes of “genetic memory” in those books. Characters have access to the lives and memories of their ancestors via some kind of transcendental genetic transmission. Shockingly, the relatively new, burgeoning field of epigenetics may be rendering this type of fantasy a kind of reality, though not in exactly the way Herbert envisioned. Recently, a study showed, for example, that laboratory mice are able to “inherit” behavioral traits acquired by their parents, even when raised entirely separately (in isolation) from those parents. The presumed mechanism for the transmission of these traits is via hormonal load passed from mother to child at fertilization, influencing epigenetic factors in neuron development. This is essentially a return to Lamarckian thinking, supposedly discredited since Darwin. And suddenly, therefore, Herbert’s concept of inherited memories has a new, scientifically plausible mechanism. One wonders….

This is much more of a book review than I am normally inclined to write. I suppose just the shock of having actually read a novel motivated me. And the fact that I had what I felt to be a genuine insight into how Herbert’s masterpiece series might have anticipated more than he realized, if not quite in the way he envisioned.

Caveat: debate-o-matic

One of the subjects that I taught to my students in Korea that I considered most valuable, both for the English skills it engendered as well as for general thinking ability, was debate.

I was the “debate teacher,” and I was well-known for even turning lessons otherwise structured into impromptu debates. The kids mostly seemed to get something out of it.

So now… they’re trying to make an AI (artificial intelligence) that can do debate – in the same way that we have machines now that play chess or baduk (“go”), that diagnose medical conditions or explore other planets. This is just another small step.

I watched this video.

I am both disappointed and impressed. This is often the case when confronting these odd black boxes that computer engineers are constructing these days. They can seem preternaturally smart and eerily stupid at the same time. The AI participating in this debate clearly had a lot of facts to hand, and was reasonably competent at marshaling them in a well-structured argument. But it missed the key thrust of its human opponent’s argument, and thus its rebuttal almost failed to make sense. I was somewhat annoyed that the moderators, who spent time afterward discussing what they’d just done, failed to bring this up.

Caveat: Where the eagles roam…

For some reason that I cannot quite explain, I found this linked news article incredibly funny. Apparently some scientists in Russia were using the cellular data networks and small phone-like devices to track eagle migration. They’d attach the devices to the eagles and use the network locations see where the eagles went. It’s a clever idea, and a brilliant repurposing of cellphone technology. However, they ran into a snag when the eagles promptly migrated to Iran and Pakistan, and started running up giant data roaming charges on the scientists’ accounts with their cellphone providers. Silly eagles:

The price per SMS in Kazakhstan was about 15 roubles (18p; 30 US cents), but each SMS from Iran cost 49 roubles. Min [a specific, named eagle] used up the entire tracking budget meant for all the eagles.

Caveat: Evidence of Our Life in the Future

I have been reading some, online, these days, about quantum computers. I don’t understand them at all, but I was made curious by the recent news about Google’s new, supposed “quantum supremacy.”

This led me down a garden path of blogs and articles, and one thing that I ran across was this picture, from a 2017 article about an IBM quantum computer.


What happened is I became sidetracked by the aesthetics of the picture, which seemed more within my grasp than the nature of the machine.

The picture looks like illustration from the cover of a science fiction magazine. It does not seem to, in any way, resemble what we think of as a “computer” as they currently exist. It is mysterious and beautiful and abstractly futuristic.


Caveat: Evidence for the Anthropocene

This is pretty interesting. It’s a diagram showing the distribution of biomass by taxon, for the whole Earth.


What really struck me more than anything else is that humans + livestock, in the lower right corner, far outweigh all wild mammals and birds. And humans nearly outweigh their livestock. I never thought that could be true.

Caveat: It’s a cold world

This is interesting. There’s a new thing being tested (invented): it’s called a negative illumination diode. It generates electricity in a way similar to the way a photovoltaic cell does, but instead of generating current from the incoming photons (from e.g. the sun), it generates electricity from the outgoing photons. Outgoing photons, you ask? There are always outgoing photons, on earth, because space is cold and the earth radiates heat (infrared photons) from all its surfaces, including from the diode in question. See here.


