The Most Generous Book in the World

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I was recently invited to write a short piece on Alan Turing and his childhood friend and secret crush, Christopher Morcom, for a book called The Who, the What, and the When: 65 Artists Illustrate the Secret Sidekicks of History, about the relatively unknown people who fostered, supported, loved, and nurtured historical figures (see my post “Alan Turing Hits the Red Carpet, Chris Morcom Hits the Books“).

I’ve finally had a chance to see the art that accompanies my text (or perhaps I should say “the art to which my text is an accompaniment,” since the title of the book stresses the artists rather than the writers).  It’s a beautiful image by award-winning illustrator Keith Negley.  You can find a nice piece on Negley in my favorite art rag, Juxtapoz, right here.

Alan Turing and Christopher Morcom, by Keith Negley.

Alan Turing and Christopher Morcom, by Keith Negley.

The book has also had some reviews and mentions, including an extensive one (from which I stole the title for this post) at Brain Pickings, a site I check religiously and recommend highly.

I think it’s fair to say that their review is glowing, and there’s even a brief, complimentary mention of my section:

Writer Nas Hedron tells the story of a British boy named Christopher Morcom — Turing’s teenage crush — who pulled young Alan out of his notoriously awkward shell… When Morcom died of bovine tuberculosis, his death devastated Turing beyond measure… As he struggled to understand how a mind as brilliant as Chris’s could just cease to exist with the death of the brain, he inevitably began probing the relationship between the two and the foundation of consciousness. Hedron elegantly captures the lifelong impact of the tragedy:

“This line of thinking, about intangible thoughts housed in tangible brains, would run through each of Turing’s accomplishments.”

The Brain Pickings review

The Brain Pickings review

The book has also been received well in The Guardian and on Design Milk.

And finally, the team that assembled the book has also put together a great animated video trailer, embedded below.

Pick up your copy today!

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Alan Turing Hits the Red Carpet, Chris Morcom Hits the Books

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It’s rare that I look out on yet another perfect, sunny day in Brazil and wish that I was in my other hometown, Toronto.

I sometimes get nostalgic for something specific: a friend, or a favorite restaurant. And occasionally I yearn for an entire neighbourhood (it’s almost always Chinatown).  But very rarely do I miss the city as a whole enough to wish I was there.

But every September it happens at least once, because September is when the sparkly pixie dust of the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) drifts in on a cool autumn breeze and coats every intersection, every streetlight, and every skungy eatery in a magical candy coating.

For years, a close connection to certain TIFF staff allowed me to avoid the ticket lotteries and other rigamarole and see every damned film I wanted, which was glorious.  I watched Toshiaki Toyoda’s awesome Blue Spring unfold long before it became a cult classic. I watched Claire Denis’ disturbing Trouble Every Day, followed by an even more disturbing Q&A in which Vincent Gallo propositioned the female audience members en masse.  I watched the beautiful, brutal City of God before I had any personal connection to Brazil, reveled in the Korean monster movie The Host, and lost myself in Seung-wook Moon’s low -budget dystopian fantasy Nabi (The Butterfly), which I’ve never been able to find again.

A few TIFF memories (L to R): Blue Spring, Trouble Every Day, City of God, The Host, and The Butterfly.

A few TIFF memories (L to R): Blue Spring, Trouble Every Day, City of God, The Host, and The Butterfly (click to enlarge).

I’d have loved to be at this year’s festival,but this time it’s not just for the usual reasons. This year Alan Turing–the ground-breaking British mathematician, computer pioneer, and war hero, who was prosecuted for and convicted of homosexuality and died, a probable suicide, at the age of forty-one–won top honors.  The Turing biopic, The Imitation Game (trailer below), starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Keira Knightley, took home the coveted Grolsch People’s Choice Award, setting some serious Oscar buzz in motion.

I’ve been flying Turing’s flag for more than a decade now, beginning at a time in the late 1990s when he was still obscure, long before the UK government apologized for its treatment of him, before he was officially pardoned for his conviction, before his hundredth anniversary became the occasion for international celebrations in 2012, and before The Pet Shop Boys memorialized him.

