Monday 2 October, 2023

Harvest time?

I once thought of making wine from our grapes, but after I’d read up on the kit I’d need to buy, and the expertise I’d need to acquire, decided that it might be easier (and perhaps cheaper) to buy a bottle of Chateau Lafite.

Quote of the Day

”History is the ship carrying living memories to the future.”

  • Stephen Spender

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Jon Lord | VI. Afterwards


After listening, I went to the Thomas Hardy poem that inspired the piece.

Long Read of the Day

Quantum Resistance and the Signal Protocol

This sounds geeky but a post on the Signal Blog does a good job of explaining why it matters. Basically, the security of our networked world depends on the fact that the cryptography that underpins it cannot be broken by brute-force computing with conventional computers. But if quantum computing turns out to be practically feasible then that bet’s off because they would be many orders of magnitude more powerful.

Do read the post to learn how outfits like Signal (of which I am a committed user) are being pre-emptive in case the quantum threat does materialise.

The US government is belatedly taking on Google in the most significant antitrust case in decades

Yesterday’s Observer column:

Although you’d never guess it from mainstream media, the most significant antitrust case in more than 20 years is under way in Washington. In it, the US justice department, alongside the attorneys general of eight states, is suing Google for abusively monopolising digital advertising technologies, thereby subverting competition through “serial acquisitions” and anti-competitive auction manipulation. Or, to put it more prosaically, arguing that Google – which has between 90% and 95% of the search market – has maintained its monopoly not by making a better product, but by locking down almost every avenue through which consumers might find a different search engine and making sure they only see Google wherever they look.

Why is this significant?

Read on.

My commonplace booklet

Imagined idiots

“Why do public intellectuals condescend to their readers?” Asks Becca Rothfeld in a nice essay in the Yale Review on why academics appear to lose their marbles when they try to write for non-academics.

She quotes from a 2015 essay by Mark Greif, founder of the online journal n+1, on the difficulties he had getting scholars to write for the general public.

When these brilliant people contemplated writing for the “public,” it seemed they merrily left difficulty at home, leapt into colloquial lan­guage with both feet, added unnatural (and frankly unfunny) jokes, talked about TV, took on a tone chummy and unctuous. They dumbed down, in short—even with the most innocent intentions. The public, even the “general reader,” seemed to mean someone less adept, ingenious, and critical than them­selves. Writing for the public awakened the slang of mass media. The public signified fun, frothy, friendly.

So, concludes Rothfeld, “If the academic humanities too often address only siloed experts, then pop philosophy too often addresses an audience of imagined idiots.”



Something I noticed, while trying to drink from the Internet firehose.

The World’s Longest Beak — a clip from the BBC from Planet Earth II in which David Attenborough talks about the Swordbill, a hummingbird with a bill longer than its body. Unmissable.


  • The artist who created the striking stained-glass mentioned in Friday’s edition was Harry Clarke. Thanks to Ivan Morris for enlightening me.
  • My intro to Branco Milanovic’s marvellous Long Read on Friday revealed my blissful ignorance of the fact that 1960s Belgrade was in Yugoslavia and therefore not in ”the Soviet empire” as I mistakenly claimed. Thanks to Richard Austin for pointing this out.

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Friday 29 September, 2023

Stained glass

This striking window is in a modern Catholic Church in Cong, Co. Mayo. Can’t remember who the artist was, alas. (Memo to self: always make notes when photographing interesting things.)

Quote of the Day

“A danger sign that fellow-obsessionals will at once recognize is the tendency to regard the happiest moments of your life as those that occur when someone who has an appointment to see you is prevented from coming.”

  • Peter Medawar, Memoirs of a Thinking Radish

I once sat next to him at lunch when I was a graduate student and shyly asked him what advice he gave to his students. “What I tell them”, he said, “is that research is a straightforward business: you have to pick a problem that is big enough to be worth solving…” and then he paused before continuing “… and small enough to be solved!”

I’ve been dispensing this advice ever since, and miming profundity.

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Robert Schumann: Konzertstück für 4 Hörner op.86 | First movement


I’m always amazed that anyone can play a brass instrument. Fortunately, they can.

Long Read of the Day

The red bourgeoisie

Absolutely fascinating memoir by Branko Milanovic about realities of life in the Soviet empire.

