Friday 18 November, 2022

Personal Chairs

The entrance to my favourite Copenhagen café, where we had breakfast last Thursday morning.

Quote of the Day

”What can be said at all can be said clearly; and whereof one cannot speak thereof one must be silent.”

  • Ludwig Wittgenstein in the Tractatus (in Frank Ramsey’s translation)

I’ve always loved this quote, though in lectures I generally paraphrase it as: “Anything that can be said can be said clearly.” This is sometimes news to my fellow academics.

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Handel | Semele, Act 2 | Oh sleep, why dost thou leave me? | Renée Fleming


Long Read of the Day

Inside Meta’s Oversight Board: 2 Years of Pushing Limits

This is the first substantial piece about Meta’s Oversight Board that I’ve seen. It’s by Steven Levy, who’d have been able to gain more access (to the Board) than most journalists would. I found it particularly interesting because I was scathingly dismissive of the Board when it was set up, regarding as a reputation-washing scam by Zuckerberg & Co. I still think that that was its function, but Levy’s account suggests that I under-estimated the persistence and determination of some members of the Board to try and hold their toxic supervisee to some kind of account.

Some critics see the Oversight Board as an exercise in corporate ass-covering by a bunch of Meta’s puppets. If the company doesn’t want to make a controversial call, it can push the board to take a position on the issue and, conveniently, take the heat. Emi Palmor, a board member who once served as the director general of Israel’s Justice Ministry, says she’s frequently approached in the supermarket by people seeking tech support for Meta apps. “I want to murder the person who chose the name Oversight Board,” she says. “It is an unexplainable term.”

But since it started hearing cases in the fall of 2020, the board has won grudging respect from the human rights organizations and content moderation wonks who pay attention to its work. “People thought it would be a total fiasco,” says Evelyn Douek, a Stanford law professor who follows the board closely. “But in some real ways, it has brought some accountability to Facebook.” Meta, meanwhile, is declaring victory. “I’m absolutely delighted—thrilled, thrilled, thrilled with the progress,” Clegg says. The board’s approach to cases “is exactly what you should expect between a social media platform and an independent oversight entity.”

Well worth your time if the issue of holding tech companies to account interests you.

Crypto news

From Tortoise media…

Crypto breaks

Crypto was changing the world and redefining global finance – until it wasn’t. First, FTX crashed. It is bankrupt and under federal investigation, while founder Sam Bankman-Fried is being sued. But FTX was just the first domino. In recent days, one of the world’s biggest crypto miners, Core Scientific Inc, said it may be seeking bankruptcy protection; Genesis Trading, a large decentralised lending and trading platform, halted trades; cryptocurrency lender BlockFi reportedly prepared for a potential bankruptcy filing; Tether briefly unpegged from the dollar (which is a problem because it’s whole job is being pegged to the dollar) and the price of Bitcoin is down nearly 20 per cent this month. Meanwhile, US quarterback and crypto bro Tom Brady faces legal action for promoting FTX and thousands of Mercedes G-Wagons – the unofficial crypto bro car of choice – are for sale on Autotrader.

Interesting. I hadn’t known about the G-Wagon obsession.

Footnote for petrolheads

According to Wikipedia,

The Mercedes-Benz G-Class, sometimes colloquially called the G-Wagen (as an abbreviation of Geländewagen) is a four-wheel drive automobile manufactured by Magna Steyr (formerly Steyr-Daimler-Puch) in Austria and sold by Mercedes-Benz. Originally developed as a military off-roader, later more luxurious models were added to the line.

It’s a perfectly hideous, vulgar vehicle, IMO. You wouldn’t want your daughter to marry anyone who drove one.

Books, etc.

Patti Smith’s Book of Days is utterly delightful. Although it has a photograph for every day of the year, it’s not really a photography book. Many of the photographs are, qua photographs, technically mediocre. But that’s fine because their function is to act as triggers for reflective captions. On 10 March, for example, the pic is of a coffee cup and Patti’s spectacles. But the cup is a Brasserie Lipp cup, and the caption “All I needed in Paris” tells everything you need to know. I’d have taken a similar photograph if I’d been there.

On 6 April, the photograph is of her daughter outside the Pantheon in Rome. Caption reads: “Jesse before Rome’s Pantheon, the burial place of Raphael, the youthful Renaissance master who died on his thirty-seventh birthday. Known for his beauty of countenance and spirit, it was said that Nature wanted him for herself.”

On 12 February a photograph of her desk with an open antique book lying on it together with her beloved (but now defunct) Polaroid camera. The caption: “Still life with Finnegans Wake, a bible of the incomprehensible, by the great Irish writer, James Joyce. I obtained it some years ago in a London bookshop with money I earned performing poetry. Joyce laboured on his masterwork for seventeen years, so one need not hurry to navigate it.”

On 13 February (the next day) a photograph of her desk with an open notebook and what looks like a typewritten manuscript of A skeleton key to Finnegans Wake by Joseph Campbell and Henry Morton Robinson. Caption: The key is equally incomprehensible.”

You get the idea. It’ll make a lovely Christmas present. I can think of several of my friends who might just receive one on December 25.

This Blog is also available as a daily email. If you think that might suit you better, why not subscribe? One email a day, Monday through Friday, delivered to your inbox. It’s free, and you can always unsubscribe if you conclude your inbox is full enough already!

Thursday 17 November, 2022

So where’s the actual door?

Copenhagen, November 2022.

Quote of the Day

”In a sense one can never read the book that the author originally wrote, and one can never read the same book twice.”

  • Edmund Wilson

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Bob Dylan | All I Really Want to Do


Long Read of the Day

On Elon Musk’s Vision of Twitter as a Hive Mind

Terrific essay by Joe Bak-Coleman.

Under what conditions can we expect a group of individuals to act cohesively and effectively as a collective, and in what circumstances does human behavior prevent such action? I believe this is a defining question for science in the coming decades, as we develop systems that alter our interactions with one another and with technology, all the while facing challenges like climate change, pandemics, and war that threaten our existence as a species.

Of course, the question isn’t wholly unanswered. We know that our minds function as a consequence of millions of years of natural selection shaping the structure of the brain to promote functioning and decision-making. And, we know that the number of neurons and connections between them is not what makes brains work, it’s how those neurons interact.

