Wednesday 17 May, 2023

Agribusiness 2.0

A beet factory in Norfolk.

Quote of the Day

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

  • Erich Fromm

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

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Diana Krall | Just The Way You Are


Long Read of the Day

On Generative AI and Satisficing

Useful insights from Dave Karpf.

I’ve been thinking recently about how generative AI tools might fit into our lives. The best framework I can come up with revolves around Herbert Simon’s concept of “satisficing.”

Satisfice is a portmaneau of “satisfy” and “suffice.” Simon won the 1978 Nobel Prize in Economics for his work on the topic. He disputed the then-common assumption that people approximately behaved like perfect economically-rational agents, gathering unlimited information to make optimal decisions. In fact, as he showed that doing so would be irrational, because of the opportunity cost of limitless information-gathering.

In layman’s terms, we satisfice by (1) figuring out what conditions must be met/ what information must be gained in order to reach a good enough (satisfactory) decision, (2) researching until we reach that threshold, and then (3) settling on what you have found. Simon argued that this type of bounded rationality was a better model of actual human decision-making than the rational actor models that the economists of his day trafficked in.

Satisficing can seem identical to laziness. When I plan a vacation or purchase a new appliance, I resist the urge to spend countless hours researching the perfect hotel or trying to find the perfect dishwasher. I do enough research to find an option that suits my needs, then I stop looking. For example, I bought a grill a couple years ago. I looked on Wirecutter. I decided which of their recommendations most fit my needs (gas or charcoal? Do I need a smart grill? How big?). I checked one other website to see if the recommendations lined up. And then I confirmed it was available at the nearby hardware store.Done. It is possible that a few hours of research would’ve yielded a better grill or a slightly cheaper grill. But not so much better or cheaper as to be worth the effort. Boom. Satisficed…

Read on to find what he does with this idea. It’s really interesting.

Books, etc.

William Harris has a perceptive review essay in Jacobin on Ian Penman’s Fassbinder Thousands of Mirrors, a kaleidoscopic study of the late West German filmmaker.

If you read NME in its heyday, this is for you.

The late ’70s and early ’80s blew new winds into the music press. Punk gave way to post-punk; regional styles proliferated, often outside the mainstream gaze; and a renewed sense of oppositional political commitment suffused the air, as Labour Party socialists took over London’s municipal government while Margaret Thatcher rose to power on the national stage.

The NME, the magazine that invented the weekly pop charts, transformed itself into a magazine of regional dispatches on the DIY scenes in Manchester and Belfast, attacks against apartheid and Thatcher, and long-form essays on pop culture that sought not just to apply poststructuralist theory to pop music and movies, but to see pop music and movies as themselves coursing with ideas and novel ways of seeing.

Notoriously, these theory-minded pop reviews were authored by two writers, Ian Penman and Paul Morley, though in the years following they would spawn many imitators, both at NME and in other music magazines like Melody Maker…

My commonplace booklet

The Lord of the Rings by Wes Anderson


Don’t forget to un-mute the video.

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Tuesday 16 May, 2023


Cambridge Market in 2012.

Quote of the Day

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

  • Sigmund Freud (in Civilisation and its Discontents)

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Schubert | Impromptu n°3 | Horowitz


Long Read of the Day

The Fifth Horseperson of the Tory Apocalypse

David Aaronovitch used to be one of the few columnists on the London Times that I ever bothered to read. That’s because he is trenchant, smart and very good at calling spades spades. But then, for reasons that are not too difficult to guess, he seems to have fallen out with the management and now has his own Substack newsletter, to which I have subscribed. This essay, posted on May 13, gives a flavour of what he’s good at. It also vividly illustrates the nature of the jerks now in high office in the UK, of which the current ‘Secretary of State for Business’ is a prime example.

The nub of the story is that the Tory government has had to climb down on its original plan to have a bonfire of all the 4,000 EU regulations which Brexiteers claimed to be crippling ‘Global Britain’. But she couldn’t bear to admit the extent of the humiliating retreat implied by the climbdown. For her and the rest of the Brexiteers, reality is an optional extra.

