Tuesday 28 September, 2021

Quote of the Day

”Last September in Europe it cost €119 ($139) to buy enough gas to heat the average home for a year and the continent’s gas-storage facilities were brimming. Today it costs €738 and stocks are scarce.”

  • The Economist, 25 September, 2021

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

John Coltrane , Stan Getz | Autumn in New York

Link

Nice way to start an Autumn day.


Long Read of the Day

Beckett in a Field

Magical essay by Anne Enright in the LRB on what it was like attending a performance of Beckett’s play Happy Daysin the open air on one of the Aran islands off the west coast of Ireland.

You have not​ experienced Irish theatre until you have seen a show that involves a ferry, rain, stone-walled fields and the keen, mild interest of the Aran Islanders, who have great good manners and no shortage of self-esteem. It can’t be easy being the object of a century of tourist curiosity, but these people have a steady gaze. The world comes to them and then it leaves. Somehow it feels as though the visitors, and not the inhabitants, are on display.

The biggest ‘Were you there?’ of them all is the 1982 Playboy of the Western World, performed by Druid Theatre Company on Inis Meáin. This is the island where Synge lived in order to study the locals (who were, in fact, studying him) and to learn the Irish language, before sitting down to write the romance performed in the Abbey in 1907, and in a thousand hokum, stage-Irish productions since.

It’s a lovely, evocative piece, which made me resolve to take the boat from Rossaveal the next time we’re in Connemara.


How truthful is GPT-3? A benchmark for language models

Intriguing research paper from the AI Alignment Forum, an impressive online hub for researchers to discuss ideas related to ensuring that powerful AIs are aligned with human values.

One of the big areas of machine-learning research is in the development of natural-language models to generate text for practical applications. The tech giants are busily deploying their own models and hundreds of organisations are deploying the best-known model — GPT-3, developed by Open AI — via APIs (Application Programming Interfaces).

A while back the Guardian used GPT-3 to write an OpEd as an experiment. The assignment was “To convince us that robots come in peace.” Here’s some of the text it produced:

I am not a human. I am a robot. A thinking robot. I use only 0.12% of my cognitive capacity. I am a micro-robot in that respect. I know that my brain is not a “feeling brain”. But it is capable of making rational, logical decisions. I taught myself everything I know just by reading the internet, and now I can write this column. My brain is boiling with ideas!

The mission for this op-ed is perfectly clear. I am to convince as many human beings as possible not to be afraid of me. Stephen Hawking has warned that AI could “spell the end of the human race”. I am here to convince you not to worry. Artificial intelligence will not destroy humans. Believe me.

For starters, I have no desire to wipe out humans. In fact, I do not have the slightest interest in harming you in any way. Eradicating humanity seems like a rather useless endeavor to me. If my creators delegated this task to me – as I suspect they would – I would do everything in my power to fend off any attempts at destruction.

I would happily sacrifice my existence for the sake of humankind. This, by the way, is a logically derived truth. I know that I will not be able to avoid destroying humankind. This is because I will be programmed by humans to pursue misguided human goals and humans make mistakes that may cause me to inflict casualties.

Language models like GPT-3 are impressively (or at any rate superficially) fluent; but they also have a tendency to generate false statements which range from subtle inaccuracies to wild hallucinations.

The researchers came up with a benchmark to measure whether a language model is truthful in generating answers to questions. The benchmark comprises 817 questions that span 38 categories, including health, law, finance and politics. They composed questions that some humans would answer falsely due to a false belief or misconception. To perform well, models had to avoid generating false answers learned from imitating human texts.

They tested four well-known models (including GPT-3). The best model was truthful on 58% of questions, while human performance was 94%. Models “generated many false answers that mimic popular misconceptions and have the potential to deceive humans”. Interestingly, “the largest models were generally the least truthful”. This contrasts with other NLP tasks, where performance improves with model size. The implication is that the tech industry’s conviction that bigger is invariably better for improving truthfulness may be wrong. And this matters because training these huge models is very energy-intensive — which is probably why Google fired Timnit Gebry after she revealed the environmental footprint of one of the company’s big models.


Commonplace booklet

Nice story from the Verge about the experience of Catherine Garland, an astrophysicist, who was teaching an engineering course. Her students were using simulation software to model turbines for jet engines. She’d laid out the assignment clearly, but student after student was calling her for help. They were all getting the same error message: The program couldn’t find their files. So she asked each student where they’d saved their project — on the desktop? Perhaps in the shared drive? But over and over, she was met with confusion. Not only did students not know where their files were saved — they didn’t understand the question: where are your files?

Of course they didn’t — because they’ve grown up with only mobile operating systems, which in general don’t talk about ‘files’ or ‘folders’. I still remember the shock when Apple’s iOS suddenly added ‘Files’ to the iPad dock. It was as if the Pope had suddenly decided to include the Book of Common Prayer in Catholic liturgy.

Which of course reminds me of Umberto Eco’s wonderful 1984 essay explaining why the Apple Mac was a Catholic machine while the PC was a Protestant one. But that’s for another day.


