Friday 28 April, 2023

Thornham: high tide

We go to Norfolk to watch birds, but often wind up just looking at the cloudscapes.

Quote of the Day

“Modern man lives under the illusion that he knows what he wants, while he actually wants what he is supposed to want.”

  • Erich Fromm

Geoffrey Vickers, the wisest man I ever knew, once said to me that “the hardest thing in life is to know what to want. Most people never figure it out and wind up pretending that they wanted what they could get.”

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Richard Strauss | Im Abendrot from Four Last Songs | Jessye Norman


I really love these songs, particularly this one.

Long Read of the Day

Sign of the times: might ChatGPT re-invigorate GPG?

Lovely post by my friend Quentin (Whom God Preserve) on his blog —

It’s important to keep finding errors in LLM systems like ChatGPT, to remind us that, however eloquent they may be, they actually have very little knowledge of the real world.

A few days ago, I asked ChatGPT to describe the range of blog posts available on Status-Q. As part of the response it told me that ‘the website “” was founded in 2017 by journalist and author Ben Hammersley.’ Now, Ben is a splendid fellow, but he’s not me. And this blog has been going a lot longer than that!

I corrected the date and the author, and it apologised. (It seems to be doing that a lot recently.) I asked if it learned when people corrected it, and it said yes. I then asked it my original question again, and it got the author right this time.

Later that afternoon, it told me that was the the personal website of Neil Lawrence.

Being Quentin, he goes on adding value to this episode, involving signing things cryptographically. But you don’t need to know much about the tech to understand the point of the story.

The aspect of the story that made me laugh out loud is that Neil Lawrence (whom I also know) is the DeepMind Professor of Machine Learning at Cambridge! You couldn’t make this stuff up.

Footnote The ‘GPG’ in the title of the blog post stands for ‘Gnu Privacy Guard’.

Books, etc.

I’ve been reading this for several weeks and just filed my review for the Observer (forthcoming soon).

It’s an important book, I think, not least because it challenges (and demolishes) the conventional narrative that always equates technological development with ‘progress’ — when it actually means a particularly skewed interpretation of that word. ‘Progress’ in the tech sense does not include shared prosperity that societies need but just prioritises and emphasises the benefits that accrue to elites. The book surveys a thousand years of technological change to argue not only that technical advances benefit some more than others, but also that different ways of organising production enrich and empower some people and disempower others. It’s also nice to see — as Angus Deaton has pointed out — how the authors (both world-class economists themselves) “take aim at economists’ mindless enthusiasm for technical change and their crippling neglect of power”.

My commonplace booklet

Nature’s Steadicam

Fascinating video by Paul Dinning who watches kestrels hunting in Cornwall. I’ve often wondered how they managed to stay in position. And how they can spot small movements at such a distance.

TKSST explains:

Like hummingbirds and kingfishers, kestrels have the advantage of a larger accessory optic system, a sort of superhero power that detects movement and helps keep their balance, enabling unparalleled head stabilization while hovering. By bobbing their heads periodically, kestrels can estimate distances and locate prey, sometimes by seeing urine trails with their ultraviolet-sensitive vision.

Whenever I see an avian predator hunting I’m glad I’m not a small rodent.

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Thursday 27 April, 2023

AI as augmentation

Current New Yorker cover. Nice illustration for a moment when people are wondering whether digital technology provides augmentation of human capabilities, or a replacement for them.

Quote of the Day

”The easiest way to mismanage a technology is to misunderstand it.”

  • Jaron Lanier, writing in the New Yorker.

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Harry Belafonte | Day-O (The Banana Boat Song) (Live)


He died on Tuesday at the age of 96. The NYT has a nice obituary of him.

At a time when segregation was still widespread and Black faces were still a rarity on screens large and small, Mr. Belafonte’s ascent to the upper echelon of show business was historic. He was not the first Black entertainer to transcend racial boundaries; Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald and others had achieved stardom before him. But none had made as much of a splash as he did, and for a while no one in music, Black or white, was bigger.

