Friday 14 April, 2023

Curled up

Our cat, Tilly. She and I are about the same age (making due allowances for the conversion rate between human- and cat-years). Strangely, my attempts to replicate this posture end in failure.

Quote of the Day

”The weird thing about any kind of analytic discussion of today’s AI wave is that all the really big issues are highly technical and philosophical arguments amongst scientists who don’t agree on the questions, let alone the answers. What kinds of understanding can these systems have? Is there a path to AGI? How soon? What would that mean? You can spend an awful lot of time watching debates and interviews on YouTube, but no-one knows yet.”

  • Benedict Evans

That just about sums it up.

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Jay Ungar & Molly Mason Family Band | “Ashokan Farewell”


Long Read of the Day

 Can start-ups fix the ethical problems of technology?

My short answer to the question is ’no’. And the reason is that “get big fast” is the ruling obsession in the industry. But Sebastián Lehuedé, a young researcher in Cambridge, has a more judicious analysis, which looks back to Ivan Illich for inspiration. Which is why I was struck by his essay, because I also keep coming back to Illich for ways of thinking about technology (including bicycles).

Some critics of big tech companies, he says, have pointed to start-ups as key actors in advancing a more ethically aware technological landscape. Drawing parallels with philosopher Ivan Illich’s criticism of ‘growth mania’, he argues that the ‘imperative to scale’ in tech circles makes it difficult for medium and small-sized firms to prioritise ethics.

Worth your time. About a five-minute read.

My commonplace booklet

Why are manufacturers of expensive wristwatches always concerned to make devices for deep-sea divers? Here’s the latest model from Omega. Apparently it’s water-resistant to depths of 6,000 metres, which is 19685.04 feet.

My question: how many real divers can afford this kind of jewellery? It costs £11,700. You can get one here. Remember to bring your swimming trunks to establish your bona fides with a snooty salesperson.

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Thursday 13 April, 2023

Harriet and her amanuensis

I was struck by this lovely photograph of John Stuart Mill and Harriet Taylor, which appeared yesterday on Brad DeLong’s blog. Seeking information about their relationship I went first to Wikipedia (as one does) and found this:

On 21 April 1851, Mill married Harriet Taylor after 21 years of intimate friendship. Taylor was married when they met, and their relationship was close but generally believed to be chaste during the years before her first husband died in 1849. The couple waited two years before marrying in 1851. Brilliant in her own right, Taylor was a significant influence on Mill’s work and ideas during both friendship and marriage. His relationship with Taylor reinforced Mill’s advocacy of women’s rights. He said that in his stand against domestic violence, and for women’s rights he was “chiefly an amanuensis to my wife”.

Further digging uncovered a real surprise — that the relationship between the two had so intrigued an unlikely sleuth, Fredrich Hayek, that he had embarked in the late 1940s on what Cass Sunstein described as

an enormous, uncharacteristic, and somewhat obsessive undertaking …, which was to assemble what remains of the correspondence between Mill and his eventual wife, Harriet Taylor (one or the other destroyed numerous letters, probably including the most interesting), and to use it as the basis for a narrative account of their mysterious love affair.

How was it, asks Sunstein,

that Hayek, of all people, became captivated by the story of John Stuart Mill and Harriet Taylor? A possible answer is that he had to explain to himself and others why Mill—one of the few thinkers he had to regard as an intellectual equal or superior—moved away from what Hayek celebrated as classical liberalism, which for Hayek was focused on limited government and protection of free markets. But Hayek’s interest in the romance itself outpaced his interest in the evolution of Mill’s thinking (perhaps because of the beauty and great delicacy of the correspondence).

Does that romance have anything to do with liberalism and liberty, asks Sunstein? Answer: yes.

One of the lessons we can draw from Hayek’s work of excavation is that Mill’s distinctive form of liberalism, with its emphasis on individual freedom from the confining effect of social norms, had a great deal to do with his relationship with Taylor. As we shall see, Hayek himself missed the connection entirely, because his own preoccupations lay elsewhere.

Interesting, ne c’est pas?. I have a sinking feeling I might have to read Hayek’s account, just out of curiosity. Next stop: the University Library.

Quote of the Day

“Nobody is forgotten when it is convenient to remember them.”

  • Benjamin Disraeli

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Sharon Shannon | Blackbird


Wonderful musician with an infectious smile.

Long Read of the Day

The Dawn of Mediocre Computing

An intriguing title for an intriguing essay by Venkatesh Rao. It rang a bell for me because I had been musing on the stupendous blandness of ChatGPT’s responses to some of the prompts I had been feeding it.

Well, we all knew it was coming. Computers already easily overwhelm the best humans at chess and Go. Now they have done something far harder: achieved parity with David Brooks at writing.

OpenAI’s ChatGPT, released as a research beta two days ago, has done to the standard high-school essay what cameras did to photorealistic painting and pocket calculators did to basic arithmetic. It is open sign-up and free for now, but I suspect not for much longer, so go try it; and make sure to trawl social media for interesting and revealing examples being posted by people.