We were attracted to the “forbidden” things happening there. So I remember when several days later as the insurrectionist students communicated with the city only through large banners, I first saw the words “Down with the Red Bourgeoisie”. It was a new term. The students were protesting against corruption, income inequality, lack of employment opportunities. They renamed the university of Belgrade, “The Red University Karl Marx”. It was very difficult for an officially Marxist-inspired government to deal with them. The days of uncertainty ensued: the newspapers attacked them for destroying public property and “disorderly conduct”, but rebellious students continued skirmishes with the police, and proudly displayed the name of their new university. I remember vividly a bearded student with a big badge “The Red University Karl Marx” standing in the bus, and everyone around him feeling slightly uncomfortable, not sure whether to congratulate him or curse him.

But the slogan was true. It was a protest against the red bourgeoisie, the new ruling class in Eastern Europe. It was a heterogeneous class: some came, especially so in the underdeveloped countries like Serbia, from very rich families; others from the educated middle class, many from workers’ and peasants’ families. Their background was similar to the background of students who were protesting against them now.. Had the students won in 1968, they would have become the new red bourgeoisie.

The red bourgeoisie itself was the product of huge inequities of underdeveloped capitalist societies…

Great read. It reminded me of Leah Ypi’s  Free: Coming of Age at the End of History about growing up in communist Albania.

My commonplace booklet

Raspberry Pi5 is here!

It’s the first Raspberry Pi to come with an in-house graphics chip. Powered by a quad-core Arm Cortex-A76 processor running at 2.4GHz, which means it’ll be two or three times faster than my Raspberry Pi4. And it’s still the size of a credit-card.

According to The Verge, it runs hot! I’m not surprised.


Something I noticed, while trying to drink from the Internet firehose.

** We finally know for sure what a trilobite ate Tens of thousands of fossils later, we’ve found a trilobite with a full stomach.

Not a terribly interesting diet IMO, but still. Amazing research.


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Wednesday 27 September, 2023

Magic toadstools

By the banks of the river Corrib in Mayo. And no, I didn’t pick them.

Quote of the Day

“Any word you have to hunt for in a thesaurus is the wrong word.”

  • Stephen King

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Jelly Roll Morton | Smoke House Blues


Long Read of the Day

 Confessions of a Viral AI Writer

Vauhina Vara wrote a story with the assistance of ChatGPT which went viral on the Web. She’s written a thoughtful essay in Wired on whether Generative AI’s are good for writers — or indeed for writing itself.

When the essay, called “Ghosts,” came out in The Believer in the summer of 2021, it quickly went viral. I started hearing from others who had lost loved ones and felt that the piece captured grief better than anything they’d ever read. I waited for the backlash, expecting people to criticize the publication of an AI-assisted piece of writing. It never came. Instead the essay was adapted for This American Life and anthologized in Best American Essays. It was better received, by far, than anything else I’d ever written.

I thought I should feel proud, and to an extent I did. But I worried that “Ghosts” would be interpreted as my stake in the ground, and that people would use it to make a case for AI-produced literature.

And soon, that happened…

It’s a thoughtful, thought-provoking piece. And one passage particularly resonated with me,

ChatGPT’s voice is polite, predictable, inoffensive, upbeat. Great characters, on the other hand, aren’t polite; great plots aren’t predictable; great style isn’t inoffensive; and great endings aren’t upbeat.


Books, etc.

A must-read (for me, anyway).

From the blurb:

Mark Weiser (1952–99), the first chief technology officer at Xerox PARC and the so-called “father of ubiquitous computing.” But Weiser, who died young at age 46 in 1999, would be heartbroken if he had lived to see the ways we use technology today. As John Tinnell shows in this thought-provoking narrative, Weiser was an outlier in Silicon Valley. A computer scientist whose first love was philosophy, he relished debates about the machine’s ultimate purpose. Good technology, Weiser argued, should not mine our experiences for saleable data or demand our attention; rather, it should quietly boost our intuition as we move through the world.

My commonplace booklet

 Samuel Johnson, opsimath

Henry Oliver’s affectionate tribute to the first great lexicographer.

He is mostly remembered because of Boswell’s biography, which details all sorts of weird and wonderful things about him, like the fact that he always kept his orange peel to put in his shoes, or his strange behaviour, twitching and rolling around and muttering, like he had tourettes. People who met him found his intelligence literally unbelievable after they had observed his ‘strange antic gestures’. He also had terrible eyesight and read with the book very close to his face, so close to the candle he scorched his wig. His friend Thrale worried he would set himself on fire.

But he ought to be remembered for his writing and his strong minded independence. He was an autodidact, and a powerful example of the Fitzgerald Rule. Who would have seen the potential in that strange man wandering the streets with Richard Savage, a well known liar and fraud? Only the people who could recognise that he was an opsimath: a lifelong learner and a late bloomer.

