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Cotswolds Walking

Where to sleep, eat, and drink on the Cotswold Way: The best of life off the trail

It’s been a little more than a week since we arrived in Bath, shattered but giddy over completing the Cotswold Way. Two days later I was stricken—and I do mean all the grandiosity and fervor that word implies—with a nasty stomach flu and, between that and going back to work, haven’t had time to write much about the experience. Spoiler alert: it was awesome.

While I assimilate all 102 miles of the Way and try to figure out how I’m going to get it down in words (I’ve got your pictures here), I thought I’d pass along some of the more prosaic but nonetheless important details now: the best places we slept, ate, and drank along the walk. Because nature aside, the beautiful thing about the Cotswold Way is your never far away from a bed, a pint, and a pie.

Best B&Bs
The Cotswold Way is more B&B than tent, although there are a few fields in which to erect one if you insist. Personally, I prefer a room with freestanding tub, like the one that greeted us at the end of our first day at Shenberrow Hill in Stanton. Wifi is dodgy in the whole village in the early evening, but this was the only shortcoming of an otherwise perfect stay hosted by a British Joan Didion lookalike and her Jack Russell puppy. Five-star full English breakfast.

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Just south of Stroud in Middleyard we stayed at Valley Views, a bungalow B&B owned by the genial Pam. She not only came out into the street to track us down when we somehow veered off the path, she also booked us a taxi to nearby Slad to eat dinner at the legendary Woolpack pub (more on this later). Pam’s accommodation was sparkling clean, with decent wifi and a bath thoughtfully stocked with a variety of bubble and foam potions to soak our weary legs. Five-star full English breakfast.

In Tormarton, just north of the M4, yet another proprietor had to come into a field to find us and lead us back to their B&B, in this case The Little Smithy. Our digs were an entire elegant little cottage, complete with sitting room, kitchen, and, yes, a bathroom with a tub. There’s no wifi, but the accommodation was so comfortable we almost didn’t mind. Three-star full English breakfast, but only because it was doll-house sized. (Having eaten eight consecutive full English breakfasts prior to this one, my arteries thank the hostess for the portion size.)

All these B&Bs are part of the hosts’ home, not a hotel trying to be cute with its name. Mercifully all are directly on the Cotswold Way so, assuming you have a better sense of direction than us, there’s no extra foot mileage involved. All cost under £90 for two.

Best Pubs
After a few days of hiking, it became clear that wild garlic (ramsons) was going to be the official scent of the journey. Covering every woodland floor, these delicate white flowers conspired to keep food on my mind for much of the walk. While others may have been admiring the scenery, I spent most of my time thinking about how I could really go for a nice risotto. Luckily there were excellent pubs en route to keep my thirst and hunger at bay. I even managed to eat some of that wild garlic in a rather cement-like falafel dish. Needless to say, that pub didn’t make this cut.

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Top of the list is the Woolpack Inn in Slad, technically not on the Cotswold Way but worth every cent of a short taxi ride when you’re in the Painswick area of the walk. Famous for being Cotswold writer Laurie Lee’s local, the Woolpack may just be the best pub in the region. Somehow it manages to combine boozer and foodie havens into one glorious setup with nary an ounce of pretension. We spent a luxurious couple hours drinking real ale on the patio before settling down to the meal of the trip: a tomato salad as pretty as any meadow we had walked through, wild asparagus (a delicious first for me) with roasted asparagus and courgette fritters, and a glorious Eton mess.

We didn’t stay the night in Dursley, but I liked what I saw of the town when we walked through somewhere around day 7. While the villages of the north Cotswolds are stunning, their beauty feels a bit like a precious piece of china locked away in your grandmother’s curio cabinet. Dursley in the south Cotswolds feels the opposite: a place where real people live and work, including a rather spectacular newish-looking public library. We had occasion to meet some of the locals when we stopped for an excellent Sunday roast at the vibrant Old Spot Inn. Here we made the acquaintance of Fly, an Italian greyhound, and his human, both of whom were very nice to us despite the fact that I had inadvertently taken Fly’s normal seat in the booth by the bar.

