Friday 19 July, 2024

Gehry’s tower

For the new Luna Centre in Arles. Quite a building.


Quote of the Day

“I regard not finding Lord Lucan as my most spectacular success in journalism. Of course, many of my colleagues have also been fairly successful in not finding Lord Lucan. But I have successfully not found him in more exotic spots than anybody else.”

  • Garth Gibbs, a famous Daily Mirror journalist who would not have been out of place in Evelyn Waugh’s wonderful satire on journalism, Scoop. (A copy of which, incidentally, David Cameron kept on his desk before he was Prime Minister, presumably as a handbook for dealing with the British tabloids.)

For readers who do not follow the excesses of these vile rags, I should explain that Lord Lucan was an elegant and dissolute peer who disappeared after murdering his children’s nanny with a lead pipe and was never seen again, despite the efforts of many tabloid journalists — all coincidentally on lavish expenses — to locate him in foreign parts.


Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Mozart | Ruhe Sanft, Mein Holdes Leben (Zaide) | Lucia Popp

Link

Sublime, utterly sublime.


Long Read of the Day

The AI summer

Nice essay by Benedict Evans, one of the shrewdest observers of the tech industry writing today.

Hundreds of millions of people have tried ChatGPT, but most of them haven’t been back. Every big company has done a pilot, but far fewer are in deployment. Some of this is just a matter of time. But LLMs might also be a trap: they look like products and they look magic, but they aren’t. Maybe we have to go through the slow, boring hunt for product-market fit after all.

Worth reading from start to finish. The reason we’re in an AI bubble is that while everyone and his dog is talking about how revolutionary the tech is, it’s not at all clear whether — and how — this apparent potential will actually be realised. Evans thinks that history suggests that the big payoffs might be a long time coming.


Books, etc.

Top ten of the NYT’s top 100 books of the 21st century.

  1. My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante
  2. The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson
  3. Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel
  4. The Known World by Edward P. Jones
  5. The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen
  6. 2666 by Roberto Bolaño
  7. The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
  8. Austerlitz by W.G. Sebald
  9. Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro
  10. Gilead by Marilynne Robinson The only ones I’ve read are nos. 5,8 and 9. My kids are appalled that I still haven’t read Wolf Hall, and don’t regard my protestations that I’ve seen the dramatisation as satisfactory justification. I’m pretty sure they’re right.

Errata

Apologies to Belinda Kitchin for getting her surname wrong — as ‘kitchen’. Of course I’d like to blame it on Apple autocorrect, but careless proofreading is a more plausible explanation.


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Wednesday 17 July, 2024

A rose by any other name…


Quote of the Day

“I don’t think I am any good. If I thought I was any good, I wouldn’t be”

  • John Betjeman

Lovely man, though logic wasn’t his strong point. I never pass St Pancras station, though, without thinking fondly of him. Without him it’d be some ghastly modernist pile.


Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Claude-Michel Schonberg | Bring Him Home | The Piano Guys

Link


Long Read of the Day

Putting the Boot in

Lovely essay by Robert Hutton on British journalism, as satirised by Evelyn Waugh, and embodied by Boris Johnson.

Scoop, whatever Waugh’s intention, offered generations of unserious young journalists the hope that they might pitch up somewhere, get drunk on expenses, fail to understand what was going on, and be declared a hero.

Which brings us to Boris Johnson. As well as being Britain’s most successful politician, the prime minister has long been one of the country’s highest-paid journalists, a job he did entirely in the Scoop mould. His sympathetic biographer, Andrew Gimson, describes how, posted to Brussels, Johnson delighted in producing stories that were more entertaining than accurate. It was not that he was opposed to writing accurate stories, but he didn’t see it as in any way essential.

The Scoop character Johnson most resembles isn’t the novel’s hero, the hapless William Boot, though…

Read on to find out who’s the model.

Footnote The piece was published in The Critic in 2021 when the foolishness of the British electorate to give Johnson a mandate to screw the country was becoming obvious to even the dogs in the street.


Books, etc.

One of the nicest surprises of last week was to discover that Rick Gekoski and his wife, Belinda Kitchen, were in town. We had dinner with them on Saturday evening. Rick is a writer, a successful rare-book dealer, a publisher and a former academic. So, like me, he has a foot in several graves.

He is also a consummate storyteller, which is why his essays on the book trade (and academia) are memorable. His book, Tolkien’s Gown, a set of essays about the publishing history of 20 great works, is full of stories that most of us would kill for.

I’ve known him for years and so it was great to catch up with him and Belinda. And then, towards the end of the meal, she pulled this rabbit out of her bag — a set of yarns about his dealings — both in rare books and with their authors. I was mortified that I had missed it (it came out in 2021, in the height of the pandemic). The only consolation for the embarrassment is that I now have literary entertainment for the post-EUFA week!


