Crypto is intended to be hard to regulate, but at least the Treasury wants to have a go

This morning’s Observer column:

For my sins, I have been reading Future financial services regulatory regime for cryptoassets, 82 pages of prime Whitehall verbiage that was published recently, setting out HM Treasury’s plans to govern the clouds and hold back the tides.

It opens with the statutory ringing endorsement by Andrew Griffith, economic secretary to the Treasury. He reminds readers that the government’s “firm ambition is for the UK to be home to the most open, well-regulated and technologically advanced capital markets in the world” – which “means taking proactive steps to harness the opportunities of new financial technologies”. He further believes that “crypto technologies” can have a profound impact across financial services and that “by capitalising on the potential benefits offered by crypto we can strengthen our position as a world leader in fintech, unlock growth and boost innovation”. Cont’d p94, as they say in Private Eye.

Billed as a “consultation and call for evidence”, the document invites our views on these important matters. As a public-spirited columnist, it would be churlish to refuse the invitation. So here goes…

Read on.

Cold war 2.0 will be a race for semiconductors, not arms

This morning’s Observer column:

Computers need chips. But what that increasingly means is that nearly everything needs chips. How come? Because computers are embedded in almost every device we use. And not just in things that we regard as electronic. One of the things we learned during the pandemic was that cars and tractors need chips – simply because their engine-control units are basically small, purpose-built computers. Once Covid-19 hit car sales, semiconductor manufacturers switched their production lines to serve other – much bigger – customers. And then, as things started to return to normal in 2021, car manufacturers discovered that they had slipped to the back of the semiconductor queue – and their production lines ground to a halt. Similarly for microwave cookers, washing machines and refrigerators.

In the decades when the west was still high on the globalisation drug, the fact that things upon which we relied were manufactured elsewhere didn’t seem to bother us…

Read on

Friday 17 February, 2023

Dead tree + Live wind farm

North Norfolk. Huge offshore wind farm in the distance.

Quote of the Day

”My idea of long-term planning is lunch.”

  • Frank Ogden

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Bob Marley | One Love



Long Read of the Day

What if my lessons in existentialism were in bad faith?

Lovely reflective — and reflexive — essay by Robert Zaretsky.

‘Let us consider this waiter in the café. His movement is quick and forward, a little too precise, a little too rapid.’ I read these lines – perhaps with a diction a bit too deliberate – and look up from my copy of Jean-Paul Sartre’s Being and Nothingness (1943) at a room-full of students lining both sides of a long conference table. ‘He comes toward the patrons with a step a little too quick. He bends forward a little too eagerly; his voice, his eyes express an interest a little too solicitous for the order of the customer.’ Am I reciting this a little too emphatically? One student is doodling in a notebook, others scribble in theirs. A few of them look at me while I look around at them. Just as I am mostly engaged in displaying my engagement, I wonder if the students are also busy being engaged.

Mais oui, it’s another mauvaise foi Monday. Bad faith abounds not just at the Parisian café where Sartre watches the waiter, but also in the seminar room in Houston where I watch myself teaching my class on existentialism. Though I have been a professor for more than 30 years, I began teaching this course only recently: unlike with earlier courses, where I feared simply phoning them in, I now swung to the fear that I was being a phony. That I was, like Sartre’s waiter, playing a game. ‘We need not watch long before we can explain it: he is playing at being a waiter in a café. There is nothing there to surprise us.’ Yet I am surprised – in a way that makes me question not just my place, but existentialism’s place in the room. As Sartre might say: is my course, myself? Am I foolish in thinking I can profess a philosophy that requires personal authenticity and political engagement?

I really liked this essay, not least because when my late wife Carol and I were undergraduates we were both passionate admirers of Sartre and his famous collaborator Simone de Beauvoir. (In fact Carol went on to do a Masters thesis on Beauvoir’s autobiography, and even interviewed her in Paris.) Of course, given the later revelations of how manipulative those two were, I feel rather differently about them now. But if you can’t be naive when you’re young and impressionable, when can you be? And Beauvoir’s The Second Sex was one of the most important books of the 20th century.

Books, etc.

