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!

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Tuesday 7 March, 2023

No shortage of vegetables

From Private Eye (Which God Preserve).

The magazine is having a hard time at the moment, not because of circulation problems (on the contrary), but because finding ways of satirising the UK’s shambolic ‘government’ is a daunting task.

Quote of the Day

”The United Nations cannot do anything and never could. It is not an inanimate entity or agent. It is a place, a forum, and a shrine — a place to which powerful people can repair when they are fearful about the course on which their own rhetoric seems to be propelling them.”

  • Conor Cruise O’Brien

(Who was once my Editor-in-Chief at the Observer, and had earlier been the UN’s High Representative in Katanga at the height of the Congolese civil war.)

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Stanley Jordan | Eleanor Rigby | Newport Jazz Festival (1986)


Wonder what Paul McCartney thought of it.

Long Read of the Day

Can any of the companies working on ‘Generative AI’ be trusted?

Recently OpenAI, the outfit behind ChatGPT and the GPT Large Language Models (LLMs), published an odd manifesto-like essay with the title Planning for AGI and beyond (‘AGI’ meaning artificial general intelligence — i.e. superintelligence). Implicit in this is the standard delusion of all the machine-learning evangelists, namely that more and more powerful machine-learning systems will eventually get us to super intelligent machines. I think this is baloney, but we will let that pass. What’s interesting is that OpenAI appears to believe it.

The document has an overly pious air. “Our mission,” it bleats, “is to ensure that artificial general intelligence—AI systems that are generally smarter than humans—benefits all of humanity”. It then sets out three principles “we care about most”. They are:

  1. We want AGI to empower humanity to maximally flourish in the universe. We don’t expect the future to be an unqualified utopia, but we want to maximize the good and minimize the bad, and for AGI to be an amplifier of humanity.

  2. We want the benefits of, access to, and governance of AGI to be widely and fairly shared.

  3. We want to successfully navigate massive risks. In confronting these risks, we acknowledge that what seems right in theory often plays out more strangely than expected in practice. We believe we have to continuously learn and adapt by deploying less powerful versions of the technology in order to minimize “one shot to get it right” scenarios.

On the principle that one should never give a tech company an even break, I am suspicious of this stuff. So I thought I’d go see what Scott Alexander, a fairer-minded (and more erudite) observer made of it. And it turns out that he had already composed a long, long and exceedingly thoughtful blog post about it. Which is why I’m recommending that you brew some coffee and pull up a chair to ponder it.

This is what he concludes at the end:

What We’re Going To Do Now

Realistically we’re going to thank them profusely for their extremely good statement, then cross our fingers really hard that they’re telling the truth.

OpenAI has unilaterally offered to destroy the world a bit less than they were doing before. They’ve voluntarily added things that look like commitments – some enforceable in the court of public opinion, others potentially in courts of law. Realistically we’ll say “thank you for doing that”, offer to help them turn those commitments into reality, and do our best to hold them to it. It doesn’t mean we have to like them period, or stop preparing for them to betray us.

But it’s worth reading the considerations that led Alexander to this. Sometimes the journey, as well as the destination, matters.

Books, etc.

I’ve been putting off reading this because it seemed slightly crackpot, and yet its author seems sane. Fortunately, Diane Coyle (Whom God Preserve) ploughed in and read it for us.

I pounced on the paperback of Reality+ by Dave Chalmers, eager to know what philosophy has to say about digital tech beyond the widely-explored issues of ethics and AI. It’s an enjoyable read, and – this is meant to be praise, although it sounds faint – much less heavy-going than many philosophy books. However, it’s slightly mad. The basic proposition is that we are far more likely than not to be living in a simulation (by whom? By some creator who is in effect a god), and we have no way of knowing that we’re not. Virtual reality is real, simulated beings are no different from human beings.

In the end, though, she recommended the book.

It may be unhinged in parts (like Bing’s Sydney) but it’s thought-provoking and enjoyable. And we are whether we like it or not embarked on a huge social experiment with AI and VR so we should be thinking about these issues.

I still think I’ll pass on the offer.

My commonplace booklet


Also: Toblerone will remove the Matterhorn logo from its packaging as some of the chocolate bar’s production moves from Switzerland to Slovakia. Wonder what mountain they will use then.

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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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Misplaced fears of an ‘evil’ ChatGPT obscure the real harm being done

Today’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…

Read on…

Friday 3 March, 2023

Our Megalithic ancestors

On our trip last week we spent a couple of days exploring the Burren, a remarkable glaciokarst landscape in County Clare, on the west coast of Ireland. (See map.) It measures around 530 square kilometres (200 square miles), within a circle made by the villages of Lisdoonvarna, Corofin, Gort and Kinvara. At first sight it looks very barren (I’ve heard people refer to it as a ‘moonscape’) but in reality it has fascinating and abundant flora in the micro-ecosystems which thrive in the crevices of the limestone ‘pavement’.