As an open-world, real-ish (I’ll define real-ish in a minute) domain, the correct standard for judging an AI on writing is not beating the “best” humans1 in a stylized closed-world competition (the existence of such competitions is a mark of a certain kind of simplicity), but achieving indistinguishability from mediocre humans. And when it comes to writing, nobody does mediocre more mediocrely than David Brooks. I’m in the parity band too, but he epitomizes my thesis in Survival of the Mediocre Mediocre in a way I can only aspire to. In the grim darkness of the far future where there are only extreme weather reports, civilization will be dominated by Brooks-like humans and Brooks-equivalent computers living together in an awkward symbiosis. And that future starts today. We are witnessing the dawn of mediocre computing.

This is an angle of things I hadn’t ever contemplated. Hope you find it interesting.

My commonplace booklet

How to Take Accidentally Wes Anderson photographs

Entrancing, witty and interesting video.

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Wednesday 12 April, 2023

Where to?

North Norfolk, last week.

Quote of the Day

”“Show me the incentive and I will show you the outcome.”

  • Charlie Munger

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Paolo Nutini | Through The Echoes


Long Read of the Day

Biden comes ‘home’

Joe Biden, who is very attached to his Irish ‘roots’, is in Ireland at the moment. He’s even visiting the town where I was born and, I think, giving a speech — or is it a sermon — in the cathedral there.

The Irish Times columnist Fintan O’Toole had a perceptive piece in the paper yesterday (behind a paywall, alas) about this. The nub of his argument is that Biden’s “seamless merging” of his sense of Irishness with his Catholic faith rather puts him at odds with how contemporary Irish people — especially young people — now see themselves.

Biden’s sense of Irishness is very real and profoundly felt. But it is rooted in soil that is now increasingly thin on the ground in Ireland itself: a complete fusion of Irish and Catholic identities.

It makes a slightly uncomfortable kind of sense that Biden will preach on Friday from the altar of St Muredach’s Cathedral in Ballina. He chose to be Irish because he identifies so profoundly with Catholicism.

In her memoir, Biden’s sister Valerie wrote that when they were growing up in Wilmington, Delaware, “In Catholic neighborhoods, the parish in which you lived was everything; you identified yourself by name first, parish second.”

The strange thing, writes O’Toole, is that,

in Irish-America, this parochial Catholic world can be recalled with a simple, uncomplicated fondness that is almost impossible now in Ireland itself. Valerie can write that “There was such a strong sense of community, of instant belonging. The kids’ values were shaped by parents inside the home, reinforced by the nuns at school, and watched over by the looming church spire when they played outside.”

This nostalgia is possible, I suppose, because words like “reinforced”, “watched” and “looming” do not, in the context of American Catholic suburbia, bring to mind Magdalene Laundries and Mother and Baby Homes and parish priests burning novels and teachers being sacked for writing them.

Biden’s visit comes 60 years after the epochal visit of his political hero, JFK, and is, in that sense, “a case of history repeating itself, the first time as a dream of the Irish future, the second as echo of an Irish past”.

JFK embodied, in all his impossible glamour, an idea of what Ireland then aspired to be: modern, sophisticated and confident. Biden now embodies an idea of what Ireland used to be — a place in which “Irish” and “Catholic” was a match made in heaven (and from which there could be no divorce).

I well remember that visit by JFK, a few months before his assassination, and once wrote up my recollections of it for the Observer. This is how it went:

Remembering JFK

I saw Jack Kennedy once, in the flesh, at close range. It was during his visit to Ireland in 1963 and my father — who had been responsible for some of the arrangements — had wangled a good viewing position for me. For a brief period, long enough for every detail of the scene to be etched onto the memory of an impressionable schoolboy, the President stood about 15 feet away from me.

Over the years, it has become de rigeur for members of the chattering classes to distance themselves from the Kennedy phenomenon, to attribute their past infatuation with Camelot-on-the-Potomac to the naiveté of their youth. The piles of revisionist scholarship and muck-raking journalism encourage us to disown the hopes once aroused by Jack Kennedy’s presidency. Like rejected lovers, we come to resent the extent of our original passion, and to be embarrassed by anniversaries and other reminders of it. ‘I remember,’ says the chap in a smart contemporary cartoon, ‘exactly what I was doing when I was first asked if I could remember exactly what I was doing when President Kennedy was shot.’

But I cannot erase the impression that Kennedy made on me that mild Irish day. I had never before seen anyone like him. He was tanned, lithe, alert. He seemed unbelievably glamorous. He had a marvellous smile which first flickered, then exploded into life. He looked both relaxed and wary as he listened to the rambling tributes of local dignatories. When he came to speak, the phrases cutting through the Boston drawl were those of a man who understood the emotive power of words and knew an elegant sentence when he read one.

