Wednesday 20 September, 2023

Vanishing point

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

Quote of the Day

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

  • Dave Winer

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

The Dirty Mac | Yer Blues


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

Long Read of the Day

Just for Fun

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

I was struck by this passage.

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

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

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

Books, etc.

 Elon Musk: pillock, genius, or both?

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


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

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

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

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

My commonplace booklet


Jonathan Peelle’s response:

Circular cats, contd.

Sheila Hayman (Whom God Preserve) writes…

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


 Not all USB-C cables are created equal.

Useful warning by Brian X. Chen in the NYT.

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

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Monday 18 September, 2023

On reflection…

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

Quote of the Day

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

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

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

George Butterworth | English Idyll 2


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

Long Read of the Day

Searching for a Breakup

From CNN:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yesterday’s Observer column

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

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

Read on.

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

Nonsense on stilts

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

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

Among the essential items listed were:

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

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

My commonplace booklet

Circular cats (cont.)

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


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

On long reads

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

From an interesting piece in Press Gazetteby Charles Baker.

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Friday 15 September, 2023

Cats circular

Zoombini and Tilly, dozing in anti-clockwise formation.

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

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

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

Quote of the Day

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

  • Henry Farrell and Abe Newman

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

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Mark Knopfler | Brothers In Arms | Berlin 2007


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

Long Read of the Day

The Transformative, alarming power of Gene Editing

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

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

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

Books, etc.

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

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

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

My commonplace booklet


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

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Monday 11 September, 2023


Guardians of the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge.

Quote of the Day

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

  • Amos Tversky in The Undoing Project

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Mary Black | Sonny


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

Long Read of the Day

How Big Tech Got So Damn Big

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

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

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


Do read it.

Nvidia’s picks and shovels

Yesterday’s Observer column

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

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

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

Read on

Books, etc.

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

My commonplace booklet

The Rolling Stones’s new album

From Tortoise media

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

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

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Friday 8 September, 2023

Here comes the Sun

My favourite flower. And one of a bunch grown from last year’s seeds too.

Quote of the Day

”He shunned the Press, as as far as he was able, and doled out quotes like a miser giving alms. Hurrying once through an airport, he was hailed by a reporter who asked if he might ‘have a word’. Without breaking stride, Ramsey obliged him: ‘Goodbye’.”

  • Anthony Quinn, reviewing Duncan Hamilton’s biography of Alf Ramsey in the Observer.

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Victor Borge | Clair de Lune


And you thought he was just a comedian? So did I.

Long Read of the Day

How Misreading Adam Smith Helped Spawn Deaths of Despair

An edited transcript in the Boston Review of a terrific lecture by the Nobel laureate Angus Deaton at the Tercentenary celebrations of Adam Smith in Edinburgh last June. It’s an impressive lecture that covers a lot of ground. The basic theme is the way some of Adam Smith’s ideas were perversely distorted by an influential group of economists in the University of Chicago and then used to justify introducing libertarian ideas and policies into areas like healthcare where they have had disastrous consequences.

Here’s a sample (informed by the book  Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism by Deaton and his wife, Anne Case.)

In 1995 the painkiller OxyContin, manufactured by Purdue Pharmaceutical, a private company owned by the Sackler family, was approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). OxyContin is an opioid; think of it as a half-strength dose of heroin in pill form with an FDA label of approval—effective for pain relief, and highly addictive. Traditionally, doctors in the United States did not prescribe opiates, even for terminally ill cancer patients—unlike in Britain—but they were persuaded by relentless marketing campaigns and a good deal of misdirection that OxyContin was safe for chronic pain. Chronic pain had been on the rise in the United States for some time, and Purdue and their distributors targeted communities where pain was prevalent: a typical example is a company coal town in West Virginia where the company and the coal had recently vanished. Overdose deaths began to rise soon afterwards. By 2012 enough opioid prescriptions were being written for every American adult to have a month’s supply. In time, physicians began to realize what they had done and cut back on prescriptions. Or at least most did; a few turned themselves into drug dealers and operated pill mills, selling pills for money or, in some cases, for sex. Many of those doctors are now in jail. (Barbara Kingsolver’s recent Demon Copperhead, set in southwest Virginia, is a fictionalized account of the social devastation, especially among children and young people.)