Caveat: Birds and their brains

I was just reading something that confirmed what many of intuit: birds are quite surprisingly smart relative to their size. Apparently it comes down to neuron count, as opposed to brain size, as such. Thus your average crow has the same number of cortical neurons as your average monkey, and that’s why crows seem as smart as monkeys, despite their much smaller brains. They pack a lot more neurons into that smaller head volume. And it explains why elephants are NOT smarter, too: they have fewer cortical neurons than the crow, despite extremely large brains.

My mother likes the birds that dwell around her house (and make quite a bit of noise, too). Here are some pictures she gave to me of her various neighbors.

A tawny frogmouth.


A pair of bush thickknees.


A king parrot.


Caveat: On Canned Beans and Related Technology

I've been trying to eat more beans or other legumes and vegetable protein.

After my cancer, my weight dropped below 70 kg, but four years later I have completely bounced back to my pre-cancer weight equilibrium, which, frankly, I think is just a bit heavier than my ideal, which I'd put at around 75 kg, maybe. I'm currently about 84 kg.

Back in 2006-2007, when I successfully dropped from around 120 kg down to 80 kg, I did so through three main lifestyle changes: 1) walking everywhere as my primary mode of transport, 2) reducing stress by quitting that horrible job in Long Beach, and 3) eating an almost entirely vegan diet.

So, being vegan is not easy, and especially in Korea. In fact, I have no ideological interest in being vegan – therefore, for example, I have no issues with eating meat when out with coworkers or friends or whatever. Nevertheless, I recognize that less meat is probably healthier, and so I try to balance my daily diet toward vegetable proteins. The hardest thing, always, has been reducing or eliminating cheese intake – despite my lack of taste buds, there are still aspects of cheese that I enjoy, including the satiety it grants, the strong, nostalgic smell of things like mac and cheese or pizza, and whatever 'mouthfeel' is, I still experience that, too.

Anyway, all of that is background to mention I was going eat some beans, today, with my rice. And although I sometimes cook my beans from scratch, I also sometimes get lazy and use canned beans. The Korean market for canned beans doesn't run further than simple "pork and beans" type things, or I guess I've seen the native red beans pre-cooked in cans, but of course that product is painfully sweetened – like the red bean paste that is so popular here – I find such sugary prepared legumes almost unbearable (if you're not familiar with it, imagine some Mexican-style refried beans, with a cup of sugar added for good measure). So mostly if I buy canned beans I prefer to get Anglosphere brands (i.e. US or Australian products in Korean supermarkets). They're hardly expensive and easy to find, and so I buy them frequently.

Now, to talk about what I really wanted to talk about: I wanted to open my can of beans, imported from Australia.

Most canned foods, these days, have those "pop tops" – you pull the tab, the can opens. I don't, therefore, own a can opener.

But this can of beans I'd bought didn't – it had the old style top: just your plain surface tin can.

The convenience store downstairs in my building sells can openers – I've seen them there, in a little display with some other common simple housewares. But I have a different approach: a very "low tech" approach, that might be familiar to my grandfather's generation.

My pocket knife (a "Swiss Army Knife" as they're called) has as a can opener tab. It's quite useful, though entirely old-fashioned. You have to develop the right rhythm of push, tilt, advance, retreat, but you can walk it around an old-style can in about the same amount of time as with a normal manual can-opener.


It occurred to me that despite being fully embedded in the 21st Century, with my computer stuff and my smartphone and my highly urban existence on the edges of the Seoul megalopolis, I still use this antiquated method of opening my canned food. And it's worth observing that that pocket knife is now 30 years old – I received it as a gift in 1988.

I snapped a picture (right). The can that I wanted to open, on the left, and a more typical 21st century can on the right, with my low-tech solution below.

[daily log: walking, 6.5km]

Caveat: Aillucinations (Pseudosystematic significance)

When an AI (artificial intelligence) hallucinates, what shall we call it? I suggest aillucinations.

These AIs are not really that smart, though. Useful, yes, and intriguing, in a science-fictiony sort of way. But they have a long ways to go.

Case-in-point: google translate, which I use quite often, does some strange things, when you give it long strings of garbage. Its neural nets try to make sense of things, and the result is hallucinatory. This has been written about extensively at the Language Log blog – here is the most recent discussion (which includes links to earlier discussions).

