Friday 8 December, 2023

Vanishing point

Green Park Tube Station the other day.

Quote of the Day

“When the missionaries came to Africa they had the Bible and we had the land. They said ‘Let us pray.’ We closed our eyes. When we opened them we had the Bible and they had the land.”

  • Bishop Desmond Tutu

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Bob Dylan | Bob Dylan’s Dream


Long Read of the Day

 What the Algorithm Does to Young Girls

For years I’ve been convinced that Instagram is terminally toxic for teenage girls. But who am I, a white male boomer, to know anything about this? So maybe you can understand why I have been so struck by the writing of Freya India, and particularly by this essay, which I stumbled upon the other day. If you’re a parent or grandparent of teenage girls, maybe you should read it and ponder.

Let’s say you were born in the year 1999, so Instagram comes out when you are 12. Back then it was fairly benign: a platform to share pretty sunsets and candid pictures with friends. A few years in, the editing app FaceTune arrives (launched in 2014), and everyone on your feed starts to look perfect. You start editing yourself—smoothing your skin, reshaping your nose, restructuring your jaw. By the time you’re 16, your Instagram face is very different from your natural face, which you’ve come to despise.

And then the algorithms are introduced: your feed is no longer chronological but customized. Instagram now serves you not just photos of the friends you follow but of “influencers”—beautiful women from all over the world, selecting the ones that make you feel the most insecure. Soon you get ads to fix your flaws: Botox; fillers; Brazilian Butt Lifts! By the time TikTok comes out you’re 18, and your feed tracks you even faster. Hate your nose? Try this editing app. Not enough? Try this video editing app. Want it in real life? Nose jobs near you! Suddenly you’re in your 20s and you’ve transformed your style, your face, maybe even your body. And yet you are still insecure. You still hate how you look. And every day your feeds flash on with This is your sign to get a nose job!, The earlier you start Botox the better!, Get ready with me for a Brazilian butt lift!

For many girls, this rewiring of their self-image, this pressure to alter their appearance, happened without them realizing it. It was gradual. Subtle. Drip-fed.

And where have we ended up?

Read on to find out.

Henry K, contd.

 A People’s Obituary of Henry Kissinger

Scorching assessment by historian Greg Grandin in The Nation. He contends that “reading Kissinger as an alien out of tune with the chords of American Exceptionalism misses the point of the man. He was in fact the quintessential American, his cast of mind moulded to his place and time”.

At every single one of America’s postwar turning points, moments of crisis when men of good will began to express doubts about American power, Kissinger broke in the opposite direction. He made his peace with Nixon, whom he first thought was unhinged; then with Ronald Reagan, whom he initially considered hollow; and then with George W. Bush’s neocons, despite the fact that they all rose to power attacking Kissinger; and finally with Donald Trump, whom Kissinger fancifully imagined as the realization of his belief that the greatness of great statesmen resides in their spontaneity, their agility, their ability to thrive on chaos, on, as Kissinger wrote in the 1950s, “perpetual creation, on a constant redefinition of goals.”

“There are two kinds of realists,” Kissinger wrote in the early 1960s, “those who manipulate facts and those who create them. The West requires nothing so much as men able to create their own reality.” Trump, the reality-show president, certainly creates his own reality. A “phenomenon,” Kissinger called Trump, saying that “something remarkable and new” might emerge out of his presidency.

It’s a great piece, worth reading in full, which cuts the old brute down to size. Isaiah Berlin, observing K’s weird partnership with Richard Nixon (whom he seemed to despise), christened the beast ’Nixonger’, presumably because it was more than the sum of its grotesque parts.

My commonplace booklet

Charlie Stross (Whom God Preserve) had heard bad things about Google Bard, the search giant’s ‘AI’-assisted search tool. So he decided to test it on a topic on which he is a world expert: himself. It doesn’t end well, but Charlie’s account of it is both funny and serious.

His takeaway: “LLMs don’t answer your questions accurately—rather, they deliver a lump of text in the shape of an answer.”



Something I noticed, while drinking from the Internet firehose.

This is my Treat of the Week, a recording of Benedict Cumberbatch reading a letter of complaint from George Bernard Shaw to the management of the Royal Opera House after attending a performance of Don Giovanni.

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Wednesday 6 December, 2023

Avian harvesters

Norfolk, on a winter’s morning

Quote of the Day

“I wasn’t actually in love, but I felt a sort of tender curiosity.”

  • F. Scott Fitzgerald in The Great Gatsby

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Advent Calendar 2023 – Day 4 | Niel Gow’s Lament arranged by Seonaid Aitken


Fenella Humphreys is a gifted violinist who’s had the idea of doing a musical Advent Day calendar. Thanks to Sheila Hayman (Whom God Preserve) for the suggestion.