In 2010 Purdue reformulated Oxycontin to make it harder to abuse, and around the same time the docs pulled back, but by then a large population of people had become addicted to the drugs, and when prescribers denied them pills, black market suppliers flooded the illicit market with cheap heroin and fentanyl, which is more than thirty times stronger than heroin. Sometimes dealers even met disappointed patients outside pain clinics. The epidemic of addiction and death that had been sparked by pharma companies in search of profit was enabled by some members of Congress, who, as Case and I describe in detail in our book, changed the law to make life easier for distributors and shut down investigations by the Drug Enforcement Agency. None of these congressional representatives was punished by voters.

He also adds an interesting footnote for readers on this side of the Pond:

Queen Elizabeth, awarded knighthoods in the 1990s to Raymond and Mortimer Sackler, owners of Purdue Pharma, not for the human destruction they had wrought in the United States but for their philanthropy in Britain, much of which involved what was later called “art-washing.” Many institutions are still trying to extricate themselves from Sackler money, including, most recently, Oxford University in the UK and the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine who produced an “authoritative” report that, by several accounts, exaggerated the extent of pain in the United States, and thus the need for OxyContin.

There’s lots more in what amounts to an insightful account of how democracies have got into the mess they’re currently in.

Books, etc.

Jeff Jarvis is ‘retiring’ from CUNY. Note the quote marks. He’s not really the retiring sort. He’s written a nice valedictory piece, though. And I’ve reviewed his new book in the British Journalism Review. You can find a copy of the review here if you’re interested.

My commonplace booklet

Dickens on Effective Altruism

Robert Cottrell has been listening to Dickens…

Of the many sub-plots in Bleak House, I am particularly taken by Dickens’s prescient critique of Effective Altruism through the person of Mrs Jellyby, a middle-class Londoner who is so preoccupied with raising money for missions to Africa that she has no time to spare for her own children. The unwashed little Jellybys fall downstairs, dress in rags, and weep with misery, while their mother, indifferent to what is going on in front of her eyes, devotes her energies to the promotion of grand projects for improving the future well-being of distant peoples. I find it hard not to think of San Francisco as Mrs Jellyby’s house writ large.


Seems I may have been misinformed when I claimed the other day that the Lone Ranger’s buddy Tonto may not have been as dismissive of his boss as I had claimed. (His invariable reply to the Ranger was “Kemo Sabay” which a friend of mine claimed meant “horseshit” in some indigenous language or other.)

Frank Miller pointed me to Wikipedia, which maintains that:

Jim Jewell, director of The Lone Ranger from 1933 to 1939, took the phrase from Kamp Kee-Mo Sah-Bee, a boys’ camp on Mullett Lake in Michigan, established by Charles W. Yeager (Jewell’s father-in-law) in 1916. Yeager himself probably took the term from Ernest Thompson Seton, one of the founders of the Boy Scouts of America, who had given the meaning “scout runner” to Kee-mo-sah’-bee in his 1912 book The Book of Woodcraft and Indian Lore.

Drat and double-drat! I still prefer “horseshit”, though. Much more appropriate in the comic context.

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Monday 4 September, 2023

Meet Bodhisattva

In the wonderful Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge the other day I came face to face with this figure. It’s the head of what the museum describes as “Lifesize, 13th-century Sung Dynasty (AD 960-1279) polychrome wooden sculpture of a Bodhisattva seated in the position known as ‘royal ease’”. For details of this curious position, see below. Do not try it at home.

Quote of the Day

“Nixon loved air-conditioning. In summer he would turn the thermostat down as low as it would go, so he could toast himself by a blazing log fire in the synthetic chill. Extreme as Nixon’s virtuoso double-polluting habits may seem now, he was more in tune with the American public mood on matters of temperature control than the only President who tried to rein in his nation’s growing addiction to air-conditioning, Jimmy Carter.”

  • James Meek in the LRB.

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Haydn | Trumpet Concerto in Eb, 1st movement (Allegro)| Alison Balsom


Recorded on the Last Night of the Proms, September 12, 2009

Long Read of the Day

Consciousness is a great mystery. Its definition isn’t.

Interesting essay by Erik Hoel.

In the current chaotic discourses about ‘AI’ terms like ‘consciousness’ and ‘sentience’ are batted around like shuttlecocks. I’m not a philosopher, but I can sometimes spot when people have no idea what they’re talking about, and this is one of those areas. Which I why I perked up when I read this.