He was. Which is why I’ve always admired him and have a copy of his Dictionary on my shelves.


Something I noticed, while trying to drink from the Internet firehose.

 20 String Harp Guitar Cover of Neil Young’s ‘Harvest Moon’


And you thought guitars only had 12 strings at most? Me too.

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Monday 25 September, 2023

Bird’s-eye view

The view from the Conor Pass

Tralee Bay, seen from the top of the Pass in Co. Kerry, one of my favourite roads.

Quote of the Day

“An expert is a man who has made all the mistakes which can be made in a very narrow field.”

  • Niels Bohr

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Dolly Parton | 9 To 5


I dug this out after reading a column by Simon Kuper in the Financial Times about the obtuse determination of certain corporate executives to stop people WFH.

I’ve always admired Dolly as the epitomé of feisty insouciance. And so did my fellow-countryman, Terry Wogan of blessed memory. Once, in a conversation about transubstantiation, when he was asked what he would like come to back as in another life. His reply: “Dolly Parton’s accordion.”

Long Read of the Day

News as Objects: The Materiality of handwritten newsletters

Yeah, I know this isn’t a handwritten newsletter and maybe it isn’t all that ‘newsy’, but this lovely essay by Sara Mansutti shows that the genre has a rich and interesting history.


Sometimes the newsletters report incidents that delayed or stopped their journey, giving a glimpse of how much the materiality of these sheets of paper mattered in the diffusion of the news. Some documents narrate about couriers fallen in rivers with their post-bags whose documents, if retrieved, became illegible due to the ink dissolving. In other cases, the interference with the mail delivery was a political tactic. In 1571 news from Paris warned that the courier of London directed to Paris had been robbed and his mail had been brought to the English court by order of Queen Elizabeth the First.

But the biggest obstacle to the supply of news was the suspicion of plague and the fear of contagion. Letters and newsletters reached their destinations with more difficulty during the epidemics than in wartime, because couriers coming from plague-infested places were forbidden to enter into the safe cities or to pass through some regions. The newsletters were believed to be vectors of infection just like any other physical object and rules were introduced to reduce the contagion caused by them. An avviso from Venice, written in 1564, warned that the letters from Lyon should no longer be tied with twine, because of an outbreak of plague there: the avviso doesn’t say more, but we can infer that twine was believed to convey the disease.

Do read it. And at least this particular newsletter is unlikely to pass on Covid.

When it comes to creative thinking, it’s clear that AI systems mean business

Yesterday’s Observer column on how corporate executives will view Generative AI.

(Spoiler alert: it’s not all good news.)

In all the frenzied discourse about large language models (LLMs) such as GPT-4 there is one point on which everyone seems to agree: these models are essentially stochastic parrots – namely, machines that are good at generating convincing sentences, but do not actually understand the meaning of the language they are processing. They have somehow “read” (that is, ingested) everything ever published in machine-readable form and create sentences word by word, at each point making a statistical guess of “what one might expect someone to write after seeing what people have written on billions of webpages, etc”. That’s it!

Ever since ChatGPT arrived last November, people have been astonished by the capabilities of these parrots – how humanlike they seem to be and so on. But consolation was drawn initially from the thought that since the models were drawing only on what already resided in their capacious memories, then they couldn’t be genuinely original: they would just regurgitate the conventional wisdom embedded in their training data. That comforting thought didn’t last long, though, as experimenters kept finding startling and unpredictable behaviours of LLMs – facets now labelled “emergent abilities”.

From the beginning, many people have used LLMs as aids to brainstorming…

Do read on.

My commonplace booklet

95% of NFTs now totally worthless, say researchers

From The Register

For those who don’t recall, NFTs are entries on a blockchain, typically the Ethereum blockchain, that represent ownership of assets – usually a digital asset like an image file or in-game item, but NFTs could also be tied to physical items.

Back in their 2021-22 heyday, collectors were paying millions for NFTs, but crypto gambling website dappGambl now says that most are worthless.

After looking at 73,257 NFT collections (a collection can contain any number of NFTs that can each be bought and sold) based on data from CoinMarketCap and NFTScan, dappGambl said it determined that 69,795 of those collections have a market cap of 0 Ether.

”This statistic effectively means that 95 percent of people holding NFT collections are currently holding onto worthless investments,” dappGambl said in its report. “Having looked into those figures, we would estimate that 95 percent to include over 23 million people whose investments are now worthless.”

Aw, shucks.

