Wednesday 31 May, 2023

Flora and Fauna of East Anglia

A real basket-case, seen yesterday in a nice farm just outside Cambridge.

Quote of the Day

”There is no trap so deadly as the trap you set for yourself”

  • Raymond Chandler

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Eric Clapton | Walkin’ Blues


Long Read of the Day

 Why So Many Conservatives Feel Like Losers

You may have noticed that some kind of wacky US-funded conference about ‘real’ conservatism took place in London recently. Fortunately for the rest of us, Helen Lewis was there. And her dispatch is a thing of beauty and a joy for ever.


The first day of the conference was dominated by one subject: babies. In the opening session, Miriam Cates, a Conservative member of Parliament, identified low birth rates as the biggest problem facing the West, attributing the phenomenon both to concrete policy challenges and a liberal individualism that she deemed “completely powerless to resist a cultural Marxism that is systematically destroying our children’s souls.”

Over the next two days, speakers offered a lot of this sort of thing—what George W. Bush might have described as “some weird shit.” Cates’s fellow Tory Danny Kruger devoted part of his speech to condemning a “new religion” of “Marxism and narcissism and paganism.” The historian David Starkey claimed that critical race theorists “do not care about Black lives, they only care about the symbolic destruction of white culture.” I began to keep score of how many speakers asserted that Britain had been through a cultural revolution, the evidence for which was that students are quite left-wing and annoying. Over and over, this was attributed to “indoctrination.”

Or this:

Undeterred by outside criticism, Hazony played the hits, attacking “woke neo-Marxism” and ending with an exhortation that we should all have more children and become more religious. He was in happy company because the next speaker was Jacob Rees-Mogg (six children, the last of whom is named Sixtus). Rees-Mogg, a devout Catholic, started playing a caricature of an English toff in early life and has not stopped yet. His speech took in Saint Thomas Aquinas, Charlemagne, the Treaty of Westphalia, habeas corpus, Edward the Confessor, and occasional snatches of Latin. “Are DeSantis speeches like this?” texted a friend on the other side of the hall. “Slightly less about Aquinas and the French monarchy,” I replied. “Slightly more about Disney.”

Magical stuff. Do read it.

Ian Hacking RIP

The great Canadian philosopher of science has passed away at the age of 87.

There are two nice early obituaries in the NYT and the Globe and Mail

The last thing by him that I read was his terrific Introduction to the 50th anniversary edition of Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, one of my favourite books. (I wrote a short essay about it when the anniversary edition appeared in 2012.)

Brad DeLong’s question

From his blog:

Text-producing Generative ChatBots are, in a sense, somewhat tuned (by actual human feedback) Internet simulators: they show you what the Internet would be likely to say in response to the prompt that you have fed it, based on its assessment of what pages on the Internet are “close” to your prompt. (Much of the magic is in the definition and metric of “close” that the neural network constructs for itself—a metric that is largely inaccessible and largely incomprehensible to humans. But I digress.) That makes text-producing Generative ChatBots a reasonable way of taking the temperature of the conventional wisdom of humanity, or rather of that part of humanity that is compelled by mercenary, addiction, or egocentric reasons to write on the Internet.

But what are picture-producing Generative ImageBots doing. Are they too Internet simulators? Are they a way of taking the temperature of… not the conventional wisdom… rather the id of humanity, or at least of that portion of humanity compelled by mercenary, addiction, or egocentric reasons to put pictures on the internet and write captions for them?

He goes on to try some prompts on Stable Diffusion (one of the Generative AIs that do images). The results are not very interesting (IMHO) but his question is nevertheless an insightful one.

Also, I like his formulation that LLMs “show you what the Internet would be likely to say in response to the prompt that you have fed it”.

My commonplace booklet

 Our delivery Yacht had a serious interaction with a large pod of Orcas

Absolutely riveting nine-minute video of a scary encounter in the Straits of Gibraltar.

If I had a yacht, I’d like this guy to be its captain.

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Tuesday 30 May, 2023

Coffeehouse art

Quote of the Day

“Eternal truths are always hypothetical.”

  • Bertrand Russell

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Beniamino Gigli | O sole mio


If you think this is corny then you ain’t heard nothing yet. Many years ago, I made my first trip to Venice. It was in November and I was on my own, and knew nothing about the city save what I had read in newspapers. (You know the old jokes — like the one about the Hearst correspondent who arrived and was taken aback by the place. He cables back to base: “STREETS FULL OF WATER STOP PLEASE ADVISE”. Alas, I can never remember the reply.)

Anyway, after I’d checked into my hotel, I went for a walk, and promptly got lost. And then, as I blundered down a narrow alleyway, I heard someone singing this in faux-Gigli style, vibrato and all. I turned a corner, came to a canal and saw one of those plush black gondolas, in which reclined an affluent couple while they were serenaded by the gondolier. And I remember thinking: you couldn’t make this up.

When I got home I told my kids about it. They refused to believe the gondolier was singing O sole mio. He was, they explained, singing “Just one Cornetto”, as sung by a gondolier in an ice-cream ad then popular on British TV.

Long Read of the Day

What neo-Luddites get right — and wrong — about Big Tech

Is AI the latest threat to livelihoods? That depends on society

Characteristically thoughtful column by Tim Harford in the Financial Times and hopefully outside the paywall.

If it’s not, the paragraphs below contain the gist.

