Monthly Archives: January 2022

A Girl’s Best Friend

An auction house in Dubai has unveiled a 555.55 carat black diamond believed to have come from outer space (Irish Times 22/01/22)…


It was the last night of her trip. Zilia stood at the glass door of a jewellery shop in the Gold Souk in Dubai, and took a deep breath.

She had embarked on the trip in the aftermath of Uelov’s affair. After the shouting matches, after the break-up, after the five stages of grief – denial, anger, bargaining, depression and a thunderous punch into Uelov’s face, she had decided to take a long holiday, to get away from it all.

And there was nowhere to get away from it all like Earth.

Earth was laughed at across the galaxy, a planet so blind to the economic possibilities of inter-galactic tourism that it had named itself after its soil. It was is if it didn’t want to people to turn up, so for aeons they hadn’t. Early visitors had arrived simply because they were lost, and their tales of the panic-stricken reaction to their appearance had deterred others. It was only in recent years, after a traveller from Krypton reported on Tripadvisor that humans won’t recognise that you’re an alien if you wear glasses, that a small market grew among those who took its marketing slogan, Lonely Planet, as a sign that this was where to go if you needed to reset.

Zilia had been here for six Earth months now, travelling from what the natives called ‘country’ to country. She had arrived cranky and been infuriated rather than charmed at the primitiveness of their supposedly strong wi-fi and their so-called express trains. In time, though, she had settled into the gentler pace, where weather is a topic of conversation rather than a fact. She tried the humans’ hobbies, and found skiing terrifying, sudoku baffling and yelling at the television surprisingly satisfying. She tried their food, gagging at porridge, binging on ginger-nut biscuits, and fascinated by broccoli, which tasted of nothing.

She had avoided sprouts, which looked too much like Uelov’s testicles.

She loved the outdoors – the extraordinary variety of tree shapes, the songs of the tiny birds, the glorious scent of flowers. She loved the sea, and stood for hours on shorelines, watching as water swelled and crashed onto the sand, then retreated in a hiss of softly popping bubbles.

And she loved the people. They talked to her in bars, on trains, in queues. They were good at heart, and cheerful. They laughed all the time, and in their company Zilia laughed too.

Now she had just one thing left to do.

She put on her glasses, pushed open the door, and stepped inside.

Asif looked up from behind his newspaper and from behind the counter of rings and watches. He gasped internally at the beauty of the woman walking towards him, at her heart-shaped face and her olive (almost green, he would later think to himself) skin.

“Marhaba,” he said. “How can I help you?”

Zilia put a hand on the counter. When she removed it, Asif saw that her surprisingly long fingers had been enclosing a large black lump. He looked up at her.

“Somebody gave you coal for Christmas?” he said.

The eyes behind the glasses flashed, and somehow Asif felt that this was not just a turn of phrase.

“This is my engagement ring,” said Zilia, icily.

“As if,” said Asif.

Zilia smiled. “Examine it,” she said.

Asif screwed his eye-piece into one eye and casually picked the object up. As he looked at it, it seemed to draw his gaze into its heart, a heart of infinite void. He felt as if he was looking into the vastness of space in all its its cold, black magnificence. He looked up in shock at Zilia.

“What is this?” he asked.

“It’s a diamond,” said Zilia. “Girl’s best friend, apparently.”

“Surely not,” said Asif. “It’s enormous. It’s – ” he placed it, reverently this time, on his calibrated scales. “It’s over five hundred carats.”

“Indeed,” said Zilia calmly. She walked back to the door and looked up at the night sky. There, hidden in plain sight, she could see her own planet, a rock of almost pure carbon whose tourism slogan, ‘like a diamond in the sky’, had become famous across the galaxy, even on worlds that had never heard of the planet itself.

Her ring was nothing special there, like her marriage as it turned out. But here, she knew, on this strange world that valued hardened lumps of mineral above the pebbles of the beaches that she loved so much, it would be a source of awe. It was her parting gift to her true best friend, the planet that had taught her to laugh again.

