Friday 1 July, 2022

Quote of the Day

”Where the statue stood
Of Newton with his prism and silent face
The marble image of a mind for ever
Voyaging through strange seas of thought, alone.”

  • Wordsworth, The Prelude.

(Wordsworth was an undergraduate in St John’s College, Cambridge, which is next door to Trinity, in whose chapel the statue of Newton stands.)

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Wagner | Parsifal | Karfreitagszauber (Act 3, Good Friday Music) | Rudolf Kempe


Hypnotically beautiful, even on a normal Friday.

Long Read of the Day

Our Constitution is “actually trash” — but the Supreme Court can be fixed

One of the great mysteries about the US — at least to outsiders — is its astonishing Koranic obsession with ‘originalist’ interpretations of its Constitution, a document which was drafted by slave-owners who enshrined their business model (including a definition of black people as three-fifths human) in the document’s prose.

All of which makes this transcript of a Salon interview with Elie Mystal, the author of a bracing critique of the sacred text, a salutary read.

Here’s a sample:

 You were recently on “The View” talking about your book and created some controversy. The first line in “Let Me Retort” is “Our constitution is not good,” followed up a few paragraphs later with “Our constitution is actually trash.” You’re obviously trying to challenge people. Tell people what your goal is there.

There are two things going on there. One, the veneration that this country has for the Constitution is simply weird. It’s crazy. It’s not what other countries do for their written documents. We act like this thing was etched in stone by the finger of God, when actually it was hotly contested and debated, scrawled out over a couple of weeks in the summer in Philadelphia in 1787, with a bunch of rich, white politicians making deals with each other, right? These politicians were white slavers, white colonizers and white abolitionists — who were nonetheless willing to make deals with slavers and colonists. No person of color was allowed into the convention. Their thoughts were not included. No women were allowed to have a voice or a vote in the drafting of the Constitution. And quite frankly, not even poor white people were allowed to have a voice or a thought in what the Constitution was.

Do read on.

Facial recognition technology is as toxic as plutonium, so why isn’t it outlawed?

Answer: partly because of the inertia of governments, partly because of the resistance of tech companies (with one notable exception) and partly because our laws about biometric surveillance are woefully inadequate.

The first sign that things might be about to change for the better comes from a wide-ranging investigation by a prominent British lawyer that was commissioned by the Ada Lovelace Institute. It’s come up with ten recommendations, of which these are the most important (IMO):

  • There is an urgent need for a new, technologically neutral, statutory framework. Legislation should set out the process that must be followed, and considerations that must be taken into account, by public and private bodies before biometric technology can be deployed against members of the public.
  • The scope of the legislation should extend to the use of biometrics for unique identification of individuals, and for classification. Simply because the use of biometric data does not result in unique identification does not remove the rights-intrusive capacity of biometric systems, and the legal framework needs to provide appropriate safeguards in this area.
  • A legally binding code of practice governing the use of LFR (Live Facial Recognition) should be published as soon as possible. We consider that a specific code of practice for police use of LFR is necessary, but a code of practice that regulates other uses of LFR, including use by private entities and public-private data sharing in the deployment of facial recognition products, is also required urgently.
  • The use of LFR in public should be suspended until the framework envisaged by earlier Recommendations is in place.
  • The regulation and oversight of biometrics should be consolidated, clarified and properly resourced. The overlapping and fragmented nature of oversight at present impedes good governance. We have significant concerns about the proposed incorporation of the role of Biometrics and Surveillance Camera Commissioner into the existing duties of the ICO. We believe that the prominence and importance of biometrics means that it requires either a specific independent role, and/or a specialist Commissioner or Deputy Commissioner within the ICO.

This is a great piece of work. Congrats to the Lovelace Institute for funding and supporting it.

Here we go again

The leak some weeks ago of the US Supreme Court’s intention to reverse Roe v. Wade triggered the expected spike in online disinformation, conspiracy theories, trolling and worse. So we can expect the next spike to be even more intense. And we can also resignedly look forward to the inability or unwillingness of social media companies to take effective remedial action, even though it was pretty clear what was coming down the line.

There is now, though, an interesting added complication. As the Bloomberg ‘Fully Charged’ newsletter put it, the SCOTUS decision

also signals some complex decision-making for the world’s largest tech platforms as the US becomes divided into states where abortion is legal, and states where it is illegal. Companies have historically adjusted their policies to fit geographically-specific legal requirements, and thirteen states have so-called trigger laws that would automatically ban abortions—including, in some of them, laws that would punish citizens for assisting pregnant people in obtaining one. Would the companies’ operations in those states geo-block information that would allow users to access accurate information supporting an abortion decision? These are open questions that we will have to see play out over the next few weeks or months.

We will indeed. It also nicely highlights the way in which what was hitherto a single polity is now fragmenting. And it’s no longer a split on a North-South axis. An American friend I spoke to the other day was speculating that if the US does indeed fragment, it will be into four fragments: the New England group; the old Confederacy; Northern Texas plus California, Oregon and Washington State; and the flyover states in the middle of the country. A bit like the Balkans on steroids.

My commonplace booklet

As readers of this blog will know, Dave Winer is one of my heroes. He’s a gifted software developer with a string of great products and services (including outliners, RSS and podcasting) to his credit. And his blog, which has been been running continuously for 27 years, 8 months, 22 days, 22 hours, 6 minutes and 30 seconds when I last checked, is one of the wonders of the online world.

