Moral depravity, UK style

From this morning’s FT newsletter, written by Stephen Bush:

The British government’s Rwanda policy continues to be a great piece of statecraft: by Paul Kagame, that is. He has essentially bought the government’s Africa policy with £120mn of the UK’s own money — paid by the British government to the Rwandan one — before a single deportation flight has left the UK for the African nation. He can look forward to much more money if — though it is a very big “if” — the UK government ever manages to implement the policy. It will seek permission to appeal against the Court of Appeal’s latest ruling at the Supreme Court.

Last week the US and the EU called on Rwanda to cease its alleged support for M23, the militia that re-emerged in 2021 to wage an offensive in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. The US, EU and the DRC all say the group is backed by Kagame’s government. (The FT’s East and Central Africa bureau chief Andres Schipani reports from Nairobi on all that here.) But, because of the deal struck with Kigali, the UK has said nothing at all.

The scheme to deport asylum seekers to Rwanda is working rather less well for Rishi Sunak. The number of people coming to the UK via small boats isn’t being eased, and now the Court of Appeal has ruled that the scheme is unlawful, on the grounds that Rwanda is not a safe third country.

How could it be otherwise? How can a country that is accused of waging a proxy war via a militia, of arresting opposition politicians on false pretexts, and of assassinating its opponents on foreign soil be anything other than unsafe?

Friday 30 June, 2023

The White House

Dusk on a Summer’s evening in northern Burgundy.

Quote of the Day

“First you take a drink, then the drink takes a drink, then the drink takes you.”

  • F. Scott Fitzgerald

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Bach | Cello Suite No.1 in G Major Yo-Yo Ma


Eighteen minutes of pure bliss. The kind of thing you can enjoy when you’re on holiday.

Long Read of the Day

Marc Andreessen Is (Mostly) Wrong This Time

You may remember Wednesday’s Long Read — Dr Pangloss’s take on ‘AI’ and how it’s going to save the world.

Well, Gideon Lichfield, the current Editor of Wired, is gratifyingly unimpressed and provides an enjoyable critique of Andreessen’s boosterism.

Andreessen begins, he writes,

”with a 7,000-word screed, another stab at framing the narrative; this time, the story is that “AI will not destroy the world, and in fact may save it.” Much of it is devoted to debunking AI doom scenarios, and the rest to touting AI as little short of a civilizational savior.

This is of course predictable. Andreessen invests in technological revolutions, so he has little incentive to do anything but hype them up. His post does have value, though, in two ways. First, its obvious blind spots are a useful guide to the thinking of the biggest AI hypesters and where they go astray. Second, its takedown of some of the more hysterical AI fears is actually (somewhat) on target…

One of my complaints about Andreessen’s panglossian credulity is picked up by Lichfield. For example:

He argues that when technology makes companies more productive, they pass the savings on to their customers in the form of lower prices, which leaves people with more money to buy more things, which increases demand, which increases production, in a beautiful self-sustaining virtuous cycle of growth. Better still, because technology makes workers more productive, their employers pay them more, so they have even more to spend, so growth gets double-juiced.

There are many things wrong with this argument. When companies become more productive, they don’t pass savings on to customers unless they’re forced to by competition or regulation. Competition and regulation are weak in many places and many industries, especially where companies are growing larger and more dominant—think big-box stores in towns where local stores are shutting down…

And so on. Andreessen is undoubtedly clever — and rich. But sometimes he affects a childlike innocence about the world.

Chart of the day

FTX’s finances.

One of Molly White’s comments on the Interim CEO’s most recent report;

Interim CEO John J. Ray III filed the second interim report in the FTX bankruptcy, which follows the first one that was published in April. If SBF writing “We sometimes find $50m of assets lying around that we lost track of; such is life” rings a bell, that came from report number one.

John Goodenough RIP

From The Register

One of the people who made our current lifestyles possible has died at the age of 100. John Goodenough shared the 2019 Nobel Prize in Chemistry (with Stanley Whittingham and Akira Yoshino) for the invention of the lithium-ion battery. In 1980, when he was Head of the Inorganic Chemistry Department at Oxford, he and three colleagues identified the cathode material (cobalt oxide — which, at a molecular level, has spaces that can house lithium ions) thereby enabling development of the rechargeable lithium-ion battery.

My commonplace booklet

A couple of questions that have been bothering me.

  • How did Richard Wagner come to be mixed up with a brigade of Russian mercenary thugs? Answer (according to the NYT) the group took its name from the nom de guerre of its leader, Dmitry Utkin, a retired Russian military officer who is said to have chosen Wagner to honour Hitler’s favourite composer. As Thomas Beecham might have said, I don’t much like his music, but I sometimes admire the noise it makes.
  • Why are Western mainstream media continually underestimating Joe Biden? It’s really exasperating when you see what Biden has been achieving in the face of a Republican Party that has given up on democracy. His misnamed Inflation Reduction Act is an inspired act of industrial revival almost on an FDR scale (and if you doubt that just look at how freaked other Western democracies are by it). Biden’s support for Ukraine is the main reason why Putin’s invasion has stalled and may even now be going into reverse. And he has formulated a strategy for containing Chinese expansionism, especially in technology. To me he looks like (whisper it) a much more effective (if less photogenic) President than Obama. Is media reluctance to take him seriously actually an act of unconscious (or covert) ageism? Just askin’.