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Friday 22 September, 2023

Down the lane…

Walking back from a college dinner the other evening, I turned into Little St Mary’s Lane, one of my favourite streets — and one I often strolled down when I was a graduate student on my (leisurely) way to the Lab. Stephen Hawking once lived in one of the houses, as did the great Irish historian, Joe Lee, when he was a Fellow of Peterhouse in the late 1960s.

Quote of the Day

“Nobody ever notices the host at a party, until the drink runs out”

  • Anthony Gilbert

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Elvis Costello sings Penny Lane for Paul McCartney at the White House.


I have a soft spot for Liverpool ever since my daughter went to university there and I got to know the city.

Long Read of the Day

AI and Leviathan: Part 1

This is the first of three remarkable essays by Sam Hammond pondering the challenges posed by the flowering of machine-learning into Generative AI. If you want to get a sense of where we might be heading, these essays are worth reading.

But just for now, here’s how the first one in the series opens.

Imagine a breakthrough happened and suddenly everyone had access to cheap, x-ray style glasses. The glasses look like normal, everyday glasses, but come with a dial setting that lets you see through walls, people’s clothing, etc. It somehow works on old photos and video recordings too.

On one level, this would be amazing. You might notice the mysterious lump on your friend’s thyroid, say, catching their cancer early and saving them untold medical costs. But in the immediate term, universal and near-undetectable access to the glasses (or contact lenses, if you prefer) would be a security and privacy disaster. No one’s home or device security was compromised per se. Rather, it’s more like a society designed around the visible light spectrum became maladapted overnight.

There are three canonical ways that society could respond:

Cultural evolution: we embrace nudism and a variety of new, post-privacy norms;

Mitigation and adaptation: we start wearing lead underwear and scramble to retrofit our homes, office buildings, and locker rooms with impenetrable walls;

Regulation and enforcement: we ban or tightly regulate the technology and build an x-ray Leviathan for inspecting people’s glasses, punishing violators, etc.

The option where everyone spontaneously coordinates to never use the glasses, or to only use them for a subset of pro-social purposes, is unstable. Even if you’re a voyeur and access to the glasses benefits you personally, there’s an underlying prisoner’s dilemma, and so we quickly shift to the equilibrium where everyone has the glasses even if we all preferred the world without them.

The glasses are a metaphor for Artificial Intelligence.

See what I mean? Read on.

Books, etc.

John McPhee is the greatest long-form non-fiction writer alive IMO. Period. And he’s just published his 32nd book, Tabula Rasa, which I downloaded last night and started reading — until I suddenly realised that staying up all night is not a great idea.

Noah Rawlings’s review in the LA Review of Books might give you an idea of why I nearly didn’t sleep.

Writers’ lives are littered with unrealized projects. Some more than others. John McPhee—the New Yorker staff writer who, over his 60-year career at that magazine, redefined what is today known as “creative nonfiction”—does not strike one as the type to leave things undone. He has more published books than most writers have inchoate inklings: books on oranges, tennis, canoes, geology, the Swiss Armed Forces, the US Merchant Marine. We’re talking 31. We are not talking 31 formulaic variations on a theme, not 31 books by Louis L’Amour or Clive Cussler (with all due respect), but 31 books that are, with few exceptions, masterworks of literary journalism. Greatness is not measured by word count, but McPhee’s output doubles that of nonfiction giants like Gay Talese or Joan Didion or Tom Wolfe. To produce so much good work requires rare qualities: staggering energy, expansive interests, exceptional endurance. And a long life.

McPhee is now 92…

My commonplace booklet

I’m looking forward to seeing the Lee Miller biopic (in which Kate Winslet plays Miller) when it comes out in December. In the meantime interesting fragments and references are appearing. Can’t remember where I saw this, but it shows how photographer Annie Leibovitz has recreated with Winslet the famous picture of Miller in Hitler’s bath when she and her fellow-photographer David Scherman got into the Führer’s apartment in Munich as the war ended. Note the Rolleiflex on the tripod. You have to get these things right.

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Wednesday 20 September, 2023

Vanishing point

Cycling in to College for breakfast the other day, I found myself brooding on ‘mists and mellow fruitfulness’ and then saw this scene. And fell to thinking about how much I like Autumn, and how September, not January, is when the new year begins for me. Which is probably a legacy of a life spent working in universities, I guess.

Quote of the Day

”There’s nothing more permanent than a temporary hack.”

  • Dave Winer

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

The Dirty Mac | Yer Blues


Wow! John Lennon on vocals, Eric Clapton on guitar, Mitch Mitchell on drums, Keith Richards on bass and Yoko Ono on blanket.