Yet neurons are ultimately a poor analogy for individual human behavior. As a collection of cells with identical DNA bound to live or die together, neurons share a common goal and have no reason to compete, cheat, or steal…

Really illuminating. Worth your time.

Books, etc.

Bruce Schneier has a new book coming early next year.

Anything by him is worth reading. It’s on my list.

How China Got Our Kids Hooked on ‘Digital Fentanyl’

TikTok is a national security threat.

Sobering blog post by Geoffrey Cain, who was kicked out of China’s China’s westernmost region of Xinjiang in 2017 for investigating the beginnings of what the State Department has since labeled a genocide. He can’t understand why the threat posed by TikTok to western democracies isn’t alarming people. Neither can I.

I know all about this. I used to be an investigative reporter in China. In December 2017, I first heard from friends on social media that a Chinese tech unicorn called ByteDance was planning on entering the American market with a new app. It was called TikTok.

Alongside its sibling app, Douyin, which operates only in China, TikTok was poised to sweep up the Gen Z audience in America, with its preference for video snippets of dancing celebrities, DIY projects, cooking demonstrations, skincare routines and other Gen Z’ers singing and dancing in their parents’ kitchens. As the fastest growing social media app ever, it rankled American competitors Facebook and YouTube, which were banned in China.

By October 2018, ByteDance was the world’s most valuable startup, with a valuation of $75 billion.

Four years later, ByteDance is worth $300 billion. TikTok is expected to reach 1.8 billion users globally by the end of the year. And a quarter of American adults under 30 get their news from the social-media app…

Read on.


In my piece about Lee Miller the other day I inadvertently claimed that she was married to Roger Penrose, not Roland. This was not a typo but a cognitive slip, because Roger Penrose, the great mathematical physicist, had been on my mind in another context, whereas Roland Penrose was an artist, art collector and the biographer of Picasso, and therefore the most likely husband for Lee. It was the kind of error that would have been picked up by even a half-witted proof-reader. But, alas, I am not even that bright.

Thanks to Keith Devlin for alerting me to the mistake.

My commonplace booklet

Hey Elon: Let Me Help You Speed Run The Content Moderation Learning Curve

Wonderful satirical take on why Musk and his ilk don’t understand what “free speech” actually means.

This Blog is also available as a daily email. If you think that might suit you better, why not subscribe? One email a day, Monday through Friday, delivered to your inbox. It’s free, and you can always unsubscribe if you conclude your inbox is full enough already!

Wednesday 16 November, 2022

Quote of the Day

“I asked why he was a priest and he said that if you have to work for anybody an absentee boss is best.”

  • Janette Winterson

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Toselli | Serenade | Indulis Suna (violin) & Ilga Suna (piano)


Pure schmaltz, but what the hell. It’s Wednesday.

Long Read of the Day

Critical Ignoring as a Core Competence for Digital Citizens

Many moons ago, Clay Shirky observed that “there is no such thing as information-overload; there is just filter failure”, which in a way was both profound and glib. Everyone who studies or works in the online world wrestles continually with the problem of filter design: how to craft or locate tools that help one to discover the good stuff and filter out the bad. And over time we have all built software ecosystems and workflows that help us to cope. This blog is the output of such a workflow; it’s the outcome of an ongoing struggle to decide what is interesting and potentially important, and what is unimportant and ephemeral — even if mainstream media and conventional wisdom are making a big deal of it at the time.

My discovery process has thrown up this interesting academic paper which happens to be available under Open Access arrangements (i.e. you don’t have to work in a university to access it for free). The core of its argument is that “digital environments present new challenges to people’s cognition and attention. People must therefore develop new mental habits, or retool those from other domains, to prevent merchants of low-quality information from hijacking their cognitive resources. One key such competence is the ability to deliberately and strategically ignore information”.

As important as the ability to think critically continues to be, we argue that it is insufficient to borrow the tools developed for offline environments and apply them to the digital world. When the world comes to people filtered through digital devices, there is no longer a need to decide what information to seek. Instead, the relentless stream of information has turned human attention into a scarce resource to be seized and exploited by advertisers and content providers. Investing effortful and conscious critical thinking in sources that should have been ignored in the first place means that one’s attention has already been expropriated (Caulfield, 2018). Digital literacy and critical thinking should therefore include a focus on the competence of critical ignoring: choosing what to ignore, learning how to resist low-quality and misleading but cognitively attractive information, and deciding where to invest one’s limited attentional capacities.

The paper goes on to suggest strategies for successful critical ignoring. None of them are, as the cliché goes, rocket science. Indeed, in a way, they are commonsensical. But we know how rare common sense can be.

Worth your time and — what’s more important, your attention.

Books, etc.

Patti Smith’s A Book of Days has arrived, and it’s lovely: 365 photographs, taking you through a single year, providing an intriguing dip into the stream of consciousness of a wonderfully creative artist. Of course I looked up my birthday to see what she was thinking of that day, and found a nice photograph of the young Nelson Mandela (with whom I share a birthday) as a boxer.

My Observer colleague, Kate Kellaway, had a great conversation with Smith, which is worth reading.

Dan O’Dowd and his campaign against Musk’s “Full Self Driving” fantasies

From the Washington Post

O’Dowd, who made his fortune selling software to military customers, has been using the Tesla Model 3 to test and film the car’s self-driving software. He’s documented what appear to be examples of the car swerving across the centerline toward oncoming traffic, failing to slow down in a school zone and missing stop signs. This summer, he triggered an uproar by releasing a video showing his Tesla — allegedly in Full Self-Driving mode — mowing down child-size mannequins.

“If Tesla gets away with this and ships this product and I can’t convince the public that a self-driving car that drives like a drunken, suicidal 13-year-old shouldn’t be on the road, I’m going to fail,” O’Dowd said in an interview from his Santa Barbara office, where glass cases display his collection of ancient coins and auction-bought mementos from NASA moon missions.

O’Dowd has run nationwide TV ads with the videos and even launched an unsuccessful campaign for the U.S. Senate as part of his one-man crusade to challenge what he sees as the cavalier development of dangerous technology. For O’Dowd and other skeptics, the program is a deadly experiment foisted on an unsuspecting public — a view underscored by a recently filed class-action lawsuit and a reported Department of Justice investigation into the tech.