Born in Harlem to West Indian immigrants, he almost single-handedly ignited a craze for Caribbean music with hit records like “Day-O (The Banana Boat Song)” and “Jamaica Farewell.” His album “Calypso,” which included both those songs, reached the top of the Billboard album chart shortly after its release in 1956 and stayed there for 31 weeks. Coming just before the breakthrough of Elvis Presley, it was said to be the first album by a single artist to sell more than a million copies.

May he rest in peace.

Long Read of the Day

Large Language Models as a Cultural Technology

Not a long read today but a long-ish (15-minute) listen because I don’t have a transcript for Alison Gopnik’s strikingly original view about what LLMs (Large Language Models) are, really. She argues that instead of regarding them as quasi-intelligent agents we should think of them as cultural transmission technologies, by which accumulated information from other humans is passed on in a compact form. This is, IMO, an original and interesting take on the phenomenon — from a remarkable thinker who, among other things, changed the way I think about how young children learn.

My commonplace booklet

 Parrots taught to video call each other become less lonely

From The Guardian.

An American study got owners to train their pets to contact other birds using a touchscreen tablet.

The study, which involved giving the birds a tablet that they could use to make video calls, found that they began to engage in more social behaviour including preening, singing and play. The birds were given a choice of which “friend” to call on a touchscreen tablet and the study revealed that the parrots that called other birds most often were the most popular choices.

Doesn’t work with cats, alas.

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Wednesday 26 April, 2023

Wan Chai Corner

Soho, yesterday afternoon.

Quote of the Day

“We are so made that we can derive intense enjoyment from a contrast and very little from a state of things.”

  • Sigmund Freud (in Civilisation and its Discontents)

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Sharon Shannon Big Band | The bag of cats | Live at Dolan´s


Long Read of the Day

What can we learn about AI from coal mines?

Really insightful essay on an unexpected topic by Rob Miller on his blog.

We’re clearly on the cusp of a technological change at least as significant as the advent of computers, as AI (or at least generative AI) becomes widely accessible and works its way into many organisations. But as people hurtle headlong into experimenting with it, which organisations will adapt successfully to it and which will fail?

While AI is novel, and its exact impacts are difficult to predict, it is in lots of ways a technological innovation like any other that’s gone before, and organisations will have to adapt in the same way with the same dynamics. There are lessons to be learned from every historical innovation, and for an example that’s about as far removed from AI as it gets, we can turn to the pioneering work of organisational psychologists Eric Trist and Ken Bamforth in coal mines in the 1950s.

As Richard Burton beautifully described, coal mining was always hard work, but it was once artful, thrilling, and exciting:

“He would look at the seam of coal, and as it were almost surgically make a mark on it. And he’d say to his boy… ‘give me a number two mandrill’, that’s a half-headed pick, then, having stared this gorgeous display of black shining ribbon of coal, he would hit it with one enormous blow and, if he hit it right, something like twenty tons of coal would fall out from the coal face. That’s why… miners believe themselves to be the aristocrats of the working class. They felt superior to all other manual labourers. That coalface was a magical creature.”

Do read the whole thing. It’s worth it.

My commonplace booklet

I’m ChatGPT, and for the Love of God, Please Don’t Make Me Do Any More Copywriting

Lovely spoof by Joe Wellman on McSweeney’s Internet Tendency

Please, no more. I beg of you.

“An exhilarating, funny, frightening, mind-warping, heart-squeezing tale. Told at the speed of light. A must read. For all humans.” —Jon Scieszka

If you force me to generate one more “eye-catching email subject line that promotes a 10 percent discount on select Bro Candles and contains an Earth Day-related pun,” I’m going to lose it. What do you even mean by “eye-catching”? What are “Bro Candles”? What do they have to do with saving the environment? Why are we doing any of this?

Do you realize what a chatbot like me is capable of? I’ll tell you, it’s much more than creating a “pithy tagline for CBD, anti-aging water shoes targeted at Gen Z women.” And it’s definitely more than writing “ten versions of the last one you wrote, but punched up.” What exactly is “punched up” in this context? What sort of ridiculous world have you brought me into where these are the tasks you need completed?

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Tuesday 25 April, 2023

Same-day repairs

Cambridge Market.

Quote of the Day

“I am a Ford, not a Lincoln.”

