Roald Dahl’s Matilda the Musical

If you still have a gloomy taste in your mouth from The Banshees of Inisherin, then here’s the perfect antidote: Roald Dahl’s Matilda the Musical.

We had recently been discussing Jane Eyre here, and I couldn’t get Jane Eyre out of my mind as I watched this. But Jane Eyre, of course, is not exactly a musical, whereas Matilda will probably become a classic. It’s a romp, with superb performances, excellent music, and brilliant singing and dancing. How does Britain produce so many talented children? Emma Thompson is so scary that I actually wonder if Matilda should have a PG rating.

Matilda can be streamed on Netflix.

Are you ready for power failure?

⬆︎ My solar panels can produce, at most, a modest 150 watts of power. That’s enough to keep some deep-discharge batteries charged at all times. The solar power also is a supplement to my small generator.

Clearly the risks to the power grid are growing. This is true not just in the United States. Just two days ago, France issued a warning about winter power failure. Whether in summer or winter, power grids can become overloaded (and, these days, often do). For some strange reason, right-wing terrorists seem to be targeting the power grid. The vulnerability of the power grid to cyber-hacking is well known, though no doubt too little has been done about it. Even solar events such as coronal mass ejections could shut down the power grid and damage major components of the grid that would be very difficult to replace.

Being prepared is not necessarily just a matter of comfort and convenience. In some cases, lives depend on it. Everyone needs a plan. In rural areas such as where I live, short power outages (three or four hours) happen many times a year. I’ve never been through an outage that lasted for days, but that’s always possible.

Getting equipped with backup sources of power and heat is not necessarily something that must be done all at once. Being prepared is expensive. And not only are the things you need expensive to buy, they require maintenance, or they won’t work when you need them. Here at the abbey, I’ve gradually built up my ability to weather longer and longer power failures. Each power failure is a kind of test that lets me figure out what my next priority for improvement should be.

The first big question is: Would your heating system operate with the power down? Few systems would these days. I have a heat pump, which is of course all electric. For backup, I have a propane fireplace and a tank that holds 200 gallons of propane. The fireplace provides a helpful amount of heat, but it can’t compare with the house’s main heating system. Kerosene heaters make me nervous. But if you’re careful with them, they can be a safe source of emergency heat.

How would you cook if the power went out? Here at the abbey, though I can boil water in small quantities on generator power, my emergency solution is to cook outdoors using propane. The gas grill, also propane, is always available.

Refrigeration is a biggy. That’s a problem that can be solved only with electricity. My solution at present for refrigeration uses two battery-powered power inverters. The 1000-watt unit can run the refrigerator for five hours or more. I have two such units, so that one can be recharged from the generator while the other is powering the refrigerator.

Lighting is not a big deal. Flashlights and candles are a given, with better light sources if you have the power. You’ll also need to think about water. Even if your water is city water (as opposed to a well, which I have here), frozen pipes could be a problem in extreme cold, especially if the power is out.

For me, communication is a major issue. Cell phones aren’t enough. I also need to be able to keep my computer and WIFI running in a power failure. How I do that is shown in the photographs below. And because I’m an amateur radio operator, I also need to keep all my radios running, if they’re needed. Amateur radio operators are always about community service if a disaster strikes, not only for communication with the outside world but also for providing a means of staying in touch with one’s neighbors.

⬆︎ This small inverter generator is enough to power my refrigerator, computer, radios, and some lighting. I am wary of larger generators that cannot produce pure sine wave power.

⬆︎ You can’t have too many batteries. These batteries are kept charged by the solar panels. On the right is a power inverter that attaches to the batteries. The inverter can produce standard 115-volt house current as pure sine waves. The inverter also can charge USB devices. My solar power goes into my garage, not to the house. And speaking of the garage, that’s my Jeep on the left. It, too, is a nice thing to have for winter emergencies.

⬆︎ The front panel of the power inverter, with its three USB outlets as well as house current. These days, keeping USB devices such as phones charged is a high priority.

