Thursday 1 September, 2022

First Autumn visitor

We came down to breakfast to find he had attached himself to our front door. The only thing to do, I thought, was to put a 28mm Summilux into macro mode and take his portrait. Clearly, he was not impressed.


Quote of the Day

“The human species is, to some extent, the result of mistakes which arrested our development and prevented us from assuming the somewhat unglamorous form of our primitive ancestors.”

  • Jonathan Miller

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Randy Newman | Political Science

Link


Long Read of the Day

Cultivating serendipity

Lovely essay by Rob Miller asking if it’s possible to organise your life in a way that maximises the chances of happy accidents? His answer: yes. Mine too. In a way this blog is designed to improve the chances that readers will find (and enjoy) things that I have stumbled upon!


Running out of gas

Around 80% of UK homes are heated by gas. Here’s a useful summary by Rob Hastings of what the emergency plans are if the worst happens.


My commonplace booklet

(via Adam Tooze)


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Wednesday 31 August, 2022

Archway to the grave

Lavenham, Suffolk.


Quote of the Day

The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire is a Grand National with a fence every ten yards, each to be jumped backwards as well as forwards, and you have to carry your horse.

  • Clive James, Cultural Amnesia, 267.

Kevin Cryan pointed me to a wonderful, hour-long conversation, recorded in 2009, between Eleanor Wachtel and Clive James about his book, Cultural Amnesia, totalitarianism, and his remarkable career. The quote came from digging out the book after listening to the podcast and alighting on his essay on Gibbon.


Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Wagner | Ride of The Valkyries

Link

Every time I hear this I think of Apocalypse Now.


Long Read of the Day

What’s wrong with Google’s new robot project

Terrific essay by Gary Marcus. Here’s how it begins…

From a showmanship standpoint, Google’s new robot project PaLM-SayCan is incredibly cool. Humans talk, and a humanoid robot listens, and acts. In the best case, the robot can read between the lines, moving beyond the kind of boring direct speech (“bring me pretzels from the kitchen”) that most robots traffic in (at best) to indirect speech, in which a robot diagnoses your needs and caters to them without bothering you with the details. WIRED reports an example in which a user says “I’m hungry”, and the robot wheels over to a table and comes back with a snack, no further detail required — closer to Rosie the Robot than any demo I have seen before.

The project reflects a lot of hard work between two historically separate divisions of Alphabet (Everyday Robots and Google Brain); academic heavy hitters like Chelsea Finn and Sergey Levine, both of whom I have a lot of respect for, took part. In some ways it’s the obvious research project to do now—if you have Google-sized resources (like massive pretrainined language models and humanoid robots and lots of cloud compute)— but it’s still impressive that they got it to work as well as it did. (To what extent? More about that below).

But I think we should be worried. I am not surprised that this can (kinda sorta) be done, but I am not sure it should be done.

The problem is twofold…

Do read on. It’s great. I love his observation that “so-called large language models are like bulls in a china shop: awesome, powerful, and reckless”.


My commonplace booklet

Mentioned in Dispatches **  Fascinating BBC profile of the photographer Tim Page, who made his name covering the Vietnam war. Grim in places; but then so is war. Always.

One of the things that was distinctive of his work is that much of his best photographs were shot with a 21mm lens. Which meant that he had to get in close to some horrifying events.


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Tuesday 30 August, 2022

For this trike…

Spotted at a Los Bandidos rally in Arles, 2017.


Quote of the Day

“A suicide kills two people, Maggie. That’s what it’s for.”

  • Quentin, in Arthur Miller’s play, After the Fall

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh | Beauty Deas an Oileáin | Hollywood Inn, Wicklow | 2009

Link

With Julie Fowlis (Tin Whistle), Éamon Doorley (Bouzouki) and Martin Ross (Guitar) in a recording made for the Geantraí music series on the Irish language TV channel, TG4, in 2009.

This lovely song (in Irish) comes from Co Kerry (or at any rate was first collected there in 1938). Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh is a sensationally talented singer and musician, and this is the nicest recording of the song that I know of.


Long Read of the Day

Bill Barr Calls Bullsh*t

This record of a conversation between the blogger Bari Weiss and Trump’s Attorney General, William Barr makes for interesting but uncomfortable reading. Interesting because it provides an insight into how an experienced and senior official explains his experience of holding high office under Trump, and uncomfortable because it evinces how some things that most of us regard as unconscionable can be viewed as acceptable or even laudable when viewed through a right-wing lens.