I gave an artificial intelligence his face in my novel Luck and Death at the Edge of the World, blogged about him here on The Turing Centenary, and his various fictional incarnations (mine is hardly the only one) will be the subject of my upcoming non-fiction book, Conjuring Turing: The Fictional Afterlife of Alan Turing.


The TIFF win underscores the fact that although the Turing centenary is now long past, Alan Turing’s star is still rising.  And as it climbs, others are occasionally dragged into the limelight along with him.

Benedict Cumberbatch takes a selfie with fans at TIF 2014.

Benedict Cumberbatch takes a selfie with fans at TIF 2014 (photo here).

Which brings me to some other news.

Some time ago I was asked by the editors of an upcoming book to write a brief article about Christopher Morcom, Alan Turing’s close friend, mathematical muse, and secret teenage crush.

The book is called The Who, the What, and the When: 65 Artists Illustrate the Secret Sidekicks of History, and the title more or less speaks for itself.  A selection of unsung heroes who inspired, supported, or carried water for more famous counterparts are finally getting their due.

From Nabokov’s wife to Warhol’s mother, and from Al Capone’s mentor to Lenin’s brother, this book takes stock of the indispensable but often overlooked contributions of relatives, friends, secretaries, lovers, and business partners to the careers of the great and glorious.

After a long period of incubation, which was inevitable in a project with this many authors, its publication is now almost upon us.  On October 14, 2014 it will become available, with a launch (head’s up New Yorkers!) on October 24 at The Powerhouse Arena in Brooklyn.

It’s a great looking volume, as you can see from the photos below.

The Who, the What, and the When: 65 Artists Illustrate the Secret Sidekicks of History

The Who, the What, and the When: 65 Artists Illustrate the Secret Sidekicks of History

www3 clear

www5 clear


The book follows the success of The Where, the Why, and the How: 75 Artists Illustrate Wondrous Mysteries of Science and features a foreword by Kurt Andersen, host of the awesome Studio 360, which I never miss (in podcast form).

Many thanks to the Who, What, and When team at Also Online–Julia Rothman, Jenny Volvovski, and Matt Lamothe–for inviting me to be part of the project.  To everyone else: the holiday season isn’t that far away, and this book would make an awesome gift for anyone who enjoys knowing the story behind the story.

And now, to close, a last bit of TIFF.  Here’s an extensive TIFF interview with Benedict Cumberbatch and Keira Knightley about The Imitation Game (in which Knightly’s first words to the interviewer are a good-humored fuck you).


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More Derision for Turing Test “Pass”

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Days since the Centenary: 723
Days to the Bicentennial: 35,801

Further to the post of a few days ago (“Did a Supercomputer Finally Pass the Turing Test? Don’t Bet On It“), skepticism about the alleged passing of the Turing Test by a chatbot named Eugene Goostman is spreading, and in some instances turning to outright derision.

The story–with a focus on the failings of the supposedly groundbreaking event–was the lead story in the June 15 edition of BBC’s The Science Hour (available online here for six days as of today).

BBC's The Science Hour

BBC’s The Science Hour

On the menu were some complaints heard previously, including the gaming of the system by having the chatbot claim to be a young boy and a non-native speaker of English (the language in which the test was conducted), leading judges to treat its errors with indulgence, as well as the five-minute time limit on the test.

Meanwhile, over on the web site of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, Ben Goertzel, author of Creating Internet Intelligence and The Path to Posthumanity, called it:

… a bogus event trumped up by someone’s PR agent in an attempt to get some excitement about their work.

You can watch the entire Goetzel interview below.

By now the University of Reading, where the test was held, must rue its decision to allow itself to be associated with such transparently sensational baloney.  Presumably it didn’t appear so calculatedly disingenuous in advance, but it’s looking pretty shoddy in retrospect.


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Did a Supercomputer Finally Pass the Turing Test? Don’t Bet On It.

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The headlines have been nearly ecstatic–and almost uniformly uncritical.  Here are just a few:

Well, no.