Long Read of the Day

Ben Thompson and ‘Regretful Accelerationism’

Really interesting reflective essay on the implications of what has happened to our culture by one of the sharpest observers of our networked world. Might be behind a paywall (I’m a subscriber to his newsletter), but here’s hoping it isn’t. If it is, see below.

Thompson’s conclusion:

To put it more bluntly, despite the fact my personal and professional life are centered on — and blessed by — the Internet, I’m increasingly skeptical that it can be, as it was in Ready Player One, portrayed as a distinct development from a world increasingly in turmoil. Correlation may not be causation, but sometimes it absolutely is.

In this I do, with reluctance, adopt an accelerationist view of progress; call it r/acc: regretful accelerationism. I suspect we humans do better with constraints; the Internet stripped away the constraint of physical distribution, and now AI is removing the constraint of needing to actually produce content. That this is spoiling the Internet is perhaps the best hope for finding our way back to what is real. Let the virtual world be one of customized content for every individual, with the assumption it is all made-up; some may lose themselves to the algorithm and AI friends, but perhaps more will realize that the only way to survive online is to pay it increasingly little heed.

As an experiment, I asked Claude, the LLM in which I have most confidence, to summarise the essay. Here’s what it came up with:

  1. The portrayal of virtual reality as an oasis in dystopian science fiction books and movies is a cliché. The idea that the online world is a place of escape and freedom while the physical world falls apart seems implausible.
  2. In reality, the physical world has a natural “benevolent monopoly” of interoperability and shared resources, while online worlds are more fragmented into walled gardens and proprietary ecosystems.
  3. The dominance of platforms like Google and Facebook in the 2000s was based on their superior ability to aggregate demand and marshal users’ attention. This gave them outsized power over other players in the digital economy.
  4. The rise of AI-generated content with near-zero marginal costs threatens to overwhelm platforms’ ability to maintain integrity and trust. Spam networks are already using AI tools at scale to game systems optimized for scarcity not abundance.
  5. Social media strips away constraints on anti-social behaviors, resulting in dynamics unlike anything in the real world. Taking social media seriously seems increasingly untenable.
  6. Thompson suggests the demise of the ad-supported model may restore healthier incentives and business models less prone to chasing virality. People may also learn to tune out the excesses of social media and online discourse.
  7. In conclusion, Thompson proposes that removing constraints like distribution costs and content creation costs may spoil the online world but also spur people to value the physical world and real human connections more. Less faith in virtual escapism could be a net positive.

If you’ve had a chance to read the essay you’ll be in a good position to assess how accurate this summary is.

My commonplace booklet

Digital nostalgia


Let’s just state the obvious here: Ayaneo says it’s “paying homage” to the Macintosh, which is a kind way of saying, “We copied the thing pretty much exactly.” This device is the spitting image of Apple’s ’80s-era computer, right down to the floppy drive and the rainbow sticker. (Ayaneo made the sticker a flag shape instead of an apple, though — there’s paying homage and then there’s paying lawyer fees, you know what I mean?) It’s smaller than a Macintosh, but it’s beige and rectangular and even has a black space where the old screen would have gone.

On the other hand…

This thing has five USB ports (one USB-C and four USB-A), plus HDMI, DisplayPort, a headphone jack, ethernet, Bluetooth, and Wi-Fi. You can get it with Windows 11 or buy the “bare” version and install Linux or SteamOS or whatever else your heart desires.


Something I noticed, while drinking from the Internet firehose.

The Political Ideologies of Silicon Valley

Terrific series of seminar papers from a seminar hosted by Johns Hopkins’ Center for Economy and Society and Stanford’s Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences.

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Monday 4 December, 2023

The view from here

Dingle Bay, early yesterday morning.

Quote of the Day

”Happiness makes up in height for what it lacks in depth.”

  • Robert Frost

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Van Morrison | Saint Dominic’s Preview


Long Read of the Day

Last Week at Marienbad

Nice witty, ironic essay by Lauren Oyler about a trip she and her boyfriend Thom made to Marienbad. It would, she thought,

confirm that we were in a relationship, and that this relationship was not going to remain forever stuck in the past, in a phase of remembering and fighting over what we remembered – over things that had happened, seriously, the previous year. According to the couple clichés, a trip is a new memory you make together. It’s also a test: how moody one of you might become at a setback; how neurotic the other might be about the schedule; how fundamentally incompatible you are suddenly revealed, in an unfamiliar setting, to be. Kafka knew this. When he and his on-again, off-again fiancée Felice Bauer met at Marienbad for ten days in July 1916, they fought the entire time, unable to overcome the ceaseless rain and ‘the hardships of living together. Forced upon us by strangeness, pity, lust, cowardice, vanity, and only deep down, perhaps, a thin little stream worthy of the name of love, impossible to seek out, flashing once in the moment of a moment.’

