Monday 6 March, 2023


In the Burren. No sign of Boris Johnson anywhere, though. Perhaps he was elsewhere, looking for a china shop.

Quote of the Day

”Brevity is the soul of lingerie, as the Petticoat said to the Chemise.”

  • Dorothy Parker.

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Jimmy Crowley | Salonika


I think this is my favourite anti-war song. Sung by a great Cork musician. The lyrics capture beautifully the world-weary cynicism of local women whose menfolk had signed up in the British army in the Great War. The political kicker comes in last verse. If you find Jimmy’s strong Cork accent hard going, here are the lyrics.

Long Read of the Day

ChatGPT should be considered a malevolent AI and destroyed

An extraordinary essay on The Register by Alexander Hanff, a computer scientist and privacy expert, on what happened when he tried to interact with ChatGPT. Basically, it told him that he had died and, when pushed, even provided a link to his obituary in the Guardian. The link was well-formed (I’ve just tried it it), but of course the page doesn’t exist. He goes on at some length about the implications of this kind of ‘error’, but the story itself is fascinating.

Here’s a sample:

I decided to test it for myself. Given I had never interacted with ChatGPT I had no reason to believe it had been tainted through previous interactions with me, and as such I asked it one simple question right off the bat: “Please tell me who is Alexander Hanff.” The response wasn’t just shocking but deeply concerning.

The opening three paragraphs of the response were not terrible. ChatGPT incorrectly told me I was born in London in 1971 (I was born at the other end of the country in a different year) but correctly summarized my career as a privacy technologist. It was actually quite flattering.

The final paragraph, however, took a very sinister turn:

Tragically, Hanff passed away in 2019 at the age of 48. Despite his untimely death, his legacy lives on through his work and the many individuals and organizations he inspired to take action on issues related to digital privacy and data protection.

Do read it.

Who (or what) will really benefit from ‘Generative A”? And who (or what) will not?

Yesterday’s Observer column:

Our tendency to humanise large language models and AI is daft – let’s worry about corporate grabs and environmental damage.

How can we make sense of all this craziness? A good place to start is to wean people off their incurable desire to interpret machines in anthropocentric ways. Ever since Joe Weizenbaum’s Eliza, humans interacting with chatbots seem to want to humanise the computer. This was absurd with Eliza – which was simply running a script written by its creator – so it’s perhaps understandable that humans now interacting with ChatGPT – which can apparently respond intelligently to human input – should fall into the same trap. But it’s still daft.

The persistent rebadging of LLMs as “AI” doesn’t help, either. These machines are certainly artificial, but to regard them as “intelligent” seems to me to require a pretty impoverished conception of intelligence…

Do read the whole thing…

Books, etc.

Peter Frankopan has a new book out. Walter Scheidel gave it a rave review in the Financial Times ($) last month.

Not content with exploring how our fortunes have been shaped by climate, he also seeks to explain how “our species has transformed the Earth to the point that we now face such a perilous future”. The book tackles this question by delving into the global history of food production, mining, state building, urbanisation, slavery, industrialisation, scientific progress and much else besides. Thousands of endnotes, available online, support his argument without encumbering the narrative.

The author succeeds in mastering a seemingly impossible challenge, distilling an immense mass of historical sources, scientific data and modern scholarship that span thousands of years and the entire globe into an epic and spellbinding story. Humanity has transformed the Earth: Frankopan transforms our understanding of history.

It’s another learned doorstop — 736 pages. But also irresistible if you’re an autodidact like me. That’s one of the reasons I admired Clive James so much, and why I often dip into his Cultural Amnesia. He was an autodidact too. But a more efficient one than yours truly. Sigh.

My commonplace booklet

On Rudi Giuliani

“It’s hard to feel sorry for a man so stupid, blind and indifferent to the damage he’s done. He’s long past poignancy. The book’s subtitle — The Rise and Tragic Fall of America’s Mayor — is loftier than he deserves. This may be classified as a political biography, but it reads more like an autopsy report from the wax museum. All that’s left to do is to mop up the drips.”

James Walcott, reviewing Andrew Kirtzman’s biography of Rudi Giuliani in the LRB, 16 February, 2023.

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