What she was really saying, writes Aaronovitch, is this:

“I and this government have just wasted another eight months of civil service and parliamentary time in pursuing a doctrinaire approach to a deeply consequential matter, mostly to appease forces on the right of our own party. We have used every rhetorical trick in the book to justify this approach, but have reluctantly come to the view that it just isn’t practical. Now we will blame everyone but ourselves for its failure and do it with a simple arrogance which, if you think about it for five seconds, is simply breathtaking. So don’t think about it for five seconds. And here are some pictures of prison barges for refugees to take your minds off it.”

But read the whole thing if you want a useful insight into the state the UK is in.

Ireland is failing to police big tech. Now I wonder why that might be?

The Irish Council for Civil Liberties has just released a damning indictment of the country’s data protection authority.

Five years after the GDPR, Europe remains unable to police how Big Tech uses our data. Ireland continues to be the bottleneck of enforcement: it delivers few draft decisions on major cross-border cases. When it does eventually do so, other European enforcers then routinely vote by majority to force it to take tougher enforcement action.

Lack of funding does not appear to be the primary cause of this problem. Data protection authorities across the EU now have a combined budget of 1/3 billion Euro. The Irish budget now ranks among the top five EU countries.

The Irish Government resists calls for an independent review of the DPC that could determine how to strengthen and reform it. The European Commission is acquiescent.

The GDPR provides strong investigation and enforcement powers to protect people from the misuse of data that enables much of the digital world’s problems. It should be our shield against the digital era’s problems: discrimination, manipulation, media distortion, and invasive AI.

But that shield has yet to be taken up.

The key point is that because the big US tech corporations have their European HQs in Dublin, the Irish Data Protection Commissioner is lumbered with the job of policing them. The zoological analogy is putting a mouse in charge of a group of angry panthers.

Cory Doctorow (Whom God Preserve) has a scarifying commentary on this.

The report’s headline figure really tells the story: the European Data Protection Board – which oversees Ireland’s DPC – overturns the Irish regulator’s judgments 75% of the time. It’s actually worse than it appears: that figure only includes appeals of the DPC’s enforcement actions, where the DPC bestirred itself to put on trousers and show up for work to investigate a privacy claim, only to find that the corporation was utterly blameless.

But the DPC almost never takes enforcement actions. Instead, the regulator remains in its pajamas, watching cartoons and eating breakfast cereal, and offers an “amicable resolution” (that is, a settlement) to the accused company. 83% of the cases brought before the DPC are settled with an “amicable resolution.”

The backstory to this goes back to 1958, when the incoming Taoiseach (Prime Minister) and the country’s most powerful civil servant, Ken Whitaker, sat in an office in Dublin confronting the thought that the Republic was on the verge of becoming a failed state. Its economy was in ruins and its main exports were live cattle and young people.

Whitaker came up with a strategy for survival. Since Ireland had very few natural advantages besides sovereignty, it should recast itself as a country that was uniquely welcoming to foreign capital, especially US-based corporations. And this it proceeded to do with verve and imagination. The strategy worked, and economic development was then massively boosted by entry into the EEC in 1973.

Many of the incoming multinational companies turned out to be relatively good corporate citizens. But then came the Internet and the growth of tech giants for whom a relaxed taxation policy and a location in the EU were just what the doctor ordered. The result is that this tiny country is now dominated by the needs of these monsters, several of which have become positively toxic. But the tax revenues they bring in give the illusion of a booming economy in a country where inequality is rife, many are homeless and there’s a housing crisis worse even than that of the UK.

All of which may help to explain why the government in Dublin might be, er, reluctant to examine why the country’s Data Protection Commission apparently takes such a relaxed view of tech giants’ behaviour in Europe.

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Monday 15 May, 2023

The Graveyard Crow

Quote of the Day

“AI represents, among other things, a profound tech-exec fantasy: an endless supply of cheap and obedient labor and a chance to take ownership of the means, of, well, everything.”

  • John Herman, writing in New York Magazine’s ‘Intelligencer’.

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

The Three Tenors | My Way | Moon River | Because | Singin’ in the Rain


Pure schmaltz, but entertaining. And better than Nissan Dorma (as one of my kids used to call it). Interesting also, that they sang ‘I Did It My Way’ to Sinatra.

Long Read of the Day

Will AI become the New McKinsey?

This New Yorker essay by Ted Chiang is the best thing I’ve read so far about Generative AI and its implications for most of us.

