Monday 4 December, 2023

The view from here

Dingle Bay, early yesterday morning.

Quote of the Day

”Happiness makes up in height for what it lacks in depth.”

  • Robert Frost

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Van Morrison | Saint Dominic’s Preview


Long Read of the Day

Last Week at Marienbad

Nice witty, ironic essay by Lauren Oyler about a trip she and her boyfriend Thom made to Marienbad. It would, she thought,

confirm that we were in a relationship, and that this relationship was not going to remain forever stuck in the past, in a phase of remembering and fighting over what we remembered – over things that had happened, seriously, the previous year. According to the couple clichés, a trip is a new memory you make together. It’s also a test: how moody one of you might become at a setback; how neurotic the other might be about the schedule; how fundamentally incompatible you are suddenly revealed, in an unfamiliar setting, to be. Kafka knew this. When he and his on-again, off-again fiancée Felice Bauer met at Marienbad for ten days in July 1916, they fought the entire time, unable to overcome the ceaseless rain and ‘the hardships of living together. Forced upon us by strangeness, pity, lust, cowardice, vanity, and only deep down, perhaps, a thin little stream worthy of the name of love, impossible to seek out, flashing once in the moment of a moment.’

We went because we thought it would be funny; we came to realize the movie isn’t even really set there. It takes place, if not in the mind, then in a composite setting of several nineteenth-century Central European spa towns, in a sense of vague possibility and in danger of being lost. The misunderstanding was Thom’s fault. He had seen the movie once before, a long time ago; I had not, but I knew I would have to eventually, because it’s one of those movies you have to see. ‘It’s a trip,’ he told me…

I really enjoyed it. Hope you do too.

Europe’s AI crackdown bends to tech lobbying

Yesterday’s Observer column:

Wednesday will be a fateful day in Brussels, a faraway city of which post-Brexit Britain knows little and cares less. It’s the day on which the EU’s AI proposals enter the final stages of a tortuous lawmaking process. The bill is a landmark (first in the world) attempt to seriously regulate artificial intelligence (AI) based on its capacity to cause harm and will soon be in the final phase of the legislative process – so-called “trilogues” – where the EU parliament, commission and council decide what should be in the bill, and therefore become part of EU law. Big day, high stakes, in other words.

However, the bill is now hanging in the balance because of internal disagreement about some key aspects of the proposed legislation, especially those concerned with regulation of “foundation” AI models that are trained on massive datasets. In EU-speak these are “general-purpose AI” (GPAI) systems – ones capable of a range of general tasks (text synthesis, image manipulation, audio generation and so on) – such as GPT-4, Claude, Llama etc. These systems are astonishingly expensive to train and build: salaries for the geeks who work on them start at Premier League striker level and go stratospheric (with added stock options); a single 80GB Nvidia Hopper H100 board – a key component of machine-learning hardware – costs £26,000, and you need thousands of them to build a respectable system. Not surprisingly, therefore, there are only about 20 firms globally that can afford to play this game. And they have money to burn…

(And also to spend on lobbying.)

Do read the whole thing.

My commonplace booklet

Remembering Kissinger

Bill Emmott’s reflections on “the prickly, ruthless, amoral intellectual that was Henry Kissinger.” (Er, isn’t he forgetting ‘war criminal’?)

Emmott liked, he says,

an opinion piece in the New York Times, headlined “Henry Kissinger: the hypocrite” by Ben Rhodes, a former member of President Obama’s NSC. Rhodes outlined especially well the enduring impact of Kissinger’s amoral actions in places such as Chile, Bangladesh, Cambodia and Laos on America’s reputation as well as any claims it might make about seeking to defend “the international rules-based order” (which is not a claim Kissinger will ever have made, at least not to my knowledge). Sometimes these days people are inclined to write that during the Cold War the severity and clarity of the ideological and military confrontation with the USSR was such as to make brutal actions such as those somehow more acceptable, but I am not sure future Cold War historians will agree. Those actions led to a considerable backlash against America especially but not only in Europe, one that it will be reasonable for future historians to argue might have made the Cold War last longer. Rather less contestable is the fact that memories of such actions lie behind some of today’s unwillingness in Latin America, Southern Africa and many parts of Asia to support the West over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The war in Iraq certainly plays a big part in that, but so do Kissinger’s actions in places like Chile, Angola and Indochina.

