Wednesday 8 March, 2023

What’s On?

St John’s Street, Cambridge, yesterday. One of the delights of living in a university city is that there’s always something on.

Quote of the Day

”To see what is in front of one’s nose is a constant struggle.”

  • George Orwell

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Four men and a dog big band | Cambridge Folk Festival (2012)


Sadly, I missed this particular gig.

Long Read of the Day

 You Are Not a Parrot And a chatbot is not a human.

And a famous computational linguist is very worried what will happen when we forget this.

Tired already of all the guff about ChatGPT?

Me too.

But this essay by Elizabeth Weil provides a welcome break from the nonsense. And, among other things, it’s a memorable profile of a great woman, Emily Bender. She’s an academic at the University of Washington and co-author (with Alexander Koller) of one of the great papers on the subject.

This is how it begins:

Say that A and B, both fluent speakers of English, are independently stranded on two uninhabited islands. They soon discover that previous visitors to these islands have left behind telegraphs and that they can communicate with each other via an underwater cable. A and B start happily typing messages to each other.

Meanwhile, O, a hyperintelligent deep-sea octopus who is unable to visit or observe the two islands, discovers a way to tap into the underwater cable and listen in on A and B’s conversations. O knows nothing about English initially but is very good at detecting statistical patterns. Over time, O learns to predict with great accuracy how B will respond to each of A’s utterances.

Soon, the octopus enters the conversation and starts impersonating B and replying to A. This ruse works for a while, and A believes that O communicates as both she and B do — with meaning and intent. Then one day A calls out: “I’m being attacked by an angry bear. Help me figure out how to defend myself. I’ve got some sticks.” The octopus, impersonating B, fails to help. How could it succeed? The octopus has no referents, no idea what bears or sticks are. No way to give relevant instructions, like to go grab some coconuts and rope and build a catapult. A is in trouble and feels duped. The octopus is exposed as a fraud…

You get the point. Now read on. It’s worth every minute.

The truth about Harvard

Harvard, as everyone knows, is a hedge fund with a nice university attached. It also makes a big song and dance about its “needs-blind” admission processes. This sanctimonious cant is not, er, exactly supported by evidence.

For example, here’s Benedict Evans’s summary of a serious paper by Peter Arcidiacono, Josh Kinsler and Tyler Ransom, published by the National Bureau of Economic Research, no less.

A study of admissions preferences to Harvard, an American university: roughly 15% of admissions and over 40% of white admissions would not be admitted on merit, and only got places because their parents attended or gave money or because they’re good at running.

That’s meritocracy for you.

My commonplace booklet

One of the unintended consequences of doing a cryptic crossword every morning (as we do) is that you find yourself tunnelling down rabbit-holes. The solution to one clue in yesterday’s puzzle was “creepers”, which led me to embark on one of my pointless disquisitions on the fact that in my long-distant youth Teddy Boys were famous for (among other things) their exotic shoes — which were known as “Brothel Creepers”. At which point, my fellow-solver (reasonably) asked “Why?” Never having visited a brothel, I was reduced to opening and shutting my mouth like a stunned carp, and so the only thing to do was to resort to a search engine.

Which I did, and found this — “The story behind brothel creepers”. Its author, Elizabeth Finney, explained that,

The creeper shoe was originally developed by George Cox in 1949 under the name “Hamilton” and was inspired by the crêpe-soled desert boots worn by WWII soldiers posted across the deserts of North Africa. Due to the landscape and extreme climate, the soldiers’ boots had thicker soles, which became popular on their return to England. The term “brothel creepers” was coined from those soldiers who found themselves in darker parts of Soho and King’s Cross to embrace those seedier pastimes.

So now you know!

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!