Neo-Luddites can take inspiration from John Booth, a 19-year-old apprentice who joined a Luddite attack on a textile mill in April 1812. He was injured, detained and died after being allegedly tortured to give up the identity of his fellow Luddites. Booth’s last words became a legend: “Can you keep a secret?” he whispered to the local priest, who attested that he could. The dying Booth replied, “So can I.” But it was Booth’s earlier words which deserve our attention. The new machinery, he argued, “might be man’s chief blessing instead of his curse if society were differently constituted”.

In other words, whether new technology helps ordinary citizens depends not just on the nature of the technology but on the nature of the society in which that technology is developed and deployed. Acemoglu and Johnson argue that broad-based flourishing is currently eluding us, just as it eluded the workers of the early industrial revolution.

Worth reading in full if it’s available.

Books, etc.

I’ve been reading — and enjoying — Sarah Bakewell’s lovely book on existentialism and its adherents. I got it partly because my late wife Carol and I were fascinated by existentialist ideas when we were students (and she took it further by writing a M. Litt thesis on Simone de Beauvoir’s autobiography, and even interviewed the Grande Dame herself in her Paris apartment).

Years ago I had read (and also enjoyed) Bakewell’s book on Montaigne — from which I came away with the idea that he could be seen as the first blogger. She’s very good at untangling and explaining abstract philosophical ideas. Here she is, for example, early in the new book, on Husserl’s emphasis of the importance of intentionality — the fact that when we think, we are always thinking about something.

Just try it: if you attempt to sit for two minutes and think about nothing, you will probably get an inkling of why intentionality is so fundamental to human existence. The mind races around like a foraging squirrel in a park, grabbing in turn at a flashing phone–screen, a distant mark on the wall, a clink of cups, a cloud that resembles a whale, a memory of something a friend said yesterday, a twinge in the knee, a pressing deadline, a vague expectation of nice weather later, a tick of the clock. Some Eastern meditation techniques aim to still this scurrying creature, but the extreme difficulty of this shows how unnatural it is to be mentally inert. Left to itself, the mind reaches out in all directions as long as it is awake – and even carries on doing it in the dreaming phase of sleep.

Re her earlier book on Montaigne: in a nice coincidence, my friend and colleague David Runciman picked one of his essays — the longest and most puzzling one — as his subject for the first episode in his new ‘History of Ideas’ podcast series.

My commonplace booklet

AI-powered Photoshop

I don’t use Photoshop, or do fakery, but if I did I’d be interested in this.

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Monday 29 May, 2023

Lilies: helicopter view

A gift from a dinner guest the other day.

Quote of the Day

“The Internet is less a ‘marketplace of ideas (as conservatives and libertarians would have it) and more a ‘marketplace of passions’.”

  • Will Davies, writing on fandom in the London Review of Books.

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Pinetop Perkins | Pinetop’s Blues


Long Read of the Day

Doug Rushkoff Is Ready to Renounce the Digital Revolution

Interesting profile in Wired.

“I was pretty freaking excited in the ’90s about the possibilities for a new kind of peer-to-peer economy. What we would build that would be like a TOR network of economics, the great Napsterization of economics in a digital environment,” he tells his students. But more recently, he continues, he’s turned his attention to something else that this new digital economy has created: “It made a bunch of billionaires and a whole lot of really poor, unhappy people.”

This kind of rhetoric is part of a recent, decisive shift in direction for Rushkoff. For the past 30 years, across more than a dozen nonfiction books, innumerable articles, and various media projects about the state of society in the internet age, Rushkoff had always walked a tightrope between optimism and skepticism. He was one of the original enthusiasts of technology’s prosocial potential, charting a path through the digital landscape for those who shared his renegade, anti-government spirit. As Silicon Valley shed its cyberpunk soul and devolved into an incubator of corporate greed, he continued to advocate for his values from within. Until now. Last fall, with the publication of his latest book, Survival of the Richest: Escape Fantasies of the Tech Billionaires, Rushkoff all but officially renounced his membership in the guild of spokespeople for the digital revolution. So what happened?

Like me, he’s a recovering Utopian.

Worth reading.

AI will be everywhere, but its rise will be mundane not apocalyptic

My column in yesterday’s Observer:

In March, OpenAI decided that it needn’t just be a service provider – it could also be a platform on which other companies could build businesses. So it published a set of application programming interfaces (API) that would allow developers to add a version of ChatGPT to their services (for a fee, of course) without having to sink shedloads of money into building and training their own language models. This was the step that more or less guaranteed that ChatGPT would, in due course, be everywhere.

A good analogy is what happened with Google Maps…

Read on.

How to regulate crypto: treat it like the gambling that it is

From Molly White (Whom God Preserve):

The UK Parliament’s Treasury Committee has released a report suggesting that the cryptocurrency industry should be regulated like gambling, rather than as a financial service:

  1. Regardless of the regulatory regime, their price volatility and absence of intrinsic value means that unbacked cryptoassets will inevitably pose significant risks to consumers. Furthermore, consumer speculation in unbacked cryptoassets more closely resembles gambling than it does a financial service. We are concerned that regulating retail trading and investment activity in unbacked cryptoassets as a financial service will create a ‘halo’ effect that leads consumers to believe that this activity is safer than it is, or protected when it is not.

  2. We strongly recommend that the Government regulates retail trading and investment activity in unbacked cryptoassets as gambling rather than as a financial service, consistent with its stated principle of ‘same risk, same regulatory outcome’.

