Monday 4 March, 2024


Quote of the Day

I went from adolescence to senility, trying to bypass maturity.

  • Tom Lehrer

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Linda Ronstadt and Dolly Parton ! I Never Will Marry


Long Read of the Day

Marshall McLuhan: Prophet

The crowd who run the Free Press Substack has had an idea for a new series. Every Saturday for the next several weeks, they will have an essay on “an activist, scientist, writer, or thinker who somehow knew what would happen years or decades after their deaths”. Their opening ‘prophet’ is Marshall McLuhan.

Here’s how Benjamin Carlson kicks off:

You are reading this essay because Marshall McLuhan, in some sense, planned for it.

In the mid-1960s, when he exploded onto the American pop-cultural scene—which was also planned; more about this in a moment—he decided to embrace television.

This was not because he was born for TV. He was too “hot” for the medium (in the McLuhanesque sense of being uptight), as he famously said of Richard Nixon about his presidential debate loss to the “cool” John F. Kennedy.

Rather, McLuhan used TV because he, more than anyone of his time, understood how electric technology was transforming society and, even then, had already transformed it.

He knew that whether he liked it or not, TV was where he had to be. His mission was to wake people up—to “needle the somnambulists,” as he put it…

It’s an interesting essay. I’ve long thought that some of McLuhan’s ideas were relevant to our digital age (and in fact once gave a keynote talk about him) and his famous aphorism that “the medium is the message”. I still think that every time I see people taking to Twitter/X.

AI’s insatiable need for water and energy

Yesterday’s Observer column:

One of the most pernicious myths about digital technology is that it is somehow weightless or immaterial. Remember all that early talk about the “paperless” office and “frictionless” transactions? And of course, while our personal electronic devices do use some electricity, compared with the washing machine or the dishwasher, it’s trivial.

Belief in this comforting story, however, might not survive an encounter with Kate Crawford’s seminal book, Atlas of AI, or the striking Anatomy of an AI System graphic she composed with Vladan Joler. And it certainly wouldn’t survive a visit to a datacentre – one of those enormous metallic sheds housing tens or even hundreds of thousands of servers humming away, consuming massive amounts of electricity and needing lots of water for their cooling systems.

On the energy front, consider Ireland, a small country with an awful lot of datacentres. Its Central Statistics Office reports that in 2022 those sheds consumed more electricity (18%) than all the rural dwellings in the country, and as much as all Ireland’s urban dwellings…

Read on

Films, etc.

We went to see Tran Anh Hung’s film The Taste of Things the other day and loved it. Set in 1899, it’s about the romance between a passionate gourmet Dodin (played by Benoit Magimel) and his cook Eugenie (played by Juliette Binoche). But really it’s a film about fin-de-siecle rural France, the importance of cooking and food, love and loss. As someone who loves rural France, and goes there every Summer, I was of course a sucker for it. And the next day I set to and cooked a Coq au Vin which — even though my countrymen often ridicule it as “chicken in a lorry” — was (IMHO) delicious, though alas not up to Dodin’s standards. Still…

The trailer is here. Guardian review here.


Something I noticed, while drinking from the Internet firehose.

Electric bikes actually give more exercise than pedal bikes

Eh? That’s what this piece claims. On the other hand, it’s from an outfit that sells electric stuff. Caveat lector.

  This Blog is also available as an email three days a week. If you think that might suit you better, why not subscribe? One email on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays delivered to your inbox at 6am UK time. It’s free, and you can always unsubscribe if you conclude your inbox is full enough already!

Friday 1 March, 2024

Things to come

It is, after all, the 1st of March.

Quote of the Day

When you make motion pictures, each picture is a life unto itself. When you finish and the picture is over, there’s an understanding, a realisation that we’ll never be assembled this way again. That these relationships are severed forever and ever. And each of these films is a little life.

  • John Huston

I thought of this as the credits rolled at my first viewing of his beautiful film, The Dead. It was his last movie, and he directed it from a wheelchair.

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Erik Satie | Gymnopédie No.1


Long Read of the Day

Developing AI Like Raising Kids

This is a transcript of a remarkable conversation between two remarkable people — Alison Gopnik and Ted Chiang. It’s the most insightful thing I’ve read on the craziness of the current conviction of the AI crowd (Altman & Co) that extrapolation of machine-learning technology will one day get us to human-level intelligence.

Here’s a snatch of one part of the conversation that gives a flavour of the interaction;

Chiang: One of the guiding questions for me when I was writing Lifecycle of Software Objects was “How do you make a person?” At some level, it seems like a simple thing, but the more you think about it, you realize that it is the hardest job in the world. It is maybe the job that requires the most wrestling with difficult ethical questions, but the fact that so many people raise children makes it very easy to devalue it. We tend to congratulate people who have written a novel or something like that, because relatively few people write novels. A lot of people have children! A lot of people raise children to adulthood! And what they have accomplished is something incredible.

Gopnik: Just in terms of the cognitive difficulty level, it’s an amazing accomplishment. One of the things that we’ve been thinking about in the context of the Social Science Group is that the very structure of what it means to raise a person is so different from the structure of almost everything else that we do. So usually what we do is we have some set of goals, we produce a bunch of actions, insofar as our actions lead to our goals, we think that we’ve been successful. Insofar as they don’t, we don’t. But of course, if you’re trying to create a person, the point is that you’re not trying to achieve your goals, you’re trying to give them autonomy and resources that will let them achieve their own goals, and even let them formulate their own goals.

If you are puzzled by the current ‘AI’ madness, do read this transcript.

Having read it, I bought Exhalation the collection of Ted Chiang’s stories which includes the novella, Lifecycle of Software Objects, that he mentions in the conversation.