Thanks to Andrew Arends for the link.

My first thought on learning of Kissinger’s death was of Tom Lehrer’s crack that satire died the day he won the Nobel Peace prize.

Ben Rhodes’s piece is worth reading, btw. Kissinger, he writes,

exemplified the gap between the story that America, the superpower, tells and the way that we can act in the world. At turns opportunistic and reactive, his was a foreign policy enamored with the exercise of power and drained of concern for the human beings left in its wake. Precisely because his America was not the airbrushed version of a city on a hill, he never felt irrelevant: Ideas go in and out of style, but power does not.

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!

Friday 1 December, 2023

Xmas gift ideas!

In an American newspaper — in 1912!

We EV owners used to feel smug about being ‘early adopters’. Turns out we are over a century behind the curve!

Thanks to Quentin (a fellow EV owner) for spotting it.

Quote of the Day

”You’re not a star until they can spell your name in Karachi.”

  • Humphrey Bogart

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Franz Schubert | Nachtgesang im Walde Op. 139 | Ruhrkohle-Chor


Long Read of the Day

 Douglas Murray: Wartime Diary

Eyewitness reporting from Israel and Gaza.

I was at the children’s hospital in Tel Aviv when the first children and their parents were released. When the helicopters landed and the hostages got out, IDF soldiers blocked their faces with screens to protect them from the glare of the cameras. But I’d already been sent a single photo taken by the Arab press that showed some of the mothers with their children inside a bus when they were still in Gaza.

The terror on their faces. They looked as though they’d aged by decades.

But at this moment, there was joy. As the helicopters landed, traffic stopped, and people got out of their cars and broke into song. They clapped and their voices rang out as they welcomed back the hostages with songs like “Hevenu Shalom Alechem.” (“We brought you peace.”)

As it happened, 12 of the 13 returnees that night were from Kibbutz Nir Oz, the first place I visited on my trip to Israel…

A premonition…

One of the people I’ve followed for years is Robert Reich, who taught at Berkeley for years and was Secretary for Labour in Bill Clinton’s Administration.

In 1994, when he held that post, he gave a speech at Thanksgiving which I’ve just watched. It’s very striking, and a good way to spend nine minutes or so.


His colleagues in the Clinton Administration were not amused, btw. Here’s how Reich remembers what happened:

Speeches by Cabinet members were supposed to be approved in advance by the White House, but in this case I doubted the White House would approve my speech because it was so foreboding. So I sent to the White House a different speech — one that was anodyne and boring.

I thought I could get away with this because I doubted the media would pay much attention to my speech.

I was wrong. It made headlines.

Not surprisingly, I was ordered to the White House — where an ambush awaited me. Clinton’s chief of staff Leon Panetta, his economic adviser Bob Rubin, his political adviser George Stephanopoulos, and other top advisers told me in no uncertain terms that I had violated White House rules.

They accused me of not being a team player and barred me from making any further speeches.

I told them I didn’t work for them. I had been nominated by the president and confirmed by the Senate, and they had no power over me. I’d be silenced only if the president directed me to be.

Well, that was the end of it. I knew Bill Clinton wouldn’t tell me to stop speaking my mind.

My commonplace booklet

Yesterday was the first anniversary of the arrival of ChatGPT. Azeem Azhar had the nice idea of asking its GenerativeAI sidekick, DALL-E, to produce an image of a birthday cake for his newsletter.

Azeem’s comment:

“You’ve shown us how vulnerable we are to strings of text produced by a machine – willing to believe and put faith in them. Even though you still misspell your own name on your birthday cakes.”