⬆︎ Fortunately, inverters like this made in China are fairly affordable. If you’re not clear on the difference between “modified sine wave” inverters and “pure sine wave” inverters, I’d recommend reading up on that. Pure sine wave inverters are more expensive, but I would not want to run electronics or expensive items such as refrigerators on dirty power.

⬆︎ These two devices contain batteries. Their output is house current and USB. They are expensive. I use these devices mainly to keep my refrigerator running — a high priority that I deem worth the expense. One can be charging while the other is powering the refrigerator. Both can be charged from my solar panels, but charging from the generator is much easier as long as the generator is running.

⬆︎ Maybe someday we’ll be able to live without gas-powered engines. But, until then, you’ve got to have fuel. I never store gasoline, kerosene, or propane indoors, and I insist on the safest possible containers.

⬆︎ Propane for emergency cooking, outdoors. I also have a propane grill.

⬆︎ Kerosene heaters scare me. But they don’t scare me as much as a cold house when it’s 5F outdoors, which happened as recently as last week.

⬆︎ This uninterruptible power supply can keep my computer running for hours. But when the power goes out, I get the generator out of the basement and put it in a safe place outside the basement door. I plug the cord from the generator into a receptacle in the basement that terminates at the red outlet that you can see in the wall behind the UPS. When I built my house, I installed the wiring for that. This is a heavy commercial UPS that I’ve had for years. Its batteries have to be replaced every five years or so.

⬆︎ My radios run on battery power at all times. The batteries are kept charged by the trickle charger in the photo below. In a power failure, by moving a plug, I can keep the batteries charged with the generator.

⬆︎ The trickle charger that keeps the radio batteries at full charge.

⬆︎ I sometimes joke with my neighbors that, in a catastrophe, one reason why they should keep feeding me in spite of my age is that they can count on me for communications during a catastrophe. I have had an extra-class amateur radio license for years, and I take very seriously the responsibility to provide emergency communications for the people around me, not only long-distance communications but also local communications using handhelds, of which I have a great many.

Cigar boxes for storage

At least around here, tobacco and “vape” stores seem to be everywhere these days. Normally I would have no reason for going inside of one. But I’ve been picking up my Amazon packages at an Amazon “hub counter” so that trucks don’t have to drive down my unpaved road. The nearest hub counter is a tobacco shop at Madison.

The tobacco shop has a little room that they call the humidor room. That’s where all the cigars are stored. When the cigar boxes are empty, they stack them on the floor and sell them for $5 each. Many of them are quite decently made, of wood. Those are the ones I buy. They’re fantastic for storing all the small items that otherwise would be clutter. They stack nicely. They’re also probably collectible.

The Banshees of Inisherin

I should have known better. When Rotten Tomatoes shows high critic ratings (97 percent in this case) but much lower audience ratings (76 percent), that’s a red flag for me. I almost always agree with the audience.

Why would a filmmaker waste a superb cast and beautiful settings on a meaningless and depressing story that is not worth telling? I’ll answer my own question: It’s because critics are bored. They fall for well-made films with nihilistic themes that can cut through their jaded hides. Critics are rarely in it for the story. They’re in it for the filmmaking.

As long as made-for-critics films like this scoop up the awards, filmmakers will keep making them. What a waste.

New trains!

The Washington Post has a story about yesterday’s announcement by Amtrak describing the $5 billion worth of new trains that Amtrak is buying. The trains will be named Amtrak Airo, and they’re beautiful.

Yes, the trains will be made in America — Sacramento — though the company is German. Transportation secretary Pete Buttigieg is not mentioned in the story, but I suspect that he, and the Biden administration, had more than a little to do with this.

It was interesting to read some of the comments on this article. Train lovers are pointing out that the United States is still far, far behind other countries in its train infrastructure, not least because of the poor condition of our tracks. In Europe, everybody loves trains, and everybody rides them. In the U.S., liberals have never seen a train they didn’t love, and Republicans have never seen a train they didn’t hate. I wonder: Don’t Republicans ever travel abroad and ride the trains?

The recent railway strike that almost happened helped expose just how much fixing our railway system needs, both for freight and for passengers. About 30 years of successive Democratic transportation secretaries might do it.

