Friday 31 March, 2023

Darwin and his masterpiece (x2)

Seen in a bookshop window yesterday

Quote of the Day

”The camera makes everyone a tourist in other people’s reality and, eventually in one’s own.”

  • Susan Sontag

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Satie | Je te veux


Long Read of the Day

How Will AI Transform Photography?

As artists experiment with this fast-evolving technology, they uncover creative opportunity, absurdity, and bias. So says Charlotte Kent, an arts writer and an assistant professor of visual culture at Montclair State University in a thought-provoking essay. It pulled me up short because, as a keen photographer, I initially thought that generative AI technology was a threatening antithesis to photography. The article suggests, though, that some photographers see its possibilities for augmentation.


Due to the range of sources from which these image generators pull data—online images ranging from stock photography, news imagery, social media posts, and personal websites—the results can range from the real to the uncanny. New York–based photographer Charlie Engman believes that AI’s limited understanding of bodies stems from perceiving them through images, not lived experiences. Informed by a background in dance and performance, Engman’s work spans fashion imagery as well as collaborative portraits of his mother. His AI experiments push some of these ideas further, exploring how the technology is able and unable to articulate bodily movement.

Our physical gestures are expressive of internal, psychological states, but AI struggles to process the aesthetic of emotions. Grief or pleasure may appear on AI-generated faces but isn’t replicated in those figures’ postures or gestures. Engman has observed that the body language of performers includes subtle movement choices cultivated over time to express thoughts and feelings, but these are rarely read accurately across AI data sets. Tags associated with images don’t typically specify a relationship between affect and a particular gesture. For instance, an emotion might be determined as happy because many images with smiles are tagged “happy,” but the AI might not be prompted to discern other subtle postures or stances, such as relaxed shoulders. For Engman, this gap is a compelling reason to explore the technology…

The piece includes lots of striking images, like this one making a commentary on office life.

Interesting throughout.

Books, etc.

Travels with Charley

Browsing in David’s bookshop in Cambridge yesterday morning, I came on a battered copy of this and was reminded of the first time I read it, aeons ago. I had an audio copy of it too, and sometimes listened to it during the years when I had a long commute to work. But then I mislaid my copy and the cassette tapes of the audio version went the way of all cassette tapes. So I opened the paperback and read this…

When I was very young and the urge to be some place else was on me, I was assured by mature people that maturity would cure this itch. When years described me as mature, the remedy prescribed was middle age. In middle age, I was assured that greater age would calm my fever and now that I am fifty-eight perhaps senility will do the job. Nothing has worked. Four hoarse blasts of a ship’s whistle still raise the hair on my neck and set my feet to tapping. The sound of a jet, an engine warming up, even the clopping of shod hooves on pavement brings on the ancient shudder, the dry mouth and vacant eye, the hot palms and the churn of the stomach, high up under the rib cage. In other words, I don’t improve; in further words, once a bum always a bum. I fear the disease is incurable. I set this matter down not to instruct others but to inform myself…

…and was lost. So I paid David £2 thinking “well, that takes care of the weekend”.

My commonplace booklet

Going Solar

My friend Quentin (Whom God Preserve) decided that he would ‘go solar’ some time ago. And he did. But Quentin never does anything by halves, or without thinking things through beforehand. And he’s just released a video describing what he did and explaining the various decisions he made. It’s long (nearly 40 minutes) but if you’re seriously interested in harnessing the power of the sun for domestic reasons, then you’ll learn a lot from it. I know I did.

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Thursday 30 March, 2023

Tricycling for billionaires

Well, as Zero Mostel shouted in The Producers, “If you’ve got it, baby, flaunt it.”

Quote of the Day

“The past is never dead. It isn’t even past.”

  • William Faulkner

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Padraig Ó Carra | An Buachaill Caol Dubh (The slender black boy)


Another product of the ongoing discussion about Hammered Dulcimers. This was suggested by Joe Dunne, who lived in Galway in the 1980s and often heard Ó Carra perform.

There are some annoying clicks on the recording. Do not adjust your sets if you hear them. Blame the sound engineer who did the recording.

Long Read of the Day

Cheating is All You Need

A very perceptive blog post about LLMs (Large Language Models like Chat GPT, GTP-4, et al) by Steve Yegge, one of the most experienced software gurus around.