That’s more like it.

The tech industry isn’t interested in history…

… because it thinks there’s nothing to be learned from it.

Revealing passage From The Verge’s report of OpenAI CEO Sam Altman’s gig at UCL the other day.

However, he said, he was hopeful about the future. Extremely hopeful. Altman says he believes even current AI tools will reduce inequality in the world and that there will be “way more jobs on the other side of this technological revolution.”

“This technology will lift all of the world up.”

“My basic model of the world is that the cost of intelligence and the cost of energy are the two limited inputs, sort of the two limiting reagents of the world. And if you can make those dramatically cheaper, dramatically more accessible, that does more to help poor people than rich people, frankly,” he said. “This technology will lift all of the world up.”

Altman clearly needs to read Power and Progress which chronicles a thousand years of technological development during which the most of the rewards went to the rich and powerful who owned the technology. Except for a few exceptional periods, the rising tide mostly floated yachts.

My commonplace booklet

 If you must go to court, get a proper lawyer.

A cautionary tale from the New York Times.

A man named Roberto Mata sued the airline Avianca, saying he was injured when a metal serving cart struck his knee during a flight to Kennedy International Airport in New York.

When Avianca asked a Manhattan federal judge to toss out the case, Mr. Mata’s lawyers vehemently objected, submitting a 10-page brief that cited more than half a dozen relevant court decisions. There was Martinez v. Delta Air Lines, Zicherman v. Korean Air Lines and, of course, Varghese v. China Southern Airlines, with its learned discussion of federal law and “the tolling effect of the automatic stay on a statute of limitations.”

There was just one hitch: No one — not the airline’s lawyers, not even the judge himself — could find the decisions or the quotations cited and summarized in the brief.

That was because ChatGPT had invented everything…

It’s a hoot. Or, more pedantically perhaps, an hoot.


Re Kissinger at 100…

Holger Huber writes:

The quote from Mother Jones is confusing. It appears to say that Operation Breakfast (more precisely Operation Menu) caused between 150000 to 500000 casualties. Wikipedia states the following:

There are no confirmed estimates of Cambodians killed, wounded, or rendered homeless by Operation Menu. The Department of Defense estimated that the six areas bombed in Operation Menu (Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner, Snack, Dessert, and Supper) had a non-combatant population of 4,247. DOD planners stated that the effect of attacks could tend to increase casualties, as could the probable lack of protective shelters around Cambodian homes”.

MJ might have been mixing up Operation Menu with Operation Freedom Deal, about which Wikipedia has to say the following: The number of deaths caused by U.S. bombing has been disputed and is difficult to disentangle from the broader Cambodian Civil War. Estimates as wide-ranging as 30,000 to 600,000 have been cited. Sihanouk used a figure of 600,000 civil war deaths, while Elizabeth Becker reported over one million civil war deaths, military and civilian included, although other researchers could not corroborate such high estimates. Marek Sliwinski notes that many estimates of the dead are open to question and may have been used for propaganda, suggesting that the true number lies between 240,000 and 310,000.

Judith Banister and E. Paige Johnson described 275,000 war deaths as “the highest mortality that we can justify”. Patrick Heuveline states that “Subsequent reevaluations of the demographic data situated the death toll for the [civil war] in the order of 300,000 or less”. Of these civil war deaths, Sliwinski estimates that approximately 17.1% can be attributed to U.S. bombing, noting that this is far behind the leading causes of death, as the U.S. bombing was concentrated in under-populated border areas. Ben Kiernan attributes 50,000 to 150,000 deaths to the U.S. bombing. According to Larry Clinton Thompson, 150,000 seems to be the best estimate.

Whether that changes anything in one’s judgement of Henry Kissinger is a different matter, but I have been alway intrigued that Kissinger seems to be made often solely responsible for the US actions abroad, as if he was acting behind Nixon’s back.

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Friday 26 May, 2023

Business lunch?

Quote of the Day

“Falsehood flies, and the Truth comes limping after it; so that when Men come to be undeceiv’d, it is too late; the Jest is over, and the Tale has had its Effect . . .”

  • Jonathan Swift

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Liam O’Flynn, Seán Keane, Paddy Glackin, Arty McGlynn & Paul Brady | Gradam Ceoil TG4 2007


I still remember vividly the first time I heard Liam play — in a crowded room in an hotel on the coast of Galway Bay one Summer evening. I was mesmerised then, and am still whenever I come on a recording of him and his peers in action. There’s something about his calm, still impassivity and his absolute mastery of his instrument.

Long Read of the Day

An interview with Dan Wang

For years, one of the great treats in following the geopolitical aspects of technology was Dan Wang’s Annual Letter from China. But now he has left China and returned to the US, taking up a position at the Yale Law school. So Noah Smith (who had advised him years ago to make the move to China) booked a long interview with him, of which this is an edited transcript.

It’s fascinating. Here’s a sample:

Smith: What’s different about semiconductors and advanced aviation? Why has China not been as successful in catching up in those sectors?

Noah: I think there has been a consistent pattern of Chinese successes and failures. Any technology that demands the complex integration of different scientific areas is challenging for Chinese firms. Semiconductors bring together electrical engineering, chemistry, computer science, and more; aviation is the integration of aerodynamics, materials science, mechanical engineering, etc. China’s scientific capabilities have steadily risen, but I would say it’s still fairly weak. No surprise, perhaps, that Chinese firms weren’t able to produce mRNA vaccines, since its scientific establishment is unused to puttering around the fringes of new fields.