To my eyes he seemed the embodiment of impossible dreams – that political leaders should be young and vibrant; that firmness could be combined with compassion; that there was a place for literacy in the councils of government; that perhaps power did not always corrupt.

Naive? Sure. I was dazzled by what Henry Kissinger later described as the aphrodisiac effect of power. But it’s what I felt on the day. And it’s why I found Who Shot President Kennedy? (BBC2) so distressing. What bothered me was not the conjectures about the Warren Report rehearsed by Walter Cronkite but seeing the movie footage of the life, which had so touched me as a boy, being snuffed out by an explosive cauliflower of blood and brain tissue. That and the black-and-white photographs from the autopsy showing that even on the slab Kennedy retained something of his taut dignity.

To balance this picture of JFK in death, BBC2 screened two remarkable documentaries showing him in life. One dealt with his victory over Hubert Humphrey in the Wisconsin primary; the other covered the confrontation between his Administration and Governor George Wallace over the registration of two black students in the University of Alabama. In their time, both were path-breaking films because they pioneered the verite techniques which we now take for granted, and because they took film (and therefore television) into areas of public life where it had previously feared to tread.

In their different ways, the two films showed the two sides of Kennedy – the ruthless machine politician and the dignified president. The Wisconsin film showed Jack and Bobby pressing the Catholic flesh, and Bobby collecting dollar bills like a vacuum-cleaner. The Alabana film focussed on the brothers’ search for a strategy to outface Wallace without going over the top. It closed with the speech Jack made to the nation on the subject.

‘We are confronted,’ he said, ‘primarily with a moral issue. It is as old as the scriptures and as clear as the American constitution. It is whether all Americans are to be afforded equal rights and equal opportunities; whether we are going to treat our fellow-Americans as we want to be treated. If an American because his skin is dark cannot enjoy the full and free life which all of us want, then who among us would be content to have the colour of skin changed and stand in his place? … This nation, for all its hopes, and all its boasts, will not be fully free until all its citizens are free.’

It’s easy now to dismiss this as mere rhetoric. After all, Kennedy didn’t compose it – like all presidents, he had teams of speech-writers. Why is it, then, that his are the only presidential speeches that most of us can remember or quote? It is partly because he employed classy writers. But it is mainly because the man himself had class.

Once, he gave a White House dinner for all the American Nobel laureates then living. At coffee, one of the guests said to him: ‘Mr President, there must be more intelligence gathered under this roof tonight than every before’. ‘Yeah,’ replied Kennedy, ‘except when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.’ It is when you put this remark against the collective wit and wisdom of Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter and Reagan that you begin to get the measure of what was lost on that grim November day in Dallas.

My commonplace booklet

The Ultimate Reading List

It’s here.

Autodidacts of the World Unite!

You have nothing to lose but your brains.

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Tuesday 11 April, 2023

Easter post

I don’t know when it started (maybe it was a lockdown thing) but the villages in this part of the country suddenly started acquiring charming knitted hats. On our way back from Norfolk on Saturday, we stopped at a village shop to buy a paper, and outside it stood this topically-topped box.

I wonder what Trollope (who was a Postal Inspector in Ireland, and sometimes dipped into the “lost letter” boxes for fictional ideas) would have made of it.

Quote of the Day

“To the University of Oxford I acknowledge no obligation: and she will as willingly renounce me for a son, as I am willing to disclaim her for a mother. I spent fourteen months at Magdalen College; they proved the fourteen months the most idle and unprofitable of my whole life.”

  • Edward Gibbon

Funny that, and he wasn’t even in the boat club.

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Gilbert & Sullivan | A Policeman’s Lot | Pirates of Penzance


Best listened to on radiograms powered by thermionic valves. But lovely to sing in one’s bath.

Long Read of the Day

What’s Missing From the Cultural Narrative About Gen Z

Really good, sensible essay by Alfie Robinson challenging a lot of the patronising nonsense currently being peddled about Generation Z, i.e. those born between the mid-to-late 1990s and the early 2010s. The tenor of this sanctimonious harping is that members of Gen Z are more risk-adverse than their predecessors and engage less in underage drinking, smoking, and drug use.

Worse still, they are allegedly not just remaining “ensconced for longer in the protective cocoon of adolescence, reliant on their parents for everything from health insurance to transportation to conflict mediation; they also appear to be far less interested in ever leaving the cocoon at all, having persuaded themselves that independence is too fraught with danger to be worth it”.

Robinson tackles these criticisms head-on.

First, if we dig into the evidence, many of the “aversions” being described here are not the result of coddling or puritanism, but are to a large extent adaptations in the face of economic trends. Second, regardless of the underlying causes, a great number of these abstinences should be applauded, not condemned. They represent major improvements in the quality and length of people’s lives: the fruits of a more conscientious generation and a sign of true maturity and adulthood.