Despite O’Dowd’s high-profile campaign, and the concern from some regulators and politicians, Tesla is charging ahead with what it claims is world-changing technology. The company and its supporters argue their approach will help usher in a future in which death from human errors on roadways is eliminated. At the end of September, during a four-hour event in which Tesla showed off its latest artificial intelligence tech, Musk said Full Self-Driving is already saving lives and keeping it off public roads would be “morally wrong.”

The only way to interpret Musk’s obsession with ‘FSD’ is that it’s magical thinking — believing that something can be made real if you desire it enough.

Thanks to Charles Arthur (a fellow Tesla owner) for spotting it.

This Blog is also available as a daily email. If you think that might suit you better, why not subscribe? One email a day, Monday through Friday, delivered to your inbox. It’s free, and you can always unsubscribe if you conclude your inbox is full enough already!

Monday 14 November, 2022

Cyclists ahoy!

Copenhagen is one of the most liveable cities in the world, IMO. The first thing that strikes one in the morning is the astonishing number of cyclists commuting to work, school and elsewhere. It makes Cambridge look like toytown. The second striking thing is the remarkable infrastructure the city has built to make cycling easy and safe.

This bridge, the Lille Langebro (literally, “Little Long Bridge”) is one of the newer pieces of that infrastructure. It’s beautiful, imaginative and quirky. And it can be opened for shipping on the few occasions when that’s necessary. When I first came on it last Thursday I stood transfixed as the morning rush of two-wheelers flowed off it.

Quote of the Day

“Thou shalt not sleep with anyone who has more problems than you.”

  • One of the ‘Ten Commandments’ of screenwriting coach Robert McKee

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Franz Schubert | Nacht und Träume | Renée Fleming | 2005


Sound quality is poor, but I prefer it with an orchestral backing rather than just the piano. Either way, it’s lovely.

Long Read of the Day

Elephants in the Room

Years ago, the security guru Bruce Schneier famously observed that “surveillance is the business model of the Internet” and got slammed for it, because he should have said “the Web”, not the Internet. But actually it was advertising that was really the business model of at least two of the Web giants — Google and Facebook.

This blast from Scott Galloway dares to utter the thought that may be beginning to dawn on Silicon Valley, namely that the advertising boom may be over for social media.

Much of the concern was a function of the ad-driven nature of platforms — algorithms that tapped into good/bad aspects of human nature to addict us. Most people knew how Facebook and Google made money, but not how they actually worked, how the ad revenue was fueled by the collection of data and the harvesting of attention. In fact, the phrase “Big Tech” was barely known back then. (Check the Wikipedia entry for Big Tech and see which NYU professor is credited with defining the category.) I just read the last sentence and realized I still crave other people’s affirmation. #Pathetic.

Anyway, things are different today. We know we’re being tracked, and we understand how digital platforms make money. We also know they’re lucrative, as in, among the fastest growing, most profitable businesses in history. Since A Beautiful Mind won Best Picture in 2002, Google has grown its revenue 625-fold. Digital ads transformed the company from a garage project into a multinational corporation, and turned Meta from a college-campus website into the largest media business in the world. If you had to bet everything, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to go with whoever controls our attention. Meta or Google? Safe bets. Snap? Riskier, but the moppets love it. It’s fun to flirt with other sectors and firms, but these companies are the smart, safe bets.

Until now.

Do read it. Especially the bit about how you would feel if you had bought Facebook shares in 2015!

Ireland has raked in billions from tech giants. But what if the golden goose flies the nest?

Yesterday’s Observer column:

In 1958, a young Irish civil servant named Kenneth Whitaker surprised his political masters in Dublin with a 250-page document on which he and some of his colleagues in the department of finance had been covertly working for months. Its title, Economic Development, may have been deceptively bland, but its message was blindingly clear. The country was an economic mess and unless radical action was taken its very existence as a viable state was in doubt.

As the writer Fintan O’Toole put it in his memoir, 1950s Ireland was basically “a vast cattle ranch with a few cities and a lot of small provincial towns attached”. This ranch had two main exports: live cattle and beef products, most of them destined for the British market, and young people, emigrating in their thousands every year because there were no livelihoods, or any prospect of fulfilling lives, at home.

In July 1958, the Irish government accepted Whitaker’s analysis and instructed him to work out a programme for economic expansion, which he duly did. A key phrase in the resulting document was that “a readiness to welcome foreign capital is a necessary complement to secure foreign participation in industrial development”. In one of those occasional miracles that are the hinges of history, this radical idea escaped the notice of the country’s reactionaries and became government policy. And a government body called the Industrial Development Authority (IDA), staffed with zealous technocrats, set out to make it a reality.

And boy, did they succeed. Ireland may still export cattle and dairy products, but foreign multinationals now account for 10.2% of employment and 66% of the country’s exports…

Do read the whole thing

My commonplace booklet

From Joe Pell…


‘I really think this is the most important object ever found in my excavations,’ said Yosef Garfinkel, an archaeologist at Hebrew University of Jerusalem and a co-author of the study who has unearthed evidence of King David’s reign during his career. He paused, then added, with a hint of emotion in his voice: ‘This is the first sentence ever found in the alphabet.'” The sentence that Garfinkel is referring was etched into a tiny ivory comb that “came from ancient ruins in central Israel and was about the size of a child’s thumb. A number of its teeth had snapped. It was so encrusted in dirt that the archaeologist who found it initially added it to a bag of assorted bones.” Years later, someone re-discovered it. So what was the message that humans of 1700 BC passed forward? A message about war and peace? A treatise on the existence of gods? A guide to keeping your cave well-organized during the holidays? Nope. The message for the ages is this: “May this tusk root out the lice of the hair and the beard.”

This Blog is also available as a daily email. If you think that might suit you better, why not subscribe? One email a day, Monday through Friday, delivered to your inbox. It’s free, and you can always unsubscribe if you conclude your inbox is full enough already!


Wednesday 9 November, 2022

Home from home

Quote of the Day

”A team effort is a lot of people doing what I say.”