Here’s how it begins:

BW: I want to begin with a quote from your wife, Christine. “The Left and the Press have lost their minds over Trump and Trump is his own worst enemy. Any sacrifice you make will be wasted on this man.” That’s what she told you in 2019 before you joined the Trump administration. Obviously, you did it anyway, which is why we’re talking. But was she right?

AG BARR: She was, as usual, dead on. The left has lost their mind over Trump. Trump Derangement Syndrome is a real thing. But Trump is his own worst enemy. He’s incorrigible. He doesn’t take advice from people. And you’re not going to teach an old dog new tricks.

So I was under no illusions when I went in. But I thought a Republican administration was important during this period. I hadn’t supported Trump originally, but once he got the nomination I supported him and I felt he was following good, sound policies generally. And I thought that he was being unfairly treated. I felt Russiagate was very unjust and I was suspicious of it from the very beginning. I was also upset at the way the criminal justice process has been used and, I thought, was being used to interfere with the political process. The Justice Department and the F.B.I. were being battered and I care about those institutions.

I felt I could help stabilize things, deal with Russiagate and get the Justice Department and the F.B.I. on course. So I agreed to do it.

BW: “Any sacrifice you make will be wasted on this man.” True or not true?

AG BARR: I hoped that it wasn’t true. I thought there was a chance he would rally to the office and be more disciplined in his behavior. I thought he might recognize that the presidency is a unique office, which is not only a political leader but the head of state, representing the whole nation. I hoped he would rise to the occasion. He didn’t…

Do read the whole thing.


More on the Bitcoin dump story

The version I cited as a Long Read the other day was in the New Yorker. But Charles Arthur (whom God Preserve) emailed later to say that the story originated in some good investigative journalism done by Alex Hern of the Guardian in 2013 which you can find here. Charles (who was the Guardian’s Technology Editor at the time) writes:

I was there when Alex Hern was sitting opposite me on the Guardian’s technology desk trying to pin down the story. He had seen someone post on Reddit that they’d let their hard drive go in the bin, and all he had to go on was what seemed to be the name. No location, no other clue.

We encouraged him to do some Real Journalism. Try Linkedin. Try any sort of social network. Try to put the clues together. Slog. Dead end. Another try. Dead end. Finally he got some potential names and companies and started ringing. (On an actual Telephone. Not that easy these days: mobile numbers can be hard to come by.)

And then – he struck gold. “You ARE??” we heard him say. His face lit up. Pure joy. And then he got down to the professional bit, asking the questions, getting the details. The story was later covered by all the TV networks, plus quite a few from abroad.

Even vicariously, that was a great experience. And I think about it every time that story pops up, which it does quite regularly.


My commonplace booklet

“Because of the impropriety of entertaining guests of the opposite sex in the bedroom, it is suggested that the lobby be used for this purpose”.

  • Hotel Notice, Zurich. (Another gem from Dennis Winston’s lovely book, French Widow in Every Room.)

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Monday 29 August, 2022

On the Beach

Striking photograph by John Darch who, like the fine photographer he is, waited until all the ingredients — including the reflection of the horse in the wet sand — were present before pressing the shutter.


Quote of the Day

“The first rule of tinkering is: Save all the parts”

  • David Mamet

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Miles Davis | It Ain’t Necessarily So

Link


Video of the Day

This is an extraordinary short film written by James Graham which was originally screened on the Financial Times site. I’m struck by it because I’m a Professor of the Public Understanding of Technology and this seems to me to be a brilliant example of how to foster that understanding in a compelling way.

It’s 18 minutes long, and really worth it.

So click here to see what I mean.

(And thanks to John Thornhill for helping me locate a copy.)


Long Read of the Day

A small slice of networking history

The precursor of the Internet we use today was the ARPAnet, a packet-switched network funded by the Pentagon’s Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) in the late 1960s. Much to the astonishment of the military-industrial complex of the time, the contract to build the experimental network went to Bolt, Beranek and Newman (BBN), a small tech company based in Boston, Mass.