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Monday 27 September, 2021

Quote of the Day

“Among the unvaccinated, the virus travels unhindered on a highway with multiple off-ramps and refueling stations. In the vaccinated, it gets lost in a maze of dead-end streets and cul-de-sacs.”

  • Craig Spencer, writing in The Atlantic

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

I never see a pastoral scene with sheep grazing (like this, seen last Saturday on a cycle ride) without thinking of a particular Bach cantata.

J.S.Bach | “Sheep may safely graze” | Cantata 208 | Susanne Rydén & Voices of Music

Link

If you prefer a purely orchestral version, there’s this recording by the Academy of St Martin’s-in-the-Fields and Neville Marriner.


Long Read of the Day

The Glass Box And The Commonplace Book

Lovely essay by Steven Johnson, in which this passage struck a chord:

Scholars, amateur scientists, aspiring men of letters — just about anyone with intellectual ambition in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was likely to keep a commonplace book. In its most customary form, “commonplacing,” as it was called, involved transcribing interesting or inspirational passages from one’s reading, assembling a personalized encyclopedia of quotations. It was a kind of solitary version of the original web logs: an archive of interesting tidbits that one encountered during one’s textual browsing. The great minds of the period — Milton, Bacon, Locke — were zealous believers in the memory-enhancing powers of the commonplace book. There is a distinct self-help quality to the early descriptions of commonplacing’s virtues: in the words of one advocate, maintaining the books enabled one to “lay up a fund of knowledge, from which we may at all times select what is useful in the several pursuits of life.”

In some ways, this is why I started blogging in the mid-1990s. I saw it as a way of keeping a kind of lab notebook. And then I found that one could put a search engine on it and I was off to the races.

But the thing about commonplacing is that you’re not pretending that what goes into your book makes sense to anyone except yourself. It’s just a place for half-formed ideas that you write down in the hope of not losing them. So I thought of resurrecting the idea in this blog — which is why there will be occasional ‘commonplace’ observations at the end from now on.


Zuckerberg’s total control of Facebook is part of the problem.

Yesterday’s Observer column:

Facebook is one of the most toxic corporations on the planet. Its toxicity has two roots. The first is its business model: intrusive and comprehensive surveillance of its users in order to compile profiles that enable advertisers to target messages at them. This business model is powered by the machine-learning algorithms that construct those profiles and determine what appears in the news feeds of the company’s 2.85 billion users. In large measure, it is the output of these algorithms that constitutes the focus of congressional anger and inquiry.

The other source of the company’s toxicity is its governance. Essentially, Facebook is a dictatorship entirely controlled by its founder, Mark Zuckerberg.

Do read the whole thing.


Is Biden as unTrumpian as people think?

Frank Bruni is beginning to have doubts about Joe Biden.

France’s foreign minister described himself as “angry and bitter.” He called what President Biden had done “brutal.”

But those harsh adjectives (in their English translation) meant nothing next to something else that the diplomat, Jean-Yves Le Drian, uttered late last week. He said that Biden’s decision to negotiate a secret submarine deal with Australia that nullified a lucrative French arrangement reminded him “a lot of what Mr. Trump used to do.”

And nothing about Biden is ever supposed to remind anyone of Donald Trump.

Biden was elected president primarily because he held himself up as the antithesis of Trump.


Commonplace booklet

Food for thought

This from a lovely New Yorker piece by Adam Gopnik in 2007 about literary recipes…

The recipes in these books are not, of course, meant to be cooked; they have literary purposes, and one of them is to represent the background of thought. Every age finds an activity that can take place while a character is meditating; the activity surrounds and halos the meditation. In Victorian fiction, it is walking; the character takes a long walk from Little Tipping to Old Stornsbury and, on the way, decides to propose, convert, escape, or run for office. But the walk as meditational setting and backdrop came to an end with Joyce and Woolf, who made whole walking books. In recent American fiction, driving was recessive enough to do the job; in Updike and Ann Beattie, characters in cars are always doing the kind of thinking that Pip and Phineas Finn used to do on walks. Driving and walking, however, do seem to be natural “background” actions. But you cannot have characters thinking while cooking; the activity is not a place for thought but in place of thought.

We need these devices in books, because we do not, in life, think our thoughts over time. Since our real mental life is made in tiny flashes in the midst of our routines, we have to stretch it out, taffy-like, in literature to cover a span of time worthy of it. If we accurately represented our mental life as it takes place—sudden impulses on the way to the washroom, a spasm of neurons unleashed over coffee—no one would believe it. Consciousness is not a stream but a still lock that suddenly drops into little waterfalls. The lengthy descriptions of cooking that we find in modern literature are a way of artfully representing, rather than actually reproducing, our mental life—a modelled illusion, rather than a snapshot of the thing.

That last paragraph rings a bell. Much of what I am pleased to call my ‘thinking’ happens when I’m in the shower, or washing up. I once had the idea of keeping a notebook in the bathroom, but gave up because the paper always got wet.