In recent weeks he’s been reading Elie Mystal’s book (see today’s Long Read above) and thinking about its implications. The other day he recorded a podcast about these in his inimitable, laid-back, unpretentious but compelling style. It’s 28 minutes long but it won’t feel like that.

This Blog is also available as a daily email. If you think that might suit you better, why not subscribe? One email a day, Monday through Friday, delivered to your inbox. It’s free, and you can always unsubscribe if you conclude your inbox is full enough already!

Thursday 30 Jun, 2022

Ultimate Selfies #4

Edward Hopper

Quote of the Day

”The more things a man is ashamed of, the more respectable he is.”

  • George Bernard Shaw

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Paul Simon & George Harrison | Here Comes The Sun & Homeward Bound


Two for the price of one!

Long Read of the Day

 Does Hungary Offer a Glimpse of Our Authoritarian Future?

A few years ago, my colleague David Runciman and I ran a small research project exploring the implications for democracy of digital technology. Our conclusion: the implications aren’t good. One of the outcomes of the project was a nice short book by David — How Democracy Ends — in which he makes the point that those who see echoes of the rise of fascism in our current difficulties are likely to be wrong. If our democracies fail, he argues, they will fail forwards, not backwards (as it were) and in new and unexpected ways. And so, in the years since the book was published, I’ve been looking for clues that might indicate where the fault-lines really lie.

All of which is a long-winded way of explaining why I found this New Yorker essay by Paul Marantz fascinating — and sobering. He too has been thinking about what the future of democracy might look like, and he’s found a possible candidate — the ‘illiberal democracy’ that Viktor Orbán has built in Hungary, a statelet of which the right wing of the US Republican Party seems increasingly enamoured.

It’s a long read but worth it, especially when you consider that this is how it concludes:

Trump may run in 2024, and he may win, fairly or unfairly. What worried me most, sitting in the belly of the Whale, was not the person of Donald Trump but a Republican Party that resembled Orbán’s party, Fidesz, more by the month—increasingly comfortable with naked power grabs, with treating all political opposition as fundamentally illegitimate, with assuming that any checks on its dominance were mere inconveniences to be bypassed by any quasi-legalistic means. “There are many things that the Americans here want to learn from the Hungarians,” Balázs Orbán had told me. “We’re going to keep our heritage for ourselves, our Christian heritage, our ethnic heritage . . . that’s what I think they want to say but they can’t say, and so they point to someone who can say it. If they want us to play that role, we are fine with that.”

Borisland: where money grows on trees

Wonderful Guardian column by Marina Hyde.


In many ways it was impressive to get a whole two days into Boris Johnson’s world statesman tour before it emerged he’d tried to get a Tory donor to fund a £150,000 treehouse for his then infant son. No matter what Commonwealth/G7/Nato posturing comes after that, you’ll have found it rather difficult to suspend your disbelief. It’s like hearing that Churchill whined and whined to get some mid-century sad-sack to buy his grandson a pony. Fine: 30 ponies.

The story of the treehouse somehow still retains the power to shock, if only as a reminder that there really is no beginning to the prime minister’s financial morality. As reported by the Times, Johnson and his wife planned to build an eye-wateringly expensive treehouse in the grounds of Chequers in autumn 2020, potentially funded by the Tory donor Lord Brownlow. “He was told it would look terrible,” a government source told the paper, yet the PM pressed ahead. It was only when the Johnsons’ security staff objected definitively on the basis that the treehouse was visible from the road that the welfare king and queen of Downing Street had to reluctantly abandon their plans. At the time, their son would have been about six months old.

Who builds a baby a treehouse for £150,000, which can currently buy you a three-bedroom semi-detached house in Wakefield? Answer that question without using a four-letter word…

There’s more. Much more.

My commonplace booklet

I’m the Last Bottle of Ketchup at Mar-a-Lago and I Live in a State of Constant Fear

Terrifying tale by Matt Fotis…

Now you know. The explosive January 6th hearing testimony of Cassidy Hutchinson revealed many things, like how the former president wanted to remove metal detectors to let his armed supporters attend the rally and storm the Capitol. Or how he didn’t want to do anything to stop the violence. Or that Mike Pence “deserved it.” Or that he assaulted a Secret Service agent with his tiny hands. In light of recent events, from now until July 1, 25% of all sales of I Know What’s Best For You: Stories on Reproductive Freedom support the Brigid Alliance’s abortion travel services program.

You also now know what I’ve always known — Donald J. Trump is a clear and present danger. Tiny hands may struggle to open a bottle, but they are more than capable of toppling a democracy.

A little about me. I’m a Heinz 57 glass ketchup bottle. That’s really it. I’m not that complicated. I mean, I have a secret blend of fifty-seven…somethings, but other than that, I live a simple life. Like any bottle of ketchup, I want to make the world a better place. I’m sweet. Not everybody likes me, but outside of maniacs in Chicago eating hot dogs, everyone recognizes I’m a force for good.

And I live in constant fear. I don’t remember much about my early days in Pittsburgh, but I’ve spent the last eighteen months at Mar-a-Lago. It’s a house of horrors, and I’m talking about more than just the interior design and the sinkholes…

Do read on. Somebody should do something about this cruelty.