Here’s how it opens:

There’s an unkillable myth that the very definition of the word “consciousness” is somehow so slippery, so bedeviled with problems, that we must first specify what we mean out of ten different notions. When this definitional objection is raised, its implicit point is often—not always, but often—that the people who wish to study consciousness scientifically (or philosophically) are so fundamentally confused they can’t even agree on a definition. And if a definition cannot be agreed upon, we should question whether there is anything to say at all.

Unfortunately, this “argument from undefinability” shows up regularly among a certain set of well-educated people. Just to given an example, there was recently an interesting LessWrong post wherein the writer reported on his attempts to ask people to define consciousness, from a group of:

Mostly academics I met in grad school, in cognitive science, AI, ML, and mathematics.

He found that such people would regularly conflate “consciousness” with things like introspection, purposefulness, pleasure and pain, intelligence, and so on. These sort of conflations being common is my impression as well, as I run into them whenever I have given public talks about the neuroscience of consciousness, and I too have found it most prominent among those with a computer science, math, or tech background. It is especially prominent right now amid AI researchers… Hope you find it interesting.

When Elon Musk’s ‘flying sofas’ give Ukraine internet access, we can’t sit comfortably

My column in yesterday’s Observer

In February 2022, as Russian tanks rumbled into Ukraine, a cyber-attack took down the satellite system run by Viasat that was providing high-speed communications for Ukrainian military forces, rendering them instantly blind, deaf and dumb. With his forces knocked offline, the Ukrainian digital minister sent a plea to an American billionaire, one Elon Musk, for help. Within hours, Musk responded that his Starlink system had been activated in Ukraine. Days later Starlink terminals began to arrive.

Pause for context update. Musk is the founder and Supreme Leader of SpaceX, an innovative firm that has found a way of building reusable heavy rockets that can launch cargo into Earth orbit and safely return ready to be used again, which is a very big deal, and probably why Nasa has become one of its regular customers. In 2019, SpaceX started launching smallish – “sofa-sized”, according to the New York Times – communications satellites into low-Earth orbit with the aim of eventually providing a global mobile phone system called Starlink. Thus far, it has mostly been providing internet connectivity to 60 countries via about 4,500 satellites, but it’s said that Musk plans to have 42,000 of them up there eventually, which is an awful lot of flying sofas.

At the moment, there are something like 42,000 Starlink terminals in Ukraine – in use by the country’s armed forces, hospitals, businesses and aid organisations…

Read on

Books, etc.

This new collection of Lee Miller’s photographs arrived the other day. I dug out my old, battered Rolleiflex to sit alongside it, as a mark of respect, for some of her most memorable pictures were taken with a Rollei.

My first thought was that the book must be a catalogue of the marvellous exhibition of Miller’s work we saw in the Royal Danish Library in Copenhagen a couple of years ago. But it only partly overlaps with those pictures. So why release the collection now?

Ah! There’s a foreword by Kate Winslet, not hitherto known as a photography buff. But then the penny dropped: Winslet is playing Miller in a biopic that’s coming out later in the year. IMDB has a still from it showing Winslet in combat fatigues and clutching a… Rolleiflex!


My commonplace booklet

Burning Man festival-goers trapped in desert as rain turns site to mud. Link. So there is a God, and She has a sense of humour. From modest beginnings Burning Man morphed from hippiedom into a destination for social media influencers, celebrities and the Silicon Valley elite. The thought of all those self-satisfied creeps shivering in their mud-logged SUVs is, well, deeply satisfying.

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Friday 1 September, 2023

Radio days

I love this picture from Russell Lee’s famous series of photos of Depression-era Americans, created for FDR’s Farm Security Administration. This one shows Mrs. Caudill and her daughter, of Pie Town, New Mexico, listening to news on their radio in the summer of 1940.

I’m fascinated by how FSA-sponsored photographers like Lee, Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, Russell Lee, Arthur Rothstein, Marion Post Wolcott, Gordon Parks and others harnessed the evocative power of photography. The fact that they had to work in monochrome seems to me to give their work much more impact. This is particularly interesting for me because, having worked in colour for three decades or more, I’m now trying to re-learn how to use B&W myself, including the obvious lesson that it’s a completely different medium, and you can’t get at it by shooting in colour and then siphoning off the colour in post-production manipulation. You have to think in B&W before you press the button. And things that work in colour don’t work in monochrome. Horses for courses, etc. Sigh.