See also  How ChatGPT rewired the tech world .


Something I noticed, while drinking from the Internet firehose.

  • Charles Arthur (Whom God Preserve) noticed a piece in Britain’s only broadsheet tabloid about the IEA’s observation that the oil and gas industry faces losses of more than $3 trillion (£2.4 trillion) because of net zero policies.

“Note the faint undertone in this story,” Charles writes, “which appeared in the Daily Telegraph, favourite of the Tory-voting stock-owning (ancient) generation: ‘net zero’ will do these things to companies’ valuations, and therefore net zero is bad. Rather than these companies are contributing to wrecking the planet, and are therefore bad and deserve to fall in value concomitant to the damage they’re causing.”

Quite, as the late Queen might have observed.

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 13 November, 2023

Bike Park

Seen on a riverside walk on Saturday.

Quote of the Day

“Conservative, n: A statesman who is enamored of existing evils, as distinguished from the Liberal who wishes to replace them with others.”

  • Ambrose Bierce (from his Devil’s Dictionary)

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Martin Hayes and John Cahill | The Cat In The Corner & John Naughton’s Jig


I would, of course, like to be able to claim that the second jig was one of my compositions, but alas there are many of my namesakes out there, and at least one of them has real musical talent!

Martin Hayes has a gig in the Cambridge Junction on January 29 and I’ve already bought the tickets.

Long Read of the Day

John Banville’s review of Christopher Reid’s 800-page selection of Seamus Heaney’s astonishing correspondence is generous and insightful.

Heaney was as fluent in prose as he was sublime in verse, as readers will know from his essays and articles, and his extensive memoir, Stepping Stones, compiled in interview form with the poet Dennis O’Driscoll. Yet the style in the letters, many of them obviously composed at breakneck speed, is astonishing in its quality and unflagging grace. As one of his correspondents said of Heaney: “He makes the simplest words shine.”

Despite occasional asperities, his generosity and enthusiasm for the work of others are remarkable. Here he is writing in 2006 to Ted Hughes’s widow, Carol, about the poet’s posthumous Selected Translations – and note the beautifully sustained oceanic metaphor: “The delights are dolphin-like, the mighty talent rising again and showing his back above the elements … I got the book and swam in and out of the different coves and caves, safe havens (few) and strange strands. A strong sense of being lifted on the tide of it all.”

Heaney could not have had a better editor than Reid. The task was surely enormous, but Reid fulfils it with a Heaneyesque diligence and scrupulousness. The choice of letters is never less than apposite, the scholarly apparatus discreet to the point of invisibility, and the endnotes to each letter are kept to a minimum.

On this last point, Reid remarks that “the sheer outward-facing busyness” of Heaney’s life, as man and poet, “called for equally busy footnotes”. In fact, there is no sense of busyness here. Reid’s method is to leave the letters themselves clear and cleanly readable, then attach the necessary explanatory matter at its end, often in no more than a few deft lines. The result is an uncluttered text that is a pleasure for the eye as well as to the mind…

It’s a really elegant review, worth reading in full. And if I needed convincing that I should buy the book, Banville’s coda would have clinched the deal.

This is a marvellous book, lovingly edited, beautifully produced – the paper is notably good, a rare thing these days – and brimming with literary insights, much laughter, a sprinkle of gossip and the poet’s insuppressible joie de vivre, even in adversity. Buy it, read it, and keep it to hand on to your children.

— except that I had already ordered it! I can always pretend that it was a Christmas present from my children.

The power of FOMO

Yesterday’s Observer column:

On 22 September last year, a fascinating article appeared on the website of Sequoia Capital, one of the leading venture capital firms in Silicon Valley. (It trades under the motto: “We help the daring build legendary companies.”) The article in question was a breezily readable piece about a tech wunderkind who had recently flashed on to the company’s radar screen. His name was Sam Bankman-Fried (henceforth known as SBF) and he was the founder of Alameda Research, a hedge fund specialising in cryptocurrency, and FTX, a spectacularly growing and profitable exchange that enabled holders of crypto assets to trade efficiently and freely.