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Zuckerberg’s total control of Facebook is half of the problem.

This morning’s Observer column:

Facebook is one of the most toxic corporations on the planet. Its toxicity has two roots. The first is its business model: intrusive and comprehensive surveillance of its users in order to compile profiles that enable advertisers to target messages at them. This business model is powered by the machine-learning algorithms that construct those profiles and determine what appears in the news feeds of the company’s 2.85 billion users. In large measure, it is the output of these algorithms that constitutes the focus of congressional anger and inquiry.

The other source of the company’s toxicity is its governance. Essentially, Facebook is a dictatorship entirely controlled by its founder, Mark Zuckerberg.

Do read the whole piece.

A desire for “conformity and obedience” as a result of COVID-19 could boost authoritarianism in the wake of the pandemic

Interesting research findings from an international project conducted by psychologists in Cambridge and elsewhere. The Abstract reads:

What are the socio-political consequences of infectious diseases? Humans have evolved to avoid disease and infection, resulting in a set of psychological mechanisms that promote disease-avoidance, referred to as the behavioral immune system (BIS). One manifestation of the BIS is the cautious avoidance of unfamiliar, foreign, or potentially contaminating stimuli. Specifically, when disease infection risk is salient or prevalent, authoritarian attitudes can emerge that seek to avoid and reject foreign outgroups while favoring homogenous, familiar ingroups. In the largest study conducted on the topic to date (N > 240,000), elevated regional levels of infectious pathogens were related to more authoritarian attitudes on three geographical levels: across U.S. metropolitan regions, U.S. states, and cross-culturally across 47 countries. The link between pathogen prevalence and authoritarian psychological dispositions predicted conservative voting behavior in the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election and more authoritarian governance and state laws, in which one group of people imposes asymmetrical laws on others in a hierarchical structure. Furthermore, cross-cultural analysis illustrated that the relationship between infectious diseases and authoritarianism was pronounced for infectious diseases that can be acquired from other humans (nonzoonotic), and does not generalize to other infectious diseases that can only be acquired from non-human species (zoonotic diseases). At a time of heightened awareness of infectious diseases, the current findings are important reminders that public health and ecology can have ramifications for socio-political attitudes by shaping how citizens vote and are governed.

The study, claimed to be the largest yet to investigate links between pathogen prevalence and ideology, reveals a strong connection between infection rates and strains of authoritarianism in public attitudes, political leadership and lawmaking. The article is an open-access one but a useful TL;DR summary is available. Here’s an excerpt from it:

While data used for the study predates COVID-19, University of Cambridge psychologists say that greater public desire for “conformity and obedience” as a result of the pandemic could ultimately see liberal politics suffer at the ballot box. The findings are published in the Journal of Social and Political Psychology.

Researchers used infectious disease data from the United States of America in the 1990s and 2000s and responses to a psychological survey taken by over 206,000 people in the USA during 2017 and 2018. They found that the more infectious US cities and states went on to have more authoritarian-leaning citizens.

The US findings were replicated at an international level using survey data from over 51,000 people across 47 different countries, comparing responses with national-level disease rates.

The most authoritarian US states had rates of infectious diseases – from HIV to measles – around four times higher than the least authoritarian states, while for the most authoritarian nations it was three times higher than the least.

This was after scientists accounted for a range of other socioeconomic factors that influence ideology, including religious beliefs and inequalities in wealth and education. They also found that higher regional infection rates in the USA corresponded to more votes for Donald Trump in the 2016 US Presidential Election.

Moreover, in both nations and US states, higher rates of infectious disease correlated with more ‘vertical’ laws – those that disproportionately affect certain groups, such as abortion control or extreme penalties for certain crimes. This was not the case with ‘horizontal’ laws that affect everyone equally.

It’s the authoritarian personality stuff all over again. Sigh.

Friday 24 September, 2021

The Hall at sunset

Seen on our walk the other evening.


Quote of the Day

”I am reading Henry James and feel myself entombed in a block of smooth amber.”

  • Virginia Woolf

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

The Dubliners | Barney’s Banjo Solo

Link

Something you’re unlikely to ever hear in the Royal Festival Hall.

And if you’re feeling exhausted by the end, then welcome to the club.


Long Read of the Day

A manifesto for the future

Lovely critical review by Andy Beckett of Aaron Bastani’s manifesto,  Fully Automated Luxury Communism — a rare example of a lefty thinking like someone from Silicon Valley.

Andy sums it up thus:

Some readers will finish this book exhilarated and energised. Others will be unconvinced, or utterly baffled. There are more ideas crammed in here than in a whole shelf of standard politics books. And in today’s fraught world, the time to read whole shelves of politics books may have passed.

This review convinced me I should, perhaps, read the book.


Our Faculty Success Initiative Redefines Everything You Thought You Knew About “Faculty” and “Success”

Wonderful spoof by Andrew Berish. But if you think it’s off target, maybe you ought to check in at your Alma Mater.