I’m reading Aaron Perzanowski’s terrific book with interest, not just because it’s on a topic that is really important, but also because he’s speaking at an event I’m running in the Cambridge Festival on March 28. If you’re going to be in town that evening, why not come? It’s in Wolfson College and may be over-subscribed — so register early if you’re hoping to be there.

My commonplace booklet

Welsh road building projects stopped after failing climate review

Wow! Is this a world first?

From The Guardian

Dozens of road building projects across Wales have been halted or amended as part of a “groundbreaking” policy that reassessed more than 50 schemes against a series of tough tests on their impact on the climate emergency.

Only 15 of the projects reviewed by an expert roads review panel will go ahead in their original form, with others scaled back, postponed or in some cases shelved.

The scrapped projects include a third bridge across the Menai Strait which separates the island of Anglesey from the Welsh mainland.

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Thursday 16 February, 2023


Seen on a walk the other day. Amazing what nature comes up with.

Quote of the Day

“It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.”

  • Frederick Douglass

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

J.S. Bach | Concerto for Oboe (from BWV 105, 170 & 49) | 2. Andante


Long Read of the Day

7 minutes from the end of class

Intriguing essay by Harry Brighouse on Crooked Timber, one of my favourite blogs

I sometimes employ an undergraduate to observe my teaching, and criticize what I do. I’ve learned a lot from them over the years, but I really employ them, these days, to hold me accountable to the standards I set myself and to tell me what is happening in the room (this is especially valuable in large classes) more than with the expectation that I’ll learn something brand new.

Anyway, last week my new observer, Allyson, solved what has been a longstanding problem for me. In my large classes students get antsy n the last ten minutes, and start, slowly, and discreetly, to put their stuff away and get ready to go. Each individual student is not disruptive, but having most of them doing this over a 7 minute period is very distracting (for them and for me). It’s especially bad in winter because they have lots of clothes to put on.

And I am not blaming them for this. My campus is large, and there is a 15 minute gap between classes. Unless they are ready to go the second class ends many of them will be late for the next class.

Allyson pointed out the antsiness, and suggested the following: 7 minutes from the end of class tell them that they are not leaving till the end of the class, but that I am giving them one minute to get their stuff together…

So he tried it. Read on to find out how it worked.

Gasoline Car Review

Lovely satirical spoof by Geoff Greer.

I recently purchased a Mazda Miata. This car is interesting because instead of running on electricity, it is powered by a combustible liquid called gasoline. The vehicle has an engine that mixes the gasoline with oxygen from the air, ignites the mixture, and uses the resulting combustion to push the car forward. I don’t fully understand the details of how it works, but this difference in propulsion technology totally changes the experience of owning and operating a vehicle.

After taking delivery of the car, my first hurdle was getting it to do anything. I opened the door (the handles are very prominent), sat in the driver’s seat, and… nothing happened. No screen showed any messages. The climate control didn’t turn on. The car seemed dead. I pressed the accelerator (Mazda calls this the “gas” pedal) but again, nothing. I called their support line and quickly figured out the issue: Unlike a normal car, a gas car needs to be “started”. Apparently it would be wasteful and expensive to keep the gasoline engine running all the time, so you’re only supposed to run the engine if you’re moving the vehicle. The starting process is pretty painless: You insert your key into a slot on the side of the steering column, push the clutch pedal (more on that later), then turn the key and hold it for a second or two. I succeeded on the first try, causing the car to jump to life and emit all kinds of crazy noises. Imagine if a steam locomotive had a baby with a machine gun. That’s the sort of noise that comes out of a gas car. It evokes both excitement and concern…

It goes on like this. Hope you enjoy it a much as I did.

Vermeer: the ‘Watch with Mother’ version

The Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam has a huge (and sold-out) Vermeer retrospective. Since thousands of people will be unable to see it in person, the powers—that-be in the museum had the bright idea of commissioning a little film in which a Famous Person would escort the grateful viewer through the pictures, pausing to utter helpful homilies from time to time. The Famous Person chosen for this task is none other than Stephen Fry, the great actor and Jeeves imitator who was then hijacked by being given a fatuous, patronising script to read. The result: an embarrassing flop.