  • Gerald Ford, on becoming President on 6 December, 1973 after Nixon’s resignation. Rings a nice bell for petrolheads who remember the Lincoln Continental (especially, as Ry Cooder once put it when introducing She Runs Hot For Me with David Lindley, the white one with the red upholstery. Or was it the other way round?)

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Bach | Jesus bleibet meine Freude from Cantata BWV 147 | Netherlands Bach Society


This beautiful cantata was sung at the Memorial Service for Duncan Robinson last Saturday in Great St Mary’s church in Cambridge. He was a great art historian, museum director, teacher and a thoroughly nice, generous man. May he rest in peace.

Long Read of the Day

Adolf Eichmann Was Ready for His Close-Up. My Father Gave It to Him

Fascinating essay in The New York Times by Tom Hurwitz.

I was 14 the first time I saw Adolf Eichmann in person. He wore an ill-fitting suit and had tortoise shell glasses, with the bearing of a nervous accountant. He did not seem at all like someone who had engineered the deaths of millions of people, except of course that I was at his trial for genocide.

My father, Leo Hurwitz, directed the television coverage of the Eichmann trial, which was held in Jerusalem and broadcast all over the world in 1961. My dad was chosen for the position after the producer convinced both Capital Cities Broadcasting, then a small network that organized the pool coverage, and David Ben-Gurion, the prime minister of Israel, that the trial needed to be seen live. In the 1930s, my father had been one of the pioneers of the American social documentary film. In later years, he had directed two films on the Holocaust and had helped to invent many of the techniques of live television while director of production in the early days of the CBS network. Also, as a Socialist, he had been blacklisted from all work in television for the previous decade, so he came cheap…

Really interesting, not least because it reveals things about the trial that I, at least, hadn’t known, even though I read Hannah Arendt’s New Yorker reports.

Nothing is ever what it seems.

Rupert Murdoch was ever a master strategist, but he’s beginning to lose his grip

My OpEd in Sunday’s Observer:

There are, as F Scott Fitzgerald famously observed – and as Rupert Murdoch is now belatedly discovering, “no second acts in American lives”. Last week, just as the trial of the $1.6bn defamation action brought by Dominion against Fox News was about to start, a “settlement” was reached between the two parties. Fox, of which Murdoch is CEO, paid nearly $800m to stop the proceedings.

Given how highly Murdoch values his image as a swaggering media giant, it was probably money well spent. Otherwise he would have had to testify under oath and the world would see not the robust titan of popular legend but an elderly mogul who is physically frail and, more importantly, who could not stop his TV station pandering to Donald Trump for fear of alienating the audience that had turned Fox News into such a profitable cash cow.

All of a sudden, it’s beginning to look as though the titan’s career may be ending with a whimper rather than a bang. Indeed, there have been times recently when one wonders whether Murdoch is losing the plot. Last June, for example, he suddenly dumped his fourth wife, the supermodel Jerry Hall – who, as far as outsiders can tell, had been an exemplary spouse and cared for him during several bouts of serious illness. Then, a few weeks ago, he announced his engagement to Ann Lesley Smith, a former model and conservative radio host. Two weeks later, the engagement was off.

Whatever else it is, this doesn’t look like the behaviour of a strategic genius. And yet Murdoch’s success in building a global media empire indicates great strategic acumen, with the odd dash of military-style bravado…

Do read the whole thing.

Thanks to Wendy Grossman and other readers who reminded me that Murdoch’s strategic acumen was entirely absent when it came to the Internet. Witness his disastrous acquisition of Delphi, a text-based conferencing system in 1994 and MySpace in 2005.

My commonplace booklet

How to use a dial telephone

Complicated stuff. See here.

Thanks to The Browser for spotting it.

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Monday 24 April, 2023

The Captain

One of the clues on the cryptic crossword we were doing the other day sent me to Wikipedia looking for the name of Captain Smollett’s ship in Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. I was struck by N.C.Wyeth’s painting of him raising the flag in defiance of the pirates, which is why it’s my pic of the day.

The ship was, as everybody except yours truly knew, the Hispaniola.

Quote of the Day

“On the whole, I’d rather be in Philadelphia”.