TL;DR summary

There is something legendary and historic happening in software engineering, right now as we speak, and yet most of you don’t realize at all how big it is.

Includes a compelling example of ChatGPT’s ability to write a good piece of functioning code from a sloppy verbal description of what was required.

Fascinating and worth a read.

Books, etc.

There’s a new issue of the journal Daedalus which is absolutely fabulous. The theme is “Creating a New Moral Political Economy”. It’s edited by Margaret Levi and Henry Farrell and has a list of terrific contributors that includes Alison Gopnik, Anne-marie Slaughter, Joshua Cohen, Rebecca Henderson, Colin Mayer, Margaret O’Mara, Marion Fourcade, danah boyd and Bill Janeway (Whom God Preserve). Like manna from heaven — and it’s free! A whole weekend’s brain-food.

DPReview, RIP

DPReview, the best source of informed reviews of photographic gear, is being shuttered by its owner, Amazon, after 25 years. It was founded in 1998 and acquired by Amazon on 2007, having built up a formidable reputation for providing us with detailed reviews of cameras, lenses, and related kit. It was originally based in London, but eventually moved its operations to Seattle to be closer to its new owner and where it continued to operate relatively independently.

It was caught up in the recent round of layoffs at Amazon. At a guess, I’d say that — given the way that smartphone photography has eroded the market for real photo kit — it was regarded by Amazon as a poor prospect for growth.

Pity. I always valued its reviews, and occasionally bought something based on them.

How to beat Trump?

Jack Shafer’s depressing advice for De Santis.

Apparently, there’s no mileage in attacking him for his innumerable failings.

Trump’s vulnerabilities reside in his positives, and that’s where DeSantis should probe for cracks and fissures. This is no independent discovery. GOP campaign strategist Karl Rove was famous for eroding an opponent’s strengths. For example, under the Rove lens during the 2004 presidential campaign, patriotic war veteran Sen. John Kerry was portrayed as something of a weakling as he challenged President George W. Bush (who, unlike Kerry, spent the Vietnam War in the Texas Air National Guard). “Sometimes people’s strengths turn out to be really big weaknesses,” Rove told Fox News in 2007. “We tend to — you know, people tend to sometimes in campaigns accentuate things that they think are big and important, and they exaggerate them.”

What are Trump’s positives? In his campaign 2016 kickoff, he promised, “I will build a great, great wall on our southern border and I’ll have Mexico pay for that wall,” and continued to praise his wall throughout the 2020 campaign. The wall turned out to be a Potemkin affair, with PolitiFact finding in 2020, “What the administration has mostly done is replace old and outdated designs with newer and improved barriers.” DeSantis could easily out-wing and out-demagogue Trump on the border (remember his airlift of asylum seekers to Martha’s Vineyard?) by savaging Trump’s wall as an illusion.

To defeat Trump, Shafer thinks De Santis could learn a thing or two from Stormy Daniels, the porn star who has won every round so far against Trump.

Daniels refused to be intimidated by Trump’s threats (ad baculum) and shrugged off his lawyer’s attempts at coercion. She didn’t let Trump reduce her to an object (reification) of scorn or hatred. And when she retaliated against him, it was with the artillery of humor, insulting his manhood. “In addition to his…umm…shortcomings, he has demonstrated his incompetence, hatred of women, and lack of self-control on Twitter AGAIN! And perhaps a penchant for bestiality. Game on, Tiny,” Daniels tweeted.

Depressing, isn’t it, when one thinks that the future of there American republic (if it has one) could be decided at this level.

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Wednesday 29 March, 2023

Haut Canine

We were having dinner in a nice Copenhagen restaurant one evening in 2022 when the proprietor’s dog decided to sit opposite to keep a friendly eye on these two strangers who had wandered onto his territory.

Quote of the Day

”The mistakes of the great, promulgated along with the discoveries of their genius, are apt to work havoc.”

  • Erwin Schrödinger, in “Nature and the Greeks”.

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Joni Mitchell | California | BBC In Concert, 1970)


Joni playing a dulcimer.

Thanks to Tom Hubbard for the link. And see Commonplace Booklet below for a trip down that particular rabbit hole.