The purpose of the ARPAnet was to link a number of large, expensive mainframe computers that ARPA had funded in various research labs across the US. One of the defining (and to ARPA’s bosses, infuriating) characteristics of these behemoths was that they could not communicate with one another. They were all build by different manufacturers and, in a sense, incompatible by design. So the BBN team decided to build a number of identical minicomputers — called Interface Message Processors or IMPs — that would sit alongside the mainframes. Each IMP would be programmed to communicate with its neighbouring giant, but would also be able to communicate with its fellow-IMPs on other sites. So at the core of the new network was a set of IMPs.

The IMPs were actually modified versions of a minicomputer manufactured by Honeywell, and the software for them was written by three programmers at BBN — Bernie Cosell, Will Crowther and Dave Walden.

The first IMP was shipped to UCLA in September 1969, followed by the second one, which went to the Stanford Research Institute (SRI) a month later. The story of the first message exchanged between these two IMPS became famous in computer lore. Here’s how I told it in my history of the Net. The IMP, I wrote,

was about the size of a refrigerator, weighed over 900 lbs. and was enclosed in battleship-grey steel, exactly to military specifications – to the point where it even had four steel eyebolts on top for lifting by crane or helicopter. The UCLA crew manhandled in to its assigned room next to the UCLA host machine – a Scientific Data Systems Sigma-7 – and switched it on. The IMP worked straight out of the crate, but for the moment it had nothing to talk to except the Sigma-7. It takes two nodes to make a network. A month later, on October 1, 1969, the second IMP was delivered to Stanford Research Institute and hooked up to its SDS 940 time-sharing machine. With both IMPs in place and both hosts running, a two-node network existed – at least in principle. The moment had arrived to see whether it worked in practice.

What happened was the kind of comic event which restores one’s faith in the cock-up theory of history. The UCLA and SRI sites were linked by telephone, so human dialogue accompanied this first step into the unknown. It was decided that the UCLA side would try to log on to the SRI machine. Years later, Leonard Kleinrock, in whose UCLA Lab the first IMP had been installed, related what happened in an E-mail message to the New Yorker writer, John Seabrook:

”As soon as SRI attached to its IMP, under my directions, one of my programmers, Charley Kline, arranged to send the first computer-to-computer message. The setup was simple: he and a programmer at SRI were connected via an ordinary telephone line and they both wore headsets so they could talk to each other as they observed what the network was doing. Charley then proceeded to ‘login’ to the remote SRI HOST from our UCLA HOST. To do so, he had to literally type in the word ‘login’; in fact, the HOSTS were smart enough to know that once he had typed in ‘log’, then the HOST would ‘expand’ out the rest of the word and add the letters ‘in’ to it. So Charley began. He typed an ‘l’ and over the headset told the SRI programmer he had typed it (Charley actually got an ‘echo’ of the letter ‘l’ from the other end and the programmer said “I got the l”.) Then Charley continued with the ‘o’, got the echo and a verbal acknowledgement from the programmer that it had been received. Then Charley typed in the ‘g’ and told him he had now typed the ‘g’. At this point the SRI machine crashed!! Some beginning!

I love this story. It is about a hinge of history; and yet the drama is undermined by farce which brings everything back to earth. It was the beginning of the wired world – a moment as significant in its way as the moment Alexander Graham Bell muttered “Mr. Watson, come here, I want you” into his primitive apparatus. When Charley Kline typed his L he was taking mankind’s first hesitant step into Cyberspace. And the first result of his step was a crash!

When BBN shipped the IMP to UCLA, Bernie Cosell went with it just to make sure that nobody messed with it. I’ve often wondered what he did afterwards, which is why it was lovely the other day to stumble on this story by Randy Walker in Cardinal News, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news site that serves Southwest and Southside Virginia.

Turns out that Bernie worked at BBN until he and his wife retired, bought 72 acres in rural Virginia, built a dream house (inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater) on it and started keeping Merino sheep.

He won’t go down in history as one of the Internet pioneers — like Vint Cerf or Bob Kahn or Leonard Kleinrock or Donald Davies or Paul Baran. But then that’s also true of the many graduate students who worked on the project. “I will”, he told Randy Walker, “be at best a footnote”.

Well, yeah. But the UCLA IMP worked out of the box. And footnotes matter too. Ask any academic.