This Blog is also available as a daily email. If you think that might suit you better, why not subscribe? One email a day, Monday through Friday, delivered to your inbox. It’s free, and you can always unsubscribe if you conclude your inbox is full enough already! _______________________ 

Wednesday 29 June, 2022


In our garden yesterday evening. I always think of them as quintessentially English flowers.

Quote of the Day

”Will people in the cheaper seats clap your hands? All the rest of you just rattle your jewellery.”

  • John Lennon, at a Royal Variety Performance, 15 November, 1963

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Handel | Let The Bright Seraphim | Rowan Pierce, soprano | David Blackadder, trumpet | Academy of Ancient Music


Complete with animated score!

Long Read of the Day

 What the **** is the metaverse?

Good question. Here’s Dave Birch doing some thinking aloud about it.

I’ve seen so many different descriptions of the new cyberspace for work, rest and play over the last few months that it’s really unclear to me what most people actually mean by “metaverse”. In fact, despite Gartner’s prediction that by 2026, a quarter of the population will spend at least one hour a day in the metaverse “for work, shopping, education, social and/or entertainment”, I doubt that many in the financial services industry can give a cogent and concise description of what that metaverse itself will be, other than it will be a bit like “Call of Duty” with Mark Zuckerberg dressed as a skeleton in it and there will be a tiger wandering around in a JP Morgan branch in Minecraft…

My commonplace booklet

John Lanchester, writing in the LRB:

“Richard Feynman was once asked what he would pass on if the whole edifice of modern scientific knowledge had been lost, and all he could give to posterity was a single sentence. What axiom would convey the maximum amount of scientific information in the fewest possible words? His candidate was ‘all things are made of atoms.’ In a similar spirit, if the whole ramshackle structure of contemporary macroeconomics vanished into thin air and the field had to be reconstructed from scratch, the sentence which packs as much of the discipline into the fewest possible words might be ‘governments are not households.’ “

This Blog is also available as a daily email. If you think that might suit you better, why not subscribe? One email a day, Monday through Friday, delivered to your inbox. It’s free, and you can always unsubscribe if you conclude your inbox is full enough already!

Tuesday 28 June, 2022

Ultimate Selfies – #2

Albrecht Durer

Quote of the Day

“It is one thing to like defiance, and another thing to like its consequences.”

  • George Eliot

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Paul McCartney | I’ve Got a Feeling | Glastonbury, 2022


This is just one number from the most extraordinary sustained musical performance I’ve ever seen — Paul McCartney’s three-hour marathon at Glastonbury the other night. If you have access to the BBC’s iPlayer (i.e. if you are located in the UK), take three hours off and watch the whole thing. The phrase tour de force doesn’t even come close to capturing it. It was exhilarating, moving, entrancing and unforgettable. And if had this effect on someone watching it on TV, imagine what it must have been like to have been there.

Long Read of the Day

 The Perils Of Smashing The Past

Really perceptive essay in Noema by Nathan Gardels on how aggressive disruption inevitably reaps a whirlwind.

The fearful and fearsome reaction against growing inequality, social dislocation and loss of common identity in the midst of today’s vast wealth creation, unprecedented mobility and ubiquitous connectivity is a mutiny, really, against globalization so audacious and technological change so rapid that it can barely be absorbed by our incremental nature. In this accelerated era, future shock can feel like repeated blows in the living present to individuals, families and communities alike. In this one world, it sometimes seems, a race is on between the newly empowered and the recently dispossessed.

This emergent world appears to us as a wholly unfamiliar rupture from patterns of the past that could frame a reassuring narrative going forward. Rather, the new territory of the future is described by philosophers as “plastic” or “liquid,” shapelessly shifting as each disruptive innovation or abandoned certitude washes away whatever fleeting sense of meaning that was only just embraced. A kind of foreboding of the times that have not yet arrived, a wariness about what’s next, settles in. Novelists like Jonathan Franzen see a “perpetual anxiety” gripping society. Similarly, Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk, citing William Wordsworth, speaks of “a strangeness in my mind,” the sense that “I am not of this hour nor of this place.”

When Mark Zuckerberg exhorted his engineers to “move fast and break things”, he had no idea of the historical resonances of that idea. Likewise, the Italian Futurists had no idea that their 1909 manifesto would one day lead to Mussolini.

It must be clear by now to anyone who’s paying attention that we are now approaching another one of those major historical inflection points. This essay is by an observer who senses the tremors of the coming earthquake.

We’re the Supreme Court and, Honestly, We Just Want You All to Die

Nicely withering satire by Jessica M. Goldstein…

Hey, America, it’s us, the Supreme Court of the United States. We heard you shouting outside our houses that one time, which was really scary. But we’re ready to have a conversation now, by which we mean, we’re ready to talk and we hope you’re ready to listen.

We understand that you’ve been watching some of these latest rulings come down—overturning a New York law limiting gun use in public, all but stripping away your Miranda rights—and are wondering… what the hell? We realize that we’ve failed to communicate a crucial piece of information to you, one that would make all of our decisions make a whole lot more sense. So here goes: We’re actually trying to kill you.