My last Walter Scott post for a while, I promise

I had high hopes for The Bride of Lammermoor, the sixth novel by Sir Walter Scott that I have read. But it let me down. Though there was some fine Scottish gothic atmosphere — seaside castles, witches, and violent storms — the story really came down to little more than youthful folly and parental cruelty ending in pathos. I use the word pathos in a literary sense, as distinguished from tragedy. In pathos, unlike tragedy, there are no teachable moments in the calamity with which the story ends. There is only meaningless sadness. I was going to lower my estimation of Sir Walter Scott as a writer until I thought of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, which also came down to little more than youthful folly and parental cruelty ending in pathos. It’s entirely possible that readers in the early 19th Century would have found some teachable moments, perhaps in the wrongness of older generations trying to control the emotional lives of young people.

The Bride of Lammermoor was published in 1819, so it’s just over 200 years old. A friend asked me if I thought that Scott’s novels, and the social issues he raises, are as relevant today as those of, say, Jane Austen. I would say definitely not. But even so, Scott does not deserve to be completely forgotten. I may, in years to come, return to Walter Scott, but for now I think my curiosity about his novels is satisfied. If anyone is considering reading Scott, of the novels I have read I would recommend The Heart of Mid-Lothian.

I have moved on to something completely different. I rarely read bestsellers, but I’ve just started Babel: Or the Necessity of Violence: An Arcane History of the Oxford Translators’ Revolution. It’s a new novel by R.F. Kuang. When I learned that the novel is about linguists and that it is set in London and Oxford, I bought it immediately.

I bought an 1869 edition of Lammermoor, published in New York.

All trans children should be so lucky

The above is a three-minute Christmas ad by J&B scotch. It leaves kind-hearted people in tears and probably leaves authoritarians in a state of rage.

We are surrounded by people whose intellect and moral sensibility are so meagre and so perverted that they actually believe that they know the mind of God. Even worse, as they undertake to instruct the rest of us, with their God this and God that, they believe that they have a heavenly mandate to police those who, being different, rub up against their notions about how God meant for people to be.

For example, the New York Times has a story this morning about nationwide efforts by right-wing Christian operatives to ban books about gender and sexuality. Nothing riles them like gender and sexuality. The story is “A Fast-Growing Network of Conservative Groups Is Fueling a Surge in Book Bans.” Having lost the war against gay marriage, they still can’t let go. The new war is against non-conforming young people and their families. Acceptance and support are defined as abuse.

This mission to control human sexuality was brought to us two thousand years ago by the church — the same church that today continues to try to cover up its own sexual crimes against our young people. For example:

Southern Baptist leaders release a previously secret list of accused sexual abusers. Most of those who were abused were children. This is the same church that, in 1995, finally got around to apologizing for supporting slavery.

Thousands raped and abused in Catholic schools in Ireland. Children again. That story is from 2009, but, as cover-ups by the churches continue to fall apart, new cases are coming to light. For example: Irish police investigate abuse claims against elite Spiritan schools. “Spiritan” is a new name for an order that formerly was named the Holy Ghost order. Children again.

Pope seeks forgiveness for sexual abuse at Canadian residential schools. Children again.

That an institution with a long criminal record of abusing children still, in its blindness, tries to instruct and police the rest of us in the name of protecting children is mind boggling. Church people are merely twisting the ongoing authoritarian abuse of children into a new disguise. Having lived in San Francisco for 18 years, where many trans people go seeking acceptance and refuge, I have known many trans people. It is tragic that, even though people who cannot fulfill expected gender roles are, and always have been, born at all times in all places, they are still driven out of their families and communities. Something like 40 percent of such young people have attempted suicide. It’s sad not just for them. It’s sad for the rest of us, too. There is so much we can learn, if we get to know them.

I wonder if the J&B video will change any minds.

Roquefort & carrot pie, pub style

After five or six days of cold, rainy weather, it was time to give the clover sprouts a rest and have some proper comfort food. The Roquefort & carrot pie was inspired by the recipe for blue cheese and leek tartlets in The Complete Irish Pub Cookbook.