We went because we thought it would be funny; we came to realize the movie isn’t even really set there. It takes place, if not in the mind, then in a composite setting of several nineteenth-century Central European spa towns, in a sense of vague possibility and in danger of being lost. The misunderstanding was Thom’s fault. He had seen the movie once before, a long time ago; I had not, but I knew I would have to eventually, because it’s one of those movies you have to see. ‘It’s a trip,’ he told me…

I really enjoyed it. Hope you do too.

Europe’s AI crackdown bends to tech lobbying

Yesterday’s Observer column:

Wednesday will be a fateful day in Brussels, a faraway city of which post-Brexit Britain knows little and cares less. It’s the day on which the EU’s AI proposals enter the final stages of a tortuous lawmaking process. The bill is a landmark (first in the world) attempt to seriously regulate artificial intelligence (AI) based on its capacity to cause harm and will soon be in the final phase of the legislative process – so-called “trilogues” – where the EU parliament, commission and council decide what should be in the bill, and therefore become part of EU law. Big day, high stakes, in other words.

However, the bill is now hanging in the balance because of internal disagreement about some key aspects of the proposed legislation, especially those concerned with regulation of “foundation” AI models that are trained on massive datasets. In EU-speak these are “general-purpose AI” (GPAI) systems – ones capable of a range of general tasks (text synthesis, image manipulation, audio generation and so on) – such as GPT-4, Claude, Llama etc. These systems are astonishingly expensive to train and build: salaries for the geeks who work on them start at Premier League striker level and go stratospheric (with added stock options); a single 80GB Nvidia Hopper H100 board – a key component of machine-learning hardware – costs £26,000, and you need thousands of them to build a respectable system. Not surprisingly, therefore, there are only about 20 firms globally that can afford to play this game. And they have money to burn…

(And also to spend on lobbying.)

Do read the whole thing.

My commonplace booklet

Remembering Kissinger

Bill Emmott’s reflections on “the prickly, ruthless, amoral intellectual that was Henry Kissinger.” (Er, isn’t he forgetting ‘war criminal’?)

Emmott liked, he says,

an opinion piece in the New York Times, headlined “Henry Kissinger: the hypocrite” by Ben Rhodes, a former member of President Obama’s NSC. Rhodes outlined especially well the enduring impact of Kissinger’s amoral actions in places such as Chile, Bangladesh, Cambodia and Laos on America’s reputation as well as any claims it might make about seeking to defend “the international rules-based order” (which is not a claim Kissinger will ever have made, at least not to my knowledge). Sometimes these days people are inclined to write that during the Cold War the severity and clarity of the ideological and military confrontation with the USSR was such as to make brutal actions such as those somehow more acceptable, but I am not sure future Cold War historians will agree. Those actions led to a considerable backlash against America especially but not only in Europe, one that it will be reasonable for future historians to argue might have made the Cold War last longer. Rather less contestable is the fact that memories of such actions lie behind some of today’s unwillingness in Latin America, Southern Africa and many parts of Asia to support the West over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The war in Iraq certainly plays a big part in that, but so do Kissinger’s actions in places like Chile, Angola and Indochina.

Thanks to Andrew Arends for the link.

My first thought on learning of Kissinger’s death was of Tom Lehrer’s crack that satire died the day he won the Nobel Peace prize.

Ben Rhodes’s piece is worth reading, btw. Kissinger, he writes,

exemplified the gap between the story that America, the superpower, tells and the way that we can act in the world. At turns opportunistic and reactive, his was a foreign policy enamored with the exercise of power and drained of concern for the human beings left in its wake. Precisely because his America was not the airbrushed version of a city on a hill, he never felt irrelevant: Ideas go in and out of style, but power does not.

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Friday 1 December, 2023

Xmas gift ideas!

In an American newspaper — in 1912!

We EV owners used to feel smug about being ‘early adopters’. Turns out we are over a century behind the curve!

Thanks to Quentin (a fellow EV owner) for spotting it.

Quote of the Day

”You’re not a star until they can spell your name in Karachi.”

  • Humphrey Bogart

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Franz Schubert | Nachtgesang im Walde Op. 139 | Ruhrkohle-Chor


Long Read of the Day

 Douglas Murray: Wartime Diary

Eyewitness reporting from Israel and Gaza.

I was at the children’s hospital in Tel Aviv when the first children and their parents were released. When the helicopters landed and the hostages got out, IDF soldiers blocked their faces with screens to protect them from the glare of the cameras. But I’d already been sent a single photo taken by the Arab press that showed some of the mothers with their children inside a bus when they were still in Gaza.

The terror on their faces. They looked as though they’d aged by decades.

But at this moment, there was joy. As the helicopters landed, traffic stopped, and people got out of their cars and broke into song. They clapped and their voices rang out as they welcomed back the hostages with songs like “Hevenu Shalom Alechem.” (“We brought you peace.”)

As it happened, 12 of the 13 returnees that night were from Kibbutz Nir Oz, the first place I visited on my trip to Israel…

A premonition…

One of the people I’ve followed for years is Robert Reich, who taught at Berkeley for years and was Secretary for Labour in Bill Clinton’s Administration.

