Friday 12 July, 2024

Deux Amis

Neither of the friends were around when I called, alas.

Quote of the Day

We forget most of our past but embody all of it.

  • John Updike

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Michael Hedges | Aerial Boundaries


An amazing musician who died tragically young.

Long Read of the Day

Does Social Media cause anything?

Fabulous essay by Kevin Munger on the Crooked Timber blog.

In the 18 months since I quit Twitter, I can feel the atrophy of my vibe detector. I’m reading more than ever, on Substack and the FT, Discord and group chats — much of the same “content” I would’ve encountered on Twitter, in fact, but without the ever-present spiderweb of the social graph, the network of accounts, RTs and likes that lets me understand not only what someone thinks but what everyone else thinks about them thinking that.

So while I know that I’m missing the vibes, I cannot, of course, know which vibes I’m missing. Knowledge of vibes means never being surprised when someone says something: I know what kind of person they are, and I know what those kinds of people say. This is why Twitter users participate in The Discourse rather than in human-to-human dialogue: given the unknowability of another person, when we openly converse with them, we can always be surprised by what they say.

Although various Discourses now take place both on and between other platforms, the architecture of Twitter is ideal for textual Discourse and it seems to remain the hub.

The first time I was realized I was way off of the main vibe came from the response to Jonathan Haidt’s The Anxious Generation…

Read on, it’s very insightful. I came across it because I was thinking about Haidt’s book for my Observer column. Munger’s observation about Twitter/X being all about vibes rather than thoughtful discourse is spot on, IMO.

Books, etc.

I’m reading Woolf’s Selected Essays and enjoying them. No. 6 is “Evening over Sussex: Reflections in a motor car”. Here’s how it opens:

Evening is kind to Sussex, for Sussex is no longer young, and she is grateful for the veil of evening as an elderly woman is glad when a shade is drawn over a lamp, and only the outline of her face remains. The outline of Sussex is still very fine. The cliffs stand out to sea, one behind another. All Eastbourne, all Bexhill, all St. Leonards, their parades and their lodging houses, their bead shops and their sweet shops and their placards and their invalids and chars-á-bancs, are all obliterated. What remains is what there was when William came over from France ten centuries ago: a line of cliffs running out to sea. Also the fields are redeemed. The freckle of red villas on the coast is washed over by a thin lucid lake of brown air, in which they and their redness are drowned. It was still too early for lamps; and too early for stars…

I’m sure I would have detested Woolf had I met her in person. But I do love her writing.

My commonplace booklet

”AI Finds That AI Is Great In New Garbage Research From Tony Blair Institute”

This was the headline on a report by the 404 site.

The story reads:

A new paper from the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, presented yesterday by the former Prime Minister himself, predicts that more than 40 percent of tasks performed by public-sector workers could be partly automated, saving a fifth of their time in aggregate, and potentially leading to a huge reduction in workforce and costs for the government.

The problem with this prediction, which was picked up by Politico, Techradar, Forbes, and others, is that it was made by ChatGPT after the authors of the paper admitted that making a prediction based on interviews with experts would be too hard. Basically, the finding that AI could replace humans at their jobs and radically change how the government works was itself largely made by AI…

Why is this interesting? Two reasons:

  1. It makes me even more suspicious about Blair’s multi-million ‘think tank’ — especially given that Blair has, from the outset, been idiotically bullish about ‘AI’.
  2. And it raises worries that Keir Starmer’s tech team might be getting ‘advice’ about technology from Blair’s gaggle of high-priced consultants/ChatGPT prompters.

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Wednesday 10 July, 2024

Medieval laundry

In a Provencal village

Quote of the Day

“One thing about which fish know exactly nothing is water, since they have no anti-environment which would enable them to perceive the element they live in.”

  • Marshall McLuhan

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Wagner | Prelude to Lohengrin


Long Read of the Day

Effects of Aging

David Friedman is Milton’s son, and described by Wikipedia as “an American economist, physicist, legal scholar, and anarcho-capitalist theorist”. He’s inherited some of his old man’s qualities — particularly a libertarian streak, curiosity about ideas, and an argumentative temperament. All of which makes for a nice, readable Substack blog. I was struck by this recent post on the effects of ageing, not least because he and I are near contemporaries.

The peg for the piece is that “the effect on the presidential candidates of aging is currently a hot political topic”.

Almost everyone commenting on the subject has an axe to grind, a conclusion he wants people to reach, which makes it hard to know what claims to believe. I, however, have a source of information on the subject that, though limited — my sample size is one — I can at least trust, since it is my own experience. I am a year older than Donald Trump, two years younger than Joe Biden, so my first hand evidence of the effect of aging on me may be at least relevant to the effect on them.

Interesting and readable throughout. Hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

My commonplace booklet

Happy Finns

According to the Economist, Finland has roughly 3.5m saunas, more than one for two Finns. All government buildings have saunas.

To which Stowe Boyd attaches the comment:

Perhaps that is one of the reasons that the UN — for seven years in a row — has declared Finland the happiest country in the world. That, and gender equality, free education, universal affordable health care, trust in government institutions, and family-centric social policies.