  • Michael Winner, film director

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

She Moved Through the Fair | Patrick Dexter (Cello)


Long Read of the Day

 Twitter consequences; not just for little people

One of the most revolting things about the media coverage of Elon Musk’s antics in acquiring Twitter is its implicit acceptance of his sociopathic worldview. A company employing 7,500 people has suddenly become his plaything. He can do whatever he likes with it. So we watch breathlessly to see what he does, and speculate endlessly on whether this move or that will do the trick. It’s like watching a chess grandmaster playing some practice games — trying this opening gambit, or that; moving pieces on a board.

The ‘pieces’ with which Musk is playing, however, are not inanimate objects but people with mortgages, partners, children, dependents, commitments, and so on. People like you and me, living in one of the most expensive and anti-social places on earth. And with one sweep of his arm, this weird grandmaster has just cleared half of these pieces from his board. But because the casualties are ‘just’ tech employees nobody gives a damn. It’s just capitalism, innit.

All of which is by way of explaining why I found Maria Farrell’s blast on the Crooked Timber blog so welcome.

The US employees will find themselves out on the street with no health insurance. That’s catastrophic, and stop-gap insurance cover is prohibitively expensive. I availed of it myself over a decade ago, and it was more than a thousand dollars a month – not the kind of money you have lying around when you’ve just been sacked. Many senior Twitter managers resigned before they were sacked, and the mass lay-offs were clearly in the post, so many employees – the ones with the sense not to work 24/7 to keep a job they were likely to lose, anyway – will have taken steps to stay in contact with former colleagues once they’re locked out of their work messaging channels. The levels of chaos and dysfunction inside Twitter right now can only be imagined. Relatively few workers are unionised, and in these situations many people think they can keep their jobs by screwing their co-workers or just ignoring abuse, so those who remain will be in an increasingly toxic situation. It can be fifty-fifty as to whether the lucky ones are those who got sacked or walked early on.

I’ve been through a narcissist takeover, so my heart goes out to Twitter’s current and former workers. It’s very tough to be sacked not because you did anything wrong, but because your face doesn’t fit (or some xenophobic shit like you have the wrong passport). When you’ve worked for one of these organisations that demand your heart and soul and all your waking hours, and get canned for no reason, it’s brutal. It’s also tough to see how some colleagues act. I cut a deal where I was a dead man walking for a few months so I could avoid being legally required leave the country by midnight of the day I was sacked, and one person in a tiny office suddenly found me invisible. Awkward. I did not become visible again until I was gainfully employed and ran into them a couple of years later, when they were effusively friendly. Ugh.

This is Maria Farrell at her best. Do read it.

Fleeing from Twitter

Moments like this reveal the astonishing power of network effects in digital technology — especially in social media. Once you’ve made a commitment to a particular networked service and you spend a few years building up a ‘social graph’ — the network of people you interact with or follow — then the idea of quitting, leaving that network behind, becomes more difficult to contemplate and carry out.

I remember a colleague of mine who works in computer security having a conversation with a grad student who had been looking at security issues in Facebook and reported finding some serious flaws. “So you’ll be deleting your account then?” said his supervisor. “Do you want me to have no social life?” The lad expostulated. You get the point: for him, a lot of his social life happened on Facebook, and FOMO (fear of missing out) ruled.

Ideally, you should be able to take your social graph with you when you leave a platform. But so far that’s difficult or impossible with most of them.

Given that, what other considerations are there? The first is: can you bear to be without that social graph? Secondly, is there a genuine alternative to which you can move? Often there isn’t.

But sometimes there is. For example, when Facebook (aka Meta) announced that it was making some significant changes to the terms of use of WhatsApp, a lot of people left quickly — so much so that the messaging services to which most people fled — Telegram and Signal — were temporarily overwhelmed. But that was because both of these services were actually pretty good alternatives to WhatsApp, and they were easy to use. I was able to move both my family groups and our research centre’s group in a day or so, and we’ve been happily using Signal ever since.

So what about pulling out of Twitter?

The obvious place to go is Mastodon , which looks a bit like Twitter but is in fact pretty different. It’s been around since 2016 but until recently was a pretty niche platform. The big difference is that whereas Twitter is a centralised service, Mastodon is distributed across thousands of servers. For a brief intro try this.

I’ve got a Mastodon account but haven’t used it very much — yet.

Significant numbers of people have been moving to it, though.

I liked this summary from a fellow-newbie, Gerard Cunningham.

So here’s what I’ve learned.
Mastodon isn’t Twitter.
And that’s by design.
You’ve grown used to things designed to give you that anger rush.
Mastodon is very deliberately built to avoid that.
The temptation is to replicate your Twitter experience.
Picking arguments, amplifying trolls.
Please don’t.
This isn’t your house, people here put time into building it.
Content warnings, ALT tags.
Don’t turn it into a replica of the mess you just left.
If you miss the fights, the birdsite is still there.

Also: Alex Hern has a really good overview in the Guardian of Twitter alternatives.

Sunak in a nutshell

Basically, he’s a British Macron with more expensive skinny suits.

Similarly networking at leading schools Winchester and Oxford University, much like Macron, Sunak also fell under the spell of Silicon Valley. Unlike Macron who dreams of a French Silicon Valley, however, Sunak moved to the original tech hub for an MBA at Stanford University.

Sunak never pretended he was a Socialist either — an impossible trick to turn at Goldman Sachs, where he worked as an analyst, or the hedge fund firms he subsequently joined. His free-market convictions led him to the Tory party in 2010, where he eventually joined — out of conviction, not convenience — the Brexiteer wing. Brexit represented, he explained, “a once in a generation opportunity for our country to take back control of its destiny and leave our nation freer, fairer, and more prosperous.”

A Thatcherite, like his close friend and predecessor as chancellor Sajid Javid, Sunak has less in common with the Tory party’s One-Nation faction than with the New Right, favoring tax cuts — particularly those earmarked for the finance and tech sectors — rather than spending increases, especially for social programs.

Source: Politico

My commonplace booklet

What is this?

A never-ending conversation between Bavarian director Werner Herzog and Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek. When you open this website, you are taken to a random point in the dialogue. Every day a new segment of the conversation is added. New segments can be generated at a faster speed than what it takes to listen to them. In theory, this conversation could continue until the end of time.

Who made this?

A motivated fool with an interest in philosophy, cinema and machine learning. More projects by the author.