I’ve been reading his non-fiction essays on AI for a while — e.g.”Silicon Valley is Turning into its Own Worst Fear and ”Will AI Become the New McKinsey?”. Like Gopnik, he’s one of the most perceptive thinkers about this stuff.

Books, etc.

Kara Swisher’s new book

The New York Times’s reviewer is not impressed. Here’s how he sums it up:

Her forthrightness goes some way in helping us believe that “Burn Book” doesn’t merely represent a convenient pivot, as they say, from Tech royalty to Tech heretic at a time when strident industry criticism is trending hard. But “Burn Book”’s fatal flaw, the reason it can never fully dispel the whiff of opportunism that dooms any memoir, is that Swisher never shows in any convincing detail how her entanglement with Silicon Valley clouded her judgment. The story of her change of heart is thus undercut by the self-aggrandizing portrait that rests stubbornly at its core. “At least now we know the problems,” Swisher writes of Silicon Valley at the end of “Burn Book.” Do we?

My commonplace booklet

From John Thornhill in the FT of 3 February:

The tendency of generative artificial intelligence systems to “hallucinate” — or simply make stuff up — can be zany and sometimes scary, as one New Zealand supermarket chain found to its cost. After Pak’nSave released a chatbot last year offering recipe suggestions to thrifty shoppers using leftover ingredients, its Savey Meal-bot recommended one customer make an “aromatic water mix” that would have produced chlorine gas.

Lawyers have also learnt to be wary of the output of generative AI models, given their ability to invent wholly fictitious cases. A recent Stanford University study of the responses generated by three state of the art generative AI models to 200,000 legal queries found hallucinations were “pervasive and disturbing”. When asked specific, verifiable questions about random federal court cases, OpenAI’s ChatGPT 3.5 hallucinated 69 per cent of the time while Meta’s Llama 2 model hit 88 per cent.

This Blog is also available as an email three days a week. If you think that might suit you better, why not subscribe? One email on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays delivered to your inbox at 6am UK time. It’s free, and you can always unsubscribe if you conclude your inbox is full enough already!

Wednesday 28 February, 2024

Bathtime, London

Spotted while walking to a meeting.

Quote of the Day

”A healthy male adult bore consumes each year one and a half times his own weight in other people’s patience.”

  • John Updike

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

The KPIG Fine Swine Orchestra | Ripple


I had such nice feedback about the Grateful Dead’s performance of Ripple that I dug out this alternative version of the song that went viral during the pandemic. The technical skill that goes into producing something as good as this is remarkable. It’s also a reminder of a very strange time in all our lives.

Long Read of the Day

Things don’t only get better

Another firecracker from Helen Beetham.


In my post on AI rights and human harms I said that general models (such as ChatGPT) may not keep getting better and better, despite all the claims of ‘exponential’ improvement and ‘artificial general intelligence’ being only a few upgrades away. I based this thought partly on reading experts in cognitive science, like Iris van Rooij and her colleagues, who find the idea of an ‘artificial general intelligence’ ‘intrinsically computationally intractable’ and conclude that currently existing AI systems are ‘at best decoys’. I based it partly on reading experts in general modelling (see my post on Sora). But mainly I based it on the business behaviour of our silicon chiefs, who are clearly more interested in pimping chatbot interfaces and distracting us with new products than improving the underlying models. Which they would do if it was easy.

As it turns out, fifteen months on from ChatGPT, Gemini and Claude are a bit better than GPT4 for some things. GPT4 actually seems to be getting worse. Just in the last week, Gemini had to send suspend its text-to-image generation capabilities and go back to the drawing board with its guardrails, and ChatGPT underwent a complete meltdown into gibberish. Both events show that the behaviour of models can be transformed by the tweak of a parameter over at Google/OpenAI HQ. Let’s hope the people in charge of all this continue to be regular, well-adjusted, public-spirited citizens. And both events show something else: nobody actually knows how to deal with the bias, the nonsense, and the hate. Guardrails are a guessing game. It’s black boxes all the way down…


Books, etc.

Chris Dixon, a prominent Silicon Valley venture capitalist and crypto/Web3 enthusiast, recently published a preposterous book, (Read, Write, Own: Building the Next Era of the Internet), which critics have been queueing up to demolish. First, the redoubtable Molly White took it apart. Now Dave Karpf has had a go. Under normal circumstances, it would be a case for referring them to the Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Authors, but in this case, having inspected a copy of the offending tome, I will make an exception.

My commonplace booklet

Analog Nostalgia goes Digital

From Techcrunch:

It can cost a fortune in 2024 to find an analogue camera, buy film (and maybe special batteries) for it and take pictures that then need to be paid for to be developed. Yet the experience had a charm and a simplicity to it. For those longing for those old days, a startup called Lapse has been giving smartphone users an alternative — you take pictures that you have to wait to see “developed,” with no chance of editing and retaking, before sharing them with a select group of friends if you choose.

Lapse has been been gaining some traction in the market — claiming millions of users, 100 million photos captured each month and a coveted, consistent top-10 ranking in the U.S. app store for photographic apps. Now it’s announcing a new round of funding of $30 million to take its ambitions to the next level.

Whatever next – vinyl records? Oh, wait, we’ve got those already.


Kevin Horgan thinks that Tanner Greer was a bit unfair to Thomas Friedman in his essay on the decline of public intellectuals on Monday.

He cites a couple of columns by Friedman in support of that view. One was a column he wrote a few months before 9/11 illustrating how dismissive the George W. Bush Administration was of Osama Bin Laden. The other was a jusdicious and sober column he wrote after the Hamas outrage.

I remember reading and admiring the latter column at the time. Greer’s criticism of Friedman was largely based on his views on globalisation which haven’t aged well. But then lots of people smarter that Friedman have been wrong about globalisation too. Including a lot of ‘Panglossian’ economists.