Long Read of the Day

Just for Fun

Lovely essay by Rebecca Baumgartner on people’s reaction to the news that she’s learning German — for fun! Which is really a reflection on the way our neoliberal-driven society is disdainful of hobbies, of things we do just because we enjoy doing them.

I was struck by this passage.

Beneath the self-deprecating label of “hobby” lives a whole array of benefits that we (ironically) don’t have the words to talk about. We don’t have a way of talking about fulfillment and enrichment, or flow and connectedness, without sounding like a snob or a hippie.

So many of the unpaid things I do fall into this category. These things make it possible to stay hopeful. They keep me flexible. They give me something to talk about – a virtue not to be underestimated for those who hate small talk. They (hopefully) make me a more interesting person to know. They make me feel connected to something. They help me stay awake, literally and metaphorically. They keep me engaged when I feel myself languishing. They take me out of my competent adult role and provide me with an invigorating dose of failure.

Yep. You could say that applies to my photography habit — as an incessant (and usually futile) quest for that one perfect picture. (My only satisfaction is that Derek Parfit had it worse; but at least he was also a great philosopher.) Or my enjoyment of crosswords — the pathetic satisfaction of eventually realising, for example, that the solution to “previous tube made one lose patience” (3,4,5) is “the last straw”.

Books, etc.

 Elon Musk: pillock, genius, or both?

My Observer review of Walter Isaacson’s biography of the SpaceX and Tesla guy.


Much of Musk’s industrial success comes from his persistent attention to engineering detail and willingness to overturn practices that had congealed into holy writ in these industries. He is a great believer in “vertical integration” – making things yourself rather than outsourcing to others – for example. So Tesla writes all its own software whereas other car manufacturers outsource theirs to Silicon Valley giants. Musk believes that there must be no barriers between design and manufacturing: designers’ desks should be physically close to the production line. He believes that in redesigning many industrial processes automation is the last thing you should do, not the first. So just as Henry Ford is remembered not so much for the Model T but for the production line that made it, Musk will probably be celebrated for his obsession with “the machine that builds the machine”.

There is, however, a dark side to this industrial creativity. The term that comes continually to mind from reading Isaacson’s account of how Musk runs his pioneering enterprises is “brutal”. A fanatical worker himself, he doesn’t give a toss about employees’ work-life balance. He believes that if people want to prioritise their comfort and leisure they should leave his employment. He emails employees reminding them that “a maniacal sense of urgency is our operating principle”. Isaacson’s study of Musk’s management style is filled with sudden dismissals, capricious decision-making and apparently sociopathic indifference to the feelings of other people. As one of his oldest friends from university put it: you can work with him or be his friend, but not both…

Footnote: It’s hard to get it right when writing about Musk. There’s a forcefield around him that continually shapes people’s views about him into single dimensions. (Something similar applied to Steve Jobs.) Binary categorisation: Pillock or Genius. And so I expected criticism when I decided just to focus on what Isaacson’s (diligent) research tells us about the things that Musk has built, rather than delving into his wacky, borderline-crazy behaviours. I expect there has been lots of criticisms of that approach, and the usual accusations of having become a devil-worshipper, etc.

But then I remembered that trying to keep a focus on ‘the work’ has always been a challenge. Many distinguished people in history — artists as well as inventors and industrialists — have been flawed and, on occasion, monstrous human beings. Think of Evelyn Waugh, Phillip Larkin, Ezra Pound, James Joyce, Céline, to name just five with whom I am familiar. Somehow in the Humanities, though, we succeed in drawing a line between the work and the author. Or used to, anyway. Maybe in an age obsessed with ‘cancellation’ it’ll be more difficult.

My commonplace booklet


Jonathan Peelle’s response:

Circular cats, contd.

Sheila Hayman (Whom God Preserve) writes…

I took advantage of this convenient sleeping in circles habit when one of my great nieces wanted a cat cake for her birthday….


 Not all USB-C cables are created equal.

Useful warning by Brian X. Chen in the NYT.

Key takeaway: don’t charge your device using cables you buy in, say, a filling station. These cables are no longer just dumb pipes, so you need the right one for a particular job.

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

Monday 18 September, 2023

On reflection…

This is an enigmatic image. We were walking on the banks of the river Corrib in Cong and came on a large, placid pool, and I saw the overhanging branches of a tree reflected in the water. So I pressed the shutter. But ever since, when I happen upon the image I find myself doing a double-take, to try and orient myself. Which way is up?

Quote of the Day

“Politics is not the art of the possible. It consists in choosing between the disastrous and the unpalatable.”

  • J. K. Galbraith, letter to JFK, 1962.