I would like to propose another metaphor for the risks of artificial intelligence. I suggest that we think about A.I. as a management-consulting firm, along the lines of McKinsey & Company. Firms like McKinsey are hired for a wide variety of reasons, and A.I. systems are used for many reasons, too. But the similarities between McKinsey—a consulting firm that works with ninety per cent of the Fortune 100—and A.I. are also clear. Social-media companies use machine learning to keep users glued to their feeds. In a similar way, Purdue Pharma used McKinsey to figure out how to “turbocharge” sales of OxyContin during the opioid epidemic. Just as A.I. promises to offer managers a cheap replacement for human workers, so McKinsey and similar firms helped normalize the practice of mass layoffs as a way of increasing stock prices and executive compensation, contributing to the destruction of the middle class in America.

A former McKinsey employee has described the company as “capital’s willing executioners”: if you want something done but don’t want to get your hands dirty, McKinsey will do it for you. That escape from accountability is one of the most valuable services that management consultancies provide. Bosses have certain goals, but don’t want to be blamed for doing what’s necessary to achieve those goals; by hiring consultants, management can say that they were just following independent, expert advice. Even in its current rudimentary form, A.I. has become a way for a company to evade responsibility by saying that it’s just doing what “the algorithm” says, even though it was the company that commissioned the algorithm in the first place.

The question we should be asking is: as A.I. becomes more powerful and flexible, is there any way to keep it from being another version of McKinsey?

And the answer to that question, IMHO, is ’No’.

Read the whole piece. It’s unmissable. And if you need a primer on McKinsey, see here.

A moment’s silence, please, for the death of Mark Zuckerberg’s metaverse

Yesterday’s Observer column:

Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to remember the metaverse, which was quietly laid to rest a few weeks ago by its grieving adoptive parent, one Mark Zuckerberg. Those of you with long memories will remember how, in October 2021, Zuck (as he is known to his friends) excitedly announced the arrival of his new adoptee, to which he had playfully assigned the nickname “The Future”.

So delighted was he that he had even renamed his family home in her honour. Henceforth, what was formerly called “Facebook” would be known as “Meta”. In a presentation at the company’s annual conference, Zuckerberg announced the name change and detailed how his child would grow up to be a new version of cyberspace. She “will be the successor to the mobile internet”, he told a stunned audience of credulous hacks and cynical Wall Street analysts. “We’ll be able to feel present – like we’re right there with people no matter how far apart we actually are.” And no expense would be spared in ensuring that his child would fulfil her destiny.

On that last matter, at least, Zuck was as good as his word…

Do read the whole thing.

My commonplace booklet

A letter from the Editor…

…of the Irish Times, to which I subscribe. It arrived yesterday afternoon…

It opens with a reference to the paper’s ‘founding principles’ which,

describe a view of the world that is open-minded, tolerant, curious, respectful of divergent views and always attentive to the needs of minorities.

We work hard at this. As in any 24/7 news operation, some days we do better than others. But last Thursday we got it badly wrong. That day, we published online an opinion column under the headline ‘Irish women’s obsession with fake tan is problematic’, written by someone purporting to be a young immigrant woman in Ireland. It made an argument that has been aired in other countries but related it to the Irish context.

Over the course of several days, the author engaged with the relevant editorial desk – taking suggestions for edits on board, offering personal anecdotes and supplying links to relevant research. All of this was taken in good faith, and the article was published online on Thursday morning.

Less than 24 hours after publication on our digital platforms, The Irish Times became aware that the column may not have been genuine. That prompted us to remove it from the site and to initiate a review, which is ongoing. It now appears that the article and the accompanying byline photo may have been produced, at least in part, using generative AI technology. It was a hoax; the person we were corresponding with was not who they claimed to be. We had fallen victim to a deliberate and coordinated deception.

We don’t take this lightly. It was a breach of the trust between The Irish Times and its readers, and we are genuinely sorry. The incident has highlighted a gap in our pre-publication procedures. We need to make them more robust – and we will. It has also underlined one of the challenges raised by generative AI for news organisations. We, like others, will learn and adapt.

A lot of editors are going to be writing letters like this soon.

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Friday 12 May, 2023

Still Life: tulips with pics

The photographs in the background are (left to right):

  • Henri Cartier-Bresson: Rue Mouffetard, Paris, 1954
  • Brett Weston: Canal, Netherlands, 1971.
  • Ansel Adams: Dogwood Blossoms, Yosemite, 1938.

