Friday 21 June, 2024


The helical chutes inside Frank Gehry’s Tower in the Luma Arles arts centre, photographed yesterday. Believe it or not, perfectly sensible adults come hurtling down these.

The view from the top of the tower is terrific, though. First time I’ve ever had an aerial view of Arles, a city I love.

Quote of the Day

”Sometimes it is the body which is the first to surrender to old age, sometimes the soul.”

  • Michel de Montaigne

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Keith Richards and Norah Jones | Love Hurts


Long Read of the Day

Watergate: a reprise

Lovely post by Heather Cox Richardson on the last time the US had a president who was totally unfit for office.

Early in the morning on June 17, 1972, Frank Wills, a 24-year-old security guard at the Watergate Office Building in Washington, D.C., noticed that a door lock had been taped open. He ripped off the tape and closed the door, but when he went on the next round, he found the door taped open again. He called the police, who found five burglars in the Democratic National Committee headquarters located in the building.

And so it began…

She’s one of the best historians writing in the US at the moment. And has been a Substack star since, well, forever.

My commonplace booklet

LLMs as judges

Now this is really weird. Its author, Adam Unikowsky, is a partner in a fancy American law firm where he specialises in Appellate and Supreme Court cases. He previously served as a Judicial Law Clerk to former Justice Antonin Scalia and before that clerked for Judge Douglas Ginsberg at the U.S. Courts of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. So he’s not your average AI booster.

He recently tried an experiment:

I downloaded the briefs in every Supreme Court merits case that has been decided so far this Term, inputted them into Claude 3 Opus (the best version of Claude), and then asked a few follow-up questions. (Although I used Claude for this exercise, one would likely get similar results with GPT-4.)

The results were otherworldly. Claude is fully capable of acting as a Supreme Court Justice right now. When used as a law clerk, Claude is easily as insightful and accurate as human clerks, while towering over humans in efficiency.

Let’s start with the easiest thing I asked Claude to do: adjudicate Supreme Court cases. Claude consistently decides cases correctly. When it gets the case “wrong”—meaning, decides it differently from how the Supreme Court decided it—its disposition is invariably reasonable.

For example, Thursday and Friday last week, the Supreme Court decided six cases: United States Trustee v. John Q. Hammons Fall 2006, LLC; Campus-Chaves v. Garland; Garland v. Cargill; FDA v. Alliance for Hippocratic Medicine; Starbucks v. McKinney; and Vidal v. Elster. Claude nailed five out of six, missing only Campos-Chaves, in which it took the dissenters’ side of a 5-4 opinion, which is hardly “wrong.”

I’m not a lawyer, so can’t really judge. But the summary judgments produced by Claude looked plausible.

Not sure what this means. Maybe it’s just that legal reasoning is particularly amenable to the ways LLMs work. But this seems a bigger deal than the stories about his the models can ace the tests set for entrants to some professions.

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 19 June, 2024

Eagle eye

Bath Abbey

Quote of the Day

”Life breaks all of us but some of us get stronger in the broken places.”

  • Ernest Hemingway 

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Bruce Springsteen | The Rising


Rise and shine.

Long Read of the Day

Why I write the Common Reader

Lovely essay by Henry Oliver which explains why he produces his remarkable blog.

Why do I write The Common Reader?

I was asked this question in an interview the other day, and gave rather a weak answer. Let me expand.

tl;dr. Most of us die without writing a great novel, but we can all read Anna Karenina.

The aim is simple: I want to understand great literature, how it works, whence it derives. The same is true of the other topics I write about (talent, genius, education, wisdom, and so on). Literature is the focus, but the principles are general.

I am bored by mediocrity, including my own. I believe philistinism is a moral failure at the social level…

Hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

My commonplace booklet

Akiro Endo RIP

We’re all in his debt. His research into the relationship between fungi and cholesterol biosynthesis led to the development of statin drugs, which are some of the best-selling pharmaceuticals in history. The number of deaths from heart disease and strokes prevented by his invention must be countless. If anyone deserved a Nobel prize, he did. May he rest in peace. The BBC had a nice obit of him. As did [the New York Times, though behind its paywall.


Something I noticed, while drinking from the Internet firehose.

  • Trump’s view of AI Yeah, you guessed it, it’s alarming and incredible and he’s gonna fix it. Link

  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 17 June, 2024

Excitement begins here?

Somehow, I doubt it.

Quote of the Day

“Many a good argument is ruined by some fool who knows what he is talking about.”