The most interesting aspect of the place, for me anyway, is its archeology. According to Wikipedia,

By the Neolithic, c. 4000 BC, settlers had clearly arrived and began changing the landscape through deforestation, likely by overgrazing and burning, and the building of stone walls. These people also constructed Megalithic sites like the portal tomb known as Poulnabrone dolmen and the court tombs at Teergonean (near Doolin) and Ballyganner (near Noughaval). Overall, there are around 70 megalithic tombs in the Burren area, more than half of all of these structures found in Clare.

The photograph shows the Poulnabrone dolmen in which the remains of at least 33 individuals — infants, children and adults — were buried. Radiocarbon dating shows that those buried in the chamber died sometime in the period 4200 – 2900 BC. Over a thousand years later (1767 – 1413 BC) — i.e. during the Bronze Age — a newborn baby was buried in the portico outside the entrance to the chamber.

Quote of the Day

”If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.”

  • George Orwell

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Gershwin | Rhapsody in Blue | Khatia Buniatishvili


Long Read of the Day

The moral economy of tech

This is the text of one of the most effective talks ever given on the essence of the world we’re building with networked technology. The speaker is Maciej Cegłowski, one of the wisest people around. I first came on him because I use his software — — which plays a critical role in my little software ecosystem and workflow — and which has an honest business model.

Here’s a sample from the talk:

Those who benefit from the death of privacy attempt to frame our subjugation in terms of freedom, just like early factory owners talked about the sanctity of contract law. They insisted that a worker should have the right to agree to anything, from sixteen-hour days to unsafe working conditions, as if factory owners and workers were on an equal footing.

Companies that perform surveillance are attempting the same mental trick. They assert that we freely share our data in return for valuable services. But opting out of surveillance capitalism is like opting out of electricity, or cooked foods—you are free to do it in theory. In practice, it will upend your life.

Many of you had to obtain a US visa to attend this conference. The customs service announced yesterday it wants to start asking people for their social media profiles. Imagine trying to attend your next conference without a LinkedIn profile, and explaining to the American authorities why you are so suspiciously off the grid.

The reality is, opting out of surveillance capitalism means opting out of much of modern life.

And this eloquent metaphor:

As a technologist, this state of affairs gives me the feeling of living in a forest that is filling up with dry, dead wood. The very personal, very potent information we’re gathering about people never goes away, only accumulates. I don’t want to see the fire come, but at the same time, I can’t figure out a way to persuade other people of the great danger.

Books, etc.

My reading list

All three have just arrived!

My commonplace booklet

Our cat Tilly in what my son calls “her Cumberland Sausage pose”.

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Thursday 2 March, 2023

The Interloper

Seen on a Kerry beach last week.

Quote of the Day

”The greater the ignorance, the greater the dogmatism.”

  • William Ostler

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Julian Lage | I’ll Be Seeing You (Live in Los Angeles)


New to me, and lovely. Thanks to Michael Dales (Whom God Preserve) for discovering it.

Long Read of the Day

What the poet, playboy and prophet of bubbles can still teach us

Typically thoughtful and interesting essay by Tim Harford.

One winter morning in early 1637, a sailor presented himself at the counting-house of a wealthy Dutch merchant and was offered a hearty breakfast of fine red herring. The sailor noticed an onion lying on the counter.

“Thinking it, no doubt, very much out of its place among silks and velvets, he slily seized an opportunity and slipped it into his pocket, as a relish for his herring,” according to a Scottish writer telling the tale two centuries later. “He got clear off with his prize and proceeded to the quay to eat his breakfast.”

The Scottish writer was Charles Mackay and the story is recounted in his book, Extraordinary ­Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds. It’s one of very few works of economic history to have been an enduring bestseller, from its first publication in 1841 through to the 21st century, thanks, largely, to its vivid storytelling. Mackay debunked everything from alchemy and crusades to haunted houses and religious cults. But it was the three chapters on economic bubbles that made him the enduring guru of the phenomenon, cited to this day. In the book, Mackay went on to explain that the sailor, seeking zest for his fish, unwittingly pilfered not an onion, but a rare tulip bulb. Which was a problem because, in 1637, one of the strangest of all financial booms was taking place: the tulip mania, during which the choicest bulbs went for astonishing sums.

“Hardly was his back turned when the merchant missed his valuable Semper Augustus, worth three thousand florins, or about 280 pounds sterling,” wrote Mackay…

Read on. There are surprises in store.

If you thought Murdoch was omnipotent, think again

He’s always been scared of Trump.

Terrific column by Jack Shafer.