In Hawkesbury Upton, it’s worth taking the teensiest of detours to lunch at the Beaufort Arms, a big, friendly place filled with locals and serving the kind of plentiful stodge you can happily justify on a 16-mile day. In a mega carbo-load, I downed cheese and onion potato cakes with a shared bowl of cheesy chips while the petite Belgian couple who had passed us earlier in the day nibbled their granary bread sandwiches. Needless to say that was the last time we saw them on the Way.

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Finally, I’d be remiss not to mention the Mount Inn in Stanton, overseen by the ever-lovely Pippa who long ago ran the Plough in Cold Aston near our Cotswold home. The Mount Inn is more restaurant than pub, whose excellent food is complimented by the westward-facing vista from their hilltop position. They open at 6PM, but if the weather’s good I recommend arriving a few minutes earlier to nab the bench on the outside deck for some pre-dinner drinks with a view.

Best Bit of Luxury
Conveniently spaced at the nearly halfway and end (or beginning, depending on the direction you walk) points of the Cotswold Way are two opportunities to indulge in a bit of pampering. And let’s face it, walking 10+ miles a day is an excellent excuse for a bit of indulgence. In Painswick, the recently opened and imaginatively named The Painswick, offers a stylish restaurant and hotel. We didn’t stay overnight, but we did have a glass of wine on their wisteria-strewn veranda overlooking the valley followed by a rather posh dinner. I’ll definitely be back, even if my ibérico ham and truffle pizza was served on a tree.

The Painswick

We ended our journey in grand style with a night at the Gainsborough Bath Spa. Arriving in mud-caked boots and waterproof trousers we didn’t exactly fit in with the rest of the clientele, but the gentleman who checked us in treated us like royalty, right down to the bottle of champagne delivered to the room. I like to think it was a congratulatory gift for walking the Cotswold Way, but it turns out they “give” (yes, yes, I know we paid for it in the room price) a bottle to everyone who books direct with the hotel.

Of course the real reason for staying at the Gainsborough is access to Bath’s famed thermal hot springs, which is free to hotel guests in the evenings and early morning. I couldn’t wait that long to take the waters, so I paid the day spa fee and spent several hours relaxing in the various pools, each with slightly different temperatures. In between dips I drank shots of warm chocolate from a slurpee-like dispenser—not the most obvious spa amenity, but I’m a fan—and snapped surreptitious shots of other ridiculousness, like a lion head that barfed lavender ice and came with instructions to scoop handfuls to rub on your entire body. It was entirely divine, as was the whole walk. We’re already talking about doing it again, this time from south to north, but I won’t wait for that to revisit these spots.

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The Details

Shenberrow Hill B&B
Stanton
Broadway
Worcestershire WR12 7NE
Tel: +44 (0) 1386 584468

Valley Views B&B
12 Orchard Close
Middleyard
King’s Stanley
Stonehouse
Gloucestershire GL10 3QA
Tel: +44 (0) 1453 827458

The Little Smithy B&B 
Smithy House
Tormarton
Badminton
South Gloucestershire GL9 1HU
Tel: + 44 (0) 1454 218412

The Woolpack Inn
Slad Road
Stroud
Gloucestershire GL6 7QA
Tel: +44 (0) 1452 813429

The Old Spot Inn
Hill Road
Dursley
Gloucestershire GL11 4JQ
+44 (0) 1453 542870

Beaufort Arms
High Street
Hawkesbury Upton
Badminton
Gloucestershire GL9 1AU
+44 (0) 1454 238217

The Mount Inn
Stanton
Nr Broadway
Worcestershire WR12 7NE
+44 (0)1386 584316

The Painswick
Kemps Lane
Painswick
Gloucestershire GL6 6YB
+44 (0) 1452 813688

The Gainsborough Bath Spa
Beau Street
Bath BA1 1QY
+44 (0) 1225 358888

Cotswolds Walking

The Cotswold Way: A glutton’s guide to rambling

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Photo by Richard Cocks, licensed under https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

Today at 8AM sharp we set off on our nine-day walk along the Cotswold Way, 102-miles of British National Trail from the market town of Chipping Campden to the Georgian city of Bath along a Jurassic-era escarpment. I have wanted to walk it ever since I learned of its existence, both because I am incessant box-ticker—the sort who risks perverting experiences into acts of consumption—and because I know a long walk is one of the few things that can release my mind from my incessant box-ticking.