  • Marshall McLuhan

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Brahms | German Requiem | Valery Gergiev & London Symphony Orchestra



Long Read of the Day

How AI Will Change Democracy

Transcript of a terrific talk on AI by Bruce Schneier Schneier. Great overview, wise and informed.

To start, I want to list some of AI’s core competences. First, it is really good as a summarizer. Second, AI is good at explaining things, teaching with infinite patience. Third, and related, AI can persuade. Propaganda is an offshoot of this. Fourth, AI is fundamentally a prediction technology. Predictions about whether turning left or right will get you to your destination faster. Predictions about whether a tumor is cancerous might improve medical diagnoses. Predictions about which word is likely to come next can help compose an email. Fifth, AI can assess. Assessing requires outside context and criteria. AI is less good at assessing, but it’s getting better. Sixth, AI can decide. A decision is a prediction plus an assessment. We are already using AI to make all sorts of decisions.

How these competences translate to actual useful AI systems depends a lot on the details. We don’t know how far AI will go in replicating or replacing human cognitive functions. Or how soon that will happen. In constrained environments it can be easy. AIs already play chess and Go better than humans. Unconstrained environments are harder. There are still significant challenges to fully AI-piloted automobiles. The technologist Jaron Lanier has a nice quote, that AI does best when “human activities have been done many times before, but not in exactly the same way.”

In this talk, I am going to be largely optimistic about the technology. I’m not going to dwell on the details of how the AI systems might work. Much of what I am talking about is still in the future. Science fiction, but not unrealistic science fiction.

Where I am going to be less optimistic—and more realistic— is about the social implications of the technology…

Worth your time. Schneier (who is a security guru) describes himself as a ‘public-interest technologist’. We need more people like him.

AI as the next next Manhattan Project?

Yesterday’s Observer column:

en years ago, the Oxford philosopher Nick Bostrom published Superintelligence, a book exploring how superintelligent machines could be created and what the implications of such technology might be. One was that such a machine, if it were created, would be difficult to control and might even take over the world in order to achieve its goals (which in Bostrom’s celebrated thought experiment was to make paperclips).

The book was a big seller, triggering lively debates but also attracting a good deal of disagreement. Critics complained that it was based on a simplistic view of “intelligence”, that it overestimated the likelihood of superintelligent machines emerging any time soon and that it failed to suggest credible solutions for the problems that it had raised. But it had the great merit of making people think about a possibility that had hitherto been confined to the remoter fringes of academia and sci-fi.

Now, 10 years later, comes another shot at the same target…

Do read the whole thing

My commonplace booklet

If you wanted an illustration of the seismic shifts that are going on in liberal democracies, then the response to Israel’s war in Gaza would be hard to beat. The standard post-war Western reflex of unquestioning support for Israel failed to materialise, and instead we saw people taking to the streets all over the place in vocal support of the Palestinians. I don’t think that Western ruling elites have grokked the significance of this yet. And it’s difficult to understand seismic changes as you live through them. So I’m looking for signs.

Which is why I was struck by this excerpt from a blog post by Damon Linker — “On living through the end of something”:

It’s not just election results and polling data. Something has shifted. The political world in which we live is not the same political world in which I grew up (in the late-Cold War 1970s and ’80s) or the one in which I learned how to orient myself intellectually and professionally (in the post-Cold War ’90s and ’00s). Those were decades close enough in time to the centrist-liberal consensus of the mid-20th-century postwar decades that its assumptions shaped the boundaries of the possible by default.

That is no longer the case. Having observed the rapid fading of the postwar consensus as a pundit over the past decade, I’m reminded of Matthew Arnold’s well-known line about the “melancholy, long, withdrawing roar” of retreating religious faith in the mid-19th century. Like a receding wave yanking at my feet and ankles, forcing me to recalibrate my balance to avoid falling backward onto the wet sand, I’ve felt the pulling away of a presence that once surrounded me, something taken for granted that is no longer there as it once was, with the absence growing more obtrusive with every passing year.

  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 14 June, 2024

Street furniture

London, near King’s Cross

Quote of the Day

”Always tell the truth and no one will believe you.”

  • Ronald Knox

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Händel | Suite in G minor, HWV 452 | Keith Jarrett


A real discovery for me. I’ve always loved Jarrett’s improvisations (as in the Köln Concert), but had no idea he also played Bach and Handel.

Long Read of the Day

The Harvey Weinstein of Antitrust

If you’re interested in the way political lobbying (and the Chicago Law School) enfeebled antitrust action in the US for several decades from the 1980s onwards, then you’ll enjoy this essay by Matt Stoller on Josh White.