I was curious about instances specific to the Korean-English domain (because I'd like to show some of my students, who overly trust online translators). So I set about finding some of my own examples. 

With google translate, I can get some pretty weird stuff in the English -> Korean direction, with the following string:


These give:

도미니카 공화국
상상해 보아라.
상상해 보지 못하다.
도미니카 공화국 인민 공화국
상상해 보지 못하다.
도미니카 공화국 인민 공화국 의회
상상해 보지 못하다.
상상력이 풍부한 사람
상상해 보아라.
상상력이 풍부한 사람

Which, translated, in turn, back to English, gives:

new product
Dominican Republic
Imagine it.
new product
I can not imagine it.
Dominican Republic
I can not imagine it.
new product
Dominican Republic People's Congress
I can not imagine it.
new product
new product
Imaginative person
new product
Imagine it.
new product
Imaginative person

Can you imagine that? The google translate "imagined" it.

Going the reverse direction, Korean -> English, I got a nice result with:


Which gives:

It is the oil that is used in the oil industry and the oil is the oil. The oil is the oil, the oil, the oil, the oil, the oil, the oil, the oil and the oil. In addition to the above, the term "oil" is used to refer to the oil as the oil and the oil as well as the oil and the lubricant. In addition to the above, the term "oil" is used to refer to the oil as the oil and the oil as well as the oil and the lubricant. It is a good idea to have a good night's sleep. It is the oil that is used in the oil industry and the oil is the oil. The oil is the oil, the oil, the oil, the oil, the oil, the oil, the oil and the oil. It is the oil that is used in the oil industry and the oil is the oil. The oil is the oil, the oil, the oil, the oil, the oil, the oil, the oil and the oil. You can not go wrong.

As a matter of curiosity, I decided to experiment with papago, a clone of google translate being created by the Korean web portal Naver. So, English -> Korean, I got a result with:

u oee ieoe iou u oeu oee ieoe iou u oeu oee ieoe iou u oeu oee ieoe iou u oeu oee ieoe iou u oeu oee ieoe iou u oeu oee ieoe iou u oeu oee ieoe iou u oeu oee ieoe iou u oeu oee ieoe iou u oeu oee ieoe iou u oeu oee ieoe iou u oe

Which gives:

넌 너의 아내를 보고 있어

Which returned to English is:

You are watching your wife.

I like that. Such a succinct translation! I found papago was easier to "trick" into hallucinating – it will begin getting creative with much shorter strings of nonsense. But it's clear the underlying technology is similar and has the same weaknesses.

Finally, I put in the following in the Korean -> English direction:


And I got:

CAUTION of a Pseudosystem of Pseudosystematic significance of significance of significance of significance of significance of freedom of consciousness of libertarian of liberate of liberality of freedom of libertarise of freedom of freedom of proceedings of freedom of proceedings of proceedings of freedom of will of proceedings

Which is awesome. Pseudosystematic significance, indeed!

Do note that finding strings that produce these kinds of aillucinations is a bit of a hit-or-miss proposition – there are many strings which "don't work" – i.e., they return simple nonsense in return for nonsense. But it can be rather addictively entertaining to keep trying various combinations and seeing what pops out.

Happy aillucinating! I, for one, seem to have found a new, useless hobby.

[daily log: walking, 7km]


Caveat: Sending a Sportscar into Space

Occasionally, I have the thought that I have arrived in the future. Most of the time, I don't feel this. Inevitably, the future arrives more slowly than I expected when I was younger, but it does sometimes nevertheless put in an appearance.

SpaceX corporation's test of their new Falcon Heavy rocket today is one such example. The real innovation is their recovery of the the booster stages for re-use. The recycling of these rocket parts, instead of just dropping them in the Atlantic, in old-school NASA style, will make space flight much, much cheaper over the long run. And the video of the simultaneous landing of two side booster rockets back at Kennedy is a pure science fiction moment, circa 1950s.

That said, Elon Musk, the visionary leader of SpaceX, is also a megalomaniacal plutocrat and basically a living incarnation of a classic James Bond movie villain. Perhaps this is the kind of person who advances humanity – I don't know. Is that just what it takes?