On the other hand, for any technology where the science is mature, and the complexity lies more with the manufacturing process, China tends to be strong. Take renewable technologies like solar photovoltaics or EV batteries. The science of turning light into electricity and power storage are pretty well understood. But Chinese firms have been able to outbuild their foreign competition (with plenty help from government support) in creating high-performing products. Putting together a battery, for example, involves around ten steps—from cell filling to final sealing—that demand perfect handoff at each stage. Chinese firms are really good at this, which they learned from the highly-demanding electronics supply chain.

And here the US tends to be weak. American manufacturers aren’t good at making products of high intricacy at high volume. And it sometimes trips over simple products too. It’s puzzling to me that American factories weren’t able to quickly retool to turn out masks and other personal protective equipment in the early days of 2020. There’s something quite strange about the US where it is able to make super-advanced products like AI, jet engines, semiconductor production equipment, but can’t build basic infrastructure or simple products…

Do read it. I think he should now start doing a Letter from America every year, aimed at Chinese audiences.

Books, etc.

Diane Coyle has been reading Ian Dunt’s book. Her brisk review of it is characteristically concise — as is the headling over it: “Competent government? Read and weep”.

It’s an excellent book, forensic in its analysis of the operations of the UK’s central government – and that is exactly why it’s so deeply depressing and angry-making. The chapters cover both the political processes – selection of MPs, role of special advisers, the imbalance of power between the Executive and Parliament, lobby journalism – and the official aspects – an amateur-by-design civil service that’s becoming ever-less capable, increasing tensions between ministers and officials, the dire impact of the Treasury. The book is even handed, pointing out that many of the trends that make for ineffective government today started in the 1990s or before, and were accelerated significantly by New Labour, before being turbo-charged by the succession of Conservative governments that have followed.

The key takeaways, she writes are:

  • It would actually be a bad idea to reform the House of Lords as it’s the only part that semi-functions

  • None of the actors in UK national politics have any incentive to change anything – for instance, proportional representation would be excellent but neither Tories nor Labour want it

  • I already thought more devolution to sub-national levels is desirable, and now think it’s the only hope of introducing any competence into UK government (although many people in Whitehall and Westminster have the cheek to talk about a lack of capacity at local level).

And, she adds,

If you really want to get angry about the pervasive incompetence of the government, just read the chapter on Afghanistan. Shameful.

Welcome to ‘global Britain’.

I might just have to buy the book, even though I suspect that Dominic Cummings loves it.

My commonplace booklet

War criminal turns 100 this week

From Mother Jones:

In early 1969, shortly after Nixon moved into the White House and inherited the Vietnam War, he, Kissinger, and others cooked up a plan to secretly bomb Cambodia, in pursuit of enemy camps. With the perversely-named “Operation Breakfast” launched, White House chief of staff H.R. “Bob” Haldeman wrote in his diary, Kissinger and Nixon were “really excited.” The action, though, was of dubious legality; the United States was not at war with Cambodia and Congress had not authorized the carpet-bombing, which Nixon tried to keep a secret. The US military dropped 540,000 tons of bombs. They didn’t just hit enemy outposts. The estimates of Cambodian civilians killed range between 150,000 and 500,000.

I often think of Tom Lehrer’s crack that “Political satire became obsolete when Henry Kissinger was awarded the Nobel peace prize”.

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Thursday 25 May, 2023

Books to infinity

A corridor in my favourite library.

Quote of the Day

”He once remarked that he would sell his grandmother for a finely turned phrase, and if I were his grandmother I would have taken this comment seriously enough to go into hiding.”

  • Terry Eagleton on Martin Amis

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Haydn | Trumpet Concerto | Tarkövi · Minkowski | Karajan-Academy of the Berliner Philharmoniker


Long Read of the Day

The One Best Way Is a Trap

Interesting and thoughtful essay by L.M. Sacacas on how technology’s relentless quest for optimisation is inhumane.

The 20th century French polymath, Jacques Ellul, wrote around 50 books, but he is best remembered for The Technological Society.1 And this fat book, stuffed with countless examples, basically conveys a single overarching idea: modern society is ordered by one master principle, which Ellul, in French, called la technique.

The standard definition of technique from Ellul goes like this: “Technique is the totality of methods, rationally arrived at and having absolute efficiency (for a given stage of development) in every field of human activity.”

That may not be the most elegant or memorable formulation. Lately, I’ve been summing up Ellul’s technique by describing it as the relentless drive to optimize all human experience for efficiency.

But Ellul also helped us out with another more felicitous phrasing. He referred to technique as the search for the “one best way.”

Later on, Sacasas writes,

Perhaps it is simply the case that a society ordered by technique, by the relentless pursuit of optimization, by a compulsive search for the “one best way,” necessarily yields a mental health crisis by generating unattainable goals and unsustainable pressures to, quite literally, measure up.

btw: The best contemporary articulation of the ‘optimisation’ thesis that I’ve found is System Error: where biog tech went wrong and how we can reboot by Weinstein, Reich and Sahami.

Books, etc.

I’ve written about this before but came on it the other day when I was looking for something else. It’s one of the nicest books I own — a diary of a year with a photograph a day accompanied by a thought, an aphorism or a memory. It’s truly beautiful work by a great artist. 


