Tuesday13 June, 2023

An arboreal puzzle

On a walk the other day we came on a tree which seemed to be encased in fine white wool and wondered what it was. My guess: pussy willow; but what I know about plants could be written in 95-pt Helvetica Bold on the back of a postage stamp.

Quote of the Day

“I always say beauty is only sin deep.”

  • Saki (H.H. Munro)

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Vaughan Williams | Fantasia on Greensleeves


Music for a bucolic moment, ne c’est pas?

Long Read of the Day

 Blood and the Machine

John Ganz on the swerve in Silicon Valley towards what he calls Reactionary Modernism.

Last April, I wrote that we were witnessing the tech capitalist class’s turn to reactionary politics. This was largely inspired by Musk’s plan to purchase Twitter, which I took to be more of a political project than a business one. Or rather, I believed that the political and business cases were intertwined: the owners wanted to reassert direct control of their businesses, break the power of employees they viewed as “woke,” and that this was undergirded up by a larger social and political ideology I called “bossism” at the time, basically a rather crude, hierarchical vision of society run by a “natural” elite. In July, I wrote that the proper name for Peter Thiel’s politics was Fascism. In October, I wrote about the connection between Musk’s bossist program and his apparent tolerance or even encouragement of Kanye West’s antisemitism.

I believe these takes have largely been borne out by the facts and this reactionary turn in Silicon Valley continues to crystallize. Musk has now attempted—albeit in a rather ham fisted way—to use his platform directly for politics with his endorsement of Ron DeSantis. He has given Tucker Carlson a new home. Of course, none of this is really new. Observers have long noted that alongside the ostensibly liberal utopian aspirations of the “California ideology” there has been a darker current of authoritarian thought. See for instance, Corey Pein’s 2014 classic in The Baffler, “Mouthbreathing Machiavellis Dream of a Silicon Reich.” Then there was also Mark Zuckerberg’s literal Caesarism. But it seems like this species of reaction has become an increasingly dominant political tendency within the tech industry…

Interesting piece. The idea that the Valley was a haven for technophile Democrats has long passed its sell-by date.

I crashed Henry Kissinger’s 100th-birthday party

Jonathan Guyer wondered why the US elite love K but for some reason won’t say why. His report is entertaining:

On Monday evening at the New York Public Library’s 42nd Street entrance, several men were on their knees meticulously installing a red carpet over the stone steps as a half-dozen security guards in suits looked out from behind the velvet rope.

I was there to crash the 100th-birthday party of Henry Kissinger, the former secretary of State to Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford who historians and journalists say is responsible for countless atrocities. He prolonged and expanded the Vietnam War with the bombing of Cambodia and Laos, killing hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of innocent people. He helped empower genocidal militaries in Pakistan and Indonesia. He enabled juntas that overthrew democracies in Chile and Argentina. He’s often called a war criminal, and the long-running social-media joke is that he’s still alive while so many better humans are dead.

And he’s been having a lot of birthday parties.

When I heard that there was one happening in Manhattan with a secret guest list and that he would be attending in person, I decided to go as well. I would stake out the scene and document the guests for history’s sake — or at least for what’s left of Twitter.

Includes some absurd pics of these posh invitees, and some funny stuff about the current American Secretary of State, Anthony Blinken, not wanting it to be known that he was there.

When I was a TV critic, I used to describe Kissinger as “the patron saint of gravel mixers”. Clearly, I wouldn’t have been invited.

My commonplace booklet

The Apple Watch was supposed to put makers of expensive wristwatches out of business. Guess what?

From Om Malik

The watch has stopped being just a watch — it is either a connected health device that also shows time & plays music. Or it is just a very expensive piece of jewelry and a symbol of advertising one’s wealth.

It seems the Swiss watchmakers have figured out that instead of trying to boost volumes, just boost the prices. And they are doing so by concentrating on the “whales” who are immune to the vagaries of real-world economics.

Whether it is Indian cricket players, American ball players, Chinese millionaires, Middle Eastern oil barons, or Crypto bros — this demographic just wants to show off their wealth. And what better way than some gaudy piece on the wrist?