While it promises breathtaking landscapes and acres of mud, the Cotswold Way is not exactly the deep wilderness one associates with famed American trails like the Appalachian or Pacific Crest. I’m assured there haven’t been any bears in England since medieval times, which means the most aggressive animal we’re likely to encounter is a frolicking lamb or grazing cow. At any given time we won’t be much farther than an hour from a pub, so dehydration is unlikely, too. Indeed, one of the things I’m most looking forward to is kicking off the boots at the end of a long day of tramping through fields and downing a guilt-free pint or three.

Mercifully, camping along the trail is discouraged and we’ll be spending almost every night safely ensconced in a B&B. When on our last day we reach the end of the trail at Bath Abbey, we’ll check into a proper hotel, complete with thermal hot springs from the city’s famed waters in which to soothe our by-then aching muscles. All of this to say it’s the perfect walking holiday for gluttons of both scenery and gastronomy—just enough miles, hills, and pounds hefted in our packs to feel righteous as we rock up to the pub for supper each night. At least that’s the plan. Not in the plan but undoubtedly on the horizon: blisters, lumpy beds, and umpteen fights over directions. And if I’m lucky, somewhere around day five the box-ticking will stop and box and its ticker will briefly become one. Let the rambling begin.

Britain Cycling

The London Tweed Run: In aid of just because

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Last Saturday my husband and I joined the eighth edition of the London Tweed Run, an annual event where a group of like-minded people come together to ride their bikes around London while sporting tweed. The dress code extended beyond woven wool to all things dapper, from lavishly waxed mustaches to bowler hats, argyle socks, seamed stockings, and the odd monocle. Bikes were equally adorned, featuring flowers, bunting, Union Jacks, and wicker picnic baskets or vintage radios lashed to the back. There were Pashleys, Penny Farthings, tandems, and at least one boneshaker. In short, there was a lot of effort involved for no other reason than it’s good fun and looks sharp. It was a joy to see that roughly 1,000 people found this reason enough to join in.

The effort of dressing up infected the group’s behavior to splendid effect: people doffed their caps, complimented liberally, and exhibited extreme manners, which were on full pinkie-waggling display when we stopped for tea—complete with real china cups and saucers, natch—in Tavistock Square. After a jaunt west into Bayswater, we looped back along the bottom of Kensington Gardens for a lunch stop beneath the Prince Albert Memorial. Blankets were spread, corks were popped, and the occasional candelabra appeared, as did the sun. Music was provided by a Victrola setup next to the mustache grooming station and a village fête-style game of cap-the-pigeon. After lunch we joined a traffic jam under Big Ben then rode south of the river before heading over Blackfriars Bridge and back into Clerkenwell for the closing festivities.

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As the group wound its way around the streets of London, innocent passers-by generally had one of two reactions: to snap a picture or ask some version of the question why: “What’s this all about?” or “What charity are you raising money for?” The answer to why was, of course, something very simple—just because—but the fact that so many people felt compelled to ask was revealing. It was as if the average member of the general public couldn’t quite fathom that one of their fellow human beings would go to such lengths simply for a bit of fun. We live in an age where you have to do things for a reason and just because doesn’t compute. Just because is a luxury we don’t seem to allow ourselves much these days.

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The weekend before The Tweed Run, my husband and I spent a day visiting Portmeirion, the holiday village that was the brainchild of architect Clough Williams-Ellis and made famous as the setting for the 1960s TV show, The Prisoner. I was so taken with this incredibly improbable, Italian-style, just-because folly jutting out of the Welsh coastal countryside that I bought a book by Williams-Ellis called Portmeirion: The Place and its Meaning. In the preface he writes, “I have perhaps a special difficulty—a ‘blockage’—in trying to explain Portmeirion—what it is like, what it’s about, what it’s ‘in aid of’, because have there expressed myself as well as I can in stone and timber, brick and concrete, shape and colour and indeed in planting and landscaping generally. And having so said what I felt impelled to say in solid visible form, I feel that is that…”

This explanation struck me as equally applicable to the participants of The Tweed Run. Certainly a gentleman who has troubled himself to don tweed Plus Twos and ride a Penny Farthing around the cobbled pavements of London requires no further explanation. He, too, has expressed himself in quite solid visible form, and that, certainly, IS that.