Many thanks to the readers who wrote tactfully that the date on Monday’s edition (7 July) was wrong. Monday was, in fact, the eighth day of the month. One reader inquired if my difficulty with dates might be a reflection of drinking too much Rosé in a hot climate. Naturally, I couldn’t possibly comment.

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Monday 8 July, 2024

Washing up

Provence, June 2024.

Quote of the Day

“Loneliness as a situation can be corrected, but as a state of mind it is an incurable illness”

  • Vladimir Nabokov

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Wagner | Tannhäuser Overture | Klaus Tennstedt with the London Philharmonic Orchestra


Wonderful, and it made me think of Thomas Beecham, who founded the LPO and in 1936 took the orchestra to Germany, where Hitler was in the audience. A piece in the Guardian (possibly from an obituary) tells the story:

Why did they go? “He was proud of them,” says Lady Beecham, “and he wanted to take them to a country where there were many fine orchestras, to show them what a fine orchestra it was.” The story rings of an extraordinary figurative nose-thumbing that only Beecham could have carried off. Dr Berta Geissmar, personal assistant to conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler, was Jewish and had fled the Nazi regime for London, where Beecham promptly employed her as his secretary. “And he took her with him to Germany,” says Lady Beecham. “She was absolutely terrified for the whole tour that they’d take her away. But with him beside her, they could do nothing at all.” At the Berlin concert, when he saw Hitler applauding, Beecham turned to the orchestra and said, “The old bugger seems to like it!” The remark went out on the radio across Europe. Had Beecham really forgotten that the concert was being broadcast?

Long Read of the Day

The Bluestocking, vol 325

Helen Lewis is one of the sharpest writers on politics and technology around, and her weekly Substack is invariably striking. Saturday’s edition was a joy, not least because she articulated thoughts that many of us were having on Friday morning:

Keir Starmer is prime minister, and that means more than getting to stand behind the lectern and do PMQs. I just read a piece saying the Rwanda plan was “dead” and my brain went: oh, yeah! When you’re in government, you can just . . . do things! The legislative agenda will no longer be plotted around “what will make Suella Braverman and the other Telegraph columnists leave us alone for a bit”. We don’t have a prime minister who would need to be put behind a puppy gate if he caught an infectious disease. Never again will I hear breathless whispers about “how many letters Graham Brady has”. We might even . . build some bloody houses. A new dawn has broken, has it not?

For me, one of the nicest things about this election is the sheer luxury of remembering all the people whose opinions no longer matter. Sorry, Grant Shapps, but your much vaunted “ability to count” will now be inflicted on the private sector. Farewell, Jacob Rees-Mogg, have fun on the witness-protection programme that is your GB News show. Liz Truss, I will see you at CPAC, where absolutely no one will understand why you are there…

Great stuff. Personally, I’ve always seen Rees-Mogg as an unctuous Savile Row tailor who can only do double-breasted suits. The trouble is, to be a tailor you have to have some special skills, and being unctuous is the only one that Mogg possesses.

(His old man William — or ‘Pater’, as Mogg probably called him) was more interesting than most people realise — and not just because he was Editor of The Times from 1967 to 1981. With James Dale Davidson he wrote The Sovereign Individual: Mastering the Transition to the Information Age  about “the fourth stage of human society,” which will apparently liberate individuals as never before, irrevocably altering the power of government. It became required reading for Peter Thiel and the wilder fringes of the Silicon Valley libertarian crowd.)

Microsoft’s Recall feature wasn’t that intelligent

Yesterday’s Observer column:

On 20 May, Yusuf Mehdi, a cove who rejoices in the magnificent title of executive vice-president, consumer chief marketing officer of Microsoft, launched its Copilot+ PCs, a “new category” of Windows machines that are “designed for AI”. They are, needless to say, “the fastest, most intelligent Windows PCs ever built” and they will “enable you to do things you can’t on any other PC”.

What kinds of things? Well, how about generating and refining AI images in near real-time directly on the computer? Bridging language barriers by translating audio from 40-plus languages into English? Or enabling you to “easily find and remember what you have seen in your PC”.

Eh? This remarkable memory prosthesis is called Recall. It takes constant screenshots in the background while you go about your daily computer business. Microsoft’s Copilot+ machine-learning tech then scans (and “reads”) each of these screenshots in order to make a searchable database of every action performed on your computer and then stores it on the machine’s disk. So not only will you be able to search for a website you had previously visited, but you can also search for a very specific thing that you read or saw on that site. That jacket you saw on a tab a few weeks ago but you simply cannot remember who was selling it. The AI, though, knows about jackets and can find it…

Read on

UK politics

TheyWorkForYou – now with (almost) all new MPs

mySociety is a terrific example of public-interest technology. It provides digital tools that make it easy for British residents to communicate with, and monitor, their public representatives. One of these is their “They Work for You” service, which makes it easy to find your MP and send an email to her or him. What amazed me on Friday morning was to find that they had already updated the site as new MPs were confirmed as election results were coming in.

It was an impressively agile response. Shows how this tech can revitalise democratic institutions.

My commonplace booklet

Have you been Kodaked?