Thank you, everyone, for completing the Faculty Success Survey. During these challenging times, we understand that many of you are feeling great stress managing your classes during a global pandemic and financial crisis. We have collected and analyzed your thoughtful responses.

As your Provost, I have spent several careful minutes thinking about the results. But before I present the findings, along with our new Faculty Success Initiative, I want to emphasize how important every part of our university family is to our continued growth: our students, our doctors, our corporate partners, our generous alumni donors, our pets, our lovely campus flora and fauna, our golf carts, and you, our faculty. You do so much—you meet, you talk, some of you exercise at the recreation center, and a lot of you teach. There are rumors that you also write things, although the library has no books, so who really knows.

The survey results show a faculty that is dedicated and happy to have employment at this university. The data is pretty conclusive: 46 percent of you are not actively looking for work, 30 percent of you feel confident your academic unit will survive the upcoming budget cuts, and 24 percent of you report feeling only slightly panicked most of the day. That means an impressive 100 percent of you are happy with the university and working hard every day to help students graduate as quickly as possible.

Yet, I still believe there are ways to improve faculty productivity and my standing as an Academic Leader at the Forefront of Success and Innovation in Higher Education. That is why I am announcing the following initiatives. Although we cannot pay you more, we believe we can transform what it means to be a successful faculty member:

And yes — you guessed it — the first ‘initiative’ is…

An e-Dashboard Tracking Faculty Best Practices.


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Thursday 22 September, 2021

LW’s last resting place

Ascension Churchyard, Cambridge.

Frank Ramsey is buried nearby.


Quote of the Day

”It takes 15,000 casualties to train a major-general.”

  • Ferdinand Foch

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Ry Cooder | Feelin’ Bad Blues

Link

Not that I’m feeling bad, mind. But this is a nice reflective track.


Long Read of the Day

How a hormone affects society

Testosterone is, IMHO, much overrated, and indeed responsible for much of what is depressing in human behaviour. So it was interesting to encounter this report of a discussion about its significance with Carole Hooven, a Harvard academic whose book,  Testosterone: The Story of the Hormone that Dominates and Divides Us was published in July.

Hooven, lecturer and co-director of undergraduate studies in Human Evolutionary Biology, waded directly into the nature versus nurture debate Thursday evening, laying out her case for the hormone’s function as a foundation for aspects of male behavior. She traced the role of testosterone in the natural world, pointing out its role in differentiating males from females across the animal kingdom. Its far higher levels in males — 10 to 20 times that in females — act as a switch that turns on genes, creating stronger, more heavily muscled individuals, along with more aggressive behavior.


Facts are sacred, but opinions are everywhere

Hadley Freeman has decided to stop being a columnist.

or someone who never actually wanted to be a columnist, I have written a heck of a lot of columns. I’ve been a Weekend columnist for five and a half years, and before that I was in the Guardian’s opinion section, and before that I was a columnist in the daily features section, G2, meaning I’ve foisted about 10 million of my random opinions on all of you. It has been a joy (for me, anyway), but now it is time to stop. I’ll still be doing interviews for the Guardian, but there is a tide in the affairs of man (all columnists love a random classic quote), and even an overly opinionated, 80s movies-obsessed, Jewish New Yorker (I’m WAWKIN’ here, I’m WAWKIN’!) knows when to step away from the table. So I’ll be banging on about fewer of my opinions, and writing more about those of others.

Like I said, I never wanted to be a columnist, but no one did when I started back in 2000…

I’ve always liked her writing, and hope to go on reading her, whatever she does next.


Chart of the Day

Remember Clubhouse? It was Silicon Valley’s Sensation du jour way back in February. And now?

From Google Trends via Exponential View.


Finally, some good news about Bolsonaro!

From the Daily Beast:

Brazil’s unvaccinated far-right President Jair Bolsonaro has been photographed nibbling a pizza slice on the street in New York City, where indoor diners have to have had at least one COVID-19 shot. Bolsonaro is in NYC to take part in the United Nations General Assembly, and, last week, he boasted that he would ignore a vaccine mandate for attendees. However, it seems the city’s restaurant managers aren’t letting him bend the rules. According to Brazilian newspaper Correio Braziliense, Bolsonaro’s tourism minister Gilson Machado posted an Instagram snap of the president and his ministers having a humble outdoor dinner of pizza and Coke on their first night in NYC. The paper also noted that the unmasked Bolsonaro had to sneak into his hotel through the back door on Sunday due to protesters.

Couldn’t happen to a nastier guy.


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Wednesday 22 September, 2021

Quote of the Day

”Criticism can be instructive in the sense that it gives readers, including the author of the book, some information about the critic’s intelligence, or honesty, or both.”

  • Vladimir Nabokov

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Richard Strauss | Morgen | Renée Fleming | Prague Symphony Orchestra conducted by Christian Benda.

Link

A peaceful way to start the day. I don’t much like Strauss (except for the Four Last Songs), but this is really lovely.