Some things I noticed, while trying to drink from the Internet firehose, which might be of interest.

  • The Guardian’s approach to generative AI – like most media outfits the Guardian now has a policy on it. I can’t see what the panic is about. It’s like having free, hardworking but inexperienced interns who sometimes make things up. So you never let their work reach the public before it has passed through an editorial brain.
  •  Victims speak out over ‘tsunami’ of fraud on Instagram, Facebook and WhatsApp. This is news???
  • Robert Reich on why he’s not running for President . Really insightful piece. He lists three reasons: (i) he’s not narcissistic enough; (ii) you need to be wildly extroverted and he’s not; and (iii) you need to be a method actor — someone who is able to will yourself into feeling whatever a situation demands, so you come off as authentic. As they say, if you can fake authenticity, you’ve got it made.

This Blog is also available as an email three days a week. If you think that might suit you better, why not subscribe? One email on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays delivered to your inbox ay 6am UK time. It’s free, and you can always unsubscribe if you conclude your inbox is full enough already!

Wednesday 28 June, 2023

A volcanic legacy

This castle on a volcanic plug is one of the most striking sights on our long drive down to the South of France. It’s a few km before Puy-en-Velay, at the heart of what was once a region of active volcanoes.

Citation du jour

Seen on the wall of a Provencal cafe:

”On m’a demandé ma situation amoureuse, célibataine ou marié? Je respondu Bénévole!”

Rough translation:

”I was asked about my relationship status, single or married? I answered Volunteer!”

My hunch. ‘Volunteer’ should be ‘Make me an offer’!

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Edith Piaf | Non, Je ne regrette rien


Long Read of the Day

Dr Pangloss’s view of ‘AI’

Marc Andreessen’s latest paean to ‘progress’, i.e. “Why AI Will Save The World”.

The era of Artificial Intelligence is here, and boy are people freaking out.

Fortunately, I am here to bring the good news: AI will not destroy the world, and in fact may save it.

In our new era of ‘AI’, it seems,

Every child will have an AI tutor that is infinitely patient, infinitely compassionate, infinitely knowledgeable, infinitely helpful. The AI tutor will be by each child’s side every step of their development, helping them maximize their potential with the machine version of infinite love.

Every person will have an AI assistant/coach/mentor/trainer/advisor/therapist that is infinitely patient, infinitely compassionate, infinitely knowledgeable, and infinitely helpful. The AI assistant will be present through all of life’s opportunities and challenges, maximizing every person’s outcomes.

Every scientist will have an AI assistant/collaborator/partner that will greatly expand their scope of scientific research and achievement. Every artist, every engineer, every businessperson, every doctor, every caregiver will have the same in their worlds.

Etc., etc.

Andreessen is smart, interesting and very, very rich. He’s also a romantic about technology, which is ok. So am I. But he seems totally oblivious to the distributional aspects of tech progress. In that sense he’s clearly unfamiliar with the history of ‘progress’ as chronicled by, say, Acemoglu and Simon.

Still, his paean makes an interesting read.

But you have to take him with (a) a barrowload of salt, and (b) remembering that his venture capital firm, Andreessen-Horowitz (aka a16z) has a lot of skin in the game. They’ve been investing in crypto for years, for example, which is why their “2023 State of Crypto” report is, as Molly White’s elaborate demolition of it, shows, flaky.

Actually, you can see that just by reading the disclaimer printed in very small type. Here’s how it opens:

”Certain information contained in here has been obtained from third-party sources, including from portfolio companies of funds managed by a16z. While taken from sources believed to be reliable, a16z has not independently verified such information and makes no representation of the enduring accuracy of the information or its appropriateness for a given situation.”

Footnote: Dr Pangloss was the relentlessly optimistic tutor of Candide, the protagonist in Voltaire’s eponymous novel. Some people think he was a caricature of Leibniz. Andreessen is definitely clever (he was, after all, the kid who — with Eric Bina — in 1993 created Mosaic, the first modern web browser, and in that sense kicked off the first Internet boom.) But he’s no Leibniz.

My commonplace booklet

 Decades-long bet on consciousness ends — and it’s philosopher 1, neuroscientist 0.

The neuroscientist Christof Koch bet philosopher David Chalmers 25 years ago that researchers would learn how the brain achieves consciousness by now. Chalmers won the case of wine. Link


Some things I noticed, when drinking from the Internet firehose, which might be of interest.

This Blog is also available as an email three days a week. If you think that might suit you better, why not subscribe? One email on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays delivered to your inbox ay 6am UK time. It’s free, and you can always unsubscribe if you conclude your inbox is full enough already!

Monday 26 June, 2023

On reflection…

…it’s rather nice being in Burgundy on a Summer evening

Quote of the Day

“Three may keep a secret, if two of them are dead.”

  • Ben Franklin

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Crosby, Stills, Nash, & Young | Our House


Long Read of the Day

’AI’ creates lots of jobs. But they’re not the kind of jobs you know about, or would want to do.