An interesting Smithsonian essay on “How the Rise of the Camera Launched a Fight to Protect Gilded Age Americans’ Privacy”. The Box Brownie was the Instagram of its age.


On quotations about old age, Gally Maxwell reminded me that Lewis Wolpert included many quotable comments in his book, You’re Looking Very Well: The Surprising Nature of Getting Old.

For example:

”One understands the viewpoint of Agatha Christie: ‘I married an archaeologist because the older I grow, the more he appreciates me.'” (p197)


”Edward Grey put it: ‘I am getting to an age when I can only enjoy the last sport left. It is called hunting for your spectacles.’” (p37)

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Friday 5 July, 2024

Custodian of the Square

Every morning, when we come down to the village, we find this black cat in his observation post, keeping an eye on things.

Quote of the Day

“An elderly friend once told me there were four ages to life: youth, middle age, old age, and ‘You look great’.”

  • Robert Reich, who turned 78 the other day (and seems in good shape!)

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

D:Ream | Things Can Only Get Better


Here’s hoping!

Long Read of the Day

Israel’s Two Front War

If the British Academy had a category for academia’s national treasures then Lawrence Freedman would be my nominee. He’s the most knowledgeable and astute commentator on contemporary warfare. In his Substack blog (cheekily entitled Comment is Freed, a poke at the Guardian, I guess), he now turns his attention to what’s happening in the Middle East.

What makes the situation now even more dangerous is the role of the Iranian regime with its slogan of ‘Death to Israel.’ It is the Iran factor which turns a conflict which was already difficult enough, but might have been contained, into something that has already gone much wider. It has done its utmost to ensure that Hamas can sustain and develop its military capabilities, works with the Houthis in Yemen and Hezbollah in Lebanon, and promotes radical Shia groups throughout the region. The Arab monarchies have always been fearful of Iranian-inspired radicalism. This is one reason why they have got closer to Israel. But prior to the Gaza War they had also been trying to find some modus vivendi with Iran. The same was true with the Biden Administration, as it tried to rescue the nuclear deal with Iran which had been agreed under Obama but then abandoned by Trump. But the clerical Iranian regime has become more and not less hard-line, including supporting Russia in its aggression in Ukraine. It is pressing on with its nuclear programme. It presents itself as a key player in an anti-Western coalition. Its other slogan is ‘Death to America.’

The Gaza war began with a breakdown of deterrence. Israel had believed that Hamas to its south and Hizballah to its north understood that however much they hated Israel they could not do much about its continuing existence. But Hamas was not deterred and found a way through Israeli defences. Having concluded that Hamas cannot be either appeased or deterred, from the Israeli perspective the only option left was its elimination. But it also can’t be eliminated…

Israel is now gearing up for an incursion into Lebanon to push Hizballah back from its current positions, and to this end is redeploying forces from the south to the north. Netanyahu has dismissed the idea that an unfinished war in the south makes it unwise to take on a new one in the north: ‘We can fight on several fronts. We are prepared for this.’

There’s no good news here, which is why Freedman’s analysis is sobering.

Books, etc.

I’ve read Dan Davies’s book and have been deeply impressed by it, not just because it’s the first time I’ve seen an economist write insightfully about cybernetics and the work of Stafford Beer, but also because it suggests a way of looking at corporations (and other large organisations) as artificial superintelligences (what Charlie Stross called “Slow AIs”).

I was incubating a review of the book when what should pop up but a terrific long essay by Brad DeLong, who is a great economist and a lot smarter than me. Funnily enough, he also set out to write a brief review of Dan’s book and wound up writing 5,000 words. So, rather than try inventing that wheel, I’m happy to hand over to him!

Here’s how he sets the scene:

By reviving the ideas of cybernetics pioneer Stafford Beer, Davies suggests we can build organizations that are not just efficient, but truly accountable. In an age of AI anxiety and institutional mistrust, The Unaccountability Machine offers a timely reminder: the machines we fear most are the ones we’ve already built.

We have built a world of vast, interlocking systems that no one can fully understand. From corporate behemoths to government bureaucracies, these leviathan-like societal machines with human beings as their parts make decisions that shape our lives—often with disastrous consequences. Can there be a way to tame these monsters of our own creation, to give them human faces? Dan Davies thinks the forgotten discipline of “management cybernetics” might provide a way. That is the crux of his brand-new The Unaccountability Machine. Our societal woes stem not from individual failings, but from the opaque workings of large-scale decision-making structures—hence the need for better system design, better feedback loops, and more and better chosen variety of information, state, and action in these machines’ control mechanisms. Cybernetics was the discipline to help us understand communication and control in complex systems. The steersmen all ran aground, But we can try again…

It’s worth your time because, as Brad puts it, “it sheds light on one of the most pressing issues of our time: why big systems make terrible decisions”.

My commonplace booklet

OpenAI Co-founder Andrej Karpathy explains the new computing paradigm: LMOS

“We’re entering a new computing paradigm with large language models acting like CPUs, using tokens instead of bytes, and having a context window instead of RAM.

This is the Large Language Model OS (LMOS)”



Something I noticed, while drinking from the Internet firehose.

The ‘poetic AI camera. Intriguing idea (and story) from Om Malik’s blog.

