Monday 21 August, 2023

Yeats’s country seat

On our journey southwards in Ireland the other day, we visited Thoor Ballylee, the 15th-century Anglo-Norman tower house that W.B. Yeats bought and restored in the early 1920s as a summer house for him and his family — which is why it’s now known as “Yeats’s Tower”. Visiting it is an unforgettable experience, especially if you like his poetry.

Inset into the wall is a stone on which is engraved a little poem. It’s now rather weathered and indistinct, so this bronze rubbing of it is more legible.

Among the feelings that the building evokes are admiration at the romantic thinking that sought to transform this brutal and unforgiving building into a home for a family. And to do so in the middle of a vicious civil war.

The best rooms in the house are the dining room on the ground floor, the living room on the first and the bedroom (complete with a splendid double bed) on the second.

In the living room there’s a small writing table facing the window, on which one can sit to write in the Visitors’ Book. It’s tempting to think that this might be W.B.’s writing table, but that seems unlikely, given that (a) most of his furniture and effects have been dispersed long ago, and (b) it’s nothing like the table as described in the opening lines of his poem, My Table:

Two heavy tressels, and a board

Where Sato’s gift, a changeless sword,

By pen and paper lies,

That it may moralise

My days out of their aimlessness.

Quote of the Day

“SACRAMENT, n. A solemn religious ceremony to which several degrees of authority and significance are attached. Rome has seven sacraments, but the Protestant churches, being less prosperous, feel that they can afford only two, and these of inferior sanctity. Some of the smaller sects have no sacraments at all— for which mean economy they will indubitable be damned.”

  • Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary.

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Martin Hayes and Dennis Cahill | Martin Rochford’s Green Gowned Lass


Long Read of the Day

Eleven theses on globalization

Bracing post by the economist Branko Milanovic.

Here are the first two:

First, inequality and poverty. Globalization is a force for the global good: the globalization of economic activity has enabled production of many commodities and provision of many services to be done in the places where it is cheapest to do. It has released previously used resources for other activities. It has also mobilized capital and labor that was misused or unemployed. The effect was a significant acceleration in global rate of growth (when measuring global growth by using democratic and not plutocratic measures, which have gone up too) and a dramatic decrease in global income inequality and global income poverty.

Second, China. The most important positive effects, largely due to globalization and international trade, have been achieved in China. China explains most of the decrease in global inequality and poverty. But these advances have been realized by the application of non-standard or non-neoclassical policies. This has created the first dilemma for the supporters of globalization and neoliberalism. To defend globalization they have to praise China, but they find Chinese policies distasteful. Thus their comments are most of the time contradictory.

You get the idea.

The world has a big appetite for AI – but we really need to know the ingredients

My column in yesterday’s Observer:

There’s an old saying that no one would ever eat a sausage if they knew how sausages were made. This is no doubt unfair to the meat-processing industry, for not all sausages are, as some wag famously observed, “cartridges containing the sweepings of the abattoir floor”. But it’s a useful cautionary principle when confronted by products whose manufacturers are – how shall we put it? – coy about the details of their production processes.

Enter, stage left, the tech companies currently touting their generative AI marvels – particularly those large language models (LLMs) that fluently compose plausible English sentences in response to prompts by humans. When asked how this miracle is accomplished, the standard explanations highlight the brilliance of the technology involved.

The narrative goes like this…

Do read the whole piece

My commonplace booklet

Britain: a failing state?

From the current Private Eye


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

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Friday 18 August, 2023

In the bay

A photograph triggered by a song (see today’s music choice).

Quote of the Day

” A pearl diver who possessed a gift for diving into the wreckage of bourgeois civilization and emerging into the sunlight with the rarest of treasures.”

  • Hannah Arendt on Walter Benjamin

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Otis Redding | The Dock of the Bay


Long Read of the Day

90’s tech culture was a jumbled mess

Dave Karpf has been combing through the first five years of WIRED magazine’s product reviews and pondering what he’s found. This is interesting for people like me who were reading Wired (and BYTE, of blessed memory) in the days when all things digital were deemed exotic. The section of the magazine that has captured Karpf’s retrospective imagination was called “Fetish: technolust” (and no, I am not making that up).

The section was weird then. Now it looks bonkers.

Here’s what Karpf discovered, first off, in the November 1994 issue of Wired’s technolust closet:

That’s four product reviews. Each gets a short paragraph. In the upper-left corner, they review an ergonomic keyboard. $99. Sure. In the upper-right corner, there’s a review of the latest clock radio. $179.95. Uh-huh. Lower-right, a high-end boombox. $999.95. Note from the future: That tapedeck is going to age poorly.