Terrific report by Josh Dzieza on the dark underbelly of the technology. . This a long, long essay, but worth your time, especially if you think that the tech industry is a uniquely ‘clean’ one.

Dzieza’s report starts with a Kenyan college graduate named Joe.

It was a job in a place where jobs were scarce (Nairobi), and Joe turned out hundreds of graduates. After boot camp, they went home to work alone in their bedrooms and kitchens, forbidden from telling anyone what they were working on, which wasn’t really a problem because they rarely knew themselves. Labeling objects for self-driving cars was obvious, but what about categorizing whether snippets of distorted dialogue were spoken by a robot or a human? Uploading photos of yourself staring into a webcam with a blank expression, then with a grin, then wearing a motorcycle helmet? Each project was such a small component of some larger process that it was difficult to say what they were actually training AI to do. Nor did the names of the projects offer any clues: Crab Generation, Whale Segment, Woodland Gyro, and Pillbox Bratwurst. They were non sequitur code names for non sequitur work.

As for the company employing them, most knew it only as Remotasks, a website offering work to anyone fluent in English. Like most of the annotators I spoke with, Joe was unaware until I told him that Remotasks is the worker-facing subsidiary of a company called Scale AI, a multibillion-dollar Silicon Valley data vendor that counts OpenAI and the U.S. military among its customers. Neither Remotasks’ or Scale’s website mentions the other.

Much of the public response to language models like OpenAI’s ChatGPT has focused on all the jobs they appear poised to automate. But behind even the most impressive AI system are people — huge numbers of people labeling data to train it and clarifying data when it gets confused. Only the companies that can afford to buy this data can compete, and those that get it are highly motivated to keep it secret. The result is that, with few exceptions, little is known about the information shaping these systems’ behavior, and even less is known about the people doing the shaping…

It’s much the same story as it was/is with social media: the way the technology’s output is kept clean for tender Western eyes, it provides thousands and thousands of variants of what the late David Graeber used to call “bullshit jobs” — often done by people of colour in the global South.

You think the internet is a clown show now? You ain’t seen nothing yet…

Yesterday’s Observer column.

Like most conspiracists, Junior was big on social media, but then in 2021 his Instagram account was removed for “repeatedly sharing debunked claims about the coronavirus or vaccines”, and in August last year his anti-vaccination Children’s Health Defense group was removed by Facebook and Instagram on the grounds that it had repeatedly violated Meta’s medical-misinformation policies.

But guess what? On 4 June, Instagram rescinded Junior’s suspension, enabling him to continue beaming his baloney, without let or hindrance, to his 867,000 followers. How come? Because he announced that he’s running against Joe Biden for the Democratic nomination and Meta, Instagram’s parent, has a policy that users should be able to engage with posts from “political leaders”. “As he is now an active candidate for president of the United States,” it said, “we have restored access to Robert F Kennedy Jr’s Instagram account.”

Which naturally is also why the company allowed Donald Trump back on to its platform.

Do read the whole thing.

Henry Petroski RIP

One of my favourite authors has passed away. The NYT has a nice obit:

Henry Petroski, who demystified engineering with literary examinations of the designs and failures of large structures like buildings and bridges, as well as everyday items like the pencil and the toothpick, died on June 14 in hospice care in Durham, N.C. He was 81.

He wrote a series of 20 lovely books about the art and craft (and science) of engineering. My favourites are:

  • To Engineer Is Human: The Role of Failure in Successful Design (1985)
  • The Pencil: A History of Design and Circumstance (1990)
  • Success Through Failure: The Paradox of Design. (2006)

My favourite is his book on the pencil, which — according to the NYT obit — was

Spurred on partly by the inferior quality of the pencils he was given at Duke, he used engineering equations in a 1987 paper in the Journal of Applied Mechanics to describe why pencil points break.

“By asking why and how a pencil point breaks in the way it does,” he concluded, “we are not only led to a better understanding of the tools of stress analysis and their limitations, but we are also led to a fuller appreciation of the wonders of technology when we analyze the aptness of such a manufactured product as the common pencil.”

May he rest in peace.

My commonplace booklet

Content alert: for serious petrolheads only

A Jaguar Mk IX spotted in the car park of an hotel in Thiers the other day. When I was a kid a wealthy landowner who lived nearby (in some style) had one, and I remember thinking that if I ever got rich I would have one too. In the end, I only managed to get a 3.8-litre Mark II which I ran until the quadrupling of the oil price after the Yom Kippur war made it a grotesquely unaffordable luxury.

According to Wikipedia, the Mark IX was popular with governments and Heads of State.

The Mark IX was popular as a state car. When Charles de Gaulle paid a state visit to Canada in 1960, the official cars for the motorcade were Mark IX Jaguars. The British Queen Mother had a Jaguar Mark VII, which was progressively upgraded to be externally identical to the later Mark IX. The Nigerian government bought forty Mark IXs, painted in state colours of green and white. The large Jaguars of the 1950s were sufficiently popular in western Africa that “Jagwah” survives as a colloquialism for “smart man-about-town”.