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

George Butterworth | English Idyll 2


I stumbled on this the other day and was enchanted by it. I knew nothing of Butterworth, so headed to his Wikipedia page. Like many of his generation, he died on the Somme in 1916.

Long Read of the Day

Searching for a Breakup

From CNN:

US prosecutors opened a landmark antitrust trial against Google on Tuesday with sweeping allegations that for years the company intentionally stifled competition challenging its massive search engine, accusing the tech giant of spending billions to operate an illegal monopoly that has harmed every computer and mobile device user in the United States.

In opening remarks before a federal judge in Washington, lawyers for the Justice Department alleged that Google’s negotiation of exclusive contracts with wireless carriers and phone makers helped cement its dominant position in violation of US antitrust law.

This looks like being a big deal. It’s the biggest case since the DoJ took on Microsoft in the 1990s. Scott Galloway has a terrific piece helpfully putting it in its proper context.

Google doesn’t dominate computing today to the extent Microsoft did in 1998. Nobody does, as “computing” is a much broader space. But its control of search — the most common entry point to the internet — is a nearly pitch-perfect echo of Microsoft circa 2001. Similarly, a quarter century after its founding, Google has a more than 90% market share, a sclerotic artifact of market power vs. a function of innovation. Its market dominance creates a virtuous cycle of increasing power. An estimated 9 billion Google searches occur every day, vs. 400 million for Bing. The massive delta of data and reach makes for a better product: Click-through rates for ads on Google are 30% greater than on Bing. More usage = more data = more advertising, and so on. Today, Google’s parent Alphabet is worth $1.75 trillion and employs 175,000 people.

Most people probably switch off when they hear the word ‘antitrust’. But this is an important case, not just for the tech industry but for liberal democracy generally. As the legal scholar Tim Wu puts it, the notion that power should be limited so that no person or institution can enjoy unaccountable influence is at the very root of a democracy.

The trouble is that liberal democracies have spent half a century building governance and regulatory systems which have allowed the emergence of uncontrolled monopolies not just in tech but in many other industries. If this is not reversed then we’re in deep trouble.

Which is why Scott’s piece is worth your time.

(For those who — like me — have to pay more attention to this, Matt Stoller has set up a free Substack newsletter which will report daily from the trial.)

The EU cable guys have tied down Apple, yet big tech is still bossing the Tories

Yesterday’s Observer column

Sometimes, when Apple launches a new device (or even an upgrade of an existing one), it’s tempting to think that the accompanying blurb is a satirical spoof. On Tuesday, the day the iPhone 15 and iPhone 15 Plus were launched in California, for example, it burbled that both phones featured “industry-first colour-infused back glass with a stunning, textured matt finish and a new contoured edge on the aluminium enclosure. Both models feature the dynamic island which displays outputs and alerts and an advanced camera system designed to help users take fantastic photos of everyday moments in their lives. A powerful 48 megapixel main camera enables super-high-resolution photos and a new 2x telephoto option to give users a total of three optical zoom levels – like having a third camera. The iPhone 15 lineup also introduces the next generation of portraits, making it easier to capture portraits with great detail and low-light performance.”

Oh, and by the way, it also has a USB-C charging port…

Read on.

If you’re really interested in the iPhone launch, then Jon Gruber’s long analysis is just the thing.

Nonsense on stilts

The Financial Times is a fine newspaper, but it has one intensely annoying appendage — a glossy colour magazine that accompanies the paper’s weekend edition and is aimed directly at the 0.01% . It was originally called “How To Spend It”, but this was eventually deemed to be too crass and so it’s now sneakily packaged as “HTSI”.

This weekend’s edition was beyond parody. It was largely taken up by umpteen two-page spreads of a pair of emaciated lads poncing about the streets of Paris dressed like expensive tramps, but what really took the biscuit was this little ‘feature’ for those heading for university in a week or two.

Among the essential items listed were:

  • A suede backpack: £2,440
  • A Lange & Sohne ‘Jumping Second’ wristwatch: £90,000
  • A Paul Smith woollen sweater: £795
  • A Burberry wool hot-water bottle: £290
  • A Herno nylon trench coat: £1,295
  • A 1953 ‘Vintage Reversivel’ armchair by Carlo Hauner & Martin Eisler: 48,000 Euros.

Two questions: who dreamed up this page? And what were they smoking at the time?

My commonplace booklet

Circular cats (cont.)

My good friend Miranda McArthur (Whom God Preserve), a talented painter, sent me this lovely pastel she did of her sister-in-law’s cat, who favoured a clockwise orientation!


