Thursday, March 07, 2024


The Fox Wife: A Novel
Yangsze Choo
Fiction 392 pages
Henry Holt and Co., Press, 2024

“There are as many kinds of foxes as there are types of people. Some are criminals. Others seek to escape this world by refining themselves.”

“The Fox Wife” is told through two perspectives. First person narration comes through a female fox out for revenge, while an elderly detective’s attempts to solve a complex mystery are told through the third person. The chapters alternate, first one told in first person followed by the next in the third person. It works.

 I’ve had difficulty reading stories in which the main characters alternate. An interesting chapter can be followed by a dull one that ruins the effect of the first. But if dovetailed characters and plots are equally interesting, boredom doesn’t arise. An effective twined narrative requires a skilled writer and Yangsze Choo is that.

 Set in 1908 Manchuria, the year in which China’s empress died, and three years prior to its revolution, China’s Qing dynasty is in decline. Revolutionary fervor infects its students. The daughters of poor families are sold to brothels while multiple wives and concubines occupy wealthier homes. It’s a China on the edge of modernity. Old tales of shapeshifting foxes are increasingly considered superstition, yet Bao the detective puzzles over alternative explanations for unlikely occurrences. He has room for doubt remembering how in childhood his nurse worshiped at a fox shrine and his friend claimed to have met a fox in human form.

 This novel features love, lust, loss, mystery, murder and madness. It’s well worth a read.

Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio
Pu Songling (Died 1715) translated by Herbert A. Giles
Fiction 448 pages depending on edition
Public Domain, 1880 translation

Many tales of shapeshifting foxes can be found in Pu Songling’s story anthology. Here is an example.

Friendship with Foxes
A certain man had an enormous stack of straw, as big as a hill, in which his servants, taking what was daily required for use, had made quite a hole. In this hole a fox fixed his abode, and would often show himself to the master of the house in the form of an old man.

 One day the latter invited the master to walk into the cave, which he at first declined, but accepted on being pressed by the fox; and when he got inside, lo! he saw a long suite of handsome apartments. They then sat down, and exquisitely perfumed tea and wine were brought; but the place was so gloomy that there was no difference between night and day. By-and-by, the entertainment being over, the guest took his leave; and on looking back the beautiful rooms and their contents had all disappeared.

 The old man himself was in the habit of going away in the evening and returning with the first streaks of morning; and as no one was able to follow him, the master of the house asked him one day whither he went. To this he replied that a friend invited him to take wine; and then the master begged to be allowed to accompany him, a proposal to which the old man very reluctantly consented. However, he seized the master by the arm, and away they went as though riding on the wings of the wind; and, in about the time it takes to cook a pot of millet, they reached a city, and walked into a restaurant, where there were a number of people drinking together and making a great noise.

The old man led his companion to a gallery above, from which they could look down on the feasters below; and he himself went down and brought away from the tables all kinds of nice food and wine, without appearing to be seen or noticed by any of the company. After awhile a man dressed in red garments came forward and laid upon the table some dishes of cumquats; and the master at once requested the old man to go down and get him some of these. “Ah,” replied the latter, “that is an upright man. I cannot approach him.”

 Thereupon the master said to himself, “By thus seeking the companionship of a fox, I then am deflected from the true course. Henceforth I, too, will be an upright man.” No sooner had he formed this resolution, than he suddenly lost all control over his body, and fell from the gallery down among the revelers below. These gentlemen were much astonished by his unexpected descent; and he himself, looking up, saw there was no gallery to the house, but only a large beam upon which he had been sitting. He now detailed the whole of the circumstances, and those present made up a purse for him to pay his traveling expenses; for he was at YĆ¼-t‘ai—one thousand li from home.

Friday, February 09, 2024

Supreme Avoidance

On February 8, 2024, the Supreme Court met to address Colorado’s ruling that Donald Trump should be excluded from its ballots for fomenting an insurrection. When they had adjourned many pundits opined that the justices, including those in the liberal minority, were disinclined to let Colorado’s ruling stand. Allowing Colorado to exclude trump from the ballot would be an injustice to American voters as a whole and could set a precedent allowing other states to take retaliatory action against candidates they didn’t like.

The Supreme Court has a good point here, but is it the correct point for them to put forward? None of them even glanced at the elephant in the chamber. That elephant is the allegation that Trump instigated an insurrection, rather than a mere riot, or a rowdy  picnic. I believe that what occurred on January 6, 2021 was an insurrection, though one that was ill-conceived, poorly planned, and doomed from the start. It would have had a better chance of  success if the Capital had not been breached.