My commonplace booklet

How Sam Pepys spent Thursday 16 February, 1660

In the morning at my lute. Then came Shaw and Hawly, and I gave them their morning draft at my house. So to my office, where I wrote by the carrier to my Lord and sealed my letter at Will’s, and gave it old East to carry it to the carrier’s, and to take up a box of china oranges and two little barrels of scallops at my house, which Captain Cuttance sent to me for my Lord. Here I met with Osborne and with Shaw and Spicer, and we went to the Sun Tavern in expectation of a dinner, where we had sent us only two trenchers-full of meat, at which we were very merry, while in came Mr. Wade and his friend Capt. Moyse (who told us of his hopes to get an estate merely for his name’s sake), and here we staid till seven at night, I winning a quart of sack of Shaw that one trencherfull that was sent us was all lamb and he that it was veal. I by having but 3d. in my pocket made shift to spend no more, whereas if I had had more I had spent more as the rest did, so that I see it is an advantage to a man to carry little in his pocket.

Home, and after supper, and a little at my flute, I went to bed.

The annotations for this day are fascinating. Now I see where the term ‘trencherman’ comes from, for example.

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Wednesday 15 February, 2023

Spring is sprung

In a friend’s garden yesterday.

Quote of the Day

”At 50 everyone has the face he deserves”.

  • George Orwell, in his notebook, 17 April, 1949

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Carole King | Chains


Thanks to Doc Searls (Whom God Preserve) for the reminder.

Long Read of the Day

Artificial Intelligence and The Best Game in Town: Or How Some Philosophers, and the Behavioral and Brain Sciences journal, Missed a Step 

Intriguing long read by David Lobina on the implications of the fact that LLMs (large language models) are essentially statistical engines. Includes his (rejected) response to a challenge issued by BBS.

Modern AI [i.e. machine-learning] is, in a way, glorified statistics, in the same way that a flat white is a glorified caffellatte – actually, a flat white is a badly made cappuccino, but the analogy still holds up: a former friend once joked that Mitt Romney seemed like a botched connectionist attempt at building a president. And as with Romney, probably, there is really nothing there; a chatbot such as ChatGPT doesn’t “know” any language, or any aspect of language, and it doesn’t “know” how to reason, either, certainly no more than a calculator “knows” how to, er, well, put two and two together (maybe the calculator understands the metaphor, though).

Indeed, and as stressed last month, deep neural networks connect an input with an output on the basis of the gigantic amounts of data they are fed during so-called “training”, when the relevant correlations are calculated. In the case of LLMs such as ChatGPT (note that I’m conflating an LLM with the “dialogue management system” that queries an LLM; will come back to this), the model predicts one word at a time, and only one word at a time every single time, given a specific sequence of words (that is, a string of words), and without making any use of the syntactic or semantic representation of the sentences it is inputted.

That is, LLMs calculate the probability of the next word given a context…

Interesting if you’re fascinated by the fuss about LLMs. But it may also be an acquired taste.

ChatGPT, etc.

One of the things that’s very interesting about ChatGPT is the way programmers are using it. I’d been wondering about this for a while (and indeed in the first piece I wrote about it had likened its arrival to the arrival of VisiCalc, the first spreadsheet in the late 1970s) but this post by Dave Winer (Whom God Preserve), arguing that “ChatGPT clearly has a place” elegantly crystallised that view.

This thread is worth money. I’ve given ChatGPT programming jobs like the ones the author describes, and it’s saved me huge amounts of time. Last one was asking how to do something with the Twitter API. I could have spent fifteen minutes trying to find it in the docs, or on Stack Exchange, but I got the answer instead in a few seconds, and there was no bullshit, no preambles, just the answer to the question I asked.

And, later…

Journalists, who do most of the writing about news, immediately focus on how it might affect their careers, and imho educators zoom past the purpose of education, to create more better-educated people. As a kid, I had a party the day my parents bought us an encyclopedia. That meant we could settle arguments by getting facts. We could’ve gotten them before but that would’ve meant a trip to the library. Better tools make for better information. ChatGPT is a revolutionary tool. Kind of like Alta Vista was when the web first came out. I’m sure people screamed that it would screw up something. People always say that about change, esp people who are invested in the way things are.

Maybe there will be negative consequences of ChatGPT, but I’m sure we’re not in a position to see what they are now, based on experience with similar changes. And maybe we’ll look back on this moment twenty years from now, and not be able to imagine what life was like before we had this fantastic tool.