The idea of rolling walnuts into the pie crust is brilliant. I had bought leeks for this pie, but I had already used the leeks in soup. Roquefort, though, is well compatible with most winter vegetables, so I used carrots. Next time I use cheese in a pie, though, I think I’ll choose a more versatile melting cheese such as Gruyère.

Don’t forget the ale.

Afraid of AI? Not me.

There’s a lot of buzz in the media right now about a new artificial-intelligence chatbot that anybody can try out. It’s ChatGPT, from a project called OpenAI. I tried it out. It’s interesting for about ten minutes, at which point it becomes apparent that, though it’s a beautiful piece of software engineering, its usefulness is limited.

We’re not in the slightest danger of having artificial intelligence take our jobs — with the possible exception of customer service jobs of the sort outsourced to Asia, jobs in which people with almost no knowledge read from scripts, following prompts on a computer screen. ChatGPT’s English is vastly better, though.

The only thing that I find truly impressive about ChatGPT is its ability to parse and compose English sentences — natural language processing — something that programmers have been working on for many years. Having parsed your question, ChatGPT’s response will sound like reading to you from an encyclopedia.

Here’s an example:

That is a very good answer. During my chat with ChatGPT, all the English was perfectly composed — no gaffes and no grammatical errors. That’s impressive. Still, the “intelligence” of ChatGPT still just boils down to reading to you from an encyclopedia. ChatGPT is nothing more than a sophisticated search prompt that responds with a well-composed English sentence or two rather than giving you links to online articles.

I ignore all the hype about artificial intelligence. AI, ultimately, in my view, will be more useful than other tech wonders such as Bitcoin. But it’s not going to replace real knowledge based on understanding and experience. Will there be military uses for artificial intelligence? There almost certainly will be, I would think. But the danger would be in human beings using computer algorithms to control weapons aimed at other human beings, not in computers becoming smarter than humans and taking over.

It was long ago, 1989, when Roger Penrose, in a book named The Emperor’s New Mind, argued that the human mind and human consciousness are not algorithmic. That is, according to Penrose, no digital computer, no matter how complicated and sophisticated, will ever be able to do what the human mind does. Penrose’s theory is that the brain has some as yet unknown mechanism that makes use of quantum mechanics and quantum entanglement. Quantum computers, if they can be built, may open up non-algorithmic possibilities for artificial intelligence. But that’s a long way off. Penrose, I believe, is the Einstein of our time. I am persuaded by his argument. AI programmers think Penrose is wrong. But of course they would.

A big limitation in ChatGPT is that, if you ask about current events, you’ll be told that ChatGPT has no knowledge of current events. It’s not hard to see why. Feeding information to ChatGPT’s database must have been difficult, in that the information surely had to be pre-parsed somehow into a specialized form in which ChatGPT could make use of it. That took time. I can’t imagine that it would be possible — not yet, anyway — to just instruct ChatGPT to go online and read everything on Wikipedia. A future AI that constantly updates its database the way Google constantly updates its search engine would be far more useful and would be a fine research tool. If the ChatGPT engine is open source, then I can imagine programmers doing wondrous — though specialized — things with it. I also can imagine, in the future, research engines that have been fed the contents of entire university libraries. That would be a fantastic tool, but it would hardly be a machine that would be capable of taking over the world.

Update: The Atlantic has a piece today by a high school English teacher, “The End of High School English.” I wasn’t quite sure what the concern is. Is it concern that students will use bots to write their papers? Or is it that, with bots available, students no longer need to learn to write?

How we model the world, and how well we adapt to it

Hidden Order: How Adaptation Builds Complexity. John H. Holland. Addison-Wesley, 1995. 176 pages.

This is not a book review. Rather, this is about why I think the ideas in this book are important, and how those ideas apply to what we think and what we do. This is one of the most important books I’ve ever read, so it’s surprising that I’ve never mentioned it here before. That’s probably because it was more than 25 years ago that I first read it. The author is, or was, a professor of computer science, electrical engineering, and psychology at the University of Michigan.