In 1994, when he held that post, he gave a speech at Thanksgiving which I’ve just watched. It’s very striking, and a good way to spend nine minutes or so.


His colleagues in the Clinton Administration were not amused, btw. Here’s how Reich remembers what happened:

Speeches by Cabinet members were supposed to be approved in advance by the White House, but in this case I doubted the White House would approve my speech because it was so foreboding. So I sent to the White House a different speech — one that was anodyne and boring.

I thought I could get away with this because I doubted the media would pay much attention to my speech.

I was wrong. It made headlines.

Not surprisingly, I was ordered to the White House — where an ambush awaited me. Clinton’s chief of staff Leon Panetta, his economic adviser Bob Rubin, his political adviser George Stephanopoulos, and other top advisers told me in no uncertain terms that I had violated White House rules.

They accused me of not being a team player and barred me from making any further speeches.

I told them I didn’t work for them. I had been nominated by the president and confirmed by the Senate, and they had no power over me. I’d be silenced only if the president directed me to be.

Well, that was the end of it. I knew Bill Clinton wouldn’t tell me to stop speaking my mind.

My commonplace booklet

Yesterday was the first anniversary of the arrival of ChatGPT. Azeem Azhar had the nice idea of asking its GenerativeAI sidekick, DALL-E, to produce an image of a birthday cake for his newsletter.

Azeem’s comment:

“You’ve shown us how vulnerable we are to strings of text produced by a machine – willing to believe and put faith in them. Even though you still misspell your own name on your birthday cakes.”

See also  How ChatGPT rewired the tech world .


Something I noticed, while drinking from the Internet firehose.

  • Charles Arthur (Whom God Preserve) noticed a piece in Britain’s only broadsheet tabloid about the IEA’s observation that the oil and gas industry faces losses of more than $3 trillion (£2.4 trillion) because of net zero policies.

“Note the faint undertone in this story,” Charles writes, “which appeared in the Daily Telegraph, favourite of the Tory-voting stock-owning (ancient) generation: ‘net zero’ will do these things to companies’ valuations, and therefore net zero is bad. Rather than these companies are contributing to wrecking the planet, and are therefore bad and deserve to fall in value concomitant to the damage they’re causing.”

Quite, as the late Queen might have observed.

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Wednesday 29 November, 2023

The ‘alignment’ problem

Nice cover of the New Yorker’s special issue on AI.

Quote of the Day

”We are here on Earth to help others. What on earth the others are here for I do not know”

  • W. H. Auden

I wonder who the ’we’ were in this context.

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Bert Jansch | Crimson Moon


Thanks to Andrew Curry for alerting me to it.

Long Read of the Day

 Hitler, the Hotel Guest

Nice counterpoint to the dilemma that faced the ‘altruistic’ Board of OpenAI as they contemplated the question of whether to continue to provide accommodation for their own, er, challenging resident.

In February 1931, two years before he became chancellor, Adolf Hitler checked in to Berlin’s Hotel Kaiserhof and made it his headquarters in the capital. The building soon swarmed with Nazis, who transformed the clientele overnight. Jewish custom evaporated. Business suffered. A year and a half later, with revenues in freefall, the hotel’s parent company needed to act. Its board, majority Jewish, took up the issue at a meeting on September 15, 1932. The question facing them: What are we going to do about Hitler?

And in this case Hitler didn’t stand in for Nazism more generally. No, these Jewish Germans were discussing what to do with the physical, living, embodied Hitler. Should they kick him out and face the consequences? Should they let him stay and face the consequences?

Books, etc.

Daniel Miller is a distinguished anthropologist who has written very insightfully about technology and its place in our lives. His new book, which arrived on my doorstep yesterday afternoon, looks interesting. It’s a kind of ongoing dialogue between, on the one hand, the thinking of philosophers about ‘the good life’ and, on the other, an enthnography of a small Irish town (named ‘Cuan’, but I guess that everyone in Ireland will already have cracked that code) in which people are living ‘the good enough life’. I’m looking forward to chairing an Ireland’s Edge event next weekend in my favourite Irish town — Dingle — and am bringing the book as a way of tuning in.

My commonplace booklet

From Monday’s Washington Post

For years, it seems, we’ve talked about the erosion of the “cordon sanitaire” in Western politics. Far-right parties have been making steady inroads into parliaments across Europe. Some factions descended from explicitly neofascist movements. Others embraced a set of extremist views once considered beyond the pale on a continent still largely defined by a 20th-century liberal-democratic consensus, born out of the traumas of World War II. Even as the far right’s vote shares and ranks of elected lawmakers grew, more mainstream parties vowed to never form alliances with them or enable their entry into government.