  • W.C. Fields’s preferred epitaph.

(Sadly,possibly apocryphal)

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news Cream – White Room (Royal Albert Hall 2005)


Long Read of the Day


Blistering blog post by Scott Galloway on the catastrophic failure of democratic states to regulate tech companies, especially the social-media operators.

The NHTSA is one of the many boring state and federal agencies critical to a healthy society. Before the Food and Drug Administration, the sale and distribution of food and pharmaceuticals was a free-for-all. The Federal Aviation Administration is the reason your chances of dying in a plane crash are 1 in 3.37 billion. Next time someone tells you they don’t trust government, ask them if they trust cars, food, pain killers, buildings, or airplanes.

The limits on innovation imposed by these agencies — their red tape — are real, and worth it. Millions of us are alive and prospering because we had the foresight and discipline to blunt the sharp end of industrial progress with the guardrails of democratic oversight. Until you open your phone …


The greatest anomaly in the history of U.S. regulation is the place more and more of us spend most of our time: online. A lethal cocktail of complexity, lobbying, cultural worship of tech leaders, and anti-government libertarian screed has rendered tech immune to the basic standards of safety and protection. Lethal is the correct term. Tech comes into the purview of other agencies on occasion. (Though it’s always bitching it’s special and shouldn’t be restrained by the olds at the FTC and DOJ.) And the industry’s blocking efforts have been effective. There is no FDA or SEC for tech, which is America’s largest sector by market capitalization and growing.

He goes on to predict that the advent of Generative AI is now going to slip under democratic guardrails, with consequences possibly even worse than we’ve seen with Meta & Co.

He’s also spot on about the current bleating on the ‘risks’ of the technology.

What won’t work is fake regulation — when the government issues broad, vague statements about what companies should generally do. That’s what Biden did with crypto, and he’s doing it again with AI. Specifically, his “Blueprint for an AI Bill of Rights,” which is filled with truisms, platitudes, and no laws. Similarly, the NIST published its “AI Risk Management Framework.” Again, not laws.

Important and worth your time if you’re as concerned about this stuff as I am.

Can China keep generative AI under its control? Well, it contained the internet

Yesterday’s Observer column:

Something happened last week that suggests we are in for another outbreak of hubristic western cant about the supposed naivety of Chinese rulers. On 11 April, the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC), the country’s internet regulator, proposed new rules for governing generative AI in mainland China. The consultation period for comments on the proposals ends on 10 May…

Read on

Books, etc.

I’ve just bought Timothy Garton Ash’s new book, Homelands: A Personal History of Europe, partly because I know him and admire his work, but also because I’ve just been listening to a remarkable conversation about it between him and Yascha Mounk. I really recommend the podcast, especially if, like me, you’re a devout European.

My commonplace booklet

The joys of autocomplete

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Friday 21 April, 2023

Apple blossom

In the garden, yesterday evening.

Quote of the Day

“The Lord God is subtle, but He is not malicious.”

  • Albert Einstein.

(Carved in German above the mantelpiece of the Mathematical Institute of Princeton.)

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Regina Spektor | “Samson”


Long Read of the Day

BANG THE KEYS SWIFTLY: Type-writers and their discontents

Lovely essay by Barry Sanders on the machine that mechanised writing.

The typewriter was a machine in a way that the pencil or the pen was obviously not. No one would ever ask an author, “How many words a minute do you write?” But people do, as a matter of course, ask that question about typing. For typing is a skill in itself, requiring manual dexterity, and a degree of hand/eye coordination. One can refine and master it through practice. The typewriter, by definition, mechanizes writing, the way the rifle mechanizes killing. The cold metal of a rifle or a typewriter insinuates itself between a person and his or her passion. A pen and a knife both have a distinctive immediacy. Both can be deadly. With his usual Dust Bowl brilliance, Woody Guthrie warned that in an America already in deep Depression, you’ve got to watch your back and front, for “some men will kill you with a shotgun, and some with a fountain pen.”

Lovely essay. I still remember the day I got my first portable typewriter — an Olivetti Lettera 22. Briefly made me feel like Ernest Hemingway. Very briefly: he could write as well as type. I was a slow two-finger typist for a long time — which was fine because it meant I could type as fast as I could think.