Long Read of the Day


Perceptive essay by Kevin Xu on the RESTRICT Act currently wending its unimpeded way through Congress, and on what it means for Chinese companies hoping to do business in the US.

TL;DR — it’s “game over” for them.

From time to time, I like to read the full text of a legislative bill, if only to put my past work experience at the White House and my law degree to some good use. What caught my attention recently was the RESTRICT Act, which goes after the national security implications of Chinese technologies in the US. It is getting lots of traction in DC, so I read it – all 55-pages of it.

My one-sentence conclusion: if it becomes law, the RESTRICT Act basically spells “game over” for all Chinese technology companies seeking to do business in the US.

RESTRICT stands for Restricting the Emergence of Security Threats that Risk Information and Communications Technology. (Never underestimate how much energy Congressional staffers put into a catchy acronym to help pass a bill.) It covers all the potential dangers posed by technologies affiliated with America’s foreign adversaries – namely, the PRC (including Hong Kong and Macau), Russia, North Korea, Iran, Cuba, and Venezuela under Maduro. But everyone knows the bill is squarely aimed at China and, to a much lesser extent, Russia. (No one is concerned about the threat of networking equipment made in Iran or Cuba.)

What’s surprising to me is how extremely comprehensive the technology areas that are covered under this proposal, and how much power this bill gives the executive branch to ban (or restrict) these technologies for national security purposes…

Eerie echoes of the Cold War and CoCom.

Books, etc.

John Gray’s  Feline Philosophy: Cats and the Meaning of Life is great.

My commonplace booklet

On dulcimers, hammered or not

Tom Hubbard took issue with Sheila Hayman’s theory about ‘hammered’ dulcimers.

Ooooh, you’re going to hear from a lot of indignant dulcimer aficionados about your crude description of dulcimer distinctions.

Two very different instruments. Wikipedia can help.

It does. There are hammered ones (i.e. ones you play with hammers) and Appalachian ones, which are three- or four-stringed fretted instruments, generally played on the lap by strumming. (As by Joni Mitchell above).

He also sent a link to a great interpreter of the hammered dulcimer, one John McCutcheon. Here he is.

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Tuesday 28 March, 2023

Stepping stones

A section of the ‘limestone pavement’ of the Burren in Co Clare. Seen from a distance the karst landscape looks completely barren (“like a moonscape” someone once said). Yet close up it’s anything but. In fact, Wikipedia says, the region is renowned for its remarkable assemblage of plants and animals, and over 70% of Ireland’s species of flowers are found there. The Burren supports Arctic–alpine and Mediterranean Basin plants side-by-side, due to the unusual environment, as well as  many rare Irish species, some of which are only found in this area. When you look more closely, you see that many of the grikes — the crevices between the limestone slabs — basically provide micro-climates in which such exotica thrive. 

We spent a lovely day there on our last trip to Ireland.

Quote of the Day

”Interpretation is the revenge of the intellect upon art.”

  • Susan Sontag

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Bach | Concerto for 2 Violins Strings | BWV 1043: II. Adagio


Chosen because the sun was shining when I was listening to it.

Long Read of the Day

On Writing

Wonderful reflective essay by Helen Lewis on the difficult thing that many of us do for a living.

Notice what you notice. John Lloyd, the great comedy producer, once said to me that the best comedians use the audience as an editor: the audience are the experts: they know what’s funny. Something similar is true of journalism: you are a human being encountering the world, and if you find something interesting, the chances are, so will other people. If you find your brow furrowing, don’t be afraid to ask the question that just popped into your head.

The main reason people don’t do this is that they want to seem cool, or knowledgeable, in front of their interviewees. They don’t want to risk asking a stupid questions. Always ask the stupid question. Not least because if you don’t, you might come back, write up your piece and face an editor going, “so what did she mean by saying she lost her virginity to a goat?”

Read on. It’s lovely. And the best thing I’ve read on the subject since John McPhee’s book.

Helen sometimes reminds me of Joan Didion.

Yes, it’s crazy to have TikTok on official phones. But it’s not good for any of us

My OpEd piece in Sunday’s Observer.