So who is Josh Wright? Well he wasn’t just a professor, though he published over 150 papers on law and economics, some with powerful people like D.C. Circuit Court Judge Douglas Ginsburg and influential legal scholars like Daniel Crane. He ran George Mason’s Global Antitrust Institute, the heir to the Henry Manne training centers of the 1970s, which helped teach Bork’s thinking about political economy to endless numbers of professors and judges. Under Wright, the GAI funneled millions of dollars from Google, Meta, Amazon, and Qualcomm into fancy events in Napa Valley and Hawaii with judges and foreign officials, so much so that it led to an FBI investigation over potential violations of anti-corruption laws.

Wright posed as a scholar in law and economics, but he was a paid advocate. And it was effective advocacy. His hundreds of papers, blog posts, tweets, and comments were devastating to antitrust enforcement. For instance, the Ninth Circuit cited Wright’s papers in its 2019 decision overturning an antitrust verdict against communications chip maker Qualcomm, which had donated $2.7 million to Wright’s antitrust center in 2017. As another example, Wright’s work, whose funding by Google often went undisclosed, helped persuade Democratic FTC Commissioner Edith Ramirez to kill a potential antitrust suit against Google in 2012…

The piece was triggered by revelations in the Wall Street Journal that many women had come forward publicly alleging Wright had used his various positions of power to induce sexual relations with them. According to the accusations, Wright was able to advance the careers of students at law firms and in government, and did so, based on whether they were sleeping with him.

The story of how antitrust was was enfeebled in the US after Robert Bork’s book, The Antitrust Paradox came out in 1978, is a fascinating case study in the way that ideas can influence politics and policy. But these revelations about White add a different angle to the story.

Books, etc.

I’ve been dipping in and out of Seamus Heaney’s letters when an email from a friend mentioned his poem Field of Vision. So I dug it out. Here it is:

I remember this woman who sat for years
In a wheelchair, looking straight ahead
Out the window at sycamore trees unleafing
And leafing at the far end of the lane.

Straight out past the TV in the corner,
The stunted, agitated hawthorn bush,
The same small calves with their backs to wind and rain,
The same acre of ragwort, the same mountain.

She was steadfast as the big window itself.
Her brow was clear as the chrome bits of the chair.
She never lamented once and she never
Carried a spare ounce of emotional weight.

Face to face with her was an education
Of the sort you got across a well-braced gate—
One of those lean, clean, iron, roadside ones
Between two whitewashed pillars, where you could see

Deeper into the country than you expected
And discovered that the field behind the hedge
Grew more distinctly strange as you kept standing
Focused and drawn in by what barred the way.

The woman is Heaney’s aunt Mary. He explained later:

There was something in our relationship, whatever it was, that stood still … For years she was crippled with arthritis and eventually had to have her bed brought downstairs into what had been our sitting room … My memories of those years in the 1970s, before she had to go into special care in the Mid-Ulster Hospital, are of arriving with Marie and the kids from Wicklow and greeting first of all my mother and father and sister Ann in the living room, then going in to sit with Mary. Not a lot getting said or needing to be said. Just a deep, unpathetic stillness and wordlessness. A mixture of lacrimae rerum (tears for the situation) and Deo gratias (praise be to God). Something in me reverted to the child I’d been in Mossbawn. Something in her just remained constant, like the past gazing at you calmly, without blame. She was a tower of emotional strength, unreflective in a way but undeceived about people or things. I suppose all I’m saying is that I loved her dearly.

My commonplace booklet

 What Is the Best Way to Cut an Onion?

Believe it or not, the New York Times recently devoted an entire article to this obviously vital question.


Something I noticed, while drinking from the Internet firehose.

  •  Luxury penthouse in Manchester named after Friedrich Engels

From The Guardian:

The 290 sq metre (3,126 sq ft) flat is listed on the developer’s website as a showhome, but in promotional material it was advertised with a price tag of £2.5m.

A second penthouse apartment, “The Turing” – presumably named after the University of Manchester computer scientist Alan Turing – is also on the market for £2.5m.

“The Engels” features three en suite bedrooms, as well as a home office and a sweeping open-plan living area.

Those whirring noises you hear are of Karl Marx and Alan Turing whirring in their respective graves.

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Wednesday 12 June, 2024

Through a window, brightly

Quote of the Day

“The great charm in argument is really finding one’s own opinions, not other people’s.”

  • Evelyn Waugh

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Haydn | Abschiedssymphonie, final movement | New Year’s Day concert, Vienna 2009 | Barenboim conducting the Wiener Phil


Long Read of the Day

Deep Reading Will Save Your Soul

Really interesting (and optimistic) essay by William Deresiewicz.