That’s it. That’s our whole deal. We here at the Supreme Court just love watching people die. Americans, specifically. But also people from other countries. Pretty much everyone. In this and only this arena, we don’t discriminate. We didn’t think we’d need to spell it out for you. We haven’t exactly been subtle about it. Have you seen our outfits? We’re fully cosplaying as the Grim Reaper…

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Monday 27 June, 2022

Consider the Lily

Cycling home the other day, I noticed an intriguing white spot that had suddenly appeared in the roadside hedge.

On closer inspection it turned out to be a glorious lily

We fell to wondering how it got there. It was certainly not planted by a human. A bird-dropping, perhaps? But what a glorious thing to see on one’s way home.

Quote of the Day

“History teaches, but has no pupils.”

  • Antonio Gramsci

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Fauré | Requiem | Introit et Kyrie | John Rutter | The Cambridge Singers and the City of London Sinfonia


The only thing that came to mind after reading the SCOTUS judgment below.

What the Supremes decided

From a useful summary by the Jurist site…

Basically that there is no constitutional right to abortion, overturning the epochal decisions Roe v. Wade (1973) and Planned Parenthood v. Casey (1992). The case that triggered the decision involved the state of Mississippi’s Gestational Age Act that had been passed in 2018 and outlaws abortions after 15 weeks with few exceptions (except when the mother’s life is threatened).

The majority opinion, written by Justice Samuel Alito, upheld Mississippi’s law and found that the US Constitution does not protect a right to abortion:

We hold that Roe and Casey must be overruled. The Constitution makes no reference to abortion, and no such right is implicitly protected by any constitutional provision, including the one on which the defenders of Roe and Casey now chiefly rely—the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. That provision has been held to guarantee some rights that are not mentioned in the Constitution, but any such right must be “deeply rooted in this Nation’s history and tradition” and “implicit in the concept of ordered liberty.” The right to abortion does not fall within this category.

The implication of the decision is that abortion law is up to individual states, which is deeply worrying since many of them are controlled by the Republicans, and some already have ‘trigger laws’ that could come into force soon or even immediately. Since some states (like California), permit abortion, anti-abortion states might try to make it illegal for women to cross state lines in search of an abortion. If they do, then I guess that that would get aggressive states into constitutional trouble.

But I’m no lawyer.

Alito’s point about the the Roe and Casey cases succeeding by relying on the Due Process Clause in the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution is interesting. The Amendment (according to Wikipedia) addressed “citizenship rights and equal protection under the law and was proposed in response to issues related to former slaves following the American Civil War” and — says Alito — has been held to guarantee some rights not mentioned in the Constitution — but only rights that are “deeply rooted in this Nation’s history and tradition” and “implicit in the concept of ordered liberty.” But then he asserts that “the right to abortion “does not fall within this category”.

Eh? Roe v. Wade was decided 50 years ago. So for half a century the idea that a woman had a constitutional right to abortion has been a fixed element in the US legal and jurisdictional system. If that doesn’t make it “deeply rooted in this nation’s history and tradition” what does?

Looming over this, though, is an even darker prospect. SCOTUS has decided that states are free to do whatever they want to in this area. But if the Republicans win control of both houses in November, then they may attempt to pass a Federal law outlawing abortion. In which case the Taliban will really be in control.


From the Economist, Sunday evening…

In 13 states (Arkansas, Idaho, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah and Wyoming) trigger bans now follow the court’s decision. This means laws are coming into force to ban abortion there. And other bans will surely follow soon, as America develops a patchwork of differing legal regimes around abortion. Expect schemes to get under way that help women to get abortions elsewhere if they live in abortion-hostile states, for example through special funding to pay for travel and medical expenses. After the fallout of the Supreme Court’s decision, America will be more dangerously divided.

Long Read of the Day

We’re Not Going Back to the Time Before Roe v. Wade. We’re Going Somewhere Worse

We are now watching the disintegration of the American Republic in real time. The SCOTUS decision may ostensibly about abortion, but what it really highlights is the way a new kind of Taliban is in the process of taking over the society. This fine New Yorker piece by Jia Tolentino outlines a future in which a country that used to pride itself as being a beacon for democracy across the world morphs into something like an affluent version of Afghanistan.

“We won’t go back” — it’s an inadequate rallying cry, prompted only by events that belie its message. But it is true in at least one sense. The future that we now inhabit will not resemble the past before Roe, when women sought out illegal abortions and not infrequently found death. The principal danger now lies elsewhere, and arguably reaches further. We have entered an era not of unsafe abortion but of widespread state surveillance and criminalization—of pregnant women, certainly, but also of doctors and pharmacists and clinic staffers and volunteers and friends and family members, of anyone who comes into meaningful contact with a pregnancy that does not end in a healthy birth. Those who argue that this decision won’t actually change things much—an instinct you’ll find on both sides of the political divide—are blind to the ways in which state-level anti-abortion crusades have already turned pregnancy into punishment, and the ways in which the situation is poised to become much worse.

In the states where abortion has been or will soon be banned, any pregnancy loss past an early cutoff can now potentially be investigated as a crime. Search histories, browsing histories, text messages, location data, payment data, information from period-tracking apps—prosecutors can examine all of it if they believe that the loss of a pregnancy may have been deliberate. Even if prosecutors fail to prove that an abortion took place, those who are investigated will be punished by the process, liable for whatever might be found…

How many weeks will elapse, one wonders before Google searches for information about abortion will start to be subpoenaed in Mississippi and elsewhere?