But in the 21st century, Europe’s far right is firmly ensconced in the mainstream, and reflects political attitudes no longer harbored simply by a fringe minority. The Dutch parliamentary election last week offered the clearest evidence yet of the new status quo…


Something I noticed, while drinking from the Internet firehose.

User read the manual, still couldn’t make ‘Excel’ work”. Lovely story in The Register by a guy who used to work in IT support (which IMO is one of the most demanding jobs one can do.)


From George Brooke:

Further to your recent piece which mentions scanning of books, I came across a reference to this in George Dyson’s Turing’s Cathedral. At a visit which Dyson made to Google headquarters in California, Dyson asked an engineer whether the scanning of the books was for them to be read by people. The answer came that the scanning was not for people, but for them to be read by an AI. This was in October 2005!

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Monday 27 November, 2023

Ce n’est pas une fenêtre

Intriguing feature on an internal wall of St Mary’s Church, Cong, Co Mayo.

With apologies to René Magritte.

Quote of the Day

“A guy walks into a pub with a lump of asphalt on his shoulder and says to the barman, give us a pint and one for the road.”

  • Tommy Cooper

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Bach | Motet Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied BWV 225 – MacLeod | Netherlands Bach Society


From the notes accompanying the recording:

“A complete orchestra should be added to this”, wrote Mozart on his copy of Bach’s motet ‘Singet dem Herrn’, performed here by the Netherlands Bach Society for All of Bach. He was very enthusiastic about the piece, which was performed as a surprise when he visited the Thomasschule in Leipzig, in 1789. At his request, Mozart was given a copy of it. In his account of the event ten years later, Johann Friedrich Rochlitz says that Mozart even shouted “Now there’s something you can learn from!

Recorded for the project All of Bach on May 14th 2016 at the Grote Kerk, Naarden.

Long Read of the Day

Meet the curator of the human future

Many moons ago, the New Yorker ran a prescient profile of Sam Altman, the guy Microsoft has now installed as the force of nature who will get us to AGI — superintelligent machines — while all the while bleating about their dangers. After the recent chaotic upheavals at OpenAI it makes for interesting reading. And it ain’t reassuring.


“Well, I like racing cars,” Altman said. “I have five, including two McLarens and an old Tesla. I like flying rented planes all over California. Oh, and one odd one — I prep for survival.” Seeing their bewilderment, he explained, “My problem is that when my friends get drunk they talk about the ways the world will end. After a Dutch lab modified the H5N1 bird-flu virus, five years ago, making it super contagious, the chance of a lethal synthetic virus being released in the next twenty years became, well, nonzero. The other most popular scenarios would be A.I. that attacks us and nations fighting with nukes over scarce resources.” The Shypmates looked grave. “I try not to think about it too much,” Altman said. “But I have guns, gold, potassium iodide, antibiotics, batteries, water, gas masks from the Israeli Defense Force, and a big patch of land in Big Sur I can fly to.”

Altman’s mother, a dermatologist named Connie Gibstine, told me, “Sam does keep an awful lot tied up inside. He’ll call and say he has a headache—and he’ll have Googled it, so there’s some cyber-chondria in there, too. I have to reassure him that he doesn’t have meningitis or lymphoma, that it’s just stress.” If the pandemic does come, Altman’s backup plan is to fly with his friend Peter Thiel, the billionaire venture capitalist, to Thiel’s house in New Zealand. Thiel told me, “Sam is not particularly religious, but he is culturally very Jewish—an optimist yet a survivalist, with a sense that things can always go deeply wrong, and that there’s no single place in the world where you’re deeply at home.”

You get the point. Read on.

(Paul Graham, a shrewd observer of people — who promoted Altman to run his YC “accelerator” — once observed that “You could parachute him into an island full of cannibals and come back in five years and he’d be the king.”)

Preserving our digital content won’t come cheap

Yesterday’s Observer column

Way back in 2004 the two founders of Google, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, thought that it would be a cool idea to scan all the printed books in the world and make them available online. This was at the time when their company’s motto (apart from the guff about not being evil) was to “organise all the world’s information”. Given that the obvious places to look for large collections of books are university libraries, they decided to start there, so they set out to persuade university librarians to let them scan their holdings.

One of the first institutions they approached was a very large American university: they went to visit its librarian and found him very supportive of their ambitious project. Accordingly, the deal was easily sealed. Afterwards, though, the boys noticed that their librarian friend seemed pensive, and so asked him what was wrong. “Nothing’s wrong,” he replied. “I’m just wondering how we can ensure that these scans will be available to readers in 400 years’ time when Google is no longer around. Because it won’t be.” When the librarian told me the story, he remarked that the two lads looked astonished: the thought that Google might be mortal seemed never to have occurred to them. But of course he was right: the lives of most corporations are short…

Read on

Books, etc.