This Blog is also available as an email three days a week. If you think that might suit you better, why not subscribe? One email on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays delivered to your inbox at 6am UK time. It’s free, and you can always unsubscribe if you conclude your inbox is full enough already!

Monday 26 February, 2024

Sky’s the Limit

A Norfolk beach on Friday afternoon.

Quote of the Day

”I do not have a psychiatrist and I do not want one, for the simple reason that if he listened to me long enough, he might become disturbed.”

  • James Thurber

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Grateful Dead | Ripple


Thanks to Doc Searls (Whom God Preserve) for the reminder.

Long Read of the Day

Public Intellectuals Have Short Shelf Lives—But Why?

An interesting essay by Tanner Greer, a chap hitherto unknown to me, but whose topic is fascinating — at least to me. I’ve been pondering the nature and life-cycles of so-called ‘public intellectuals’ (PIs) ever since I read Richard Posner’s famous book on the decline of the American PI as a species. And I even tried to do a map of the British equivalent, which got me into a deal of trouble, mostly because I gave the title to some individuals whom others detested!

Greer’s essay is not so much about “decline” but disappearance. It was triggered by a question someone asked on Twitter: “which public thinker did you idolize ten or fifteen years ago but have little intellectual respect for today? A surprising number of people responded with ‘all of them.'” These tweeters maintained that no one who was a prominent writer and thinker in the aughts has aged well through the 2010s.

Greer thinks that this historical fading is inevitable, and is not a special pathology of the 21st century.

When you read intellectuals of the 1910s talking about the most famous voices of the 1890s and early 1900s you get the same impression. You even get this feeling in a more diluted form when you look at the public writing of the Song Dynasty or Elizabethan England, though the sourcing is spottier and those eras and there was no ‘public’ in the modern sense for an individual living then to intellectualize to. But the general pattern is clear. Public intellectuals have a shelf life. They reign supreme in the public eye for about seven years or so. Most that loiter around longer reveal themselves oafish, old-fashioned, or ridiculous.

To give you a sense of what I mean by this, consider the career of public intellectual whose career peaked in the early aughts. Thomas Friedman is now the butt of a thousand jokes. He maintains his current position at the New York Times mostly through force of inertia, but secondly through his excellent connections within the Davos class and his sterling reputation among those who think as that class does. But this was not always so. Let us review Friedman’s climb to prominence…

Books, etc.

Noah Smith’s review of Power and Progress: Our 1000-year Struggle over Technology and Prosperity by Daren Acemoglu and Simon Johnson

This is possibly the most thorough book review I’ve ever read. I write with feeling on the matter, because I read and admired the book, and it’s salutary to read a dissection by a real expert. And the really nice thing about it is that Smith knows and admires the authors, so this isn’t a hatchet job.

He begins by wondering aloud about why such a monumental book seems to have made so little an impact. (He compares it in that respect with Pilketty’s Capital in the 21st Century).

But then he really gets going:

Power and Progress may have come out a little too late to make a big splash, and instead ended up just being one more voice shouting in the chorus.

On top of that, though, I have to say that this book…well, I just don’t think it’s very good. I winced while I wrote that sentence, because Simon Johnson is a personal friend, and Acemoglu is a celebrated genius, and because both of them have written such good books in the past. This is the first broadly negative book review I’ve written since 2014, and I’m a lot less combative of a blogger than I was a decade ago. I did not want to pan this book, especially because I think the topic is a good and important one, and I think the authors are brilliant people whose hearts are in the right place.

But I just don’t think the way this book was written ends up supporting the conclusions it draws. The historical examples it cites simply don’t support a narrative of out-of-touch technologists inventing the wrong sorts of technologies and hurting workers in the process. The book embraces a highly questionable definition of “power” in which persuasion in an open democratic society is painted as a threat. It often seems to assume its conclusions about the impacts of specific technologies, and it tells a jumbled and confusing story about the role of productivity growth. And its central claim — that society can push entrepreneurs to steer innovation in a direction that augments humans instead of replacing them — is not well-supported.

Read on. It’s a masterclass in reviewing.

OpenAI’s new video generation tool could learn a lot from babies

Yesterday’s Observer column:

Sora (the name is Japanese for “sky”) is not the first T2V tool, but it looks more sophisticated than earlier efforts like Meta’s Make-a-Video AI. It can turn a brief text description into a detailed, high-definition film clip up to a minute long. For example, the prompt “A cat waking up its sleeping owner, demanding breakfast. The owner tries to ignore the cat, but the cat tries new tactics, and finally, the owner pulls out his secret stash of treats from underneath the pillow to hold off the cat a little longer,” produces a slick video clip that would go viral on any social network.

Cute, eh? Well, up to a point. OpenAI seems uncharacteristically candid about the tool’s limitations. It may, for example, “struggle with accurately simulating the physics of a complex scene”.

That’s putting it mildly…

Read on


Something I noticed, while drinking from the Internet firehose.

Brent Simmons on falling out of love with Apple


I started using Apple computers — and writing code for them, starting with BASIC — 43 years ago, before the Macintosh, even, and I’ve made this my career. I’ve had all these decades to really, thoroughly delight in these incredible machines and software, and to give a little back with my own apps.

Apple’s positive effect on my life should not be underestimated. My Mom once (lovingly, teasingly) said to me that my alternate career, had all this never happened, was “criminal genius.” Which might have been fun too, but possibly more stressful than I might have liked. At any rate, Apple has saved me from a life of crime, and I should love Apple for that.

But I need to remember, now and again, that Apple is a corporation, and corporations aren’t people, and they can’t love you back. You wouldn’t love GE or Exxon or Comcast — and you shouldn’t love Apple. It’s not an exception to the rule: there are no exceptions.

Luckily, Apple has just provided us all with a reminder — its rules for in-app purchases in the US, Simmonds discovers, provide “a jarring, but not surprising, reminder that Apple is not a real person and not worthy of your love”.