The conversation is created by a machine-learning system. Seems to me that it gets the voices right. But the content is weird at times, but also sometimes uncannily appropriate. Think of it as the audio equivalent of ‘uncanny valley’.


Keith Devlin (Whom God Preserve) alerted me to fact that the claim in yesterday’s lovely piece about the origins of railway gauges might not be accurate. So I went to Snopes, as he recommended. Here’s its ruling:

Claim: The U.S. standard railroad gauge derives directly from the width of Imperial Roman war chariots.

Verdict: It’s a mixture. It’s true that the standard U.S. railroad gauge is similar in width to the wheel spacing of Roman chariots. But that similarity is based much more on coincidence and inherent physical limitations than a direct line of imitation.

I’m not entirely convinced. And I like the “horses asses” explanation better.

This Blog is also available as a daily email. If you think that might suit you better, why not subscribe? One email a day, Monday through Friday, delivered to your inbox. It’s free, and you can always unsubscribe if you conclude your inbox is full enough already!

Tuesday 8 November, 2022

On Putin’s border

Riga, 2017

Quote of the Day

“The secret of power is the knowledge that others are more cowardly than you are”

  • Ludwig Borne

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Tuba Skinny | Once in a While


Thanks to Ian Cole for the tip.

Long Read of the Day

AI is plundering the imagination and replacing it with a slot machine

Terrific essay by Annie Dorsen in Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists which puts the current obsession with ‘AI’-generated art in its proper, humanistic, context. It’s about the difference between (a) the process that an artist develops to create an algorithm and (b) the process through which the art maker uses an already developed set of instructions to generate an output. Dorsen is a theatre director and writer whose works explore the intersection of algorithmic art and live performance and her essay gets to the heart of what’s happening to us as we are enmeshed in the current obsession with DALL-E and the like.

Much has been written about the cheesy aesthetics of AI-generated art. A bigger issue is the exploitation of living artists, who are neither credited nor compensated for the use of the existing works that feed the programs’ datasets. (It’s also worth noting that even as these companies scrape millions of images from the internet, appropriating the work of others for their own commercial ends, the code running these models is protected by copyright.) Others have also pointed out the enormous energy consumption of AI models, and the massive amounts of user-generated data collected by them. All of that is true.

But there should be an even deeper concern: These tools represent the complete corporate capture of the imagination, that most private and unpredictable part of the human mind. Professional artists aren’t a cause for worry. They’ll likely soon lose interest in a tool that makes all the important decisions for them. The concern is for everyone else. When tinkerers and hobbyists, doodlers and scribblers—not to mention kids just starting to perceive and explore the world—have this kind of instant gratification at their disposal, their curiosity is hijacked and extracted. For all the surrealism of these tools’ outputs, there’s a banal uniformity to the results. When people’s imaginative energy is replaced by the drop-down menu “creativity” of big tech platforms, on a mass scale, we are facing a particularly dire form of immiseration.

The conventional narrative about digital technology is that it is all about the augmentation of human capabilities — as good ol’ Douglas Engelbart envisaged. But in practice it is as much about asset-stripping human capabilities, turning its delighted users into supercharged Skinnerian pigeons. This is particularly the case with the ‘AI’-powered graphics tools, which leave their delighted users tweaking prompts to try and get a result they want, for all the world like pigeons pecking at levers.

Good essays should open up a subject rather than close it off. This one achieves that IMO.

Doc Searls on the ‘metaverse’

A characteristically insightful take on Zuckerberg’s pet obsession…

As for Meta (and its Reality Labs division), virtual and augmented realities (VR and AR) via headgear are today where “Ginger” was before she became the Segway: promising a vast horizontal market that won’t materialize because its utilities are too narrow.

VR/AR will, like the Segway, will find some niche uses. For Segway, it was warehouses, cops, and tourism. For VR/AR headgear it will be gaming, medicine, and hookups in meta-space. The porn possibilities are beyond immense.

As for business, both Twitter and Facebook will continue to be hit by a decline in personalized advertising and possibly a return to the old-fashioned non-tracking-based kind, which the industry has mostly forgotten how to do. But it will press on.

Not much discussed, but a real possibility is that advertising overall will at least partially collapse. This has been coming for a long time. (I’ve been predicting it at least since 2008.) First, there is near-zero (and widespread negative) demand for advertising on the receiving end. Second, Apple is doing a good job of working for its customers by providing ways to turn off or thwart the tracking that aims most ads online. And Apple, while not a monopoly, is pretty damn huge.

It may also help to remember that trees don’t grow to the sky. There is a life cycle for companies just as there is for living things.

My commonplace booklet

Things I hadn’t known

By Andrew Kissinger on the Facebook science humor group, via Adam Tooze.

The US standard railroad gauge (distance between the rails) is 4 feet, 8.5 inches. That’s an exceedingly odd number.

Why was that gauge used? Well, because that’s the way they built them in England, and English engineers designed the first US railroads.

Why did the English build them like that? Because the first rail lines were built by the same people who built the wagon tramways, and that’s the gauge they used.

So, why did ‘they’ use that gauge then? Because the people who built the tramways used the same jigs and tools that they had used for building wagons, which used that same wheel spacing.

Why did the wagons have that particular odd wheel spacing? Well, if they tried to use any other spacing, the wagon wheels would break more often on some of the old, long distance roads in England . You see, that’s the spacing of the wheel ruts.

So who built those old rutted roads? Imperial Rome built the first long distance roads in Europe (including England ) for their legions. Those roads have been used ever since.

And what about the ruts in the roads? Roman war chariots formed the initial ruts, which everyone else had to match or run the risk of destroying their wagon wheels. Since the chariots were made for Imperial Rome, they were all alike in the matter of wheel spacing. Therefore the United States standard railroad gauge of 4 feet, 8.5 inches is derived from the original specifications for an Imperial Roman war chariot. Bureaucracies live forever.

So the next time you are handed a specification/procedure/process and wonder ‘What horse’s ass came up with this?’, you may be exactly right. Imperial Roman army chariots were made just wide enough to accommodate the rear ends of two war horses. (Two horses’ asses.) 