Quote of the Day

“The years between fifty and seventy are the hardest. You are always being asked to do things and yet you are not decrepit enough to turn them down.”

  • T.S. Eliot

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Liam O’Flynn, Seán Keane, Paddy Glackin, Arty McGlynn & Paul Brady | Gradam Ceoil TG4 2007


A real line-up of Maestros. Three reels — The Humours of Carraigholt, Major Harrison’s Fedora and Tommy People’s Reel (my favourite). And note the seamless switches between each (at 1:13) and 2:26)

Long Read of the Day

Generative AI and intellectual property

Typically laconic and thoughtful essay by Benedict Evans asking If you put all the world’s knowledge into an AI model and use it to make something new, who owns that and who gets paid?

This is, he slyly observes, “a completely new problem that we’ve been arguing about for 500 years”.

We’ve been talking about intellectual property in one way or another for at least the last five hundred years, and each new wave of technology or creativity leads to new kinds of arguments. We invented performance rights for composers and we decided that photography – ‘mechanical reproduction’ – could be protected as art, and in the 20th century we had to decide what to think about everything from recorded music to VHS to sampling. Generative AI poses some of those questions in new ways (or even in old ways), but it also poses some new kinds of puzzles – always the best kind.

At the simplest level, we will very soon have smartphone apps that let you say “play me this song, but in Taylor Swift’s voice”. That’s a new possibility, but we understand the intellectual property ideas pretty well – there’ll be a lot of shouting over who gets paid what, but we know what we think the moral rights are. Record companies are already having conversations with Google about this.

But what happens if I say “make me a song in the style of Taylor Swift” or, even more puzzling, “make me a song in the style of the top pop hits of the last decade”?

Evans has an admirably ‘light’ style and a neat way of posing complex problems in thought-provoking ways. He also loves paradoxes, but then, so do lots of good writers.

Worth a read.

My commonplace booklet

Biodiversity Flourishes in Historic Lawn Turned Wildflower Meadow

A nice story from Scientific American about an experiment conducted by the Head Gardener of King’s College, Cambridge.

Thanks to David Ballard for spotting it..


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

  • DeepMind made a watermark for AI images that you can’t edit out Link. It seems to be a clever use of steganography. Might help with protecting artists’ IP.

  • ‘Life or Death:’ AI-Generated Mushroom Foraging Books Are All Over Amazon Link. Perfectly predictable. And perfectly pernicious.

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Wednesday 30 August, 2023

Zombie Capitalism

In an airport shopping mall.

Quote of the Day

“Salary is no object; I want only enough to keep body and soul apart.”

  • Dorothy Parker, discussing a job with a prospective employer.

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Mozart | Rondo in B-Flat Major, K. 269 | Itzhak Perlman and the Berliner Phil


Long Read of the Day

How mainstream journalism is failing American democracy

I’ve written before about how infuriating it is to see the accomplishments of the Biden administration consistently downplayed (and sometimes ignored) by US journalism, especially of the elite kind. Every fart of Trump and his crowd is earnestly recorded for posterity. Posh journalists go on anthropological expeditions into the lowlands of working-class Trumpism in order earnestly to ascertain what’s bugging these strange natives. And so on. But nobody goes to ‘Biden country’, wherever that is, on lavish expenses. The result is an increasingly skewed view of what’s going on the country as a whole, and the implicit validation of a myth of the inevitability of a Trump victory.

And while it looks as though he certainly will be the GOP candidate in 2024, that doesn’t mean he will win the election. But if he does indeed lose again, that media-burnished myth will serve to fuel another ’stolen election’ myth and its ensuing chaos.

As it happens, James Fallows is likewise pissed off with American journalism. (Indeed he’s been pissed off for a long time — ever since his book Breaking the News: How the Media Undermine American Democracy came out in 1996.)

This recent blog post of his expands some of these concerns more eloquently than I could and is consequently worth your time.

And while we’re at it, have a look too at Will Bunch’s column in The Philadelphia Inquirer on US media coverage of Trump’s most recent indictment.

It was a remarkable night of imagery over substance, yet there was little discussion of why this accused felon was getting a phalanx of dozens of motorcycle cops, comprising police who are drawn to Trump’s authoritarian bluster like moths to the light. Trump’s glowering mug shot instantly became the most talked about picture in American history — yet not one pundit was able to explain why tens of millions of everyday voters are so eager to return to the White House this man who attempted a coup on Jan. 6, 2021, or why his poll numbers rise with each indictment. I guess the 20th-century author and socialist Upton Sinclair really nailed it when he wrote, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”

Books, etc.