I like them all, but the HCB is special because the cheeky young boy in it was the same age as me that year. I’ve often wondered if he’s still around.

Quote of the Day

”Literature is mostly about having sex and not much about having children. Life is the other way round.”

  • David Lodge, in The British Museum is Falling Down.

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

The Spinners – In My Liverpool Home


Long Read of the Day

The Cult of the Founders

Fabulous essay by Henry Farrell on Crooked Timber:

Since I’m on the topic of Max Weber, religion and technology already, here’s a half-developed theory of Elon Musk that I’ve been nurturing for a while. I’ve trotted it out informally at a couple of meetings, and I’m not completely convinced it is right, but it’s prima facie plausible, and I’ve gotten some entertainment from it. My argument is that Musk is doing such a terrible job as Twitter CEO because he is a cult leader trying to manage a church hierarchy. Relatedly – one of SV’s culture problems right now is that it has a lot of cult leaders who hate the dull routinization of everyday life, and desperately want to return to the age of charisma.

The underlying idea is straightforward, and is stolen directly from Max Weber – see this handy Weber on religion listicle for the background. Weber thinks that many of the stresses and strains of religion come from the vexed relationship between the prophet and the priest.

Prophets look to found religions, or radically reform them, root and branch. They rely on charismatic authority. They inspire the belief that they have a divine mandate. Prophets are something more than human, so that some spiritual quality infuses every word and every action. To judge them as you judge ordinary human beings is to commit a category error. Prophets inspire cults – groups of zealous followers who commit themselves, body and soul to the cause. Prophets who are good, lucky, or both can reshape the world.

The problem with prophecy is that ecstatic cults don’t scale…

Most perceptive piece on Musk I’ve ever seen. Do read it.

My commonplace booklet

Another Internet anniversary

Doc Searls (Whom God Protect) wrote to remind me that,

April 30 is also important for another reason: it was the day in 1995 that NSFNET, the only backbone within the Internet that forbade commercial traffic (effectively making the whole Internet noncommercial up to that point), was decommissioned, opening the floodgates to Amazon, eBay and the rest.

There are many sources on this. Here’s one.

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Thursday 11 May, 2023


The long paved, walled path from Jesus Lane to the Gatehouse of Jesus College is known as “the Chimney”. The explanation may lie in the fact that the Gate Tower was once crowned by ornate brick chimneys.

Photographed on Tuesday evening as I was leaving the college after a dinner.

Quote of the Day

”One never, of course, knows what people in portraits are thinking.”

  • Penelope Lively

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Stephen Foster | Hard Times, Come Again No More | Thomas Hampson


(A song triggered by the answer to a crossword clue yesterday. The clue was actually about Dickens. Funny how one’s mind works when in low gear.)

Long Read of the Day

“The Dead Silence of Goods”: Annie Ernaux and the Superstore

Fabulous essay by Adrienne Raphel on Annie Ernaux’s musings on the phenomenon of the ‘superstore’.

From November 2012 to October 2013, in Look at the Lights, My Love —published in 2014 in France and in 2023 in an English translation by Alison L. Strayer—Ernaux recorded her visits to the Auchan superstore in suburban Cergy-Pontoise, an hour northwest of Paris. Like all of Annie Ernaux’s works, Look at the Lights plays a formal sleight-of-hand in the best way, with the feel of a dashed-off journal but the felt experience of a deeply philosophical meditation on the nature of shopping, voyeurism, late-stage capitalism, class, race, and desire.

The Auchan superstore, the locus of Ernaux’s book, is a nesting-doll “self-contained enclave” within Trois-Fontaines, a conglomeration of the city’s public and private institutions: post office, police station, theater, library, etc. Ernaux describes the apparently normal, bustling village of Trois-Fontaines as a trompe l’oeil town, a privately owned corporate center that shuts down at night. “There is a vertigo produced by symmetry,” Ernaux writes, “reinforced by the fact that the space is enclosed, though open to the daylight through a big glass canopy that replaces the roof.” I’m reminded of the indoor mall in Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas—the Forum Shops—with its sky-painted ceiling reminiscent in zero ways of the Sistine Chapel. The roof cycles from light to darker blue in an accelerated yet elongated version of time: days are thirty minutes, but there are no weeks or years.