Musk's new rocket test needed a "dummy payload," so, in finest egotistical form, he launched his own sports car (a Tesla Roadster, manufactured by one of his other companies), with a mannequin in a space suit at the wheel. So now, humanity has launched a space-suited dummy at the wheel of a sports car, out into space, and eventually, past the orbit of Mars. Furthermore, he placed a towel and a copy of Douglas Adams' Hitchhiker's Guide in the glove box. Can you imagine the aliens finding that?

Maybe Elon Musk will move to Mars. Somebody should move to Mars, right? Why not him?

[daily log: walking, 8km]


Caveat: scrambling over the wall to the other side

Apparently Ursula Le Guin has died. 

I thought she might not. She seemed a forever type of person. But actually everyone dies.

She was a great writer. And a philosopher, though not in the conventional sense. I don't need to review her life or work – others can do that better than I can. But her writing has influenced me profoundly.

I was 12 years old when I first read the Earthsea series of fantasy books. And I really doubt that I have spent a single day in my life since then when that imagined world hasn't crossed my mind in some way or another. It's a visceral thing – I don't know that the philosophical and psychological ideas there were so impactful – though they're undeniably present in the books. I only mean that I imagined that world quite vividly, in reading those books. and so picturenow I think of it, much as one remembers a memorable trip, perhaps. For example, I think every day of the years I lived in Mexico, or the two months I spent in South America, or my one month studying in Paris, or my six months in Chicago. They were profound and memorable experiences, which shaped who I am. Likewise, the reading of those books, at that time in my life, left a similar type of indelible impression.

Her novel The Dispossessed had a more philosophical impact on me. I consider it a great philosophical novel. The "sci-fi" aspect is nearly irrelevant, except as a way to set the scene – the same story could have been written in a different way, set on Earth in some slightly altered historical context. I would put this book in my Universal Recommended books list.

[daily log: walking, 6.5km]


Caveat: Aesthetica in vivo

What I'm listening to right now.

A Capella Science, "Evo-Devo (Despacito Biology Parody)." This song is truly awesome. It's evolutionary biology. It's poetry. It's music. It's all in a package, like the miracle of life, itself. For the prototype of which this song is a "parody," see here.


B. Mac.
Oh Carroll, Carroll
Gould, Stephen Jay yeah
D-D-D-D-Davidson and Peter

One cell divide and decide on a thousand fates
Did you ever figure how they know?
B. Mac.
Are built of modules combined in a planned out way
Each new piece must be told where to go

Now there's a science helping us to understand
How our cells encode this architectural plan
Signalling each other with genetic tools oh
Oh yeah

Phenotype the interface for mouse and man
Genotype the files and the subprograms
What then are the switches, circuit boards and boot code?

Looking at the logic in the ways that we grow
Every gene directed by a signal key code
Proteins that can activate, enhance or veto
Signals are controlled by other genes that signal
Calculating in a network labyrinthal
Where the heart and liver and the hands and feet go

Signal mapping tells each region what it ought to be yo
With circuits so deeply built upon
They're older than the Paleo
The Paleozoic Era baby
In a crucial pathway changes tend to get torpedoed
Where they go calamity goes
As this cyclopic sheep knows..

See down they cascade like a domino
Like you and I drosophila
The path that makes us optical
Was laid a long long time ago
Back before we blew up the cambrian like a bomb bomb
Now my eye protein can make you see out of your bom bom
And Hedgehog and its relatives like Indian and Sonic
Set up set up in a gradient on segments embryonic
Split forebrains and asymmetric parts depend upon it
Flipping on genetic switches and logic
From devo to evo
Adult and embryo
Mostly don't evolve in the genes of the genome
Safer the mutation aimed at regulation
Keep the building blocks and swap their activation
From devo to evo
Parts have alter egos
Homologs evolved from repeats in the schema
Switch a couple bases in the proper places
You'll be watching flies grow legs out of their faces oh yeah

Stick around for Modern Synthesis the sequel
Only by combining can a new theory grow
Evolution and development amigos
Signals trigger patterns of complexity so
Switching up the switches of a signalling node
Gives a modular and simple way to evolve

Look at how our spinal segments generate a neat row
Built on a molecular clock
One cycle, one vertebra
One vertebra one vertebra baby
Speeding up its rate is snakes' developmental cheat code
That and where a lizard's feet grow
They turn off distal aminos

This is how we go from single cells to people
Every generation and in life primeval
Life in variations endless and beautiful


From devo to evo
Larva to mosquito
Patterns are resolved as the signals proceed yo
Map out a gene with a glow tag
Kill it with a morpholino
Short oligo morpholino baby

From devo to evo
Voyage of the Beagle
Body plans evolve when proteins steer the genome
In this manner life's beauty grows
Aesthetica in vivo


[daily log: walking, 7km]

Caveat: Paperclips

I did something yesterday that I haven't done in a long time: I became immersed in a rather mind-numbingly stupid game. 