This Blog is also available as an email three days a week. If you think that might suit you better, why not subscribe? One email on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays delivered to your inbox ay 6am UK time. It’s free, and you can always unsubscribe if you conclude your inbox is full enough already!

Friday 23 June, 2023

Street Art UK-style

The UK has, for some reason (possibly connected with Brexit) become the world capital of potholes. Some streets in Cambridge look as though they had been intensively bombed by small mortar rounds. Periodically, chaps from the local council come round with spray cans to mark the most dangerous holes and then a few days later a team arrives and fills it hastily. Often, though, it turns out to be only a temporary repair. Some in our village have been ‘repaired’ three times.

So you can perhaps understand why one is not entirely convinced by Prime Minister Rishi Sunak when he talks about making Britain “a world-leading tech power”. Fixing the country’s roads would be a good start on that ambitious journey.

Quote of the Day

“Language is a cracked kettle on which we beat out tunes for bears to dance to, while all the time we long to move the stars to pity.”

  • Gustave Flaubert

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Holst | The Planets – II. Venus, The Bringer of Peace


Eerie and beautiful.

Long Read of the Day

 The Casual Ignominy of the Book Tours of Yore

Wonderful memoir by John Banville.


One day in 1990, I was flown first class from Dublin to Phoenix, Arizona, to read at the Irish Cultural Centre there. Five people turned up to listen to me. None of them had read my books, and it was clear that none of them had the slightest intention of doing so. They were the sons and daughter of Irish immigrants, and were there simply to see a real, live son the Oul Sod.

That was the beginning of a tour that would take me to ten cities in nine days. Here are some of the highlights, or lowlights, of that jaunt and others like it.

Chicago, the Windy City, was extremely windy that raw autumn evening as I walked from my hotel to the nearby branch of the now defunct Borders bookshops. I was greeted by the store’s beaming and breathtakingly beautiful Chinese-American manager. She led me to a far corner, past the Self-Help section and next to the Occult shelves, where there waited for me a brave little band of readers in overcoats and mufflers, shuffling their frozen feet and blowing into their fists. Twenty-odd, say, a few of whom were distinctly odd, as usual —every reading, as every writer will tell you, attracts at least a couple of maniacs.

Lovely stuff. Do read it all.

What is it with Trump and ‘his’ boxes?

Maureen Dowd’s column on Trump’s box-obsession:

During his presidency, The Times reported, “his aides began to refer to the boxes full of papers and odds and ends he carted around with him almost everywhere as the ‘beautiful mind’ material. It was a reference to the title of a book and movie depicting the life of John F. Nash Jr., the mathematician with schizophrenia played in the film by Russell Crowe, who covered his office with newspaper clippings, believing they held a Russian code he needed to crack.”

The aides used the phrase — which turned up in the indictment — as shorthand for Trump’s organized chaos, how he somehow kept track of what was in the boxes, which he held close as a security blanket. During the 2016 campaign, some reporters said, he traveled with cardboard boxes full of real estate contracts, newspaper clippings and schedules, as though he were carrying his world around with him.

The guy likes paper. And, like Louis XIV, he believes “L’État, c’est moi.” His favorite words are personal pronouns and possessive adjectives. Kevin McCarthy is “my Kevin.” Army officers were “my generals.” Abdel Fattah el-Sisi was “my favorite dictator.” In the indictment, a Trump lawyer quotes Trump as warning, “I don’t want anybody looking through my boxes.”

Is he so addled by narcissism that he sees no distinction between highly sensitive documents belonging to the government and papers he wants to keep? He treats classified maps and nuclear secrets and a Pentagon war plan for Iran like pelts, hunting trophies, or family scrapbook items.

Answer: Yes, he is addled by narcissism. Boris Johnson is the same.

En passant: one of the thoughts triggered by the photographs of the shower-room in which he stashed some of those state papers is how naff the decor of Mar-a-Lago is.

My commonplace booklet

 Bellingcat’s Online Investigation Toolkit

Wow! What a spreadsheet. Simple, yet powerful, tools.

  This Blog is also available as an email three days a week. If you think that might suit you better, why not subscribe? One email on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays delivered to your inbox ay 6am UK time. It’s free, and you can always unsubscribe if you conclude your inbox is full enough already!

Wednesday 21 June, 2023

Optical illusion

At first sight it looked weird: a headless figure on a lovely beach. But then, on further inspection, it turned out to be just a trick of perspective.

Quote of the Day

“In a real dark night of the soul it is always three o’clock in the morning, day after day.”

*  F. Scott Fitzgerald

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Steeleye Span | All Around My Hat


Long Read of the Day

The 1970s librarians who revolutionised the challenge of search

Fascinating essay in Aeon about one of the first exercises in computerised information retrieval. In the Autumn of 1970 hundreds of students and academics at Syracuse University sat one at a time before a printing computer terminal (similar to an electric typewriter) connected to an IBM 360 mainframe located across campus in New York state. Almost none of them had ever used a computer before, let alone a computer-based information retrieval system.