Bravo! This generation is responding intelligently to the economic and other pressures that preceding generations — especially including my own ‘Boomer’ one — have landed them with. Just to take one simple example — home ownership. The very first thing I did after I got an academic post was to go out and buy a house — in central Cambridge. Today, no junior academic could do that. In fact, nowadays even tenured professors are finding cities like Oxford, Cambridge and London unaffordable.

Books, etc.

My reading material for the next week. I’m reviewing it for the Observer later in the month. It’s a bracing history of how technology has always benefited elites, with trickle-down improvements (sometimes) for the rest of us. If we don’t get a grip on the contemporary tech industry (and start introducing redistributive taxation) we are in for an even more grotesque re-enactment of this ancient tradition.

My commonplace booklet

National alarm test on April 23 at 3pm.

BBC report

A siren will go off on nearly every smartphone in the UK on Sunday 23 April, the government has announced. The 10 seconds of sound and vibration at 15:00 BST will test a new emergency alerts system.

The alert system will be used to warn of extreme weather events, such as flash floods or wildfires. It could also be used during terror incidents or civil defence emergencies if the UK was under attack.

So, as Corporal Jones used to say in Dad’s Army, Don’t panic, don’t panic!

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Monday 10 March, 2023

Climbing to the Moon

Ladders to the Moon of AGI, by @Code_of_Kait

How a Generative AI represented the idea (popular with some of the machine-learning crowd) that extending LLMs will — somehow —get us to AGI (i.e. ‘super intelligent’ machines) one day. Thanks to Gary Marcus for the pic.

Quote of the Day

“Safety is no accident.”

  • On a notice seen at the entrance of a large industrial plant the other day.

A brilliant – and astute — slogan.

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Randy Newman | You’ve Got a Friend in Me


Long Read of the Day

The Data Delusion

Nice New Yorker review essay by Jill Lepore. Given that we seem to have uploaded everything anyone has ever known onto a worldwide network of machines, she asks, what if it doesn’t have all the answers?

Forget the zettabyten Internet for a minute. Set aside the glowering glass jars. Instead, imagine that all the world’s knowledge is stored, and organized, in a single vertical Steelcase filing cabinet. Maybe it’s lima-bean green. It’s got four drawers. Each drawer has one of those little paper-card labels, snug in a metal frame, just above the drawer pull. The drawers are labelled, from top to bottom, “Mysteries,” “Facts,” “Numbers,” and “Data.” Mysteries are things only God knows, like what happens when you’re dead. That’s why they’re in the top drawer, closest to Heaven. A long time ago, this drawer used to be crammed full of folders with names like “Why Stars Exist” and “When Life Begins,” but a few centuries ago, during the scientific revolution, a lot of those folders were moved into the next drawer down, “Facts,” which contains files about things humans can prove by way of observation, detection, and experiment. “Numbers,” second from the bottom, holds censuses, polls, tallies, national averages—the measurement of anything that can be counted, ever since the rise of statistics, around the end of the eighteenth century. Near the floor, the drawer marked “Data” holds knowledge that humans can’t know directly but must be extracted by a computer, or even by an artificial intelligence. It used to be empty, but it started filling up about a century ago, and now it’s so jammed full it’s hard to open.

From the outside, these four drawers look alike, but, inside, they follow different logics…

Once I read that para, I was hooked. Maybe you will be too?

AI and hegemonic anxiety

Yesterday’s Observer column:

The Bible maintains that “the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong”, but, as Damon Runyon used to say, “that is the way to bet”. As a species, we take the same view, which is why we are obsessed with “races”. Political journalism, for example, is mostly horserace coverage – runners and riders, favourites, outsiders, each-way bets, etc. And when we get into geopolitics and international relations we find a field obsessed with arms “races”.

In recent times, a new kind of weaponry – loosely called “AI” – has entered the race. In 2021, we belatedly discovered how worried the US government was about it. A National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence was convened under the chairmanship of Eric Schmidt, the former chair of Google. In its report, issued in March of that year, the commission warned: that China could soon replace the US as the world’s “AI superpower”; that AI systems will be used (surprise, surprise!) in the “pursuit of power”; and that “AI will not stay in the domain of superpowers or the realm of science fiction”…

Read on

A new arrival!

Hooray! David Aaronovitch is on Substack. I have never subscribed to the London Times, partly because I don’t believe in supporting Murdoch properties. And the only thing I regretted about that abstinence is that I didn’t see David Aaronovitch’s columns.

But now he’s a free man, with his own Substack blog. And he’s made a good start.

Like this:

It took 50 minutes……

…after I had posted my first ever Substack here for an email to arrive from someone telling me why he had unsubscribed. He was so quick he might even have placed me in temporary danger of having a unique subscription summary of minus one. “On reading the first post”, he told me, “I’m out of here”. He then explained why. And because everything is grist to the writer’s mill this exchange got me thinking and what it got me thinking is set out below and in tomorrow’s post. In the meantime let’s call my interlocuteur Adam – after the first man to leave paradise.