Today, that glowing tribute to this young genius is nowhere to be found on Sequoia’s website. Why? Because only the other day a New York jury convicted him of fraud and conspiracy to launder money in a crushing verdict that could keep the lad in prison for decades – and perhaps also whet the appetite of US authorities for bringing the crypto sector to heel. In the end, about $8bn of FTX’s investors’ money was missing. The verdict has also mightily embarrassed the top-tier venture capitalists who were mesmerised by SBF’s ambitious fantasies – to the point where the lead sucker, Sequoia, felt obliged on 10 November to bury the online evidence of its delusions by removing the profile from its website.

Fortunately, the internet has a very good memory in the shape of the Wayback Machine, which had thoughtfully archived Sequoia’s glowing testimonial for SBF for our delectation. And, boy, does it make for delightful reading…

Do read the whole piece.

My commonplace booklet

How low interest-rates foster madness

From David McWilliams’s column in the Irish Times:

WeWork was a glorified subletting company, whose main so-called innovation seemed to be a lick of paint. The brainchild of a photogenic CEO, Adam Neumann, the company leased offices from owners on long leases and then rejigged them on more expensive short leases. It rented them out as shared spaces with “hot desks” to accommodate a new type of worker, a nomadic creature who wanted urban workspace. Essentially, it was a time horizon bet – longer leases are cheaper than shorter ones and if interest rates remained low, the company could finance the long-term cheaply and extract rent expensively in the short-term.

Ten years ago, with commercial property still lagging after the crash and interest rates moving towards zero, this rather plodding insight was embraced enthusiastically by cash-rich investors. In the lead-up to an initial public offering in 2019, the company was valued at $47 billion, but the company was losing more than $200,000 an hour. Since it was founded in 2010, WeWork has not once turned a profit. Last Wednesday, WeWork, which leases office space in 777 locations across 39 countries, filed for bankruptcy. This company is one of Dublin’s biggest office tenants. These leases will come on the market now. Who is going to buy them?

Who indeed? McWilliams is a leading Irish economist who has an impressive track record of calling time on the BS consistently retailed by my country’s political establishment. And in this column he makes the point that the process of ‘creative destruction’ (Joseph Schumpeter’s idea of the motive power that drives capitalism — where good businesses replace bad ones, mimicking natural selection in evolution — doesn’t work if certain costs (e.g. interest rates) are kept artificially low. When this happens, so called ‘unicorns’ like WeWork and FTX are kept alive for far longer than they deserve.

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Wednesday 1 November, 2023


… is going on here? Who knows? London, June.

Quote of the Day

“Markets can remain irrational longer than you can remain solvent.”

  • John Maynard Keynes

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Elton John | Rocket Man (Glastonbury 2023)


Memorable performance. I watched it live.

Long Read of the Day

Boogeyman Diplomacy

On the day when the UK’s ‘AI Safety Summit’ opens, this lovely blog post by Neil Lawrence seems appropriate, not least because Neil is one of the foremost experts on ‘AI’, i.e. machine-learning.

Just like behind my garage, there are many dangers to AI, and some of those dangers are unknown. In the rubbish there could have been rats and asbestos. Similarly with today’s information technologies we already face challenges around power asymmetries, where a few companies are control access to information. Competition authorities on both sides of the Atlantic are addressing these. We also face challenges around automated decision making: the European GDPR is an attempt to regulate how and when algorithmic decision making can be used. The AI boogeyman is frightening extreme conflation of these two challenges, just as an asbestos breathing rat would be a very disturbing conflation of the challenges behind my garage.

