News 04.10.21 : Today’s Articles of Interest from Around the Internets


News 04.10.21 : Today’s Articles of Interest from Around the Internets
News 04.10.21 : Today’s Articles of Interest from Around the Internets

Soon, a vast, decrepit oil tanker in the Red Sea will likely sink, catch fire, or explode. The vessel, the F.S.O. Safer—pronounced “Saffer”—is named for a patch of desert near the city of Marib, in central Yemen, where the country’s first reserves of crude oil were discovered. In 1987, the Safer was redesigned as a floating storage-and-off-loading facility, or F.S.O., becoming the terminus of a pipeline that began at the Marib oil fields and proceeded westward, across mountains and five miles of seafloor. The ship has been moored there ever since, and recently it has degraded to the verge of collapse. More than a million barrels of oil are currently stored in its tanks. The Exxon Valdez spilled about a quarter of that volume when it ran aground in Alaska, in 1989.

The Safer’s problems are manifold and intertwined. It is forty-five years old—ancient for an oil tanker. Its age would not matter so much were it being maintained properly, but it is not. In 2014, members of one of Yemen’s powerful clans, the Houthis, launched a successful coup, presaging a brutal conflict that continues to this day. Before the war, the Yemeni state-run firm that owns the ship—the Safer Exploration & Production Operations Company, or sepoc—spent some twenty million dollars a year taking care of the vessel. Now the company can afford to make only the most rudimentary emergency repairs. More than fifty people worked on the Safer before the war; seven remain. This skeleton crew, which operates with scant provisions and no air-conditioning or ventilation below deck—interior temperatures on the ship frequently surpass a hundred and twenty degrees—is monitored by soldiers from the Houthi militia, which now occupies the territory where the Safer is situated. The Houthi leadership has obstructed efforts by foreign entities to inspect the ship or to siphon its oil. The risk of a disaster increases every day.

Read the rest of this article at: The New Yorker

News 04.10.21 : Today’s Articles of Interest from Around the Internets

News 04.10.21 : Today’s Articles of Interest from Around the Internets

Almost all these patients had known, for some time, that they had a terminal condition. Yet they—along with their families and doctors—were unprepared for the final stage. “We are having more conversation now about what patients want for the end of their life, by far, than they have had in all their lives to this point,” my friend said. “The problem is that’s way too late.” In 2008, the national Coping with Cancer project published a study showing that terminally ill cancer patients who were put on a mechanical ventilator, given electrical defibrillation or chest compressions, or admitted, near death, to intensive care had a substantially worse quality of life in their last week than those who received no such interventions. And, six months after their death, their caregivers were three times as likely to suffer major depression. Spending one’s final days in an I.C.U. because of terminal illness is for most people a kind of failure. You lie on a ventilator, your every organ shutting down, your mind teetering on delirium and permanently beyond realizing that you will never leave this borrowed, fluorescent place. The end comes with no chance for you to have said goodbye or “It’s O.K.” or “I’m sorry” or “I love you.”

People have concerns besides simply prolonging their lives. Surveys of patients with terminal illness find that their top priorities include, in addition to avoiding suffering, being with family, having the touch of others, being mentally aware, and not becoming a burden to others. Our system of technological medical care has utterly failed to meet these needs, and the cost of this failure is measured in far more than dollars. The hard question we face, then, is not how we can afford this system’s expense. It is how we can build a health-care system that will actually help dying patients achieve what’s most important to them at the end of their lives.

For all but our most recent history, dying was typically a brief process. Whether the cause was childhood infection, difficult childbirth, heart attack, or pneumonia, the interval between recognizing that you had a life-threatening ailment and death was often just a matter of days or weeks. Consider how our Presidents died before the modern era. George Washington developed a throat infection at home on December 13, 1799, that killed him by the next evening. John Quincy Adams, Millard Fillmore, and Andrew Johnson all succumbed to strokes, and died within two days. Rutherford Hayes had a heart attack and died three days later. Some deadly illnesses took a longer course: James Monroe and Andrew Jackson died from the months-long consumptive process of what appears to have been tuberculosis; Ulysses Grant’s oral cancer took a year to kill him; and James Madison was bedridden for two years before dying of “old age.” But, as the end-of-life researcher Joanne Lynn has observed, people usually experienced life-threatening illness the way they experienced bad weather—as something that struck with little warning—and you either got through it or you didn’t.

Read the rest of this article at: The New Yorker

The Balmoral in Chestnut

Shop the Balmoral in Chestnut
at Belgrave Crescent &

Unusually for me, this is a post with little in the way of context. Rather, it is simple, recorded observation. As part of an endless enquiry into what makes good streets tick, over four short visits to Tokyo in 2018 and 2019—during The Days In Which We Flew—I started cataloguing ‘the small vehicles of Tokyo’, recognising them as an ingredient of the city’s beguiling street condition.

I’ve written enough about walking around the city’s neighbourhoods (Ed. Really?) What follows is a quick sampling of a hugely diverse range of small vehicles—the tip of the tip of the iceberg—that also contribute to the quality of the city’s streets. I’ll no doubt update it with each subsequent trip I take.