And then in the lower-left corner, they blurb the 43-foot Scarab Superboat, “the world’s fastest offshore V-hulled vessel.” $500,000.

Karpf makes three observations at this point:

(1) What early WIRED was engaged in here was aspirational marketing. The editorial team had an idea of the ideal “netizen,” an image they wanted to project. The product reviews were a winking attempt to will that consumer base into being.

Second, this is the result of the strange mashup of 70s counterculture and 80s yuppie culture that Fred Turner highlights in his classic book, From Counterculture to Cyberculture. These reviews have a lineage that dates back to the Whole Earth Catalog, but aimed at Gordon Gekko-types.

Third, many of the product reviews left me thinking about just how strongly people must have felt the effects of Moore’s Law at the mass consumer level, back then.

Wired was really weird in those days. But eventually it grew up.

Karpf is a good guide to those crazy days.

But, but… The spirit of tech fetishism lives on in one unlikely location: the gratuitously annoying ‘How to Spend It’ colour supplement of the Weekend Edition of the Financial Times, which has a resident nerd with an eye for analog record turntables costing more than the GDP of Ecuador and similarly desirable objects.

Chart of the Day

China heading to be the world’s biggest car exporter soon

From the Economist.

Books, etc.

Just caught up on this novella by Claire Keegan. It’s a pitch-perfect capture of some aspects of life in mid-1980s Ireland. You can read it in a sitting, and you may find yourself doing just that. It’s spare, elegant and moving. And it reminded me of something Steve Jobs once said — that you know something is perfect when nothing more can be pared away from it.

My commonplace booklet

 What government is for

A post from Andrew Curry’s terrific Substack blog (which I can’t recommend highly enough). He’s been reading Michael Lewis’s 2018 book, The Fifth Risk: Undoing government, which is a riveting account of how Trump and his crowd tried to undermine and in some ways break essential parts of the Federal government. Partly this was motivated by corruption or malice, but to an astonishing degree it revealed how little the Trump crowd knew about what government is for — what it actually does.

Andrew picks out a few items from Lewis’s book which illustrates what went on. But for the full story, it’s worth getting the book.

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Wednesday 16 August, 2023

Breakfast for one

The terrace of a very upmarket German schloss where I happened to be staying. (Someone else was paying: I was giving a talk.)

Quote of the Day

“Machine learning is money laundering for bias.”

  • Maciej Cegłowski Link

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Robert Schumann | The Merry Peasant | Guitar | Harald Stampa


I’m temperamentally suspicious of anything that suggests that peasants and serfs were actually jolly chaps and chapesses, contented with their miserable lot. But the devil, as usual, has a good tune. Normally, it’s a popular piano piece, so this guitar version makes a nice change.

Long Read of the Day

What happens when AI reads a book

Fascinating essay by Ethan Mollick. Granted, he’s been an enthusiast for LLMs from the outset, but he’s smart, resourceful and with a lively curiosity. He’s a believer that these generative AI tools are good at augmenting human capabilities and he’s consistently written about how he uses then in his teaching at Wharton.

This essay is about experiments he did with Claude, one of the biggest (token-wise) LLMs around. Basically he fed it the text of one of his books and then started to question it about what it had found.

Phil Mickelson’s habit

Phil Mickelson is a formidable golfer, and golf is the only sport in which I have the slightest interest. So I follow it a bit. I knew he was a keen gambler, but naively assumed it was like having side-bets on horses as my late father-in-law used to do.

How wrong can you be? An astonishing memoir by a guy who used to be his gambling partner tells a very different story. Here’s a snapshot of Phil’s gambling habit between 2010 and 2014:

• He bet $110,000 to win $100,000 a total of 1,115 times.
• On 858 occasions, he bet $220,000 to win $200,000. (The sum of those 1,973 gross wagers came to more than $311 million.)
• In 2011 alone, he made 3,154 bets — an average of nearly nine per day.
• On one day in 2011 (June 22), he made forty-three bets on major-league baseball games, resulting in $143,500 in losses.

And, summing up:

He made a staggering 7,065 wagers on football, basketball, and baseball. Based on our relationship and what I’ve since learned from others, Phil’s gambling losses approached not $40 million as has been previously reported, but much closer to $100 million. In all, he wagered a total of more than $1 billion during the past three decades.

Makes you wonder how he managed to play any golf, let alone play it as well as he does.


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

Voyager 2 signal found by Deep Space Network.  Link

A signal from Voyager 2 has been detected by NASA’s Deep Space Network (DSN) over a week after communications with the distant probe were lost, the US agency’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) on Tuesday.