Higher ed is at an impasse. So much about it sucks, and nothing about it is likely to change. Colleges and universities do not seem inclined to reform themselves, and if they were, they wouldn’t know how, and if they did, they couldn’t. Between bureaucratic inertia, faculty resistance, and the conflicting agendas of a heterogenous array of stakeholders, concerted change appears to be impossible. Besides, business is good, at least at selective schools. The notion, floated now in certain quarters, that students and parents will turn from the Harvards and Yales in disgust is a fantasy. As long as elite institutions remain the principal pipeline to elite employers (and they will), the havers and strivers will crowd toward their gates. Everything else—the classes, the politics, the arts and sciences—is incidental.

Which is not to say that interesting things aren’t happening in post-secondary (and post-tertiary) education. They just aren’t happening, for the most part, on campus…

I think this largely applies mostly to the US, but I found it intriguing, not least because I worked for many years for the Open University, and in the process saw at first hand how exposure to great literature could liberate and revitalise people who had missed out university the first time around.

Books, etc.

The life of Maynard K

This picture heads Branko Milanovic’s slightly puzzling blog post about Zachary Carter’s fine biography of John Maynard Keynes. The photograph was probably taken at Garsington, the country home of Lady Ottoline Morrell (and was probably taken by her because she was at one time a keen snapper). From right to left it shows Lytton Strachey, Keynes and Bertrand Russell, sucking quizzically on his pipe, and possibly thinking about Ottoline, with whom he had a famous affair.

The photograph is interesting for many reasons, but it’s the sartorial dimension of it that intrigued me. Here are three celebrated intellectuals of the day on a summer afternoon in the garden of a stately pile. Yet they are all dressed formally, though Keynes, in a touch of flamboyance, has white leather shoes which look odd alongside his immaculately-cut tweed suit. It seems a strange way to relax on a country house weekend.

The puzzling thing about Milanovic’s essay is that he seems to have got the relationship between Keynes and FDR wrong.

Despite his many political connections, he was not much of a policy prophet in his own land. But with the New Deal and Roosevelt’s policies his glory was assured. In fact, FDR played for Keynes the same role that Lenin played for Marx. Without the politicians, both Marx and Keynes would have been moderately well-known political economists, agitators and pamphleteers. But once adopted by the powers-to-be (in the case of Keynes extending all the way to Reagan), their fate justified Keynes own view on the value of ideas, expressed towards the end of The General Theory: “Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist.”

I haven’t got Carter’s book to hand as I write, but my memory of that part of it is that FDR couldn’t abide Keynes when they two met (and nor could FDR’s economic advisers), and one of the reasons Keynes embarked on his General Theory is that he felt he needed a theoretical argument to impress those who were giving the President economic advice. Also, it seems odd to say that Keynes’s ideas influenced Reagan. That seems implausible to me.

But then I’m no economist. And no historian either.

My commonplace booklet

From The Register:

In 2013 The New York Times and other media outlets saw their operations come under attack by a bunch of miscreants calling themselves the Syrian Electronic Army. During these incidents, which occurred over a period of months, readers were unable to visit some publications’ websites at times; at other times, pages were defaced by intruders. _ > *The Register* was targeted, too, by the gang in a failed spear-phishing attack. At least one of our vultures was sent an email claiming to be from a senior editor, with a link to a fake copy of our publishing system to phish their credentials; the giveaway was that the message was far too cheery for that editor to be real. It also prompted us to introduce mandatory multi-factor authentication at work.

Don’t you just love the reasoning that alerted the Register’s hacks! That would have been familiar in any print newspaper in the old days too.

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Monday 10 June, 2024

Rooms with a view

Albufeira marina, Portugal, in evening sunshine.

Quote of the Day

“Most of our assumptions have outlived their uselessness.”

  • Marshall McLuhan

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Bach | Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme (BWV 645)


First time I’ve heard it played by a brass ensemble.

Long Read of the Day

In the Former Eastern Bloc, they’re terrified of a Trump Presidency

Interesting piece in The New Republic reminds us that people in the former Soviet empire know a thing or two about living under tyranny.

The view the Bulgarian minister and others expressed to me was that a Trump win would result in a redrawing of the map of Europe in ways that would enable and embolden Vladimir Putin while simultaneously weakening the NATO alliance. Indeed, a Trump win would amount to nothing less than an undoing of many of the gains that came to the West through winning the Cold War and of many of the most important achievements forged in the wake of World War II.