Twitter’s whistleblower has pitched up at a very inconvenient moment

Yesterday’s Observer column

Ex-Twitter exec blows the whistle, alleging reckless and negligent cybersecurity policies,” said the CNN headline. My initial reaction? Yawn… so what’s new: a social media company playing fast and loose with its users’ data? And who’s this whistleblower, anyway? A guy called Peiter Zatko. Never heard of him. Probably another tech bro who’s discovered his conscience…

But what’s this? He has a nickname – “Mudge”. (Cue audio of pennies dropping.) The mainstream media calls him a “hacker”, which is their usual way of undermining a gifted software expert. Which this Mudge certainly is. In fact, in that line of business, he has blue-chip status. He was the highest-profile member of a famous hacker thinktank, the L0pht (pronounced “loft”) and a member of the well-known cooperative Cult of the Dead Cow. In that sense, he was a pioneer of “hacktivism” who has spent much of his life trying to educate the world on cybersecurity and has a long list of discovered vulnerabilities to his credit.

During the Clinton administration, he was apparently sometimes involved in national security council briefings of the president…

Do read the whole thing.


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Friday 26 August, 2022

Fully knitted-out

Seen in a lovely wool shop in Riga.


Quote of the Day

“In so far as the family as an institution turns women into darling little slaves and men into their chief providers and unweaned dependents, the problem of a satisfactory marriage remains incapable of a purely private solution.”

  • C. Wright Mills in The Sociological Imagination, one of my favourite books.

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Mark Knopfler & James Taylor | Sailing to Philadelphia

Link

Thanks to Kai Green for the suggestion.


Long Read of the Day

Half a Billion in Bitcoin, Lost in the Dump

Terrific New Yorker story by D. T. Max about how to lose half a billion dollars.

In a cluttered desk drawer, he found two small hard drives. One, he knew, was blank. The other held files from an old Dell gaming laptop, including e-mails, music that he’d downloaded, and duplicates of family photographs. He’d removed the drive a few years earlier, after he’d spilled lemonade on the computer’s keyboard. Howells grabbed the unwanted hard drive and threw it into a black garbage bag.

Later, when the couple slid into bed, Howells asked Hafina, who dropped off their kids at day care each morning, if she would mind taking the trash to the dump also. He remembers her declining, saying, “It’s not my fucking job—it’s your job.” Howells conceded the point. As his head hit the pillow, he recalls, he made a mental note to remove the hard drive from the bag. “I’m a systems engineer,” he said. “I’ve never thrown a hard drive in the bin. It’s just a bad idea.”

The next day, Hafina got up early and took the garbage to the landfill after all. Howells remembers waking upon her return, at around nine. “Ah, did you take the bag to the tip?” he asked. He told himself, “Oh, fuck—she’s chucked it,” but he was still groggy, and he soon fell back asleep….

Read on and wonder…


Britain sets out roadmap for self driving vehicle usage by 2025

From Reuters

LONDON, Aug 19 (Reuters) – Britain said on Friday it wanted a widespread rollout of self-driving vehicles on roads by 2025, announcing plans for new laws and 100 million pounds ($119.09 million) of funding.

The government said it wanted to take advantage of the emerging market for autonomous vehicles, which it valued at 42 billion pounds and estimated could create 38,000 new jobs.

”We want the UK to be at the forefront of developing and using this fantastic technology, and that is why we are investing millions in vital research into safety and setting the legislation to ensure we gain the full benefits that this technology promises,” Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said…

This from the government of a country which is unable to fix the potholes in its roads.

I’ve filed it under Magical Thinking.


My commonplace booklet

“The country’s agents stamped on the backside will carry the honour of the guarantee in their country.”

  • Akai tape-recorder guarantee

“WERY STRONK BIER”

  • Bar notice on a ferry in Finland

(Both from Derek Winston’s French Widow in Every Room, published by Unwin in 1987 and a constant source of joy for this blogger.)


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Thursday 25 August, 2022

After the Presentation

School of Architecture, University of Liverpool, degree-day afternoon.


Quote of the Day

“You go Uruguay and I’ll go mine.”

  • Groucho Marx (in Animal Crackers)

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Randy Newman | Louisiana 1927

Link


Long Read of the Day

Why Doctors hate their computers

Fabulous New Yorker essay by Atul Gawande.

My hospital had, over the years, computerized many records and processes, but the new system would give us one platform for doing almost everything health professionals needed—recording and communicating our medical observations, sending prescriptions to a patient’s pharmacy, ordering tests and scans, viewing results, scheduling surgery, sending insurance bills. With Epic, paper lab-order slips, vital-signs charts, and hospital-ward records would disappear. We’d be greener, faster, better.

