Monday 15 April, 2024

Waiting for Hockney

The queue for his 2012 Exhibition at the Royal Academy.

Quote of the Day

“Genius creates, and taste preserves”

  • Alexander Pope

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Van Morrison | This Loving Light Of Mine


Bruch Springsteen did a footstomping version version in Dublin.

Long Read of the Day

The Mythical people-life

This is a wonderful riff by Timothy Burke on an idea first articulated by Fred Brooks in his Meisterwerk, The Mythical Man Month, a much-thumbed copy of which sits on my bookshelves as I write.

It took a long time for me to see the pattern that is now in hindsight clear to almost everybody my age, and to younger generations as well. As the advantages gained by the early adopters became clear, more people pushed voluntarily into those spaces. And then as the productivity increases jolted down the line, everybody else was pushed involuntarily. The advantage suddenly vanished. The noise was up, the signal was down. Everything was suddenly being done in email, and suddenly the speed of email dramatically increased the amount of information and communication you were expected to produce and conduct. You were suddenly answering questions from all over all day long. We were all working more and it stopped being magic.

If you’re as old as I am, you’ve now seen this cycle repeated multiple times. We are all in some sense the extra workers being added to a long-delayed project with the expectation that we will make it go faster and instead it gets slower and slower all the time. We are all bugs on the windshield in the race to get to full frictionless efficiency, splattering over and over again as that fictional, inhuman El Dorado shimmers in the distance, calling to those who dream of a world where they no longer have to hire human beings at all but who in the meantime are happy to make the people they pay do more and more work while pretending that in fact they are making it easier for us all.

In academia, this drive to nowhere takes on familiar shapes across campuses. We imitate one another, which provides a ready answer any time you ask “Why are we adopting this new system, this new process?” Answer: because it has become an industry-wide standard! Why did the first adopters do it, then? As well ask which came first, the chicken or the egg…

It’s long, but interesting, thoughtful and insightful throughout. Burke has been around long enough (as have I) to see how digital technology seeps into, and then pervades, an organisation. And, as he says,

In practice what happens is that the job formerly done by a person gets divided in a thousand tiny jobs and distributed to the entire workforce. In this act, it does not magically become less work. The sum remains the same. The hope is just that each person will be able to add it to their workflow and barely notice because it is just that one…tiny…wafer. The problem is that we are all the character from Monty Python’s Meaning of Life, being fed a mountain of tiny wafers until we are engorged to the breaking point.

When became a university lecturer way back in 1972 in the Open University, I was assigned a secretary, Viv, and she did much of the typing of draft course units. Sometimes, this led to charming errors. Once, in a text on economic modelling, for example, my scribbled reference to “exogenous” variables emerged as erogenous, to the great amusement of some of my colleagues.

And now? We’re all typists, and secretaries have become ‘Executive Assistants’ who are assigned only to senior executives.

From boom to bust, the AI bubble is only heading in one direction

Yesterday’s Observer column:

Are we really in an AI bubble,” asked a reader of last month’s column about the apparently unstoppable rise of Nvidia, “and how would we know?” Good question, so I asked an AI about it and was pointed to Investopedia, which is written by humans who know about this stuff. It told me that a bubble goes through five stages – rather as Elisabeth Kübler-Ross said people do with grief. For investment bubbles, the five stages are displacement, boom, euphoria, profit-taking and panic. So let’s see how this maps on to our experience so far with AI.

First, displacement. That’s easy: it was ChatGPT wot dunnit. When it appeared on 30 November 2022, the world went, well, apeshit…

Read on

My commonplace booklet

Think Slow

Lovely blog post by Scott Galloway on Daniel Kahneman who passed away the other day. I was pondering writing something about him, but Scott has done it much better than I could have.

Kahneman studied how humans make decisions, and the shortcuts our minds take, unbeknownst to us. These shortcuts are efficient; they foster a key skill for survival, the ability to make rapid decisions with incomplete information. We have to make thousands of decisions every day, and we couldn’t leave the house if we had to objectively analyze every choice: breakfast, outfit, route, music, etc.

Our efficiency comes at the cost of accuracy: Many instinctual decisions will be poorly calibrated (i.e., wrong). To facilitate the requisite speed, our brain buttresses our decisions with artificial confidence. Kahneman’s body of work demonstrates that we are often wrong but frequently confident. These shortcuts and mistakes are present in the structure of our brains, and impossible to avoid, but recognizing them helps us discern between trivial and important decisions and invest the appropriate intellectual capital. Put another way, take a beat and you increase the likelihood of making a better decision.

Though he was a psychologist by training, Kahneman got his Nobel Prize for economics. Before him, economists “relied on the assumption of a ‘homo œconomicus,’” as the prize committee wrote, a self-interested being capable of rational decision-making. But Kahneman “demonstrated how human decisions may systematically depart from those predicted by standard economic theory.” That dry language obscures an intellectual nuclear detonation. Expectations about human decisions — whether to work at a certain job, how much to pay for a specific good — are the foundation of economic theory. Kahneman showed those expectations were incorrect…


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Wednesday 3 April, 2024

In the sticks…

In the wilds of Donegal. What estate agents, those masters of euphemism, would call “a development opportunity”.

