Riverbank Ruminations

Observations From the Banks of the Technology River

Underwear, or Under Where?

Years ago a friend gave me a sweatshirt that came from PBS, that source of all things erudite, British, and nature related.  It is black with the Latin phrase “Semper ubi sub ubi” which was presented as meaning ‘Always wear underwear’.  For the longest time I took that as fact. One day I decided to do a little research (I can’t recall what I consulted) and noticed that Latin seems to have a verb for wearing that varies by the clothing in question. Eventually I found that 'ubi' means WHERE, so the more accurate translation would be ‘Always where under where’- not quite the same thing.

More recently I went back to this phrase using Google translate and lo and behold Google gave me the translation that was given to me originally, and it translated both ways, to and from Latin. I found this curious so I did a little experimentation, the results of which are below.




Always wear underwear


Semper ubi sub ubi

always wear clean underwear


semper in mundis INTERULUS

always where under where


Semper ubi sub ubi



Sub ubi





semper in mundis INTERULUS


Always in clean underwear

Semper in mundis


Always in these systems







Sub ubi


Under the





Always wear underware


Siempre use ropa interior

Always where under where


Siempre donde bajo donde

Some things to note: underwear submitted alone translates to sub ubi, but sub ubi translates to under the.  If Google is to be believed interulus is underwear, when submitted for translation by itself. The Spanish translations seem to follow a more logical form.

So what? This may seem trivial and harmless, and in this instance it is. However in the Sunday (9/10/2017) Cleveland Plain Dealer a columnist by the name of Bershidsky discussed how Google translate can be ‘gamed’ to give translations that are less than accurate. One example is how translating the Korean characters for ‘Supreme Leader’ (Kim Jong Un’s title) into English as “Mr. Squidward” (a character from the Sponge Bob cartoons). Or when translating “Rossiyskaya Federeratsiya” (Russian for Russia’s official name) into Ukrainian as “Mordor” and “Lavrov” (Russian foreign minister) as “sad little horse”.

Why this should be of some concern is the push to use AI (Artificial Intelligence) for a number of critical applications such as driving your car. Google translate uses a form of AI, ‘assisted’ by users who help refine the translations. If the push to use AI moves into the translation arena in force, we could have machines trying to figure out what should be said and how to say it. Since any computer system is subject to subversion by a determined bad actor, the consequences could be significant.

We have AI systems starting to take over the chore of driving. I really used to look forward to the fulfillment of the 1960’s picture of sitting in the back seat reading while my car drove me to my vacation destination. So far, the questions raised by letting a computer make decisions seems to have that dream quite a ways off.  

Ultimately it comes down to how many of your decisions are you willing to give up to a machine? We have automated trading on the stock exchanges and that has some people worried because  “algorithms and software do not muse about global economic events; they merely chase mechanical patterns that they are programmed to find, such as movements in trend or momentum. They do not make decisions based on real-world eventualities, such as political events.”

In other words, these programs are not reacting in the way a human would. Is that a good thing? That pretty much depends on your perspective. If you want something to react without fear, a program is one possibility. If you want something to react with compassion, you need a human.

In the technology age we currently enjoy, there seems to be a rush to abdicate a great deal to computer programs and technical devices.  While I am not in a rush to go back to a slide rule and pulse dialing, it is concerning to see the direction we are heading in shifting critical decisions out of the control of people, as imperfect as they are. People still can make good decisions if we let them.

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