As of this moment, government officials in 11 countries are forbidden to run TikTok on their government-issued phones. The countries include the US, Canada, Denmark, Belgium, the UK, New Zealand, Norway, France, the Netherlands and Poland. In addition, European Commission and European parliament staff were required to delete the app. This raises two questions.

First, why were politicians and senior officials in democracies scrolling like zombies through dance crazes, daft pet videos, feeling “bonita” and things you can do with smudged lipstick?

And second, what took these governments so long?

Do read the whole thing

My commonplace booklet

“Excitement” contd.

From the Humanist daily newsletter, which is an endless source of joy to those of us who like that sort of thing (to quote Miss Jean Brodie on the subject of chemistry). There’s been an interesting thread running on the newsletter about the tendency of ostensibly mature scholars regularly to announce (usually on Twitter) how “excited” or even “delighted” they are to be giving a paper at some dreary academic conference or other. (It is, of course, just virtue-signalling on steroids.)

From: Christian-Emil Smith Ore
Subject: Re: [Humanist] 36.478: excitement everywhere all the time, but no Oscar

And also synchronic cultural differences. In USA superlative and adverbs like fantastic are more frequent than in Nordic languages. Many years ago the Swedish lexicographer Martin Gjellerstam analysed a corpus of trivial literature (novels) and accidentally observed that the novels translated from English (US) had a much higher frequency of the word ‘gud’ (God) than the rest and definitely higher than the average of Swedish texts.

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Monday 27 March, 2023

What’s in a picture?

From Noema:

Where a host meets his guests reveals the context in which he wants to be regarded. The background decor of the chosen setting is more than a telling detail. It is the writing on the wall.

In the case of Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping, the image of power they want to project is out of the historical realm of czars and emperors among whom they place themselves. The civilizational past portrayed on their walls suffuses their vision of the future. It is the common springboard of opposition to the liberal world order of the West they are united in resisting.

This was in splendid evidence at the Moscow summit this week when Putin hosted a banquet for Xi at the 15th-century Palace of Facets in the Kremlin where czars celebrated after their coronation and consecrated the top clergy of the Orthodox Church. The mural behind the two leaders in the photo above, which depicts Vladimir the Great and his sons, is meant to convey legitimacy conferred through continuity. Vladimir ruled what came to be called the Kievan Rus from 980 to 1015, when he unified disparate principalities into one state and converted the nation to Christianity.

It is this very history that lay behind Putin’s justification of the invasion of Ukraine. Could he have been more explicit in what he was asking Xi to endorse?

The Chinese leader may have been unaware of the message the wily namesake of Vladimir I was sending through a staged photo-op. But he would have easily understood the uses of historical continuity as a touchstone to legitimate his own rule.

If Xi was unaware of it at the time, he isn’t now. Besides, as Noema points out, he uses similar imagery himself from time to time.

Quote of the Day

“You only live once, but if you do it right, once is enough”

  • Mae West


Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

The Dubliners | Christ Church


Long Read of the Day

On the allurements of conspiracy theory

Really astute and insightful essay by Phil Christman in the Hedgehog Review on a subject that my colleagues and I spent some years studying before it was academically fashionable. Interesting for — among other things — the way it tries to get inside a conspiracist’s head.

One day, you stumble across something—a long video, an article, a conversation (How rare those are! You must make more time for them…) with a learned friend. The same self-righteousness of authority crosses his face, the tinniness of certainty issued from his mouth too, but this time what he says sticks. It seems to explain the wrongness. Or not even explain it, really—just make it stand still. It was this thing that was wrong. The monster disclosed himself. He was something small and definable—a vaccine, a chemical—that spreads until it can’t be isolated, or he was something large and indefinable—“wokeness,” “CRT”—that terminates in many small, sharp wrongnesses. Or maybe it was the second sort of thing, but epitomized in a single image, so that it sounds like the first: The Cathedral. The cabal. But for a second, you could see the wrongness. How clarifying, simply to see it. You felt something like desire.