She opened the door and looked back at Asif.

“Keep it,” she said.






People Who Viewed This, Also Viewed

We are watched by our computers. Whenever we connect to the internet algorithms spring into action, analysing our searches, our likes and our online purchases in order to personalise the advertising that we see.

The idea is not in fact new. It has been going on for as long as Penguin have been putting summaries of similar books at the end of its novels, and it may do no harm. If you are interested in gardening then it is surely better that you receive adverts about plants than ones about motorbike parts. The only issue would be if the algorithms got it wrong.

David (not his real name) is a blogger with a worldwide readership – of only five people, but they are spread across the world. His modus operandi, apart from using Latin to show off, is to take a headline each week and try to construct a humorous story around it. His most recent tale was based on the headline ‘Norwegian conscripts are being forced to wear second-hand underwear’. Usually David will try to find out as little as possible about the true facts of the matter, but on this occasion he felt he should know a tiny bit more before he casually accused a group of trained and armed people of going around in greying, stained Y-fronts.

So he typed ‘Norwegian conscript underwear’ into Google. The algorithms woke, snickered, and got to work.

Algorithms have varying levels of ability, depending on who wrote their code and how much they were paid to do it. Some try to delve deep into the psyche of the individual they are profiling, carefully crafting a menu of truly meaningful spending opportunities. Most, though, read one word and just throw stuff together.

Over the following days, then, most of the adverts that popped up on the websites and social media pages that David visited related, often vaguely, to one of the three words of his search.

He received a lot of information about Norway. He got adverts for Fjord Cruises, urging him to sit on a ship while it presumably sailed into and out of one fjord after another like a nautical interdental brush. He was offered a T-shirt printed with the words of the Norwegian commentator’s legendary outburst after Norway beat England in the World Cup in1981. He was sent details of A-ha’s forthcoming tour.

Most of the algorithms that focused on the word ‘conscript’ seemed to believe that David wanted to join the military. Any military. He received application details for the Royal Navy, the US Marines, the French Foreign Legion and the Salvation Army. Others sent information about war games groups, battle re-enactment societies and paint-balling centres.

Then there was the underwear.

The lazier algorithms simply bombarded him with adverts for Anne Summers and Victoria’s Secret, filling his screen with images of wispy underwear, much of it shorter than its name. Others, which seemed to have actually read his piece, tempted him with more substantial underclothing. The offerings were in tougher fabrics, including one in Aran sweater wool, The words ‘reinforced gusset’ appeared a lot. One pair had a built-in cricketer’s box.

There were many references to Bridget Jones’ Diary.

One advert stood out from the rest. It directed him to a mobile number where he could buy Norwegian conscripts’ underwear, which presumably explains why they have shortages in the first place.

That was then, this is now. To tell the above tale David needed to know whether the second word of Victoria’s Secret was plural or not, and there was only one way to find out. Now his wife isn’t speaking to him, he cannot open his computer in his children’s presence, and he can no longer share his screen at work meetings.

Luckily, in order to check if they still existed, he also Googled ‘French Foreign Legion’. Hopefully they’ll be in touch any day now.



One Careful Owner

The Norwegian military, struggling with dwindling supplies, is ordering conscripts to return their underwear at the end of their military service so that the next group of recruits can use them…


image from

Night had fallen in Svolvær, high in the Arctic Circle. Two months earlier, actually.

The unending darkness perfectly matched Arne’s soul as he sat at the bar, gloomily staring into space and into a grim future. He sipped his Aquavit, a drink that is essentially the Northern Lights in a glass. Normally the drink lit internal fireworks that warmed his stomach and his heart, but on this evening it made not a lighter-flick in the blackness he felt inside. He shook his head, causing his long blond Nordic locks to flick, and sighed, heavily.

“What’s wrong?” said a voice, startling him. Arne looked around. While he had been a thousand lives away old Fredrik had come into the bar, placed his walking stick on the counter and sat himself on his favourite corner stool, from where he would spend each evening telling anyone who would listen, and those who would not, that in the old days the nights were longer, the winters were harsher and you could leave your front door unlocked, possibly because burglars had no interest in dried fish.