Adam’s reasoning

I’ll try to be succinct. In a short passage in that long first piece I referred disparagingly to the campaign by professor Matthew Goodwin to persuade the world that the small boats are the make or break issue for the next election. For Adam this represented “the usual snide remarks about Goodwin’s polls, as you prefer to go by Yougov, that much loved poll by all left of centre commentators… (which) knows how to get the replies that you people of the left want, by simply polling the higher educated class which veers leftward. So I’ll be unsubscribing.”

Read on.

My commonplace booklet

From Margaret Attwood’s Substack. Nicely captures the sad fact that book tours are the penance that best-selling writers have to pay for their success.

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Friday 7 April, 2023

Into the light

Escapees from St Pancras.

Quote of the Day

“Any fool can know. The point is to understand.”

  • Albert Einstein

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Handel | ‘Where’er you walk’ | Semele | Academy of Ancient Music


Long Read of the Day

Tyler Cowen’s conversation with Dean Swift

Maybe this should really be the Long Listen of the Day, because there’s an audio version as well as a transcript? Tyler had access to OpenAI’s newest Large Language Model (LLM), GPT4, and he used it to have an imaginary conversation with the great Irish satirist.

It was such an original idea that I laughed out loud when I first learned of it. (And of course wished that I had had the idea myself. I had to content myself with asking ChatGPT to write an entry in Virginia Woolf’s diary for Saturday 19th March, 1926. — with uninspiring results that I described on Tuesday this week.)

Chart of the Day

Looks like a career in tech isn’t the bed of roses it used to be.

My commonplace booklet

Tyler Cowen: How to visit Italy


Crisp, succinct and informative — as usual with him.


  1. Venice, Florence, and Rome have, on average, the worst food in Italy. They have some wonderful places, but possibly hard to get into, requiring advance planning, and often expensive. For random meals, those cities are not impressive, noting that Rome, due to its size, is much better than Venice or Florence.

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Thursday 6 April, 2023

Light and shade

In College the other day.

Quote of the Day

”Commerce in the 21st century is espionage for profit.”

  • Historian Jill Lepore, writing in the New Yorker.

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Ray Charles | Georgia On My Mind


Georgia may also be on Trump’s mind, but for a different reason.

Long Read of the Day

AI Chatbots Don’t Care About Your Social Norms

They seem to fool people into thinking they’re human, argue Jacob Browning and Yann Lecun in this essay but they are actually exceedingly alien.

With artificial intelligence now powering Microsoft’s Bing and Google’s Bard search engines, brilliant and clever conversational AI is at our fingertips. But there have been many uncanny moments — including casually delivered disturbing comments like calling a reporter ugly, declaring love for strangers or rattling off plans for taking over the world.

To make sense of these bizarre moments, it’s helpful to start by thinking about the phenomenon of saying the wrong thing. Humans are usually very good at avoiding spoken mistakes, gaffes and faux pas. Chatbots, by contrast, screw up a lot. Understanding why humans excel at this clarifies when and why we trust each other — and why current chatbots can’t be trusted.

Getting It Wrong

For GPT-3, there is only one way to say the wrong thing: By making a statistically unlikely response to whatever the last few words were. Its understanding of context, situation and appropriateness concerns only what can be derived from the user’s prompt. For ChatGPT, this is modified slightly in a novel and interesting way. In addition to saying something statistically likely, the model’s responses are also reinforced by human evaluators: The system outputs a response, and human evaluators either reinforce it as a good one or not (a grueling, traumatizing process for the evaluators). The upshot is a system that is not just saying something plausible, but also (ideally) something a human would judge to be appropriate — if not the right thing, at least not offensive…

Great essay. The authors’ conclusion ought to be printed in 95-point Helevetica Bold on every schoolroom and lecture-hall wall:

The upshot is that chatbots aren’t conversing in a human way, and they’ll never get there solely by saying statistically likely things. Without a genuine understanding of the social world, these systems are just idle chatterboxes — no matter how witty or eloquent.

Books, etc.

I’ve written for the Observer for a long time (my first piece in the paper was published in 1972, I think, and I’ve been a weekly columnist there ever since 1987).

At one stage during that time, the paper had my fellow-countryman Conor Cruise O’Brien as its Editor-in-Chief. He was a big figure in every sense of the word — an experienced diplomat and UN official (he had been the UN’s High Representative in Katanga during the Congolese civil war), the Schweitzer Professor of the Humanities at New York university, a Cabinet minister in Ireland, a distinguished author of fine books (on Camus and Edmund Burke, to name just two), and a major public intellectual.

He was also a formidable drinker, and if you went to the pub with him on a Friday night you needed to be ready for anything. One evening he said to me, “Is it true that you’re an academic as well as a journalist?”. “I’m afraid it is, Conor”, I replied. “I see,” he said. “Same as me: you have a foot in both graves.”