It is essentially a 3D-printed camera body that houses a Raspberry Pi and a small printer typically used for printing receipts. It uses a Raspberry Pi’s visual module to capture a “photo,” then sends it to the internet, uses “AI” to analyze the image, and returns with a poem based on what it sees.

In other words, it’s an AI camera. It consistently generates short, cute poems that you can print out to share with others or paste into your journal. It is quite fun. This device perfectly encapsulates what I believe is inspired tinkering that will lead to new products and breakthroughs.

The Raspberry Pi is one of the wonders of the digital world.

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Wednesday 3 July, 2024

Electioneering circa 1755

‘Chairing the Member’ (from Hogarth’s The Humours of an Election series of 1754-55). 

Quote of the Day

“So let’s give another big tax cut to the super-rich. That’ll teach bin Laden a lesson he won’t soon forget.”

  • Kurt Vonnegut

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young | Ohio


A song written after the Kent State Shootings

Long Read of the Day

Who is Britain’s next Prime Minister?

Judicious essay by Tim Garton Ash on Keir Starmer, the Labour leader and putative Prime Minister if the election goes as predicted by opinion polls.


The conservative columnist Daniel Finkelstein knew him when he was young, through a friend who was a member of the East Surrey Young Socialists – a groupuscule title that, for anyone who knows Surrey, feels almost like a contradiction in terms. (Finkelstein’s article behind paywall, I’m afraid begins with the arresting line ‘I was sitting in a kitchen above a brothel on the Archway Road when I first heard the name Keir Starmer.’) He recalls a young Starmer who was very much on the left, supporting the miners’ and other unions in strikes, helping to produce ‘a Marxist magazine’ and calling for a united Ireland.

So how come this lifelong ‘left liberal’ (Finkelstein’s term) is now advocating policies so much to the centre, and even with touches of centre-right on issues like migration and tax? After going through a number of hypotheses, Finkelstein reaches a verdict that is extremely creditable to the Labour leader. Starmer is ‘someone with a left-wing instinct,’ but also pragmatic and deeply realistic, which ‘leads him again and again to temper his initial view’. He is, the conservative columnist concludes, ‘open-minded and careful and deliberative. He is someone I will disagree with, I’m sure. But also respect.’ A cynic might say that the journalist has assured himself good access to the next occupant of No. 10 Downing Street. But knowing Finkelstein, I think this qualified tribute is worth a lot more than that…

Over the last few years I’ve been irritated by the view that younger, liberal- or left-leaning friends and colleagues have of Starmer — that he’s “dull”, “boring” or “uninspiring”. Even Tim Garton Ash briefly lurches into that territory when he writes that Starmer has “all the charisma of a bank manager”. (Remember bank managers? Me neither.) But he also notes his “achievement in bringing the Labour party back from the unelectable hard left of Jeremy Corbyn to the verge of what looks like a big, possibly even a landslide victory”.

For me, the historical figure that Starmer brings to mind is Clement Attlee, the Labour leader who won a landslide victory in 1945 and led a government that really transformed Britain. People also regarded Attlee as dull and lacking charisma. Winston Churchill described him as “a modest man who had much to be modest about”, a wisecrack that conveniently distracted attention from the fact that Attlee had run the country during the way, thereby freeing Churchill to do his stuff. And he got stuff done, which is what the benighted Disunited Kingdom needs just now.

I also like his riposte in verse to those who had underestimated him:

There were few who thought him a starter,
Many who thought themselves smarter.
But he ended up PM, CH and OM,
an Earl and a Knight of the Garter.

What the election is really about

This chart from the Financial Times puts it in a nutshell.

As Andrew Curry (Whom God Preserve) observes on his Substack,

What it shows is that after 2008, or so, the British economy fell off the track of the rate of growth that it had been on for the previous 50 years, and jumped to another track.

That trend line from 1960-2010 had not been particularly compelling—it was still slower than other comparable economies—but it did trend upwards.

The best single explanation of this is the austerity policies that the Cameron-Osborne led Coalition government chose to follow, ostensibly to deal with the level of government debt incurred in dealing with the financial crisis.

There are different versions of why they opted for this…

There are. One (not mentioned by Andrew) is the ludicrous narrative foisted on a credulous British public by George Osborne (the Chancellor and the brains behind the Cameron government) that the huge sovereign debt run up the the Brown administration to bail out the banks was in fact just a typical example of Labour profligacy — so that, just as households who run up too much debt must eventually tighten their belts, so too must the UK.

The ‘explanation’ highlighted by Andrew is more bizarre; it is that

Osborne saw a presentation by Reinhart and Rogoff [two distinguished American economists] of their 2010 research paper that said that when debt climbed above 90% of annual GDP it choked off growth. This is, of course, the research paper that has the most famous spreadsheet error in economics history.

The error was that in their Excel spreadsheet,

Reinhart and Rogoff had not selected the entire row when averaging growth figures: they omitted data from Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada and Denmark. In other words, they had accidentally only included 15 of the 20 countries under analysis in their key calculation. When that error was corrected, the “0.1% decline” data became a 2.2% average increase in economic growth.