Quite so. Repeat after me, all corporations are sociopathic — even though they’re run by humans. They’re what Charlie Stross calls “Slow AIs”, which is why it’s naive to ascribe their behaviour to the moral deficiencies of those who run them.

This Blog is also available as an email three days a week. If you think that might suit you better, why not subscribe? One email on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays delivered to your inbox at 6am UK time. It’s free, and you can always unsubscribe if you conclude your inbox is full enough already!

Friday 23 February, 2024

My ol’ Burgundian Home

If I had a house en Bourgogne (which, alas, I don’t), I’d like one like this.

And then I’d ask Randy Newman to do a variation on this for me.

Quote of the Day

”My problem lies in reconciling my gross habits with my net income.”

  • Errol Flynn

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Maxwell Quartet | Cill Mhuire


Long Read of the Day

Same bullshit, new tin

Charlie Stross (Whom God Preserve), reacting to plaintive cries about restoring National Service to boost UK defence capabilities, explains why Britain couldn’t do conscription now, even if Vlad the Impaler had arrived in Calais.

The Tories run this flag up the mast regularly whenever they want to boost their popularity with the geriatric demographic who remember national service (abolished 60 years ago, in 1963). Thatcher did it in the early 80s; the Army general staff told her to piss off. And the pols have gotten the same reaction ever since. This time the call is coming from inside the house—it’s a general, not a politician—but it still won’t work because changes to the structure of the British society and economy since 1979 (hint: Thatcher’s revolution) make it impossible.

Reasons it won’t work: there are two aspects, infrastructure and labour.

Let’s look at infrastructure first: if you have conscripts, it follows that you need to provide uniforms, food, and beds for them. Less obviously, you need NCOs to shout at them and teach them to brush their teeth and tie their bootlaces (because a certain proportion of your intake will have missed out on the basics). The barracks that used to be used for a large conscript army were all demolished or sold off decades ago, we don’t have half a million spare army uniforms sitting in a warehouse somewhere, and the army doesn’t currently have ten thousand or more spare training sergeants sitting idle…

Vlad doesn’t have the same problem: Russia kept National Service. Do read on, though.

Books, etc.

This arrived yesterday, and it’ll make good weekend reading. Ethan Mollick was one of the first academics to spot that Generative AI could represent a significant augmentation of human capability, and he became an imaginative early adopter and user of the technology in his teaching at Wharton. I knew that he had a book in the works, and this is just a Reader’s Proof copy, but Amazon says it’ll be out on April 4.

My commonplace booklet

Every so often Esquire magazine exhumes a few classic pieces from its archive. This week it came up with “Follow That Man in the Trench Coat!”, George Frazier’s profile of Humphrey Bogart published in May 1955.

Here’s a sample:

As irresistible as he seems to most people, Humphrey DeForest Bogart must be something of a trial to those who contend u that the willful neglect of virtues like temperance, tact, submissiveness to constituted authority, and turning the other cheek has its disadvantages. According to their lights, Bogart, who was fifty-five on Christmas Day, should long since have perished of such prankish practices as “getting a little drunk from drinking”; addressing his autograph-seeking devotees as “loathsome little monsters”; exposing his starchy superiors to ridicule; and responding to raillery by feinting at the offender’s face with a lighted cigarette. As it happens, however, Bogart, who earns more than half a million dollars a year as a result of his participation in such conspicuously successful films of recent months as The Barefoot Contessa, Sabrina, and The Caine Mutiny, and in the forthcoming We’re No Angels and The Desperate Hours, is happier, healthier, and more prosperous than at any other time in a career stretching back over some thirty years, several dozen plays, and seventy movies.

Others, of course, have also made their mark without heed to the counsel of the copybooks, and, for that matter, there have even been those who, in one way or another, were just as assertively nonconformist as he, among them Errol Flynn, who one night not long ago stepped out onto the stage at the London Palladium and proceeded to read aloud from The Kinsey Report. But such transgressions have almost always been followed by abject contrition. What sets Bogart apart is his apparent determination to flaunt his nonconformities so repeatedly and to such a degree that he seems obsessed by a terror of respectability and remorse. Four years ago, for example, when the Stork Club concluded, as El Morocco had a year and a half before, that it had had quite enough of his high spirits, his reaction was somewhat less penitent than might have been expected.

“The challengers will never overtake me now,” he announced gleefully. “I still have several more days to go in New York and feel with a little effort on my part I can probably get barred from Central Park and Ebbets Field. As a matter of fact, the only places I am really socially acceptable now are ‘21’ and Grand Central. Put it down to natural charm. I’m loaded with it. And experience, too. It takes a long time to develop a repulsive character like mine. You don’t get to be the Boris Karloff of the supper clubs overnight. You’ve got to work at it.”

They don’t write profiles like that nowadays. Last one who did was Ken Tynan, who was the Observer’s drama critic long before I joined the paper. His New Yorker profile of Mel Brooks is a classic of the genre. If you are tempted to read it, make sure not to do so in a public place or in a crowded railway carriage.


Something I noticed, while drinking from the Internet firehose.

  • Helen Mirren Rips Up AI-Generated Speech at American Cinematheque

From Variety

After being presented with the lifetime achievement award by her “Mosquito Coast” and “1923” co-star Harrison Ford at the Beverly Hilton gala, Mirren began to read her acceptance speech from a piece of a paper.

“Ladies and gentlemen and esteemed guests and dear friends, I am deeply humbled, profoundly honored to stand before you today accepting this extraordinary award. To be recognized for a lifetime devoted to the craft of acting is a privilege beyond words,” she said dramatically. “First and foremost, I want to express my heartfelt gratitude to the industry and the individuals who have supported me throughout this incredible journey. It is has been a life filled with passion, challenges and above all, an unyielding love for the art of storytelling.”