Quote of the Day

”I think that maybe if women and children were in charge we would get somewhere.”

  • James Thurber

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Mark Knopfler | Ahead Of The Game


Long Read of the Day

Trump’s 5-Step Fascist Plan

Robert Reich in sombre mood. His question: how could Trump actually turn America into a fascist state?

His answer: In five steps, which he’s already signalled he intends to take.

The steps, in a nutshell:

  1. Use threats of violence to gain power.
  2. Consolidate power after taking office.
  3. Demonize a group of people and establish a police state to round them up into detention camps.
  4. Jail the opposition.
  5. Undermine the free press.

If you haven’t been following what’s going on in the US, you probably think this is scare-mongering. If so, maybe you should have a look at Project 2025: Building now for a conservative victory through policy, personnel, and training. It’s a detailed plan for a comprehensive takeover.

When Trump came to power in 2016, he hadn’t expected to win, and so had no plan for governing. Hence the chaos of his first administration. If he wins this year, though, he would come into office with a plan. And, as Robert Reich points out on his blog (and in this video, it all looks remarkably like a plan that someone else adopted in Germany in the mid- to late-1930s.

In his remarkable book, How Democracy Ends, my friend David Runciman argued that democracies never fail backwards but forwards (i.e. in some new way). The implication was that looking for models in Europe’s decline into fascism is misguided. I’m beginning to wonder if that was too complacent a judgement.

Books, etc.

This arrived today. I’ve been looking forward to it. Neil is the DeepMind Professor of Machine Learning in the Cambridge Computer Lab and one of the most thoughtful experts on ‘AI’ I know. It comes out in the UK on June 6.

Chart of the Day

‘MMLU’ stands for Massive Multitask Language Understanding. It’s defined as

”a new benchmark designed to measure knowledge acquired during pretraining by evaluating models exclusively in zero-shot and few-shot settings. This makes the benchmark more challenging and more similar to how we evaluate humans. The benchmark covers 57 subjects across STEM, the humanities, the social sciences, and more. It ranges in difficulty from an elementary level to an advanced professional level, and it tests both world knowledge and problem solving ability. Subjects range from traditional areas, such as mathematics and history, to more specialized areas like law and ethics. The granularity and breadth of the subjects makes the benchmark ideal for identifying a model’s blind spots”.

What the chart suggests is that powerful LLMs are proliferating — and that CO2 emissions and water consumption are increasing proportionately.


Something I noticed, while drinking from the Internet firehose.

  • Willie Nelson and Kermit the Frog sing Rainbow Connection!

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Wednesday 20 March, 2024

Gardener’s world

Quote of the Day

”A clothes rack in search of a war zone.”

  • Gavin Jacobson on the faux intellectual Bernard-Henri Lévy

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Samuel Barber | Adagio for Strings, Op.11 | Vienna Philharmonic | (Summer Night Concert 2019)


Nice piece now that Spring is — allegedly – here.

Long Read of the Day

How the “Frontier” Became the Slogan of Uncontrolled AI

Terrific essay by Bruce Schneier about the pernicious power of metaphors.

Artificial intelligence (AI) has been billed as the next frontier of humanity: the newly available expanse whose exploration will drive the next era of growth, wealth, and human flourishing. It’s a scary metaphor. Throughout American history, the drive for expansion and the very concept of terrain up for grabs—land grabs, gold rushes, new frontiers—have provided a permission structure for imperialism and exploitation. This could easily hold true for AI.

This isn’t the first time the concept of a frontier has been used as a metaphor for AI, or technology in general. As early as 2018, the powerful foundation models powering cutting-edge applications like chatbots have been called “frontier AI.” In previous decades, the internet itself was considered an electronic frontier. Early cyberspace pioneer John Perry Barlow wrote “Unlike previous frontiers, this one has no end.” When he and others founded the internet’s most important civil liberties organization, they called it the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

America’s experience with frontiers is fraught, to say the least. Expansion into the Western frontier and beyond has been a driving force in our country’s history and identity—and has led to some of the darkest chapters of our past. The tireless drive to conquer the frontier has directly motivated some of this nation’s most extreme episodes of racism, imperialism, violence, and exploitation.

That history has something to teach us about the material consequences we can expect from the promotion of AI today…

This is a long essay but worth your time because it looks at what’s going on through an insightful lens. The narrative about ‘unstoppable’ all-conquering ‘AI’ is actually the latest version of a colonial imperative — rather as “Go West, Young Man” was one for the 1890s in America.

Books, etc.

Analog nostalgia?

A funny thing happened on the way to digital utopia: people are deciding that they rather like the non-digital alternatives. My kids, though obsessed with music, are buying vinyl LPs and digging out old turntables from the family attic. And their kids are discovering the special qualities of 35mm celluloid film. In his book David Sax examines the people and companies at the forefront of analog’s new growth and argues for the enduring value of real things, even while embracing constant change.

I kept my turntable and my LPs, but they’re in storage. And I still have my film cameras, but haven’t used them much in the last few years. I bought this book a few weeks ago and the big test is whether it’ll change my behaviour.