They were conducting their first online searches, entering carefully chosen words to find relevant psychology abstracts in a brand-new database…

It’s easy to see why librarians of the 1970s set out to revolutionise search. Work across the academy was expanding to such a degree that, soon, there would not be enough human librarians to support all of it. Yet, to get the information they needed, researchers would face a time-consuming, physically involved process that required librarian intervention. While academic researchers could browse new issues of journals in their field, for a focused search of all that had come before they still had to consult with a reference librarian to look up the correct Library of Congress subject headings within a multivolume manual. Armed with a set of subject headings, the researcher would then search across the library catalogue for books and in citation indexes for journal articles, including subscription databases such as the Science Citation Index as well as hand-built bibliographies created by their university’s subject librarians. Finally, they would physically track down the correct books and bound periodicals that included articles they thought might be relevant – if the volumes happened to be on the library shelves.

It’s no wonder that SUPARS participants found the system compelling, despite its limitations. And given how familiar university librarians were with the challenges of search, it makes sense that the system they designed bypassed subject headings and citation indexes. What’s more surprising is that, of all the online search experiments that took place during this period – including commercially focused search systems like Lockheed’s Dialog, which has since become an enterprise product – SUPARS mimicked contemporary web search more closely than any other, prefiguring several primary features of web-search protocols we rely on more than 50 years later.

Fascinating essay, and a vivid reminder of how difficult and time-intensive scholarly research was 50 years ago. I sometimes think that the modern analogy for the BC/AD chronological distinction should be BG/AG — ‘Before Google’ and ‘After Google’. Or maybe it’ll be BGPT4/AGPT4.

No moral high ground for Reddit as it seeks to capitalise on user data

Last Sunday’s Observer column:

Reddit worked reasonably well on desktop and laptop computers, but was clumsy for mobile users, which led to the development of apps which made using the site easier. The most popular of these for Apple devices is Christian Selig’s Apollo, which interacts with the Reddit site via a free API (application programming interface) provided by Reddit.

But as of 30 June, Apollo will be no more. Why? Because Steve Huffman, Reddit’s CEO, has decided that access to the API will no longer be free and Selig estimates that under the proposed new charging regime it would cost him $20m (£16m) a year to operate his app. “Going from a free API for eight years to suddenly incurring massive costs is not something I can feasibly make work with only 30 days,” he said. “That’s a lot of users to migrate, plans to create, things to test, and to get through app review, and it’s just not economically feasible. It’s much cheaper for me to simply shut down.”

Do read the whole piece.

Turn Every Page

Thanks to Declan Deasy I found a way to watch Lizzie Gottlieb’s film about the long-term relationship between the biographer Robert Caro and his editor (and Lizzie’s father), Robert Gottlieb. (The film is available on Amazon.) Caro is the author of five best-selling books: The Power Broker (1974), about urban planner Robert Moses, and four volumes of a projected five-volume biography of Lyndon Johnson), and each of these books has been edited by Gottlieb.

I enjoyed the film hugely, not least because I’m fascinated by the editorial process. I’ve been lucky to have had one great editor in my time — Toby Mundy, who is now a literary agent — and came to understand how someone can have your best interests at heart while still saying usefully critical things about your work.

The editor-writer relationship is complex and the film documents it well. As Sheila O’Malley puts it in her review,

Most editor-writer relationships don’t make headlines… But there are other famous partnerships—like Maxwell Perkins and F. Scott Fitzgerald — where the editor plays such an important role they can’t just be relegated to the background. Ezra Pound didn’t “edit” T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land so much as he shaped it, and forcefully. You can feel Pound in that singular work. I’m sure, according to Pound, The Waste Land needed his heavy hand. But what is the editing process? There’s a mystique about it, even to those participating in it.

You can get a good impression of the film from its trailer.

My commonplace booklet

Elon Musk’s ultimate destination in full colour

It’s here, courtesy of the German Aerospace Center.

This Blog is also available as an email three days a week. If you think that might suit you better, why not subscribe? One email on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays delivered to your inbox ay 6am UK time. It’s free, and you can always unsubscribe if you conclude your inbox is full enough already!

Monday 19 June, 2023

A Note from the Publisher

Sounds impressive, eh? A bit like what one imagines Arthur Ochs Sulzberger might have written when he was publisher of the New York Times. My message today, though is more modest. It’s to say that from now on, this newsletter will come out three days a week rather than the current five.

There’s some background that may help to explain this. I’ve been a blogger (on ever since the early days of the Web. When the pandemic arrived in March 2020 and I was suddenly confined to barracks by order of the UK government, I fell to wondering what an academic and blogger could usefully do, and hit on the idea (which I got from the great Dave Winer) of producing a version of my blog as a daily newsletter. Thus was born the one you’re reading now.

In the first 100 days of the pandemic, this went out seven days a week, and also included a daily audio diary in which I recorded my thoughts and experiences of that weird period. (I subsequently published the transcripts of the audio diary as a Kindle book.) It was an exhausting task, though, given that at the same time I was setting up — and initially running — a new research centre in Cambridge. As this settled down and the pandemic eased, I moved to publishing the newsletter edition five days a week. But now that I’m embarking on a long writing project I’ve decided that publishing on Monday, Wednesday and Friday will give me the time I need for other stuff that I need to do. So please don’t panic tomorrow or Thursday when you don’t find something from me in your inbox!