Long may such gentlemen and women carry on with such antics, just because.

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More pictures from the Tweed Run here.

Britain

Portmeirion: The Architecture of Happiness

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Earlier this month we visited Portmeirion, a coastal village in North Wales exclusively for the use and pleasure of holidaymakers. I can’t remember the last time I was so enchanted with a place. A passion project of architect Clough Williams-Ellis that first opened in the 1920s, Portmeirion remains true to the description Lewis Mumford gave it in a 1962 issue of The New Yorker: “…a gay, deliberately irresponsible reaction against the dull sterilities of so much that passes as modern architecture today.” It is also an entirely enjoyable place to spend at least one day and night, as we did, and I suspect a week would pass just as easily.

Employing the landscape to create a liminal state, Portmeirion ingeniously prepares you to experience it on your inbound journey. Located on a peninsula off Cardigan Bay, your arrival requires an hour’s drive through the stark Welsh countryside of Snowdonia National Park—the land for which was secured for public use by Williams-Ellis—which is just enough time for your mind to absorb the natural landscape and unravel itself from the day-to-day grind. You descend into the village via a private road, then on foot under the thresholds of a Gatehouse and a Bridge House. The sum total effect of this mode of arrival reminded me of an explanation I was once given for the tunnel-like entrance to a mosque in Cairo: to prepare the person for a transformation once he or she arrives in the inner sanctuary.

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The inner sanctuary of Portmeirion is a jolly cliff-side Italianate village populated by tasteful tat boutiques, a bookstore (I like to think this is because Williams-Ellis thought no village complete without one), an ice cream shop, and several cafés and restaurants arranged around a central square. There are cottages where guests can stay for the evening as well as a small art deco-style hotel and restaurant at the bottom of the village with a sweeping view over the tidal estuary. Buildings and follies are adorned with idiosyncratic details, many of which Williams-Ellis rescued from distressed, once-grand British homes and buildings. Staff are uniformed, plentiful, and extraordinarily friendly, all seeming to have undergone Disneyland-style hospitality training. The Welsh accent helps; Mumford aptly described it by saying “…in a country that still does homage to its bards and orators, where every countryman still speaks in a soft singsong, as if verse were more natural than prose.” Fittingly, the bookstore is well stocked with volumes by Dylan Thomas and other Welsh poets should you wish to heighten the mood.

The original impetus for our visit was my husband’s interest in the village that had been the set for the 1960s cult-classic television show, The Prisoner. For me, Portmeirion had vague associations with mid-century pottery made by Williams-Ellis’ daughter, the designer Susan Williams-Ellis, which was enough to rouse my interest. We weren’t sure what to expect and only booked a single night on the theory that if it was all kitsch and irony, 24 hours was about how long we could sustain the joke without growing weary. As Christopher Hussey wrote in a 1930 issue of Country Life, “a pastiche conglomeration such as the acroplois at Portmeirion might easily have been an architectural horror. Set down in words, the idea of dumping a bright Italian village on the Welsh coast is scarcely promising.”
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As it turned out, our fears were completely unwarranted. Perhaps helped by the generous appearance of the sun for what locals told us was the first time this spring, Portmeirion was a joy. It was just busy enough to have interesting people watching but not to be overrun. There were several well-situated watering holes to engage in such people watching and one Prisoner-themed shop to entertain my husband. Should you tire of the village, Deudraeth Castle is a five-minute walk that’s just uphill enough to make the garden an excellent vista point from which to enjoy an apertif (they also have a brasserie and hotel). We ate dinner at the hotel restaurant in the village, which was exceptional, and the next morning we walked one of several trails behind the village through a spectacular forest of rhododendron and camellias. The hydrangea weren’t yet in bloom, but I’m told they’re something to see.