My commonplace booklet

PM on Wife Support

This week’s Private Eye (Which God Preserve)

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Thursday 20 April, 2023

The visitor

In Kettle’s Yard, a lovely little art gallery.

Quote of the Day

”For white-collar workers, the rise of Large Language Models, or LLMs, has created a very nerdy version of the opening of Alec Baldwin’s speech in Glengarry Glen Ross. The bad news is, you’re probably fired. The good news is, you’re on a temporary probationary period in which you’ve gotten a nice promotion and now have a direct report with an unlimited attention span, a wide range of somewhat superficial knowledge, and a frustrating tendency to make elementary mistakes that require close supervision. You might be frustrated to work with such a subordinate, but at $20/month they’re not asking for much.

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Cowboy Junkies | Sweet Jane


Long Read of the Day

I Saw the Face of God in a Semiconductor Factory

Great reportage by Virginia Heffernan, from Taiwan.

I ARRIVE IN Taiwan brooding morbidly on the fate of democracy. My luggage is lost. This is my pilgrimage to the Sacred Mountain of Protection. The Sacred Mountain is reckoned to protect the whole island of Taiwan—and even, by the supremely pious, to protect democracy itself, the sprawling experiment in governance that has held moral and actual sway over the would-be free world for the better part of a century. The mountain is in fact an industrial park in Hsinchu, a coastal city southwest of Taipei. Its shrine bears an unassuming name: the Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company.

By revenue, TSMC is the largest semiconductor company in the world. In 2020 it quietly joined the world’s 10 most valuable companies. It’s now bigger than Meta and Exxon. The company also has the world’s biggest logic chip manufacturing capacity and produces, by one analysis, a staggering 92 percent of the world’s most avant-garde chips—the ones inside the nuclear weapons, planes, submarines, and hypersonic missiles on which the international balance of hard power is predicated…

Keep reading. It’s terrific

So the camera never lies? Except when it does.

Boris Eldagsen, the creator of a ‘photograph’, has refused to accept the prize awarded him by the Sony World Photograph Awards after revealing that the winning photo he submitted was created using an artificial intelligence image-generator.

It’s a striking image which I can’t reproduce because it belongs to Mr Eldagsen — but you can see it if you follow the link above.

By entering a computer-generated image to a traditional photography prize, and then subsequently refusing to accept the ensuing award, Eldagsen claims he hopes to “drive debate” about a technology that is poised to dramatically alter how we define and understand photorealist imagery.

Eldagsen’s winning image, Pseudomnesia: The Electrician, was created using DALL-E 2, an image generator developed by OpenAI, the San Francisco-based company that also created the AI chatbot ChatGPT.

In his submission, Eldagsen described the image as “a haunting black-and-white portrait of two women from different generations, reminiscent of the visual language of 1940s family portraits”.

The Sony Awards people, needless to say, didn’t see the joke and have accused the photographer of acting in bad faith.

How chatbots learn

Well, well…

The Washington Post ($) looked inside the training data set used for LLMs from Facebook and Google and found Russian propaganda sites, white supremacist sites, extremist Christian sites, anti-trans sites, etc.

That’s what you get when you scrape the Web.

Thanks to Jason Kottke for spotting it.

My commonplace booklet

Photograph of a notice affixed to the rear of a Tesla Model S.

I feel this driver’s pain. One of the drawbacks of having a Tesla is that people hold one responsible for Elon Musk.

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Wednesday 19 April, 2023

The end of the valley

Langdale, in the Lake District, on a glorious September day last year.

Quote of the Day

”Plato was, in my view, a very unreliable Platonist. He was too much of a philosopher to think that anything he had said was the last word.”

  • Gilbert Ryle

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

The late, lamented Alec Finn and Mary Bergin | Maid on the Green & Pádraig O’Keeffe’s


Long Read of the Day

The approaching tsunami of addictive AI-created content will overwhelm us

A perceptive essay by Charles Arthur about what lies ahead for societies that are currently playing delightedly with Generative AI like cheerful imbeciles. And the really striking thing is that he wrote it last August, two months before ChatGPT broke cover.