So the key conclusion of a seminal paper, which had been widely quoted in political debates in North America, Europe Australia and elsewhere, was invalid.

Andrew points out that although the error was exposed in 2013, that Osborne did not change policy as a result. Which suggests that his rational for austerity was always purely ideological — the product of an obsession with shrinking the state.

In doing that he also shrank the economy. And the impact of his austerity programme — which, among other things, has brought many UK local authorities to the brink of bankruptcy (and every road in the UK pitted with pot-holes) — probably influenced the Brexit vote, with all the resulting economic havoc that has caused.

All of which implies that the damage the Conservative government has done to the UK goes back almost to the beginning of its reign, and predates even the chaos of the May-Johnson-Truss-Sunak era.

The trouble is that it’s not clear that the incoming Labour crowd understand this. They are still mentally trapped in the Osborne household-budget analogy. Which is what leads Andrew Curry to observe, at the end of his blog post, that “People keep telling me that neoliberalism is dead, but its cold bony hand is still gripped tight around the imaginations of our political class.”

It is.


Something I noticed, while drinking from the Internet firehose.

  • How Election Night will play out. Useful timeline from the Guardian. Personally, I’ll just wait for the Exit Poll — shortly after polls close at 10pm — and then try to get a night’s sleep.

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Monday 1 July, 2024


A phlegmatic mutt, after a visit to the vet.

Quote of the Day

“The English way is a committee — we are born with a belief in green cloth, clean pens, and twelve men with grey hair.”

  • Walter Bagehot

(A quotation I found in my friend Bill Lubenow’s new book, Secular Foundations of the Liberal State in Victorian Britain, which I’ve brought with me to France and am currently enjoying.)

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Van Morrison | Connswater


Long Read of the Day

 How to Fix “AI’s Original Sin”

Regular readers will know that one of the topics that really occupies what might loosely be called my mind is Generative AI, particularly Large Language Models (LLMs) like GPT-4, Llama, Claude, etc. I read an awful lot of commentary and argument about the technology, much of which is unhelpful or tangential in one way or another. But every so often I come across an essay that is informed, insightful and wise.

This essay on “How to Fix AI’s ‘original sin’” by Tim O’Reilly is a shining exception to the above rule. So I commend it to anyone who is interested in finding ways of managing and harnessing a powerful and important technology. Tim does it by focussing on the way the tech depends on appropriating the intellectual property of others without recompensing the owners (its ‘original sin’). And he proposes a way of overcoming that problem in a way that might be good both for society and for those who build the technology. What I particularly like about it is that in his business he actually implements the ideas proposed in the essay.

The essay is long, and clearly written but I recognise that it’s not for everyone. But I felt an obligation to draw it to your attention.

Closing the Stanford Internet Observatory will edge the US towards the end of democracy

Yesterday’s Observer column:

The arrival of the internet, and particularly the web in the 1990s, started the process of radical fragmentation that has brought us to where we are now: instead of public opinion in the Gallup sense, we have innumerable publics, each with different opinions and incompatible ideas of what’s true, false and undecidable.

To make things worse, we also invented a technology that enables every Tom, Dick and mad Harry to publish whatever they like on opaque global platforms, which are incentivised to propagate the wildest nonsense. And to this we have now added powerful tools (called AI) that automate the manufacture of misinformation on an epic scale. If you were a malign superpower that wanted to screw up the democratic world, you’d be hard put to do better than this.

Fortunately, scattered through the world (and mostly in academia) there have been organisations whose mission is to conduct informed analyses of the nature and implications of the misinformation that pollutes the online world. Until recently, the Stanford Internet Observatory (SIO) in California was one such outfit. Among other things (it was the first to out Russian support for Donald Trump online in 2016), it raised China spying concerns around the Clubhouse app in 2021, partnered with the Wall Street Journal in a 2023 report on Instagram and online child sexual abuse materials, and developed a curriculum for teaching college students how to handle trust and safety problems on social media platforms.

But guess what? After five years of pioneering research, it has been reported that the SIO is being wound down…

Do read the whole thing, if only to find the sting in the tail.


Something I noticed, while drinking from the Internet firehose.

  • AI imagines the Roman Empire Link

Cod video, but might be of interest to the ghost of Cecil B. De Mille.

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Friday 28 June, 2024

En féte

I came on this the other evening in the village where we stay. No idea what the event was celebrating

(Footnote for shutterbugs I would have liked to get in closer without being obtrusive, so what really bothered me was that I had come out with a 35mm (wide-angle) lens fitted to the Leica when I really should have had a 50mm one. Not for nothing was the latter Henri Cartier-Bresson’s usual lens. Growl.)

Quote of the Day

“All rising to great place is by a winding stair.”

(Wise old bird. I love his categorisation of reading material: “Some books are to be tasted; others swallowed; and some few to be chewed and digested.” The last is what I’m doing at the moment with Tony Judt’s magisterial Postwar).

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Norah Jones | The Long Way Home


Long Read of the Day

Ireland rejected James Joyce. Did he reject it back?

Very nice, thoughtful essay by Henry Oliver on Joyce, Ulysses and his complicated relationship with his native land.