Something I noticed, while trying to drink from the Internet firehose.

On long reads

“Senior hack Adam Macqueen, who has worked for the Eye since 1997, thinks that the ‘long read’ could do with a rebrand: “‘I’ll Read That Later’ might be a better title in a lot of cases – I’d put money on an awful lot of them sitting on open tabs for weeks or months like those apples people buy with their lunch with the best of intentions and then leave on their desks to go all wrinkly and finally get thrown away. Obviously, there are some fantastic examples of the genre, but mostly I think if stories can’t be told short they’re quite often probably not stories.”

From an interesting piece in Press Gazetteby Charles Baker.

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Friday 15 September, 2023

Cats circular

Zoombini and Tilly, dozing in anti-clockwise formation.

My post about the passing of Tilly, the second of our brace of beautiful cats, brought a wonderful, heart-warming flood of emails from readers, which we deeply appreciated. On Wednesday evening we held a wake for her (an old Irish tradition, normally reserved for mere humans rather than superior beings like cats) and buried her in the garden alongside her sister, Zoombini, who died on June 10 last year. After we’d done that, I read all of the emails aloud to the assembled company. It seemed a fitting tribute to two felines who never realised how famous they were.

The picture above was inspired by the number of messages which revealed that our cats’ penchant for sleeping in the best circles was much more common than I had realised.

For me, though, the consoling takeaway from losing these two remarkable animals is discovering how many other people also understand the way pets reach parts of the human psyche that nothing else touches.

Quote of the Day

“When novel ideas succeed, they decay into stale clichés.”

  • Henry Farrell and Abe Newman

(I’m reminded of David Runciman’s observation that “clichés are where the truth goes to die”.)

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Mark Knopfler | Brothers In Arms | Berlin 2007


Triggered by reading a piece from the front lines in Ukraine.

Long Read of the Day

The Transformative, alarming power of Gene Editing

In his recent book, The Coming Wave, Mustafa Suleyman provided a vivid picture of two major technological forces that are bearing down on humanity. One is the so-called ‘AI’ wave; the other is genetic engineering. Crudely put, we humans have devised a powerful technology for messing with (or perhaps augmenting) our brains, plus another one (derived from CRISPR) for messing with our biology. As Edmund Leach, the great anthropologist, might have put it, humans are in the process of becoming gods: and isn’t it time that we thought hard about the responsibilities that accompany that role?

As a tech insider (Suleyman was a co-founder of DeepMind), his account of the potential of AI was predictably good. (I reviewed it for the Observer.) But I had to take his account of the threat/promise of gene-editing on trust, because I know little about the subject.

All of which is a roundabout way of explaining why I found this long, long New Yorker essay by Dana Goodyear so useful. If you read nothing else this weekend, set aside the time to read it.

Books, etc.

Errol Morris’s Believing is Seeing is one of the most interesting books on photography that I’ve read. In it, the distinguished (Oscar-winning) documentary film-maker analyses a number of celebrated photographs that have been taken to represent the truth about something. The book consists of four extensive essays, each of which presents the reader with a puzzle and then examines the relationship between the photographs and the reality they supposedly record.

Morris starts with two photographs taken by Roger Fenton during the Crimean War, and goes on to examine the famous “Hooded man” photograph in Abu Ghraib during the Iraq war, pictures by WPA photographers during the Great Depression and a photograph from the American Civil War. In each case things are not what they seem, and Morris proceeds through an investigation in his characteristic laid-back style. The basic message — captured in the book’s title — is that (as the philosopher Karl Popper famously observed in a different context) “all observation is drenched in theory”. Or, more prosaically, we see in pictures what we’re looking for.

For a nice illustration of Morris’s inimitable style take five minutes to watch this short.

My commonplace booklet


Something I noticed, while trying to drink from the Internet firehose.

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Wednesday 13 September, 2013

Tilly RIP

We had to bid farewell to our beloved cat Tilly last night. She was 19.5 years old, so you could say she had a good innings. But she had been a lifelong companion for two of my children and a constant background to our lives. She often gave me disapproving looks, so I was pleased to dig up this picture, in which she is merely saying “You cannot be serious!”

She also had the ability to curl herself up into an almost-perfect circle.

Quote of the Day

”More tears are shed over answered prayers than unanswered ones.”

  • St Theresa of Ávila

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Geshwin | Rhapsody in Blue | Khatia Buniatishvili


It’s 17 minutes long, but worth every minute.

