Thursday 2 February, 2023


Quote of the Day

We are never so generous as when giving advice.”

  • François de La Rochefoucauld

Spot on. I’m with Oscar Wilde in this: “I always pass on good advice’, he famously observed. “It is the only thing to do with it. It is never of any use to oneself.”

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Altan | The Wind and Rain


Wonderful group. One of the best concerts I’ve ever been to was given by them when, having become world-famous, they came back one lovely Summer evening to the Donegal village whence they had sprung.

Long Read of the Day

The prescience of Joseph Weizenbaum

For people who have been watching the tech industry for as long as I have, the excitement/hysteria about ChatGPT will have brought to mind Josept Weizenbaum and his ELIZA chatbot, which he built between 1964 and 1966 and eventually unveiled that year. His reflections on what he — and we — learned from that have suddenly acquired a new salience, which is why it was so nice to come on this essay the other day.

Its starting point is a quotation from a lecture that Weizenbaum gave in 1983 on “The paradoxical role of the computer”:

“On the one hand the computer makes it possible in principle to live in a world of plenty for everyone, on the other hand we are well on our way to using it to create a world of suffering and chaos. Paradoxical, no?”

And then takes off…

though this is a clash that we still find ourselves wrestling with today, it can be useful to take a step back and consider how it could have been foreseen some forty years ago. While 1983 is certainly not ancient history, when it comes to the history of computing, forty years can certainly seem like a time when dinosaurs still roamed the earth. After all, 1983 was pre-smartphone, prior to the genuine takeoff of the personal computer, it was before the web and therefore also before Web 2.0 and Web3—heck, quite a few of the figures who dominate contemporary discussions around computer technology hadn’t even been born yet (or were still children). 1983 was a long time ago for computers, yet for some figures who were paying attention, figures like Weizenbaum, it was already possible to see the direction that the eager embrace of computers was putting societies on—and though such figures spoke out in hopes that the direction would be changed, it is likely that many of them would not be too surprised with the messes we find ourselves in at present.

It’s a terrifically thoughtful and wise piece. Well worth your time.

My commonplace booklet

Last week I found myself in a part of Cambridge that I hadn’t seen since before the pandemic. I realised after I’d parked that the parking meter only took cash and realised that I hadn’t any on me. But I remembered that there were a couple of bank branches round the corner where I could pick up some real money and strolled on — only to discover that both branches were no more. One was boarded up. The other had become some kind of food outlet.

Which is one reason I so enjoyed Robert Shrimsley’s column in the FT magazine last Saturday.

Here’s a sample:

The old bank opposite the cycle shop on the High Street is about to reopen as an exercise studio and gym. That makes at least four such places within about 500 yards of each other. On the other hand, another form of bank building is now a Gail’s bakery, so at least shuttered financial institutions are offering diversity on health options.

What used to be Barclays is now good for sourdough loaves, brownies, and sausage rolls. What do used to be NatWest will help you work off those calories. When you look at it that way, this is practically cartel behaviour. The Gail’s is clearly a valuable addition, but the bank was better for me. Say what you like about Barclays, but I’m pretty sure I never ate their bank notes on the way home.

The Santander has also gone, but not yet transformed into anything else. Presumably it is still working through the pastries – or – Pilates dilemma faced by former financial institutions. Perhaps it should consider reopening as a hairdresser. There is a serious gap in the market in that part of the High Street. Residents still have to walk several yards to get their hair done. They might even have to cross the road.

Hairdressers, Cafes, exercise, studios, cycle shops and vets seem to be the future of our High Streets. The logic of this is obvious. The only places which see a future are those offering physical services you cannot simply secure with a click of the mouse. By any measure our High Street is still very well served, especially if you need a haircut.

Welcome to Global Britain.

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