This view is based not only on Trump’s public statements and actions while in office and since but also on a European perception of the Russian threat that is much more sweeping and menacing than most Americans and many of our leaders in Washington seem to grasp.

Anne Applebaum, the Pulitzer Prize–winning author who has written extensively on the former Soviet Union and emerging authoritarian threats, told me, “Many Europeans are afraid that a second Trump administration would work together with the Russians and their far-right allies in Europe—both those in power in Hungary and Serbia, as well as those who lead opposition parties in France and Germany—to transform European politics, destroy the European Union, and eventually dismantle NATO as well. That would make it easier for Russia and China to divide and dominate the continent for both economic and political advantage.

“Of course this is not in America’s interest,” she went on, “but Trump does not act in America’s interest.”

Yep. I can’t understand why Europeans are apparently so relaxed (or indifferent) about the risks that lie ahead.

Look before you scan

Yesterday’s Observer column:

Here’s a familiar scenario. You’re going to a meeting in an unfamiliar part of town. You’re running late and it’s raining. And there isn’t a car park in sight. Ah, but here’s some on-street parking and you gratefully pull into the empty bay. Now all you have to do is pay for a couple of hours and then scuttle along to your meeting. But the parking meter (of course) no longer takes coins. This is the 21st century, after all.

No worries – you can pay by phone. There are notices plastered all over the meter on how to pay using an app that – of course – you have not yet downloaded. The rain is getting heavier and there’s no mobile signal. You’re getting increasingly flustered. And then you spot that there’s a Quick Response (QR) code – a nice (if incomprehensible) square with lots of funny squares and spaces – on one side of the meter. Phew! All you have to do is scan it and you’ll be through to a website in no time. So you do and you are. Job done. Relax.

Er, possibly. Or possibly not…

Read on

Books, etc.

Neil Lawrence in the middle of a mammoth book-signing after the launch of his book on Thursday evening in Cambridge.

It’s a terrific book, the best on ‘AI’ that I’ve read since Stuart Russell’s book —  Human Compatible: AI and the Problem of Control — way back in 2020. Judging from the reaction on Thursday evening, it’ll be the big seller that it deserves to be.

My commonplace booklet

I’m a pragmatist about tech tools. From the beginning, I saw chatbots as akin to spreadsheets. I’m old enough to remember the impact of VisiCalc in 1978. (Indeed, I still have a copy of the original disks in my office, and when ChatGPT broke cover I was immediately reminded of it, because, well…, after VisiCalc nothing was ever the same.) And so I’ve been constantly playing with/using tools like Perplexity, Claude and GPT-4 for the last six months.

Not surprisingly, then, I was intrigued by Google’s new toy NotebookLM — billed as “your personalized AI research assistant powered by Google’s most capable model, Gemini 1.5 Pro”. I had been alerted to it by Steven Johnson, who’s been involved in some way in its development, and whom I take seriously. I’ve uploaded some foundational texts relevant to something I’m writing at the moment, and — to be honest — have been a bit surprised by how immediately helpful it has been.

Of course, that just a first impression. But still…


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Friday 7 June, 2024

No parking

Quote of the Day

”An intellectual is someone whose mind watches itself.”

  • Albert Camus

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Sweet Home Chicago | Blues Harmonica


It’s clear that I’ve been underestimating the harmonica for a long, long time.

Long Read of the Day

D-Day 80 years on – World War II and the “great acceleration”

Adam Tooze’s reflections on yesterday’s anniversary.

The rest of the world may be somewhat puzzled by this trip back in time, but for “the West” the 80th anniversary of “D-Day” is the perfect occasion for a rally. For the United States, France and the Commonwealth (the former members of the British Empire), D-Day is the decisive turning point in “our” World War II.

In June 1944 the landings had been a long time coming. After a series of crushing defeats between 1939 and 1942, the comeback of the British Empire and the USA in World War II began in North Africa in 1942 and continued in Italy 1943. But, it was the landing in Normandy in June 1944 that were the decisive breakthrough. The destruction of the German forces in Northern France opened the door to the liberation of Paris and to the eventual meeting with the Red Army in Central Germany in May 1945.

Many evenings, growing up in West Germany in the 1970s, my parents, who were children of wartime Britain, would tune in to the BBC World Service. The broadcast began then with a radio call sign that the BBC had used in World War II: “This is London” followed by an orchestral rendition of the 17th century tune Lillibullero (or Lilliburlero). Translated into morse code the opening bars sound out the “Victory V” – dit-dit-dit-dah. As a child, I imagined people across occupied Europe huddled around their radio sets listening for that tune, waiting for the moment of D-day to come. …

What troubles me now is how this “legendary” history of World War II continues to operate at the heart of Western political ideology. How it is used, 80 years later to frame and shape our understanding of a radically different world. What I struggle with is how to frame a historical understanding of the war that wrenches it out of this framing, that is not saccharine, that is not nostalgic that is not atavistic, but speaks in more challenging and eye-opening ways to the present…

Characteristically thoughtful. Worth a read.