But three years later I’ve come to feel that a system that promised to increase my mastery over my work has, instead, increased my work’s mastery over me. I’m not the only one. A 2016 study found that physicians spent about two hours doing computer work for every hour spent face to face with a patient—whatever the brand of medical software. In the examination room, physicians devoted half of their patient time facing the screen to do electronic tasks. And these tasks were spilling over after hours. The University of Wisconsin found that the average workday for its family physicians had grown to eleven and a half hours. The result has been epidemic levels of burnout among clinicians. Forty per cent screen positive for depression, and seven per cent report suicidal thinking—almost double the rate of the general working population.

Something’s gone terribly wrong. Doctors are among the most technology-avid people in society; computerization has simplified tasks in many industries. Yet somehow we’ve reached a point where people in the medical profession actively, viscerally, volubly hate their computers.

This is long, long but worth every minute. Gawande writes beautifully about medicine, but this is also one of the most insightful pieces I’ve read about the institutional impact of software.


What’s going on in China?

From the (really impressive) Tech newsletter put out by Tortoise Media:

In the most recent data, youth unemployment in China reached 19.9 per cent, an historically high rate. A faltering birth rate is being compounded by record unemployment and Tencent has not been exempt from the wave of layoffs that have swept the global technology sector. The company reported that – alongside its first ever fall in sales – it also saw the first quarterly drop in the size of its workforce, which fell by 4.7 per cent. China’s young, dynamic and technologically savvy workforce is being alienated. Its population is ageing, and the rewards of globalism on which it has relied in the past are dwindling to nothing. At the centre of its once burgeoning technology sector is Tencent.

Hmmm… There’s trouble ahead for Xi Jinping.


About that Citroen DS19…

Some time ago I wrote that when we’re in France I’m always on the lookout for a DS19 that’s been carefully restored. We didn’t see any this year, but one lives in hope.

And then, mirabile dictu!, a generous reader pointed me at this:

A DS19 that has not only been beautifully restored but electrified.

Electrogenic is a company formed by Steve Drummond and Ian Newstead, based near Oxford, specialising in converting classics to electric power. The pair have previously electro-converted a Triumph Stag and a Morgan Plus 4.

“Repowering classic cars with all-electric drive brings a number of benefits, from ease of use to reliability and performance gains. But with our conversions, the aim is always to enhance the original characteristics of the car. In this respect, the Citroën DS was ideally suited to an electric conversion – the silent powertrain adds to the serene driving experience and fits perfectly with the character of the car,” said Drummond at the unveiling of this, the DS Electrogenic.

The thing about the DS19 was that it was originally supposed to have an innovative air-cooled six cylinder engine. But,

Budget hang-ups at Citroën meant that the planned air-cooled flat-six engine (let’s sit back, quietly, and reflect upon that for a moment…) was binned. In the end, the DS used a mildly revised version of the old Light 15 ‘Traction Avant’ 1.9-litre four-banger. Ever after, the DS was an astonishing car in search of an appropriate engine.

Well, now it’s an astonishing car with a proper electric motor.


My commonplace booklet

Words of Advice to Motorists

“At the rise of the hand of policeman, stop rapidly. Do not pass him or otherwise disrespect him. When a passenger of the foot hove in sight, tootle to him melodiously at first.

If he still obstacles your passage, tootle him with vigour and express by word of mouth the warning, Hi, hi’.

Beware the wandering horse, that he shall not take fright as you pass him. Do not explode the exhaust box at him. Go soothingly by, or stop by the roadside till he pass away.

Give big space to the festive dog that makes sport in the roadway. Avoid entanglement of dog with your wheel spokes. Go soothingly on the grease-mud, as there lurk the skid demon. Press the brake of foot as you roll around the corners to save the collapse and tie-up.”

  • Advice in an English-language newspaper in Tokyo.

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Wednesday 24 August, 2022

Gondola

We’re reading Colm Tóibín’s The Magician, his fictional re-imagining of the life of Thomas Mann, at the moment, and have just got to the point where the subject makes his first visit to Venice, where he is immediately struck by the fact that the gondolas, with their shiny black splendour, remind him of hearses. And then I remembered this shot from one of our visits to the city and went digging for it in my archive.


Quote of the Day

”The secret of happiness is not doing what we like but in liking what we do”

  • J.M. Coetzee

Yeah, but it’s not the only secret.


Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Professor Longhair & His New Orleans Boys | Mardi Gras In New Orleans

Link


Long Read of the Day

The approaching tsunami of addictive AI-created content will overwhelm us

Terrific blog post by Charles Arthur (Whom God Preserve). It’s a much more extensive analysis of the upsides and downsides of ‘AI’-powered text-to-graphics engines like DALL-E than I was able to do in my Observer column last Sunday. His argument is that humans are not ready for the coming deluge of video, audio, photos and even text generated by machine learning designed to grab and hold our attention. If you’re new to this important subject and want to see where it’s heading, can I suggest that you start with the column and then move to Charles’s essay?


Closer to the machine: an elegy for the humble gear-lever

Nice piece by Ian Bogost which will appeal to petrolheads. His car doesn’t have an automatic gearbox and he likes it that way. Manually changing gear makes him feel that he is operating his car, not just driving it. That’s why he’s had what the Americans call “stick shifts” for the last 20 years. But he senses that manual transmission is doomed, and not just by the move to EVs.

The manual transmission, however marginal it has become during the smartphone age, remains a vestige of direct, mechanical control. When a driver changes speeds, their intention can be fruitfully realized in gratifying action, meshing literal gears. Even when your hand slips and the gears grind, the device still speaks in a way you can understand.

To lament the end of the manual transmission is to eulogize much more than shifting gears. When the manual dies, little about driving will fall away that hasn’t already been lost. But we’ll lose something bigger and more important: the comfort of knowing that there is one essential, everyday device still out there that you can actually feel operating. Even if you don’t own a stick, or if you don’t know how to drive one, its mere existence signals that a more embodied technology is possible—that it once was common, even—and that humans and machines really can commune. The stick shift is a form of hope, but it’s one we’ll soon have left behind.

Yep.


My commonplace booklet

Bull charges into bank but omits to make a deposit

You think I’m joking? Well, this is from The Times of Israel:

Financial institutions normally welcome a bull market, but workers at Bank Leumi in the central city of Lod were not amused on Monday when an angry bull bashed into several cars in their parking lot before charging through the hallways.

The bull’s owner, a resident of the city, was called to the bank offices to help extract the bovine. Video showed several people baiting the bull, trying to get it to charge down a corridor and into a makeshift trap they had made that would allow them to tie a rope around it.

The Lod Municipality said a city-employed veterinarian eventually stunned the bull to make it easier to restrain him…

The report includes an hilarious video of amateur toreadors trying to lure the animal into a trap.

The good news, as Quartz observed, is that it was a bank rather than a china shop.


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Tuesday 23 August, 2022

The Bundle

Berlin, December 2016


Quote of the Day

”When a writer is born into a family, the family is finished.”

  • Czesław Miłosz

Makes me think of Thomas Mann and Buddenbrooks


Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Julie Fowlis & Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh | Dá bhFaighfinn Mo Rogha de Thriúr Acu

Link

Hollywood Inn, Co. Wicklow: Scottish Hebrides singer Julie Fowlis & Kerry singer Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh singing ‘Dá bhFaighfinn Mo Rogha de Thriúr Acu’ (0:00), Dhannsamaid Le Ailean (1:24) & Cairistion’ Nigh’n Eoghainn (2:16) with accompaniment from Éamon Doorley (Bouzouki) and Martin Ross.


Long Read of the Day

Joan Bakewell: ‘Life hasn’t got duller as I’ve got older. Less thrilling, perhaps’

She is one of my heroines, and this profile by my colleague Tim Adams does her justice.

Joan Bakewell sees David Attenborough from time to time. He has only one question for her: “Are you still working?” And, of course, she is. When we meet for lunch she is just about to embark on her fifth series of Landscape Artist of the Year for Sky – “Bake Off with oils” – that sees her “galloping around the country” from Loch Fyne to Broadstairs. She puts in 12-hour shifts beginning at seven in the morning – “by 7pm they know I’m ready for a drink”. She’s also in the House of Lords two or three days a week, when it is sitting, and she’s the president of Birkbeck, University of London. And then there are always new committees to chair, books to write. One of the reasons that Bakewell has long been such a seductive voice for the possibilities of ageing is that she has never shown the slightest interest in being past it.