The disco-era spacecraft was detected by Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex’s 70-metre dish, Deep Space Station 43 (DSS43), after a long-shot search.

The five-storey tall dish is the sole facility capable of reaching Voyager 2. It takes over 18 hours for a signal to travel from the probe to the dish, covering a distance of over 19 billion kilometres.

”The Deep Space Network has picked up a carrier signal from [Voyager 2] during its regular scan of the sky. A bit like hearing the spacecraft’s ‘heartbeat,’ it confirms the spacecraft is still broadcasting, which engineers expected,” explained JPL.

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Monday 14 August, 2023

Why food tastes different in France?

Quote of the Day

“Why bother dethroning DeSantis as the heir apparent when he’s already doing such a good job of it himself? Nobody has needed to reboot as frequently as DeSantis since the days of Windows 95.”

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

The theme from’Chariots of Fire’.


Long Read of the Day

The Curse of Cane

David Edgerton’s review of Ulbe Bosma’s  The World of Sugar: How the Sweet Stuff Transformed Our Politics, Health, and Environment over 2,000 Years. It’s a very good review, by a distinguished historian with pretty exacting standards.

There was a time when commodity histories were everywhere. They tended to focus on consumption and trade over very long distances. Ulbe Bosma’s The World of Sugar is much more than this sort of book. It is one of the most accomplished longue durée case studies in the history of capitalism that we have, concerned not just with trade and consumption but with production also. At every turn it subverts both critiques and celebrations of capitalism, and our understanding of much else besides. It is an extraordinary achievement.

On the whole, maybe the world would have been better without the sweet stuff.

Worth a read.

A tsunami of AI misinformation will shape next year’s knife-edge elections

My column in yesterday’s Observer.

The consequences of a Trump victory would be epochal. It would mean the end (for the time being, at least) of the US experiment with democracy, because the people behind Trump have been assiduously making what the normally sober Economist describes as “meticulous, ruthless preparations” for his second, vengeful term. The US would morph into an authoritarian state, Ukraine would be abandoned and US corporations unhindered in maximising shareholder value while incinerating the planet.

So very high stakes are involved. Trump’s indictment “has turned every American voter into a juror”, as the Economist puts it. Worse still, the likelihood is that it might also be an election that – like its predecessor – is decided by a very narrow margin.

In such knife-edge circumstances, attention focuses on what might tip the balance in such a fractured polity. One obvious place to look is social media, an arena that rightwing actors have historically been masters at exploiting…

Do read the entire piece.

My commonplace booklet

Fleeting encounters in Mrs. Dalloway’s London

A data scientist who loves Virginia Woolf’s novel gathers data from it to show how space and time are used in its construction.

Neat: I’m reminded of Vladimir Nabokov’s lecture on Ulysses.

“Instead of perpetuating the pretentious nonsense of Homeric, chromatic, and visceral chapter headings”, he said,

“instructors should prepare maps of Dublin with Bloom’s and Stephen’s intertwining itineraries clearly traced.”

Here’s his one.

Source: OpenCulture

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Friday 11 August, 2023

Tunnel vision

Quote of the Day

”The metric system is the tool of the devil! My car gets 40 rods to the hogshead, and that’s the way I likes it!

  • Grandpa Abe Simpson on the metric system.

(Relevant to today’s Long Read below.)

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Schubert | String Quartet No. 7 in D Major, D. 94 | 1. Allegro


Long Read of the Day

Why America is going backward: Being the richest nation in history isn’t enough

Interesting Salon essay by Mike Lofgren on trying to disentangle the chicken-and-egg relationship between reactionary politics and the decline of intellectual and cultural life that he thinks characterises contemporary US society. (And also perhaps what lies beneath Trump’s apparently enduring electoral support.)

Lofgren thinks at least part of the answer might lie in the work of Canadian psychologist Robert Altemeyer, who posits a distinctive human trait he calls “the right-wing authoritarian personality”.

Altemeyer has emphasized that the right-wing authoritarian harbors a peculiar mix of traits: aggression, submissiveness and conventionality. It may be this brew of behaviors that determines such disparate matters as America’s penchant for violence, its inability to reform itself politically and perhaps even its refusal to adopt the more rational weights and measures used by the rest of the world. Economic issues may play a role, but the jaw-dropping difference between the U.S. and other countries in the polling data suggests that deeper and more terrifying psychological forces are at work.

It seems to me that Trump is a racing certainty to be the Republican candidate for president next year. In which case, as the Economist puts it in this week’s issue, that election will be a referendum on whether or not democracy survives in America, and it turns every voter into a juror on that question.