Frederik nodded to the barman, who gave him a vodka. He lowered half of it in one gulp, and turned his attention again to Arne.

“So what’s wrong, young man,” he said.

“I’ve been conscripted,” said Arne.

Fredrik snorted, finished his drink, and nodded for another. “Is that all?” he said. “I did conscription years ago.”

Arne eyed him sceptically. Fredrik had, over the years, told stories in which he herded reindeer, whale-hunted, whale watched, worked on an oil-rig and co-wrote the Norwegian entry for the Eurovision Song Contest. The tallness of his tales were matched only by the shortness of his stature.

Still, thought Arne, military service had always been compulsory. “What’s it like?” he asked, cautiously.

“It’s fine,” said Fredrik. “It never did me any harm.”

Arne looked doubtfully at the walking stick, and at the speed at which his companion was drinking, but felt a tiny bit more hopeful. “Is it really not so bad?” he asked. “I imagined getting a haircut like a tennis ball, having a man shout spit-fully into my face, peeling half a million potatoes, trying to stab a dangling sack of sand with a bayonet and wriggling under a cargo-net in my underwear.”

“Well, that’s not right,” said Fredrik.

“Oh, good,” said Arne, “because -”

“You go under the cargo-net in someone else’s underwear.”

“What?” said Arne. “I’ve to wear a dead man’s pants?”

“Not a dead man,” corrected Fredrik. “Just a previous recruit.”

“But that’s gross,” wailed Arne.

“Not at all,” said Fredrik. “Wearing another man’s underpants was the best thing that ever happened to me.”

“That’s a sentence that doesn’t paint a very flattering picture of the rest of your life.”

Fredrik smiled. “Look,” he said, “I’m not denying that I found the idea pretty awful too, especially when I saw what they gave me. The previous owner must have weighed thirty stone. The pants were the size of a parachute. I could barely get my trousers closed, and when I did I looked like I was wearing a swimming ring under them.”

“That’s terrible,” said Arne. “Did any of the other men offer to swap?”

“No,” said Fredrik. “They just nicknamed me Bishop Tutu, and kept making me do ballet poses.”

Arne frowned. “I’m not seeing,” he said, “how this was the best thing ever.”

“Because,” said Fredrik. “Those pants saved my life.”

Here we go, thought Arne. “How?” he asked.

“Well,” said Fredrik, signalling for another drink, “I was shot in the Skafferhullet region.” He saw Arne open his mouth to speak. “It’s a border crossing between us and Russia,” he said.

“Oh, good,” said Arne, “because it sounded like a euphemism for being shot in the balls.”

“I was shot in the balls,” said Fredrik.

Arne tried to show no expression. “Seriously?” he said.

“Very seriously,” said Fredrik. “We never found out why. I had wandered very near the border, so maybe they were trying a warning shot and got it wrong. Maybe someone’s gun went off by mistake. Maybe they saw the shape of me and thought I was a yeti. Anyway, I felt this sudden thump in the groin, as if I’d been kicked in the crotch by the Invisible Man, and saw I had a hole in the front of my trousers.”

“And you’re saying,” said Arne carefully, “that the giant pants absorbed the bullet. Like a bible in a soldier’s breast pocket.”

“Exactly,” nodded Fredrik eagerly. “I took down my trousers, shook out my underpants and there was the bullet, still too hot to touch.”

“While you escaped unharmed,” said Arne.

“Not totally unharmed,” said Fredrik. “There was a lot of bruising. My genitals looked like an extra from Avatar for about six weeks.”

Arne smiled. “Is that why you have a limp?” he said.

“A limp what?” said Fredrik suspiciously.

“Um,” said Arne, suddenly curiously ashamed. “It’s just, er, that you walk with a stick.”

Frederik knocked back the last of his drink and stood. “Oh, that,” he said. “No, luge accident. At the Olympics.”