As several commentators have pointed out, the “victory” is pretty dubious. Mike Masnick at TechDirt was quick to question the alleged result, listing several important points that call it into question:

  1. It’s not a “supercomputer,” it’s a chatbot. It’s a script made to mimic human conversation. There is no intelligence, artificial or not involved. It’s just a chatbot.
  2. Plenty of other chatbots have similarly claimed to have “passed” the Turing test in the past (often with higher ratings). Here’s a story from three years ago about another bot, Cleverbot, “passing” the Turing Test by convincing 59% of judges it was human (much higher than the 33% Eugene Goostman) claims.
  3. It “beat” the Turing test here by “gaming” the rules — by telling people the computer was a13-year-old boy from Ukraine in order to mentally explain away odd responses.
  4. The “rules” of the Turing test always seem to change. Hell, Turing’s original test was quite different anyway.
  5. As Chris Dixon points out, you don’t get to run a single test with judges that you picked and declare you accomplished something. That’s just not how it’s done. If someone claimed to have created nuclear fusion or cured cancer, you’d wait for some peer review and repeat tests under other circumstances before buying it, right?
  6. The whole concept of the Turing Test itself is kind of a joke. While it’s fun to think about, creating a chatbot that can fool humans is not really the same thing as creating artificial intelligence. Many in the AI world look on the Turing Test as a needless distraction.

I personally think that the test still has an important place in our thinking about artificial intelligence, but there’s certainly nothing wrong with questioning its value–in science there is no such thing as unquestionable canon, after all–and Masnick’s other points are pretty much on the money.

The Guardian also ran with the original dramatic story (“Computer simulating 13-year-old boy becomes first to pass Turing test“), prompting a number of comments taking it to task, which it had the good sense to publish as well (“Claims that the Turing test has been passed are nonsense“).

For instance, Professor Robert Epstein of the American Institute for Behavioral Research and Technology (bio here) wrote:

Professor Warwick’s claim that a computer has now passed the Turing Test […] is nonsense. Turing never set a 30% mark as a criterion for “passing” his test. In his famous essay on this topic, which is reprinted with commentaries in my book, Parsing the Turing Test: Methodological and Philosophical Issues in the Quest for the Thinking Computer, Turing merely conjectured that by 2000 a computer program would be able to fool an “average interrogator” into thinking it was a person 30% of the time in a five-minute conversation. He didn’t propose that as a test of anything; he was merely speculating.

Turing never actually said how his test could actually be passed, but a blue ribbon panel of computer scientists and philosophers from Harvard, MIT, and elsewhere which I directed for several years in planning the first Loebner Prize contest in 1990, came up with with a brilliant method that I am sure would have pleased Turing greatly: after lengthy conversations with both hidden humans and hidden computers, a panel ranks the humanness of each, and when the median rank of a computer exceeds the median rank of a human, it wins. No computer has ever crossed that line in the more than 20 years the contest has so far been held, but it will happen eventually.

Buzzfeed also managed a skeptical response (“No, A Computer Did Not Just Pass The Turing Test“).  Professor Murray Shanahan of the Department of Computing at Imperial College London told Buzzfeed:

Of course the Turing Test hasn’t been passed. I think its a great shame it has been reported that way, because it reduces the worth of serious AI research. We are still a very long way from achieving human-level AI, and it trivialises Turing’s thought experiment (which is fraught with problems anyway) to suggest otherwise.

And The Verge, which reported the alleged “pass,” also reported on some skeptical reactions (“Google futurist Ray Kurzweil and other experts say chatbot didn’t pass Turing Test“), including one from Ray Kurzweil:

I chatted with the chatbot Eugene Goostman, and was not impressed.  Eugene does not keep track of the conversation, repeats himself word for word, and often responds with typical chatbot non sequiturs.