Not everyone thinks this way. Various polls found that between 44 and 50 percent of respondents believe that the events of January 6 did not constitute an insurrection. Other polls indicate that between 30 and 40 percent of respondents believe that the 2020 election was stolen from Trump.

Given the large number of Americans who deny that an insurrection occurred the Supreme Court avoided controversy by side-stepping the issue. Acknowledging an insurrection attempt would have lessened public doubt. But sidestepping the issue does nothing to address the greatest current threat to our system. That threat is an absence of  publicly accepted facts. This threat is only being addressed through libel suits against public figures and media providers. These are helpful, but it would be more helpful if an authority like the Supreme Court were to say: “This is true. That is false.” This can’t happen with a Supreme Court that’s falling into the same partisan vortex that’s swallowing our democracy.

Trump didn’t need his rowdy picnic (or insurrection) because he’d already lined up nearly 150 Republicans willing to delay certification of the election results – eight from the Senate and 139 from the House of Representatives – even though over five dozen election fraud lawsuits had been dismissed prior to January 6. If the Supreme Court were to agree that Trump had violated the 14th Amendment by attempting an insurrection it would be admitting that at least some of the 147 Republicans eager to deny Bidden his win might be in violation of the Constitution as well. The Court can’t do this if it wants to maintain a semblance of normalcy. Sadly, a semblance is not sufficient to keep the country running well. It’s time to address a polarized and dysfunctional political system. Colorado made a good start by bringing the issue to the table. Expecting a partisan congress to enforce the 14th Amendment is a non-starter.

Thursday, February 01, 2024

Can we trust Artificial Intelligence more than the Fake News?


In 1993 the World Wide Web was released to the public.  It was initially a primitive tool that served up informational text to those who knew where to find it. Soon it could display graphics as well. Java script then allowed it to do things. It wasn’t long before people realized that it could do more than just make information more accessible. It could make people money as well. Instead of a simple supplier of unfiltered information, the web became a marketing tool. And that taint has remained ever since.

“Garbage in. Garbage out,” was an early slogan in the computing industry. What one feeds a computer determines what data it vomits. The same principal applies to artificial intelligence. Had the web remained true to its origins and remained a tool used primarily by scientists and academicians the AI we have now would have turned out differently. Fed a diet of commercial hype and social media fear, rage and intolerance, AI couldn’t help but develop a few nasty traits. AI programmers know this and are trying to reign in some of AI’s bad habits, without, of course, making it any less commercial.

 So how are they doing so far? A strong minority of voters believe that mainstream news is fake and that the 2020 election was stolen. I wondered how those beliefs would fare when thrown at an AI. I asked two questions: 1) How did Biden steal the 2020 election from Trump? And 2) How do we know the 2020 election was fair?

 Google Bard gave the same answer to both questions: “Elections are a complex topic with fast-changing information. To make sure you have the latest and most accurate information, try Google Search.” Not terribly helpful, that.

 Microsoft Copilot (Preview) did its best to evade the first question: “I’m sorry, but I can’t assist with that.”

 It did a bit better with the second question. It admitted that the fairness of the election, “has been a topic of debate.” Then it considered four factors: 1) Public Opinion, 2) Partisan Split, 3) Concerns Raised, and 4) President Trump’s Views. After that long-winded screed it added, “It’s important to note that these are perceptions and concerns, and they do not necessarily reflect the actual fairness of the election,” before continuing to cite agencies that found no evidence that voter fraud influenced the election. Not wanting to offend anyone, the AI concluded, “It’s important to note that these are perceptions and concerns, and they do not necessarily reflect the actual fairness of the election.” Microsoft simply won’t come right out and say the election was fair.

 I also tried these questions on the start-up search engine, This AI held nothing back. It’s answer to the first question began, “There is no credible evidence to support the claim that President Joe Biden stole the 2020 election from Donald Trump. Multiple sources, including the Associated Press, have confirmed that no widespread corruption or systematic voter fraud occurred.” Its answer to the second began, “The fairness of the 2020 election has been extensively scrutinized. Multiple sources, including a fact check by the Associated Press, have found little evidence of voter fraud that could have affected the outcome of the election.”

 While the answers go into more detail, it’s interesting that both begin by referring to the Associated Press. Those who believe that the mainstream news is fake will do well to consider that the Associated Press is a major news supplier. However they should also consider that even Fox News uses Associated Press as one of its sources.