Chart of the Day

Ideological leanings of Large Language Models

I found this — and the research that went into it — really interesting.

Source: Tech Review

My commonplace booklet

Julia Evans on how to encourage productive commenting on the Web

Wonderful blog post, full of good sense.


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

 HiRISE Mars 4K (NASA): Chaos, Reconsidered

Fascinating high-res overflight video of the terrain within a Martian impact crater.

NASA commentary reads:

Aram Chaos is terrain that is located within a massive 280 kilometer-diameter crater. It consists of darker volcanic rocks that were disrupted as a result of water and/or magma withdrawal in the subsurface. Some of the materials made up of different kinds of sulfates that formed when water filled the crater.

This clip uses the enhanced color red-green-blue filter of the HiRISE camera. Blue in enhanced color images often represents basalt, indicating a volcanic origin.

This is a non-narrated clip with ambient sound. Image is less than 1 km (under a mile) across and the spacecraft altitude was 271 km (168 mi). For full images including scale bars, visit the source link.

Music: “Freeing From Sin” by Medusa Jacobi (used by permission).

Also interesting: the clip was made using Final Cut Pro for iPad. Amazing that a tablet exists that can run that software.

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Wednesday 9 August, 2023


Arles, June 25.

Quote of the Day

“A Conservative Government is an organised hypocrisy.”

  • Benjamin Disraeli.

It is, except that now we have a disorganised one.

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

The Beatles | Twist and Shout


Wonderful. But listen closely to John Lennon’s voice. Then read the piece below.

Long Read of the Day

It Conveyed Them: When The Beatles Recorded “Twist and Shout”

Lovely essay by David Hepworth on “the moment when the band found its voice at Abbey Road.

As it turned out, on that day they didn’t finish the work in the morning and afternoon sessions. In fact they were still there at ten o’clock at night, the point in the evening when Abbey Road neighbours were inclined to complain, particularly if a band was using the echo chamber on the outside of the building. Most of what they had recorded that day would go on the first LP but George Martin decided that “Hold Me Tight” was not quite strong enough yet and therefore he needed another tune to complete the record. They took a break in the canteen in the basement to decide what it might be. It was Alan Smith, a journalist friend from Liverpool who was with them that day writing a story for NME, who suggested they do “Twist And Shout”—or, as he said at the time, “the thing you do that sounds like ‘La Bamba.’”

I once went on a pilgrimage with my kids to Abbey Road and tried to get a photograph of them going across the pedestrian crossing! They thought I was daft. (I was.)

Bram Molenaar RIP

The man who created Vim, one of the text editors popular with geeks, has passed away at the untimely age of 62. The Register has a nice tribute to him.

If, like me, you were an early user of time-shared Unix mainframes, then you will have used Vi, the text editor originally written by Bill Joy (founder of Sun Microsystems). But because Unix was owned by AT&T, distribution of Vi was governed by the AT&T licence (which was the reason why GNU was developed by Richard Stallman, and Linux by Linus Torvalds). Tim Thompson developed a clone of Vi called Stevie (ST Editor for Vi Enthusiasts) which did not use its source code and could therefore be freely distributed, and Moolenaar used Stevie as the base from which he developed Vim (which originally stood for ‘Vi iMitation’ but later settled down as ‘Vi iMproved’!) Vim became the default text editor that was shipped with most Linux distributions, and so was one of the key pieces of open source development over the years.

If you have an Apple Mac, then you’ve got it, though you might not know that. Open the ‘Terminal’ app, type ‘vi’ and see what happens.

Bram was a generous and talented man, the epitome of the kind of people who built the early Internet — as you can see if you go to his personal website. May he rest in peace.

My commonplace booklet

 Spyware maker LetMeSpy shuts down after hacker deletes server data

via TechCrunch.

A rare piece of good news on the malware front. Creating spyware is a loathsome practice. The only thing worse is deploying it on unsuspecting users. That was what was Jamal Khashoggi’s downfall, except that his iPhone was probably infected by NSO’s Pegasus.


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

Voyager 2 signal found by Deep Space Network.  The Register

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Monday 7 August, 2023

After Duchamp…

Walking through Arles one evening in June I spotted this in a builder’s disposal dump and was immediately reminded of Duchamp’s ’fountain’ — a ‘readymade sculpture’ consisting of a urinal signed “R. Mutt” that the artist submitted for the inaugural exhibition of the Society of Independent Artists staged at the Grand Central Palace in New York. Although the work was accepted by the organising committee it was (surprise, surprise!) not placed in the exhibition area. But the great Arthur Stieglitz photographed it, which is how it lives on in collective memory.