Trois-Fontaines touts itself as having every service that people need, and then many that people don’t…

Read on. It’s great.

Chart of the Day

Note the year when productivity-growth stopped.

My commonplace booklet

An anniversary I missed last month

Mosaic, the first real web browser (written by Marc Andreessen and Eric Bina), was released on April 30, 1993. Only then did the non-technical world suddenly understand what this “Internet thingy” (as one posh British newspaper editor described it to me) was for!

NPR link

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Wednesday 10 May, 2023

Jaron Lanier

Photographed after I’d interviewed him in 2013. He’s a lovely, clever, decent human being.

Quote of the Day

”Our American professors like their literature clear and cold and pure and very dead.”

  • Sinclair Lewis in his Nobel Prize address, 12 December, 1930.

Did you know that he was the first American to win the Nobel Prize for literature? I didn’t.

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Liam O’Flynn and Paddy Moloney | Dueling Chanters


Two great Uileann pipers, now sadly no longer with us.

Long Read of the Day

The dark underbelly… or perhaps the dark floorpan?

My column in last Sunday’s Observer on the downsides of EVs sparked a good many emails from annoyed EV-owners. But it also provoked my friend Quentin into writing a thoughtful commentary on the question.

Electric vehicles have a greater carbon footprint in their manufacturing process than fossil-burners, and it takes a while for the environmental benefits after you drive it off the forecourt to make up for this. In countries like the UK, where it’s relatively easy to get your electricity from renewable or nuclear sources, that’ll probably take about 6-12 months. In countries like the US where you’re probably getting a lot more of your ‘fuel’ from coal, it could take several years, and it’ll probably be the second or third owners of an EV who really have a more carbon-neutral vehicle!

In the intervening period, though, we can feel a little bit more virtuous because — and I do appreciate that any pro-EV points I make in this post might definitely be classified as self-justification! — at least we have moved a lot of pollution away from highly populated areas. (This is distinct from carbon footprint, which can happen anywhere and has a much greater area of impact.) When it comes to human health, though, we’re only starting to get to grips with, for example, the damaging effects of the tiny particulates emitted from exhaust pipes — Tim Smedley’s book Clearing the Air is an excellent explanation — and the key thing about them is that they don’t travel very far. You are more at risk in a cycle lane next to traffic than are the pedestrians a few meters away… especially if they walk on the further side of the pavement.

I’m often annoyed by people who sit stationary with the engine running, while waiting for their kids to come out of school or their spouse to come out of the supermarket… and then I have to remember that the poor things are in such primitive vehicles that they can’t even keep themselves warm in their cars without polluting the local area…

Read on. Quentin had an EV long before I had.

King Charles’s Absurd, Awe-Inspiring Coronation

If you missed the Coronation on Saturday, then Helen Lewis’s account provides ample compensation. Among other things, she wants to know where does Britain keep all these horses and bishops the rest of the time. Me too.

Sometimes the scriptwriters of reality are a little too on the nose. The British throne, the centerpiece of today’s coronation of Charles III, not only houses a sacred artifact forcibly removed from its owners—the Stone of Destiny, taken from the Scots by Edward I in 1296—but is covered in schoolboy graffiti. According to one scrawl from 1800, someone named “P. Abbott” once slept in it. The Coronation Chair, as it’s officially known, also has damage from a 1914 bomb attack attributed to militant suffragettes.

It’s almost too much, isn’t it? The British monarchy is at once a symbol of colonialist plunder, a tradition that many Britons profess to love while cheerfully disrespecting, and an institution that has been dented but not defeated by the forces of social change. I bet the chair even creaks in a manner reminiscent of imperial decline. Britain might now seem like a fading power, but we are a world-beating exporter of metaphors about the state of our nation. At one point today, a gold coach drove under an arch that read happy & glorious, in the pouring rain.

That default miserabilism isn’t really fair—if the coronation proved anything, it’s that a great number of people in Britain are incredibly talented, albeit at skills that were last useful in the 18th century. Did you know, for example, that there are such things as “drum horses,” which the riders steer with reins attached to their feet? We’ve also got heraldic trumpeters, master embroiderers, and someone who can fix the suspension on a gold coach. If you need a “unicorn pursuivant” at short notice, Britain has you covered…

It goes on like this. Magical.

