Learning about Fido
Friends, reflections and our first artist in residence
There’s no obvious connection between scattering lupins on the patch of land formerly known as our eucalyptus forest…and understanding Artificial Intelligence.
But while we threw the nitrogen-fixing seeds from a bucket ahead of long-expected rain, A.I. played an important role in our life this week.
We’ve had the place to ourselves for the first time in a while and have been reflecting on an amazing summer welcoming and reconnecting with friends, and thinking back on how far we’ve come in such a short time.
I’d say we relaxed, but that’s not something I’m good at...which is why we were manically grouting the ceiling before the England v South Africa rugby match on Saturday.
“I just need to achieve something before the game,” I told Ana who was thoroughly unimpressed with our messy task of filling in the final cracks in the new ceiling…and why the sudden rush?
But I have used the peace and quiet to finally switch brains and focus on the wine podcast production and that’s when I discovered that the computers still aren’t ready to take over the world just yet.
My first deep dive into Deep Blue and machine learning was during the amazing year we spent at Stanford University before taking the plunge and moving off the grid – and out of work – here in Portugal.
I was a John S Knight (JSK) journalism fellow and both Ana and I had a free pass to any take any course we wanted while studying and discussing the future of journalism.
Living in Menlo Park was a wonderful tech-bubble of biking to school every morning for Portuguese class in person – and then remotely – as COVID ended our time on the stunning northern California campus after two terms.
It was a place where Simon the dog could poop on rich people’s lawns and I could chain my bike to an original Rodin (I didn’t).
Ana studied sustainable agriculture and we did entrepreneurship and wine industry MBA classes together.
I learned more about Virtual Reality, pondered the Ethics of Truth in a Post Truth World, was trained in leadership and negotiation, and took Designing for Machine Learning class at the famous d.school...and that’s where the computers come in.
I prepared my return to the BBC overflowing with ideas and innovation, but amid all the cutbacks there was nothing fun enough for a foreign correspondent to come back to and plan B became plan A.
Academia was replaced by practical building skills, advanced solar battery management, designing water systems, starting business 101...and continuing studies in Portuguese.
After many years travelling the world we wanted to be back in Europe to be close to friends and family and have been delighted by the number of people who have flown out to stay with us this summer.
Two artists have painted our house and our valley, we’ve welcomed teenagers and octogenarians, broadcasters and cameramen, diplomats and deep thinkers, former farmers and financial advisers, linguists and legal eagles.
And that’s without counting all the wonderful characters we have met in our new home.
But machine learning entered the valley for the first time this week by way of the automatic transcription A.I. for our podcast interviews.
It provided hilarious light relief – the kind of deep belly laughs usually reserved for bad taxidermy websites (seriously, just Google bad taxidermy).
It appears computers have a fair bit more to learn about Amália Rodrigues and the history of fado music than we do.
Amália attained single-named Portuguese superstardom way before Ronaldo, and is still Portugal’s most famous and celebrated singer 20 years after her death.
Fado, or Fido, as our A.I. refers to it, is “About life. It's about feelings. It's about the soul,” said our interviewee Ana Mauricio who manages “A Mother’s” (Amália’s) old summer house with her husband Rui on the clifftops nearby to us.
It’s where Amália summered “before she lied” (died) and it’s in a little village called Brejão.
That’s pronounced bre-juhow with the bre as in BREath, juh as in juDGE and OW, as in that hurts.
Or thanks to otter.ai, it’s written Brusho, Brizo, Brazil, Russia, Bridgetown, Virginia, Brianna, Pressure, Version, or Brisbane.
I mean come on computer, how about some consistency here?
“Otter.ai uses artificial intelligence to empower users with real-time transcription meeting notes that are shareable, searchable, accessible and secure,” according to its website, but obviously not terribly well – at least with Portuguese accents.
“Prior Amelia, bitch Amelia” took some unpacking into “praia Amália – beach Amália” at the point where we were introduced to the sandy strip that now takes that title.
Her name was generally tricky: “Mr Rich, the father singer”; “A mother for the rich”; and “a Mario Draghi” (I not sure what the former ECB head and current Italian prime minister has got to do with it).
How on earth can “a bit more of the Alentejo coast” became “bit Northern Italian testicles”; and “it’s amazing how Brejão...” became “it's amazing leprechaun”; but my personal favourite is my question: “do you both sing fondue?”
The moral to the story of machine learning is that you only get out what you put in – bias would be burned into its DNA if it had any – and if it isn’t trained to recognise Portuguese accents, or to know who Amália Rodrigues is, then how could it possibly know?
But thank you machine learning – thank you for everything you gave us this week.
Of course we weren’t just sitting around mocking computers.
We fired up neighbour Daniel’s wood-fired oven and slow cooked some wild boar we were given by Ola courtesy of the local hunt and that has been lurking in the freezer.
We strode out with Simon & Garfunkel onto a stretch of coastline we hadn’t been to before and discovered the much-lauded Tonel Beach with a steep and treacherous but well-rewarded trail to rival our Secret Beach.
And the highlight came as our ever first artist in residence – the fabulous and talented Jess Joy – unveiled her work: two amazing murals in the guesthouse.
Jess contacted us through our work-exchange programme where people come and stay for free in exchange for helping us and inspiring us.
Jess Joy, who’s also a musician, bridged a move back to New Orleans from Los Angeles (the other LA) with a visit to Vale das Estrelas.
She inspired us to cook vegan for a fortnight, to think about colour, sunsets and sunrises and the nature of our nature as she shared her sustainability experience with earth ships.
And when Jess persuaded her sister Krimsey to join us - an engineer, restauranteur and author - we learned about her Cajun vegan restaurant in LA, her cookbook...and got some prime assistance building a bigger rain collection device to keep us in drinking water through the winter.
While it’s wonderful to reconnect with old friends and be with family it’s also amazing to meet new people with great ideas and to keep learning.
Every day is indeed a school day, and as the nights draw in we are heading back into the books to study more about wine.
We’re good learning machines…and as with A.I.s you only get out what you put in!
And we are renewing our Work-Exchange appeal for fun, talented and interesting folk to come and help inspire us while staying for free...