As you read on, as you watch more videos, as you continue to talk with your learned friend, you experience, for perhaps the first time in your life, the joy of scholarship. What was school, anyway? A punishment for being awake, a reminder that for every minute of playground, life will exact an hour of sitting still in a hot room that stinks of others’ lunches digesting. How can one doubt the existence of malign conspiracies in a world that answers the miraculous sharpening of adolescent senses with the sense-insulting colors, shapes, smells, of school? School never gave you this feeling, the feeling that “there is a world inside the world,” as Don DeLillo writes in Libra (1988), his great novel of the John F. Kennedy assassination. You start to become, as DeLillo depicts Oswald becoming, a sort of secular monk…

You read like Oswald, obsessively. You marshal for yourself the rough narrative of history that education should already have given you. You become that precious and imperiled thing, an autodidact…

It’s long but worth it.

Gordon Moore RIP

A great figure from the history of modern computing has passed away. Gordon Moore was a co-founder of Intel and the inspiration for the eponymous ‘Law’ predicting that the number of transistors that could be placed on a silicon chip would double at regular intervals for the foreseeable future, thus increasing the data-processing power of computers exponentially.

Holcomb Noble and Katie Hafner have a nice Obituary of him in the New York Times.

I met him once. He was on a visit to Cambridge, where he had endowed a beautiful science and technology library. I asked for an interview and we met in the office of the University Librarian and had a long chat about the early history of the industry and the part he had played in it. At one point I noticed that he was still wearing the ancient digital watch for which he had become famous and asked him why he still wore it. He answered that it was a peg for one of his stories — namely that, at $15 million it was the most expensive watch in the world. How come? Because that was Intel lost from trying to get into — and exiting from — the digital watch business.

Our talk was very enjoyable but after a while I started to worry about his schedule and mentioned to him that the car that the University had arranged to take him to meet the then Chancellor of the University (Prince Philip) should now be picking him up. So we went down to the Library entrance and… there was no limo in sight. He didn’t have a contact number for someone to call, but he knew where he was supposed to be heading. So we climbed into my battered Saab — littered with kids’ toys, tennis racquets and other junk — and I drove him to his destination.

After I dropped him off I drove home and told my late wife Sue about the about my role as an impromptu chauffeur. She was not amused. “What!” she expostulated. “You drove Gordon Moore in our crummy jalopy.” Then she went to her laptop, ascertained how many Intel shares Moore then owned, multiplied that by the share price and came back with the number $7B. The least I could have done, she said, was to get him to buy us a new Saab.

He was a nice and a good man. May he rest in peace.

You wait ages for an AI chatbot to come along, then a whole bunch turn up. Why?

Yesterday’s Observer column:

When, late last year, the editor asked me and other Observer writers what we thought 2023 would be like, my response was that it would be more like 1993 than any other year in recent history. Why? Simply this: 1993 was the year that Mosaic, the first modern web browser, launched and all of a sudden the non-technical world understood what this strange “internet” thing was for. This was despite the fact that the network had been switched on a whole decade earlier, during which time the world seemed almost entirely unaware of it; as a species, we seem to be slow on the uptake.

Much the same would happen in 2023, I thought, with ChatGPT. Machine-learning technology, misleadingly rebranded as artificial intelligence (AI), has been around for eons, but for the most part, only geeks were interested in it. And then out comes ChatGPT and suddenly “meatspace” (internet pioneer John Perry Barlow’s derisive term for the non-techie world) wakes up and exclaims: “So that’s what this AI stuff is all about. Wow!”

And then all hell breaks loose, because it turns out that all the tech giants, who had been obsessed with this generative AI stuff for years, realised that they had been scooped by a small US research outfit called OpenAI (cunningly funded by boring old Microsoft)…

Read on

My Commonplace Booklet

The other day, I wondered what a “hammered dulcimer” might be. (I was vaguely reminded of my undergraduate days when the term “hammered” described someone so drunk as to be incapable of independent locomotion, and I was entertaining fantasies of a inebriated musical instrument wandering the streets.)

Sheila Hayman (Whom God Preserve), whose mission in life is to protect me from my invincible ignorance, provided rapid enlightenment.

Basically, before pianos, keyboard instruments (harpsichords, clavichords, dulcimers) made their notes by plucking the strings, which meant no gradations of sound, no resonance, no long or short notes. Dual keyboard harpsichords made it possible to do loud or soft, but nothing in between. Then forte pianos and later pianofortes came along which hit the strings with hammers, which could be done more or less hard, giving more range of sound. Then dampers and the ‘loud’ pedal gave us resonance, and the ‘soft’ pedal (which just shifts the hammers along so they only hit two strings rather than three) gave an extra layer of expressiveness. Then Erard invetned the double escapement action which made it possible to repeat notes very quickly. Then Beethoven came along and showed what could be done with it. As did Fanny [Mendelssohn] about whom Sheila has made a new documentary.