Marcel Duchamp’s 1917 sculpture Fountain.

Quote of the Day

”That Trump will be tried for his coup attempt is not a violation of his rights. It is a fulfillment of his rights. It is the grace of the American republic. In other systems, when your coup attempt fails, what follows is not a trial.”

  • Historian Timothy Snyder

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Richard Wagner | Lohengrin | Prelude


Hypnotic. And at the same time magnificent.

Long Read of the Day

An Internet Veteran’s Guide to Not Being Scared of Technology

This is an interesting profile of Mike Masnick by Kashmir Hill. Worth reading for two reasons: Masnick is a shrewd, insightful and sharp critic of the tech industry. And Hill is one of the best tech journalists around. I’ve been reading both of them for yonks.

By sheer longevity and a deep knowledge of tech history, Mr. Masnick has become something of a Silicon Valley oracle. His message is to embrace change even when painful and to beware of knee-jerk legal protections with unintended consequences.

It hasn’t paid very well, but what Mr. Masnick doesn’t have in wealth he makes up for in influence. Lawmakers, activists and executives consider him an essential guide for what’s happening in the technology world and what to do next.

“Whenever tech policy news breaks I always want to see what Mike’s take is going to be,” said Senator Ron Wyden, Democrat of Oregon, in a statement. Mark Zuckerberg, the head of Meta, has called him “insightful and reasonable.” The tech entrepreneur Anil Dash said he “shows up and ships every day” and has been “filing constantly for decades on a beat that is thankless.”

Interesting throughout.

What Apple did to Nokia, Tesla is now doing to the motor industry

Or, is Toyota the new Nokia?

My column in yesterday’s Observer

An intriguing news item dropped into my inbox this week. It said that in the first quarter of this year, an electric vehicle (EV) had become the biggest-selling car in the world, outselling the Toyota Corolla. I know, I know, dear reader: you think this is non-news of the “Small earthquake in Chile, not many dead” variety. But to those of us condemned to follow the tech industry, three things are significant about it: the vanquished car was a Corolla, the EV was a Tesla (the Model Y hatchback), and the runner-up is made by Toyota.

The poor Corolla gets a lot of disdainful looks from petrolheads, who tell rude jokes about it and view the vehicle as bland, unimaginative and boring. Normal people, however, have consistently regarded it as one of the best compact cars available, with good fuel economy, impressive reliability and excellent luggage capacity. And they have backed that judgment with their wallets for many years. So on the sales front, the Corolla was no pushover.

Despite that, it was overtaken by, of all things, a Tesla…

Do read the entire piece.

My commonplace booklet

China considers limiting kids’ smartphone time to two hours a day

From Engadget

China might put further limits on kids’ smartphone use. The Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC) has proposed draft rules that would cap the phone time of children under 18 to a maximum of two hours per day. That’s only for 16- and 17-year-olds, too. Youth between eight and 15 would be limited to one hour per day, while those under eight would have 40 minutes.

The draft would also bar any use between 10PM and 6AM. Phones would need to have an easy-to-access mode that lets parents restrict what kids see and permit internet providers to show age-appropriate content. Children under three would be limited to songs and other forms of audio, while those 12 and up can see educational and news material. There would be exceptions for regulated educational content and emergency services.

As with previous measures, the proposal is meant to curb addictive behaviour in children…

Interesting example of the differences between an authoritarian state and a liberal democratic one. Imagine the hoo-hah if governments in the West tried this — even though it’s a sensible strategy. If you want an example of state incapacity, just think about out inability to control junk foods, sweet drinks and other causes of obesity in kids.


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

How pencils are made. Link

Wonderful 10 minutes. And the strange thing is that it’s also how pencils were made a century ago.

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Friday 4 August, 2023

The Beady Eye

We’re looking after a neighbour’s chickens at the moment. This one is not impressed by her new custodian. Personally, I don’t blame her. I’m not impressed by me either.

Quote of the Day

A good writer doesn’t just think, and then write down what he thought, as a sort of transcript. A good writer will almost always discover new things in the process of writing. And there is, as far as I know, no substitute for this kind of discovery. Talking about your ideas with other people is a good way to develop them. But even after doing this, you’ll find you still discover new things when you sit down to write. There is a kind of thinking that can only be done by writing.”

That’s my experience too. E.M. Forster once said that there are two kinds of writer: those who know what they think and write it down; and those who find out what they think by trying to write it. The former are rare (though I’ve known two of them in my time, and I’ve always envied them). I’m definitely the second kind.

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Joan Baez and Bob Dylan | Chimes of Freedom


I’ve loved this song for longer than I care to admit.