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Despite tremendous competition from the various amusements on offer, my greatest discovery of the visit was Clough Williams-Ellis, with whom I’ve developed a minor obsession. I’m compelled by his singular vision and commitment to creating something for no other reason that pure aesthetic pleasure for the public. Unwittingly I’ve been tracing a thread of such pioneers on my recent visits to the UK. Three weeks before going to Portmeirion I visited the former country home of William Morris, the man most associated with the Arts and Crafts movement. His famous quotes include “Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful,” and “I do not want art for a few any more than education for a few, or freedom for a few.” Both apply equally well to William-Ellis’ creation of Portmeirion. These days this same thread is being woven by people such as the philosopher and writer Alain de Botton, the creative director of Living Architecture, an organization that commissions exceptional modern architecture for the purpose of holiday rentals. The artist Grayson Perry designed one of their projects, and his House for Essex seems a logical next stop on my informal journey along the British trail of beautiful things. But first I want to go back and spend that week in Portmeirion.

Cotswolds

Anarchy at Kelmscott Manor

Back garden of Kelmscott Manor

View of Kelmscott Manor from the back garden

On Saturday we visited Kelmscott Manor, the rural Oxfordshire former retreat of William Morris and his family, as well as the Pre-Raphaelite painter, Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Upon arrival we were ambushed by an enthusiastic docent who immediately pointed out the location of the loos, a greeting that I suspect is fine-tuned to address the most pressing needs of the pensioner demographic that comprises the majority of visitors. When it comes to leisure activities, I have always been old before my time.

The docent’s overview of the grounds also included a tearoom, and, with fifteen minutes to kill until our timed-entry ticket was valid and rain clouds threatening overhead, we decamped to the whitewashed barn for a cup of tea drunk from William Morris-patterned mugs. In the entryway of the house we were “greeted” by another guide who blocked our way until she completed her elaborate explanation of the one-way system we were to follow as we proceeded through the property. When finally allowed to pass, we discovered the downstairs rooms were filled with pottery, tapestries, and a striking portrait by Rossetti of Jane Morris, who was both Rossetti’s muse and purported lover, as well as William’s wife.

Portrait of Jane Morris by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Portrait of Jane Morris by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

In the Green Room yet another docent—this one sporting an impressive outcropping of black hair in his ears—explained that one of the couches on display was produced by Morris’ company from inexpensive boxwood so that it would be affordable by the middle class. He went on to tell us that most of what was produced would have only been accessible to the elite, a curious irony given Morris was an impassioned socialist (some of the socialist pamphlets he penned are on display in the attic) and one that reminded me of the paradox of the modern-day artisanal movement.

Upstairs we made the fatal mistake of viewing the attic rooms before the first floor, inadvertently violating the one-way system instructions. After tense negotiations with another volunteer, we managed to regain entry. For a brief moment as we walked up the down stairs, I felt what it was to be an anarchist.

Of all the treasures on view in the manor, the one I found most striking isn’t mentioned in the pamphlet they hand you at the door. In the North Hall, hanging from a door that’s partially obscured by a grand hooded settee, is William Morris’ black overcoat. It’s a caped style à la Sherlock Holmes and patently lacking in the aesthetic qualities most often associated with Morris.

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Morris’ overcoat

Later, while dipping soldiers of garlic bread into hens egg en cocotte at the excellent local pub, The Plough Inn, I realized what the coat reminded me of. In Patti Smith’s most recent memoir, M Train, she has a habit of taking Polaroids of everyday items that belonged to artists she loves—Virginia Woolf’s walking stick, Herman Hesse’s typewriter. If Smith had visited Kelmscott, the coat would’ve undoubtedly gotten the Polaroid treatment. In the book she also recounts how an unnamed poet gave her an ill-fitting, unlined Commes de Garçons black overcoat as an impromptu birthday gift. Later, much to her distress, she loses the coat.

Perhaps the Society of Antiquaries of London that runs Kelmscott Manor would consider loaning Morris’ coat to Smith as a replacement. Like Morris, Smith is an artist who wears many hats, from poet to writer to artist (in her case, Polariods instead of textiles). I can’t help thinking they would’ve gotten along had they been contemporaries, and that Morris would’ve approved of the loan as heartily as the busybody docents of the manor would object.