Books, etc.

Power and Progress review – why the tech-equals-progress narrative must be challenged

My review of the book from Sunday’s Observer.

Those who cannot remember the past,” wrote the American philosopher George Santayana in 1905, “are condemned to repeat it.” And now, 118 years later, here come two American economists with the same message, only with added salience, for they are addressing a world in which a small number of giant corporations are busy peddling a narrative that says, basically, that what is good for them is also good for the world.

That this narrative is self-serving is obvious, as is its implied message: that they should be allowed to get on with their habits of “creative destruction” (to use Joseph Schumpeter’s famous phrase) without being troubled by regulation. Accordingly, any government that flirts with the idea of reining in corporate power should remember that it would then be standing in the way of “progress”: for it is technology that drives history and anything that obstructs it is doomed to be roadkill.

One of the many useful things about this formidable (560-page) tome is its demolition of the tech narrative’s comforting equation of technology with “progress”…

Do read the whole thing.

My commonplace booklet

Cow Parsley

Apropos yesterday’s photograph, Hugh Taylor (Whom God Preserve) writes to say that “my Leics/Notts childhood taught me that what I now know as cow parsley was actually ‘keck’”.

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Tuesday 9 May, 2023

Sumer is Icumen

Cow Parsley, seen on a fenland walk on Sunday.

I have a soft spot for the plant, because it’s a harbinger of good things to come. Its scientific name is Anthriscus sylvestris, but according to the Woodland Trust it’s also known as Queen Anne’s lace, mother die, fairy lace, lady’s lace and hedge parsley.

The headline above is in Middle English and I guess means “Summer is coming in”. It is, according to Kate Price, “a traditional English medieval round, and possibly the oldest such example of counterpoint in existence.” (It’s estimated to date from 1260). Here it is being sung by the Hilliard ensemble.

Quote of the Day

”A sick society must think much about politics, as a sick man must think much about his digestion.”

  • C.S. Lewis

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Joseph Haydn | Piano Sonata nº 59 in E flat, Hob. XVI:49 | Alfred Brendel


I try to pick short pieces for this part of the blog, and this is a performance of the entire sonata which runs to 21 minutes so I was about to search for something else. But then I started to listen (and watch), and wound up mesmerised by Brendel’s consummate mastery. Literally couldn’t stop listening.

But if you’re pressed for time, the first movement starts at 0:14; the second at 8:02; and the last one at 17:27.

Long Read of the Day

‘A race it might be impossible to stop’: how worried should we be about AI?

My OpEd in last Sunday’s Observer on the significance of Geoff Hinton stepping down from Google.

Last Monday an eminent, elderly British scientist lobbed a grenade into the febrile anthill of researchers and corporations currently obsessed with artificial intelligence or AI (aka, for the most part, a technology called machine learning). The scientist was Geoffrey Hinton, and the bombshell was the news that he was leaving Google, where he had been doing great work on machine learning for the last 10 years, because he wanted to be free to express his fears about where the technology he had played a seminal role in founding was heading.

To say that this was big news would be an epic understatement. The tech industry is a huge, excitable beast that is occasionally prone to outbreaks of “irrational exuberance”, ie madness. One recent bout of it involved cryptocurrencies and a vision of the future of the internet called “Web3”, which an astute young blogger and critic, Molly White, memorably describes as “an enormous grift that’s pouring lighter fluid on our already smoldering planet”.

We are currently in the grip of another outbreak of exuberance triggered by “Generative AI” – chatbots, large language models (LLMs) and other exotic artefacts enabled by massive deployment of machine learning – which the industry now regards as the future for which it is busily tooling up….

Do read the whole thing

My commonplace booklet

Seth Godin’s new search engine


An AI-powered search engine. Neat.

Seth’s blog is one of the wonders of the online world. When, decades ago, I first started keeping a blog, I thought of it as a kind of private lab notebook. And then I had what James Joyce might call an epiphany: if I put my ‘notebook’ on the Web I could have Google search it — which transformed its usefulness (to me, anyway). But Google search has its limitations, as we know. So the logical thing to do is use some tool like ChatGPT to search it. Which seems to be what Seth has done.