Books, etc.

Six non-fiction books you can read in a day (according to the Economist anyway.)

Poolside reading for busy executives?

  1. Six Records of a Floating Life. By Shen Fu. Translated by Leonard Pratt and Chiang Su-Hui. Penguin Classics; 144 pages; $16 and £9.99
  2. Oranges. By John McPhee. Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 149 pages; $16. Daunt; £9.99
  3. A Room of One’s Own.  By Virginia Woolf. Mariner; 128 pages; $16.99. Penguin Modern Classics; £5.99
  4. Iphigenia in Forest Hills: Anatomy of a Murder Trial. By Janet Malcolm. Yale University Press; 155 pages; $13.95 and £9.99
  5. Ways of Seeing. By John Berger. Penguin Modern Classics; 155 pages; $11 and £9.99
  6. A Man’s Place. By Annie Ernaux. Translated by Tanya Leslie. Seven Stories Press; 96 pages; $13.95. Fitzcarraldo Editions; £7.99

I’ve only read #3 and #5 but can recommend both.

My commonplace booklet

LLMs are weird

Well, we knew that. But we didn’t how weird. Some Harvard evolutionary biologists have been finding out. Here’s the Abstract for their paper.

Large language models (LLMs) have recently made vast advances in both generating and analyzing textual data. Technical reports often compare LLMs’ outputs with “human” performance on various tests. Here, we ask, “Which humans?” Much of the existing literature largely ignores the fact that humans are a cultural species with substantial psychological diversity around the globe that is not fully captured by the textual data on which current LLMs have been trained. We show that LLMs’ responses to psychological measures are an outlier compared with large-scale cross-cultural data, and that their performance on cognitive psychological tasks most resembles that of people from Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic (WEIRD) societies but declines rapidly as we move away from these populations (r=-.70). Ignoring cross-cultural diversity in both human and machine psychology raises numerous scientific and ethical issues. We close by discussing ways to mitigate the WEIRD bias in future generations of generative language models.


Something I noticed, while drinking from the Internet firehose.

  • What happens when you ban cars from city centres? Ask Paris. Changes designed to encourage people to take other forms of transportation have contributed to a 40% decline in air pollution, according to city officials.

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 5 June, 2024

First rose of Summer?

Quote of the Day

”The New York Times now generates more time on-site and profit from word games than they do from news. You wouldn’t know that from their staffing or the conversations they have.”

  • Seth Godin

He’s right. Times have changed. And not just the NYT.

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Gluck | Dance of the Blessed Spirits for Flute and Orchestra | Patrick Gallois (Flute) | Orchestre Du Festival De Musique De Chambre De Paris | Versailles concert 1986


I think the arrangement is by Christoph Willibald. I first heard this on a wet November afternoon when I was living on my own in the Netherlands. The Dutch Broadcasting Company had discovered — and was broadcasting — a long-lost recording of the opera in which Kathleen Ferrier sang Orpheo, and I stopped work and listened, entranced. The audio quality was terrible but there was something about the recording that was compelling. Here is a clip of Ferrier singing  Che faro senza Euridice.

Long Read of the Day

If You’re Z, Here’s What You See

A remarkably perceptive essay by Timothy Burke.

My college’s commencement this year was different, to say the least. We moved to a location far from campus to avoid having to break up a Gaza-related encampment, and then a very large proportion of the graduating seniors strenuously protested against the college’s administration, with some faculty on stage endorsing their protest.

I don’t want to focus on the immediate issue behind this protest, or even the protest as such. I’ve talked a lot about Gaza, Palestine and Israel in the past few months. Instead, I’m thinking about why this generation of young people in general seem to be weighing whether they will vote in large numbers this November despite the fact that many of them seem committed to social and political views that ought to lead them to strongly oppose Donald Trump and the GOP. (As indeed they did in 2022, 2020 and 2018.) Some observers believe that this generation’s sympathies for Palestinian statehood are leading them into a completely irrational opposition to Biden’s re-election or a fallacious view that both parties are the same, that at the very least, the issue of Israel-Palestine is only one “special interest” that a rational voter should be able to put into perspective.