My commonplace booklet

My observation on Monday about the echoes of the famous Imo Jima photograph from WW2 in Evan Vucci’s remarkable photograph of a defiant Trump in the aftermath of the shooting led Joe Dunne to see another echo — Delacroix’s 1830 painting Liberty Leading the People.


Linkblog

Something I noticed, while drinking from the Internet firehose.

  • DJI Drone ascends Everest Link. The kind of mountaineering any couch-potato can enjoy.

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Monday 15 July, 2024

The joys of travel

An exhausted young couple trying to catch up on sleep in a crowded departure lounge.


Quote of the Day

“You can’t teach an old dogma new tricks”

  • Dorothy Parker

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Renaldo Hahn | A Chloris | Susan Graham with Roger Vignoles

Link

I’d never heard of Hahn and so went digging. He was a Venezuelan composer who died in 1947 and had been Director of the Paris Opera. Proust portrays him in his novel Jean Santeuil .

Many thanks to Margaret Stobo for suggesting it.


Long Read of the Day

Twitter’s ragebait champagne v Threads’s sparkling annoyance

When Elon Musk completed his court-mandated acquisition of Twitter, many thousands of its users fled from the platform. Sensing a commercial opportunity, Meta (neé Facebook) set up a pale imitation called Threads. The other week the company announced on the first anniversary of Threads’s launch that the platform now had 175 million users. Impressive, eh?

Sounds impressive, doesn’t it. Not to Charles Arthur, who has done a penetrating analysis of Threads’s actual performance, and of how Meta has distorted the platform to achieve that 175 million figure.

Note the two figures that aren’t in the Threads number: the 100 million that it hit in the first week. This is actually bad news: it means that in the 51 weeks since, there have only been another 75 million users added, ie only a little more than a million per week, culled from Instagram and Facebook, which have more than a billion users each (though with a lot of overlap). In other words, perhaps one in a thousand users peeled off each week to join the people already there.

The other number that isn’t being revealed is daily active users…

It’s a terrific piece of journalism. And it shines a light on the essence of the social media business model — the amplification of outrage.

Footnote Interesting also that three days ago the European Commission announced that it is investigating X/Twitter for breaking the EU’s Digital Markets Act.


We don’t need ‘scientific’ research to tell us that smartphones are bad for kids

Yesterday’s Observer column

Jonathan Haidt is a man with a mission. In his day job, he’s a professor of ethics at New York University’s Stern School of Business. But outside academia, he’s a compelling campaigner. His mission: to alert us to the harms that social media and modern parenting are doing to our children. And his latest book, The Anxious Generation: How the Great Rewiring of Childhood Is Causing an Epidemic of Mental Illness, pulls no punches. It is, said the New York Times, “erudite, engaging, combative, crusading”, which possibly explains why it has been on the newspaper’s nonfiction bestseller list for 14 weeks (it is now at No 2).

Haidt writes of a “tidal wave” of increases in mental illness and distress beginning around 2012. Young adolescent girls are hit hardest, but boys are in pain, too, as are older teens. He sees two factors that have caused this. The first is the decline of play-based childhood caused by overanxious parenting, which allows children fewer opportunities for unsupervised play and restricts their movement. This translates into low-risk childhoods in which kids don’t have the opportunity to make mistakes and learn from them. The second factor is the ubiquity of smartphones and the social media apps that thrive upon them. The result is the “great rewiring of childhood” of his book’s subtitle and an epidemic of mental illness and distress.

Haidt’s prescriptions for these ills include banning smartphones from schools…

Read on


My commonplace booklet

If it’s true that journalism, as the cliché puts it, is “the first draft of history”, then podcasting is the second draft. When used well, it’s an extraordinary medium for journalists because: it gives them time and space to tell complicated stories; has much more intellectual bandwidth than broadcast media (which always have to cater for the lowest common denominator); and harnesses a more intimate channel to the listener (most people listen on headphones).

All of these features were in evidence last week as I listened to The Belgrano Diary, Andrew O’Hagan’s riveting podcast series on what some people regard as ‘Britain’s Watergate’ — the Thatcher government’s attempts to conceal the truth about the sinking of an Argentinian warship during the Falklands War.

(The Watergate metaphor isn’t really accurate, though: that scandal drove Richard Nixon from office, whereas the Belgrano cover-up rescued Margaret Thatcher from electoral oblivion. So even if history rhymes, it certainly doesn’t repeat itself.)


In memoriam

My first thoughts on hearing of the assassination attempt on Trump and then seeing Evan Vucci’s remarkable photograph, with its Iwo Jima overtones, is that the American Republic’s experiment with democracy is ending. Trump, the Vietnam draft-dodger, will now metamorphose into Trump, the indomitable battle-torn hero, and the rest, sadly, will be history.


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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

Link

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

Link


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.


Errata

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

Link

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.


Feedback

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)

And

”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

Link

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)”

Link


Linkblog

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

Link

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.

Sample:

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.


Linkblog

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

Patience

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

Link


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.


Linkblog

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

Link


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.


Linkblog

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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