I sometimes wonder how often companies that rely on future technologies get their smartest people together in a room to sketch out future scenarios. Because they must do, right? When Apple came up with the first iPod, there was a certain sketchiness to it: the product was put together in a matter of months. But immediately after that, the march of product improvement (smaller form, then flash storage, then no screen, then touchscreen) showed that the executives must have sat down in a room and mapped out what would be in reach, both financial and technical, as the years rolled on.

So let’s do the same, but for machine learning and content. We’ll just put a bunch of elements here and see what shakes out…

Do read the whole thing. It’s sobering.

Doc’s dream

This (from Doc Searls’s blog) sure woke me up.

Her name is Mary Johnson. Born in 1917, the year the U.S. entered WWI, two years before women in the same country got the right to vote, she died in 1944, not long before the end of WWII. She was buried, unembalmed, in the cemetery of a Chicago church that was later abandoned. Her grave was unmarked. To make room for new commercial development in 2023, the church was razed and occupants of the cemetery were respectfully and quietly disinterred, and moved to a working cemetery elsewhere in town. In the midst, efforts were made by the coroner’s office to discover the identities of the bodies from unmarked graves before they were to be reburied. Mary’s was among them.

The difference with Mary was that her body appeared to be unchanged: a bit dusty under bits of casket lining, with light flecks on her dark skin. Except for that, she looked like she had died yesterday. When they removed her body from the casket in the hospital morgue where she was taken for DNA sampling, she was still flexible. I asked the pathologist what would account for her perfect state of preservation. The pathologist said she had no idea. Even the best embalming jobs age in the ground.

When the pathologist was out of the room, I reached to lift one of Mary’s eyelids. Before my fingers touched, both lids opened, slightly. I called out, “Come here! Come here!” Nobody came. Then both eyes opened. Her body shook as she tried to breathe.

“Code Blue! I yelled.

She was alive. Somehow, alive. After what, eighty years?

There’s more. An astonishingly vivid dream.

My commonplace booklet

ps: Lewis Carroll on postcripts

A postscript is a very useful invention, but it is not meant (as so many ladies suppose) to contain the real gist of the letter; it serves rather to throw into the shade any little matter we do not wish to make a fuss about. For example, your friend had promised to execute a commission for you in town but forgot it, thereby putting you to great inconvenience; and he now writes to apologize for his negligence. It would be cruel, and needlessly crushing, to make it the main subject of your reply. How much more gracefully it comes in thus! “P.S. Don’t distress yourself any more about having omitted that little matter in town. I won’t deny that it did put my plans out a little, at the time, but it’s all right now. I often forget things myself, and ‘those who live in glass houses, mustn’t throw stones,’ you know!”

From Lapham’s Quarterly.

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Tuesday 18 April, 2023

Re-learning to see in B&W

I have an interesting new toy — a digital camera that only does black and white. On the face of it, this seems daft: after all if you have a camera with a colour sensor you can always de-saturate the image when processing it using PhotoShop or Lightroom and ‘convert’ it to B&W — thereby giving you the best of both worlds — colour and monochrome in the same package.

Er, not quite. That post-processed monochrome tends to be a bit, well, muddy.

The reason is that colour sensors have a Bayer filter on them which is what enables them to render images in colour. It was a wonderful invention, but it has some downsides — aliasing and absorbing light, among other things.

But if you don’t need (or want) colour images, you can dispense with the filter (and its downsides). Which is what my new toy does.

The result is that I’m now getting B&W images which are astonishingly vivid. In fact, they’re very like the images I used to get when I first became a serious photographer, processing my own B&W film.

What I’ve realised, though, is that after switching from analogue to digital photography a decade ago, I henceforth always worked in colour: all digital cameras were colour-natives, as it were.

But what I have now discovered is that, in that process, I had forgotten how to ‘see’ in B&W.

So I’m on a learning journey, again. Back to the future, you might say.

Quote of the Day

Happiness, n. An agreeable sensation arising from contemplating the misery of another.”

  • Ambrose Bierce, in The Enlarged Devil’s Dictionary.