The Details:

Kelmscott Manor (open Wednesdays and Saturdays, April to October)
Kelmscott
Lechlade, Oxfordshire GL7 3HG
+44 01367 252486

The Plough
Kelmscott
Lechlade, Oxfordshire GL7 3HG
+44 01367 253543

Cotswolds

Easter

Our version of going to church on Easter Sunday was informal, stopping in to the Norman church of Saint James the Great in Coln St. Dennis towards the end of a long walk.
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The churchyard is overgrown in the back and inside there are small piles of stone dust and water stains high on the walls. Alongside the signs of dilapidation is the evidence this is still a working church: an electric heater installed behind the pulpit to warm the calves of the rector, vases of browning daffodils.

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On a wall in the rear hangs a list of rectors from 1272 – 2010, an improbable symbol of permanence in a structure that felt fragile. Husband and I had spent the walk talking, occasionally with raised voices, about our next moves—geographical and career—in life. I was feeling untethered, a sense that was heightened by the general state of terrorist-related anxiety across Europe. This historical record calmed me, a gold-inscribed reminder that life goes on.

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As we left the church we carried on past our normal turn-off, walking into Calcot. The road opens up as you ascend out of the valley and we were greeted by strong wind at our back and tiny pieces of hail hammering the back of our legs until, on the final stretch, it stopped and this appeared.

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Random

Some thoughts on MS, AI, and novelty human exoskeletons

Bambi the lobster mermaid on Coney Island will make sense by the end of the blog.
“Lobster” by Angus McIntyre, Creative Commons Attribution Noncommercial 3.0 Unported License

Yesterday I read a tweet from the MS Society UK that said “80% of people with MS are forced to give up work within 15 years of diagnosis. That needs to change…” The intention of the tweet seemed in part to be to raise awareness of the need for those diagnosed with MS to immediately go on and stay on disease modifying drugs, but the immediate effect on me was to do some math on the green paper towel sitting on my desk. It appeared that I had an 80% chance of being out of work by the end of 2027, which was a little earlier than I had expected retirement.

Whether it’s rational or not, I don’t really think I’ll be forced to do anything because of MS. I’ve been on disease modifying drugs since diagnosis—putting aside the pesky question of when I should have been diagnosed—and the only symptoms I’ve experienced during that time have been a few weeks of what at worst could be called a nuisance. Certainly I’ve not experienced disability. That, however didn’t stop me from noticing an article about Japanese robotics that could help disabled people that kept popping up in my social media feeds this week. I never clicked through; the knowledge that someone was working on it should I ever need it was comfort enough.

What I did click through on today is a piece by Gary Marcus about the current state of artificial intelligence, including the big news this week that DeepMind beat the European champion in Go, “a game that has been notoriously difficult for machines.” I started reading it thinking nothing about MS, spurred on only by my recently acquired interest in AI, nurtured by encounters with terrific film and literature on the subject. (My late-blooming interest in AI is a matter of much derision on the part of my lifelong sci-fi-loving husband.) But when I got to the part where Marcus recounts a talk by a graduate student of a deep learning expert on the same day the Go paper went public, I immediately felt a pang familiar to any patient of neurological disease who quickly learns the answers to most of her questions are “We don’t know.” Speaking about AI, the graduate student acknowledged “(a) people in the field still don’t really understand why their models work as well as they do and (b) they still can’t really guarantee much of anything if you test them in circumstances that differ significantly from the circumstances on which they were trained.”

In other words, AI sounds a lot like the human brain. And as with the human brain, it’s inevitable (as had been the fodder for the conflicts in countless sci-fi plot) that AI will be unleashed on the world before we ever understand it. It’s already been happening for a while with products like Siri and Google Now.

I’m less concerned about this than what Marcus poses at the end of his article: “The real question is whether the technology developed there can be taken out of the game world and into the real world. IBM has struggled to make compelling products out of DeepBlue (the chess champion) and Watson (the Jeopardy champion).”

As a person with a neurological disease that has the potential to impact both my motor and cognitive function, the one that’s more terrifying is the latter. Sure, not being able to walk is a horrifying prospect, but people are working on powerful exoskeletons I’ll soon be able to suit up in to handle that; I want mine to look like a lobster, just for the record. (Note to self: business idea for novelty human exoskeletons.) If AI scientists want to deliver a compelling product, how about one that will supplement cognitive skills in patients with neurological impairment? All I ask is she’s given a better name than Siri.