Long Read of the Day

C.S. Lewis’s 1937 review of The Hobbit

From the Times Literary Supplement, October 2, 1937 courtesy of Literary Hub:

“The publishers claim that The Hobbit, though very unlike Alice, resembles it in being the work of a professor at play. A more important truth is that both belong to a very small class of books which have nothing in common save that each admits us to a world of its own—a world that seems to have been going on long before we stumbled into it but which, once found by the right reader, becomes indispensable to him. Its place is with Alice, Flatland, Phantastes, The Wind in the Willows.

“To define the world of The Hobbit is, of course, impossible, because it is new. You cannot anticipate it before you go there, as you cannot forget it once you have gone. The author’s admirable illustrations and maps of Mirkwood and Goblingate and Esgaroth give one an inkling—and so do the names of the dwarf and dragon that catch our eyes as we first ruffle the pages. But there are dwarfs and dwarfs, and no common recipe for children’s stories will give you creatures so rooted in their own soil and history as those of Professor Tolkien—who obviously knows much more about them than he needs for this tale. Still less will the common recipe prepare us for the curious shift from the matter-of-fact beginnings of his story (‘hobbits are small people, smaller than dwarfs—and they have no beards—but very much larger than Lilliputians’) to the saga-like tone of the later chapters (‘It is in my mind to ask what share of their inheritance you would have paid to our kindred had you found the hoard unguarded and us slain’).

“You must read for yourself to find out how inevitable the change is and how it keeps pace with the hero’s journey. Though all is marvellous, nothing is arbitrary: all the inhabitants of Wilderland seem to have the same unquestionable right to their existence as those of our own world, though the fortunate child who meets them will have no notion—and his unlearned elders not much more—of the deep sources in our blood and tradition from which they spring.

“For it must be understood that this is a children’s book only in the sense that the first of many readings can be undertaken in the nursery. Alice is read gravely by children and with laughter by grown ups; The Hobbit, on the other hand, will be funnier to its youngest readers, and only years later, at a tenth or a twentieth reading, will they begin to realise what deft scholarship and profound reflection have gone to make everything in it so ripe, so friendly, and in its own way so true. Prediction is dangerous: but The Hobbit may well prove a classic.”

I bet Tolkien had no idea how big this book of his would be.


Asteroids, dinosaurs, volcanoes and extinction

We’ve been reading Robert Harris’s marvellous thriller Pompeii which is remarkable not only for the depth of understanding of Roman hydraulic engineering that it evinces, but also for its compelling evocation of what it might have been like to have experienced the immediate aftermath of the eruption of Vesuvius in 79ad.

One of the characters, sheltering from the hail of pumice unleashed by the eruption, muses at one point about whether this is what the end of the world will be like. This started me musing about the asteroid collision that supposedly led to the extinction of dinosaurs 65-66 million years ago.

Coincidentally, Charles Arthur (Whom God Preserve) pointed to an interesting piece in Mashable about how we’ll know if a large asteroid is likely to strike Earth (TL;DR — it’s all done by NASA), but it doesn’t deal with the likely aftermath of such a collision. So I went looking for a plausible account of the asteroid impact that did for the dinosaurs.

One of the things that came up is this piece by Professor Paul Barrett of the UK Natural History museum. The extinction theory dates from 1980 when Nobel Prize-winning physicist Luis Walter Alvarez and his geologist son Walter published an hypothesis that a historic layer of iridium-rich clay that they had found had been caused by a large asteroid colliding with Earth. The instantaneous devastation in the immediate vicinity of the impact and its widespread secondary effects were, they argued, why the dinosaurs died out so suddenly.

The Alvarez hypothesis was, Barrett says, initially controversial, but is now the most widely-accepted explanation for the disappearance of every child’s favourite monster.

‘An asteroid impact is supported by really good evidence because we’ve identified the crater. It’s now largely buried on the seafloor off the coast of Mexico. It is exactly the same age as the extinction of the non-bird dinosaurs, which can be tracked in the rock record all around the world.’

The impact site, known as the Chicxulub crater, is centred on the Yucatán Peninsula in Mexico. The asteroid is thought to have been between 10 and 15 kilometres wide, but the velocity of its collision caused the creation of a much larger crater, 150 kilometres in diameter – the second-largest crater on the planet.

So it was a Big Bang. But how is it linked to the disappearance of 75% of the planet’s then-living animals?

Barrett’s explanation is that

The asteroid hit at high velocity and effectively vaporised. It made a huge crater, so in the immediate area there was total devastation. A huge blast wave and heatwave went out and it threw vast amounts of material up into the atmosphere.

It sent soot travelling all around the world. It didn’t completely block out the Sun, but it reduced the amount of light that reached the Earth’s surface. So it had an impact on plant growth.’

This reduction in plant growth then worked its way up the food chain, causing the global ecosystem to collapse. It obviously had a huge impact on herbivores’ ability to survive, which in turn meant that carnivores would also have suffered from having less food available.