And thank you for reading.


Quote of the Day

“When a stupid man is doing something he is ashamed of, he always declares that it is his duty.”

  • George Bernard Shaw

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Kathryn Tickell | ‘Lads of Alnwick’


I ran into a reader yesterday who wondered why I seemed only to be interested in Irish Uileann piping. What about the much sweeter Northumbrian pipes? Well, here’s a fine example.

Long Read of the Day


Scott Galloway on the nauseating hypocrisy of the AI-bros.

It’s notable today that many of the outspoken prophets of AI doom are the same people who birthed AI. Specifically, taking up all the oxygen in the AI conversation with dystopian visions of sentient AI eliminating humanity isn’t helpful. It only serves the interests of the developers of nonsentient AI, in several ways. At the simplest level, it gets attention. If you are a semifamous computer engineer who aspires to be more famous, nothing beats telling every reporter in earshot: “I’ve invented something that could destroy the world.” Partisans complain about the media’s left or right bias, but the real bias is toward spectacle. If it bleeds it leads, and nothing bleeds like the end of the world with a tortured genius at the center of the plot.

Land Grab

AI fearmongering is also a business strategy for the incumbents, who’d like the government to suppress nascent competition. OpenAI CEO Sam Altman told Congress we need an entire new federal agency to scrutinize AI models, and said he’d be happy to help them define what kinds of companies and products should get licenses (i.e., compete with OpenAI). “Licensing regimes are the death of competition in most places they operate,” says antitrust scholar and former White House senior adviser Tim Wu (total gangster). Similar to cheap capital and regulatory capture, catastrophism is an attempt to commit infanticide on emerging competition.

Real Risks

Granted, we should not ignore the dangers of AI, but the real risks are the existing incentives and amorality in tech and our ongoing inability to regulate it. The techno-catastrophists want to create a narrative that the shit coming down the pike is not the result of their actions, but the inevitable cost of progress. Just as the devil’s trick was convincing us he didn’t exist, the technologist’s sleight of hand is to absolve himself of guilt for the damage the next generation of tech leaders will levy on society.

Spot on. Do read it.

Books, etc.

Book Review: ‘What an Owl Knows,’ by Jennifer Ackerman

Interesting review by Jennifer Szalai of what looks like an interesting book.

Perhaps one of the main reasons owls have been burdened with so many cultural stereotypes is that they are so distinctive — even a young child can identify their shape — while also being enduringly mysterious. In “What an Owl Knows,” Ackerman explains that the “new science” she refers to in her subtitle has required technological innovations: cameras, drones, DNA analysis, satellite transmitters. We can now see owls inside their nests or migrating over the Great Lakes. But even the most sophisticated gear can do only so much. Getting physically close to owls presents some stubborn challenges. Researchers wanting to protect their heads from an owl swooping down cannot wear a hard-hat helmet, because that could kill a bird on impact. A researcher who got whacked by a big female protecting her nest recalls feeling blood streaming from the back of his skull and pulling out a piece of talon.

Daniel Ellsberg RIP

The great whistleblower of my generation has passed away at the age of 92.

From the NYT obit:

The disclosure of the Pentagon Papers — 7,000 government pages of damning revelations about deceptions by successive presidents who exceeded their authority, bypassed Congress and misled the American people — plunged a nation that was already wounded and divided by the war deeper into angry controversy.

It led to illegal countermeasures by the White House to discredit Mr. Ellsberg, halt leaks of government information and attack perceived political enemies, forming a constellation of crimes known as the Watergate scandal that led to the disgrace and resignation of President Richard M. Nixon.

And it set up a First Amendment confrontation between the Nixon administration and The New York Times, whose publication of the papers was denounced by the government as an act of espionage that jeopardized national security. The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the freedom of the press.

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Friday 16 June, 2023 – Bloomsday!

The man himself

Jaques-Emile Blanche’s portrait of James Joyce, now in the National Portrait Gallery in London.

Quote of the Day

“All great truths begin as blasphemies.”

  • George Bernard Shaw

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

John McCormack | Love’s Old Sweet Song


This was recorded in October 1927 with Edwin Schneider at the piano. McCormack was a contemporary of Joyce and suggested in 1904 that he should enter the national singing competition (the Feis Ceoil) that he (McCormack) had won the previous year. Dermot Bolger, the Irish theatre director, has written an entertaining account of what happened:

McCormack encouraged Joyce to enter the 1904 Feis, hoping that Joyce would emulate his success and enjoy a similar year in Italy, away from his poverty in Dublin.

Joyce’s Feis Ceoil dreams were not shattered by McCormack, but by Joyce’s erratic preparations. He took his singing seriously enough to rent a large room from a family on Shelbourne Road – they unwitting joined Joyce’s long list of patrons as he was tardy at paying rent.

He even conned the famous Piggott’s shop into delivering a grand piano – being careful to be out when it arrived, thereby avoiding tipping the workmen who hauled it upstairs.

However he didn’t make any attempt to learn how to read music – despite knowing that the Feis rules required him to sing an easy but unseen song on sight.