I quite agree that they should do so. I actually think many people in their early 20s and late teens already have done so. I think disquiet with American policy on Israel is only a kind of visible indicator of a much vaster, more diffuse sort of generational disaffection with formal politics that the older leadership of the Democratic Party and their older generational supporters are fundamentally incapable of speaking to or grasping…

Do read the whole thing. And see below for why I chose it.

Books, etc.

Daniel Rodgers’s The Age of Fracture is one of the most perceptive books I’ve ever read. It’s an intellectual history of late 20th-century America and of how the public sphere changed from an emphasis on institutions and social relations to a focus on the rise of individualism. (For a good summary see Diane Coyle’s short review.) Essentially, it’s an account of the transition from the post-war Keynesian ‘political order’ (as Gary Gerstle would call it) to the neoliberal one embodied by the rise of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher to power.

The book came out in 2011 and is a good illustration of the adage that we “live life forwards but understand it backwards”. With the 20/20 vision of hindsight, Rodgers makes sense of a period — the 1970s — through which I lived but hadn’t really understood. All I had was a vague unease that seismic societal shifts were under way, but I had no informed sense of where they were heading. Now — partly as a result of reading Rodgers, but also from reading up on the transition of neoliberalism from a fringe idea to a dominant ideology (thanks to Gary Gerstle for that) — I came to view that decade as a key inflection point in the evolution of liberal democracies. Which has been helpful in my current project — a book with the working title HWGH (for How We Got Here).

I have an eerie sense of deja vu about the moment we’re living in now. Something’s up. One sees it everywhere: in the way old reflexive support for Israel hasn’t materialised, for example, and been replaced by concern for Palestinians — much to the astonishment of political establishments everywhere in the West. So perhaps you can see why I was so impressed by Timothy Burke’s Long Read (see above). He seems to have an intuitive sense of the evolving Zeitgeist and accordingly is worth tuning into.

My commonplace booklet

Georgia: the Putin playbook in full view

A sobering Economist podcast about what’s happening in Georgia right now. The same playbook is being rolled out in Hungary, and perhaps also in Slovakia. Anyone who thinks that Putin would stop after Ukraine has been defeated is engaged in magical thinking. Europe’s holiday from history is over.

(Disclosure: my son Pete was the producer on this particular podcast)


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

  •  Making an image with generative AI uses as much energy as charging your phone. Each time you use AI to generate an image, write an email, or ask a chatbot a question, it comes at a cost to the planet. Source

  • Summing up the UN’s ‘AI for Good’ summit

But honestly, I didn’t leave the conference feeling confident AI was going to play a meaningful role in advancing any of the UN goals. In fact, the most interesting speeches were about how AI is doing the opposite. Sage Lenier, a climate activist, talked about how we must not let AI accelerate environmental destruction. Tristan Harris, the cofounder of the Center for Humane Technology, gave a compelling talk connecting the dots between our addiction to social media, the tech sector’s financial incentives, and our failure to learn from previous tech booms. And there are still deeply ingrained gender biases in tech, Mia Shah-Dand, the founder of Women in AI Ethics, reminded us. 

 Melissa Heikkilä in MIT Technology Review

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Friday 31 May, 2024

Up the garden path

Quote of the Day

”Being short never bothered me for three seconds. The rest of the time I wanted to commit suicide.

  • Mel Brooks

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Michel Legrand | “The Windmills of Your Mind” (from The Thomas Crown Affair) | Renaud Capuçon


Long Read of the Day

The Bubble This Time

Scott Galloway writing about the here and now.


Airplanes follow flight patterns, calculated to maximize safety and passenger comfort while minimizing fuel use. Atmosphere is not a static medium, however, and sometimes planes encounter localized areas of rapid air movement, aka turbulence. A sudden downdraft can cause a plane to drop hundreds or thousands of feet in seconds, an event known as hitting an air pocket. Most are harmless, but strong downdrafts can be terrifying and dangerous. Just this week, a Singapore Air 777 dropped so sharply that one passenger was killed and six more sent to the hospital.

Modern airplanes recover from hitting an air pocket in seconds, but frothy markets take longer to find their footing. Here’s one scenario: A major non-tech company (e.g., Walmart, JPM, Procter & Gamble) will announce it is paring back on its AI initiatives. Shuttering its AI team, calling off a joint venture, etc. “We remain optimistic about the long-term impact of AI on our business, but we are not seeing the ROI initially projected and are scaling back our level of capital investment in this technology.” The same cycle that drove prices up will pare them, only faster: Analysts will identify which AI players were selling to the company, and every CEO on every earnings call that week will be asked if they’re cutting back their AI spend. Trend reversals travel through earnings calls like cold viruses through kindergartens, and by the end of the month, no CEO will want to be on the last helicopter out of AI Saigon. AI stocks will decline, and once they do, speculators will begin selling, creating a stampede for the exits. Trillions of dollars in market cap erased in weeks. Someone will time it perfectly. Most won’t.