My commonplace booklet

A laugh a minute

Nice sharp piece by Jonty Bloom on the activities of what is loosely called the UK’s ‘government’. Apparently he’s been reading the Daily Telegraph and its Sunday stablemate.

At the moment the government and its commentariat supporters are desperately trying to whip up a storm of indignation about those who are too ill to work, with the obvious solution that their benefits should be cut further. Because the way to get the ill back to work is to increase their levels of malnutrition.

Nowhere in the articles I read was there any acknowledgement that if you run down the NHS so that millions are waiting years for treatment, it shows up in the jobless figures. Nor, that if you don’t give people enough benefits to feed themselves or their children then they will develop long term health problems. Nor that if you force down wages and protections at work you end up with an underclass of people with severe anxiety and depression and other mental problems.

No, apparently they are all just lazy shirkers, enabled by woke doctors who sign them off work at the drop of a hat.

Oh, and the obvious solution is a “real” Tory government, unlike the last 14 years which have apparently been nothing but a left wing farce with policies that Labour would support.

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Monday 5 February, 2024

Vernacular architecture, English style

Somewhere in Cambridgeshire

Quote of the Day

”One afternoon, when I was four years old, my father came home, and he found me in the living room in front of a roaring fire, which made him very angry. Because we didn’t have a fireplace.”

  • Victor Borge

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Morten Lauridsen | O Magnum Mysterium | Nordic Chamber Choir


Amazingly serene.

Long Read of the Day

Davos: high altitude, low impact

Lovely sardonic essay  by Elise Labott on the ludicrous gabfest in Davos.

In the frost-kissed town of Davos, where the world’s glitterati converged this week for the 54th annual World Economic Forum under the guise of shaping the world’s future, something sounded thinner than the altitude: It was the air of relevance, of touch with the terra firma where the rest of us reside.

The forum has always been a curious blend of intellectual masturbation and disconnect from ground truths. We’ve all heard the long-running jokes pointing out how billionaires and politicians arrive in private jets to discuss carbon footprints. Now they speak of AI’s societal impacts while their companies quietly lobby against regulations that could curb their techno-empires…

Great stuff and an entertaining read. I’ve only been to Davos once — in the Summer of 1978, when I was on a walking holiday in Switzerland. I remember it as a sleepy and rather dull town in which I bought a Swiss army penknife (which I still possess) and a walking stick. I’ve never understood the lure that the gabfest has for journalists who should know better.

What’s in store if the IPA (Amendment) Bill becomes law

Yesterday’s Observer column

Which brings us to the investigatory powers (amendment) bill, which is now before their lordships in Westminster. “The world has changed,” says the blurb. “Technology has rapidly advanced, and the type of threats the UK faces continues to evolve.” The new bill will “enable the security and intelligence agencies to keep pace with a range of evolving threats, against a backdrop of accelerating technological advancements that provide new opportunities for terrorists, hostile state actors, child abusers and criminal gangs”. And, of course, for this is global Britain, “the world-leading safeguards within the IPA will be maintained and strengthened”.

Quite so. But upon closer inspection, the proposed means to those laudable ends do not exactly inspire confidence. For example, the bill proposes that the security services should have much more latitude in building and exploiting so-called “bulk datasets of personal information”, ie data about individuals who “have a low or no expectation of privacy”. This could allow the collection and use of CCTV footage, or the 20bn facial images scraped from the internet by Clearview, on the grounds that those of us who appear in such datasets have “no expectation of privacy”…

Do read the whole thing .

Books, etc.

I’m reading Melissa Harris’s intriguing ‘visual biography’ of the great photographer Josef Koudelka and am entranced by it.

Here’s a typical passage describing how Markéta Luskakova first met him at a dinner hosted by a mutual friend, Jirí Chlíbec.

Luskacova’s first impression of Koudelka was of a “very high-spirited young man”. Later, as they were drinking wine, Chlíbec mentioned that his friend was not only an aeronautical engineer, but also a photographer. Luskacova told me: “Meeting Josef in January 1963, felt like a godsend. She turned to him: “‘Listen, you should teach me photography.’ He said: ‘Nobody can teach you photography. You either see or you don’t see.’ I said: ‘Josef, I don’t want you to teach me to see, I want you to teach me where to press what.'” Koudelka laughed, and agreed.

They met the next day. Along with a camera, Koudelka brought a small piece of paper for Luskacova, on which he had written directions for various photographic opportunities, and their optimum exposures, depending upon the sunlight, cloud, coverage, and so on (she still has this slip of paper). Luskacova pointed out that he had not written any instructions for full sun. He responded: “When there is full sun, lie in it, enjoy it – and don’t take pictures.” Apparently there was, she began to understand, a rule for everything.

Luskakova went on to become a distinguished photographer herself.


Something I noticed, while drinking from the Internet firehose.

  • Megan McArdle’s ’12 Rules for Life’ Link

I particularly liked #2:

Politics is not the most important thing in the world. It’s just the one people talk about the most. That’s because everyone shares the government; only you are married to your spouse, and can knowledgeably expound on their habit of mashing up soft-boiled egg and ketchup into a disgusting paste; this makes it hard to have much of a dialogue with your friends on the subject.