It’s like a version of Richard Scarry’s Cars and Trucks and Things That Go, but with an emphasis on the Things That Go rather than the Cars and Trucks. And set in Tokyo. Imagine the drivers as tanuki rather than cats and dogs.

Read the rest of this article at: A chair in a room

News 04.10.21 : Today’s Articles of Interest from Around the Internets

News 04.10.21 : Today’s Articles of Interest from Around the Internets

In the weeks before Kabul fell, my mind was strangely calm. There is a moment just before the world falls apart, when human beings almost believe they can reverse the sequence of events that has brought them to this point – a flash of magical thinking in which they can will a different reality into existence.

On 2 July, when the Americans left Bagram airbase, I woke up in London with a horrible headache. My phone was inundated with messages of disbelief. “I am so sorry about it,” a few friends wrote, but they couldn’t name “it”. I couldn’t name it either.

I’d never been to the Bagram airbase, but I knew it as the sprawling capital of American power in Afghanistan, an impenetrable fortress about 30 miles north of Kabul that had accommodated tens of thousands of troops for almost two decades, along with the latest military technology, a jail where detainees had been tortured, a spa where soldiers could get a manicure, and fast-food vendors selling hamburgers. How did the Americans leave this carefully crafted citadel without telling anyone?

“Gone in the darkness of the night, like thieves,” my father said, at our home in London, barely concealing his shock as he glanced up from his tablet. He had been glued to the news for days. We have family and friends in Afghanistan, and we worried about what would happen to them if the situation deteriorated.

I was born in Afghanistan, and spent most of my childhood there. When I was 11, my family fled Kabul, driven out by the war. For four years we lived like nomads, waiting to get back to our home. In the 1990s, while different factions jockeyed for power, we still believed we would go home. But when the Taliban took over in 1996, that hope became untenable, and we ended up in London seeking asylum.

At the time that my family became exiles, Afghans were reeling from the long proxy war that the US and Russia fought in the country for most of the 80s. In the midst of the cold war, the US had helped arm and train Afghan militia groups to fight against the Soviet-backed communist government. Both sides committed terrible atrocities, and ordinary Afghans were caught in the middle. Throughout this brutal clash of empires, the US promised Afghans prosperity once the Russians were defeated.

Afghanistan was at the forefront of US foreign policy in this period. In 1982, Ronald Reagan proclaimed 21 March as Afghanistan Day, “to commemorate the valor of the Afghan people and to condemn the continuing Soviet invasion of their country”. The following year, he invited the mujahideen to the White House as defenders of human rights. But none of this brought safety or security to the Afghan people. No matter how Afghans have tried to make good on this alliance, the principal feature of the relationship between the US and Afghanistan has always been force.

Read the rest of this article at: The Guardian

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It was first described to me by a friend who works in the industry as autocomplete on crack, after the technology that endowed our phones with the quality everyone pretends to, but does not actually, want in a lover — the ability to finish your thoughts. Instead of predicting the next word in a sentence, GPT-3 would produce several paragraphs in whatever style it intuited from your prompt. If you prompted it Once upon a time, it would produce a fairy tale. If you typed two lines in iambic pentameter, it would write a sonnet. If you wrote something vaguely literary, like We gathered to see the ship and all its splendor, like pilgrims at an altar, it would continue in this vein:

I stood among the crowd watching each bus disgorge passengers onto wooden planks laid over mudflats. The guests swarmed into town for their free visit to another world: our island on Earth where strange new gods were worshipped; here they could gather at some primitive shrine from which they could send offerings back home or sell out-of-date clothes in pawnshops full of old junk salvaged from forgotten times....

If you wrote a news headline, it would write an article on that topic, complete with fake facts, fake statistics, and fake quotes by fake sources, good enough that human readers could rarely guess that it was authored by a machine. The potential for malicious use was so obvious that OpenAI, the lab that made it, agreed to grant access to only a handful of well-vetted researchers, spurring the publicity-friendly lore that it was “too dangerous to release.”

GPT-3 is a natural language processing algorithm. It belongs to a new generation of AI models called Transformers, a technology whose early iterations were named after Sesame Street characters (BERT, ELMO, GROVER, as though the somewhat frightening allusion to children’s television could be mitigated with a softer, more educational one. That GPT-2 and its later, more sophisticated upgrade, GPT-3, dropped this convention might be read as a sign of their terrifying power. With 175 billion “parameters” — mathematical representations of language patterns — GPT-3 had initiated what was being called a Cambrian explosion in natural language processing, and was virtually all that the tech world was talking about throughout the summer of 2020. It had been trained in “the dumbest way possible,” as one researcher put it, which is to say it read most of the internet without supervision and started absorbing language patterns. It is daunting to consider what was included in that corpus: the holy books of every major religion, most of world philosophy, Naruto fanfic, cooking blogs, air mattress reviews, supreme court transcripts, breeding erotica, NoFap subreddits, the manifestos of mass murderers, newspaper archives, coding manuals, all of Wikipedia, Facebook, and Twitter. From this, it built a complex model of language that it alone understands, a dialect of statistical probabilities that can parrot any writing genre simply by predicting the next word in a sequence.

Read the rest of this article at: n+ 1

P.S. previous articles & more by P.F.M.