But just as the right approach to dealing with an asbestos breathing rat would be to deal with the rats and the asbestos separately, so the AI boogeyman can be dealt with by dealing with both power asymmetries and automated decision making. In both these areas many of us have already been supporting governments in developing new regulation to address these risks. But by combining them, boogeyman diplomacy runs the serious risk of highlighting the problems in a way that distracts us from the real dangers we face.

However, like Mao Zedong and Richard Nixon’s panda diplomacy, boogeyman diplomacy does promise a potential benefit. It is far easier to agree on an exchange of pandas than it is to bridge cultural and political divides between two great nations…

Neil has found a neat way of highlighting the fundamental problem we have with this technology, which is that governments and tech companies are obsessed with contemplating the speculative existential risks of the technology. This is a diversionary tactic because it enables both sides to avoid confronting the actual and real harms already being caused by the technology as it’s being applied right now.

The biggest risk posed by runaway AI isn’t speculative

If its deployment isn’t managed, then it’ll really undermine democracy. Why? Because history suggests that having a stable middle class is an essential requirement for a stable democratic polity. As Rana Faroohar pointed out in yesterday’s FT,

One recent academic study from OpenAI and the University of Pennsylvania found that 80 per cent of the US workforce will have at least some of their work tasks transformed by AI. There’s a huge productivity multiple there — Goldman Sachs estimates labour productivity could rise by 1.5 per cent, which is twice the recent historic rate. That would be similar in scale to the effect of the PC and the tech boom of the 1990s, which doubled the US GDP growth rate. 

The key question is: will the productivity be shared? I suspect we may see the blue-collar disruption of the 80s and 90s come to service work. The OECD warned in July that the job categories most at risk of displacement would be highly skilled, white-collar work accounting for a third of employment in the developed world. Think about the populism that could result — manufacturing is 8 per cent of the US workforce, while jobs at risk immediately from AI represent about 30 per cent.

Her colleague, Edward Luce, has an answer to that question about sharing the fruits of massive increases in productivity.

I share all the forebodings about the future of warfare, the deepfake impact on democracy and the ultimate question about computers deciding we are too stupid as a species to keep around (I have periodic twinges of sympathy with the latter). But an immediate concern is the massive rates of return that owners of AI will inevitably reap in the coming years. We are already living in an oligarchic society. I fear that today will look like child’s play compared to what is around the corner. In other words, it is the Elon Musks and other humans that I fear the most. 

Me too. And in that context, isn’t it interesting that Rishi Sunak has chosen to make a big deal about a live-streamed interview he’s done with Elon Musk, one of the tech lords who have turned up to Bletchley Park. Unregulated deployment of this technology is an entry ramp onto a highway that leads to a techno-feudalism future of the kind envisaged by Marc Andreessen and other fanatics.

My commonplace booklet

From the Economist:

“When on October 20th the Rolling Stones released ‘Hackney Diamonds’, the band’s first original album in almost two decades, many acolytes bought it on vinyl—an old format befitting an old act. The vinyl revival, now well into its second decade, crosses generations and genres. In America, 25- to 34-year-olds buy as many vinyl records as the over-55s.”


Something I noticed, while drinking from the Internet firehose.

The iShuffle Principle

Nice little essay from 2005 by Om Malik. He returned to the theme the other day. Nice.


Many thanks to the readers who, very politely, pointed that Margaret Atwood only has one ’t’ in her surname. And humble apologies to the wonderful lady herself.

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Monday 23 October, 2023

Looking outwards

Yorkshire Dales, Saturday.

Quote of the Day

”The last thing one discovers in composing a work is what to put first.”

  • Blaise Pascal

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Eartha Kitt | Ain’t Misbehavin’


Long Read of the Day

Ubiquitous yet hated – what does the triumph of PowerPoint teach us about Generative AI?

Nice column by Tim Harford on the crutch that every corporate presenter and public speaker seems to lean on.