He liked the Observer but I think he regarded many of us as woolly-headed liberals. Still, he appreciated the ethos of the paper and occasionally told stories against himself about it.

One was about a day when he was phoning in the copy for his column from some distant land and at one point dictated as follows to the copy-taker: “the atmosphere was redolent of fin-de-siecle Vienna — that’s French – f-i—n-space-d-e-space…” At which point the copy-taker politely stopped him and said, “I think you should take it for granted, Dr O’Brien, that a copy-taker on the Observer would know what the French for ‘end of the century’ is.”

It was a good story and we all laughed at it. But although I knew the phrase at the heart of the story, I had no real understanding of what it implied.

Until now.

I’m reading — for the first time — Stefan Zweig’s The World of Yesterday, and his account of the Vienna in which he was a precocious teenager and young man is one a truly remarkable evocation of a special era. I’m finding the book unputdownable (to resort to cliché) and am retrospectively grateful to Clive James whose essay on Zweig in his collection Cultural Amnesia was what started me down this enjoyable rabbit-hole.

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Wednesday 5 April, 2023

Many thanks to the readers who pointed out that in the previous two editions I appeared to be confused about the month we’re now in!


Quote of the Day

”If economists wished to study the horse, they wouldn’t go and look at horses. They’d sit in their studies and say to themselves, ‘What would I do if I were a horse?’”

  • Ely Devons

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Handel | Concerto grosso B flat major op. 6 No. 7 HWV 325 | WDR Symphony Orchestra


Long Read of the Day

Philip K. Dick and the Fake Humans

Lovely essay in the Boston Review by Henry Farrell, arguing that we live in Philip K. Dick’s future, not George Orwell’s or Aldous Huxley’s.

This is not the dystopia we were promised. We are not learning to love Big Brother, who lives, if he lives at all, on a cluster of server farms, cooled by environmentally friendly technologies. Nor have we been lulled by Soma and subliminal brain programming into a hazy acquiescence to pervasive social hierarchies.

Dystopias tend toward fantasies of absolute control, in which the system sees all, knows all, and controls all. And our world is indeed one of ubiquitous surveillance. Phones and household devices produce trails of data, like particles in a cloud chamber, indicating our wants and behaviors to companies such as Facebook, Amazon, and Google. Yet the information thus produced is imperfect and classified by machine-learning algorithms that themselves make mistakes. The efforts of these businesses to manipulate our wants leads to further complexity. It is becoming ever harder for companies to distinguish the behavior which they want to analyze from their own and others’ manipulations.

This does not look like totalitarianism unless you squint very hard indeed. As the sociologist Kieran Healy has suggested, sweeping political critiques of new technology often bear a strong family resemblance to the arguments of Silicon Valley boosters. Both assume that the technology works as advertised, which is not necessarily true at all.

Standard utopias and standard dystopias are each perfect after their own particular fashion. We live somewhere queasier—a world in which technology is developing in ways that make it increasingly hard to distinguish human beings from artificial things….

Chart of the Day

Note, though, that there’s no graph for the compute cost, which is a proxy for the carbon footprint of all this data processing.

Orwellian metaphors in ‘Generative AI’

Long, long ago, in his essay “Politics and the English Language”, George Orwell drew attention to the way language is used to conceal awkward truths “designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind”). The tech industry (and its media and academic accomplices) are singularly adept at this. Thus machine-learning suddenly became “AI” even though it has nothing to do with intelligence, artificial or otherwise. By clothing in an acronym which originally denoted a serious quest for machines that could display signs of genuine intelligence the crude planet-heating, IP-infringing technology called machine-learning can be somehow made respectable.

Now, as Rachel Metz points out in a splendid blast in Bloomberg’s Tech Daily newsletter, the idea that a Large Language Model like ChatGPT or GPT-4 can “hallucinate” has become the default explanation anytime the machine messes up.

We humans can at times hallucinate: We may see, hear, feel, smell or taste things that aren’t truly there. It can happen for all sorts of reasons (illness, exhaustion, drugs).


Companies across the industry have applied this concept to the new batch of extremely powerful but still flawed chatbots. Hallucination is listed as a limitation on the product page for OpenAI’s latest AI model, GPT-4. Google, which opened access to its Bard chatbot in March, reportedly brought up AI’s propensity to hallucinate in a recent interview

“Hallucinates” is a way of obscuring what’s going on. It’s also a way of encouraging humans to anthropomorphise LLMs.

Saying that a language model is hallucinating makes it sound as if it has a mind of its own that sometimes derails, said Giada Pistilli, principal ethicist at Hugging Face, which makes and hosts AI models.

“Language models do not dream, they do not hallucinate, they do not do psychedelics,” she wrote in an email. “It is also interesting to note that the word ‘hallucination’ hides something almost mystical, like mirages in the desert, and does not necessarily have a negative meaning as ‘mistake’ might.”