Now, the twist to the story: When you see a Space Shuttle sitting on its launch pad, there are two big booster rockets attached to the sides of the main fuel tank. These are solid rocket boosters, or SRBs. The SRBs are made by Thiokol at their factory in Utah . The engineers who designed the SRBs would have preferred to make them a bit fatter, but the SRBs had to be shipped by train from the factory to the launch site. The railroad line from the factory happens to run through a tunnel in the mountains, and the SRBs had to fit through that tunnel. The tunnel is slightly wider than the railroad track, and the railroad track, as you now know, is about as wide as two horses’ behinds. So, a major Space Shuttle design feature, of what is arguably the world’s most advanced transportation system, was determined over two thousand years ago by the width of a horse’s ass.

And you thought being a horse’s ass wasn’t important? Ancient horse’s asses control almost everything.

This Blog is also available as a daily email. If you think that might suit you better, why not subscribe? One email a day, Monday through Friday, delivered to your inbox. It’s free, and you can always unsubscribe if you conclude your inbox is full enough already!

Monday 7 November, 2022

Spoiler alert

This edition is largely about Twitter, a platform which has recently been bought by Elon Musk, a tech billionaire who is two parts genius and one part fruitcake (and in some ways also a slightly pathetic figure because of his childish craving for attention). Since my guess is that many readers probably don’t use Twitter and therefore regard its future as nothing to do with them, this may seem an outrageous indulgence on my part. But bear with me: what happens to Twitter matters to all of us — those of us who live in democracies anyway — because it has become, de facto part of the critical infrastructure of our public sphere. A search for “twitter” and “public sphere” on Google Scholar, effectively the world’s biggest scholarly citation-index, turns up 130,000 academic articles. And democracies need a functioning public sphere if they are to endure.

Let me explain…

In a recent Observer OpEd piece I said that having Musk responsible for an important part of the world’s public sphere could turn out to be “like entrusting a delicate clock to a monkey”. I meant it, because Musk has over time talked a lot of nonsense about “free speech”. And now he’s the richest media baron in the world.

On the other hand, though, his stewardship of two high-tech corporations (Tesla and SpaceX) confirms that he’s also very smart — which suggests that the predictions that he will destroy Twitter are overblown. He paid a fortune for the company and is in hock to banks for a lot of money, so he will try to transform it from a chronically unprofitable company into a money-spinning giant. The real question, then, is: how will that new media giant impact on the public sphere?

An obvious question — given that Twitter is a niche platform — why does its future matter? After all, a PEW survey recently found that only 23% of US adults use it — compared with the 81% who use YouTube , the 69% who use Facebook and the 40% who are on Instagram.

To understand why Twitter matters you have to think of our information environment as a media ecosystem, not a marketplace. I’ve been banging on about this for many years — there’s even a whole chapter on it in one of my books. An ecosystem is a system in which many species exist, interacting and competing with one another for food and energy. One of the important types of interaction is symbiosis — “any type of a close and long-term biological interaction between two different biological organisms, be it mutualistic, commensalistic, or parasitic.”

In our media ecosystem, one critical symbiotic relationship is that between Twitter and mainstream media. You or I may not be interested in, or on, Twitter, but every journalist on the planet is obsessed with it — which is why what happens on Twitter finds it way into the output of every major news organisation in the world. It’s what enabled Donald Trump, for example, to dominate the news agenda in the US for five whole years. This symbiosis is what justifies my contention that Twitter is part of the critical infrastructure of our public sphere. And it explains why it’s worth paying attention to what Musk does with it.

Quote of the Day

”I withdraw in disappointment, as just one moment in a slow, gentle “weening from the things of this earth”, to adapt a phrase from Mary Shelley. The things of this earth, really, are a bunch of shit, which Twitter just concentrates into a dense fecal supplement. My system finally revolted against these years of heavy intake at the moment when my friend Agnes Callard got mobbed for something so stupid I can’t even bring myself to describe it.

  • Philosopher Justin E.H. Smith on deleting his Twitter account.

(Agnes Callard’s ordeal by Twitter-mob is chronicled in this Buzzfeed story.)

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Petzold: Minuet No. 1 in G Major | Lang Lang


Short and unutterably sweet.

(It was originally and incorrectly attributed to Bach as BWV Anh. 114)

Long Read of the Day

Twitter Is Our Future

Long and perceptive blog post by James Fallows who, over several decades, has been one of the most perceptive observers of our media ecosystem. (I’ve been citing his book Breaking the News: How the Media Undermine American Democracy for more years than I care to remember.) So his views on the future of Twitter are worth reading.

He views Twitter as a bellwether for two reasons:

One is that Elon Musk’s attempted destruction of Twitter, be it reckless or intentional, is worth seeing as a speeded-up version of what is happening in other parts of the media. Twitter is an outlier, and so is Musk. But because of the incredible haste of this process, the dismantling of Twitter is usefully clarifying about changes for the media as a whole.

The other is that there are “many” possible replacements for parts of the positive functions Twitter has offered. But there is no one clear, obvious, easily available, broadly comparable other place to go. It’s not like saying, “Oh, just get an Android” if you’re unhappy with Apple or iPhones. It’s more like saying: “We’re building a dam, so everyone has to move out of this town before the water gets too deep. Good luck staying in touch after each of you settles someplace else.”

Twitter is only 16 years old, so its own story demonstrates how rapidly new communities can emerge. My point is that Musk is forcing people to go through that process of search, reconnection, and reinvention. He says he is reconceiving online discussion with whatever he has in mind for Twitter. The real entrepreneurial effect may come from the wave of Musk-era Twitter exiles and refugees, among employees and users alike.

Do read the whole thing.

Options for refugees fleeing a Muskovitic Twitter

Dave Winer (whom God Preserve) has — as usual — been thinking creatively about options.