But your spouse and others around you matter more to your happiness than the government does. You will notice, as you go about your day, that many, many important things are riding on your spouse, things that will have immediate costs and benefits to you. Very few of the things that irritate you or bring you joy have anything to do with the government. So keep some perspective about politics. It doesn’t matter as much as the real people around you, and the real things you can do in the world. If you have to choose between politics and a friendship, choose the friendship every time.

Reminds me of E.M. Forster’s memorable dictum (in What I Believe and Other Essays): “If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country.”

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Friday 2 February, 2024

Young farmer of the year

Provence, Summer 2023 at a street festival put on for kids by the local branch of the Farmers Union.

Quote of the Day

”Sex without love is a meaningless experience, but as far as meaningless experiences go its pretty damn good. 

  • Woody Allen

Only Mae West does these gags better.

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Van Morrison | I Want A Roof Over My Head


Long Read of the Day

To Fight Populism, Invest in Left-Behind Communities by Diane Coyle –

Terrific essay on the Project Syndicate site by Diane Coyle on what happens when people living in “places that don’t matter” see quality jobs disappear, public services eroded, and their economic prospects rapidly diminishing.

As Western democracies become increasingly polarized, rural and small-town voters are regularly pitted against their counterparts in larger urban centers. While this is not a new phenomenon – and certainly not the only factor affecting voting patterns – the rural-urban divide is a significant driver of today’s culture wars. This dynamic, which economist Andrés Rodríguez-Pose evocatively described as the “revenge of the places that don’t matter,” suggests that the ongoing populist surge largely reflects geographic disparities.

How did the rural-urban divide come to dominate so many countries’ political discourse and development, and how can we address it?

It’s a great piece. Diane is a great economist and an inspiring colleague (she’s on the Advisory Board of our Research Centre). She also runs a lovely books blog. Which means that she reads more books than anyone I know, with the possible exception of Tyler Cowen.

Books, etc.

I’ve just finished reading this fine book by Marianna Spring. She’s the BBC’s first Misinformation and Social Media correspondent, a post best described as enforced recumbence on a bed of very sharp nails. Her book is the product of a deep dive into the dark underbelly of our supposedly liberal democracies, and is a good example of dogged and courageous investigative journalism. It comes out in the UK in March (I think) and I’ve reviewed it for the Observer. I’ll post a link to it when it appears.

My commonplace booklet

31 chemicals blacklisted by Europe are currently permitted in the UK

Interesting Politico story:

In the four years since Brexit, the European Union has added 31 new chemicals to its Substances of Very High Concern (SVHC) watchlist. The U.K. has added zero.

When the uK left the EU, its government copied the EU’s REACH chemicals regulation wholesale. But it has been far slower to update either its watchlist or impose outright bans than Brussels has. Over the same four years Brussels has banned eight chemicals outright whereas the UK has not acted on any. So is this is a product of Brexiteering ideology inside the relevant British regulators? Or is it just a reflection of the declining capacity of the British state? I suspect the latter.


Some things I noticed, while drinking from the Internet firehose.

  • Screenshot of the first Macintosh (courtesy of Dave Winer)

  • How the FBI took out Volt Typhoon’s botnet. The Register

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Wednesday 31 January, 2024

Cambridge, late afternoon

St John’s College

Snapped on my way to a book launch in Heffers.

Quote of the Day

”It would be possible to say without exaggeration that the miners’ leaders were the stupidest men in England if we had not frequent occasion to meet the owners.”

  • F.E. Smith

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Martin Hayes and Cliodhna Ní Aodain | The Westerly Edge


On Monday night we went to Martin’s one-man show in Cambridge and came away mesmerised. He’s an astonishing musician. Who knew a little violin could express so much?

Long Read of the Day

Cory Doctorow’s McLuhan lecture on enshittification

On Monday night, in the Canadian Embassy in Berlin, Cory Doctorow (Whom God Preserve) gave the Annual Marshall McLuhan lecture at the Transmediale festival. His subject was enshittification, the term he coined for the life-cycle of tech platforms.

The transcript is long but worth your time. In a way, it’s the most succinct tour d’horizon of the dystopian empires that tech companies have built. And Cory never pulls punches.

For example:

Most of our global economy is dominated by five or fewer global companies. If smaller companies refuse to sell themselves to these cartels, the giants have free rein to flout competition law further, with ‘predatory pricing’ that keeps an independent rival from gaining a foothold.

When refused Amazon’s acquisition offer, Amazon lit $100m on fire, selling diapers way below cost for months, until went bust, and Amazon bought them for pennies on the dollar, and shut them down.

Competition is a distant memory. As Tom Eastman says, the web has devolved into ‘five giant websites filled with screenshots of text from the other four,’ so these giant companies no longer fear losing our business.


Google and Facebook – who pretend they are called Alphabet and Meta – have been unscathed by European privacy law. That’s not because they don’t violate the GDPR (they do!). It’s because they pretend they are headquartered in Ireland, one of the EU’s most notorious corporate crime-havens.

And Ireland competes with the EU other crime havens – Malta, Luxembourg, Cyprus and sometimes the Netherlands – to see which country can offer the most hospitable environment for all sorts of crimes. Because the kind of company that can fly an Irish flag of convenience is mobile enough to change to a Maltese flag if the Irish start enforcing EU laws.