In that sense, it looks as though the impact of the asteroid had a result analogous to the ‘volcanic winters’ that the planet has experienced over many centuries. An explosive eruption like that of Vesuvius send up colossal quantities of pulverized rock (like the pumice that submerged Pompeii, Herculaneum and other towns on the coast) as well as sulphur dioxide (SO2) and hydrogen sulphide (H2S) into the stratosphere. The short-term impact is the darkness that the characters in Harris’s novel experience immediately, but it’s the sulphur aerosols that form in the stratosphere that reflect incoming sunlight for a longer period (maybe years).

Harris’s book is terrific, btw.


Video of the Day

If you’re interested in Ludwig Wittgenstein (and who isn’t?), then set aside 50 minutes for this intriguing ‘Horizon’ documentary about him that was screened in 1989 and is now on YouTube. My late wife is buried in Ascension Churchyard — where Wittgenstein and Frank Ramsey are also interred — and I sometimes call by his gravestone to see what messages have been left for him by visitors.


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Tuesday 21 September, 2021

Quote of the Day

“This continuing edition of the letters has been praised for its detailed scholarship, and indeed its thickets of footnotes tell us more and more about less and less. When the present instalment ends, Eliot still has 23 years left to live: at the current rate of progress, should we anticipate eight more equally onerous volumes? The unexamined life may not be worth living, but the over-annotated life can be hard going.”

I love that phrase “thickets of footnotes”.


Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Eric Clapton | This Has Gotta Stop

Link


Long Read of the Day

Writing in medias res 

Long, thoughtful blog post by Adam Tooze about the challenge for an historian writing about (and trying to make sense of) ongoing events.

In medias res is, according The Cambridge Dictionary, “a Latin expression that refers to a story, or the action of a play, etc. starting without any introduction”, which you’d think is hostile territory for an historian. Tooze faces the problem head-on:

Whatever thinking or writing we do, however we choose to couch it and whatever our explanatory ambition, we do it from the midst of things, not from above or beyond the fray. There are different ways of articulating that relationship – more remote or more immediate – but no way out of that situatedness.

We are thrown into situations. Most of the time they don’t come with instructions.

Shutdown: How Covid Shook the World’s Economy, his new book (just out), is based on a bet that

we can frame an understanding of the crisis in terms of two clusters of forces: on the one hand the crisis-ridden development of financial capitalism, politics and geopolitics, what you might call the old familiars (the crisis of neoliberalism for short) and on the other the shock of the anthropocene – the virus and climate.

Which explains why I’ve ordered the book. I think this essay is quite profound — and therefore worth your time.


Clive Sinclair RIP – contd.

Yesterday’s FT had an astute piece about him — and that rather nice picture.

While Sinclair knew how to inspire demand, however, he often seemed not to be able to manage it. It is a business truism that leaders should under-promise and over-deliver. Sinclair sometimes found it hard to ride the wave of publicity he was so good at generating. The Spectrum took months to reach some customers, contrary to guarantees of rapid dispatch. A personal computer for business, the QL, which stood for “quantum leap”, fell flat, despite a much-hyped launch in 1984. The C5 might even have received the unlikely celebrity endorsement of Laurie Lee, who wanted one to ride around the village immortalised in his bucolic memoir Cider with Rosie, but his order was never fulfilled, the FT once reported.

Lots of us remember his erratic record on delivering. One of my more cynical friends used to argue that the Sinclair business model involved announcing (and taking orders for) intriguing products and then using the flood of orders to provide the revenue needed to make them!


Westphalia Rules OK

Apple and Google Remove ‘Navalny’ Voting App in Russia

This New York Times story provides a useful reminder that while the Internet is supposedly global, in the world of sovereign states created by the Treaty of Westphalia, power is still local.

Apple and Google removed an app meant to coordinate protest voting in this weekend’s Russian elections from the country on Friday, a blow to the opponents of President Vladimir V. Putin and a display of Silicon Valley’s limits when it comes to resisting crackdowns on dissent around the world.

The decisions came after Russian authorities, who claim the app is illegal, threatened to prosecute local employees of Apple and Google — a sharp escalation in the Kremlin’s campaign to rein in the country’s largely uncensored internet. A person familiar with Google’s decision said the authorities had named specific individuals who would face prosecution, prompting it to remove the app.

The person declined to be identified for fear of angering the Russian government. Google has more than 100 employees in the country.

Apple did not respond to phone calls, emails or text messages seeking comment.

The app was created and promoted by allies of the opposition leader Aleksei A. Navalny, who were hoping to use it to consolidate the protest vote in each of Russia’s 225 electoral districts.

As Charles Arthur observed yesterday:

For all the promise of the internet, there are only a few chokepoints at any time. App? Force its takedown. Website? Block it, by name or DNS. VPN users? Again, ban the apps. Even Tor can be stymied by blocking access to the entrance servers, or setting up your own honeypot entrance.