Joyce’s voice so impressed the distinguished judge that he was a shoo-in for the gold medal until he stormed off stage in high dudgeon when he was presented with a sheet of unseen music and asked to sing from it. Snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, he disqualified himself. The stymied judge could only eventually present Joyce with a token bronze medal.

Joyce claimed that he had thrown the medal into the river Liffey in disgust, but in fact he gave it to his aunt Josephine and somehow it wound up later in the possession of Michael Flatley, the celebrated Irish dancer and the artist behind Riverdance.

Joyce was indeed a genius, but much of the time he was what in Dublin would be known as a right royal pain in the ass. There’s a famous story in his brother’s memoirs of him accosting W.B. Yeats, the greatest Irish literary figure of the day, outside the National Library in Kildare Street, and saying to the great man “I regret that you are too old to be influenced by me”.

Long Read of the Day

Misreading Ulysses

The text of novelist Sally Rooney’s T.S Eliot Lecture, delivered at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin on October 23, 2022.

It’s terrific. Here’s a sample:

Joyce’s prose is famous, in this novel and elsewhere, for its density, its radical novelty, and for its exquisite and unexpected beauty. For this reason, I think, Ulysses is a book that is often experienced “partly.” If you ask a person whether they have read, for example, Crime and Punishment, the answer is pretty much always yes or no. But if you ask whether someone has read Ulysses, the answer is often “bits of it, but not the whole thing.” What gives Ulysses this quality—this “bits of it” appeal—is that so many passages of the work can yield a rich and immersive pleasure even outside the context of the overarching narrative. In the history of the English novel, this style represents a definitive break from the established nineteenth-century tradition. Even the word style is misleading, because throughout the novel, as you probably know, Joyce cycles through any number of distinctive styles, using and discarding them as they suit his purposes. In a sense, then, maybe my plot summary was beside the point: maybe the real pleasures and triumphs of Ulysses are on the level of the sentence. To an extent, I think, but not entirely. Joyce’s language is certainly very beautiful, but he wasn’t the first or only talented prose stylist of his generation—and there’s more going on in Ulysses than fine writing.

The brilliant novelist and critic Anne Enright recently wrote: “Apart from everything that you could possibly imagine, nothing much happens in Ulysses.” It’s very true. We might sense something daringly lifelike in the way that Ulysses rejects the contrivances of traditional plots and structures. And maybe it is this quality, this sense of “faithfulness to reality,” that gives the book its special place in literary history. Here are some of Bloom’s thoughts, for instance, as he walks toward Sweny’s pharmacy to get a special lotion made up for his wife:

He walked southward along Westland row. But the recipe is in the other trousers. O, and I forgot that latchkey too. Bore this funeral affair. O well, poor fellow, it’s not his fault. When was it I got it made up last? Wait. I changed a sovereign I remember. First of the month it must have been or the second.

None of this mental fretting on Bloom’s part serves any of the usual purposes of novelistic prose. Nothing in the plot of the book actually depends on whether he gets the lotion made up for Molly or not. On the contrary, he’s just thinking, the way we all think, aimlessly, doubling back, worrying, forgetting, remembering. In our real lives, thoughts don’t occur to us in service of some grander narrative or final meaning: we just wake up, think all day long, and then go to sleep.

A very sharp and perceptive lecture.

Books, etc.

Dan Mulhall, the former Irish Ambassador to the US (and before that, to the UK) is the only high-profile diplomat I know who tweets about literature — especially about Joyce, Yeats and Seamus Heaney. He’s currently the Parnell Fellow at Magdalene College — you can find his big lecture here. I’ve read and enjoyed this perceptive and unpretentious guide to Ulysses. And look forward to his forthcoming book on W.B. Yeats.

My commonplace booklet

 Remembering Robert Gottlieb, Editor Extraordinaire

David Remnick, Editor of the New Yorker  has written a lovely piece about one of his predecessors, who has just passed away. It’s graceful and memorable, like everything Remnick writes.

This is how it opens:

Early this year, Film Forum, the redoubtable revival house on West Houston Street, drew overflow crowds for a documentary about two elderly men squaring off over semicolons and commas. The film, “Turn Every Page,” starred the semicolon-deploying biographer Robert Caro and the semicolon-averse editor Robert Gottlieb, who for many years was the head honcho at Simon & Schuster and then at Alfred A. Knopf, and from 1987 to 1992 was the editor of The New Yorker. Their relationship—intense, wary, mysterious—lasted a half century. It began with “The Power Broker,” Caro’s biography of Robert Moses, which, to its author’s agony, Gottlieb trimmed by some three hundred and fifty thousand words.

Audiences at Film Forum thrilled to the climactic scene in which Caro and Gottlieb sit side by side in an antiseptic office, intently reviewing a manuscript page from Caro’s study of Lyndon Johnson. These two secular Talmudists are hunched over the page, sharing a pencil and arguing about matters of punctuation, syntax, rhythm, and clarity. There is a deep bond between them, a distinctly unsentimental partnership in which everything is about purpose, choices, and decisions, never sloppy praise or even encouragement.