An article of faith among modern media observers preaches that Rupert Murdoch can manipulate American politics in any direction he wants through the broadcasts of his lucrative media property, the Fox News Channel. This article of faith, which Democrats share with their children to give them nightmares and Republicans share with theirs as a cautionary tale, has given Murdoch king-maker status over the years as he has directed his channel to reward his supplicants and punish his enemies.

But on closer examination, and especially in light of the testimony released in Dominion Voting Systems’ $1.6 billion defamation suit against Fox News for its coverage of the “stolen” presidential election of 2020, Murdoch isn’t always the master puppeteer he’s reputed to be. In Murdoch’s own words, delivered in Dominion suit depositions, he describes himself as frightened by the power Donald Trump holds over the Fox audience. He portrays himself, accurately in this case, as the supreme authority at his network but unable to control his prime-time anchors who endorsed Trump’s lie of a stolen election. And he regrets not interceding — which he says was within his power — to keep stolen-election fabulists like Rudolph Giuliani and Sidney Powell from repeatedly appearing on his shows, even though some Fox executives and anchors were gagging, off-screen, on Giuliani and Powell’s wild-eyed theories…

Wow. I hadn’t realised that Murdoch had had to testify in the Dominion libel trial.

Jonty Bloom on the Windsor Agreement

From his piece in The New European

You really could not make it up. The Brexit-loving prime minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is boasting that NI has the best deal in the world because it is both part of the UK and of the single market.

And he is right, Northern Ireland does have a great deal in the world. It is exactly the same deal that the whole of the UK used to have before Rishi Sunak and his mates threw it all away.

That is why Northern Ireland’s trade with the EU is booming – up by £1 billion last year – that is why it has grown much faster than the rest of the country and why it is now the second largest recipient of foreign investment in the UK after London.

The foreign investment would have been even higher but for the suicidally stupid threats by previous Conservative administrations to tear up the Northern Ireland Protocol and start a trade war with the EU. Now that threat is removed, it will doubtless soar.

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Wednesday 1 March, 2023

Searching for Tim

View from Tim Robinson’s window

We’ve just come back from ten days in Ireland, journeying up and down the country’s wonderful West coast — which some marketing genius in the Tourist Board famously rebranded as “the Wild Atlantic Way”, thereby unleashing a profitable torrent of eager tourists upon an unsuspecting landscape.

For a couple of days we stopped in Connemara, a rough-hewn but beautiful part of Connacht, which also happens to be where my father’s family come from. On one of those days we headed for Roundstone, a small fishing village about 50 miles north-west of Galway. What brought us there was my desire to visit ‘Folding Landscapes’, the little firm that the great cartographer Tim Robinson and his wife Máiréad created to publish his astonishing handmade maps of the Aran Islands, the Burren and Connemara. I hadn’t been there for at least two decades, but I had a firm memory of how the company’s office looked out on the village pier.

When we arrived, though, there was no sign of the office. Because it was out of the tourist season, the village was exceedingly quiet, with only the post-office and one other shop open. We tried the PO first, inquiring about Tim’s whereabouts. The young woman behind the counter was not a local and couldn’t help, so she directed us to the general store across the street. Entering it, I asked the middle-aged lady who ran it if she knew where I could find Tim.

At this her welcoming smile turned to an expression of concern. It turned out that Tim had died of Covid in the early weeks of the pandemic, and that Máiréad had passed away two weeks before him. They had both been in London at the time. But their ashes had been brought back to Roundstone, local fishermen had launched boats to scatter their ashes in the bay, a group of traditional musicians had sent them on their way from the pierhead, and the President of Ireland, Michael D. Higgins, had travelled down from Dublin to honour one of the country’s greatest contemporary writers and scholars.

So Tim and Máiréad had a great send-off, but my hopes of obtaining a copy of his map of Connemara were dashed. I felt mortified that I had missed his passing. The only thing I could think of doing was to photograph the view that greeted them every morning.

He was a formidable scholar and a lovely writer. His books on Aran and Connemara are masterpieces. I met him only once, when he was the 2011 Parnell Fellow at Magdalene College and he signed my copy of his book on Connemara.

Here he is, writing about Wittgenstein’s sojourn in Connemara in 1948:

In 1948 Ludwig Wittgenstein fled the seductions of Cambridge, where he was the acknowledged star of the Philosophy Department, to a friend’s holiday cottage in Roscoe, a fishing hamlet on a rugged peninsula separating the mouth of Killary Harbour from the bay of Little Killary. “I can only think clearly in the dark,” he said, “and in Connemara I have found one of the last pools of darkness in Europe.” His thought, a mental ascesis that matched his frugal and solitary existence there, was directed to an end, or rather to its own end. As he had written, “The real discovery is the one that makes me stop doing philosophy when I want to. The one that gives philosophy peace, so that it is no longer tormented by questions which bring itself into question.” The particular question preoccupying him at this time concerned the difference between seeing something, and seeing it as something. For instance, his farming neighbours see this strange figure in the landscape, and see him as a madman. There he stands, stock still for minutes on end, staring at something he has drawn with his stick in the mud of the roadside. If I see this diagram (a roundish shape with a dot in the middle, and two long appendages on one side) first as a duck’s head and bill, and then as a rabbit’s head and ears, not a particle of the mud has moved. What then has changed — a mysterious mental picture I can show to no one else? The temptation, he writes, is to say “I see it like this”, pointing at the same thing for “it” and “this”. Hence arises a philosophical pseudo-problem. But by analysing how we use language in such cases, we can “get rid of the idea of the private object”. His neighbours, though, know a duck-rabbit when they see one, and forbid him to cross their land lest he frighten the sheep.

Quote of the Day

“If my doctor told me I had six minutes to live, I wouldn’t brood. I’d type a little faster.”

  • Isaac Asimov

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Sorcha Richardson | Oh Oscillator


By a stunning young singer we were lucky enough to run into in Kerry.

Long Read of the Day

Social Media is a Major Cause of the Mental Illness Epidemic in Teen Girls. Here’s The Evidence.

For years I’ve been arguing (for example here) that social media — and especially Instagram — is toxic for teenage girls. The response of the tech industry — and especially of Meta (neé Facebook) consistently reminds me of the tobacco industry’s long campaign to undermine the idea that cigarette smoking caused lung cancer. The roles of media and academia in the controversy has also reminded me of their inertia and indolence in that long-running saga.

All of which is a long-winded way of explaining why I welcome this long and considered essay by the social-psychologist Jonathan Haidt reviewing the research and evidence of the impact of social media on girls.

Here’s how it opens:

A big story last week was the partial release of the CDC’s bi-annual Youth Risk Behavior Survey, which showed that most teen girls (57%) now say that they experience persistent sadness or hopelessness (up from 36% in 2011), and 30% of teen girls now say that they have seriously considered suicide (up from 19% in 2011). Boys are doing badly too, but their rates of depression and anxiety are not as high, and their increases since 2011 are smaller. As I showed in my Feb. 16 Substack post, the big surprise in the CDC data is that COVID didn’t have much effect on the overall trends, which just kept marching on as they have since around 2012. Teens were already socially distanced by 2019, which might explain why COVID restrictions added little to their rates of mental illness, on average. (Of course, many individuals suffered greatly).

Most of the news coverage last week noted that the trends pre-dated covid, and many of them mentioned social media as a potential cause. A few of them then did the standard thing that journalists have been doing for years, saying essentially “gosh, we just don’t know if it’s social media, because the evidence is all correlational and the correlations are really small.” For example, Derek Thompson, one of my favorite data-oriented journalists, wrote a widely read essay in The Atlantic on the multiplicity of possible causes. In a section titled Why is it so hard to prove that social media and smartphones are destroying teen mental health? he noted that “the academic literature on social media’s harms is complicated” and he then quoted one of the main academics studying the issue—Jeff Hancock, of Stanford University: “There’s been absolutely hundreds of social-media and mental-health studies, almost all showing pretty small effects.”

In this post, I will show that Thompson’s skepticism was justified in 2019 but is not justified in 2023. A lot of new work has been published since 2019, and there has been a recent and surprising convergence among the leading opponents in the debate (including Hancock and me). There is now a great deal of evidence that social media is a substantial cause, not just a tiny correlate, of depression and anxiety, and therefore of behaviors related to depression and anxiety, including self-harm and suicide…

As I say, it’s long. What’s particularly striking (to me anyway) is his insight that the standard approach of treating social-media use as if it were analogous to imbibing a particular narcotic is far too reductionist. What it ignores is the fact that the ubiquity of social media changes the entire media ecosystem in which young people are now growing up. As I read Haidt’s essay, I kept thinking about Neil Postman’s The Disappearance of Childhood and his argument that radical changes in our media environment — as in (i) the switch from orality to print, and (ii) then from print to broadcast TV — changed our definitions (and conceptions) of childhood.

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

Last Sunday’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…

Do read the whole thing.

My commonplace booklet

From the Observer:

The late Roald Dahl’s publisher, Puffin, caused controversy this month for hiring “sensitivity readers” to rewrite his books with hundreds of revisions so that they “can continue to be enjoyed by all today”.

In the new edition of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Augustus Gloop – a glutton for chocolate – is now just “enormous” rather than “enormously fat”; in The Twits, Mrs Twit is no longer “ugly and beastly”, just “beastly”, and in The Enormous Crocodile, “we eat little boys and girls” has been changed to “we eat little children”.

Responding to the criticism, Puffin announced last Friday that they will publish both the original texts and reworked editions.

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