Which is how you get an Irish Data Protection Commission that processes fewer than 20 major cases per year, while Germany’s data commissioner handles more than 500 major cases, even though Ireland is nominal home to the most privacy-invasive companies on the continent.

You get the idea. He’s one of the smartest and most creative people I know. I kept wondering as I read the transcript what the sober citizens of Berlin were making of it. And whether there is now a German translation of enshittification.

My commonplace booklet

The UK National Grid Dashboard

We get our electricity from Octopus, because it seemed to be the most imaginative and efficient energy supplier in the UK.

Recently Octopus has been working with UK Power Networks on an imaginative flexibility service called Power-ups to help balance the local grid in East Anglia. The scheme funds free electricity for some areas where there’s regularly extra wind energy available.

It works like this:

  • Power-ups are usually an hour or two long, at times when wind and solar make up a high percentage of the electricity mix (often in the middle of the day).
  • Octopus emails us (usually the day before) and we opt in if want to participate at that time.
  • When it’s time to Power up we can use as much electricity as we like and it’s free.

All of which means that I’ve started to take a healthy interest in how the Grid is dynamically balanced.

And why I find the National Grid Live dashboard fascinating. Maybe you will too.


Something I noticed, while drinking from the Internet firehose.

  • Two Donald Trump supporters die and go to heaven. God meets them at the Pearly Gates. “Tell us, “they say, “what were the real results of the 2020 election, and who was behind the fraud? “God answers: “My children, there was no fraud.” After a few seconds of stunned silence, one turns to the other, whispering: “this goes higher up than we thought. “

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Monday 29 January, 2024

All that remains…

… of a groyne on a beach in North Norfolk.

Quote of the Day

“The Massachusetts Institute of Technology now has almost eight times as many nonfaculty employees as faculty employees. In the University of California system, the number of managers and senior professionals swelled by 60 percent between 2004 and 2014. The number of tenure-track faculty members grew by just 8 percent.”

Hard to believe, isn’t it? But useful if you’re seeking to understand what has happened to elite schools in the US.

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Matt Molloy | The Morning Thrush


Long Read of the Day

Please list all the tweets you regret not posting

Thoughtful and perceptive Substack post by Charles Arthur (Whom God Preserve). It was triggered by a remark of Hugo Rifkind on a podcast who, in response to a journalist’s rueful expression of regret about something she had tweeted in the past, offered his view on what one should do in such situations: “It’s a good rule of thumb that every time you want to tweet something: Don’t. And you’ll very rarely look back and go ‘I wish I’d tweeted that’. Whereas you’ll very often be glad you didn’t.”

This axiom, writes Charles,

is relearnt again and again by people the world over; usually it happens when they have aged somewhat from the years when they wrote those tweets (see, that’s why we can still call them tweets) and find themselves in a job or position where suddenly the freedom of expression and eager audience they treasured in their youth seem less attractive than just having kept their virtual mouth shut.

Sometimes, though, it happens with people who you really think should know better. And I was fascinated by the contents of an employment tribunal judgment that came out earlier this week, in which a professor who had worked at the Open University (OU) took up a case claiming that as an employer the university had failed to protect her from harassment and discrimination over her beliefs by colleagues…

Do read it. And wonder at the stupidity/carelessness of nominally intelligent people. And at the way a university can get this stuff badly wrong.

It was expensive and underpowered, but the Apple Macintosh still changed the world

Yesterday’s Observer column:

Forty years ago this week, on 22 January 1984, a stunning advertising video was screened during the Super Bowl broadcast in the US. It was directed by Ridley Scott and evoked the dystopian atmosphere of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. Long lines of grey, shaven zombies march in lockstep through a tunnel into a giant amphitheatre, where they sit in rows gawping up at a screen on which an authoritarian figure is intoning a message. “Today, we celebrate the first glorious anniversary of the information purification directives,” he drones. “We have created, for the first time in all history, a garden of pure ideology.”

Then the camera turns to a young woman carrying a sledgehammer, hotly pursued by sinister cops in riot gear. Just as Big Brother reaches his peroration, “Our enemies shall talk themselves to death, and we will bury them with their own confusion. We shall prevail!” she hurls the hammer at the big screen, which explodes in a flurry of light and smoke, leaving the zombies open-mouthed in shock. And then comes the payoff, scrolling up the screen: “On January 24th, Apple Computer will introduce Macintosh. And you’ll see why 1984 won’t be like ‘1984’.”

Chutzpah doesn’t come any better than that…

Read on

Books, etc.

The Economist has been sifting through lists of books due in 2024. Here are a few I thought might be interesting.

  • AI Needs You: How We Can Change AI’s Future and Save Our Own by Verity Harding, formerly of Google DeepMind. Due out in March.

  • The Heart and the Chip: Our Bright Future with Robots by Daniela Rus, director of the AI laboratory at MIT. Due out in March.

  • Literary Theory for Robots: How Computers Learned to Write by Dennis Yi Tenen. Blurb reads “Literary Theory for Robots reveals the hidden history of modern machine intelligence, taking readers on a spellbinding journey from medieval Arabic philosophy to visions of a universal language, past Hollywood fiction factories and missile defence systems trained on Russian folktales. In this provocative reflection on the shared pasts of literature and computer science, former Microsoft engineer and professor of comparative literature Dennis Yi Tenen provides crucial context for recent developments in AI, which holds important lessons for the future of human living with smart technology.”