Keith Devlin (Whom God Preserve) was moved by my reference to the FT’s account of the decline of San Francisco to write:

Reports of San Francisco’s death are greatly exaggerated, as Mark Twain would have said. Post-Trump and post-pandemic (mostly the latter), that FT doom-fiction (lacking only a heavily armed Charlton Heston careering around in a jeep) could describe pretty well any large US city these days, and on a smaller scale even small towns like our nearest Petaluma. Meanwhile, I don’t see any gloom among those of us who live in this region; just an acceptance that recovery from a global pandemic takes at least five years, and likely a whole lot longer given the way the world economy operates these days. But if those stories keep out the racist hoards from the Red states, I think we’ll all be thankful. :)

I hold no brief for the FT team who produced the report, but they do end on a more judicious note, viz

Fighting the Law

I should have known that my half-assed attempt at tracing the origins of a popular song would come unstuck.

Re I Fought the Law, Jonathan Holland writes:

Credit where credit’s due: despite your link, it was Sonny Curtis and not Buddy Holly who wrote and sang “I Fought the Law” with The Crickets, following Holly’s untimely death:

FT link

I once played an adapted version of it as a sendoff for a retiring faculty colleague, under the somewhat less rebellious title of “I Taught the Law”.

And then came the news that the Bobby Fuller Four had also recorded it — accompanied by a Link proving that this was indeed the case.

Garth Cartwright added some supporting detail:

as a music geek I’d like to note that while The Crickets first cut I Fought The Law it was Sonny Curtis – Buddy’s replacement – who wrote the tune and sang it. Then it was Bobby Fuller, the doomer Texan rocker, who made it a hit.

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Wednesday 24 May, 2023


Passed this in a corridor yesterday and was struck by it. Extraordinary plants, orchids.

Quote of the Day

“Satire is a sort of glass, wherein beholders do generally discover everybody’s face but their own.”

  • Jonathan Swift, 1704.

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Green Day | I Fought The Law


One of my favourite songs. Lots of other venerable recordings of it — by The Clash, for example, The Grateful Dead and, first of all (I think), Buddy Holly.

Long Read of the Day

Just calm down about GPT-4 and stop confusing performance with competence.

IEEE Spectrum, an entirely sensible publication, has a great interview with Rodney Brooks on the current feeding frenzy about ‘AI’.

It’s a 13-minute read and worth it.


You wrote a famous article in 2017, “The Seven Deadly Sins of AI Prediction.“ You said then that you wanted an artificial general intelligence to exist—in fact, you said it had always been your personal motivation for working in robotics and AI. But you also said that AGI research wasn’t doing very well at that time at solving the basic problems that had remained intractable for 50 years. My impression now is that you do not think the emergence of GPT-4 and other large language models means that an AGI will be possible within a decade or so.

Rodney Brooks: You’re exactly right. And by the way, GPT-3.5 guessed right—I asked it about me, and it said I was a skeptic about it. But that doesn’t make it an AGI.

The large language models are a little surprising. I’ll give you that. And I think what they say, interestingly, is how much of our language is very much rote, R-O-T-E, rather than generated directly, because it can be collapsed down to this set of parameters. But in that “Seven Deadly Sins” article, I said that one of the deadly sins was how we humans mistake performance for competence.

If I can just expand on that a little. When we see a person with some level performance at some intellectual thing, like describing what’s in a picture, for instance, from that performance, we can generalize about their competence in the area they’re talking about. And we’re really good at that. Evolutionarily, it’s something that we ought to be able to do. We see a person do something, and we know what else they can do, and we can make a judgement quickly. But our models for generalizing from a performance to a competence don’t apply to AI systems.

The example I used at the time was, I think it was a Google program labeling an image of people playing Frisbee in the park. And if a person says, “Oh, that’s a person playing Frisbee in the park,” you would assume you could ask him a question, like, “Can you eat a Frisbee?” And they would know, of course not; it’s made of plastic. You’d just expect they’d have that competence. That they would know the answer to the question, “Can you play Frisbee in a snowstorm? Or, how far can a person throw a Frisbee? Can they throw it 10 miles? Can they only throw it 10 centimeters?” You’d expect all that competence from that one piece of performance: a person saying, “That’s a picture of people playing Frisbee in the park.”

We don’t get that same level of competence from the performance of a large language model. When you poke it, you find that it doesn’t have the logical inference that it may have seemed to have in its first answer…

Do read it. Well-informed common sense from a real expert. And a good antidote to some of the current nonsense about ‘AIs’ that lack intelligence.

Books, etc.

What we’ve just lost

Martin Amis has passed away, and the literary world is busy trying to assess his worth. There are already tons of obits and tributes — like a particularly good one by Lisa Allardice in the Guardian.

But I think the best way of understanding what we’ve list is to read him when he’s on song. Like in this 1998 essay on the genius of Jane Austen (and what the movie and TV adaptations get wrong).

Here’s how it begins…

Jane Austen, as they might say in Los Angeles, is suddenly hotter than Quentin Tarantino. But before we try to establish what the Austen phenomenon is, let us first establish what it is not.