Long Read of the Day

 What Oppenheimer the film gets wrong about Oppenheimer the man

Very good, sharp essay by Haydn Belfield of CSER. Particularly interesting if you’ve seen the film. Although the movie is based on (or at least informed by) American Prometheus, Kai Bird’s and Martin Sherwin’s exhaustive biography of Oppenheimer, there’s lots that the movie left out, which is why Anthony Lane, in his New Yorker review observed: “I hate to say it, but, if you zip through all six hundred pages of the book before seeing the film, you’ll enjoy the ride more. Much is omitted in the adaptation; there is no whisper, for example, of the fact that Oppenheimer was born into serious wealth.”

Here’s Belfield on the same subject:

One would be tempted to describe J. Robert Oppenheimer as a tragic figure — that’s certainly how Christopher Nolan portrays him in the biopic Oppenheimer. The father of the atomic bomb who spent the rest of his life agonizing over what he had helped birth; the ultimate insider who was humbled and brought low; the hopeful scientist who started the nuclear arms race. But then, tragic figures don’t generally spend their retirement yachting around the Caribbean. Or maybe he was a tragic figure in the mold of Lord Byron — interestingly dark and mystical, remarkably pretty, and rich as Midas.

Oppenheimer grew up in privilege, and remained swaddled in it for his whole life. His father immigrated to New York with nothing, and rose up to become a wealthy textile company executive. His parents spoiled their little genius. When he started a childhood rock collection, it grew to cover every surface in their apartment, which itself covered an entire floor overlooking the Hudson River. The Oppenheimers had a chauffeur, a French governess, three live-in maids and three van Gogh paintings. He corresponded with the New York Mineralogical Club, but when they invited him to speak they were surprised and delighted when he turned out to be only 12. His 16th birthday present was a 28-foot yacht (to go with the family’s 40-foot Lorelei) which he called Trimethy, after a chemical compound. As Oppenheimer remarked when he bought his first holiday home in New Mexico, the state where he would later spearhead the development of the atomic bomb: “hot dog!”

Interesting throughout. Worth your time. Also, makes me wonder about getting the book. Hmmm…

You-couldn’t-make-it-up dept.

When The New York Times reported in April that a contractor had purchased and deployed a spying tool made by NSO, the contentious Israeli hacking firm, for use by the U.S. government, White House officials said they were unaware of the contract and put the F.B.I. in charge of figuring out who might have been using the technology.

After an investigation, the F.B.I. uncovered at least part of the answer: It was the F.B.I.

The deal for the surveillance tool between the contractor, Riva Networks, and NSO was completed in November 2021. Only days before, the Biden administration had put NSO on a Commerce Department blacklist, which effectively banned U.S. firms from doing business with the company. For years, NSO’s spyware had been abused by governments around the world.


Dress Codes

From the FT’s daily newsletter:

”Lately, one of [Derek] Guy’s regular targets is our prime minister, Rishi Sunak, who he insists dresses badly. He’s right. Sunak’s suits reflect the current fashion for slim-fitting attire with short trouser legs. These make two of Sunak’s assets — that he is slim and looks young for his age — into liabilities, because the combined effect is to make him look like a sixth-former who has outgrown his uniform.”

Translating Musk-speak into plain English

Recently, Linda Yaccarino, the new CEO of X (neé Twitter) wrote a company-wide memo to the remaining staff of that wretched company. The memo is a masterpiece of corporate cant, so Jon Gruber did us all an heroic favour by providing a running translation on his Daring Fireball blog.

Here’s a sample:


At our core, we have an inventor mindset — constantly learning, testing out new approaches, changing to get it right and ultimately succeeding.

Translation: We are hemorrhaging cash and our advertisers are still fleeing.


With X, we serve our entire community of users and customers by working tirelessly to preserve free expression and choice, create limitless interactivity, and create a marketplace that enables the economic success of all its participants.

I used to run all advertising for NBCUniversal. Now I’m running an $8/month multi-level marketing scheme where the only users who’ve signed up are men who own a collection of MAGA hats.


The best news is we’re well underway.

There is no hope.


Everyone should be proud of the pace of innovation over the last nine months — from long form content, to creator monetization, and tremendous advancements in brand safety protections.

Have you seen the ads we’re running these days? Last week we were filling everyone’s timeline with ads for discount chewable boner pills, the punchline of which ads is that you’ll bang your lady so hard she’ll need the aid of a walker afterward. That’s a video we promoted to everyone. This week it’s anime for foot fetishists. That’s what we put in everyone’s feed, every three tweets. Or X’s, or whatever we’re now calling them. I used to book hundred-million-dollar Olympic sponsorship deals with companies like Coca-Cola and Proctor & Gamble. (Thank god for Apple.)