The aesthetic of our age was shaped in Paris in 1992, in the Hotel Regina. The occasion was carefully stage-managed by a team of technicians fussing over a huge colour projector that cost as much as a small house. The big unveiling came when Robert Gaskins, a Microsoft software engineer, walked up to the lectern, plugged his chunky laptop into a video cable and began showing PowerPoint slides in full colour, straight off his machine. The applause was, according to Gaskins, “deafening”.

There were visual aids before 1992, of course. At the high end, there were computer-co-ordinated slideshows in which dozens of projectors were choreographed to fit with music, script and each other, producing spectacular results at extraordinary expense.

The mid-market was a monochrome or colour transparency placed on an overhead projector (OHP). In the heyday of the OHP, more than 2,000 were sold in the US every week…

Read on, fellow-sufferers.

Years ago I was invited to give a keynote address to the assembled staff of a newish university in the midlands. In the Q&A someone asked me what I thought about the use of PowerPoint in lectures. I replied, flippantly, that it should be a sackable offence. The audience responded with what I sensed was nervous laughter. Afterwards, I was informed that a zealous new Pro-Vice-Chancellor had recently issued a decree that henceforth all academic lectures should be accompanied by a PowerPoint deck which would also be available to students. The same gent was also in the audience!

I was never invited back.

Tacit knowledge, chips and geopolitics

Today’s Observer column:

When the history of our time comes to be written, one thing that will amaze historians is how an entire civilisation managed to impale itself on its worship of optimisation and efficiency. This obsession is what underpinned the hubris of globalisation. Apple’s famous slogan “Designed by Apple in California, manufactured in China” became its guiding light. So long as products could be made available to consumers everywhere, it no longer mattered where they were made. Until it did.

We first twigged this when the pandemic struck, and we became suddenly aware of how fragile supply chains built to maximise efficiency could be. Shouldn’t we be optimising for resilience rather than efficiency, people wondered. And maybe our obsession with “offshoring” production to low-wage countries might not be such a good idea after all.

The rise of China and the resulting tensions between it and the United States brought this offshoring question into very sharp focus. For our civilisation (if that’s what it is) now runs on silicon as well as oil, and the really advanced silicon chips on which the future seems to depend are all made in one location – Taiwan – and by one company based there, the Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC)…

Read on

My commonplace booklet

From Dave Winer (Whom God Preserve)…

It’s weird that people have the idea that thinking out loud is a new idea for blogging. That’s because when journalists first heard about blogging they decided that it’s what they do. People who write publicly for money, mostly without any principle other than getting paid for writing, or perhaps “building a brand.” That imho was not what was going on. It was people asking questions, often in the form of statements they weren’t sure of. Put it out there, see what comes back. At its best it was what I called sources go direct — where people with expertise shared what they knew so we could learn from them. So the idea of a public “garden” is just a response to journalists getting the story totally wrong about blogging in the early days. Amazing how these things cycle round and round often because of basic misunderstandings like this.

I love to cite this cartoon from the 2004 Democratic Convention which first opened its doors to bloggers. I was one of them. They saw us as gatecrashers. We were just people who have the need to blog. A small number of people were born to write about what they see, and the web opened that up to all of us, for the first time it took almost no money to get your ideas out there, and clearly they were scared of us. What a crime that actual people would be reporting on the events of our democracy. They’re so stuck in their calcified thought patterns that it never occurred to them that this is great, people who actually give a shit, wanting to tell other people what they saw and heard. Unfortunately they got their way, that’s how powerful they are and how easily manipulated we all are.


  • Nokia to erase up to 14,000 employees from payroll From The Register. “Nokia, one of the world’s largest telecommunications kit makers, is erasing up to 14,000 jobs after a plunge in net profit was caused by jittery customers delaying spending amid a slowing economy and rising interest rates.” How are the mighty fallen.

  • “Italy’s renowned parmigiano reggiano, favoured for finishing off bowls of pasta and rocket salads, is one of the most counterfeited cheeses in the world. Now its manufacturers have found a new way to hit back against the lookalikes: by adding microchips.” Link

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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.

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!

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 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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