About 18 months ago (in the summer of 1996) I went to see Four Weddings and a Funeral at a North London cineplex. Very soon I was filled with a yearning to be doing something else (for example, standing at a bus stop in the rain); and under normal circumstances I would have walked out after ten or fifteen minutes. But these weren’t normal circumstances. Beside me sat Salman Rushdie. For various reasons—various security reasons—we had to stay. Thus Ayatollah Khomeini had condemned me to sit through Four Weddings and a Funeral; and no Iranian torturer could have elicited a greater variety of winces and inches, of pleadings and whimperings. So one was obliged to submit, and to absorb a few social lessons.

It felt like a reversal of the Charles Addams cartoon: I sat there, thoroughly aghast, while everyone around me (save the author of The Satanic Verses) giggled and gurgled, positively hugging themselves with the deliciousness of it all. The only good bit came when you realized that the titular funeral would be dedicated to Simon Callow. I clenched my fist and said yes. No particular disrespect to Simon Callow—but at least one of them was going to die.

“Well,” I said, when it was over, “that was bottomlessly horrible. Why is it so popular?”

“Because,” said Salman, “the world has bad taste. Didn’t you know that?”

Still, “bad taste,” all by itself, won’t quite answer. I can see that the upper classes might enjoy watching the upper classes portrayed with such whimsical fondness. But why should it appeal to 400 plebs from Hendon? In any postwar decade other than the present one, Four Weddings would have provoked nothing but incredulous disgust. A 1960s audience would have wrecked the cinema. Yet now it seems that the old grievances have evaporated, and “the million,” as Hamlet called them, feel free to root for the (congenital) millionaires. They can lapse into a forgetful toadyism, and abase themselves before their historical oppressors…

Blissful. All that talent wrapped up in a diminutive person. May he rest in peace.

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Tuesday 23 May, 2023

So long, San Francisco?

This shocking photograph on the cover of the FT’s weekend magazine heralded an extraordinary report (which may be behind a paywall, thought I hope not) about the catastrophic decline of San Francisco. It seems to be in the grip of the same kind of downward spiral that hollowed out Detroit in the 1970s — when it became the urban area on which Jay Forrester’s famous modelling study Urban Dynamics was effectively based.

Of course I knew that the city was having problems, despite (or perhaps because of) being just up the road from Silicon Valley, the greatest wealth-creating machine in the history of the world. But I had no idea things were as bad as the article reports. When my late wife Sue and I were there in the 1990s we both felt that, if we had to live permanently in the US, SF was where we would want to be.

Quote of the Day

“One day while Mr. Edison and I were calling on Luther Burbank in California, he asked us to register in his guest book. The book had a column for signature, another for home address, another for occupation and a final one entitled ‘Interested in’. Mr. Edison signed in a few quick but unhurried motions… In the final column he wrote without an instant’s hesitation: ‘Everything'”.

  • Henry Ford on Thomas Edison.

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Haydn | String Quartet No. 62, Op. 76 No. 3 “Emperor” (2nd movement) | Veridis Quartet (Live performance)


Long Read of the Day

The rise of pluto-populism — and its consequences

Long — and very sobering — review by Jonathan Kirshner of Martin Wolf’s recent book on the fraught relationship between capitalism and liberal democracy.

It is hard not to be in agreement—even deeply moved agreement—with Wolf’s diagnoses. And the middle third of this book, “What Went Wrong,” should be required reading for anyone who might underestimate the present danger faced by even long-standing “consolidated democracies.” When it comes to solutions, unfortunately, The Crisis of Democratic Capitalism comes up short. Wolf, ever measured, is convincing in making the case for reform over revolution. Although it is tempting to think that deeply ingrained problems require tearing things down, revolutionary movements almost invariably spiral out of control, fall into the hands of ever more radical extremists, and devolve into bloodbaths. Yet it is disheartening that the sensible, reformist agenda of reasonable, practical measures that Wolf outlines already seems beyond the capacity of our politics.

This admirable review-essay provides pretty good support for my feeling that we now need a ‘Theory of Incompetent Systems’ — i.e. ones that cannot fix themselves. If democracies are to survive in any meaningful sense, then radical changes are needed — many of them proposed and argues for by Wolf. But…

Books, etc.

My Observer review of Scott Shapiro’s book:

As we head towards 2030, a terrible realisation is dawning on us – that we have built a world that is critically dependent on a set of technologies that almost nobody understands, and which are also extremely fragile and insecure. Fancy Bear Goes Phishing seeks to tackle both sides of this dilemma: our collective ignorance, on the one hand, and our insecurity on the other. Its author says that he embarked on the project seeking an understanding of just three things. Why is the internet so insecure? How (and why) do the hackers who exploit its vulnerabilities do what they do? And what can be done about it?

In ornithological terms, Scott Shapiro is a pretty rare bird – an eminent legal scholar who is also a geek…

Read on

How extreme heat kills

Andrew Dessler explains how, and in doing so answers a question that for me first came up when I was reading Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Ministry for the Future.

When ambient temperatures are in the 80s, sweating supplements sensible heat loss, so we don’t have to sweat much to keep our bodies at the right temperature.

But as temperatures rise and the environmental temperature approaches our body temperature, sensible heat transport becomes less effective and we rely more and more on latent heat transport to get rid of heat. This means we need to sweat more to keep thermoregulated.

As the environmental temperature rises above your body temperature, the direction of the temperature gradient reverses and sensible heat transport begins heating your body. At this point, you need to sweat even more so that the sweat can remove your body’s 100 W plus the heat absorbed from the environment.