My commonplace booklet

 Her car died, so she walked to work. One day on the walk, she found $15,000.

If you’re overwhelmed by the awfulness of the world, here is a heartwarming story from the Seattle Times.

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Tuesday 14 February, 2023


Captivating piece of urban art by Natalie Rak (aka Rak), a street artist based in Poland.

Thanks to Ingrid Hoeben via Mastodon.

Quote of the Day

”People ask me why I ride with my bottom in the air. Well, I’ve got to put it somewhere.”

  • Lester Pigott, who was Champion Jockey 11 times and rode 29 Classic winners — including the Derby 11 times.

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Martin Hayes and Dennis Cahill | The Cat In The Corner/John Naughton’s Jig


I wish I could claim the credit for this, but my namesake was a legendary Co Clare musician and a great collector of tunes. And Martin Hayes is one of the greatest Irish musicians around today. Thanks to Declan Deasy for the hint.

Long Read of the Day

Love and Loathing in the Time of ChatGPT

As you doubtless already know, there’s a veritable tsunami of comment, speculation, criticism and dazzlement about ChatGPT. Believe me, I’ve read too much of it and I’m depressed by the naïveté and short-termism of a lot of it. All of which explains why I really welcomed this long, long essay by Ali Minai. It’s one of the best things I’ve read to date, and contains, among other things, an ingenious and insightful experiment he did with the system.

Here’s a sample that illustrates the wisdom of the piece:

So what can we learn from these little diversions? First, that ChatGPT is indeed a very powerful tool – one capable of capturing our attention and playing with our minds. It is not a toy.

Second, that, for information it has been trained on explicitly (e.g., individuals with detailed Wikipedia pages and other public information), it has good recall, but once pushed out of this comfort zone, it begins to make stuff up rather than admitting ignorance. There needs to be a caveat here: I have occasionally seen it add incorrect information even for well-known instances, and sometimes to beg off with an excuse of ignorance for an unfamiliar one. ChatGPT too is whimsical in its own way, and seldom generates the same answer twice.

Third, when it does make things up, it does so in a plausible way, making those falsehoods much harder to detect. This is because the entire basis of language models is to generate text that is in context. For applications such as generating movie scripts or fairy tales, this is great, but not when the bot is being queried for accurate information. Finally, we see that ChatGPT is capable of spinning a yarn when the right query comes along, as in the “Grimus Caterwaul” case. Thus, even though it does not really understand, its simulation of understanding is quite impressive. It can, therefore, be a very useful tool in applications that require appropriate confabulation, such as brainstorming or plotting stories…

Do read it. Worth your time.

My commonplace booklet

My piece yesterday on Virginia Woolf’s delight in her new “nine penny” fountain pen, and my wondering what that would be in today’s money, started lots of hares running.

“One of those inflation calculators,” wrote James Mackay,

tells us that £1 today is equivalent to 1.9p (=4.56d) in 1924. So Virginia Woolf’s nine pennies, 9d, then were conveniently close to £2 now. I suspect that your old pens would now sell for more.

Lots of readers, including Andy Linton, Steve Waller and Brian Naughton pointed me to the CPI inflation calculator which claims that £1 in 1024 would be the equivalent of £77.78 today.

Given that there were 240 pennies in a 1924 £, VW’s pen cost £0.0375. Which, being translated into today’s money looks like £2.92. Well, you might get a cheap biro for that, so my guess is that Woolf’s pen cost a lot more than nine old pennies.

This set me off down an entertaining rabbit-hole. I find, for example, that there is no bandwagon onto which some manufacturers will hesitate to jump. Montblanc, for example, created “a rare Virginia Woolf writers limited edition full set of three writing instruments includes fountain pen, ballpoint pen and mechanical pencil” which a dealer is now advertising for £1,000.

And in 2010 Bonhams sold a fountain pen from such a set for $427. According to the blurb,

Seventy-five years after the publication of her novel The Waves, this black resin pen with its carved wave shapes evokes the life and work of this modern British writer. The curved shape of the pen and its simple clip set with a single ruby highlight the pen. 5 ½” (13.8 cm). Medium 18 K gold nib with two engraved elm trees. Includes original packaging and papers. Limited Edition: 08,002/16,000.