Our usage is at an all time high

Our owner is high as a kite.

There’s lots more in this vein. Do check it out.


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

  • How to test different A.I. chatbots: try asking them a question to which you know the answer — like Doc Searls (Whom God Preserve) did.

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Monday 31 July, 2023

Closely observed Sweet Peas

Quote of the Day

“An author ought to write for the youth of his own generation, the critics of the next, and the schoolmasters of ever afterwards.”

  • F. Scott Fitzgerald

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Beethoven | Piano Concerto No. 1 in C major Op. 15: Largo | Daniel Barenboim


Music doesn’t come much better than this.

Long Read of the Day

An ‘Oppenheimer Moment’ for the progenitors Of AI

As regular readers know, I am sceptical of the rhetoric emanating from the tech companies about the ‘existential risk’ posed by AI. Like many other critics, I see it as a ploy to distract public attention from the real and present dangers posed by the rather feeble ‘AI’ we currently have — and about which we should be doing something right now.

But this interesting essay by Nathan Gardels in Noema has opened up an intriguing thought: could there be a plausible existential risk emerging from current AI, but indirectly if it heated up Cold War 2.0 between the US and China? After all, they have weapons which undoubtedly pose an existential threat to humanity, and they have nothing to do with AI.

Here’s the passage in Gardels’s essay that triggered the thought. It’s when he’s discussing

the analogy between Sam Altman and Oppenheimer, who in his later years was persecuted, isolated and denied official security clearance because the McCarthyist fever of the early Cold War cast him as a Communist fellow traveler. His crime: opposing the deployment of a hydrogen bomb and calling for working with other nations, including adversaries, to control the use of nuclear weapons.

In a speech to AI scientists in Beijing in June, Altman similarly called for collaboration on how to govern the use of AI. “China has some of the best AI talents in the world,” he said. Controlling advanced AI systems “requires the best minds from around the world. With the emergence of increasingly powerful AI systems, the stakes for global cooperation have never been higher.”

One wonders, and worries, how long it will be before Altman’s sense of universal scientific responsibility is sucked, like Oppenheimer, into the maw of the present McCarthy-like anti-China hysteria in Washington. No doubt the fervent atmosphere in Beijing poses the mirror risk for any AI scientist with whom he might collaborate on behalf of the whole of humanity instead of for the dominance of one nation.

His essay is interesting throughout. Worth a read. It’s headed by a fabulous illustration by Jonathan Zawada, of which this is a thumbnail.

Go to the essay to see it in all its imaginative majesty.

Will rebranding Twitter give Elon Musk the X factor? I wouldn’t bank on it.

My column in yesterday’s Observer:

So Elon Musk, the world’s richest manchild, has changed the name of his favourite toy. Henceforth, Twitter is to be known as X. Strangely, though, you can still log on to and be invited to tweet. This is a missed comic opportunity. Instead of the chancellor being able to say, for example, that he had tweeted his concern about the public sector borrowing requirement to the prime minister, he could be saying that he had “X’d Rishi” on the matter. Sigh.

So what is it about Musk and X? Well, it goes back quite a way – to 1999, when Musk set up as an early online bank. For “early”, read “weird”…

Do read the whole piece.

Later. Just after the piece appeared, I happened to turn to James Fallows’s blog, and found this:

“Months ago, people were abandoning Xitter for Mastodon. Weeks ago, for Bluesky. Days ago, for Threads. None of these alternatives has — so far — recreated the centrality of the old Twitter, for those who viewed it as central. Musk’s destruction of this forum is a dead loss all around. The fact that he has created a gap doesn’t mean that anyone else can fill it.”

Books, etc.

On 26 and 27 June, Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited young adult romance bestseller list was filled with dozens of AI-generated books of nonsense. By Wednesday, had taken them out of the list but they were, apparently, still available for purchase. These were probably produced by people using ChatGPT and were easily detectable as crap.

But there are other outfits out there touting ‘AI’ tools as a way of getting writing done. Sudowrite, for example (Motto:” “Say goodbye to writer’s block”). For $10 a month it will generate 30,000 “AI words”. $25/month gets you 90,000 words. It is, apparently,

”the non-judgmental, always-there-to-read-one-more-draft, never-runs-out-of-ideas-even-at-3am, AI writing partner you always wanted.️”

It enables you to “write a novel from start to finish in a week.” Its ‘Story Engine’ “takes you step-by-step from idea, to outline, to beating out chapters, and then writes 1,000s of words, in your style”.