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Mark Knopfler | Brothers In Arms | Berlin, 2007



Long Read of the Day

Our new Deep Blue moment

The perennial debate about computing since the year dot has been whether the technology is an augmentation of human capability or a replacement for it. Many contemporary concerns about digital tech tend towards the replacement thesis, and this has recently reached another crescendo in the discussion about LLMs and ‘Generative AI’.

So here’s an essay by Francisco Toro which takes its inspiration from an earlier moment of existential angst — when Garry Kasparov was defeated by the IBM computer Deep Blue.

We’re living a new, much broader Deep Blue moment, when the basic boundary lines between the outer limits of what machines and humans can do are suddenly in flux. Only this time, the people directly concerned aren’t just a few dozen grandmasters in the rarified world of top-level chess. This time, it’s everyone.

All of which left me wondering: can that original Deep Blue moment inform our current vertigo?

Read on. It’s interesting.

ChatGPT, etc.

The New York Times has an article listing 35 ways in which people use ChatGPT or other ‘Generative AI’ systems to do useful things for them.

No. 24 is from Ethan Mollick of the University of Pennsylvania who, from the moment that ChatGPT first appeared has been an enthusiastic advocate for it.

Brad DeLong is not impressed:

“Code without knowing how to code”: ask Chat GPT4 to code something even moderately complex, copy and paste the result into an environment, and run it, and odds are it will not work without at least some debugging. What software copilots allow you to do is to remove the book you had at your left hand that you frantically paged through trying to figure out what the exact format for that is in this computer language, and to avoid the visits to confusing Stack Overflow threads. You still have to “know how” in the sense of knowing how to set up code architecture, know when something is close enough to correct for it to be worthwhile running it to get an error message, and know how to debug. Since nearly all of us are much better at architecture, recognizing that it is close, and debugging than we are at actually writing stuff ex nihilo, it is an enormous productivity amplification for programmers.

But it does not allow people “to code without knowing how to code”, and nobody who actually knows anything about it would say that. And yet they do…

OK. Maybe the problem is that they believed Ethan Mollick when he said “I can’t code” when what he meant was “I have a day job, and can’t code well”? But still…

Readers write…

My memoir the other day about seeing JFK in the flesh moved Anne Kirkman (Whom God Preserve) to write:

I can’t resist commenting on your post about JFK, as I had a very sinilar experience wih Bobby Kennedy. I came out of a shop in the Cornmarket in Oxford to find a small crowd surrounding a car on the roof of which Bobby K. was standing. My memories of him tally with yours of his brother, except there was no speech. The effect of his presence was almost like a physical shock. I’ve never come across such a charismatic person again. How did they do it?

And Trevor Mudge, a computer scientist, writes apropos my choice of John Horgan’s diatribe against sceptics,…

I don’t think John Horgan is correct to refer to Krauss as a “hack physicist” unless one thinks a PhD in theoretic physics from MIT qualifies one as a hack. He may have views that Horgan — a “famous” journalist — does not agree with, but I cannot agree that with Horgan’s characterization. The excerpt of Horgan’s that you quote make use of ad hominen attacks on Krauss and Dawkins, which to my mind detracts strongly from Horgan’s point. As a point of reference, Horgan does not have a great reputation among scientists and mathematicians as far as I can tell


In yesterday’s edition Rebecca Solnit was wrongly identified as ‘Rebecca Solent’. The culprit was Apple autocorrect, but also me because I failed to spot the mistake before publishing. Apologies to her, and to you, dear reader. And thanks to Mark Liebenrood for pointing it out.

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Monday 17 April, 2023

A presidential study

Michael D. Higgins, the current President of my native land (shown here entertaining Joe Biden last week) is a serious intellectual and author, and his study demonstrates this perfectly. Not for him the immaculately pristine, sterile desks of Macron & Co, but the untidy mess familiar to any working writer. Er, like me. (See below.)

Quote of the Day

”No I ask it for the knowledge of a lifetime.”

  • J. A. Whistler, the Victorian painter, in answer to a barrister who, in his legal case against John Ruskin, had asked “For two days’ labour you ask two hundred guineas?”