And what about those poor little frozen embryos?

An excerpt from the Editorial in the current issue of The New England Journal of Medicine, June 24, 2022, brings up a thought that may not have troubled the justices who reversed the precedent. This is how it goes:

New laws in a post-Roe America declaring that life begins at conception may have additional ramifications. In vitro fertilization (IVF) did not exist before Roe. Since its development in 1978, use of IVF has grown, and 2% of all U.S. births now result from assisted reproductive technology, IVF procedures usually result in numerous oocytes ovulated per cycle, and fertilization frequently creates numerous embryos. Because modern IVF practice favors single-embryo transfers whenever possible, to reduce risks of multiple gestation and attendant complications, unused embryos are generally frozen for potential future transfer. Nationwide, there are tens of thousands of human embryos cryopreserved in IVF laboratories. While “adoption” programs exist to allow persons to donate their unused embryos to others who would like to implant them, many people are uncomfortable with this option, and unused embryos are often destroyed. If these embryos are declared human lives by the stroke of a governor’s pen, their destruction may be outlawed. What will be the fate of abandoned embryos, of the people who “abandon” them, and more broadly of IVF centers in these jurisdictions?

The NJEM is, I guess, the premier medical journal in the US, and the Editorial is worth reading in full.

Thanks to Andrew Arends for alerting me to it.

Why Facebook et al are so worried by TikTok

Yesterday’s Observer column:

Over the last couple of years it’s been taking over the social media world, and all the other big platforms – and especially Facebook – seem hypnotised by it, much as rabbits are by the headlights of an oncoming lorry.

Why is this? It’s partly a matter of demographics: 57% of TikTok users are female; 43% are aged between 18 and 24; and only 3.4% are over 55 (and possibly wandered in to TikTok by mistake when they were looking for their true online home, which is now Facebook). You can tell that this hurts because in August 2020 Instagram (which is owned by Facebook/Meta) launched Reels, an editing tool that allowed users to create 15-second video clips and set them to music. Just like TikTok, in fact, only feebler.

The existential threat that TikTok poses to the social media giants, though, is not demographic: it’s about attention.

Read on

My commonplace booklet

Dave Winer (Whom God Preserve) proposed this nice metaphor for what’s happening to a US governed by people who think that a constitution written in the 1780s and ratified in 1788 is still a useful guide to governance of a complex industrial society.

The Constitution is like an operating system. The one we have was designed for slavery. But then a few decades after the Bill of Rights we changed our mind, and decided not to have slavery. It’s like going from character-based to GUI. but we never wrote a new OS.

On that metaphor, SCOTUS is still in the MS-DOS era. And just as the Constitution doesn’t mention abortion, MS-DOS didn’t mention TCP/IP, the Web or social-media.

This Blog is also available as a daily email. If you think that might suit you better, why not subscribe? One email a day, Monday through Friday, delivered to your inbox. It’s free, and you can always unsubscribe if you conclude your inbox is full enough already!

Friday 24 June, 2022

Ultimate Selfies – #1

Degas: self-portrait in a soft hat.

Quote of the Day

”Yet her conception of God was certainly not orthodox. She felt towards Him as she she might have felt towards a glorified sanitary engineer; and in some of her speculations she seems hardly to distinguish between the Deity and the Drains.”

  • Lytton Strachey on Florence Nightingale in his Eminent Victorians (one of my favourite books).

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Jimmy Crowley | Salonika


If you want an example of sardonic anti-militaristic mockery, then this is hard to beat. A Cork woman who’s married to an Irish soldier in the British army during WW1 is musing on her situation. ‘Salonika’ is the Greek city of Thessaloniki, home to a British military base at the time. Men in Cork who avoided joining the British army were known as ‘Slackers’.

The lyrics are a scream. For example:

They tax their pound o’ butter
They tax their ha’penny bun
But still with all their taxes
Thеy can’t beat the bloody Hun.

Or the (nationalist) moral of the story:

And never marry a soldier
A sailor or a Marine
But keep your eye in the Sinn Fein boy
With his yellow, white and green.

You need a strong Cork accent to do this properly, and Jimmy Crowley meets that requirement perfectly.

Long Read of the Day

Exorcising a New Machine

An interesting take by David Kordahl on the LaMDA controversy .

Here’s a brief story about two friends of mine. Let’s call them A. Sociologist and A. Mathematician, pseudonyms that reflect both their professions and their roles in the story. A few years ago, A.S. and A.M. worked together on a research project. Naturally, A.S. developed the sociological theories for their project, and A.M. developed the mathematical models. Yet as the months passed, they found it difficult to agree on the basics. Each time A.M. showed A.S. his calculations, A.S. would immediately generate stories about them, spinning them as illustrations of social concepts he had just now developed. From A.S.’s point of view, of course, this was entirely justified, as the models existed to illustrate his sociological ideas. But from A.M.’s point of view, this pushed out far past science, into philosophy. Unable to agree on the meaning or purpose of their shared efforts, they eventually broke up.