For family reasons I need to know more about Australia and so happened on Bill Bryson’s book, thinking that it might be a jocular romp around a faraway country about which I knew little. In fact it turns out to be a pretty readable and serious exploration of a unique continent-cum-country. On my first flight to it I remember looking out of the aircraft window and spotting the coast of northern Australia and thinking “oh good, we’re nearly there” (Sydney, our destination). I then spent four hours staring out of the window at brown featureless wastes. Bryson drove to and through many of these wastes in an automobile, and his record of what he discovered and learned was an eye-opener, at least for me.

My commonplace booklet

The best introduction to LLMs (Large Language Models).

Terrific one-hour video by Andrej Karpathy of OpenAI. His slides are also available as a PDF file.

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Friday 24 November, 2023

The Handover

David Runciman, discussing his new book with Helen Lewis in the Cambridge Union last Sunday. See below for a transcript of their conversation.

Quote of the Day

”Good fiction’s job is to comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable.”

  • Slogan on a bookshop’s tote bag

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Van Morrison | Brown Eyed Girl


I’d forgotten how nice this is.

Long Read of the Day

Transcript of the conversation between Helen Lewis and DR on Sunday last.

Helen Lewis

Silicon Valley, which is about building systems and algorithms, is also struggling still with the Great Man theory of history. And I think that’s fascinating. What is the worth of OpenAI without Sam Altman? Is the product the thing or is actually the evangelism of him and what he represents? Which is the same question I think we’re having about “What is Tesla or SpaceX or Twitter/X without Elon Musk?” or “What is Meta without Mark Zuckerberg?”

You touched on this in the book, that we want these things to have agency. So we often find it convenient to assign that all to a person. We want Mark Zuckerberg to be sitting there with a big dial marked racism, turning it up and down on Facebook, rather than it being a chaotic outcome of very complicated systems that have gone beyond the human brain to understand.

David Runciman

One of the themes of my book is that in a mysterious world of all sorts of complicated kinds of agents, we look for the human decision-makers because we’re more comfortable with that. But that does also feed into this creation myth in Silicon Valley.

Silicon Valley would like us to believe that the most successful companies are successful because the people who came up with the idea are the smartest people: Mark Zuckerberg in his dorm room, a man in a shed who has an idea. And it’s such a brilliant idea that it takes over the world. And that is just not true. You can have the most brilliant idea, and if you’re just one person, you will not take over anything but your shed. What takes over the world is the corporate structure that’s built around it….

For ease of reading here’s a pdf of the transcript.

Sam Altman was the trusted face of AI. OpenAI though, is much more complex

My OpEd in last Sunday’s Observer about the strange goings-on at OpenAI, written at a moment where it was entirely unclear what had happened, but seeking an explanation in the convoluted structure of the company. Even with the 20-20 vision of hindsight, it seems that I got to the heart of the matter: if there’s a conflict between ethical concerns and the profit motive, in neoliberal capitalism the latter always wins.

Given that ever since ChatGPT took the world by storm last December, Altman has been the photogenic poster-boy for generative AI – the darling of the mainstream media and an honoured invitee to the corridors of western power – news of his sudden fall from grace launched a torrent of excited speculation in the tech commentariat. Nobody, it seems, actually knew anything, but there was a consensus that Something Was Up.

No doubt we will get to the bottom of the mystery in due course, but for now a more productive line of inquiry might be into the corporate history of OpenAI. For if one wanted to design an ownership structure with conflicts of interest and of responsibility built into it, its byzantine arrangements would be hard to beat….

Books, etc.

Tyler Cowen’s list of the best non-fiction books of 2023.

Hmmm… 28 books and I’ve only read two of them. Sigh.

My commonplace booklet

Cass Sunstein: Why I Am A Liberal

(Or, “34 Theses about my beliefs”.)

NYT column by Samathha Power’s husband arguing that there’s an urgent need for a clear understanding of liberalism — “of its core commitments, of its breadth, of its internal debates, of its evolving character, of its promise, of what it is and what it can be”. I agree about the need. Am not so sure about some of his propositions. Still, the column is an interesting attempt at an explanation, in the form of 34 sets of claims about liberalism.

The final one reads:

Liberals look forward as well as backward. They like to think that the arc of history bends toward justice. William F. Buckley Jr. said that his preferred form of conservatism “stands athwart history, yelling, Stop.” Liberals ask history to explain its plans, and they are prepared to whisper, “Go.”

John Cochrane writes a friendly, if somewhat detached, counterpoint to the essay.


Dolly Parton (Whom God Preserve) has a new album out. It includes this lovely version of Prince’s song, Purple Rain.

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Wednesday 22 November, 2023

A president comes home

JFK’s motorcade, driving down Shop Street in Galway, 29 June, 1963.

Quote of the Day

“It was almost impossible to believe that he was anything but a down-at-heel actor resting between engagements at the decrepit theatres of minor provincial towns.”

  • Bernard Levin on Harold Macmillan (UK Prime Minister 1957-63).