Others echoed his distrust of the hyped announcement:

New York University cognitive science professor Gary Marcus agrees, writing in The New Yorker that the test wasn’t taken by “innovative hardware but simply a cleverly coded piece of software.” Marcus writes that the chatbot often resorts to misdirecting the person it’s speaking with using humor so that it can avoid questions that it doesn’t understand. “It’s easy to see how an untrained judge might mistake wit for reality, but once you have an understanding of how this sort of system works, the constant misdirection and deflection becomes obvious, even irritating,” Marcus writes. “The illusion, in other words, is fleeting.”

Marc Andreessen, co-founder of Netscape and one of today’s biggest names in tech investing, isn’t taking much stock in the claims over this chatbot either. “My view is that [the] Turing Test has always been malformed,” he writes on Twitter. “Humans are too easy to trick, passing [the] test says almost nothing about software.”

Marcus gave a sample of the chatbot’s chatting in his New Yorker piece (“What Comes After the Turing Test“):

Marcus: Do you read The New Yorker?

Goostman: I read a lot of books … So many—I don’t even remember which ones.

Marcus: You remind me of Sarah Palin.

Goostman: If I’m not mistaken, Sarah is a robot, just as many other “people.” We must destroy the plans of these talking trash cans!

At least in this small sample, it doesn’t seem distinguishable from other chatbots I’ve seen.

As much as I would enjoy the drama of seeing the Turing test actually passed, a little more critical thought would have made for less hyped, more accurate reporting.

If the horizon is populated by terminators, it’s a ways off yet.

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Hum Along to Turing with the Pet Shop Boys

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The Pet Shop Boys are icons of 1980s electronic music.  They’re also the most successful music duo that the United Kingdom has ever produced.  And they’re Turing Elves.

The Pet Shop Boys, then and now.

The Pet Shop Boys, then and now.

This July, at the BBC Proms music festival, the Boys will present their newest work, A Man from the Future, based on the life of Alan Turing and including text from Alan Turing: The Enigma, by Andrew Hodges.  

The Boys are reported to have worked closely with Hodges, as well as collaborating with Sven Helbig (who they previously worked with on their ballet, The Most Incredible Thing).

As we’ve seen in previous posts on this site, Turing has inspired rather a lot of music recently:

Thus far the only part that’s been made public is a song called “He Dreamed of Machines” (embedded videos below).

The Boys have previously interceded on Alan’s behalf, sending a message to David Cameron’s assistant (in the period before Turing finally received a royal pardon in 2013) that read in part:

…sorry to bug you, but could you pass on to the Prime Minister that in Alan Turing’s centenary year it would be an amazing, inspirational thing to do to pardon him?”

On their web site the Boys have said:

“It is an honour for us to be invited to present some new music at The Proms and to celebrate Alan Turing 60 years after his death.”

Andrew Hodges, meanwhile, has been quoted as saying

“It’s just been wonderful working with Neil and Chris on this project”.

Here’s “He Dreamed of Machines,” the JCRZ remix:

I remember the 80s, and I have decidedly mixed feelings about the era, but my feelings about A Man From the Future are anything but:  I’m waiting with Frankenfurterian antici—–pation.   When there’s more to report, it will be reported right here.

And for those of you who don’t remember the 80s, let’s close for now with the Boys back in the day.

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Turing Elves Strike Again: New Turing Infographic

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We’re almost two years past the Turing centenary now–in fact we’ve gone some ways toward the bicentennial–but the momentum that began in the lead-up to the centenary is still in evidence.

Regular readers will know that a Turing Elf is someone who creates a work in relation to Turing out of private passion rather than as part of a set of official duties, and the Turing Elves are still out there cobbling together works of art, educational materials, memorials and tributes, and iPhone apps.

Today’s column honors Steve Ollington, Lis, and the Manchester Jury’s Inn, who together have created an online infographic that’s a mini-tutorial on Turing’s life and work.

As Steve wrote, the Jury’s Inn:

…recognise his importance as key figure in British History and a national treasure, and they liked the thought of providing a memorial that would engage, teach and honour a great figure, especially one who is such a local hero.

Their infographic succinctly (and attractively) sums up many of the key points of Turing’s story and is a great point of access for those who are just learning about the man and his place in history.

It’s reproduced below,and  you can visit it on the Jury’s Inn site here.