This story was not newsworthy (it’d be more newsworthy if these emissaries of the “two cultures” had actually managed to get along), but I thought of it last week while I read another news story—that of the Google engineer who convinced himself a company chatbot was sentient…

I found this interesting because it was about an argument into which I had naively wandered in my Observer column.

I also liked Bill Benzon’s comment, just under the essay, especially his observation that LaMDA-type engines don’t just do what they’re programmed to do. In a way, that’s the key to understanding machine-learning systems.

In Bill’s terms:

I’m definitely with you on both sides of this: No, LaMDA is not sentient, but Yes, something very important is going on and Lemoine’s reaction is not as silly as some would have us believe. As I argue right in around the corner, in my current 3QD piece, Welcome to the Fourth Arena – The World is Gifted, our basic conceptual repertoire likely dates back to the late 19th century and fits that world rather well. That’s a world that had mechanical calculators and tabulators, and so those concepts could cope with much of what digital computers have been doing, like tabulating census figures or calculating artillery tables (early applications).

But these new engines, like LaMDA, aren’t like that. They aren’t even programmed as we’ve been told computers are programmed. They don’t do just what they’re programmed to do. They have a peculiar kind of semi-autonomy.

That leaves us with two conceptual problems. The experts need to figure out just what these things are doing. They’re working on that. I’ve been reading some interesting work. But then there’s the general understanding. Most of us are not going to work up the expertise needed to follow technical accounts of what these things do. But we still need to think about them. We need to do better than fall back on the now-outdated dichotomy between (elaborate albeit) inanimate contraptions and living minds.

Understanding the Disunited States

If you haven’t had time to follow the House investigation of the January 6 ‘insurrection’ in the Capitol by Trump followers, then this episode of the New York Times’s ‘The Daily’ podcast is worth a listen. It’s 40 minutes long, so make some coffee first.

This Blog is also available as a daily email. If you think that might suit you better, why not subscribe? One email a day, Monday through Friday, delivered to your inbox. It’s free, and you can always unsubscribe if you conclude your inbox is full enough already!

Thursday 23 June, 2022

Across the Bay

The view from Ventry, one of my favourite beaches in Kerry.

Quote of the Day

”Police had enough officers on the scene of the Uvalde school massacre to have stopped the gunman three minutes after he entered the building, and they never checked a classroom door to see if it was locked, the head of the Texas state police testified Tuesday, pronouncing the law enforcement response an ‘abject failure.'”

The Texas Tribune goes deep on the story. Officers in Uvalde were ready with guns, shields and tools — but not clear orders. “During most of those 77 minutes, despite the urgent pleas from officers and parents amassed outside, officers stayed put outside rooms 111 and 112, stationed on either end of a wide hallway with sky blue and green walls and bulletin boards displaying children’s artwork. Ramos fired at least four sets of rounds — including the initial spray of fire that likely killed many of his victims instantaneously.” (What if this story is really about a group of police officers who were just plain afraid to enter a room where there was a person armed with a killing machine no sane society would make available for easy purchase? What if that’s really the abject failure?)”

  • Dave Pell

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Peter Maxwell Davies | Farewell to Stromness


Long Read of the Day

Seamus Heaney, pseudonym ‘Incertus’

Roy Foster has this lovely essay about Seamus Heaney which I think is taken from his forthcoming book. This is how it opens:

When he first began to publish poems, Seamus Heaney’s chosen pseudonym was ‘Incertus’, meaning ‘not sure of himself’. Characteristically, this was a subtle irony. While he referred in later years to a ‘residual Incertus’ inside himself, his early prominence was based on a sure-footed sense of his own direction, an energetic ambition, and his own formidable poetic strengths. It was also based on a respect for his readers which won their trust. ‘Poetry’s special status among the literary arts’, he suggested in a celebrated lecture, ‘derives from the audience’s readiness to . . . credit the poet with a power to open unexpected and unedited communications between our nature and the nature of the reality we inhabit’. Like T. S. Eliot, a constant if oblique presence in his writing life, he prized gaining access to ‘the auditory imagination’ and what it opened up: ‘a feeling for syllable and rhythm, penetrating far below the levels of conscious thought and feeling, invigorating every word’. His readers felt they shared in this.

The external signs of Heaney’s inner certainty of direction, coupled with his charisma, style, and accessibility, could arouse resentment among grievance-burdened critics, or poets who met less success than they believed themselves to deserve. He overcame this, and other obstacles, with what has been called his ‘extemporaneous eloquence’ and by determinedly avoiding pretentiousness: he possessed what he called, referring to Robert Lowell, ‘the rooted normality of the major talent’. At the same time, he looked like nobody else, and he sounded like nobody else. A Heaney poem carried its maker’s name on the blade, and often it cut straight to the bone.

Foster is an extraordinarily graceful writer. Princeton has found the right man for the job of celebrating ‘Famous Seamus’.

Do read it.

How TikTok triggered a books revolution

Nice Guardian piece by Claire Armistead on the unlikely way TikTok has energised book publishing.

Verily, this is something nobody could have predicted.