In fact, I was led to this game from a philosophical discussion of the AI Paperclip Maximizer problem, in a blog I often read. I suggest you read that, first (it's short).


The game is called, naturally, "Universal Paperclips." It's in the genre of what are called "clicker" games – basically, just webpages with a few clickable controls that allow one to manipulate a kind of limited universe.

The object of the game is to fill the universe with paperclips. You start making one paperclip at a time. Click. Click. Click.

After some time, you develop automation, and then an artificial intelligence to do work for you. And then space exploring-drones, matter-to-paperclip conversion technology, paperclip-to-drone conversion technology. Etcetera. It's entirely text-based. And I spent 10 hours yesterday, filling the universe with paperclips. I believe the specific number of paperclips I produced was on the order of 30,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 (30 septendecillion = 3 x 10^54). Perhaps that's current best guess as to the mass of the universe, in grams (and maybe each paperclip weighs about a gram, right?).

But then the game told me I had run out of matter. So I had to stop. Fortunately, it was bedtime.

It was addictive, but it was mostly a one-shot experience, I think – once you've filled the universe with paperclips, you feel satisfied but there is little incentive to keep repeating the experience. That means I don't feel bad recommending the experience to others.

[daily log: paperclips, 30,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000]


Caveat: sic a principiis ascendit motus

Hoc etiam magis haec animum te advertere par est
corpora quae in solis radiis turbare videntur,
quod tales turbae motus quoque materiai
significant clandestinos caecosque subesse.
multa videbis enim plagis ibi percita caecis
commutare viam retroque repulsa reverti
nunc huc nunc illuc in cunctas undique partis.
scilicet hic a principiis est omnibus error.
prima moventur enim per se primordia rerum,
inde ea quae parvo sunt corpora conciliatu
et quasi proxima sunt ad viris principiorum,
ictibus illorum caecis inpulsa cientur,
ipsaque proporro paulo maiora lacessunt.
sic a principiis ascendit motus et exit
paulatim nostros ad sensus, ut moveantur
illa quoque, in solis quae lumine cernere quimus
nec quibus id faciant plagis apparet aperte.

– Titus Lucretius Carus (Roman poet, 99BC-55BC),

The above are lines from Book II, lines 125-141, in Lucretius' De Rerum Natura.

Here is a prose translation to English, by John Selby Watson, 1851.

For you will see there, among those atoms in the sun-beam, many, struck with imperceptible forces, change their course, and turn back, being repelled sometimes this way, and sometimes that, every where, and in all directions. And doubtless this errant-motion in all these atoms proceeds from the primary elements of matter; for the first primordial-atoms of things are moved of themselves; and then those bodies which are of light texture, and are, as it were, nearest to the nature of the primary elements, are put into motion, and these latter themselves, moreover, agitate others which are somewhat larger. Thus motion ascends from the first principles, and spreads forth by degrees, so as to be apparent to our senses, and so that those atoms are moved before us, which we can see in the light of the sun; though it is not clearly evident by what impulses they are thus moved.

This is about Brownian motion. It was written a bit less than 2100 years ago.

[daily log: walking, 1km]

Caveat: 17776

I ran across a very weird bit of avant-garde science fiction that has been created on a sports news website (SBNation), of all places. This seems unexpected. Anyway, it's a very strange thing – it's not a straightforward sci-fi story, but rather a kind of multimedia "text" in the postmodern sense. Nevertheless, it has a narrative, and the genre is definitely sci-fi.

If you don't like unexpected animations and fiddling with your mouse to make things happen, I don't recommend it, but if you don't mind those things, give it a try: link.

[daily log: walking, 7km]