So a hammered dulcimer, as I understand it, is an evolved dulcimer in which the strings are hammered, not plucked.

So now I know. And so , dear reader, do you.

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Friday 24 March, 2023

Don’s F

Don McCullough’s Nikon F. The one that took the bullet intended for him when he was covering the war in Vietnam. Best advertisement for a camera I’ve ever seen.

Quote of the Day

”For those who believe in God, no explanation is necessary. For those who do not believe, no explanation is possible.”

  • George Seaton

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Telemann | Concerto for Mandolin, Hammered Dulcimer, Harp and Continuo in F Major, TWV 53:F1 | I. Allegro


I’d often heard this but hadn’t know it was by Telemann. Also, I wondered what the poor dulcimer had done to be ‘hammered’.

In yesterday’s Musical Alternative by the wonderful Mary Bergin, my Apple autocorrect changed her name to ‘Begin’ and I didn’t notice. Growl!

Long Read of the Day

Hidden hydrogen: Earth may hold vast stores of a renewable, carbon-free fuel

Fascinating article by Eric Hand in Science, a really top-class journal.

The story starts with a ‘dry’ borehole in Mali.

In 2012, he recruited Chapman Petroleum to determine what was coming out of the borehole. Sheltered from the 50°C heat in a mobile lab, Brière and his technicians discovered that the gas was 98% hydrogen. That was extraordinary: Hydrogen almost never turns up in oil operations, and it wasn’t thought to exist within the Earth much at all. “We had celebrations with large mangos that day,” Brière says.

Within a few months, Brière’s team had installed a Ford engine tuned to burn hydrogen. Its exhaust was water. The engine was hooked up to a 30-kilowatt generator that gave Bourakébougou its first electrical benefits: freezers to make ice, lights for evening prayers at the mosque, and a flat-screen TV so the village chief could watch soccer games. Children’s test scores also improved. “They had the lighting to learn their lessons before going to class in the morning,” Diallo says. He soon gave up on oil, changed the name of his company to Hydroma, and began drilling new wells to ascertain the size of the underground supply.

The Malian discovery was vivid evidence for what a small group of scientists, studying hints from seeps, mines, and abandoned wells, had been saying for years: Contrary to conventional wisdom, large stores of natural hydrogen may exist all over the world, like oil and gas—but not in the same places.

If this is indeed the case, then it could be a significant moment in the quest for a low-carbon future.

Thanks to Charles Arthur for alerting me to it.

You can now run a GPT-3-level AI model on your laptop, phone, and Raspberry Pi

The ‘Generative AI’ genie is out of the bottle. And it’s being commoditised. Some of it is now running on my iPhone and my laptop. There’s even a version of Meta’s LLM now running (slowly) on a Raspberry Pi! This ArsTechnica piece gives a useful run-down on what’s happening.

My commonplace booklet

I’m really excited to say that your “really excited” messages turn me right off

From an exasperated Polish scholar on the Digital Humanities newsletter.

I’m truly excited and delighted and thrilled to see that it is not just my cynical self foaming at the mouth when I see all those “excited to be giving a talk at the conference…” tweets. Excited, really? Man, you’re 40, you should not be excited anymore whenever you talk at other people for 20 minutes in a room with a screen (half of those people are tweeting about something else anyway). I wonder if this is not just the same false excitement we see in commercials when that laxative really does the job on the acting persons’ entrails.

I guess it makes sense in very competitive academic climes (you know where). It’s interesting how hyperbolical the traditionally unemotional Anglo-Saxons have become. I don’t see a lot of that excitement (“podniecenie” or “ekscytacja”) in my native Polish in this context; I guess it’s because our academia is so underpaid that the competitiveness evaporates before it’s even born. But that is another story.

Couldn’t agree more. It’s astonishing how infantile academics can be on social media — especially Twitter — and, now, even on Mastodon.