Being a snob, perhaps VW would have enjoyed this. Or would she have been mortified? It’s almost enough to make one wonder if someone has marketed a limited edition of Vita Sackville-West’s mechanical pencil. On the other hand, life is short.

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Monday 13 February, 2023

Early morning on the river

On Friday. Thanks to Pete for the pic.

Quote of the Day

”The dogs had eaten the upholstery of a Packard convertible that afternoon and were consequently somewhat subdued.”

  • S.J. Perelman

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

The Rolling Stones | Sweet Virginia (Live)


Long Read of the Day

Beyond Borders

Adam Shatz writing in the London Review of Books about Adolfo Kaminsky, possibly the most accomplished forger of the 20th century.

In the spring​ of 1944, a young man was stopped at a checkpoint of the Pétainist milice outside the Saint-Germain-des-Prés metro station. According to his identity card, he was Julien Keller, aged seventeen, a dyer, born in the département of the Creuse. The bag he was carrying contained dozens of other fake identity papers. But he was confident that the police had no idea how frightened he was because he had learned to affect an air of serenity. ‘I also knew, with certainty, that my papers were in order,’ he recalled many years later. After all, ‘I was the one who had made them.’

‘Julien Keller’ was the nom de guerre of Adolfo Kaminsky, who died in Paris last month aged 97. It was largely thanks to him that the German-occupied zone of wartime France was flooded with false documents. The Occupation authorities were on his trail, but they never suspected that the forger they were after was a teenager…

Great story. Extraordinary man.

Well, I never: AI is very proficient at designing nerve agents

Yesterday’s Observer column

Here’s a story that evangelists for so-called AI (artificial intelligence) – or machine-learning (ML) – might prefer you didn’t dwell upon. It comes from the pages of Nature Machine Intelligence, as sober a journal as you could wish to find in a scholarly library. It stars four research scientists – Fabio Urbina, Filippa Lentzos, Cédric Invernizzi and Sean Ekins – who work for a pharmaceutical company building machine-learning systems for finding “new therapeutic inhibitors” – substances that interfere with a chemical reaction, growth or other biological activity involved in human diseases.

The essence of pharmaceutical research is drug discovery. It boils down to a search for molecules that may have therapeutic uses and, because there are billions of potential possibilities, it makes searching for needles in haystacks look like child’s play. Given that, the arrival of ML technology, enabling machines to search through billions of possibilities, was a dream come true and it is now embedded everywhere in the industry…

Do read the whole piece

Books, etc.

The book speaks of the need for storytelling as protection from the chaos of reality, but for whom is reality chaotic? For disillusioned intellectuals, but probably not for merchant bankers and military planners. It may be a rough old place, but that’s different. Virginia Woolf seems to have seen the world as chaotic, but one doubts the same was true of her servants. In any case, you could just as easily see reality as stiflingly rule-bound and constrictive, and fiction as a playful relief from this straitjacket.

Terry Eagleton, reviewing Peter Brooks’s book, Seduced by Story: The Use and Abuse of Narrative.

My commonplace booklet

From Virginia Woolf’s diary for 9 January, 1924.

I may say that coincident with the purchase of 51 Tavistock Sqre (how I like writing that) is the purchase of a nine penny pen, a fountain pen, which has an ordinary nib & writes — sometimes very well. Am I more excited by buying Tavistock Sqre, or by buying my new fountain pen? — which reflection which reminds me that I have volume 7 of Montaigne to polish off.”

Gosh! I wonder what nine 1924 pennies pence would translate to in today’s money. (There must be a conversion table somewhere?) It would give me an idea of what my collection of pens might worth. Apart altogether from their sentimental value, of course.

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Friday 10 February, 2023

The flying horse

This is the most surreal photograph I’ve ever taken. In September 2007 I was standing early one morning on Noordeinde in The Hague waiting for a friend to show up when I saw this extraordinary display in the window of a fancy antique shop. What’s particularly nice (for me) is that it’s an analogue photograph taken with an old film Leica.

Quote of the Day

”To the Tennis Court, and there saw the King play at tennis and others; but to see how the King’s play was extolled, without any cause at all, was a loathsome sight.”

  • Samuel Pepys in his diary, 4 January, 1664.