“It’s not the heat, it’s the humidity”: Sweating by itself doesn’t cool you — the sweat has to evaporate. One of the factors that controls this is humidity of the environment…

When the air temperature is high, the body cannot cool itself with sensible heat transfer. And when the humidity is high, the body also cannot cool itself with latent heat transfer (sweating). Under those conditions, people’s core temperatures will rise and even young, healthy people will experience heat-related illnesses such as heat exhaustion, heat stroke, or even death. Even if they’re sitting still in the shade, with a fan on them.

My commonplace booklet

The Problem With Counterfeit People

The philosopher Dan Dennett thinks that, with so-called ‘AI’ and chatbots, the tech industry is forging humans.

Which is why we really must stop anthropomorphising chatbots.

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Monday 22 May, 2023

Jesus on the Mainline

Quote of the Day

“I met Curzon in Downing Street, from whom I got the sort of greeting a corpse would give to an undertaker.”

  • Stanley Baldwin, 1933, after Baldwin became Prime Minister, a job that Lord Curzon had always wanted.

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Bon Dylan | Bob Dylan – Visions of Johanna (Official Audio)



Long Read of the Day

An Anthropologist of Filth

A wonderful review essay by Ian Penman on R.J. Smith’s new biography of Chuck Berry. Hard to believe that Berry died in 2017. I had assumed that he hadn’t outlived the 1960s. And reading Penman’s closing para…

Nothing that Berry did and was mocked and punished for down the years—the underage girls, the tax fraud, “My Ding-A-Ling,” the lawsuit, his own sex tapes—has ultimately interfered with his place in history. The request from the venerable Museum of African American History and Culture came in 2011, long after all the scandals had been unveiled. His niche in the pantheon just seems to keep expanding. “Johnny B. Goode” was one of the twenty-seven songs included on the two golden phonograph records stashed on board the Voyager spacecraft in 1977. Quite a journey: from fruit truck to Cadillac to jet plane to spaceship. He will outlive us all…

I guess that in our current age of ‘cancel culture’ none of his songs would be dispatched on an interplanetary mission to other hypothetical civilisations.

When the tech boys start asking for new regulations, you know something’s up

My column in yesterday’s Observer.

Watching the opening day of the US Senate hearings on AI brought to mind Marx’s quip about history repeating itself, “the first time as tragedy, the second as farce”. Except this time it’s the other way round. Some time ago we had the farce of the boss of Meta (neé Facebook) explaining to a senator that his company made money from advertising. This week we had the tragedy of seeing senators quizzing Sam Altman, the new acceptable face of the tech industry.

Why tragedy? Well, as one of my kids, looking up from revising O-level classics, once explained to me: “It’s when you can see the disaster coming but you can’t do anything to stop it.” The trigger moment was when Altman declared: “We think that regulatory interventions by government will be critical to mitigate the risks of increasingly powerful models.” Warming to the theme, he said that the US government “might consider a combination of licensing and testing requirements for development and release of AI models above a threshold of capabilities”. He believed that companies like his can “partner with governments, including ensuring that the most powerful AI models adhere to a set of safety requirements, facilitating processes that develop and update safety measures and examining opportunities for global coordination.”

To some observers, Altman’s testimony looked like big news: wow, a tech boss actually saying that his industry needs regulation! Less charitable observers (like this columnist) see two alternative interpretations…

Do read the whole thing.

And see also Steven Sinofsky on When a Business Pleads to be Regulated.

Books, etc.

We’ve been reading this for the last week or so, and it’s even better than I remember it.

Here’s an excerpt that had us hooting with laughter the other night — about his first visit to a church on his travels across the US.


My commonplace booklet

The Langley Files

From a recent edition of the CIA’s Podcast series: precautionary advice (for Americans, I guess) on travelling abroad, culled from what its agents are taught.


The letter from Keynes to Duncan Grant quoted in Friday’s edition was dated 1917, and not 2017 as I inadvertently stated.

Thanks to the tactful readers who pointed this out, including a couple who were regretful that Keynes is not around today to give us his views on the economic policies of the current UK government.

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Friday 19 May, 2023

Yochai in Oxford

Yochai Benkler, dressed in his best bib and tucker for a dinner we were at in Balliol, November 2012.

He’s a great legal scholar — and one of the most insightful observers of our networked world.

Quote of the Day

”I work for a Government I despise for ends I think criminal.”

  • J.M. Keynes, writing from the Treasury in a letter to Duncan Grant, December 1917.

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Rimsky Korsakov | Flight of the Bumble Bee


Tomorrow is World Bee Day and Pam Appleby (Whom God Preserve) wrote to ask if it’d be possible to play this today, given that the blog doesn’t appear on Saturdays. And I’m happy to oblige.

And an email from Anthony Barnett (possibly sparked by the photograph of a beet factory in full operation in Wednesday’s edition) reminded me that in 2021, according to a Guardian report

A pesticide believed to kill bees has been authorised for use in England despite an EU-wide ban on its use outdoors two years ago and an explicit government pledge to keep the restrictions.

Following lobbying from the National Farmers’ Union (NFU) and British Sugar, a product containing the neonicotinoid thiamethoxam was sanctioned for emergency use on sugar beet seeds this year because of the threat posed by a virus…

Which perhaps indicates what the real price of refined sugar is.

Long Read of the Day

How to avoid the red herrings carefully laid by oil companies

A good case study in critical thinking by a philosophy professor, Kathleen Dean Moore.