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Thursday 23 March, 2023

Art Class

Two images created by the ‘GenerativeAI’ package, Stable Diffusion. The top one comes from running the app on my iPhone; the other from running a version of the software on my M1 MacBook Air — both in response to the prompt: “Photograph of Vermeer’s ‘Girl with a Pearl earring’ but with Apple AirPod instead of an earring.”

The thing to note is that all of this computation happened locally and not in the Cloud — first in a hand-held device, and then in a small laptop. What it means is that this generative technology has escaped from its corporate masters and is now loose in the wild.

Quote of the Day

”The most interesting ideas are heresies.”

  • Susan Sontag

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Mary Bergin | The Flogging Reel / The Ivy Leaf / Trim the Velvet


The tin whistle is the simplest imaginable musical instrument. But when you hear what Mary Bergin can do with it then you realise there’s something sublime there. I once heard her play in a pub in Clare and I’ll never forget it.

Long Read of the Day

The Heresy of Decline

Further to the Sontag quote above, this essay by Paul Constance about the uncomfortable reality that the human population will peak relatively soon is eye-opening. At least it was for me.

In all, more than 2.1 billion people — a quarter of humanity — now live in countries that are smaller each evening than they were in the morning. Because it is diffused throughout millions of people, this phenomenon is essentially invisible to the public, but the numbers are startling in aggregate. Each month, Russia’s population diminishes by around 86,000 people (not including casualties from the war in Ukraine), Japan’s by around 50,000, and Italy’s by at least 20,000. Fertility in these countries has been so low for so long that depopulation is cemented into their future, regardless of any near-term recovery in birthrates. Overall, the UN anticipates that their populations will shrink by between 20 percent and 50 percent by the end of the century. Other studies anticipate much larger and faster declines.

Constance writes interestingly about our general unwillingness to write or think about the long-term implications of depopulation. And he is puzzled by the fact that even sci-fi writers seem to avoid it.

One writer, though, hasn’t — Margaret Attwood in The Handmaid’s Tale, where she explains the demographic origins of her fictional dystopia in a single sentence:

”There was no one cause, says Aunt Lydia… [pointing to] a graph, showing the birth rate per thousand, for years and years: a slippery slope, down past the zero line of replacement, and down and down.”

Books, etc.

This is one of the most insightful books about technology that I’ve ever read. I reached for it the other day when I was writing about the sudden explosion of LLMs (Large Language Models). Arthur is a great economist, but also an expert on complexity. And his theory of “combinational innovation” provides the best explanation I know of many technological breakthroughs, few of which ever stemmed from an ‘Eureka! Moment’.

My commonplace booklet

Botanical ignoramuses

Lovely email from Arthur Kuebel:

Your recent discussions regarding Artificial Intelligence caused me to be curious about its capabilities regarding my area of interest : Botany.

Yesterday evening, I conducted a side-by-side comparison of Microsoft’s AI and Google’s AI.

Both were given the query “is there a brief list of endemic botanical species for Kittitas County?”

Both failed. Miserably.

One response of incorrect biogeographical occurrence. Eight responses of nonexistent botanical species. The tenth response was not a biological organism – it was a rock.

Fairly clear that students should not use these AIs as a study guide nor should researchers inflate their word count by relying on its content generation.

I’m laughing at the irony of Satya Nadella characterizing prior AI attempts as “dumb as a rock” when Microsoft’s much touted AI responds with a type of rock when specifically asked about biological organisms.

I’ve attached screenshots of yesterday’s exercise. Also, being an avid photographer myself, I’ve included an image of the Stuart Range site I annually study for plant responses and endemism in serpentine soils.

That’s it. The morning’s frost has melted and we’re off to measure and assess this year’s emergence of a Lomatium species.

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Wednesday 22 March, 2023

Spring is sprung

Blackthorn blossom seen on a walk the other day.

Quote of the Day

”Never negotiate with anybody who lacks the power to say Yes.”

  • Richard Thaler

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Regina Spektor | Fidelity


Long Read of the Day

Waiting for Brando

Entrancing essay by Edward Jay Epstein in Lapham’s Quarterly about filming the Iliad. I’m still laughing a day after reading it. Hope it has the same effect on you.

Thanks to The Browser for spotting it.