It’s four o’clock on a sunny Saturday afternoon and the Krispy Kreme doughnut stall is doing a brisk trade at Lakeside shopping centre, a huge mall in Essex. But a few metres further along, young shoppers are salivating over a different sort of treat. A girl in a silky red dress runs her fingers along the spines of nine novels by bestselling YA author Colleen Hoover, while a couple of twentysomething men in biker jackets pore over shelves of manga comics. They’re in a Waterstones that has been laid out like a pick-and-mix stall, with brightly jacketed paperbacks piled on round tables, or grouped seductively in booths, under headings such as “Romance” or “LGBTQ+”. Alice Oseman’s Heartstopper – a graphic novel series about a love affair between two schoolboys that’s now a Netflix show – has a table to itself.

All this is down to #BookTok, a niche on the platform TikTok that became a social media sensation in the early months of Covid, and has been gathering momentum ever since. “We used to rely on millennials,” says the store’s 30-year-old manager, Peter. “But now the majority of our customers are teenagers, who have money and influence and want to find their own stories. A lot of black and Asian authors are coming through. I always wanted to have an LGBTQ section and now it wouldn’t make sense not to. It’s exciting. You can see publishing changing. It’s made it fun to come into work.”

My commonplace booklet

‘I’ll tell you what – there are no queues like this in England’

David Puttnam becomes an Irish citizen. Link

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Wednesday 22 June, 2022

Now we see you…

… now we don’t.

Discarded CCTV kit. Cambridge.

Quote of the Day

”It’s impossible to enjoy idling thoroughly unless one has plenty of work to do.”

  • Jerome K. Jerome

He’s right. I can testify to it.

Apologies to Sylvia Beach

When I used this photograph of James Joyce on the day of publication of Ulysses I mistakenly named the woman in the picture as Harriet Weaver, when in fact it was Sylvia Beach who, among other things, published the novel!

It was a really stupid error on my part, and many thanks to the readers who gently pointed it out.

My explanation is the same as the one Samuel Johnson famously gave to the woman who asked him how he could have made the error of wrongly defining ‘pastern’ as ‘the knee of a horse’. “Ignorance, Madam, pure ignorance”, he replied.

As Denis Healey’s First Law of Holes puts it, when in a hole, stop digging.

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Sinéad O’Connor | Raglan Road


A version I’ve just discovered of a favourite song.

Long Read of the Day

Old, Not Other

Fine Aeon essay by Kate Kirkpatrick & Sonia Kurds asking why we neglect and disdain the one vulnerable group we all eventually will join? And arguing that Simone de Beauvoir had an answer.

On Beauvoir’s view, most societies prefer to shut their eyes rather than see ‘abuses, scandals, and tragedies’ – they opt for the ease of accepting what is, instead of the self-scrutiny and struggle that is required to envision and enact what life could be. Speaking of her own society, she claims that it cared no more about orphans, young offenders or the disabled than it did about the old. However, what she finds astonishing about the latter case is that ‘every single member of the community must know that his future is in question; and almost all of them have close personal relationships with some old people’. So what explains this failure to face our future, to see the humanity in all human life?

The answer to the question is what Beauvoir called “bad faith”.
Worth reading just to see how the authors sketch it out.

My commonplace booklet

Cats with jobs Link

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Tuesday 21 June, 2022

The Royalist Mail

Derbyshire, Saturday.

Quote of the Day

”It is more important that a proposition be interesting than that it be true.”

  • A.N. Whitehead

A good example of how a distinguished philosopher can sometimes talk nonsense.

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Sony Terry and Brownie McGee | Bring it on home to me


Who knew a harmonica could do stuff like this?

Long Read of the Day

 No Minds Without Other Minds

Longish, thoughtful essay by the philosopher Justin E.H. Smith triggered by the controversy over the question of whether Google’s LaMDA conversational system is ‘sentient’ — a controversy into which I seem to have inadvertently blundered with my Observer column on Sunday. It turned out that I was engaged in what Justin Smith calls “epistemic trespassing” — i.e. wandering into other people’s intellectual turf — a crime to which I plead guilty.

Anyway, I read his essay with interest and pleasure. This is how he begins:

I would like at least to begin here an argument that supports the following points. First, we have no strong evidence of any currently existing artificial system’s capacity for conscious experience, even if in principle it is not impossible that an artificial system could become conscious. Second, such a claim as to the uniqueness of conscious experience in evolved biological systems is fully compatible with naturalism, as it is based on the idea that consciousness is a higher-order capacity resulting from the gradual unification of several prior capacities —embodied sensation, notably— that for most of their existence did not involve consciousness. Any AI project that seeks to skip over these capacities and to rush straight to intellectual self-awareness on the part of the machine is, it seems, going to miss some crucial steps. However, finally, there is at least some evidence at present that AI is on the path to consciousness, even without having been endowed with anything like a body or a sensory apparatus that might give it the sort of phenomenal experience we human beings know and value. This path is, namely, the one that sees the bulk of the task of becoming conscious, whether one is an animal or a machine, as lying in the capacity to model other minds.

I hope you enjoy this as much as I did.

Postscript to the above

In the Observer I had written what I hoped was an ironical piece, which ended with a hypothetical question:

“What would Google’s response be if it realised that it actually had a sentient machine on its hands? And to whom would it report, assuming it could be bothered to defer to a mere human?”

My esteemed editors, however, had given the column the headline “Why is Google so alarmed by the prospect of a sentient machine?” and added the lede “The tech giant seems to be running scared over an engineer’s claim that its language model has feelings.”