Alan Turing of Manchester, by Jurys Inn Manchester Hotel
Alan Turing Infographic by Jurys Inn Hotels

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Three Words to Sum Up Alan Turing

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I’m not sure that Jack Copeland actually manages to sum up Alan Turing in three words.

Nonetheless, this brief video provides a nice portrait that helps rescue the real Alan Turing, the man you would meet face to face, from the that other Turing:
Turing the Icon
Turing the Guy on the Postage Stamp
Turing the Entry in Wikipedia.

It’s easily worth two minutes and forty-seven seconds of your time.

Copeland’s first three words: Humour, courage, isolation.
Copeland’s second three words: Patriotic, unconventional, genius.

It’s a compact Turing poem:

Humour, courage, isolation.
Patriotic, unconventional, genius.

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Hum Along to Turing, Part III (+ Free Bonus Album)

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Holy cats! The melodic interpretations of the Turing legacy just keep on coming.

(To catch up on previous installments, see: Hum Along to Turing and Hum Along to Turing, Part Deux)

I’ve actually got another music-related post backlogged at the moment, but since this one is time-sensitive I thought I’d better post it now. (Plus, this is a good time to mention a relevant musical freebie, which I’ll get to in a moment.)

1. Album for Bletchley Park

First, we have a brand new album of electronic music called Music by Programmers, released to raise funds for the Bletchley Park Trust and the National Museum of Computing.

Bletchley Park, of course, was where Turing and his fellow codebreakers worked during World War II (see the About Alan Turing tab if you’re new to the subject).

Bletchley Park

Bletchley Park

According to TechWeek Europe:

The National Museum of Computing and Bletchley Park Trust have announced a novel fund-raising effort to attract young people to begin studying computer programming… The aim is to raise £5,000 to be spent on parent-child maths workshops at Bletchley Park and to allow [the museum] to start a regular computer club for young people. The download will be available from 29 April from CD Baby, iTunes, Amazon MP3 And Google Play with all of the profits going towards the projects.

The album was curated by Jason Gorman, who created Apes With Hobbies, Love Songs from a Gilded Age.  If you want to get an idea of Gorman’s musical sensibilities, you can download Apes for free here.

Gorman is clearly  predisposed to making music that honours great minds, given that Apes open with a track called Feynman Dreams of California Nights.

Music by Programmers and Jason Gorman

Music by Programmers and Jason Gorman

The eight tracks on the album are all original, and pay tribute to an earlier generation of electronic musicians, like Kraftwerk (still going strong), Jean-Michel Jarre (who recently released a new album), and Tangerine Dream (who have a new album out this month with awesome Queen-guitarist-cum-astrophysicst Brian May).  Gorman also recorded two of the eight tracks on the album himself.

I think this is an awesome way to raise money for a great cause. You can hear samples on the iTunes web page for the album. Buy it, rate it, and pass the word.

2. The Free Bonus Album

At the outset I mentioned a free bonus album related to Turing, so here’s the scoop.

Regular readers of this page will know that, while I post here for the love of it, professionally I’m a writer and editor.  I’m the non-fiction editor at International Speculative Fiction, which has published numerous award-winning authors, and I have several published works of my own.

My novel Luck and Death at the Edge of the World (,, Kobo) features a sentient artificial intelligence instantiated in a synthetic human body. By its own choice it is called Alan and the body it uses is the image of Alan Turing. At the outset these choices seem trivial, but they turn out to go deeper than it first appears.

Luck + Death

Luck + Death

As with all my books, I try to give readers of Luck + Death a lot of free stuff to go along with the story. There are bonus sections right inside the book that provide background material (including a section on Turing), and the home page ( has more bonus material and a library of free PDFs.

Well, now the novel also has a free soundtrack that you can stream or download, Luck + Death: the Soundtrack for the Movie in Your Head.

Here’s the official announcement for anyone who wants to try it out:

After much work and planning, the free soundtrack album for Luck + Death is now available. Fourteen tracks by artists in eight countries (Belgium, Brazil, Canada, China, Hungary, Sweden, Turkey, and the U.S.A.).