Strange as it might be, there was sympathy between Joyce’s fellow writers and the censors who banned his work. Ireland—the country that now celebrates Bloomsday every year, hosts statues of Joyce, and runs tours of the routes taken by the main characters in Ulysses—was the most stringent country when it came to banning Ulysses. Richard Ellmann wrote, in his celebrated biography of Joyce, “To his Irish countrymen he is still obscure and very likely mad; they, alone among nations, continue to ban Ulysses.” That was in 1959, more than thirty years after Ulysses was published, and some eighteen years after Joyce’s death. Ireland never printed or imported the book. It was only available as contraband until the 1960s. The 1967 film was also banned, only released in 2001.

The feeling was perhaps mutual. Joyce left Ireland first in 1902 to study in Paris. He returned in 1903, when his mother was dying. He met Nora on 10 June 1904: they left Ireland that October. From then on, Joyce lived in Europe. In 1906, he tried to get his short story collection Dubliners published, but controversial passages caused anxiety. These sections would hardly be noticed today—implied sexuality, mild swearing, petty violence—but the publishers demurred. In 1909 Joyce visited Dublin, hopeful that a publisher would take Dubliners. It took them three years, until 1912, to finally reject the book, which was deemed so unsuitable the galleys were burned.

So it was that James Joyce left Ireland and never went back…

Do read on…

My commonplace booklet

Internal Combustion Engine by Bartosz Ciechanowski

My comment in Monday’s edition — about how remarkable it was that humans figured out how to propel themselves around by a series of controlled explosions — prompted Johannes Björkman to point me to this wonderful animated explanation of how it works. For which enlightenment, many thanks.


Something I noticed, while drinking from the Internet firehose.

  • Fascinating video of Seamus Heaney talking to Richard Ellman (the acclaimed biographer of Joyce, Yeats and Wilde) about the trio.

It’s quite long (40 minutes) but worth it IMO.

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Wednesday 26 June, 2024

Brief encounter

Quote of the Day

“We look at the present through a rear view mirror. We march backwards into the future.”

  • Marshall McLuhan

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Bach | Wachet auf from Cantata No 140 | Sonny Landreth


I love this Cantata (who doesn’t?), but I’ve never heard it played like this before.

Long Read of the Day

AI as Self-Erasure

A really thoughtful (and thought-provoking) essay by Matthew Crawford in The Hedgehog Review.

I was at a small dinner a few weeks ago in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Seated next to me was a man who related that his daughter had just gotten married. As the day approached, he had wanted to say some words at the reception, as is fitting for the father of the bride. It can be hard to come up with the right words for such an occasion, and he wanted to make a good showing. He said he gave a few prompts to ChatGPT, facts about her life, and sure enough it came back with a pretty good wedding toast. Maybe better than what he would have written. But in the end, he didn’t use it, and composed his own. This strikes me as telling, and the intuition that stopped him from deferring to AI is worth bringing to the surface.

To use the machine-generated speech would have been to absent himself from this significant moment in the life of his daughter, and in his own life. It would have been to not show up for her wedding, in some sense. I am reminded of a passage in Tocqueville where he noticed that America seemed to be on a trajectory that would have it erecting “an immense tutelary power” that wants only what is best for us, and is keen to “save us the trouble of living.”

LLMs, Crawford argues (perceptively, IMHO), won’t return us to a pre-linguistic state, but they do point to a post-human one. This is because words have significance for us, but they don’t have for a machine (or a parrot for that matter).

Do read on. I was often reminded as I read it of my feeling that the subliminal thrust of this technology is what Brett Frischman and Evan Selinger described in their  perceptive book as the re-engineering of humanity in order to make it more amenable to the needs of machines.

I was also reminded of an observation what I used to attribute — wrongly — to Martin Heidegger, but which in fact came from Max Frisch in his book Homo Faber:

“Technology is the art of so arranging the world that we don’t have to experience it.”

Thanks to Kevin Cryan for alerting me to Crawford’s essay.

Chart of the Day

From Azeem Azhar’s newsletter.

Traffic to traditional news outlets in the US is collapsing and it’s not just them – only 22% of people globally now rely on publisher websites as their main source of news, down 10 percentage points since 2018. The long-awaited platform shift is happening, but to what? The picture isn’t clear. Social and video platforms are on the rise, but the landscape is fragmented. The gatekeepers of control have also changed. Where media moguls like Rupert Murdoch once controlled content, now it’s a mishmash of tech platforms, in a more dislocated ecosystem than we’ve seen in the past decade.

These platforms, which prioritise engaging content, have led to the rise of news influencers. 66% of people worldwide watch short news videos on a weekly basis. At the same time, news avoidance is at an all-time high.

The focus on the individual has mixed effects. The journalistic model isn’t necessarily dead, it’s changing.

Yep. But to what?

My commonplace booklet

Every year the highlight of our Summer is a slow drive down through La France Profonde until we reach Provence: small roads, rural villages, small hotels. This year we noticed something unusual: at the entrance to many rural villages the village sign had been neatly turned upside down. The care with which the operation had been carried out meant that vandalism could be ruled out as an explanation. So eventually I resorted to search engines, and found this useful BBC report, which explained all.