A cautionary read. I particularly liked this: “Trend reversals travel through earnings calls like cold viruses through kindergartens.”

Books, etc.

Hari Kunzru: The Books of my Life

A terrific novelist on rereading the classics, his teenage love of outsiders, and discovering the brilliance of Anita Brookner.


My commonplace booklet

Why did satirical genius Tom Lehrer swap worldwide fame for obscurity? 

Lovely essay about him by playwright Francis Beckett, whose play, “Tom Lehrer Is Teaching Math and Doesn’t Want to Talk to You” is on at Upstairs at the Gatehouse in Highgate Village, London, from 28 May to 9 June.

What I loved most about Lehrer (apart from his songs) was that he didn’t seem to care about money.


Something I noticed, while drinking from the Internet firehose.

  • The trailer for  Idea Man, Ron Howard’s biography of Jim Henson. A must-watch.

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Wednesday 29 May, 2024

Horse bolted, door still open

Jesus College, Cambridge

Quote of the Day

”Once you see the boundaries of your environment, they are no longer the boundaries of your environment.”

  • Marshall McLuhan

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

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


Loveliest set or reels I can think of: The Humours of Carrigaholt (0:00), Mayor Harrison’s Fedora (1:13) & Tommy Peoples’ (2:26).

Long Read of the Day

Ukraine on the ropes

A characteristically insightful recent report from Kiev by Timothy Garton Ash (whose book Homelands I’ve been re-reading and heartily recommend).

As I contemplate a forest of small Ukrainian flags on the Maidan in central Kyiv, placed there by bereaved relatives as a memorial to the war dead, I’m accosted by a burly Ukrainian soldier in combat uniform. He’s with the elite 95th Air Assault Brigade and he has been fighting Russian aggression for more than a decade. “At the moment of victory,” he tells me, “please pour the first glass on to the ground for those who have fallen.”

Gesturing to the seemingly normal life around us in the Ukrainian capital, with young people drinking at nice cafes, almost as though this were Paris or Vienna, he says, “Every peaceful day here costs a lot of lives at the front.” But he chokes up on the last words and his eyes fill with tears. “Sorry, sorry!” he exclaims, embarrassed by this moment of weakness. Then he grips my hand one more time, grasps the straps of his khaki rucksack, and marches off through the civilian crowd like a ghost from the trenches of the first world war…

Europe’s been on a holiday from history since 1945. When Putin invaded Ukraine the video reports looked eerily similar to WW2 footage, except they were now in colour, and I assumed that most Europeans would get the message. They still haven’t, which is why Tim’s perspective is so salutary.

Books, etc.

Martin Rees’s new book.


There has never been a time when ‘following the science’ has been more important for humanity. At no other point in history have we had such advanced knowledge and technology at our fingertips, nor had such astonishing capacity to determine the future of our planet.

But the decisions we must make on how science is applied belong outside the lab and should be the outcome of wide public debate. For that to happen, science needs to become part of our common culture. Science is not just for scientists: if it were, it could never save us from the multiple crises we face. For science can save us, if its innovations mesh carefully into society and its applications are channelled for the common good.

Hmmm… Martin is one of the nicest and smartest people I know, but I can’t see science (or an understanding of it) becoming ‘part of our common culture’ any time soon, especially given our current media ecosystem. I wish it were otherwise.

My commonplace booklet

How news coverage, often uncritical, helps build up the AI hype

Useful piece by Rasmus Nielsen on how journalism is still doing a poor job in covering ‘AI’ (aka machine-learning).

So, perhaps, as Timit Gebru, founder and executive director of the Distributed Artificial Intelligence Research Institute (DAIR), has written on X: “The same news orgs hype stuff up during ‘AI summers’ without even looking into their archives to see what they wrote decades ago?”

There are some really good reporters doing important work to help people understand AI—as well as plenty of sensationalist coverage focused on killer robots and wild claims about possible future existential risks.

But, more than anything, research on how news media cover AI overall suggests that Gebru is largely right – the coverage tends to be led by industry sources, and often takes claims about what the technology can and can’t do, and might be able to do in the future, at face value in ways that contributes to the hype cycle.

Growl. In one sense it’s comforting to have one’s own view confirmed, but it’s depressing because it means that journalism isn’t doing its job properly.

 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!