Elizabeth Minkel is not impressed. The headline of her essay in Wired — “Why Generative AI Won’t Disrupt Books” — communicates the gist of her message.

Here’s hoping.


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

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Monday 24 July, 2023

Grasses at dusk

Semur-en-Auxoise, Burgundy.

Quote of the Day

”Superintelligence is not required for ai to cause harm. That is already happening. ai is used to violate privacy, create and spread disinformation, compromise cyber-security and build biased decision-making systems. The prospect of military misuse of ai is imminent. Today’s ai systems help repressive regimes to carry out mass surveillance and to exert powerful forms of social control. Containing or reducing these contemporary harms is not only of immediate value, but is also the best bet for easing potential, albeit hypothetical, future x-risk.”

  • Blaise Agüera y Arcas and colleagues, writing in the Economist.

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Dave Brubeck | Take Five


Long Read of the Day

Revisiting the long boom

This examination of what one might call the Silicon Valley ideology (which I would call “Neoliberalism seen through rose-tinted spectacles”) is long-ish. It involves two pieces:

  1. The first is by Jason Kottke who dug the 1997 article in Wired which predicted 25 years to prosperity and happiness and progress. Guess what?

  2. Then Dave Karpf followed up with a terrific analysis. What drove him was that some of the people who made these Panglossian predictions are still making them. It seems they are unable to learn from their mistakes.

But then, that’s what ideology does to people, I suppose.

I like his summing-up.

The world they are invoking is one where (1) neoliberalism spread everywhere, and works great, (2) its benefits are widely distributed, (3) scientific and technological breakthroughs become easier and faster with time, and (4) on balance, none of those scientific or technological breakthroughs are used for harm. This is… not the world we inhabit today. The neoliberal economic order has not lived up to its billing. Many of our primary political divisions today are either caused or exacerbated by the failings of the neoliberal order. American is not defined by a “new spirit of generosity,” nor have we welcomed increased immigration with open arms. And while we have had plenty of technological advances in the past 25 years, we have also been constantly reminded of Kranzberg’s First Law of Technology: “technology is neither good nor bad; nor is it neutral.”


GPT-4 may be just an AI language parrot, but it’s no birdbrain

My column in yesterday’s Observer:

In 2017, researchers at the British AI company DeepMind (now Google DeepMind) published an extraordinary paper describing how their new algorithm, AlphaZero, had taught itself to play a number of games to superhuman standards without any instruction. The machine could, they wrote, “achieve, tabula rasa, superhuman performance in many challenging domains. Starting from random play, and given no domain knowledge except the game rules, AlphaZero achieved within 24 hours a superhuman level of play in the games of chess and shogi (Japanese chess) as well as Go, and convincingly defeated a world-champion program in each case.”

Speaking afterwards at a big machine-learning conference, DeepMind’s chief executive, Demis Hassabis (himself a world-class chess player), observed that the program often made moves that would seem unthinkable to a human chess player. “It doesn’t play like a human,” he said, “and it doesn’t play like a program. It plays in a third, almost alien, way.” It would be an overstatement to say that AlphaZero’s capabilities spooked those who built it, but it clearly surprised some of them. It was, one (privately) noted later, a bit like putting your baby daughter to sleep one evening and finding her solving equations in the morning.

That was six years ago. Spool forward to now, when a friend of mine is experimenting with GPT-4, OpenAI’s most powerful large multimodal model (accepting image and text inputs, outputting text) – the version to which you can get access for $20 (about £16) a month….

Read on

My commonplace booklet

Harry Frankfurt RIP

Nice memoir of him by Kieran Setiya

The philosopher Harry Frankfurt died this week. He was unexpectedly famous for a bestselling book, On Bullshit, that originated as a playful academic essay only to find a second life as an editor’s marketing dream—a mischievous gift-book for the pseudo-intellectual in your life. It earned Harry an appearance on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, and a lot of money.

I particularly enjoyed Setiya’s parting shot:

I think his reply to an audience member at the lectures that became The Reasons of Love could be his epitaph.

Audience member: “What I don’t understand is how, on your view, I have any assurance that my wife will continue to love me.”

Harry: “I’m sorry, sir, I’m afraid I can’t help you with that.”

On Bullshit is lovely.


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

  • Larry Summers thinks that Ivy League colleges need radical change. His list of reforms that places like Harvard (of which he was once President, and where he still is a professor) need to make: banning ‘legacy’ admissions (i.e. of children of alumni), eliminating “aristocratic sports” like rowing and fencing, and training college admissions staff to detect when something in an application is ‘inauthentic’. Interesting throughout. Link

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