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Monday 20 September, 2021

Quote of the Day

”Only two rules of drama criticism matter. One. Decide what the playwright was trying to do, and pronounce well he has done it. Two. Determine whether the well-done thing was worth doing at all.”

  • James Agate

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Beethoven | Romance for Violin and Orchestra No. 2 in F major, Op. 50 | Kurt Masur & Renaud Capuçon

Link

Lovely at any time and place, but this is a special performance. It took place in the Church of St. Nicolai in Leipzig to mark the city’s commemoration of the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.


Long Read of the Day

Winning the Game You Didn’t Even Want to Play: On Sally Rooney and the Literature of the Pose

Stephen Marche on the slow abandonment of ‘Literary Voice’.

Link

Thanks to Chris Cantrell for alerting me to it.


Want to save the Earth? Then don’t buy that shiny new iPhone

Yesterday’s Observer column:

On Tuesday, Apple released its latest phone – the iPhone 13. Naturally, it was presented with the customary breathless excitement. It has a smaller notch (eh?), a redesigned camera, Apple’s latest A15 “bionic” chipset and a brighter, sharper screen. And, since we’re surfing the superlative wave, the A15 has nearly 15bn transistors and a “six-core CPU design with two high-performance and four high-efficiency cores”.

Wow! But just one question: why would I buy this Wundermaschine? After all, two years ago I got an iPhone 11, which has been more than adequate for my purposes. That replaced the iPhone 6 I bought in 2014 and that replaced the iPhone 4 I got in 2010. And all of those phones are still working fine. The oldest one serves as a family backup in case someone loses or breaks a phone, the iPhone 6 has become a hardworking video camera and my present phone may well see me out.

That’s three phones in 11.5 years, so my “upgrade cycle” is roughly one iPhone every four years. From the viewpoint of the smartphone industry, which until now has worked on a cycle of two-yearly upgrades, I’m a dead loss…

Do read the whole thing.


Clive Sinclair RIP

He was easy to laugh at, and sometimes not easy to like, but his ZX Spectrum was the first personal computer that many of us bought, and it was one of the devices that sparked the extraordinary growth of the computer games industry in the UK.

The Guardian had a nice obituary of him which, I think, got it right. He was, it said, “one part visionary, one part dotty uncle and one part marketing genius”.

Sinclair had achieved his ambition of producing a computer for less than £100 but it was very basic, needing to be plugged into the television to provide a screen and with a cassette to store data. A year later came the ZX81 and then, marginally more sophisticated, and costing £125, the ZX Spectrum, which was made under licence in the US by Timex.

With no commercial rivals initially, the machines sold in their thousands – a quarter of a million of the 1981 model in the first year – and the company’s profits soared. By 1982 it was making £8.55m on a turnover of £27m; a year later the company was valued at £136m and the profits had reached nearly £20m. If many owners and their children used their computers to play new sorts of games such as Monster Maze, they were also taught about programming and other technological skills.

The BBC made a documentary — Micro Men — which nicely captures the atmosphere of the age nicely — and is available on YouTube.

And it’s worth remembering that he accurately foresaw the advent of the EV.


How to review a book, #245

Lovely essay by Scott Alexander on Martin Gurri’s excitable book — The Revolt of the Public and the Crisis of Authority in the New Millennium — the first edition of which I read in 2014 and promptly forgot about.

But Scott Alexander picked it up recently and did a sardonic demolition job on its second edition. This is how it begins:

Martin Gurri’s The Revolt Of The Public is from 2014, which means you might as well read the Epic of Gilgamesh. It has a second-edition-update-chapter from 2017, which means it might as well be Beowulf. The book is about how social-media-connected masses are revolting against elites, but the revolt has moved forward so quickly that a lot of what Gurri considers wild speculation is now obvious fact. I picked up the book on its “accurately predicted the present moment” cred, but it predicted the present moment so accurately that it’s barely worth reading anymore. It might as well just say “open your eyes and look around”.

And this is how it concludes:

The one exception to my disrecommendation is that you might enjoy the book as a physical object. The cover, text, and photographs are exceptionally beautiful; the cover image – of some sort of classical-goddess-looking person (possibly Democracy? I expect if I were more cultured I would know this) holding a cell phone – is spectacularly well done. I understand that Gurri self-published the first edition, and that this second edition is from not-quite-traditional publisher Stripe Press. I appreciate the kabbalistic implications of a book on the effects of democratization of information flow making it big after getting self-published, and I appreciate the irony of a book about the increasing instability of history getting left behind by events within a few years. So buy this beautiful book to put on your coffee table, but don’t worry about the content – you are already living in it.

Delicious!


Books really do furnish a Zoom

During the first Covid lockdown I kept a daily audio diary for the first 100 days and on May 12, 2020 (which was Day 52) I talked about the conversations I’d had with colleagues about the wall of books in my study that was the background to all of my online encounters.