Then she added, “And that was written by AI,” before proceeding to tear up the speech and letting the pieces of paper fall to the stage floor.

The moment was met with applause and cheering.


This Blog is also available as an email three days a week. If you think that might suit you better, why not subscribe? One email on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays delivered to your inbox at 6am UK time. It’s free, and you can always unsubscribe if you conclude your inbox is full enough already!

Wednesday 21 February, 2024

After Vermeer

Quote of the Day

”Everything will be all right, and, even if it isn’t, we’ll have the consolation of having lived honest lives.”

  • Alexei Navalny

(h/t John Seeley)

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Chris McMullan | The Lark in the Morning (Jig)


Such a lovely tune. Also a good illustration of why Uileann pipes are difficult to play well. There’s a nice adaptation of the tune for the Bouzouki by Tijn Berends here (plus another tune, The High Drive).

Long Read of the Day

The Political Economy of AI

If ever I get round to compiling a collection of seminal essays on AI, Henry Farrell will have a prominent place in the list of authors. If you want to see why, then set aside some time for this essay, in which he takes Alison Gopnik’s insightful idea that LLMs (Large Language Models like CPT-4 et al) are not AIs (as the tech industry maintains) but cultural technologies like books and libraries and explores the implications of that idea.

It’s long but IMO well worth it.

Here’s how Henry sums it up at the end:

LLMs are cultural technologies of summarization, whose value depends on people continuing to actually produce culture that can usefully be summarized. Absent intervention, LLMs will likely develop, as other technologies such as Internet search have, in ways that benefit their makers at the expense of others. The summarizations that they produce risk supplanting the culture that they feed on.

This would be a terrible outcome. Borges wrote a famous, very short story about what happens when the map comes fully to displace the territory.

In that Empire, the Art of Cartography attained such Perfection that the map of a single Province occupied the entirety of a City, and the map of the Empire, the entirety of a Province. In time, those Unconscionable Maps no longer satisfied, and the Cartographers Guilds struck a Map of the Empire whose size was that of the Empire, and which coincided point for point with it. The following Generations, who were not so fond of the Study of Cartography as their Forebears had been, saw that that vast Map was Useless, and not without some Pitilessness was it, that they delivered it up to the Inclemencies of Sun and Winters. In the Deserts of the West, still today, there are Tattered Ruins of that Map, inhabited by Animals and Beggars; in all the Land there is no other Relic of the Disciplines of Geography.

The maps that are eating our world might end up being useless for completely different reasons. But the resulting Deserts of the West would not be any more hospitable to intellectual life.

And that’s without taking into account the question highlighted by Ross Anderson: will LLMs choke on their own exhaust?

Why Cold War 2.0 will be different from its predecessor

From Noah Smith

The U.S. overwhelmed its opponents in World War 2 by outproducing them. In the Cold War, the U.S. and its developed democratic allies were able to outmatch the USSR in an arms race, and to gain an edge in precision weaponry through their mastery of the semiconductor industry. But in Cold War 2, the economic dominance that propelled liberal nations to victory in the 20th century no longer exists. China’s transformation into the world’s factory equalized the balance of economic might between autocratic and democratic countries:

This, fundamentally, is the reason the New Axis is a dire threat to the liberal world order. If China weren’t such a manufacturing powerhouse, Russia’s combination of aggression, oil revenue, nuclear bluster, and information operations would certainly be annoying, but wouldn’t represent a real challenge to the alliances that defeated it in the first Cold War. It’s only because of the looming specter of Chinese manufacturing might that Russia and Iran are more than just rogue states. As things stand, China threatens to be able to overwhelm the U.S. in a war, in much the same way that the U.S. overran the Axis powers in WW2.

Sobering, ne c’est pas?


Something I noticed, while drinking from the Internet firehose.

The Winterkeeper Link

Steven Fuller is a winter caretaker who has lived at Yellowstone national park for the past 50 years. As the cold weather approaches and the seasonal transformation begins, he hunkers down in his remote mountain cabin. Lovely video.


This blog is generally put together at the end of a long and busy day. So every Monday, Wednesday and Friday morning I wake up with a sinking feeling that somewhere in that day’s edition there will be misspelt words, missing apostrophes and other proofreading atrocities. And indeed there often are. For which I crave your indulgence. Like most authors, I am my own worst editor.

This Blog is also available as an email three days a week. If you think that might suit you better, why not subscribe? One email on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays delivered to your inbox at 6am UK time. It’s free, and you can always unsubscribe if you conclude your inbox is full enough already!

Monday 19 February, 2024

W.B.’s last resting place

Drumcliff Churchyard, Co Sligo. We always pay him a visit when we’re on the road to Donegal.

Quote of the Day

”I don’t know the question, but sex is definitely the answer.”

  • Woody Allen

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Alison Krauss, Shawn Colvin, Jerry Douglas | The Boxer | Live


Long Read of the Day

Chatbots Will Change How We Talk to People

Interesting, reflective piece by Albert Fox Cahn and Bruce Schneier in The Atlantic about how familiarity with ‘AI’ systems will have effects that we haven’t yet appreciated.

Chatbots are growing only more common, and there is reason to believe they will become ever more intimate parts of our lives. The market for AI companions, ranging from friends to romantic partners, is already crowded. Several companies are working on AI assistants, akin to secretaries or butlers, that will anticipate and satisfy our needs. And other companies are working on AI therapists, mediators, and life coaches—even simulacra of our dead relatives. More generally, chatbots will likely become the interface through which we interact with all sorts of computerized processes—an AI that responds to our style of language, every nuance of emotion, even tone of voice.

Many users will be primed to think of these AIs as friends, rather than the corporate-created systems that they are…

Read on.

One of the longer-term implications may be that this new kind of faux-intimacy will affect how we converse with… other humans. Raises the question of whether it’s the next step on the road to “Re-engineering Humanity”?