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Monday 12 June, 2023

Remembering Z

Two years ago we said our goodbyes to Zoombini, the most remarkable cat I’ve ever known. She was a deeply intelligent creature with a need for human contact which was sometimes almost eerie. When we sat down for breakfast every morning, she would come from wherever she had been in the house and stand looking up at us in wide-eyed astonishment. The clear message was: why am I not in on this? In the end we caved in and set up a high stool between us on which she would sit or stand alertly watching proceedings. It was as if she felt she had a right to be in on all our deliberations, including the cryptic crossword we do most mornings.

When she died we had a proper family wake for her in the garden, complete with drinks and stories about her many adventures. So she was given a proper sendoff and is buried in a corner of the garden that she had made her own. But we miss her, still.

Her sister lives on and is now 19 pushing 20, and in reasonably good shape. She’s lovely in her way, but is a completely different presence in the house.

Quote of the Day

“You don’t have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them.”

  • Ray Bradbury

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Ashokan Farewell | Jay Ungar & the Molly Mason Family Band.


Jay Ungar’s beautiful, haunting tune was made world-famous by Ken Burns’s memorable Civil War documentary series, which led me to assume that it was a tune composed during the Civil War. But no, it was composed by Jay Ungar in 1982, and since then everyone and his dog (including, would you believe, the Royal Marines Band) has recorded cover versions. But this one, featuring the composer and his friends, is the one I like best.

Jay and Molly Mason are amazing musicians. During the pandemic the Library of Congress asked them to do a concert from home. Which they did — and the recording is terrific. It’s nearly 40 minutes long, so you might need to brew some coffee and cancel your next appointment.

Long Read of the Day

What if We’re Thinking About Inflation All Wrong?

Terrific New Yorker article by Zachary Carter (who wrote an interesting book a while back on Keynes and Keynesianism) about what happened to Isabella Weber, an economist who wrote a thoughtful article in the Guardian suggesting that price controls might be an effective way of clamping down on the rampant price-gouging that’s gone on in the aftermath of the pandemic.

Cancelling Christmas was, of course, a disaster. Raised in West Germany during the reunification era, Isabella Weber had been working as an economist in either Britain or the United States for the better part of a decade. An annual winter flight back to Europe was the most important remaining link to her German friends and family. But in December, 2021, the Omicron variant was surging, and transcontinental travel felt too risky. Weber and her husband drove from the academic enclave of Amherst, Massachusetts, to a pandemic-vacated bed-and-breakfast in the Adirondacks, hoping to make the best of a sad situation. Maybe Weber could finally learn how to ski.

Instead, without warning, her career began to implode. Just before New Year’s Eve, while Weber was on the bunny slopes, a short article on inflation that she’d written for the Guardian inexplicably went viral. A business-school professor called it “the worst” take of the year. Random Bitcoin guys called her “stupid.” The Nobel laureate Paul Krugman called her “truly stupid.” Conservatives at Fox News, Commentary, and National Review piled on, declaring Weber’s idea “perverse,” “fundamentally unsound,” and “certainly wrong.”

“It was straight-out awful,” she told me. “It’s difficult to describe as anything other than that.”

Guess what? The point of Weber’s Guardian piece had been that if price-controls were the way the US economy got through the Second World War without runaway inflation, might not those ideas have a contemporary relevance. But it turned out that however disdainful Nobel Laureates like Krugman were, governments outside of the US were very interested in her ideas, and became even more so after Russia invaded Ukraine and the world found itself with a real war on its hands. Krugman eventually apologised, but he ought to have been ashamed of himself.

Carter tells the story well, but he doesn’t address two questions that struck me about it.

  1. weren’t there overtones of crude male sexism in the disdain of the economists who attacked her for having the temerity to suggest a radical idea?
  2. doesn’t the whole story demonstrate how an academic discipline’s slavery to its conventional wisdom — its reigning paradigm in Kuhnian terms — makes it collectively stupid?

Or, to put it more crudely: an ideology is what determines how you think when you don’t know you’re thinking.

Anyway, the piece is worth your time.

China and physics may soon shatter our dreams of endless computing power

My column in yesterday’s Observer:

This ability to cram more and more transistors into a finite space is what gave us Moore’s law – the observation that the number of transistors in an integrated circuit will double every two years or so – and with it the fact that computer power has been doubling every two years for as long as most of us can remember. The story of how this happened is a riveting tale of engineering and manufacturing brilliance and is brilliantly told by Chris Miller in his bestselling book Chip War, which should be required reading for all Tory ministers who fantasise about making “Global Britain” a tech superpower.