I’ve been asked by a number of people what to do, based on the assumption Twitter is imploding.#

  • It’s not yet imploding. Everything seems to work, as before. #
  • I’d back up the list of people you follow, and people who follow you. How to do this? Someone should figure it out and write a simple howto.#
  • I wouldn’t expect mastodon to be able to handle anything remotely like the load Twitter is handling for years. In the meantime, someone should write a Busy Developers Guide to peering with Mastodon, so we can get started on making the vision really work at scale.#
  • If we wanted a smooth transition we should have planned for a great diaspora. Years ago. But nothing like that happened.#
  • I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting for Blue Sky.#
  • What is possible, in a few months, if we start working on it now, are mini-twitters, like lifeboats, where a small circle of friends gets together to share stuff within the group. But this won’t be free. But it won’t be that expensive either. Far less than say $8 per month. #

Twitter isn’t a ‘product’ but something much more complex

In his weekly newsletter, Azeem Azhar makes some interesting observations about Musk’s acquisition of Twitter. On the idea of Twitter as infrastructure, for example, he writes,

there are certain services that go beyond simply dollar-and-cents, and end up having more systemic importance. Societies have recognised this. Look at the rules around the banking system. We recognise it within telecoms. It may be that Twitter has aspects of its operation that are more systemic (more like core telecoms or banking) than they are like Candy Crush or the Superbowl. The European Union through the Digital Services Act recognises this. America’s ACCESS Bill will attempt the same. Twitter is not a product like a dust bin, vacuum cleaner or high-end car.

He also highlights an aspect of this controversy that few people seem to be addressing (though I’m sure the geek in Musk is thinking about it) — that Twitter as it exists is a complex system (which is not the same as a complicated one) and that intervening in such systems can produce counter-intuitive and sometimes catastrophic outcomes. Azhar cites Joe Bak-Colman’s reflections on Musk’s vision of Twitter as a ‘Hive Mind’ — i.e. “a collective, cybernetic super-intelligence” because it consists of “billions of bi-directional interactions per day.” In other words, a complex system. Bak-Colman followed this up with an interesting Twitter thread on the difficulties of intervening in such systems.

The most delightful reference I know of in this area is “Ecology for Bankers” by Robert May, Simon Levin and George Sukihara — published in Nature in 2008, just when another complex system was going belly-up.

Machine-learning systems are problematic. That’s why tech bosses call them ‘AI’

Yesterday’s Observer column:

One of the most useful texts for anyone covering the tech industry is George Orwell’s celebrated essay, “Politics and the English Language”. Orwell’s focus in the essay was on political use of the language to, as he put it, “make lies sound truthful and murder respectable and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind”. But the analysis can also be applied to the ways in which contemporary corporations bend the language to distract attention from the sordid realities of what they are up to.

The tech industry has been particularly adept at this kind of linguistic engineering. “Sharing”, for example, is clicking on a link to leave a data trail that can be used to refine the profile the company maintains about you. You give your “consent” to a one-sided proposition: agree to these terms or get lost. Content is “moderated”, not censored. Advertisers “reach out” to you with unsolicited messages. Employees who are fired are “let go”. Defective products are “recalled”. And so on.

At the moment, the most pernicious euphemism in the dictionary of double-speak is AI, which over the last two or three years has become ubiquitous…

Do read the whole thing.

This Blog is also available as a daily email. If you think that might suit you better, why not subscribe? One email a day, Monday through Friday, delivered to your inbox. It’s free, and you can always unsubscribe if you conclude your inbox is full enough already!

Friday 4 November, 2022

Autumnal fruits

Seen on a woodland walk yesterday.

Quote of the Day

“Microsoft says it has an AI that can replicate thousands of different types of jobs. It also has some kinks: For example, when asked to name the most corrupt company, it answered ‘Microsoft’.”

  • Bloomberg, Tech Daily

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

The Dubliners | Christchurch


Simple tune, but lovely.

Long Read of the Day

Ways to think about a metaverse

Nice essay by Ben Evans, one of the most perceptive observers of the tech industry. He has a lean, clean style and a good BS-detector.

Here’s how it opens…

Sometimes it seems like every big company CEO has read the same article about the same tech trend, and sent the same email to their team, asking “What’s our strategy for this?!” A couple of years ago there were a lot of emails asking for a 5G strategy, and now there are a lot of emails asking about metaverse.

Answering the 5G email was actually pretty easy, partly because almost no-one needs a 5G strategy at all (I wrote about this here), but also because we knew what 5G meant. We probably don’t know what ‘metaverse’ means. More precisely, we don’t know what someone else means. This word has become so vague and broad that you cannot really know for sure what the speaker has in mind when they say it, since they might be thinking of a lot of different things. Neal Stephenson coined the word but he no longer owns it, and there’s no Académie Française that can act as the tech buzzword police and give an official definition. Instead ‘metaverse’ has taken on a life of its own, absorbing so many different concepts that I think the word is now pretty much meaningless – it conveys no meaning, and you have to ask, ‘well, what specifically are you asking about?”

And between those two paragraphs he throws in a wonderful Dilbert cartoon.

Worth reading in full.

Elon Musk knows exactly what he’s doing at Twitter.

Usefully detached piece by Timothy B. Lee in Slate. It’s the most sensible take on what’s going on at Twitter that I’ve seen.

Since Musk formally gained control of Twitter last Thursday, the media has portrayed it as a company in chaos. We can expect a lot more stories like this in the coming months. But as you read these stories, you should resist the urge to conclude—as I did four years ago—that Musk is an ineffective manager. Musk’s management style frequently generates chaos for his subordinates. But there is usually a method to his madness.

There is. It ain’t pretty and its characteristically irresponsible, but it’s pretty clear that he thinks that (a) Twitter is massively over-staffed, and (b) that charging people for ‘certified’ identities will raise some revenue and reduce spam. As far as (a) is concerned, there are two ways of doing it: firing people directly, but that can raise legal issues, even in Silicon Valley; or making life so intolerable that they quit of their own accord. This would be known as ‘constructive dismissal’ in the UK, but maybe there’s no equivalent in the US.

My commonplace booklet

From The Onion

 Republican Voters Given Toll-Free Number To Call If They Witness Legitimate Vote

AUSTIN, TX—In an effort to tamp down on the “outrageous” practice, Texas GOP officials reportedly shared a toll-free number Wednesday that Republican voters could call if they witnessed someone casting a legitimate vote. “If you see anyone who looks like they’re getting in line or speaking to poll workers, we urge you to call or text 1-88-REAL-VOTE immediately,” said Republican Party of Texas chair Matt Rinaldi, who warned that legal voting was running rampant throughout the state, and that it was up to everyday conservative men and women to stop these registered voters before they could submit their ballots. “Our hotline is staffed 24/7 by Republican officials who will dispatch trained professionals to the scene where any alleged voting is taking place. We cannot let these legitimate votes happen. Please report any suspicious behavior you witness, especially if you see someone who does not appear to be Caucasian.” At press time, GOP officials were urging Texas Gov. Greg Abbott to protect polling places from voters by deploying the National Guard.