My commonplace booklet

RIP Peter Magubane

From his obituary in LFI…

Born Peter Sexford Magubane on January 18, 1932 in Vrededorp (today Pageview, a suburb of Johannesburg), the youngster grew up in Sophiatown. He started using a Kodak Brownie box camera, while still at school. As a photojournalist in the mid-fifties, he began documenting the everyday racism of the Apartheid system. In doing so, he was frequently attacked and, in 1985, even shot at. He landed in prison a number of times, spending 600 days in solitary confinement, and was banned from working in his profession for many years. “We were not allowed to carry a camera in the open if the police were involved, so I often had to hide my camera to get the pictures I wanted. On occasion I hid my camera in a hollowed-out Bible, firing with a cable release in my pocket. At another time, at a trial in Zeerust from which the press were banned, I hid my Leica IIIg in a hollowed-out loaf of bread and pretended to eat while I was actually shooting pictures; when the bread went down, I bought milk and hid the camera in the carton. And I got away with it. You had to think fast and be fast to survive in those days,” the photographer recalled.

Photo credit

Pedantic observation: This is a lovely photograph, but it must be from a later demonstration of the camouflage technique mentioned in the obit, because the lens in the picture is a Summilux and that was available only in a Leica M-series (bayonet) mount, whereas the Leica IIIg took only screw-mount lenses.


Nice email from Rudy Adrian triggered by my Observer column about the 40th anniversary of the Apple Macintosh. “I still use mine today,” he writes,

because the MIDI software from 1987 is still exactly right for me to make music with (it just records and stores note information, not audio).

Funnily enough, after thirty years of creating ambient music as a hobby, people are now falling asleep to my music …

I do believe the success of the Mac was not because it was over-priced and underpowered, but because it was chosen by talented software writers to create programs for. For instance, ProTools – still the industry standard for mixing sound for film and television, was originally Mac only. The story of [Peter Gotcher] working from his parent’s garage in the 1980s to create sound-manipulating software is one similar to Steve Jobs and Wozniak’s tale.

I hate Apple for its built-in obsolescence and locked-in approach, but some of the 3rd-party software was great!

Yep. Dave Winer is wonderfully eloquent on that particular subject.

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Friday 29 December, 2023

Essence of Xmas, 2023

New Yorker cover, December 11, nailed it.

Quote of the Day

”An optimist will tell you the glass is half-full; the pessimist, half-empty; and the engineer will tell you the glass is twice the size it needs to be.

  • Oscar Wilde

Yep, and most of the time the engineer is right.

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Diana Krall | Narrow Daylight


Nice line: Winter is over, Summer is near. Nice thought, that, in the bleak midwinter.

Long Read of the Day

A Love Song for Deborah

Lovely essay by Michael Tobin on life after his wife was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, and on how he found a way of reaching her.

If life were fair, Alzheimer’s should never have eaten Deborah’s brain.

My wife had no family history of the disease. All four of her Lebanese grandparents lived far into their nineties and were as acerbic, argumentative, and quick-witted at ninety-five as they were at twenty-five.

But Alzheimer’s devoured my wife, my best friend, my soul mate. Gone is the compassionate psychologist who graduated from Wellesley, MIT, and the Sorbonne. The polymath fluent in five languages who could calculate complex mathematical formulas in her head and whose brain came with its own GPS. The woman whose body could contort into pretzel-like yoga postures with the ease and grace of a ballerina. The truth-seeker who had an uncanny ability to pierce through layers of psychic sludge to unearth a soul in all its shining glory.

Diagnosed in November 2018, she had won a very perverse lottery…

Do read it, not least because it’s about something that some of us may one day have to live with.

Books, etc.

Nothing for Something: Cryptos, Cons, and Zombies

Peter Lunenfeld’s sharp review essay on the crypto phenomenon in the Los Angeles Review of Books is worth reading. What I liked most about it is his attempt to get up ‘above’ the crypto craze to “the conceptual space where desires are forever leading us to heartbreak and shame, the universal emotions of every mark who has ever been conned”.

The general greed around cryptocurrencies, the nerdish interest in their underlying blockchain technologies, and the desire for something—anything — to fully commodify digital art has not abated. We should expect rebrandings, relaunchings, and hype cycles that do their best to explain that “this time it’s different” even when it’s not. There will be more Bankman-Frieds and FTXs — in fact, there are plenty like him and them on trial or in bankruptcy at this very moment—and when they are gone, their spots will be taken by probably even worse actors in the global techno-economy. One thing we can and should do at this relatively quiescent period in the hype cycle is figure out how these technologies and concepts have attained a kind of immortality already—i.e., how they became zombies destined to shamble through the rest of the 21st century.

My commonplace booklet

“UK quietly drops Brexit law to return to imperial measurements”

From the Financial Times yesterday…

Rishi Sunak’s government has been criticised by a leading Brexiter, after it quietly announced it would not be legislating to expand the use of imperial measures in the UK.