Time after time, the real issue stands before us, and we find ourselves baying after some side issue of far less importance. I quiz my students: Explain, give examples.

Here’s one. Thirty-eight rail cars filled with vinyl chloride derailed and caught fire in East Palestine, Ohio. Vinyl chloride, a flammable petroleum product, is a potent carcinogen. When it is burned, it creates dioxin, another nasty carcinogen that now permeates the town. A familiar pattern followed: lamentations over the derailing; a cascade of reporters; a debate in Congress. Finally, politicians, commentators and outraged citizens all posed these questions: how will we punish the railroads? And how can we make railroads safer?

Those are the wrong questions. What I want to know is why would any sensible people allow the US petrochemical industry annually to produce 7.2 million metric tons of a poison that causes liver, lung, and brain cancer, and to distribute it as polyvinyl chloride in water pipes, gutters, rubber duckies, and My Little Pony dolls?

Lovely. Do read it through. Among other things, you will discover where the phrase “red herring” comes from.

Thanks to Charles Arthur for spotting it.

Your iPhone will soon be able to speak in your voice

At last, a bit of good news from a tech company.

To train the system, which Apple plans to ship later this year, you position yourself about six to 10 inches from the iPhone’s microphone, and then repeat a series of randomly selected sentences. That’s apparently enough to train the iPhone’s onboard machine learning (ML), and enable the handset to repeat what you type in your synthetically-generated voice.

Since the system is designed to help those who are losing their voices due to motor or cognitive impairment, the training is also flexible. If you can’t do a 15-minute training session, you can stop and start until you’ve made it through all the sentences. In addition, the training system is self-guided, so there’s no screen-tapping necessary.

While the system is not designed as a voice-over system, you can use Personal Vocie to save often-used phrases like “How are you?” “Thank you,” and “Where is the bathroom?”

My commonplace booklet

 Unboxing Shakespeare’s First Folio

This video (from the V&A Museum) about the first collection of Shakespeare’s plays is 12 minutes of delight. I’d often heard of the First Folio, but had never seen a copy. As Elizabeth James, the Senior Librarian of National Art Library Collections, opened the box containing the volume I was suddenly reminded of a moment 20 years ago when Anne Jarvis, then the University Librarian in Cambridge, opened the library’s copy of Isaac Newton’s own copy of his Principia — with all his scribbled annotations. And suddenly I was transported back 300 years. Magical moment.

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Thursday 18 May, 2023

They’ve arrived!

Our cornflowers are out! Maybe Summer is on the way after all.

Quote of the Day

“Lying wastes more time than anything else in the modern world”

  • Margery Allingham

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Schumann | Piano Quartet in E Flat Major, Op. 47 | 3. Andante cantabile (Live) | Janine Jansen · Julian Rachlin · Mischa Maisky · Martha Argerich


Long Read of the Day

Thomas Kuhn: the man who changed the way the world looked at science

An essay I wrote in 2012 to mark the 50th anniversary of Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, a book that changed the way we look at science, and certainly shaped the way I’ve thought ever since about academic disciplines.

Fifty years ago this month, one of the most influential books of the 20th century was published by the University of Chicago Press. Many if not most lay people have probably never heard of its author, Thomas Kuhn, or of his book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, but their thinking has almost certainly been influenced by his ideas. The litmus test is whether you’ve ever heard or used the term “paradigm shift”, which is probably the most used – and abused – term in contemporary discussions of organisational change and intellectual progress. A Google search for it returns more than 10 million hits, for example. And it currently turns up inside no fewer than 18,300 of the books marketed by Amazon. It is also one of the most cited academic books of all time. So if ever a big idea went viral, this is it.

The real measure of Kuhn’s importance, however, lies not in the infectiousness of one of his concepts but in the fact that he singlehandedly changed the way we think about mankind’s most organised attempt to understand the world. Before Kuhn, our view of science was dominated by philosophical ideas about how it ought to develop (“the scientific method”), together with a heroic narrative of scientific progress as “the addition of new truths to the stock of old truths, or the increasing approximation of theories to the truth, and in the odd case, the correction of past errors”, as the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy puts it. Before Kuhn, in other words, we had what amounted to the Whig interpretation of scientific history, in which past researchers, theorists and experimenters had engaged in a long march, if not towards “truth”, then at least towards greater and greater understanding of the natural world.

Kuhn’s version of how science develops differed dramatically from the Whig version…

Hope you enjoy it as much as I enjoyed writing it.

My commonplace booklet

You studied computer science but Big Tech no longer wants you. Now what?

Nice essay by Charlie McCann in the Economist’s 1983 Magazine which I hope is outside the paywall.

Armed with a stack of cvs still warm from the printer, Ayara (a pseudonym) plunged into the career fair. The room was already packed with job-seekers. The second-year student wasn’t expecting much. In past years, a computer-science student at the University of California, Berkeley, could hope to emerge from this campus ritual with an interesting summer internship, possibly at a “faang” company – the acronym for Facebook (now Meta), Apple, Amazon, Netflix and Google. Ayara’s best friend had snagged an internship at Apple at a fair like this one.

But none of the faang firms was here this time. Neither were Spotify, Salesforce, Uber or Microsoft. In any case most of those companies and almost 50 others – “all the famous ones” – had already rejected her internship applications a few months earlier. And that was before the latest round of job lay-offs…

Aw shucks. That’s what happens when the laws of economic gravity begin to apply to the parallel universe known as Silicon Valley.

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