Sam Altman wants $7tn to build AGI

Yesterday’s Observer column..

Once upon a time, nobody outside tech circles had heard of Sam Altman. But then his company, OpenAI, launched ChatGPT, and suddenly he was everywhere – touring the world, giving interviews to gushing journalists, granting audiences to awestruck politicians etc. Whiplash-thin, with a charmingly wide-eyed baby face, he instantly became the acceptable face of digital capitalism.

Then the OpenAI board abruptly fired him, apparently on the grounds that he had not been, er, entirely candid with them. When Satya Nadella, Microsoft’s CEO (who had invested $13bn in OpenAI), heard about it, though, he was mightily pissed off. And in no time all, Altman was unsacked and reinstated in the OpenAI driving seat. And the world was transfixed by the drama of it all. Which only goes to show that appearances can be deceptive.

If the world had read Tad Friend’s profile of Altman, which appeared in the New Yorker in 2016, it might have been less overawed…

Read on

Remembering Andrew

Andrew Fowles, the much loved Head Porter of my College (Wolfson) died unexpectedly last week. He was a lovely, calm, cheery and approachable colleague, and his death is deeply shocking — especially as he had just arrived back from an enjoyable holiday in Australia. He will be sorely missed.

I’ve always thought that for students the most important people in their college is not its Head (Master, Mistress, Provost or President, depending on the institution), or the Fellows or even the Senior Tutor. It’s the porters who rank highest for approachability and practical help. Which is why losing a Head Porter as good as Andrew is hard. It’s especially so in Wolfson, which — with students of 99 different nationalities this term — is the most cosmopolitan in Oxbridge. For them, the Porters’ Lodge is often the first port of call.

May he rest in peace.

My commonplace booklet

I came on this extraordinary painting — “The Death of Marat” by Jacques-Louis David — the other day and was intrigued by it. It depicts the artist’s friend, the French revolutionary leader, Jean-Paul Marat, who was killed by Charlotte Corday, a political enemy who blamed him for a series of killings of prisoners and civilians that occurred in September 1792. Corday fatally stabbed Marat while he was in his bathtub, but did not attempt to flee. She was later tried and executed for the murder.

What struck me about the painting was its extraordinary realism, so of course I disappeared down an interesting online rabbit-hole (as one does). There’s a good Wikipedia page about it, and an excellent Encyclopedia Britannica account of the background to the depicted event.


Something I noticed, while drinking from the Internet firehose.

Air Canada must honour refund policy invented by airline’s chatbot  Cautionary tale for any company thinking of entrusting its customer-service front end to a chatbot.

After months of resisting, Air Canada was forced to give a partial refund to a grieving passenger who was misled by an airline chatbot inaccurately explaining the airline’s bereavement travel policy.

On the day Jake Moffatt’s grandmother died, Moffat immediately visited Air Canada’s website to book a flight from Vancouver to Toronto. Unsure of how Air Canada’s bereavement rates worked, Moffatt asked Air Canada’s chatbot to explain.

The chatbot provided inaccurate information, encouraging Moffatt to book a flight immediately and then request a refund within 90 days. In reality, Air Canada’s policy explicitly stated that the airline will not provide refunds for bereavement travel after the flight is booked. Moffatt dutifully attempted to follow the chatbot’s advice and request a refund but was shocked that the request was rejected.

Moffatt tried for months to convince Air Canada that a refund was owed, sharing a screenshot from the chatbot that clearly claimed:

If you need to travel immediately or have already travelled and would like to submit your ticket for a reduced bereavement rate, kindly do so within 90 days of the date your ticket was issued by completing our Ticket Refund Application form.

Moffat filed a complaint with Canada’s Civil Resolution Tribunal.

According to Air Canada, Moffatt never should have trusted the chatbot and the airline should not be liable for the chatbot’s misleading information because Air Canada essentially argued that “the chatbot is a separate legal entity that is responsible for its own actions,” a court order said.

Don’t you love that guff about the chatbot being “a separate legal entity”. It’s a bit like “the dog ate my homework, Sir”.

Needless to say, it din’t wash with the Tribunal. And Air Canada seems to have terminated its errant bot.

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Friday 14 February, 2024


Rory Cellan-Jones has been one of my favourite journalists ever since I was the Observer’s TV critic in the 1980s and 1990s. On Wednesday afternoon he was in Cambridge at his alma mater Jesus College, and when we were going in to the event I suddenly noticed him making a last-minute phone call before going in to the auditorium for a marvellous conversation with a couple of students before an invited audience.

As we passed the window I snatched this picture which I think captures the essence of a lovely, generous man.

Quote of the Day

”Living is a compromise, between doing what you want and doing what other people want.”

  • John Updike

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Liam O’Flynn and Mark Knopfler | An Droichead


Two of my favourite musicians. An Droichead is Irish for ‘the bridge’.

Long Read of the Day

A Tech Overlord’s Horrifying, Silly Vision for Who Should Rule the World

Terrific blast by Elizabeth Spiers on Marc Andreessen’s “manifesto”, which has, she says, “the pathos of the Unabomber manifesto but lacks the ideological coherency”.

It takes a certain kind of person to write grandiose manifestoes for public consumption, unafflicted by self-doubt or denuded of self-interest. The latest example is Marc Andreessen, a co-founder of the top-tier venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz and best known, to those of us who came of age before TikTok, as a co-founder of the pioneering internet browser Netscape. In “The Techno-Optimist Manifesto”, a recent 5,000-plus-word post on the Andreessen Horowitz website, Mr. Andreessen outlines a vision of technologists as the authors of a future in which the “techno-capital machine” produces everything that is good in the world.