The name-bearing roadside plaques have been unscrewed, flipped, then meticulously screwed back on.

It’s a campaign by farmers to draw attention to what they say is their increasingly precarious way of life.

Starting with a protest in the southern Tarn department in November, it has now spread all over the country.

”We were trying to think of a way of denouncing all the contradictory instructions we keep getting,” said Philippe Bardy, head of the FNSEA farmers’ union in the Tarn.

”Where we come from, if someone tells us to do one thing one day and then the opposite the next, we say we’re walking on our heads. That’s where the idea came from.”

Farmers cite specific grievances such as the increasing cost of farm diesel, late payment of EU subsidies, burgeoning bureaucracy and competition from imports.

But Philippe Bardy adds: “There is no other profession that suffers such a mental load.

”On one side, the minister asks us to change our practices, to make them more ecological. On the other, he tells us to produce as much as possible so France can achieve food sovereignty…


Something I noticed, while drinking from the Internet firehose.

  • From Quartz Daily Brief

”People who live in the U.S. are just too swamped to take a holiday — or so they say.

Despite only receiving an average of 12 vacation days a year, more than half of Americans said they didn’t use all of their vacation time last year. The top reason? “Life is too busy to plan or go on vacation.”

Twelve paid holiday days a year! I had a friend who was a talented but underpaid researcher in Cambridge. He had a growing family (4 energetic boys) and needed to earn more, so he went to work for a big pharmaceutical company in the U.S. where he rose quickly to become a VP for R&D. Despite that seniority, he had only 14 days holiday allowance, and told me that on the first of these fortnight-long breaks his American colleagues were pissed off that he never once opened his laptop.

(In the end he decided he’d be better working for a big pharma outfit in Switzerland, where they take proper holidays.)

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Monday 24 June, 2024

Unplanned obsolescence

A lovingly cared-for Harley seen in a French village the other day. En passant, isn’t it amazing how humans tamed the internal combustion engine so that we could ride around comfortably while being propelled by a controlled series of explosions?

Quote of the Day

“I may have my faults, but being wrong ain’t one of them”

  • Jimmy Hoffa

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Louis Armstrong with Dave Brubeck | Summer Song


Long Read of the Day

 “Bits of the Mind’s String”

Lovely essay by Julian Simpson on what you can learn about yourself from keeping a notebook.

I know where I was when I wrote that note because the time and place is scrawled at the top of the page. But the note itself evokes context. I remember writing it, and what else was happening at the time, in a way that I rarely do when I type something. Physical media drops anchors in time. The act of writing with pen on paper snapshots the moment itself.

In her essay “On Keeping A Notebook”, Joan Didion refers to “bits of the mind’s string”. These are pieces of who we are set down on a page and back-linked, to borrow terminology from the notebook’s digital cousin, to a vivid snatch of life experience.

I have been actively keeping notebooks for many years now…

If you’re a notebook-keeper (as I am) this will resonate with you.

Books, etc.

What are laughingly called my working days are currently occupied by a project to which I’ve assigned the shorthand label HWGH (‘How We Got Here’). It’s about how liberal democracies got into the mess they are now in, and it’s a long story. It begins with the shock of the Second World War, and so I took Tony Judt’s magisterial tome away to read while we’re in France, because he starts with an extraordinarily vivid account of the devastation wrought by the war.

It was devastation on a scale I had never really understood. Over 36 million Europeans died in the war, numbers that dwarf the casualties of WW1, mostly because WW2 was primarily a civilian experience. It was, writes Judt, “a war of occupation, of repression, of exploitation and of extermination, in which soldiers, storm-troopers and policemen disposed of the daily lives and very existence of tens of millions of imprisoned peoples”.

It was a war in which. “the full force of the modern European state was mobilised for the first time, for the prime purpose of conquering other Europeans”. Nazi Germany fought it

“with significant help from the ransacked economies of its victims. … Norway, the Netherlands, Belgium, Bohemia-Moravia and, especially, France made significant involuntary contributions to the German war effort. Their mines, factories, farms and railways were directed to serving German requirements and their populations were obliged to work at German war production: at first in their own countries, later on in Germany itself. In September 1944 there were 7,487,000 foreigners in Germany, most of them there against their will, and they constituted 21 per cent of the country’s labour force”.

There was savagery everywhere. The Germans captured 5.5 million Soviet soldiers in the course of the war, most of them in the first seven months of Hitler’s invasion of Russia. Of these, 3.3 million died “from starvation, exposure and mistreatment in German camps”. And when the Soviet armies began to arrive in the West, retaliation began. For example, 87,000 women were raped by Soviet soldiers in the three weeks following the Red army’s arrival in Vienna.

On its way to Germany, Judt writes,

“the Red Army raped and pillaged (the phrase, for once, is brutally apt) in Hungary, Romania, Slovakia and Yugoslavia; but German women suffered by far the worst. Between 150,000 and 200,000 ‘Russian babies’ were born in the Soviet-occupied zone of Germany in 1945-46, and these figures make no allowance for untold numbers of abortions, as a result of which many women died along with their unwanted foetuses”. The Germans, Judt writes, “had done terrible things to Russia; now it was their turn to suffer”.