The decision to drop the idea, which had been hailed as a potential “Brexit freedom”, came after it turned out that only a tiny fraction of British businesses and consumers wanted to see a bigger role for imperial units.

The government revealed on Wednesday that out of 100,000 people who responded to a consultation on boosting Britain’s “long and proud history of using imperial measures”, only 1.3 per cent were in favour of increasing their use for buying or selling products.

Jacob Rees-Mogg, former business secretary, said the decision not to expand the use of traditional British measurements — such as gallons, pints, pounds and ounces — was regrettable.

“It is a small reminder that we have government of the bureaucrat, by the bureaucrat, for the bureaucrat,” he said.

(Note for readers outside of the UK: I did not make this up. Apart from anything else, you couldn’t make up a clown like Rees-Mogg.)


Something I noticed, while drinking from the Internet firehose.

The Duke of Wellington writing to his nominal bosses in London.


Whilst marching from Portugal to a position which commands the approach to Madrid and the French forces, my officers have been diligently complying with your requests which have been sent by H.M. ship from London to Lisbon and thence by dispatch to our headquarters.

We have enumerated our saddles, bridles, tents and tent poles, and all manner of sundry items for which His Majesty’s Government holds me accountable. I have dispatched reports on the character, wit, and spleen of every officer. Each item and every farthing has been accounted for, with two regrettable exceptions for which I beg your indulgence.

Unfortunately the sum of one shilling and ninepence remains unaccounted for in one infantry battalion’s petty cash and there has been a hideous confusion as to the number of jars of raspberry jam issued to one cavalry regiment during a sandstorm in western Spain. This reprehensible carelessness may be related to the pressure of circumstance, since we are at war with France, a fact which may come as a bit of a surprise to you gentlemen in Whitehall.

This brings me to my present purpose, which is to request elucidation of my instructions from His Majesty’s Government so that I may better understand why I am dragging an army over these barren plains. I construe that perforce it must be one of two alternative duties, as given below. I shall pursue either one with the best of my ability, but I cannot do both:

  1. To train an army of uniformed British clerks in Spain for the benefit of the accountants and copy-boys in London or perchance,
  2. To see to it that the forces of Napoleon are driven out of Spain.

Your most obedient servant,


Sadly, it’s so good that it has to be a spoof. Wellington was no admirer of officialdom, but the phrase “may come as a bit of a surprise” is unlikely to be one that he would use. Still,…

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Monday 25 December,2023

Piece of cake!

Happy Christmas!

Quote of the Day

”Santa Claus has the right idea — visit people once a year.”

  • Victor Borge

Musical alternatives to the morning’s radio news

Take your pick!

  1. FIZZ – Christmas Medley | Radio 1 Piano Sessions
  2. In the Bleak Midwinter Link

  3. Armas Maasalo | Joulun Kellot (The bells of Christmas)

Long Read of the Day

The chroniclers of the crypto collapse

An object lesson by Dave Karpov in how to write a devastating review essay. Especially good on Mike Lewis’s failure to nail Sam Bankman-Fried.

The middle chapters of the book are full of stories where SBF makes rash, impulsive decisions that work out terribly for him. He’s a terrible manager, constantly making shit up as he goes, surrounded by partners who quit because they just can’t deal with him anymore. His one great advantage is that he combines the disciplined angle-shooting of a Wall Street quant to the crypto goldrush before any of the other Wall Street quants arrive.

There’s a scene on page 176 where people keep encouraging Sam to hire a CFO. He refuses, saying: “Some people cannot articulate a single thing the CFO is supposed to do. They’ll say ‘keep track of the money’ or ‘make projections.’ I’m like *What the fuck do you think I do all day? You think I don’t know how much money we have?” [Act III/court case spoiler alert: Sam does not know how much money they have. He’s playing Storybook Brawl instead.]

If the book had ended with Act II — if it had been released before the collapse — then it would seem outdated now, but it would be an interesting artifact of the sheer confidence these hucksters were able to successfully project while the numbers were going up. But events unfolded, and Michael Lewis refused to adjust…


Why AI is a disaster for the climate

Yesterday’s Observer column:

What to do when surrounded by people who are losing their minds about the Newest New Thing? Answer: reach for the Gartner Hype Cycle, an ingenious diagram that maps the progress of an emerging technology through five phases: the “technology trigger”, which is followed by a rapid rise to the “peak of inflated expectations”; this is succeeded by a rapid decline into the “trough of disillusionment”, after which begins a gentle climb up the “slope of enlightenment” – before eventually (often years or decades later) reaching the “plateau of productivity”.

Given the current hysteria about AI, I thought I’d check to see where it is on the chart. It shows that generative AI (the polite term for ChatGPT and co) has just reached the peak of inflated expectations. That squares with the fevered predictions of the tech industry (not to mention governments) that AI will be transformative and will soon be ubiquitous. This hype has given rise to much anguished fretting about its impact on employment, misinformation, politics etc, and also to a deal of anxious extrapolations about an existential risk to humanity.

All of this serves the useful function – for the tech industry, at least – of diverting attention from the downsides of the technology that we are already experiencing…

Read on

Books, etc.