But with that long run of technological progress came complacency and hubris. We got to the point of thinking that if all that was needed to solve a pressing problem was more computing power, then we could consider it solved; not today, perhaps, but certainly tomorrow.

There are at least three things wrong with this…

Do read the whole piece

Chart of the Day

The tech commentariat has been scathing about the $3,500 cost of Apple’s new gadget. But actually it isn’t all that expensive by historical standards. It is pricier than the iPhone was when it launched; but it’s significantly less expensive than an IBM PC was in 1981, or the Compaq ‘portable’ after which I lusted in 1983.

h/t to Azeem Azhar.

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Remembering Z

Two years ago today we said our goodbyes to Zoombini, the most remarkable cat I’ve ever known. She was a deeply intelligent creature with a need for human contact which was always charming and sometimes almost eerie. When we sat down for breakfast every morning, for example, she would come from wherever she had been in the house and stand looking up at us in wide-eyed astonishment. In the end we caved in and set up a high stool between us on which she would sit or stand alertly watching proceedings. It was as if she felt she had a right to be in on all our deliberations, including the cryptic crossword we do most mornings.

When she died we had a proper family wake for her in the garden, complete with drinks and stories about her adventures. We miss her still.

Her sister lives on and is now 19 pushing 20, and in reasonably good shape. But she’s a completely different presence in the house.

Friday 9 June, 2023


King’s Cross station the other day.

Quote of the Day

”Not everybody trusts paintings, but people believe photographs.”

  • Ansel Adams

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Robert Schumann |Arabesque in C major Op.18 | Lang Lang


Long Read of the Day

Eichmann in Jerusalem – 1

The first article in Hannah Arendt’s famous 1963 series. I had never read it, and found that I needed to make an appointment with it to do so. It’s difficult to summarise, even though many sought to do it with the phrase about the “banality of evil”.

His memory proved to be very unreliable about what actually happened. In a rare moment of exasperation, Judge Landau asked the accused, “What can you remember?” (if you don’t remember the discussions at the so-called Wannsee Conference, which dealt with the various methods of killing Jews); the answer, of course, was that Eichmann remembered the turning points in his own career rather well but that they did not necessarily coincide with the turning points in the story of Jewish extermination, or, as a matter of fact, with the turning points in history. (He always had trouble remembering the exact date of the outbreak of the war or of the invasion of Russia.) But the point of the matter is that he had not forgotten a single one of the sentences that at one time or another had served to give him what he repeatedly called a “sense of elation.” Hence, whenever, during the cross-examination, the judges tried to appeal to his conscience, they were met with “elation,” and they were outraged as well as disconcerted when they learned that the accused had at his disposal a different elating cliché for each period of his life and each of his activities. In his mind, there was no contradiction between “I will jump into my grave laughing,” appropriate for the end of the war, and “I am ready to hang myself in public as a warning example for all anti-Semites on this earth,” which now, under vastly different circumstances, fulfilled exactly the same function—that of giving him a lift.

These habits of Eichmann’s created considerable difficulty during the trial—less for Eichmann himself than for those who had come to prosecute him, to defend him, to judge him, or to report on him. For all this, it was essential that one take him seriously, and this was very hard to do, unless one sought the easiest way out of the dilemma between the unspeakable horror of the deeds and the undeniable ludicrousness of the man who perpetrated them, and declared him a clever, calculating liar—which he obviously was not. His own convictions in this matter were far from modest: “One of the few gifts fate bestowed upon me is a capacity for truth insofar as it depends upon myself.” This gift he had claimed even before the prosecutor wanted to ascribe to him crimes he had not committed. In the disorganized, rambling notes he made in Argentina, in preparation for the interview with Sassen, when he was still, as he pointed out at the time, “in full possession of my physical and psychological freedom,” he had issued a fantastic warning to “future historians [to] be objective enough not to stray from the path of truth recorded here”—fantastic because every line of these scribblings shows his utter ignorance of everything that was not directly, technically, bureaucratically connected with his job, and also shows an extraordinarily faulty memory.