And that’s just for starters. Reading Judt reinforces the conviction that “European civilisation” is an oxymoron. (Not to mention a proposition that is not shared by the former colonies of European states.) But at least it supports my conjecture that the post-war explosion in liberal democracies can be seen as a response to the traumatic shock of the conflict.

My commonplace booklet

Who’s having to pay the ‘NVIDIA Tax’? And who isn’t?

Not sure how to reference this, which came from Brad DeLong’s blog, but it’s insightful…

So far, “AI” is huge profits for NVIDIA, as only Google and Apple have escaped the trap of paying NVIDI, exactly as much as it wants because they do not dare delay things for six months needed to build an alternative, cheaper, hardware-software stack—and quite possibly fail to do so. So far, “AI” is software companies finding that they have to provide services expenses in training and then in data center and electricity inference costs simply to protect their existing oligopoly, profit centers, without gaining significant additional revenue in return. And, so far, “AI “is a bunch of startups with no business models saved to pull the plug into years when Open AI, Microsoft, or Google Sherlock, you—unless you can get acquired by one of them as part of the Sherlock process first. IMHO, Google is highly likely to make money off of this because it does not have to pay the NVIDIA tax. IMHO, Apple is highly likely to make money off of this because it will sell devices for which it does not pay the NVIDIA tax, plus users pay the electricity costs. And Microsoft and OpenAI may make serious money. That is what the finances look like to me right now. But what does all this mean for technology and humanity’s collective wealth? I do not even have a guess yet: Brody Ford: AI Isn’t Making Much Money for Software Companies — Yet.

So it probably came from Ford’s Bloomberg column, but as I don’t have a subscription I can’t be sure.


Something I noticed, while drinking from the Internet firehose.

  • The IEA says that the tech industry’s insatiable appetite for energy is ballooning.

Electricity consumption from data centres, artificial intelligence (AI) and the cryptocurrency sector could double by 2026. Data centres are significant drivers of growth in electricity demand in many regions. After globally consuming an estimated 460 terawatt-hours (TWh) in 2022, data centres’ total electricity consumption could reach more than 1000 TWh in 2026. This demand is roughly equivalent to the electricity consumption of Japan.


Interesting, ne c’est pas? This is the industry that tells us that AI will help us fix climate change.

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Friday 21 June, 2024


The helical chutes inside Frank Gehry’s Tower in the Luma Arles arts centre, photographed yesterday. Believe it or not, perfectly sensible adults come hurtling down these.

The view from the top of the tower is terrific, though. First time I’ve ever had an aerial view of Arles, a city I love.

Quote of the Day

”Sometimes it is the body which is the first to surrender to old age, sometimes the soul.”

  • Michel de Montaigne

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Keith Richards and Norah Jones | Love Hurts


Long Read of the Day

Watergate: a reprise

Lovely post by Heather Cox Richardson on the last time the US had a president who was totally unfit for office.

Early in the morning on June 17, 1972, Frank Wills, a 24-year-old security guard at the Watergate Office Building in Washington, D.C., noticed that a door lock had been taped open. He ripped off the tape and closed the door, but when he went on the next round, he found the door taped open again. He called the police, who found five burglars in the Democratic National Committee headquarters located in the building.

And so it began…

She’s one of the best historians writing in the US at the moment. And has been a Substack star since, well, forever.

My commonplace booklet

LLMs as judges

Now this is really weird. Its author, Adam Unikowsky, is a partner in a fancy American law firm where he specialises in Appellate and Supreme Court cases. He previously served as a Judicial Law Clerk to former Justice Antonin Scalia and before that clerked for Judge Douglas Ginsberg at the U.S. Courts of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. So he’s not your average AI booster.

He recently tried an experiment:

I downloaded the briefs in every Supreme Court merits case that has been decided so far this Term, inputted them into Claude 3 Opus (the best version of Claude), and then asked a few follow-up questions. (Although I used Claude for this exercise, one would likely get similar results with GPT-4.)

The results were otherworldly. Claude is fully capable of acting as a Supreme Court Justice right now. When used as a law clerk, Claude is easily as insightful and accurate as human clerks, while towering over humans in efficiency.

Let’s start with the easiest thing I asked Claude to do: adjudicate Supreme Court cases. Claude consistently decides cases correctly. When it gets the case “wrong”—meaning, decides it differently from how the Supreme Court decided it—its disposition is invariably reasonable.

For example, Thursday and Friday last week, the Supreme Court decided six cases: United States Trustee v. John Q. Hammons Fall 2006, LLC; Campus-Chaves v. Garland; Garland v. Cargill; FDA v. Alliance for Hippocratic Medicine; Starbucks v. McKinney; and Vidal v. Elster. Claude nailed five out of six, missing only Campos-Chaves, in which it took the dissenters’ side of a 5-4 opinion, which is hardly “wrong.”

I’m not a lawyer, so can’t really judge. But the summary judgments produced by Claude looked plausible.

Not sure what this means. Maybe it’s just that legal reasoning is particularly amenable to the ways LLMs work. But this seems a bigger deal than the stories about his the models can ace the tests set for entrants to some professions.

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