Great piece. Hats off to Ms Metz.

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Tuesday 4 April, 2023

Modern Irish history

Well, one shelf of it anyway.

Quote of the Day

”At times, when remonstrated with for not being ‘nice’, he would retort, ‘You don’t know how much nastier I would be if I hadn’t become a Catholic’.”

  • Tom Driberg on Evelyn Waugh.

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Joni Mitchell and James Taylor | The Circle Game


Long Read of the Day

ChatGPT and Virginia Woolf

Results of a frivolous experiment by yours truly.

Me: Write a diary entry by Virginia Woolf for Friday 19 March, 1926


Dear Diary,

Today has been a rather hectic day for me. I woke up early, as usual, and spent some time in my study working on my novel. I have been struggling with it lately, but today I managed to make some progress. I feel that I am getting closer to the heart of the story, and it excites me.

After breakfast, I went for a walk in the garden. The air was crisp and the sun was shining, and I felt invigorated by the fresh air. I spent some time admiring the flowers and the trees, and I thought about the beauty of nature. It’s amazing how nature can inspire us and lift our spirits.

In the afternoon, I had some visitors. My sister Vanessa came over, along with her husband Clive Bell and their children. We had a lovely time chatting and catching up on news. They are such a delightful family, and I always enjoy their company.

Later in the day, I received a letter from my friend Lytton Strachey. He is always so witty and amusing in his letters, and I found myself laughing out loud at some of his remarks. I am looking forward to seeing him soon.

As the day draws to a close, I am feeling a sense of contentment. It has been a busy day, but a productive and enjoyable one. I am grateful for the simple pleasures of life, like a walk in the garden or a good letter from a friend. It is these things that make life worth living.

Until tomorrow, Virginia Woolf.


OK, let’s try again…

Me: Write a diary entry in the style of Virginia Woolf for Friday 19 March, 1926

Chat GPT:

Dear Diary,

What a day it has been! I woke up early, as I usually do, but today the world outside my window seemed to be filled with a different light. The sun shone brighter and the birds sang louder, as if they too knew that something special was happening today.

I spent the morning writing in my study, trying to capture the essence of the character that has been haunting me for weeks. It is a struggle, as always, to find the words that will do justice to the complexity of human experience. But still, I persist.

After a light lunch, I went for a walk in the garden. The daffodils are in full bloom now, their bright yellow petals reaching towards the sky. I found myself lost in their beauty, my mind drifting away from my work and towards the simple pleasures of life.

In the afternoon, my sister Vanessa came to visit with her husband Clive and their children. It was wonderful to see them again, to hear the laughter of children and the chatter of adults. They bring a sense of joy to my life that I cannot find anywhere else.

As the day drew to a close, I found myself lost in thought. The world is changing so quickly, and sometimes it feels as though we are all rushing towards an unknown future. But in moments like this, surrounded by the beauty of nature and the love of family, I am reminded that there is still so much to be grateful for.

Until tomorrow, Virginia Woolf.


Now, as it happens, Woolf didn’t write anything in her diary for March 19 — hence the idea behind the prompt.

For comparison, here’s a snatch of her entry for the following day:

You get the message. ChatGPT is, no doubt, good at some things. But crassly inadequate at others. I had assumed that its training data would have included the diaries. Obviously it hadn’t. So it made up a diary entry that might have been written by an earnest teenager. Examples: “my sister Vanessa came to visit with her husband Clive and their children”. And it was, of course, “wonderful to see them again”. Vanessa is almost always “Nessa” in the actual diaries, and Woolf would never have felt the need to explain Clive’s marital status. So the whole thing reads like those family newsletters one gets at Christmas.

All of which brought to mind something that Nathan Heller wrote in his New Yorker essay, “The End of the English Major”:

“There has been much hand-wringing about ChatGPT and its ability to replicate some composition tasks. But ChatGPT can no more conceive “Mrs. Dalloway” than it can guide and people-manage an organization. Instead, A.I. can gather and order information, design experiments and processes, produce descriptive writing and mediocre craftwork, and compose basic code, and those are the careers likeliest to go into slow eclipse.”

Never mind Mrs Galloway; it can’t even imagine its author’s diary.

Books, etc.

Ulysses … I rather wish I had never read it. It gives me an inferiority complex. When I read a book like that and then come back to my own work, I feel like an eunuch who has taken a course in voice production and can pass himself off fairly well as a bass or a baritone, but if you listen closely you can hear the good old squeak just the same as ever.”

  • George Orwell, in a letter to Brenda Salkeld, September 1934.

My commonplace booklet

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Monday 3 April, 2023

School Trip!

King’s Parade, Cambridge.

Note the girl on the left looking snootily at the photographer. Smart kid.

Quote of the Day

”Carbon capture is currently ineffective and an extremely costly experiment, distracting from the measures that we know are effective and can implement today. The UK government should not be investing £20billion in a strategy that is essentially an ambulance at the bottom of a cliff when we could use the money to not go down the cliff in the first place.”