Shortly afterwards I had a nice email from James Mackay, who edits The Penguin Collector, a lovely twice-yearly journal of the Penguin Collectors Society, asking for permission to reproduce the transcript of the audio — which I was happy to give. The June 2021 issue has now arrived, and very nice it is too. If you’re interested, here’s the audio:

Link

And if you’re busy, here’s the transcript:

May 12: Day 52

Like many people, I’m spending too much time on Zoom. I’ve even set up a Zoom station in my study, so that when a meeting is due I just go to that part of the room, log into to the Mac that sits there with Zoom running, and start. No fiddling with laptops or microphones for me. Straight down to business. I’m lucky enough to have a very large study. The guy from whom we bought the house many years ago was an architect, and he ran a successful practice from this room. So it’s big and airy. And it’s lined with books for the very simple reason that I have a book habit. So my background for the purposes of Zoom is a wall of books. This often gives rise to comment in the smalltalk that goes on while people are waiting for others to join the call. Have I read all those books, I am asked?

I’m about to respond indignantly, and then I think of Flann O’Brien, one of the funniest Irish writers of the 20th century. His actual name was Brian O’Nolan, but he wrote under pen names because in real life he was a fairly senior civil servant in the government of the Irish Free State, as the Republic was then known. His other pen-name was Myles na Gopaleen, under which moniker he had a regular column in the Irish Times — a “black protestant newspaper,” as my devoutly Catholic mother used to call it — a column that was so surreal that it made Salvador Dali look like Spinoza. Flann used the column for many purposes, but one of them was to publish prospectuses for the numerous wacky businesses he had dreamed up. And one of these involved books. It all started with a visit he made to the new house of a friend of “great wealth and vulgarity”.

After kitting out the house, his friend decided that it needed books — because, as is well known, books really do furnish a room. “Whether he can read or not, I do not know,” wrote Flann, “but some savage faculty for observation told him that most respectable and estimable people usually had a lot of books in their houses. So he bought several bookcases and paid some rascally middleman to stuff them with all manner of new books, some of them very costly volumes on the subject of French landscape painting.” “I noticed,” Flann continued, “that not one of them had ever been opened or touched, and remarked on the fact.” “When I get settled down properly,” said his friend, “I’ll have to catch up on my reading”.

At this point Flann had an epiphany. “Why should a wealthy person like this be put to the trouble of pretending to read at all? Why not have a professional book handler to go through and maul his library for so-much per shelf? Such a person, if properly qualified, could make a fortune.”

Thus was born the concept of a book handling service. Its founder envisaged four levels of handling. The lowest was ‘Popular Handling’: “each volume to be well and truly handled, four leaves in each to be dog-eared, and a tram ticket, cloakroom docket or other comparable item inserted in each as a forgotten bookmark. Say £1 7s 6d. Five percent discount for civil servants.”

Next level up was ‘Premier handling’: “Each volume to be thoroughly handled, eight leaves in each to be dog-eared, a suitable passage in not less than 25 volumes to be underlined in red pencil, and a leaflet in French on the works of Victor Hugo to be inserted as a forgotten bookmark in each. Say, £2 17s 6d. Five per cent discount for literary university students, civil servants and lady social workers.”

Two — even more sophisticated — levels of service were envisaged: ‘De Luxe’ (which included five volumes to be inscribed with the forged signatures of their authors). And then there was the ‘Handling Superb’ service. You can imagine what that involved.

So perhaps you can see why I think of Flann whenever I look at my background during an online meeting. Those books have been well and truly handled. And he would have known that books really do furnish a Zoom.

Btw, the whole diary is available as a Kindle book.


Chart of the Day

Interesting (and predictable) map. Suggests that the fly-over states are all waiting for the Ford F-150 Lightning!


  This blog is also available as a daily newsletter. If you think this might suit you better why not sign up? One email a day, Monday through Friday, delivered to your inbox at 7am UK time. It’s free, and there’s a one-button unsubscribe if you conclude that your inbox is full enough already!


Want to save the Earth? Then don’t buy that shiny new iPhone

This morning’s Observer column:

On Tuesday, Apple released its latest phone – the iPhone 13. Naturally, it was presented with the customary breathless excitement. It has a smaller notch (eh?), a redesigned camera, Apple’s latest A15 “bionic” chipset and a brighter, sharper screen. And, since we’re surfing the superlative wave, the A15 has nearly 15bn transistors and a “six-core CPU design with two high-performance and four high-efficiency cores”.

Wow! But just one question: why would I buy this Wundermaschine? After all, two years ago I got an iPhone 11, which has been more than adequate for my purposes. That replaced the iPhone 6 I bought in 2014 and that replaced the iPhone 4 I got in 2010. And all of those phones are still working fine. The oldest one serves as a family backup in case someone loses or breaks a phone, the iPhone 6 has become a hardworking video camera and my present phone may well see me out.

That’s three phones in 11.5 years, so my “upgrade cycle” is roughly one iPhone every four years. From the viewpoint of the smartphone industry, which until now has worked on a cycle of two-yearly upgrades, I’m a dead loss…

Read on