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Marilyn Monroe singing Happy Birthday & Thanks For The Memories to JFK on May 29, 1962


Just over two months later (on August 4), she was dead.

Long Read of the Day

The Secrets of the JFK Assassination Documents

This is a deep dive by Scott Sayare down one of the great rabbit-holes of the 20th century — the question of whether there was a conspiracy to murder JFK in Dallas on November 22, 1963.

Three of the seven members of the Warren Commission eventually disavowed its findings, as did President Johnson. In 1979, after a thoroughgoing reinvestigation, the House Select Committee on Assassinations officially concluded that Kennedy “was probably assassinated as a result of a conspiracy.” But such findings seemed not to penetrate. “In view of the overwhelming evidence that Oswald could not have acted alone (if he acted at all), the most remarkable feature of the assassination is not the abundance of conspiracy theories,” Christopher Lasch, the historian and social critic, remarked in Harper’s, “but the rejection of a conspiracy theory by the ‘best and brightest.’” For complex reasons of history, psychology, and politics, within the American Establishment it remained inadvisable to speak of conspiracy unless you did not mind being labeled a kook.

The question still retains its capacity to fascinate, and this long essay makes for interesting reading. It seems to be boosted by Barbara Shearer’s documentary, What the Doctors Saw, made by convening the physicians who were present in the Parkland Memorial Hospital’s emergency room to which Kennedy was brought after the shooting. The consensus of the medics was that one of bullet wounds in the President’s throat was an entrance wound, which implies that there was another assassin on the famous grassy knoll shooting from the front, as well as Oswald shooting from the Book Depository building from behind.

The trailer for Shearer’s film is here. The movie is streamed on Paramount, to which I don’t have access.

Books, etc.

Ten Reasons why you should read John Stuart Mill’s autobiography

Interesting blog post by Henry Oliver.

Here are the first three:

1.It’s a story about getting out of your intellectual and moral bubble, taking the people you disagree with seriously, and learning from them how to adjust your own deeply held beliefs.

2.Mill had several periods of depression, possibly related to his childhood and the way his father treated him. His remedy was a combination of outward exertion, self-discipline, and cultivating his artistic and naturalistic enjoyments.

3.The Romantic idea that you should “discover yourself” and become the best person you can become is treated very seriously by Mill. Along with the first two, this is one of the main cultural topics of our time.

Keep going…

Chart of the Day

Last Saturday (November 18), the planet’s temperature went past the 2.0 degree Celsius barrier for the first time. It’s temporary — but it’s also a reminder that we’re now in the end game for global warming.

(From Bill McGibben’s blog.)

My commonplace booklet

The Umbrella Man

Errol Morris’s lovely video on a conspiracy theory that wasn’t.

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Monday 20 November, 2023

If there’s one thing to be said for single-glazing…

… it’s nice photo opportunities when one wakes up.

Quote of the Day

”Every decent man is ashamed of the government he lives under.”

  • H.L. Mencken

Relevant to the UK at the present time.

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Van Morrison | Days Like This


One of my all-time favourite songs. It’s so beautifully orchestrated.

Long Read of the Day

 Silicon Valley Fairy Dust

Lovely essay on the Crooked Timber blog by Sherry Turkle.

Silicon Valley companies began life with the Fairy dust of 1960s dreams sprinkled on them. The revolution that 1960s activists dreamed of had failed, but the personal computer movement carried that dream onto the early personal computer industry. Hobbyist fairs, a communitarian language, and the very place of their birth encouraged this fantasy. Nevertheless, it soon became clear that, like all companies, what these companies wanted most of all, was to make money. Not to foster democracy, not to foster community and new thinking, but to make money.

Making money with digital tools in neoliberal capitalism led to four practices that constituted a baseline ideology-in-practice…

Read on. It’s about the way Silicon Valley suggests that technology will cure social problems, while exacerbating the social problems it claims its connectivity will cure. Turkle is one of the great humanistic critics of technology.

Taylorism 2.1 is coming to the workplace

Yesterday’s Observer column

There are,” F Scott Fitzgerald once observed, “no second acts in American lives.” Except when there are. Exhibit A in this connection is Frederick Winslow Taylor (1856-1915), the founder of a religion originally called “scientific management” and now colloquially known as Taylorism. Its founder believed that there was no such thing as skilled work, only “work”, and that all work could be analysed the same way. His idea, set out in The Principles of Scientific Management (1911), was that every worker should be trained into new working habits “until he continually and habitually works in accordance with scientific laws, which have been developed by some one else”, such as managers or time-and-motion experts.

The formula could be boiled down to this: stopwatch plus coercion minus trade unions, and in an age of mass production, it created the world memorably satirised by Charlie Chaplin in his film Modern Times. The management guru Peter Drucker once wrote that Taylor should be ranked with Charles Darwin, Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud as one of the “makers of the modern world”.