My Observer review of The Coming Wave by Mustafa Suleyman.

What is it with wave metaphors? Technological determinists – people who believe that technology drives history – love them. Think of Alvin Toffler, who saw the history of civilisation as a succession of three such waves (agricultural, industrial and post-industrial). The idea is of immense power, unstoppable, moving inexorably towards us as we cower before its immensity, much as the dinosaurs must have done when they saw the mile-high tsunami heading in their direction.

Mustafa Suleyman says he is not a determinist, but at times he sounds awfully like one. “At its heart,” he writes at one point, “technology emerges to fill human needs. If people have powerful reasons to build and use it, it will get built and used. Yet in most discussions of technology people still get stuck on what it is, forgetting why it was created in the first place. This is not about some innate techno-determinism. This is about what it means to be human.”

The oncoming wave in his title is “defined by two core technologies: artificial intelligence (AI) and synthetic biology”, and it’s the conjunction of the two that makes it intriguing and original. Together, he thinks, these two “will usher in a new dawn for humanity, creating wealth and surplus unlike anything ever seen. And yet their rapid proliferation also threatens to empower a diverse array of bad actors to unleash disruption, instability, and even catastrophe on an unimaginable scale.” Our future, apparently, “both depends on these technologies and is imperilled by them”.

Once you get past this hyperbolic prologue, the book settles down into a serious exploration of what the future might hold for us all. Suleyman’s credentials for the task are good: he was co-founder of DeepMind, arguably the smartest AI company around…

Read on

The only difference between a good migrant and a bad one is time

Fintan O’Toole, the Irish Times columnist, has been visiting the Jewish cemetery in Dublin and written a fine piece with strong contemporary resonances which, alas, is behind the paywall.

So here’s the gist.

The Jewish refugees who came to Ireland in the late 19th century were fleeing the pogroms unleashed after the assassination of the Tsar Alexander II. Many of the ones who arrived in Dublin came from a shtetl called Akmiyan in the Kovno district of Lithuania, then part of the Russian empire.

“The accounts of their travails”, writes O’Toole,

are hauntingly similar to the stories that Sally Hayden tells so powerfully now of refugees trying to get to Europe: wading across rivers with children and bundles on their backs, walking hundreds or thousands of kilometres, paying off what would now be called traffickers, having to bribe officials to give them documents, evading border guards and criminal predators.

The Noyek brothers, Daniel and Abraham, created the wood products business that still thrives in Dublin today. But their descendant Davida Noyek recalled that on their long journey to Ireland “they met with experiences so unspeakable that they could never recount them even to their children. ‘It was terrible, you don’t want to know about it’ was to remain their only comment on the awful journey that lasted from 1894 until 1897.”

Many of these refugees arrived in Ireland destitute, speaking only Yiddish and Russian, and with little idea of where they were. They were looked down on even by the existing Jewish community in Dublin, where the word was that Akmiyan was “notorious as a nest of horse thieves and smugglers”.

“And yet”, writes O’Toole,

by the time I was a kid in the 1960s, the children and grandchildren of these asylum seekers were the height of respectability. They came to our road on Sundays to visit the cemetery in nice (though unflashy) cars. They were elegantly dressed and well-spoken. We admired and slightly envied them as people who seemed both successful and decent.

You get the message. It’s in the title of his essay.

Chart of the Day

How Canada turned its forests into a carbon bomb 

Source: Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists

My commonplace booklet

The Only Surviving Recording Of Virginia Woolf’s Voice


Fascinating: she sounds exactly as I imagined she would.

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Friday 25 August, 2023

The recumbent Bear

En route to Daniel O’Connell’s house in Derrynane the other day we passed a cyclist who had an intriguing passenger.

Later on, he caught up with us at a café in Glencar, and the identity of the freeloader was revealed.

Quote of the Day

“He drank port and put on weight, and attempted to behave in the manner of an Edwardian aristocrat. He was very conscious of what a gentleman should or should not do: no gentleman looks out of a window, no gentleman wears a brown suit. In fact, Evelyn’s abiding complex and the source of much of his misery was that he was not a six-foot tall, extremely handsome and rich duke.”