In this vision, wealthy technologists are not just leaders of their business but keepers of the social order, unencumbered by what Mr. Andreessen labels “enemies”: social responsibility, trust and safety, tech ethics, to name a few. As for the rest of us — the unwashed masses, people who have either “unskilled” jobs or useless liberal arts degrees or both — we exist mostly as automatons whose entire value is measured in productivity…

When I first read the ‘manifesto’, my first thought was that it must be a spoof; my second thought was that Andreessen was losing what might loosely be called his mind. And then it dawned on me that “the guy really believes this horseshit.”

Spiers nails the essence of this accelerating madness. Which is why it’s worth a read.

Books, etc.

“We were talking about The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, which was something which resembled an iPad, long before it appeared. And I said when something like that happens, it’s going to be the death of the book. Douglas said no. Books are sharks,” Gaiman told a packed audience at the Royal Geographical Society in London.

“I must have looked baffled because he he looked very pleased with himself. And he carried on with his metaphor. Books are sharks … because sharks have been around for a very long time. There were sharks before there were dinosaurs, and the reason sharks are still in the ocean is that nothing is better at being a shark than a shark.”

Thanks to Simon for remembering it.

Robert Reich’s big picture

Robert Reich is an acute commentator on what’s been happening to the US over the last half-century, which is why his Substack blog is a must-read. He was Bill Clinton’s Labor Secretary, and then a professor at Berkeley (from which he recently retired). He’s also a talented cartoonist. Recently, he had a great idea: Put a huge piece of paper on a wall, and then draw on it a graphic account of what has happened to the US (and many Western democracies) over the last half-century or so.

With a team of collaborators, he made a stop-frame video of the picture’s construction which is informed, striking and insightful. (I can say that because he covers much of the stuff I’ve been thinking about for something I’m writing. Working title is How We Got Here.)

The video is here. It’s well worth your time if you think about this stuff. And it is a really Big Picture.

Politics, USA-style

From the current issue of Private Eye.


Joan Pla wrote to point out “a lapsus in [Wednesday’s] post: the name of the photographer is Sebastião Salgado. Juliano (Ribeiro) Salgado is co-directing with Wim Wenders”.`

Large portion of humble pie duly ordered.

This Blog is also available as an email three days a week. If you think that might suit you better, why not subscribe? One email on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays delivered to your inbox at 6am UK time. It’s free, and you can always unsubscribe if you conclude your inbox is full enough already!

Wednesday 14 February, 2024

On the beach

One of my grandsons on a Kerry beach on an Easter Sunday morning.

Quote of the Day

”Unlimited tolerance must lead to the disappearance of tolerance. If we extend unlimited tolerance even to those who are intolerant, if we are not prepared to defend a tolerant society, then the tolerant will be destroyed, and tolerance with them. We should therefore claim, in the name of tolerance, the right not to tolerate the intolerant.”

  • Karl Popper

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Ennio Moricone | Lady Caliph | YoYo Ma and the Roma Sinfonietta


Long Read of the Day

The Rise of Techno-authoritarianism

Terrific essay by Adrienne LaFrance in The Atlantic on the underpinning ideology of Silicon Valley.

Here’s how it opens:

If you had to capture Silicon Valley’s dominant ideology in a single anecdote, you might look first to Mark Zuckerberg, sitting in the blue glow of his computer some 20 years ago, chatting with a friend about how his new website, TheFacebook, had given him access to reams of personal information about his fellow students:

zuckerberg: Yeah so if you ever need info about anyone at Harvard zuckerberg: Just ask.
zuckerberg: I have over 4,000 emails, pictures, addresses, SNS
friend: What? How’d you manage that one?
zuckerberg: People just submitted it.
zuckerberg: I don’t know why.
zuckerberg: They “trust me”
zuckerberg: Dumb fucks.

That conversation—later revealed through leaked chat records—was soon followed by another that was just as telling, if better mannered. At a now-famous Christmas party in 2007, Zuckerberg first met Sheryl Sandberg, his eventual chief operating officer, who with Zuckerberg would transform the platform into a digital imperialist superpower. There, Zuckerberg, who in Facebook’s early days had adopted the mantra “Company over country,” explained to Sandberg that he wanted every American with an internet connection to have a Facebook account. For Sandberg, who once told a colleague that she’d been “put on this planet to scale organizations,” that turned out to be the perfect mission…

It’s spot on. Worth your time.

The Salt of the Earth

This I gotta see: Wim Wenders’s film about the great photographer Juliano Salgado

The trailer is here.

My commonplace booklet

And while we’re on the subject of Karl Popper, how about ”The Open Society and its AI” by my Cambridge colleague Neil Lawrence, who has an interesting book on AI coming out in May.


Something I noticed, while drinking from the Internet firehose.

“Annotated version of Andreas Vesalius’s masterwork on human anatomy up for auction” 

When the Renaissance physician Andreas Vesalius wrote his magnum opus on human anatomy in 1543, he transformed the study of medicine and revolutionised the way scientists investigate the world.

A “mind-blowing” edition of his De Humani Corporis Fabrica Libri Septem, estimated to be worth up to £1m, is to be sold at auction for the first time since scholars discovered it was annotated by Vesalius himself.

The fragile, 800-page book was last sold in 2007 for about £8,500 to Dr Gerard Vogrincic, a retired Canadian pathologist and medical history buff who collects old annotated medical books.

Vogrincic’s copy was heavily annotated in Latin — which experts eventually decided were by Vesalius himself. So it’s now worth a lot more than he paid for it.


Max Whitby was struck by something I wrote in last Sunday’s edition of my Observer column:

Whenever people learn that I have an electric vehicle (EV) the conversation invariably turns to whether I suffer from “range anxiety” – the fear of running out of charge. The answer is that generally I don’t, though I might if I were contemplating a drive across the Highlands of Scotland to Aviemore, say. But otherwise, no. Why? Because I am able to charge the car overnight at home, and most of my trips are much much shorter than the vehicle’s 300-mile range.