Taylor died in 1915, but – guess what? – he’s back, with an updated formula in which the stopwatch has been replaced by the algorithm and coercion by one-sided contracts. The aversion to unionisation remains, though. Plus ça change.

Do read the whole piece.

My commonplace booklet

Daring Fireball: Vision Pro, Spatial Video, and Panoramic Photos

Spoiler alert: this may be of interest only to those interested in technology, photography and Apple’s forthcoming Vision Pro headset.

I found it interesting because I tick all those boxes, and also because I have found Jon Gruber to be a good guide to this stuff. I’m particularly interested in what Apple is doing with the iPhone camera.

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Friday 17 November, 2023

Wood Henge?

Thornham, Norfolk the other day.

Quote of the Day

”Because of the impropriety of entertaining guests of the opposite sex in the bedroom, it is suggested that the lobby be used for this purpose.”

  • Hotel Notice, Zurich

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Wagner – Siegfried Idyll (Proms 2012)


Long Read of the Day

Oops! We Automated Bullshit

Nice blog post by Alan Blackwell, whose day job is representing the Humanities in an elite Computer Science department. It’s tough work but someone’s got to do it.

This post appears in a blog created in 2019 to focus on AI in Africa. Long before the release of ChatGPT, many wondered why AI would be relevant to Africans. But I’m writing in a week when US President Biden published an executive order on AI, and British PM Rishi Sunak listened enthusiastically to Elon Musk promising a magical AI future where nobody needs to work. When the richest man in the world talks up a storm with NATO leaders, Africa will get blown around in those political and economic winds.

Since my fieldwork in Africa, I’ve learned to ask different questions about AI, and in recent months, I’ve started to feel like the boy who questions the emperor’s new clothes. The problem I see, apparently not reported in coverage of Sunak’s AI Summit, is that AI literally produces bullshit.

Alan uses Harry Frankfurt’s definition of ‘bullshit’ from his classic text On Bullshit, in which he explains that the bullshitter “does not reject the authority of truth, as the liar does … He pays no attention to it at all.”

Alan has been thinking about AI long before it was fashionable and his book — Moral Codes: Designing Alternatives to AI — comes out from MIT Press next year. Intriguingly, it’s also available as an online free preview.

My commonplace booklet

Psychology Lost a Great Mind

When a good friend or an admired colleague dies, it’s often hard to try to sum them up in a way that is both warm and not mawkish. The distinguished evolutionary psychology John Tooby was a good friend of Steven Pinker, and he’s written a very nice tribute to him which could serve as a model for how to do this right.

John explored the dark side of human nature unsentimentally, but also our better angels with appropriate awe. Fittingly so, because I can think of no specimen of Homo sapiens who better exemplifies the best of what we’re capable of: astonishing erudition, speed-of-light wit, panoptic curiosity, staggering intellectual power, and saintly good nature. John was jolly, self-effacing, altruistic. He showed that at least one member of our species can confer immense benefits to others regardless of the costs to self. I experienced this during a blessed sabbatical in Santa Barbara when John took time away from his own deadlines to give transformative advice on a draft of How the Mind Works. His influence on me is retroviral, chimeric: so thoroughly embedded in my brain that I can barely distinguish his ways of thinking from my own. The good men do is interred with their bones, and I know that many other colleagues and students are beneficiaries of his largesse…


Some things I noticed, while drinking from the Internet firehose.

  • Google shares 36% of its revenue with Apple The most interesting revelation from the current Google antitrust case came when Google’s final witness, Chicago School economist Kevin Murphy, accidentally let slip that in 2021 Google shared 36% of its search-generated revenues with the organisations that it pays to have Google as the default search engine. In 2021 that 36% came to $26.3B, which means that Google’s search-related revenues totalled just over $73B that year. Ponder that number for a moment. And then the implication that Apple gets most of that $26.3B, because of the dominance of the iPhone and the iPad. (Estimates put the Apple share as somewhere between $50B and $56B.) Why is this so intriguing? Well, in the trial Google is arguing that its huge market share in search is due to the fact that it runs the best search engine. In which case, why is it paying Apple such a huge sum simply to ensure that it’s the default on the platforms that it controls?

  • David Cameron: the Bungler returns. The Economist had some sharp observations about his return to the UK government as Foreign Secretary, no less. “For half a millennium Britain aimed to ensure Europe did not unite against it; as a result of the referendum he promised to call in 2013, Mr Cameron managed it in three short years. He was overly doveish on China. Chinese firms were cajoled into investing in British infrastructure, from telecoms to nuclear power stations—investment that has now largely had to be scraped away like an unwanted Artex ceiling. When Vladimir Putin invaded Crimea in 2014, Britain was supposedly one of Ukraine’s security guarantors yet Mr Cameron allowed France and Germany to take the lead on negotiating a peace.”

  • My friend Quentin on the etymology of ‘Ye’ (as in “Ye Olde Tea Shoppe”.)

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