This Blog is also available as a daily email. If you think that might suit you better, why not subscribe? One email a day, Monday through Friday, delivered to your inbox. It’s free, and you can always unsubscribe if you conclude your inbox is full enough already!

Monday 8 May, 2023

Coronation News!

Quote of the Day

” Archimedes will be remembered when Aeschylus is forgotten, because languages die and mathematical ideas do not. ‘Immortality’ may be a silly word, but probably a mathematician has the best chance of whatever it may mean.”

  • G. H. Hardy in A Mathematician’s Apology.

It was one of my favourite books when I was a teenager. C.P. Snow described it as “a passionate lament for creative powers that used to be and that will never come again”, which is a bit harsh. I found it a delightful read.

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Little Village | She Runs Hot


Long Read of the Day

 King Peter Pan III

Snarky but perceptive piece by Tanya Gold, who took the trouble to visit the new King’s idea of heaven.

If you want to understand King Charles—who became king in September, when his mother died, and today is being formally invested with his monarchical duties—you need to understand something about the town he created. It’s called Nansledan, and it sits on a hill above the sea in Cornwall, a duchy in the far west of Britain, where Charles was duke before he became king. (It has now passed to his son Prince William. The Duchy of Cornwall always belongs to the heir to the throne.)

Nansledan is Charles’s vision, built on his land to his exact specifications. I spent three days there in January…

I’m glad you’ve bought an electric vehicle. But…

My column in yesterday’s Observer:

So you’ve finally taken the plunge and bought an electric vehicle (EV)? Me too. You’re basking in the warm glow that comes from doing one’s bit to save the planet, right? And now you know that smug feeling when you are stuck in a motorway tailback behind a hideous diesel SUV that’s pumping out particulates and noxious gases, but you’re sitting there in peace and quiet and emitting none of the above. And when the traffic finally starts to move again you notice that the fast lane is clear and you want to get ahead of that dratted SUV. So you put your foot down and – whoosh! – you get that pressure in the small of your back that only owners of Porsche 911s used to get. Life’s good, n’est-ce pas?

Er, up to a point…

Do read the whole thing

Hypocrisy on stilts

From Michal Sapka

OpenAI, a company that is neither open nor actually about any intelligence, made its entire business model about violating as many licenses as possible. Even though they refuse to release info about where the data they use is gathered from, it seems clear now that they used everything they got their hands on, ignoring any license limitations. With their current net worth, any lawsuit can result in a marginal fine.

Now they are threatening an open source developer for creating a tool that bypasses their fees by combining results from different, free APIs which use GPT4 underneath.

Not that I am even surprised, but still: OpenAI is suing a guy for doing exactly what they are doing to everyone else.

Books, etc.

I’m reading (and really enjoying) Cory’s new book. Proper review coming later, but in the meantime this characteristically perceptive essay by Henry Farrell does a great job of putting the book into context.

My commonplace booklet

What drones are good at

Safely filming an avalanche, for example.

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Friday 5 May, 2023

Quote of the Day

”The difficulty lies not so much in developing new ideas as in escaping from old ones.”

  • John Maynard Keynes

Seen while walking through King’s yesterday afternoon.

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Sharon Shannon and Dessie O’Halloran | Say You Love Me


Long Read of the Day

The chronicle of the revolutions foretold?

Terrific and informative review by economist Branco Milanovic of Peter Turchin’s forthcoming book.

For almost two decades, Peter Turchin has been involved, with many colleagues and co-authors, in an epochal project: to figure out, using quantifiable evidence, what are the forces that lead to the rise, and more importantly, to the decline of nations, political turbulence and decay, and revolutions. This has resulted in the creation of an enormous database (CrisisDB) covering multitude of nations and empires over centuries, and several volumes of Turchin’s writings (e.g., Secular Cycles (with Sergey Nefedov), War and Peace and War; I have read the former, not the latter).

End Times is Turchin’s attempt to break to the broader public what he has learned from the complex work in the field that he calls Cliodynamics. It is a work of “haute vulgarisation” even if the adjective “haute” is sometimes inapplicable since, in his attempt to reach the broadest possible audience, Turchin has at times stylistically gone much too low assuming almost no prior knowledge amongst his readers. But this is a question of style.