She breezes into her chosen restaurant, the Orrery on London’s Marylebone High Street, already full of talk and smiles as she sits down, having done a bit of shopping downstairs in the Conran shop. The Orrery has the decor of a Dignitas clinic, white and hushed, with good linen and sharp cutlery and pristine glassware, but Bakewell brings with her a life-affirming attention. She is, you immediately forget, 89. She orders precisely – mozzarella to start and salmon fillet, water – and then gets on with the real business of lunch, conversation. Before our starters arrive we have discussed the voodoo nature of Nadine Dorries (“she sticks pins into stuff she doesn’t like”), the leadership prospects of Andy Burnham (“very impressive in person”), food fads (“I’m done with sourdough, give me a nice sliced white loaf”), the similarities between Liverpool in the 1960s and Quattrocento Florence (“creativity became infectious”), and the little pot of cod liver oil and malt that Bakewell always keeps in a drawer to remind her of stolen spoonfuls of comfort during rationing…

I’ve known her ever since I was the Observer’s TV critic many years ago. There’s only one word to describe her: life-enhancing.


The cost of convenience

My OpEd in last Sunday’s Observer. In our Gadarene rush into the Internet of Things we are busily creating an attack surface of near-infinite dimensions.

Ever since people started to worry about computer safety, the issue has been framed as striking a balance between security and convenience. Up to now, convenience has been winning hands down. Take passwords. Everyone knows that long, complex passwords are more secure than simple ones, but they’re also hard to remember. So, being human, we don’t use them: in 2021, the five most commonly used passwords were: 123456, 123456789, 12345, qwerty and password.

In the era of mainframe computers and standalone PCs, this kind of laxity didn’t matter too much. But as the world became networked, the consequences of carelessness have become more worrying. Why? Because there is no such thing as a completely secure networked device and we have been adding such devices to the so-called Internet of Things (IoT) on a maniacal scale. There are something like 13bn at the moment; by 2030, the tech industry thinks there might be 30bn.

The conventional adjective for these gizmos is “smart”. They can be “hi-tech” items such as smart speakers, fitness trackers and security cameras, but also standard household things such as fridges, lightbulbs and plugs, doorbells, thermostats and so on. From a marketing point of view, their USPs are flexibility, utility and responsiveness – in other words, convenience.

But smart is a euphemism that tactfully conceals the fact that they are tiny computers that are connected to the internet and can be remotely controlled from a smartphone or a computer…

Do read the whole thing


My commonplace booklet

The rent for the five-bedroom Georgian mansion overlooking St James’s Park featured in yesterday’s edition is… £10,000 per week.


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Monday 22 August, 2022

Riverside

The Rhone at Arles on a lovely Summer evening.


Quote of the Day

“Men are the only animals who devote themselves assiduously to making one another unhappy. It is, I suppose, one of their godlike qualities.”

  • H.L. Mencken

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Liam Clancy | And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda

Link

First time I’ve heard this. Explains why my Aussie and NZ friends take Anzac Day so seriously.


Long Read of the Day

The Evolutionary Mystery of Menopause

Fascinating essay in Nautilus by David Barash, an evolutionary biologist who has specialised in animal behaviour and is now emeritus professor of psychology at the University of Washington.

Around age 50, women stop ovulating, a biological mystery because reproduction is the sine qua non of evolutionary success, and yet menopause occurs at an age when women often have a few decades of healthy life ahead of them. Men keep producing sperm (albeit fewer and less viable) into their eighth and even ninth decades. For women, it’s not about becoming unable to make eggs, since every girl is born with all that she will ever have, which await maturation and release. The “how” of menopause is well understood; it is brought on by a dramatic reduction in endocrine hormones, notably estrogen.

But why has selection favored this rapid and consequential decline, causing women’s endocrine machinery to poop out when it does? What are the ultimate, evolutionary reasons? If you like mystery stories, you’re in for a treat. Mark Twain noted that it was easy to stop smoking; he’d done it hundreds of times. It’s easy to explain menopause; there are many hypotheses, albeit fewer than a hundred. There is now a leading candidate, the grandmother hypothesis, which I first described in Nautilus in 2016, and which has been reinforced by two new studies…

Not my field at all. But I found it interesting. Hope you do too.