Since many readers are probably unaware that newspaper columnists never get to compose the headlines under which their work appears, I was (naturally) taken to task by some who thought that those two sentences represented my own views on the matter, or that I agreed with Blake Lemoine, the Google engineer whose conversations with LaMDA sparked off the controversy.

But that’s all by the way. I don’t have a dog in this fight, as we say in Ireland. What Justin Smith points out is that we shouldn’t confuse ‘sentience’ with ‘consciousness’ and I agree.

A (rare) victory for public interest journalism in the UK

The Observer’s Editorial on the victory of my colleague Carole Cadwalladr in a landmark libel case.

See also Nick Cohen’s fine piece in the Spectator.

The courts should not become a luxury product, like prime property in Mayfair or Beluga caviar, sold in the global marketplace, and with prices to match, rather than an affordable means of delivering justice to the people of this country. You have to be very rich or very brave not to back away.

Carole Cadwalladr was brave. Banks sued her personally. She had said as an aside in a TED talk entitled ‘Facebook’s role in Brexit – and the threat to democracy’ that: ‘I am not even going to get into the lies that Arron Banks has told about his covert relationship with the Russian Government,’ and repeated much the same in a follow-up tweet.

Rather than sue the owners of the immensely successful TED franchise, Banks, who has always strongly denied the allegations against him and has indicated he will likely appeal against the judgement this week, went for her. Most of us would have backed down and offered a grovelling apology in the face of the stupendous financial penalty if we fought and lost such a case. Thanks to her inner-strength and the generosity of her social media followers, Cadwalladr decided to fight…

Great stuff.

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Monday 20 June, 2022

Bloomsday reports

We had our Bloomsday lunch in Cambridge on Thursday — burgundy and gorgonzola sandwiches and numerous readings from the great book. But, in sartorial terms, I’m afraid that our little gathering wasn’t a patch on this assembly of Delhi Joyceans, of which Simon Roberts volunteered this splendid photograph.

JJ — himself a natty dresser when in funds (see picture below of him with Harriet Weaver) would have admired the chap in the splendid blue suit.

(from the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin.)

Quote of the Day

”Olga Khmil, one of Molfar’s intelligence analysts, says Russia is now using group channels in messaging apps like Telegram to aim its artillery better. Russians pretending to be Ukrainians on these channels feign fear of shelling in order to elicit information about infrastructure that has and has not been hit. On May 24th the sbu revealed an even more devious approach to such espionage. The agency said it had discovered that Russian intelligence was using smartphone games to induce unwitting youngsters to snap and upload geotagged photos of critical infrastructure, military and civilian. In exchange, players receive virtual prizes of no value outside the video-game world. And Russia gets to wreck their country.”

  • from an Economist report on the artillery battle in Donbas.

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Eels | Grace Kelly Blues


Came to mind yesterday when “Grace Kelly” happened to be the answer to a crossword clue: “Devious clergy leak real name of princess (5,5).

Long Read of the Day

French Cigarettes and a Lot of Coffee

Lovely review essay by Rebecca Brenner Graham in the LA Review of Books on Skye Cleary’s forthcoming book, How to Be Authentic: Simone de Beauvoir and the Quest for Fulfillment.

As my Introduction to Philosophy professor, only half-joking, posited, “You can be an existentialist, but you have to dress in black and smoke French cigarettes and drink a lot of coffee and believe that life is pointless.” In Existential America, historian George Cotkin elaborates on how an image of black turtlenecks and black coffee and the celebrities of Simone de Beauvoir, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Albert Camus were imported from France to the United States in the mid-20th century.

Although existentialist philosophers rarely labeled themselves as such or agreed on a definition of what they were doing, existentialism is a coherent and sound philosophy. It begins with the claim that “existence precedes essence,” meaning that people enter the world (they exist) before they can be said to have a fixed definition (or essence). They are free to create their own essence, and with this freedom comes responsibility…

This rings a lot of bells for me. My late wife Carol wrote an MPhil dissertation in the early 1970s on Simone de Beauvoir, and indeed interviewed the great lady herself, so Sartre and de Beauvoir were much discussed round our breakfast table. I would love to have been able to wear a black turtleneck, but they were above my pay grade in those straitened student times.

Boris Johnson’s plan to break international law

Nice succinct analysis by Professor Mark Elliott. Nine minutes of informed sense. Thanks to [Quentin]( for the link.

Why is Google so alarmed by the prospect of a sentient machine?

Yesterday’s Observer column:

Some people regard GPT-3 as a genuine milestone in the evolution of artificial intelligence; it had passed the eponymous test proposed by Alan Turing in 1950 to assess the ability of a machine to exhibit intelligent behaviour equivalent to, or indistinguishable from, that of a human. Sceptics pointed out that training the machine had taken unconscionable amounts of computing power (with its attendant environmental footprint) to make a machine that had the communication capabilities of a youngish human. One group of critics memorably described these language machines as “stochastic parrots” (stochastic is a mathematical term for random processes).

All the tech giants have been building these parrots. Google has one called Bert – it stands for bidirectional encoder representations from transformers, since you ask. But it also has a conversational machine called LaMDA (from language model for dialog applications). And one of the company’s engineers, Blake Lemoine, has been having long conversations with it, from which he made some inferences that mightily pissed off his bosses…

Read on

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