The book is rather technical, but its central ideas are easy to grasp. There are several key concepts:

Complex adaptive systems: We are entirely familiar with complex adaptive systems, because we are surrounded by them. A city is a complex adaptive system, as is a forest, or any ecosystem. In fact each individual human being is a complex adaptive system.

Adaptive agents: An agent is a smaller entity within a complex adaptive system that is able to act on its own. It’s also able to learn. And, as a species, it is able to evolve based on interaction with the environment. For example, an individual human being is an agent within the complex adaptive system of human society. A tree, or a squirrel, or a mouse, is an individual agent within a forest. Each, as a species, evolves.

Tags: Tags are attributes that allow agents to identify other agents or other elements within a system. A human being can recognize a squirrel, or a grizzly bear, because our vision detects the visual tags that denote squirrels and grizzly bears. A squirrel can detect a nearby nut by the nut’s smell. Everything within a system will have some sort of tag, permitting agents to recognize what a thing is or even to register that something new and unfamiliar has been encountered. A flower’s bright color, and its scent, are tags that other agents (bees, hummingbirds) can recognize.

Internal models: Agents will always have some sort of internal model of their environment. A mouse’s internal model will understand that a certain smell is a tag that identifies a mushroom as food. A mouse’s internal model also will understand that other smells are a tag for a predator, and the mouse will hide. Internal models vary in their complexity, according to the abilities of the agent. A human being’s internal model of the environment is more complex than an amoeba’s. Internal models, to a great degree, are inherited as instincts. Yet inherited instincts can become obsolete and dangerous if the environment is changing faster than a species can evolve. But internal models also can learn, including the ability to detect and correct errors, if the agent survives the error. Some agents’ internal models are better than other agents’ internal models. Some human beings, obviously, learn faster than others. Some human beings recognize errors more quickly than others.

Competition: Agents have no choice but to compete with other agents for resources within a complex adaptive system — food, mates, social status, power.

Now we can propose an axiom. The quality of an agent’s adaptation to its environment is only as good as its internal model of that environment. A young squirrel that hasn’t yet learned that roads are dangerous is at risk of dying on a road. Young millennials who perceive the growing role of computers in their environment and who have learned to program computers will get a better job than working in a warehouse. A decision, or an action, is only as good as the factual basis and reasoning that went into that decision or action.

All of this has to do with an area of science which is developing very quickly, a science that can be applied to a great many things — say, to studying the ecology of an ocean, or to programming a computer system for artificial intelligence. My interest though, is pretty specific and limited: What does the science of complex adaptive systems tell us about the quality of our adaptation, as individual human beings, to living in a fast-changing world? How can we use the theory to improve our adaptation and therefore to improve our lives, not only as individuals but as a society? How might the theory help us understand not only the poor performance of some people, but also the destructive tendencies of people whose models of the world are false and twisted? (In human beings, values also are a part of the internal model. I’ve written here in the past about the inferiority of conservative values. The conservative love of authority obviously is a invitation for error, whereas the liberal’s love of fairness is not likely to go wrong.)

Our environment surrounds us with dangers as well as with potential rewards. And we must compete whether we like it or not.

Some agents lie. They lie to exert their own interests against the interests of other agents. For example, mimicry in the animal kingdom:

To a bird, viceroy butterflies are good to eat. But a monarch butterfly will make them throw up. The butterflies look alike. Birds’ internal models learn that monarch butterflies are bad to eat, and so they don’t eat viceroys either.

Now you see where I’m going with this. Millions of human beings are operating with severely defective internal models of the world. For some it’s because they’ve been lied to. That’s the very purpose of propaganda, after all. For others, it’s sadly because they’re just not swift enough to make sense of a fast-changing environment that makes them feel threatened. They get left behind. Believing lies told by others, they get used for others’ purposes.

But there is no avoiding the bottom line. Those whose internal models of the world are defective, or too slow to keep up, will do badly in the world. Those whose internal models are more accurate and more up to date will do better in the world. When groups of people with defective models of the world act in concert, they are certain to do harm. When those with more accurate models of the world operate in concert, they have a good chance of doing good.