Arne raised his eyebrows. “You competed in the Olympics?”

Frederik stared back for a few seconds, as if deciding something. “No,” he said eventually, “I was hit by a luge, when I was a spectator at the Olympics.”

Arne watched silently as Fredrik wrapped himself against the cold. Then the old man patted him on the shoulder. “You’ll be fine,” he said. “It’s only a few months.” He pressed something into Arne’s hand. “Keep this,” he said, “and look at it when times are hard.”

Arne looked down at the misshapen bullet in his hand, then up at Fredrik, who winked, walked to the bar door, stopped and turned.

“Oh, and while you’re in the army,” he said, “don’t go commando.”







Where’s the Catch

China has developed an AI “prosecutor” that can charge citizens with crimes with “97 per cent accuracy” (Irish Times 08/01/22)…


It was one of the days when I was missing home.

I loved China, to where I had moved four years earlier to teach English, but sometimes I found myself yearning for persistent drizzle, black pudding, and the clack of pool balls in an afternoon pub.

On such days I would watch old episodes of Mrs Brown’s Boys to cure myself, which is why I was sitting at my laptop on that Saturday afternoon.

Suddenly the screen flickered. Mrs Brown’s gurning face vanished and another woman’s appeared, more beautiful but somehow more frightening. I thought it was an advertisement of some sort until she spoke.

Khione (image from

“Good afternoon,” she said. “My name is Khione. I am the State Prosecutor.”

I frowned. This was not going to end well.

The new AI prosecutor had been in service for over six months now, with largely good results. Using a combination of street cameras, facial recognition software and state-legalized hacking it had virtually wiped out road traffic offences, muggings, and computer fraud. The country was undoubtedly a safer place.

But there had been some problems. A gust of wind flicking a camera had led to a cow in the field opposite being fined for speeding. A man called Zhang Yu had been accused of impersonating another man named Zhang Yu. An Anglican vicar had been charged with White Collar Crime.

And those wrongly indicted could not get a solicitor, all of who had been charged with soliciting.

The system had improved, though, so I was mystified as to why this face was now on my screen. I decided to try to be friendly.

“Hello,” I said. “Why are you called Khione?”

The woman’s lip curled. “I thought you would know that, Mister Teacher,” she said. “It is the name of the Greek Goddess of Justice.”

“The Goddess of Justice is Themis,” I replied. “Khione is the Goddess of -” I nodded as I saw the problem – “just Ice.”

Khione’s face froze, appropriately, just for a second. Then the screen bounced, as if she had shrugged. “Whatever,” she said.

“And what can I do for you?”

“You stand accused of a crime,” said Khione. “Your documents say that you are a hooligan.”

“They say I’m A. Hooli-han“, I retorted. “My name is Andrew Hoolihan.”

Khione’s eyes looked upward, as if she was going over something in her head. Again the screen shrugged.  “Meh,” she said. “It’s close enough.”

“No, it isn’t,” I said. “i plead not guilty.”

Khione looked calmly back at me. “I have genuinely no idea what that sentence means,” she said.

“But you’re wrong,” I said.

“Only three per cent of the time,” said Khione. “Can you say the same of your own justice system?”

I thought back to cases I’d heard of in Ireland, of criminals freed on technicalities, of minor Social Welfare fraud punished by jail sentences, of massive tax evasion met merely with fines.

“Er, no,” I said, “but -”

“Exactly,” said Khione. “I find you guilty. The fine is one thousand yuan” – this was about one hundred and forty euro – “and is payable immediately.”

I sighed. “Ok,” I said, “I suppose I’ll just have to -”

“So I will pay it into your bank now.”

“Um, what?”

“The fine will be paid straight away. That is the law.”

“O-k,” I said slowly. “Do you need my bank details?”

Khione looked almost sorrowfully at me. “I’m in your computer,” she said simply.

“True,” I said. “I just want to be sure you have the correct -”

“As I told you, Mr Hooligan,” said Khione, “I make almost no mistakes.”