In a Paris Review interview, Caro said, “In all the hours of working on ‘The Power Broker,’ Bob never said one nice thing to me—never a single complimentary word, either about the book as a whole or about a single portion of the book. That was also true of my second book, ‘The Path to Power,’ the first volume of the Johnson biography. But then he got soft. When we finished the last page of the last book we worked on, ‘Means of Ascent,’ he held up the manuscript for a moment and said, slowly, as if he didn’t want to say it, ‘Not bad.’ ”

You see what I mean? The annoying thing is that I haven’t yet been able to get to see the damned film.

In the meantime, the trailer is here!

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Thursday 15 June, 2023

Yet another one

Wonderful plants, orchids. One can see why some people go crazy about them.

Quote of the Day

“The notes I handle no better than many pianists. But the pauses between the notes — ah, that is where the art resides.”

  • Artur Schnabel

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Acker Bilk | Burgundy Street Blues


I’m still looking for the Boilermaker Jazz Band’s version. But this will do for the time being.

Long Read of the Day

 What Will Come From This Indictment?

Dahlia Lithwick in Slate asking if this moment means (i) that the rule of law in the US is finally going to prevail over Trump, or (ii) if it has become irrelevant?

An intriguing and troubling essay.

We’ve officially reached peak Schrödinger’s coup. Democracy is either alive or dead inside that box, and everyone is too afraid to look inside and say which it is.

And this in turn puts us all in the unenviable position of having to reckon with two conflicting truths: Yes, the legal walls are closing in. And as they do so, for some the power of these legal walls is crumbling before our eyes. It’s blinding: The more criminal trouble Trump finds himself in, the more his political capital rises. The law may in fact be powerless in the face of that simple truth. I used to fret that politics would always, always outrun the law; that a Trump lie, or threat, or boast would make it twice around the world while the justice system was still just putting its socks on. But increasingly, I think we’re not even running the same course, or playing on the same field, or moving toward the same ends. The more the “rule of law” triumphs, the stronger the forces that hate the rule of law actually become.

And that, of course, is the endgame for the Trump team. “What I have been hearing from Republicans that I’ve spoken to is frustration, a growing frustration,” Miami Mayor Francis Suarez told Fox News Sunday. “The trust in our Justice Department has been eroded, as well. These are core institutions in a democracy that must have the people’s trust. When you see things like this that have political overtones, it’s very frustrating for people.” His remarks are honestly tame compared to those of many of his fellow Republicans who are in Congress. They have made the unprecedented decision to attack the law itself…

My feeling is that in a polity dominated by two political parties, if one gives up on democracy then the game’s over. That has happened with the Republicans in the US. And they have lots of heavily armed fanatics to back them up. 2024 will be a decisive year, either way.

Worth your time.

My commonplace booklet

 What sort of bicycle?

Nice sermonette from Seth Godin, about how we wind up using stuff that no longer makes sense.

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Wednesday 14 June, 2023

Le Miserablé

Cluny, France.

Quote of the Day

“The camera is an instrument that teaches people how to see without a camera.”

  • Dorothea Lange

(See also today’s Long Read)

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Tuba Skinny | Going Back Home


Life-enhancing stuff for breakfast.

Long Read of the Day

You’re Pointing Your Camera the Wrong Way

Lovely essay by Margaret Renkl on the destructive impact of our self-facing cameraphones.

The greatest danger in flipping the camera toward ourselves isn’t miscalculated risk or the loss of self-esteem. The greatest danger is what happens when we make ourselves the center of the photograph, the center of the world itself. No wonder Portia believes that everything is boring. Solipsism is a closed system.

The first time a young couple posing for a selfie declined my offer to take their picture in a scenic spot, it dawned on me that something had changed about the world. People prefer to smile up at their own faces reflected in a lifted phone because taking a photograph is not primarily a way to commemorate an experience anymore. Nowadays many people are seeking experiences that will provide an enviable backdrop for a selfie. There are murals all over my town that exist for no reason but to attract the selfie takers. Maybe they’re in your town, too…

Very perceptive essay. It reminded me of a moment years ago when my wife and I were sitting on the bank of the Grand Canal in Venice, munching a baguette and watching the passing scene. It was a busy morning and the canal was full of those (very expensive) water-taxis. Most of the customers were Chinese, I’d guess, and they were all standing up and using selfie-sticks to capture, not the waterway immortalised by Canaletto, but themselves standing on a speeding boat with that as a background.

Later And while we’re on that subject, this video about the work of Vivian Maier is spot on.

My commonplace booklet


Re my question yesterday about the identity of the tree in the photograph…

Simon Boyle wrote:

I fear that I know even less about plants, but recently a local group was almost torn asunder over an argument as to whether a similar furry plant was a) hawthorn being consumed by the caterpillars of Spindle Ermine Moths, or b) the natural seeding of the Grey Willow

He also raised legitimate questions about the feasibility of fitting 95-pt Helvetica Bold onto a 71-pt tall stamp.

And Max Whitby wrote:

Yes this is the female Willows’ airborne seeds dispersal mechanism: Link

Same mechanism as the dandelion, then.

Thanks to both.

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