  • Cecil Beaton on Evelyn Waugh

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Elgar | Violin Concerto Op.61 | I. Allegro | Daniel Hope


The concerto was the second item in last night’s BBC Proms

Long Read of the Day

Life on board a British nuclear submarine

Stephen Moss spent a week on board a British nuclear submarine in 2012. His account is really interesting, if perhaps not exactly a recruitment plug. You have to admire the sailors who opt for this kind of work/life imbalance.

I ask Chief Johnson why he switched from surface ships to submarines. “I got drafted in 1983 and didn’t have any choice,” he says. “I tried to get out of it. I didn’t want to be a submariner. If you ask a general service chap what they think about submarines, they’ll say: ‘Horrible, dirty, noisy, you can’t have a shower, you’re always stinking.’ Well, in the old days that might have been the case – water was very restricted – but you can see yourself; conditions are not that bad. On my first boat, Spartan, at the back end of 1983, it all clicked – it was a completely different way of life from general service.”

He goes on to cite what most submariners say is what they like about life beneath the waves: the relative informality. There are, of course, distinctions between officers and ranks, but in so confined a space nothing like the rigidities of surface ships; the sense of being an elite, what one able seaman calls a “brotherhood”; the camaraderie that comes from knowing they rely entirely on each other. When a man, whether officer or rating, becomes a submariner, he is awarded a badge formed from two dolphins and a crown. The badge admits you to an exclusive club – there are around 3,500 operational submariners in the UK. It means that, in the event of an emergency, you will be a help, rather than a hindrance. Until then, in the uncompromising language of submariners, you are an “oxygen thief”.

Thanks to The Browser for spotting it.

Books, etc.

It’s as if Christmas had come early — three important and fascinating books are arriving all at once.

The Coming Wave by Mustafa Suleyman is a sobering read. (My Observer review of it comes out on Sunday.) The oncoming ‘wave’ in his title is “defined by two core technologies: artificial intelligence (AI) and synthetic biology”, and it’s the conjunction of the two that makes it intriguing and dangerous. Their rapid proliferation threatens to unleash “disruption, instability, and even catastrophe on an unimaginable scale.” His book is an exploration of how — and whether — this coming wave can be ‘contained’. What’s unusual about it is that its author is a real tech ‘insider’ (he’s a co-founder of DeepMind, still the top AI firm in the world IMO). But he’s also one of the few techies I know who has a conceptual grasp of the dangers to democracy (and maybe humanity) that might lie ahead.

Underground Empire: How America Weaponised the World Economy by Henry Farrell and Abraham Newman is the most surprising arrival. Two distinguished political scientists collaborate to uncover “one of the most sophisticated ‘empires’ the world has ever known”. It’s made up of fibre-optic cables and obscure payment systems and Farrell and Newman argue that the US has turned these ‘vital pathways’ of the world economy into tools of domination over foreign businesses and states, whether they are adversaries or allies. If it hadn’t been authored by Farrell and Newman I might have relegated to the ‘conspiracist’ shelf, but I’ve followed Henry for years and he’s one of the sharpest (and most sophisticated) scholars in the business. Comes out in the UK on September 7.

The Handover is by my friend and colleague David Runciman who has the great advantage of always being able to escape from “the sociology of the last five minutes” that mars most writing about technology. His book has a vast historical sweep and argues that what AI enthusiasts call a ‘singularity’ actually happened a long time ago, when we handed over control of our lives to two superintelligent machines — states and corporations. He’s the only scholar I know who has the capacity to find original entry points to the controversies that bedevil us now, and he and I have talked a lot about this stuff over the years. (Among other things, we ran a two-year research project on technology and democracy a few years ago, one outcome from which was his book How Democracy Ends.) His new book is coming out on September 7.

My commonplace booklet

Om Malik on the usefulness of writing with a fountain pen (well, any physical writing implement, really).

There has been enough academic research that reminds us that writing is a good way to boost critical thinking. It is also well documented that writing in a long hand is good for giving dimensionality and texture to writing. “Writing with a pen is like playing,” science fiction writer Neil Gaiman (and a fellow fountain pen enthusiast) once said in an interview.

“A lot of senses are activated by pressing the pen on paper, seeing the letters you write, and hearing the sound you make while writing,” Audrey van der Meer of the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, Trondheim, said when sharing her research on writing and memories. “These sensory experiences create contact between different parts of the brain and open the brain up for learning. We both learn better and remember better.” (Full study here.)