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Elgar | Introduction & Allegro for Strings, Op.47 | Pinchas Zukerman


Long Read of the Day

The Defiance of Salman Rushdie

A fine essay by David Remnick, Editor of The New Yorker.

hen Salman Rushdie turned seventy-five, last summer, he had every reason to believe that he had outlasted the threat of assassination. A long time ago, on Valentine’s Day, 1989, Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, declared Rushdie’s novel “The Satanic Verses” blasphemous and issued a fatwa ordering the execution of its author and “all those involved in its publication.” Rushdie, a resident of London, spent the next decade in a fugitive existence, under constant police protection. But after settling in New York, in 2000, he lived freely, insistently unguarded. He refused to be terrorized.

There were times, though, when the lingering threat made itself apparent, and not merely on the lunatic reaches of the Internet. In 2012, during the annual autumn gathering of world leaders at the United Nations, I joined a small meeting of reporters with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the President of Iran, and I asked him if the multimillion-dollar bounty that an Iranian foundation had placed on Rushdie’s head had been rescinded. Ahmadinejad smiled with a glint of malice. “Salman Rushdie, where is he now?” he said. “There is no news of him. Is he in the United States? If he is in the U.S., you shouldn’t broadcast that, for his own safety.”

Within a year, Ahmadinejad was out of office and out of favor with the mullahs. Rushdie went on living as a free man. The years passed…

It’s a classic Remnick piece, beautifully written and insightful. You could call it a profile in courage (to echo JFK’s ghost-written book). And it includes a wonderful portrait of Rushdie as he is now, a living embodiment of Hemingway’s definition of courage: “grace under pressure”.

The Generative AI wars begin

There’s something deeply comical about the sudden panic in the tech industry over ChatGPT. Microsoft decided to use the bot to smarten up its Bing search engine (which up to now has had less than 10% of the search market). This caught Google (which dominates the market) on the hop, so it brought forward the deployment of BARD — its answer to ChatGPT. On Monday, it published an ad for the new toy.

The only problem was — as Reuters quickly pointed out — there was a glaring factual error in the bot’s answer to the question: “What new discoveries from the James Webb Space Telescope can I tell my 9 year old about?”

It turns out that the first pictures of exoplanets — credited by Bard to the JWST — were in fact taken by the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope (VLT) in 2004!

I asked ChatGPT “Why did Google’s BARD get the question about the James Webb Space Telescope wrong?”

Sadly, ChatGPT was too busy to play. Instead it wrote me a little poem.

Later, an email pointed me to a comparative study of Bard vs. ChatGPT that someone had arranged. The summary of results looks like this:

Meanwhile — as usual — Gary Marcus highlighted something I had missed, namely the strange imbalance in media coverage of the two rival companies’ efforts. The NYT’s Kevin Roose, for example, “even went so far as to chide anyone who even expressed concern about the errors, saying that ‘fixating on the areas where these tools fall short risks missing what’s so amazing about what they get right’. “Meanwhile”, says Marcus,

it is striking that neither Roose nor anyone else has explained exactly why Google and Microsoft received such different reception. The two megacompanies both demoed prototypes, neither fully ready for public use, built around apparently comparable technology, facing apparently similar bugs, within a day of each other. Yet one demo was presented as a revolution, the other as a disaster.

Since neither company has yet subjected their products to full scientific review, it’s impossible to say which is more trustworthy; it might well turn out that Google’s new product is actually more reliable.

Most likely, neither of them are particularly reliable. Yet they are being treated as polar opposites. At the very least, someone ought be asking, from business perspective, what’s the moat here, if two companies are basically both about to offer the same thing?

It’s amazing how fixated the world has become on this generative tech. I was at a posh dinner party of apparently well-informed people on Wednesday night and it was difficult to keep the discussion (which was supposed to be about ‘data-centric engineering’) away from ChatGPT.

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 9 February, 2023


Quote of the Day

”Four things I’d been better without
Love, curiosity, freckles, and doubt.”

  • Dorothy Parker

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Jackson Browne & David Lindley | Stay


Long Read of the Day

The Sad Prince

Unexpectedly interesting essay by Derek Neal about trying to escape one’s origins, which means that it’s about Prince Harry, of all people.