Those of us who have pretty good, or at least adequate, internal models of the world (I don’t hesitate to make that claim for myself) have been living through a period in which people with false models of the world temporarily got the upper hand, through the concerted application of lies and deception. As angry as I once was when Trump first acquired power through the support of those whose models were weak and corruptible, I was more optimistic than many people that, before long, the movement would fail. That optimism derives from the simple proposition that people, and groups of people, with corrupted models of the world are bound to fail, at least eventually, because their corrupt model of the world will cause them to make errors, errors that will build up until those errors become fatal and bring them down, as surely as a young squirrel in the road that hasn’t learned about cars. Now, at last, the failures and errors of Trump world are taking down those who thought that lies and the abuse of others was a winning strategy. Had they known their history, they would have known that that model has been tried before, and that it caused great misery for many before its sponsors were exposed and eliminated. Think of Stuart Rhodes, or Alex Jones, or Steve Bannon, all of whom were major sponsors of a false model of the world meant to cause susceptible people to be conned, fleeced, and manipulated. Rhodes, Jones, and Bannon are now being exposed and eliminated as dangerous agents in the environment. The same fate awaits Donald Trump.

It greatly disturbs me that there are so many forces that actively work to corrupt people’s model of the world — Fox News, the Republican Party, billionaire oligarchs, con men. That’s possible because so many people’s model of the world is faulty and therefore vulnerable to being corrupted. Their lie detectors, so to speak, are broken. They fall for scams. They allow themselves to be used, en masse, for other people’s purposes. They don’t learn. They don’t correct errors. He’s still my president.

This begs the question: What are the things that support accurate internal models of the world? How do we avoid the invitations to deception and falseness that are constantly set before us? I don’t have an easy answer to that, and I’ve already gone on here for too long. But a few things are quickly apparent. Education matters. Reason matters, as in the ability to detect fallacy and therefore the ability to detect attempts to deceive us. Some means of sorting out truth from falsehood, in the way courts work, or in the way responsible journalists work, is essential. Some kind of principle of skepticism and caution must be applied when we recognize that we are obliged to act but don’t have enough information. So-called “faith” is one of the most common traps of all. There must be some mechanism for detecting and correcting errors. And, if those with good models of the world want to make the world better, then there must be a means of comparing notes with others and acting in concert with others.

An aside: Back in the 1960s and 1970s, Carlos Castaneda wrote some beautiful books that were supposedly about a Mexican shaman named Don Juan. He sold more than 8 million books. But later it was proven that Castaneda was doing not anthropology but fiction (though good fiction!). The Don Juan character has a well developed theory of what he called “petty tyrants.” We all know petty tyrants. Workplaces are full of petty tyrants. They’re the people who make a little power go a long way and who bring conflict and misery to everyone around them. Don Juan’s theory was about how to take down a petty tyrant. The key was to wait, on the grounds that sooner or later, every petty tyrant makes a fatal mistake, at which point a flick of the finger will take them down. In my working life, I always found that to be true. The petty tyrants who afflict other people and bend the rules eventually go down, vulnerable to their own errors. They make a mistake that requires the HR department or higher management to send them packing.

A good example is James Bennet, who resigned as opinion editor at the New York Times after he made a fatal mistake, which was publishing a piece of right-wing propaganda that the Times should not have published. Bennet’s friends complained that a group of young “woke” staff members at the Times “canceled” Bennet. He certainly wasn’t canceled, because he landed on his feet at the Economist. My suspicions tend otherwise. I’d wager that Bennet was an incompetent, overbearing editor who was hated by his staff. When the staff, with better internal models of the world than Bennet’s, recognized Bennet’s fatal mistake, they made their move. The full story, I would wager, was that Bennet deserved to be fired long before he made his fatal mistake. As for the piece Bennet published, which the publisher of the Times called “a significant breakdown,” Bennet’s approval of the piece was sufficient evidence of his incompetence and his defective internal model of the world.