For me, it allows me to slow down and allow new lines of questioning and reasoning to slowly emerge out of the shadows. This is a remarkably different process when typing on a computer — I love my machines — but I really find that the sheer speed with which I type is glorious, but it does propel you into finish-line-oriented thinking. Of course, the act of writing allows me to use some of my favorite fountain pens. There is no better way to put a smile on your face that seeing your ideas rendered onto paper in a luscious terracotta color or your article taking form in a vibrant turquoise so reminiscent of the summer itself…


A mugshot to treasure

Rudi Giuliani poses for a Sheriff in Atlanta.

h/t Dave Winer

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 23 August, 2023

Next Parish, America

The Blasket islands off the Kerry coast.

Photographed yesterday.

Quote of the Day

”One of the fundamental contradictions of capitalism is that some groups of capitalists will be trying to cut the throats of others as the ship is going down. That’s what’s happening with the climate crisis.”

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Dire Straits | Skateaway


Long Read of the Day

Place Pastness Poems A Triptych

A truly wonderful essay by Seamus Heaney in Salmagundi Magazine on the poetic uses of memory.


“Old” was not an idea. It was an atmosphere, a smell almost, a quality of feeling. It brought you out of yourself and close to yourself all at once. “Old” drifted in the mind and senses when you came upon mossed-over bits of delph or fragments of a clay pipe plugged up with mould. You took such things for granted yet they swam with a strangeness. And the strangeness deepened when you actually dug such things out of the ground for yourself. My first archaeological tremor occurred when I was making holes for goalposts in one of our fields which had always been kept as grazing and was therefore always pure surface, pure present. When I dug down about a foot into the tight-packed ground, I came upon a hoard of soft red brick and white crumbly mortar, an unexpected cache that even to a six year old meant foundations, meant house, a living but obliterated past. I pestered my father to tell me who might have lived there and found that he did not remember any house on the site. Then I heard him questioning a neighbour about whose place it might have been, who was supposed to have owned that land in the old days, and the hole for the goal-post began to open down and back to a visionary field, a phantom whitewashed cottage with its yard and puddles and hens. The world had been amplified; looking and seeing began to take on aspects of imagining and remembering.

Another example: I knew more from overhearing and piecing together than from being told directly that a number of my father’s family had died in their teens and twenties from “the decline,” as tuberculosis had been called in rural Ulster in those days. Names of uncles and aunts who might have been floated through the conversation. Johnny and Jamie and Maggie and Agnes. Agnes, I knew, had died young and her invalid pallor which I had never seen was intuitively present to me, again because of her association with an object. This was a little trinket which was kept wrapped in tissue paper and laid away with other specially conserved knick-knacks in the bottom of a sideboard in my parents’ bedroom. I knew there was something slightly taboo about rummaging in those shelves but I was drawn again and again to unwrap the thing because I knew that it had belonged to Agnes. It had obviously been bought at the seaside as a present for her. A little grotto about four or five inches tall, like a toy sentry box, all covered with tiny shells, a whitish gleaming secret deposited in the family sideboard like grave-goods in the tomb of a princess. To this day, I cannot imagine the ravages of disease in pre-inoculation rural Ireland except in relation to the slight white fact of that trinket.

It’s long, but worth it. And a reminder of what we lost with his passing ten years ago. The one thing that’s annoying about it is the way the poems he quotes are not typographically distinct. Don’t know if that’s just the magazine’s house style, but it grates on this reader at least.

Chart of the Day

My commonplace booklet

Turns out AI probably isn’t very good at writing malware

From The Register Comes a rare piece of good news…

Despite the hype around criminals using ChatGPT and various other large language models to ease the chore of writing malware, it seems this generative AI technology isn’t terribly good at helping with that kind of work.

That’s our view having seen research this week that indicates while some crooks are interested in using source-suggesting ML models, the technology isn’t actually being widely used to create malicious code. Presumably that’s because these generative systems are not up to the job, or have sufficient guardrails to make the process tedious enough that cybercriminals give up.

If you want useful, reliable exploits and post-intrusion tools, you’ll either have to pay top dollar for them, grab them for free from somewhere like GitHub, or have the programming skills, patience, and time to develop them from scratch. AI isn’t going to provide the shortcut a miscreant might hope for, and its take-up among cyber-criminals is on a par with the rest of the technology world, we’re told…

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