So now we know why Microsoft invested $10B in OpenAI

Here’s the explanation. It’s called Copilot.

Microsoft 365 Copilot is integrated into the apps you already use every day, freeing you to focus on the most important work and less on the busy work. Working alongside you, Microsoft 365 Copilot helps you to unleash creativity, unlock productivity, and uplevel skills.

Given that I almost never use Microsoft stuff, will it be enough to tempt me back? After all, I feel no need to “unleash creativity, unlock productivity” or even to “uplevel” what few skills I possess. I can write plain English, though, which is something Microsoft’s AI-boosted copywriters have yet to master.

My commonplace booklet

It is, indeed.

From the current issue of Private Eye. (Which God Preserve)

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Tuesday 21 March, 2023

Lost in Cyberspace

Quote of the Day

”A week ago Thursday, we kind of learned something that we really should have recognized two years ago: If Elon Musk tweeting one word, “Gamestonk”, can quintuple a stock’s price because Elon’s fanboys like being part of a community in it for the LULZ, then viral meme contagion from Silicon Valley venture capitalists can bankrupt a bank that looked otherwise as if it was likely to skate through.

A shock like Lehman Brothers took a month to propagate. Something similar today would likely take only three days.”

  • Brad DeLong, the Berkeley economist (and long-time blogger) who was once was a deputy assistant secretary for economic policy at the U.S. Treasury during the Clinton Administration.

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Pergolesi| Stabat Mater | Emma Kirkby & James Bowman | Academy of St Martin in the Fields, conducted by Christopher Hogwood


Thanks to Max Whitby (Whom God Preserve) for suggesting it.

Long Read of the Day

 What Have Humans Just Unleashed?

Long piece in which The Atlantic columnist Charlie Warzel tries to figure out the implications of the Large Language Models that obsess us all at the moment. At one point, a machine-learning guy, Nathan Labenz, describes humanity’s current state in relation to this technology as “Radical Uncertainty”.

I would call it half-informed bewilderment myself. But that’s btw. Wurzel is a thoughtful guy and his essay is a good read.

“ChatGPT doesn’t really resemble the Manhattan Project”, he writes at the end.

But I wonder if the existential feeling that seeps into most of my AI conversations parallels the feelings inside Los Alamos in the 1940s. I’m sure there were questions then. If we don’t build it, won’t someone else? Will this make us safer? Should we take on monumental risk simply because we can? Like everything about our AI moment, what I find calming is also what I find disquieting. At least those people knew what they were building.


Books, etc.

European elegy

Diane Coyle (Whom God Preserve) has been reading Timothy Garton Ash’s new book,  Homelands: A Personal History of Europe. “Like the author”, she writes,

I mourn the way our European citizenship has been stripped from those of us in the UK, by a slender margin, by voters who were lied to by mendacious and greedy politicians and businessmen. And at the same time recognise the challenges the EU itself needs to address. No wonder the book ends by quoting Gramsci on pessimisim/optimism. But also Vaclav Havel: “Hope is not prognostication. It is an orientation of the spirit, an orientation of the heart. …. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.”

So, not a cheering read, at least for those likely to pick up a book about Europe. But a compelling read, by someone who had a ringside seat at many of the key meetings and ‘where were you when…’ events (above all the fall of the Berlin Wall) of the past 40 years.

I know, and admire, Tim and so will be reading his memoir. Diane also recommends his terrific book about the file that the Stasi kept on him when he was a journalist working in pre-1989 Europe.

My commonplace booklet

“How to Learn and Teach Economics with Large Language Models, Including GPT”

An interesting paper by Tyler Cowen and Alex Tabarrok.

Just for fun at one point, they asked CPT how Fred Flintstone was like Hamlet.

ChatGPT responded (in part):

Fred Flintstone and Hamlet are two vastly different characters from different time periods, cultures, and mediums of storytelling. It is difficult to draw direct comparisons between the two.

However, one possible point of similarity is that both characters face existential dilemmas and struggles with their sense of purpose and identity. Hamlet is plagued by doubts about his ability to avenge his father’s murder, and his own worthiness as a human being. Similarly, Fred Flintstone often grapples with his place in society and his ability to provide for his family and live up to his own expectations.

B+ ???

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