Despite all the efforts of the prosecution, everybody could see that this man was not a “monster,” but it was difficult indeed not to suspect that he was a clown.

It’s an extraordinary report about an extraordinary trial, and sparked a wide controversy and much criticism of Arendt after it was published. (There’s a useful summary of some of this in the Wikipedia article on the piece.

Ten years ago, Edward Snowden warned us about state spying.

Spare a thought for him, and worry about the future, writes Alan Rusbridger in this nice — and deserved — tribute to Edward Snowden by the Editor who stood by him.

Within a few days, the source of the documents, Edward Snowden, unmasked himself on the Guardian website and for weeks thereafter the stories dominated the news around the world. It has since been memorialised in at least three films, stage dramas, books, numerous academic papers … and even an album.

It led to multiple court actions in which governments were found to have been in breach of their constitutional and/or legal obligations. It led to a scramble by governments to retrospectively pass legislation sanctioning the activities they had been covertly undertaking. And it has led to a number of stable-door attempts to make sure journalists could never again do what the Guardian and others did 10 years ago.

Even now the British government, in hastily revising the laws around official secrecy, is trying to ensure that any editor who behaved as I did 10 years ago would face up to 14 years in prison. Lamentably, the Labour party is not joining a cross-party coalition that would allow whistleblowers and journalists the right to mount a public interest defence.

So do not hold your breath for future Edward Snowdens in this country. The British media is, by and large, not known for holding its security services rigorously to account, if at all…

My commonplace booklet

The archives of the Nuremberg Trials are now online

They’re here, courtesy of Stanford Libraries. They come with a (needed) health warning.

Users are advised that material in Taube Archive of the International Military Tribunal (IMT) at Nuremberg, 1945-46 contains language and imagery depicting human rights violations, ethnic cleansing, acts of genocide, wartime violence, and offensive stereotypes of people and cultures. Stanford Libraries makes this material available to facilitate scholarly research and education, and does not endorse the criminal ideologies and actions herein

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Coffee-break, Piccadilly

Quote of the Day

”Mr Eliot is at times an excellent poet and has arrived at the supreme Eminence among English critics largely through disguising himself as a corpse.”

  • Ezra Pound on T.S.E.

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

FullSet | The Glen Road to Carrick


I’ve been on that road a few times.

Long Read of the Day

About That Sonic Boom Over Washington

James Fallows is a distinguished American journalist whom I’ve followed for years. He’s also a keen aviator with his own plane who writes entertainingly about private flying in the US. Even though I’m not a pilot I’ve always found his flying notes interesting, so I sat up when I saw this post on this blog.

The context is that residents of Washington D.C. (where Fallows lives some of the time) heard a sonic boom the other day as two F-16 fighter jets broke the sound barrier as they accelerated to catch up with a private jet flying over the capital.

What happened: The big picture. The Citation business-jet airplane, with four people aboard, flew from Tennessee to its intended destination on Long Island. The four people were: the pilot, the daughter and the 2-year-old granddaughter of the plane’s owner, and a nanny. The takeoff site was Elizabethton, a small airport in eastern Tennessee, and the destination was Islip, near a family house in the Hamptons on Long Island.

The plane made its northward course without apparent problem, and then seemed to turn to line up for a landing at Islip. But it never descended below 34,000 feet—a jet’s cruising altitude, and very far above the approach altitude for a landing. It overflew Islip and headed straight back over hundreds of miles toward the DC area. Planes flying at this altitude are required to be in constant touch with air traffic controllers. Reportedly this plane was “NORDO”—no radio, and no contact with anyone else.

The Citation finally crashed in a wooded area some 150 miles southwest of DC, on the hilly border between Virginia and West Virginia. This is where it apparently ran out of gas…

Read on. The mystery deepens.

Sunak: ChatPM

John Crace, writing on the current UK Prime Minister:

Sunak is a mere shell of the man he once was. Or thought himself to be. Time and again he is left mouthing meaningless statements that not even he believes. That he has no idea who has been in power for the last 13 years. But when he finds out he will be sure to give them a good bollocking. Because they have screwed up big time. That things are getting so much better. The cost of living crisis has passed. The economy is booming. New hospitals are appearing by the day. That sort of nonsense. The stuff we all know is lies.