AI-generated art illustrates another problem with technology

Yesterday’s Observer column

It all started with the headline over an entry in Charlie Warzel’s Galaxy Brain newsletter in the Atlantic: “Where Does Alex Jones Go From Here?” This is an interesting question because Jones is an internet troll so extreme that he makes Donald Trump look like Spinoza. For many years, he has parlayed a radio talkshow and a website into a comfortable multimillion-dollar business peddling nonsense, conspiracy theories, falsehoods and weird merchandise to a huge tribe of adherents. And until 4 August he had got away with it. On that day, though, he lost an epic defamation case brought against him by parents of children who died in the 2012 Sandy Hook massacre – a tragedy that he had consistently ridiculed as a staged hoax; a Texas jury decided that he should pay nearly $50m in damages for publishing this sadistic nonsense.

Warzel’s newsletter consisted of an interview with someone who had worked for the Jones media empire in its heyday and, as such, was interesting. But what really caught my eye was the striking illustration that headed the piece. It showed a cartoonish image of a dishevelled Jones in some kind of cavern surrounded by papers, banknotes, prescriptions and other kinds of documents. Rather good, I thought, and then inspected the caption to see who the artist was. The answer: “AI art by Midjourney”.

Ah! Midjourney is a research lab and also the name of its program that creates images from textual descriptions using a machine-learning system similar to OpenAI’s Dall-E system…

Read on


Marina Hyde on Britain’s next Prime Minister, Ms Truss

Gloriously acerbic Guardian column:

For now, Truss maintains the remorselessly upbeat demeanour of a holiday rep who regards herself as the life and soul of the booze cruise, and whose lower back is tattooed with the Chinese symbols for “Only depressing people get depressed”. The overwhelming vibe you get from her campaign appearances is that she is going to make destitution fun for people. The logic puts me in mind of the Depression-era dancehall marathons epitomised in They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, where desperate competitors are given the opportunity to twirl, then lurch, then stagger their way out of poverty. Or to death – whichever comes sooner.

The fact that Liz will take over a country whose own sewage is literally lapping at its shores feels too on the nose – an image so hammily overdone it could have been crafted by recidivist newspaper columnist Boris Johnson. Which, in a more literal way, I suppose it was. We’re both the sick man of Europe and the dirty protest of Europe. Johnson – who wouldn’t dream of swimming in his own excrement, either literally or metaphorically – is currently on his second foreign holiday in a fortnight, displacing whole hogsheads of the Aegean in the cause of not giving a toss about what happens to the country he let down in the way he has always let everyone down in the end…


My commonplace booklet

From Saturday’s Financial Times.

Guess the weekly rent. Answer tomorrow.


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Thursday 18 August, 2022

The Little Mermaid

Famous statue in Copenhagen. This photograph was taken by my wife while I was pontificating in the National Library.


Quote of the Day

“I never was a boy, never played at cricket; it is better to let Nature take her course.”

  • John Stuart Mill

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

J.S. Bach | Concerto No.5 in F-Minor for Harpsichord and Strings (BWV 1056) | Largo | Maria Joao Pires

Link

If you want a peaceful start to your day, then this is the right accompaniment.


Long Read of the Day

On Rich Friends and Poor Friends

Extraordinary memoir by Rob Henderson.

Is making the right kinds of friends the secret to upward mobility? Did having friends who—like me—grew up in poor and dysfunctional environments lead me to make bad decisions in my own early life? And if I had remained friends only with my childhood cohort would I remain poor?

A new book called Friends: Understanding the Power of our Most Important Relationships, by the evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar, and some recent studies about how one’s childhood fri influence one’s income later in life, have caused me to look at why my earliest friends once meant so much to me—and to reflect on why we have drifted so far apart.

Now in his 70s, Dunbar has an almost melancholic sense of the nature of our friendships. Most friendships are “fickle things,” he writes but “special friendships are very few in number.” They are “the ones with whom we shared the ups and downs and traumas of early adult life, whose advice we sought in those moments of deep crisis, the ones we sat up with late into the night,” he says. “It’s as though this small number of special friendships are carved in stone into our psyches precisely because we engaged in such intense, emotionally passionate interactions.”

I can attest to that truth…

Do read on, it’s terrific.


My commonplace booklet

Quick ripostés

I admire people who are quick on their feet, and collect anecdotes about them.

Here’s one about Robert Menzies, once Prime Minister of Australia, and a formidable politician. When he was campaigning in an election once a woman shouted “I wouldn’t vote for you if you was the Angel Gabriel!”

Menzies turned to her, beamed, and said:

“Madam, if I were the Angel Gabriel, you would not be in my constituency.”


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