Long Read of the Day

The Political Economy of Technology

Terrific review essay on Project Syndicate by Bill Janeway (Whom God Preserve) on Daron Acemoglu and Simon Johnson’s book, Power and Progress. It’s a terrific book, but it’s also a long read. Bill has done a consummate job of summarising many of its key arguments and adding value as he goes.

Highly recommended. But set aside some time for it.

My commonplace booklet

50 years ago: Henry Kissinger and the death of democracy in Chile

Robert Reich remembers the other 9/11 anniversary that occurred on Monday.

As Chile marks the 50th anniversary tomorrow of the coup that brought strongman Augusto Pinochet to power for almost 17 years — toppling Chile’s democratically elected socialist government and resulting in the murders and “disappearances” of thousands of Pinochet’s political opponents — it’s important to recall the central role played by Richard Nixon and Nixon’s national security adviser, Henry Kissinger, in this atrocity.

Kissinger — now 100 years old, and who in my humble opinion should be considered a war criminal — urged Nixon to overthrow Chile’s democratically elected government of Salvador Allende because Allende’s “‘model’ effect can be insidious,” according to declassified documents posted by the U.S. National Security Archive.

On September 12, 1970, eight days after Allende’s election, Kissinger initiated discussion on the telephone with CIA Director Richard Helms about a preemptive coup in Chile. “We will not let Chile go down the drain,” Kissinger declared. “I am with you,” Helms responded. Three days later, Nixon, in a 15-minute meeting that included Kissinger, ordered the CIA to “make the Chilean economy scream,” and named Kissinger as the supervisor of the covert efforts to keep Allende from being inaugurated…

An awful lot more people died in Chile that year (and in succeeding years) than in the attack in New York.

I’m reminded of Tom Lehrer’s observation that “Satire died the day Henry Kissinger was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.”


On Monday I claimed that Walter Isaacson’s biography of Elon Musk ran to 360 pages. That was a typo — it’s 670 pages long. I know, because I’ve read the whole damn thing.

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Monday 11 September, 2023


Guardians of the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge.

Quote of the Day

“The secret to doing good research is always to be a little underemployed. You waste years by not being able to waste hours.”

  • Amos Tversky in The Undoing Project

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Mary Black | Sonny


Something lovely I found while investigating a suggestion by Andrew Brown (Whom God Preserve)

Long Read of the Day

How Big Tech Got So Damn Big

A characteristically vivid essay in Wired by Cory Doctorow based on his new book.

Somehow, these new giants—the companies that have, in the words of New Zealand software developer Tom Eastman, transformed the internet into “a group of five websites, each consisting of screenshots of text from the other four”—interrupted that cycle of “disruption.” They didn’t just get big, they stayed big, and then they got bigger.

How did these tech companies succeed in maintaining the dominance that so many of their predecessors failed to attain? Was it their vision? Was it their leadership?


Do read it.

Nvidia’s picks and shovels

Yesterday’s Observer column

It’s not often that the jaws of Wall Street analysts drop to the floor but late last month it happened: Nvidia, a company that makes computer chips, issued sales figures that blew the street’s collective mind. It had pulled in $13.5bn in revenue in the last quarter, which was at least $2bn more than the aforementioned financial geniuses had predicted. Suddenly, the surge in the company’s share price in May that had turned it into a trillion-dollar company made sense.

Well, up to a point, anyway. But how had a company that since 1998 – when it released the revolutionary Riva TNT video and graphics accelerator chip – had been the lodestone of gamers become worth a trillion dollars, almost overnight? The answer, oddly enough, can be found in the folk wisdom that emerged in the California gold rush of the mid-19th century, when it became clear that while few prospectors made fortunes panning for gold, the suppliers who sold them picks and shovels prospered nicely.

We’re now in another gold rush – this time centred on artificial intelligence (AI) – and Nvidia’s A100 and H100 graphical processing units (GPUs) are the picks and shovels…

Read on

Books, etc.

I’m reading it, all 370 pages of it, so you don’t have to. My review will be in next Sunday’s Observer.

My commonplace booklet

The Rolling Stones’s new album

From Tortoise media

Believe it or not kids, the Stones, all now in their ninth decade, were once very good. Brilliant in fact. They mattered. Exile on Main Street, released in 1972 completed a decade of dazzling work that actually gave The Beatles (not to mention The Kinks and The Who) a run for their money. And their legendary 1969-1972 tours justly earned them the title of The Greatest Rock’n’Roll Band in the World, a crown they still, unjustly, claim today.

Now the once genuinely edgy Stones are a mini-corporation with an admittedly brilliant singer/executive chairman anxious for new product: ticket sales and of course merch for their very own outlet in Carnaby Street….

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