A joke? Wait till next week.

This Blog is also available as a daily email. If you think that might suit you better, why not subscribe? One email a day, Monday through Friday, delivered to your inbox. It’s free, and you can always unsubscribe if you conclude your inbox is full enough already!

Thursday 3 November, 2022

Lou Gourmandises

A nice reminder of a hot Summer.

Quote of the Day

”It’s a little ironic that there is a certain kind of tech founder/investor/exec who happily talks about San Francisco as a dysfunctional mess because it lacks assertive and rigorous governance, but also claims Twitter would work better without any rules.”

  • Benedict Evans

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Chopin | Waltz in C Sharp Minor (Op. 64 No. 2)


Long Read of the Day

Legacy Cities

Great essay by Ethan Zuckerman, one of the most thoughtful scholars of the networked world. Other people (like this blogger) go on holidays and come back with photographs. Ethan comes back with photographs too, but also with an insightful meditation on what he’s found.

An unmissable Long Read, IMHO.

More on pillars of creation

The Universe is a start-up

Doc Searls (Whom God Preserve) saw the post yesterday about the James Webb telescope photograph and pointed me to a blog post of his from 2020 about the pillars as seen by the Hubble telescope. In typical Doc style, he tells the wider story. For example:

Life appeared on earth at least 4.1 billion years ago. Oxygenation sufficient to support life as we know it happened at the start of proterozoic era, about 2.5 billion years ago. The phanerozoic eon, characterized by an abundance of plants and animals, began 0.541 billion years ago and will continue until the Sun gets so large and hot that photosynthesis as we know it becomes impossible. A rough consensus within science is that this will likely happen in just 600 million years, meaning we’re about 80% of our way through the time window for life on Earth.


In another 4.5 billion years, our galaxy, the Milky Way, will become one with Andromeda, which is currently 2.5 million light-years distant but headed our way on a collision course, looking for now like a thrown frisbee, four moons wide. (It’s actually much larger.) The two will begin merging (not colliding, because nearly all stars are too far apart for that) around 4 billion years from now, and in about 7 billion years will complete a new galaxy resembling an elliptical haze. Here is a video simulation of that future. And here are still panels for the same:

Our Sun will likely be around for all of that future, though by the end it will have become a red giant with a diameter wider than Earth’s orbit, or perhaps will have gone nova, surviving as a white dwarf. (Also—I’m adding this later—Andromeda is weird and scary.)

He goes on to reprise Freeman Dyson’s estimates of the possible age of the universe, and concludes that:

The best guess here is that Universe is about 1% into its lifespan, which has a great many zeros in its number of birthdays. In biological terms, that means it’s not even a baby, or a fetus. It’s more like a zygote, or a blastula.

In other words… it’s a start-up.

Some start-up.

This Blog is also available as a daily email. If you think that might suit you better, why not subscribe? One email a day, Monday through Friday, delivered to your inbox. It’s free, and you can always unsubscribe if you conclude your inbox is full enough already!

Wednesday 2 November, 2022

Pillars of Creation

This photograph in mid-infrared light from the James Webb telescope shows a lot of the dust that’s apparently a major factor in star formation, together with stars that are still in the process of developing — which can be spotted by their red hue in the MIRI photograph.

For those puzzled about the size of those red-hued baby stars in the picture, The Register relays NASA’s advice:

“Trace the topmost pillar, landing on the bright red star jutting out of its lower edge like a broomstick. This star and its dusty shroud are larger than the size of our entire solar system.”

Rather puts us in our place, doesn’t it? And we thought our solar system was a big deal. All that stuff is 6,500 light-years away. Let me see… light travels at 186,000 miles a second, which is 11,160,000 miles a minute, which is 669,600,000 mph. Now, how many hours are there in a year…?

You get the point.

Quote of the Day

”Making a picture with Marilyn Monroe was like going to the dentist. It was hell at the time, but after it was all over it was wonderful.”

  • Billy Wilder

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Jerry Lee Lewis | Wembley | April 1982


Making Jerry Lee the focus of yesterday ‘musical alternative’ touched, er, chords for many readers. James Miller (Whom God Preserve) recommended this clip which really showcases his incredible musical energy and vitality. Imagine being in the crowd that night.

Long Read of the Day

From Boy to Bono

The U2 lead singer has written an autobiography. The New Yorker published this excerpt from it. I hadn’t expected to find it interesting, but I did — partly, I suppose because I remember the Ireland in which he grew up.

Here’s how it opens:

I have very few memories of my mother, Iris. Neither does my older brother, Norman. The simple explanation is that, in our house, after she died she was never spoken of again.

I fear it was worse than that. That we rarely thought of her again.

We were three Irish men, and we avoided the pain that we knew would come from thinking and speaking about her.

Iris laughing. Her humor black as her dark curls. Inappropriate laughing was her weakness. My father, Bob, a postal worker, had taken her and her sister Ruth to the ballet, only to have her embarrass him with her muted howls of laughter at the protruding genitalia boxes worn by the male dancers under their leotards.

I remember, at around seven or eight, I was a boy behaving badly. Iris chasing me, waving a long cane that her friend had promised would discipline me. Me, frightened for my life as Iris ran me down the garden. But when I dared to look back she was laughing her head off, no part of her believing in this medieval punishment…

After I’d read it I wondered if I should buy the book and read the whole thing. But then I came on the New York Times’s intriguing, footnoted and slightly weird interview of Bono and decided that maybe life’s too short…

My commonplace booklet

 I’m Not Sure Which, But One of These Fifteen PDF Files Is the Final Draft

Emily Kling on the problem everyone has when writing a long, long essay without out being careful about how you name the successive drafts.

This Blog is also available as a daily email. If you think that might suit you better, why not subscribe? One email a day, Monday through Friday, delivered to your inbox. It’s free, and you can always unsubscribe if you conclude your inbox is full enough already!