  • Dr Friederike Otto, senior lecturer in Climate Science at Imperial College London’s Grantham Institute, commenting on the UK government’s latest climate-catastrophe-averting ‘strategy’ — technology which will capture and store carbon dioxide in undersea caverns, thereby enabling an expansion of oil and gas extraction in the North Sea.

The Greeks were right: those whom the Gods wish to destroy they first make mad.

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Mary Bergin, Cologne, Germany, 1990


Long Read of the Day

Vermeer’s Daughter

Fabulous long, long read by Lawrence Weschler about a speculative theory that Maria Vermeer was not only a model for her father but also an artist who created several of the paintings attributed to him. Also, en passant, a memorable profile of the, er, unforgettable Vermeer expert whose theory this is. And, for good measure, it provides a good account of the impenetrable snootiness of the art-critic establishment.

Cheered me up no end.

Programmers, beware: ChatGPT has ruined your magic trick

Yesterday’s Observer column:

Seeking a respite from the firehose of contradictory commentary, I suddenly remembered an interview that Steve Jobs – the nearest thing to a visionary the tech industry has ever had – gave in 1990, and dug it out on YouTube.

In it he talks about a memory he had of reading an article in Scientific American when he was 12 years old. It was a report of how someone had measured the efficiency of locomotion for a number of species on planet Earth – “how many kilocalories did they expend to get from point A to point B. And the condor won – came in at the top of the list, surpassed everything else; and humans came in about a third of the way down the list, which was not such a great showing for the ‘crown of creation’.

“But then somebody there had the imagination to test the efficiency of a human riding a bicycle. A human riding a bicycle blew away the condor, all the way to the top of the list. And it made a really big impression on me – that we humans are tool-builders, and that we can fashion tools that amplify these inherent abilities that we have to spectacular magnitudes.

“And so for me,” he concluded, “a computer has always been a bicycle of the mind – something that takes us far beyond our inherent abilities. And I think we’re just at the early stages of this tool – very early stages – and we’ve come only a very short distance, and it’s still in its formation, but already we’ve seen enormous changes, [but] that’s nothing to what’s coming in the next 100 years.”

Well, that was 1990 and here we are, three decades later, with a mighty powerful bicycle…

Do read the whole thing.

Cold War 2.0 is up and running

From the Editor of the Economist in this week’s edition:

When I and some of my London colleagues travelled to Beijing last week, we arrived to find the atmosphere laced with intimidation and paranoia. The world’s most important relationship—that between China and America—has become more embittered and hostile than ever.

In the halls of government Communist Party officials were denouncing what they see as America’s bullying. They told us that the United States is intent on beating China to death and that it will never accept that any country can be as powerful as itself, regardless of whether it is communist or a democracy. America, in their view, will tolerate China only if it is submissive—in the words of one Chinese academic, a “fat cat, not a tiger”.

Meanwhile Cold War 1.1 is actively being waged in Ukraine.

Cruisin’ for a Bruisin’?

One of the strangest things about the UK’s Classic FM radio station is the incessant stream of advertisements it carries for ocean cruises.

I wonder therefore if the station’s marketing executives have seen this interesting story in Buzzfeed News.

“Hundreds Of Passengers Have Said They Were Sexually Assaulted On Cruise Ships. Their Stories Highlight Years Of Lax Security, Critics Say.”

In dozens of court documents reviewed by BuzzFeed News, cruise ship passengers say they have been dragged into cabins and raped, pushed into janitors’ closets and assaulted, and even attacked in the public corridors of ships. Likewise, parents and guardians have alleged that their children were molested by other passengers or crew members, plied with alcohol, and in some instances, abused by daycare staffers at onboard activity centers. As recently as two weeks ago, the parents of a 17-year-old passenger filed a civil suit alleging she was raped by a fitness instructor onboard a Carnival cruise ship.

In fact, sexual assaults are the most prevalent reported crime on cruise ships, according to the FBI. Since 2015, there have been 454 reported allegations of sex crimes on cruise ships. Experts believe that the actual numbers are far higher, as many sexual assaults often go unreported. (For reference, more than two-thirds of all sexual assaults in the US are not reported to law enforcement, according to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network.)

And many of the major cruise lines have been told — even by their own security staffers — that more could be done to protect passengers, such as installing more surveillance cameras and hiring additional security personnel. But according to court records, including a deposition from this February in a lawsuit alleging the gang rape of a minor on a Carnival Cruise ship, senior executives have opted not to implement the changes, claiming they’re too expensive.

Shiver me timbers, etc.

My idea of hell is being locked on a ship with thousands of other people.

My commonplace booklet

 Venice Is Saved! Woe Is Venice.

The New York Times has an imaginative report on Venice’s now-operational sea wall and what it might mean for the city’s future.

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