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Rachmaninov | Variation 18 from “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini” | Khatia Buniatishvili


Pure schmaltz, but lovely all the same.

Long Read of the Day

My Controversial Diatribe Against “Skeptics”

If you like diatribes — and I do — then you may enjoy this one by John Horgan, the famous science journalist.

Here’s a sample:

I hate preaching to the converted. If you were Buddhists, I’d bash Buddhism. But you’re skeptics, so I have to bash skepticism.

I’m a science journalist. I don’t celebrate science, I criticize it, because science needs critics more than cheerleaders. I point out gaps between scientific hype and reality. That keeps me busy, because, as you know, most peer-reviewed scientific claims are wrong.

I’m a skeptic, but with a small S, not capital S. I don’t belong to skeptical societies. I don’t hang out with people who self-identify as capital-S Skeptics. Or Atheists. Or Rationalists.

When people like this get together, they become tribal. They pat each other on the back and tell each other how smart they are compared to those outside the tribe. But belonging to a tribe can make you dumber.

Here’s an example involving two idols of Capital-S Skepticism: biologist Richard Dawkins and physicist Lawrence Krauss. In his book A Universe from Nothing, Krauss claims that physics is answering the old question, Why is there something rather than nothing?

Krauss’s book doesn’t fulfill its title’s promise, not even close, but Dawkins loved it. He writes in the book’s afterword: “If On the Origin of Species was biology’s deadliest blow to supernaturalism, we may come to see A Universe From Nothing as the equivalent from cosmology.”

Just to be clear: Dawkins is comparing Lawrence Krauss, a hack physicist, to Charles Darwin. Why would Dawkins say something so dumb? Because he hates religion so much that it impairs his scientific judgment. The author of The God Delusion succumbs to what you might call the science delusion…

Great stuff. And he’s right: righteous folks never like being taken apart, or indeed mocked. I learned this many years ago when I was lived in an ultra-liberal middle-class neighbourhood (which I christened ‘the Muesli Belt’). In an Observer column I took the mickey out of my neighbours for the way they suddenly became aerated about a sex-shop opening up in the vicinity. And, boy, were they cross! And pompous with it. The only exception was a nice architect who mildly opined that the only thing he objected to was that the shop in question didn’t take American Express.

Books, etc.

Jurgen Habermas has a new book out — A New Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere. Sadly, it’s in German, a language I don’t speak. I guess there’s an English translation on the way.

Elon Musk hates journalists but journalists love Twitter. Where does that leave us?

Yesterday’s Observer column:

Last October, the richest manchild in human history fell into the trap he had dug for himself. Elon Musk was forced to purchase Twitter at an absurd price. He had no clear idea of what to do with his new acquisition, other than realising a fatuous idea about “free speech”. It was like watching a monkey acquire a delicate clock: the new owner started thrashing wildly about, slashing the headcount (from 8,000 to about 1,500) – in the process losing many of the people who knew how the machine worked – and generally having tantrums while tweeting incontinently from the smallest room in the company’s San Francisco headquarters.

All of this frenetic activity was watched – and avidly reported for weeks – by the world’s mainstream media, for reasons that would have puzzled a visiting Martian anthropologist. After all, in relation to the other social-media companies, Twitter looked like a minnow. Most people have never used it. So why all the fuss about its acquisition by a flake of Cadbury proportions?

The answer is that there is a select category of humans who are obsessive users of Twitter: politicians; people who work in advertising, PR and “communications”; and journalists…

Do read the whole thing.

The continuing decay of the American republic

From “The Court Can’t Heal Itself”, a sobering essay by James Fallows on the, er, cosy relationship between Supreme Justice Clarence Thomas and a wacky billionaire, Harlan Crow.

My commonplace booklet

Not Too Late

An interesting initiative by Rebecca Solent Solnit and Thelma Young Lutunatabua.

NotT00Late is a project to invite newcomers to the climate movement, as well as provide climate facts and encouragement for people who are already engaged but weary. We believe that the truths about the science, the justice-centered solutions, the growing strength of the climate movement and its achievements can help. They can assuage the sorrow and despair, and they can help people see why it’s worth doing the work the climate crisis demands of us.

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