Max wrote to say:

Perhaps you unfairly malign Scotland’s fast-charging infrastructure, which in my experience is impressive. 14 charging stations on the 200 miles journey from here to Aviemore.

He also included a map, which made the point forcefully. Triggered my mantra that The great consolation about being a blogger is that your readers often know more than you do.

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Monday 12 February, 2024

Everything and the kitchen sink

Seen on the way back from a restaurant one night recently.

Quote of the Day

“The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, and wiser people so full of doubts.”

  • Bertrand Russell

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Berlioz |Symphonie Fantastique | First Movement | Leonard Bernstein


The music is lovely, but watching Bernstein conduct it is mesmerising.

The day I got my first pair of big HiFi speakers I went out and bought a vinyl recording of this. And turned the volume up. My neighbours never forgave me.

Long Read of the Day

Thirteen Years On

Robert Hutton’s Swiftian take in The Critic magazine on the latest outbreak of fantasising by Britain’s Zombie Conservatives.


Imagine for a moment that in early 2009, crossing Westminster Bridge, you had been hit by Gordon Brown’s motorcade and put into a coma. Waking 15 years later in St Thomas’ Hospital, you wandered out and, seeing a crowd of people in tweed jackets and mustard trousers, followed them into a hall for what turned out to be the launch of the Popular Conservatives movement.

Who, you might have thought, are these dynamic politicians? There was a comedy turn from a chap called Rees-Mogg — looks like double-breasted suits have made a comeback — and a punchy speech from someone called Liz Truss. There is an MP with a big future ahead of her, you might have told yourself.

And they certainly had a compelling story to tell. Why, it seems that, while you were unconscious, some bunch of complete chancers had been running Britain into the ground! As speaker after speaker explained, you’d woken up in a country in which nothing worked, where taxes were too high, the government intervened in every aspect of people’s lives, and where no one could afford to pay their bills. Thank goodness, you would have thought to yourself, there was a general election around the corner, so that this rotten government could be chucked out and replaced by somebody halfway competent. You wouldn’t be surprised if that Truss got a big job.

For those of us who arrived at the Popular Conservatives launch with the doubtful advantage of having been awake for much of the past decade, things were a little more confusing…

Lovely and viciously funny. Do read it.

Forget range anxiety: we should worry more about China’s global dominance in the electric car market

Yesterday’s Observer column:

The longer-term effects of a switch to EVs are only now beginning to dawn on us. The internal combustion engine spawned a huge ecosystem of auxiliary industries – garages, service centres, refineries, tankers, filling stations and so on – supply chains created to cater to the needs of a 19th-century technology based on heavy machinery, oil, gasoline and exhaust fumes. EVs, by comparison, are relatively simple machines – basically big skateboards with wheels driven by electric motors and controlled by software. They need less maintenance and different skills to minister to them.

There’s also an unexpected geopolitical aspect to the transition from ICEs that is beginning to play out in Europe. Basically a trade war is brewing between the EU and China. How come? Well, China is flooding Europe with EVs. Over the past two years, the country has become the world’s biggest car exporter. EVs are a huge chunk of those exports, and most of China’s EV sales go to Europe.

The European Commission says that China’s share of EVs sold in Europe has grown to 8% and could hit 15% in 2025, on the basis of prices that are often 20% below EU-made models. To Europeans this looks suspiciously like dumping, and may require imposing punitive tariffs “to protect European Union producers against cheaper Chinese electric vehicle (EV) imports that are benefiting from state subsidies”…

Do read the whole thing

Books, etc.

“What an astonishing thing a book is. It’s a flat object made from a tree with flexible parts on which are imprinted lots of funny dark squiggles. But one glance at it and you’re inside the mind of another person, maybe somebody dead for thousands of years. Across the millennia, an author is speaking clearly and silently inside your head, directly to you. Writing is perhaps the greatest of human inventions, binding together people who never knew each other, citizens of distant epochs. Books break the shackles of time. A book is proof that humans are capable of working magic.”

  • Carl Sagan

My commonplace booklet

From Henry Farrell (Whom God Preserve) whose Substack is (IMO) consistently interesting and thoughtful.

This newsletter is currently hosted by Substack, an aspirationally for-profit entity with a business model. That business model is to get writers to (a) grow an audience, and (b) monetize that audience by charging a subscription fee, from which Substack can rake off its 10% cut. I’m not at all sure that it is going to work out for Substack, but it’s a reasonable set of trade offs for the author. The platform is clean and easy to use. There aren’t any obtrusive ads, though there are features designed to ‘encourage’ writers to go into pay-mode, and readers into pre-committing that they will pay up. I’m grateful (and mildly embarrassed) that enough people have said that they would pay for this newsletter, that I could turn it into a modest little sideline if I wanted to.

But – and again I’m enormously grateful for people’s generous pre-commitments – I don’t want to. I’m lucky enough to have a great academic job, which comes with an expectation that I’ll engage in public dialogue. This is one way that I can talk to people outside the academy. I can imagine radically changed life circumstances in which I might turn to a paid newsletter (I certainly don’t see anything immoral in paid side-gigs that don’t interfere with your ordinary responsibilities, and sometimes do them). But I’m much happier doing this for free.


Something I noticed, while drinking from the Internet firehose.

  • Stinge Watching Is the Opposite of Binge Watching. New idea from Jason Kottke. Since I don’t do binge watching (can’t understand people who have the time to do it) I initially thought that the idea of ‘stinge’ watching might be for me. Sadly, it isn’t.

This Blog is also available as an email three days a week. If you think that might suit you better, why not subscribe? One email on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays delivered to your inbox at 6am UK time. It’s free, and you can always unsubscribe if you conclude your inbox is full enough already!