This is a varied array of musicians and composers, from independent musicians like guitarist Jason Brock and saxophonist Stefan Thaens, to film composer Nathan Fleet, to veteran performer John Pazdan, to classical composer (and music professor) Russell Wilson.

This Version

Styles range from dreamy electronic to jumped up funk to electronic classical, all of it spiced up with spoken word performance and bookended by field recordings from the streets of Shanghai.

Here’s a sample, track number eight:

08 Distrito Federal (Stefan Thaens, Belgium) 4:18


All tracks are available for streaming or for download as MP3s and the album comes with the choice of two different versions of the cover art, This Version (above) and That Version (below).

That Version

And this is a project that appreciates music as more than just a spectator sport. One track is a mix by the author called El Paraíso Perdido (Paradise Lost), which has been posted on with an invitation to anyone and everyone to remix it, deconstruct it, or reinvent it.

I’ve already received one version from a ccMixter member and I know another is on the way. All mixes are posted on the soundtrack home page.

Here’s one more track to whet your appetite:


12 Dogware (Zapac, Hungary) 3:40


Curiosity piqued?

Get it here: Luck + Death: the Soundtrack for the Movie in Your Head.

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Hum Along to Turing, Part Deux

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Days to the Bicentennial: 36,269

In a recent post entitled Hum Along to Turing I reported that London-based band Fiction was releasing their debut album The Big Other, including a song called The Apple that was about, and dedicated to, our boy Alan Turing.

Somehow my search for a video at the time of that post failed to come up with one that was posted on YouTube waaaaay back in 2010, possibly because it’s not an official video but a live version of the song captured at the Offset Festival in 2010.

(Although, honestly, if you type in search terms like “Fiction” and “Apple” you’d think that a song by Fiction called Apple would come up, irrespective of whether it was a fan video or an official release.)

So, until an official version comes out, enjoy the performance below.

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Hum Along to Turing

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Days to the Bicentennial: 36,278

Out magazine reports that London-based band Fiction has a single called The Apple on their debut CD The Big Other that is about–and dedicated to–Alan Turing.

Band member Mike Barrett wrote the song and shared its genesis with Out:

Barrett shared that he first learned about Turing from reading his work on algorithms and his contribution at Bletchley Park—which during the WWII was the site of the UK’s main decryption establishment, the Government Code and Cypher School. “[I] subsequently read about his trial, and the circumstances of his death came as a bit of a surprise… Here’s a genius—a man that arguably invented the computer, who made a priceless contribution to defeating the Nazis—put on trial for his sexuality. Of course, countless others were tried in the UK, and continue to be around the world, but Turing’s story illustrated to me so graphically the sheer absurdity of prejudice, and ‘The Apple’ is a small attempt at understanding his personal torment at that time.”

The Out article seems to be set up to stream the song through Soundcloud, but the streaming isn’t fuctional as of this writing and I can’t find the song through a search of Soundcloud or on Fiction’s YouTube page. So while I look forward to hearing it, I can’t say anything about the sound of the song just yet.



The band sounds good overall, though, with a retro-futurismo vibe that calls to mind Roxy Music and certain strains of 1980s new wave, so I’m hopeful. And the Out article does provide the lyrics, reproduced below.

The Apple – For Alan Turing

They said Alan
they said listen, Alan
they said listen, Alan
you’ve got a simple decision
a simple choice
but it’s one or the other

so I had a choice
I had a choice
I had a choice

but they’ve been making my mind up
they’ve been making my body
into something it’s not

the algorithm was nothing special
I just took a bite
the code was really nothing much
and I just took a bite

they said it’s not right
they said it’s not right
they said it’s not right
and we can’t let you do that
we can’t let you get away with that

so I took a bite
I took a bite
I took a bite

because they’ve been making my mind up
they’ve been making my body
into something it’s not

the algorithm was nothing special
I just took a bite

You can find Fiction’s YouTube channel here.

The Big Other will be released on March 4, and Fiction will be on tour in the UK throughout March.

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