What is the substance? To simplify, in my turn: Turchin’s model of decay has one variable: inequality in income or wealth. That variable which is often adduced as a source of political discord is given a very concrete meaning by Turchin…

I guess the main criticism of Turchin’s work is that single causal factors are implausible predictors of societal breakdown and political crises/discontinuities. But Milanovic has a good discussion of all that.

I wonder how long it will take for the current trajectory we’re on — of apparently inexorable increases in inequality — to reach catastrophic levels for democracy.

In the meantime, this review is worth your time.

Turchin’s book comes out in June. It’s on my list.

My commonplace booklet

What should Robert Reich do with his cabinet chair?

Professor Robert Reich is about to retire from UC Berkeley, where he has taught for decades, and is clearing his office. In doing this, he faces two problems: one is what to do with his books.

The other — bigger — problem, he writes,

is my Cabinet chair — the chair I sat in at Cabinet meetings when I was secretary of labor.

By tradition, Cabinet members purchase their Cabinet chairs when they leave the government. When I left the Labor Department 26 years ago, my staff bought the chair for me as a going-away gift. I was touched at the time. Now, I’m befuddled.

It’s heavy and ugly — a clunky late 18th century design that’s been standard in the Cabinet room since William Howard Taft was president.

It’s also huge. When I sit in it, my legs shoot straight out like Lily Tomlin playing Edith Ann.

And it’s personalized. When you join the Cabinet, a small engraved brass plate is attached to the back of your Cabinet chair showing the date you started (in my case, January 21, 1993). Another is attached when you leave, with the date of your departure (January 12, 1997).

In the end, he decided that the best thing to do would be to return it to the White House and request that they recycle it. So he rang the White House switchboard.

You can imagine the subsequent conversation. Click the link to find out if your guess was correct.

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Thursday 4 May, 2023

In the Black Diamond

The view from the atrium of the Royal Danish Library in Copenhagen, a building I know well and love.

Quote of the Day

”Politics cannot simply work on our beliefs; it must reshape desires.”

  • Wendy Brown in Nihilistic Times: Thinking with Max Weber.

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Handel | Where ‘ere you walk | Rick Wakeman


Long Read of the Day

The New Libertarian Elitists

Henry Farrell, Hugo Mercier and Melissa Schwartzberg in Democracy Journal asking what lies behind the dangerous new notion that democracy should be left to the well-educated.

Three decades ago, it seemed plausible that the despots were embattled holdouts, desperately trying to stem the inevitable tide of democracy. Now, they appear stronger. Many democratically elected politicians and their supporters seem to long for a future without democratic competition, in which the right people (i.e., they) are permanently in charge, and their enemies are marginalized or eliminated. Some right-wing intellectuals provide ammunition for the anti-democrats, claiming that democracy can’t work because citizens are just too biased and ignorant. They argue that democracy should be shrunk down or even replaced by new systems of rule, where the intelligent and knowledgeable (i.e., those who believe in neoclassical economics and efficient markets) would be privileged over those too foolish and uninformed to understand their own best interests.

If democracy is to do more than survive—if it is to flourish—it needs to change. The period of its apparent greatest success was also when the rot set in. When the citizens and leaders of seemingly stable democracies took that stability for granted, they mostly ignored democracy’s suppurating underbelly: the systematic economic inequalities, the groups that consistently lost out under it, and the many opportunities that it offered to game the system. Many social scientists took its benefits for granted, too. Some offered abstract justifications for democracy, which tended to be based on unrealistic claims about how human beings think and act. Most just assumed that democracy would somehow keep itself on track.

Fixing democracy will require a myriad of reforms…

It is long, but worth it.

Ding Liren, world chess champion: “I remembered Camus: ‘If you can’t win, you have to resist’”

Fascinating profile in El Pais of the new world chess champion.

He likes to watch and listen to the rain. But he’s also just become the world chess champion, triumphing in a sport that involves a lot of mental boxing. Ding Liren, 30, has been playing chess intensively since he was four years old. However, he completed a law degree because his father did not want him to abandon his studies. He also reads a lot, especially philosophy. Ding — who is heir to the throne of Norwegian chess player Magnus Carlsen after defeating Russia’s Ian Nepomniachtchi in an electrifying quick tiebreaker — spoke to EL PAÍS for 20 minutes in Astana, Kazakhstan. What follows includes quotes from previous interviews Ding has done with Chinese media.

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