Christmas reading: a gift from a generous friend.

Colm Toibín had an interesting review of it in the LRB in January last year.

My commonplace booklet

Look how far we haven’t come since Windows NT 

Interesting reflections in The Register which will strike a chord for anyone who remembers what a breakthrough Windows NT was. I was privileged to work later with someone who worked on the team that created it.

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Wednesday 13 December, 2023

Remembering Tony Holden

On Monday I went to the Memorial Service for Tony Holden in St Martin-in-the-Fields. He was one of the best journalists of his generation, but also a hospitable friend and a writer who was vastly more erudite that any of his journalistic peers. He wrote, co-authored or edited 35 books for example, including: a fine book on Tchaikovsky; an accomplished biography of Shakespeare as well as biographies of Laurence Olivier and Mozart’s librettist, Lorenza Da Ponte. He was also a translator — of Don Giovanni (co-authored with Amanda, his first wife), Aeschylus and Greek pastoral poetry. Crowning it all was a bestseller — Big Deal: A Year as a Professional Poker Player — on his lifelong obsession: poker. And, finally, a nice autobiography, Based on a True Story, written after the stroke that damaged his body but not his mind.

Our journalistic paths crossed occasionally, but I really got to know him through our shared friendship with Frank Kermode, the great literary critic. Among other things, this led to many memorable journalistic lunches in our favourite hostelry, the Three Horseshoes in Madingley.

The Church was packed for a nicely-choreographed memorial service which included readings and memoirs by his three sons and many grandchildren, plus tributes by Alan Samson, Melvyn Bragg, Magnus Linklater, Tina Brown and Gyles Brandreth. There was nice music, two sterling hymns (Abide with Me and Jerusalem) and a live rendition of that politically-incorrect duet from Don Giovanni, La ci darem la mano (see today’s Musical Alternative).

The one complaint I had was that nobody mentioned that in his youth Tony had been a scratch golfer. But maybe you need to play the game to know what that means. (Hint: it means he was bloody good.)

The coup de grace, though, came at the end, when each pew was given a basket of poker chips, from which we each took one as a token of remembrance of a fine journalist and a memorable friend.

Quote of the Day

”Holding Cop28 in the United Arab Emirates is like hosting a Narcotics Anonymous meeting at a drug dealer’s house. Fossil fuel is the narcotic to which all countries present at the UN summit are addicted and Sultan Ahmed Al-Jaber, president of this year’s negotiations, is a top international dealer.”

  • Cara Augustenborg, writing in yesterday’s Irish Times

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Mozart: Don Giovanni, K. 527 | Act 1 – Là ci darem la mano (Live)


Pavarotti and Sheryl Crow.

Long Read of the Day

Israel’s Failed Bombing Campaign in Gaza: Collective Punishment Won’t Defeat Hamas

Bracing essay by Robert Paper in Foreign Affairs.

Even now, as Israeli forces push deeper into southern Gaza, the exact purpose of Israel’s approach is far from clear. Although Israeli leaders claim to be targeting Hamas alone, the evident lack of discrimination raises real questions about what the government is actually up to. Is Israel’s eagerness to shatter Gaza a product of the same incompetence that led to the massive failure of the Israeli military to counter Hamas’s attack on October 7, the plans for which ended up in the hands of Israeli military and intelligence officials more than a year earlier? Is wrecking northern Gaza and now southern Gaza a prelude to sending the territory’s entire population to Egypt, as proposed in a “concept paper” produced by the Israeli Intelligence Ministry?

Whatever the ultimate goal, Israel’s collective devastation of Gaza raises deep moral problems. But even judged purely in strategic terms, Israel’s approach is doomed to failure—and indeed, it is already failing. Mass civilian punishment has not convinced Gaza’s residents to stop supporting Hamas. To the contrary, it has only heightened resentment among Palestinians. Nor has the campaign succeeded in dismantling the group ostensibly being targeted. Fifty-plus days of war show that while Israel can demolish Gaza, it cannot destroy Hamas. In fact, the group may be stronger now than it was before…

Why is it that states never learn from experience?

Pape is Professor of Political Science and Director of the University of Chicago Project on Security and Threats. He conducted a study analysing the results of over thirty bombing campaigns, including a detailed reconstruction of the Gulf War, and arguing that the key to success is attacking the enemy’s military strategy, not its economy, people, or leaders.

Books, etc.

Just got this after listening to an astonishingly frank (and alarming) discussion about our political future between the author, the economist Diane Coyle and David Runciman. In my bleaker moments, as I ponder (a) the likelihood of humanity finding a way of avoiding climate catastrophe, and (b) the incapacity of liberal democracies to rein in corporations, I think we need a theory of incompetent systems — systems that can’t fix themselves. I came away from the podcast fearing that the need is even more urgent than I had imagined.

My commonplace booklet

Using A.I. to Talk to the Dead

From The New York Times

Some people are turning to A.I. technology as a way to commune with the dead, but its use as part of the mourning process has raised ethical questions while leaving some who have experimented with it unsettled.

Hmmm…. We can expect more of this, I fear. And it’s not entirely novel, either. One academic expert consulted by the Times reminded the reporter that Thomas Edison tried to invent a “spirit phone.”

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