I never thought I would write about Prince Harry. As an American, I have a natural aversion to the Royal Family and to the idea that they are somehow different or special by virtue of their birth. They’re just people. But I’m also Canadian by way of my mother, and now that I’ve lived in Canada for a few years, the Canadian interest in the Royals seems to have rubbed off on me, and I can’t help but feel some sort of sympathy for Harry’s plight. He thinks he’s made it to the end of his story—the narrative urge is incredibly strong in the Netflix show (Meghan mentions how they’ve come “full circle”)—yet I can’t help but feel this is just the first chapter, and that the story, which Meghan calls “a fairy tale,” will end up being a bit more sinister, a bit more like a Henry James novel or a Joan Didion essay.

Books, etc.

 The End of the McLuhan Centre for Culture & Technology (1968 – 2023)


The purpose of the Centre for Culture and Technology, as initially envisioned by Marshall McLuhan in 1963, was to “advance the understanding of the origins and effects of technology.” One of the specific objectives was “to organize an inter-disciplinary seminar for staff members and graduate students and to devise new experimental procedures for identifying the psychic and social consequences of technological change.” These were revolutionary ideas at the time and there was excitement in the air.

They were (and, in a way, they’ve acquired a new saliency in our current media ecosystem), but it seems that the Faculty of Information in the University of Toronto no longer has much interest in them.

I gave a talk on McLuhan years ago.

McLuhan Keynote

Click to download.

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 8 February, 2023

Two ladies of Arles

Speaks for itself, really.

Quote of the Day

”Saints should always be judged guilty until they are proved innocent.”

  • George Orwell

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

John Field | Nocturne no 5 in B flat major | John O’Conor


I love all the Field nocturnes, but this one is special.

Long Read of the Day

We are ‘greening’ ourselves to extinction

Sharp essay by Vijay Kolinjivadi from the University of Antwerp.

More than a decade ago, investment experts James Altucher and Douglas Sease wrote a book for the Wall Street Journal called ‘Investing in the Apocalypse’. They argued that the end of the world is a profitable opportunity for those who know how to “fade the fear”, as everyone else panics. They maintained that when disaster strikes, investors should approach it with the rationale that “no matter how bad things seem, they really aren’t that bad”.

Well before the COVID-19 pandemic, they advised investing in big pharmaceutical companies as a strategy to reap dividends from global pandemics. They also encouraged putting money into renewable energy systems while ramping up oil production.

Today, it seems many have followed Althucher and Sease’s advice. Under the guise of taking action on the pandemic, billions of dollars have been poured into big pharma, instead of public health and policies aimed at preventing another global outbreak. The supposed energy transition that has been undertaken has seen renewable energy production expanded, but there has been no indication that oil and gas are being substituted and ultimately phased out.

What is worse, governments and corporations have teamed up to turn the apocalypse into a money-making opportunity…

It’s good on the ‘carbon offsets’ racket, too.

And of course it reminds me that we need a theory of incompetent systems — ones that can’t fix themselves.

Books, etc.

Security guru Bruce Schneier has a new book, A Hacker’s Mind: How the Powerful Bend Society’s Rules, and How to Bend them Back, coming out soon, and it’s on my reading list. (I think I’ve read all of his previous books.) Cory Doctorow (Whom God Preserve) has a nice blog post about it — and about Schneier.

Schneier led the charge for a kind of sensible, reasonable thinking about security, using a mix of tactics to shift the discourse on the subject: debating TSA boss Kip Hawley, traveling with reporters through airport checkpoints while narrating countermeasures to defeat every single post-9/11 measure, and holding annual “movie-plot threat” competitions.

Most importantly, though, Schneier wrote long-form books that set out the case for sound security reasoning, railing against security theater and calling for policies that would actually make our physical and digital world more secure – abolishing DRM, clearing legal barriers to vulnerability research and disclosure, and debunking security snake-oil, from “unbreakable proprietary ciphers” to “behavioral detection training” for TSA officers.

He even designed the rings for Cory’s wedding — which, naturally, were cipher wheels.

One thing I especially like about Schneier is his description of himself as

“a public-interest technologist, working at the intersection of security, technology, and people”.

My commonplace booklet

Deus ex machina

My friend Quentin had the good idea of asking ChatGPT to come up with an Eleventh Commandment. And a Twelfth. And a Thirteenth!

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