Worse still, he appears to have lost the use of language. Rish! was also meant to be one of the great communicators. Someone who could empathise. The tech bro multimillionaire who could feel our pain. Would suffer with us as the cost of heating his swimming pool soared. Except he can’t do any of this. Never could. His honeymoon period was just cognitive dissonance on our part. We were seeing what we had been told to see.

Now the wheels have well and truly come off. He can only speak in easily programmable sentences that can be used time and time again. In one 50-second soundbite after the disastrous local election results for the Tories, all he could manage was to repeat his five priorities a couple of times.

Somehow, he is achieving the seemingly impossible of making Theresa May sound like advanced AI…

Yep. And he’s now made the apparently unforgivable sin of wearing Timberland Boots with skinny jeans. Honestly!

Saudi reputation-laundering now extends to professional golf

From Sky News

It’s a sensational sports truce with significance beyond sport – further asserting Saudi wealth, status and soft power.

When LIV Golf split the world of golf by launching a rebel series last year, the established PGA Tour of America’s moral outrage couldn’t have been clearer.

The PGA claimed the Saudi sovereign wealth fund was using the “sport of golf to ‘sports wash’ the Saudi government’s deplorable reputation for human rights abuses”.

Hundreds of millions of pounds in signing on fees and prize money enticed stars, including former world No 1 Englishman Lee Westwood and six-time major winner Phil Mickelson, who were banished from the PGA for defecting.

Now it will be the PGA helping the Saudis launder their reputation through golf – announcing a merger by LIV that looks like a Saudi takeover.

It ends the acrimonious legal dispute to unite golf, three months before the Ryder Cup.

The European Tour – known as the DP World Tour through its Dubai title sponsor – is also part of the new commercial entity with the PGA and LIV.

Be in no doubt – the power in golf has shifted decisively to Riyadh.

The combined golfing behemoth will be chaired by Yasir Al-Rumayyan, the governor of Saudi’s Public Investment Fund.

It is PIF that has also owned Newcastle United since 2021 with Al-Rumayyan at the helm – winning over fans by securing a return to the Champions League after two decades.

Oh, and by the way, “Human rights concerns are largely overlooked by fans just pleased to be back in the Champions League after two decades with ownership willing to invest.”

Apple’s vision of the future

Like most of the tech commentariat, I watched Apple’s presentation of its long-heralded Vision Pro augmented reality headset on Monday. Since I never write about stuff I haven’t tried (or owned) I am outsourcing the task of describing it to Ben Thompson, one of the smartest people around and for whose daily newsletter I pay a handsome subscription — because he has had a chance to play with the device. His report is here and it’s interesting throughout.

TL;DR version:

It’s far better than I expected, and I had high expectations. The high expectations came from the fact that not only was this product being built by Apple, the undisputed best hardware maker in the world, but also because I am, unlike many, relatively optimistic about VR. What surprised me is that Apple exceeded my expectations on both counts: the hardware and experience were better than I thought possible, and the potential for Vision is larger than I anticipated. The societal impacts, though, are much more complicated.

Worth reading in full. The headset will retail at $3,499 in the US early next year.

Alison Gopnik on ChatGPT as a cultural technology 

Terrific short (15-minute) lecture by Alison Gopnik, arguing that Large Language Models should be regarded as a new ‘cultural technology’ — like language, writing, print, libraries, Internet search and Wikipedia – I.e. technology that allows humans to access and summarise and use all the other knowledge that other humans have made over the generations.”

Comes like a breath of fresh air in the current cacophony over ‘AI’

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Wednesday 7 June, 2023

This is not a building…

… it’s a facade with an exo-skeleton.

Seen in Piccadilly yesterday.

Quote of the Day

”Chevy Chase couldn’t ad-lib a fart after a baked-bean dinner.”

  • Johnny Carson

Now why does this remind me of a certain scene in Blazing Saddles?

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Norah Jones | Come Away With Me


Long Read of the Day

The liberal complacency of Martin Amis

Terry Eagleton takes a more disenchanted view of the recently-departed enfant terrible, whose “exquisite style”, he thinks, “hid a squalid sense of morality”.

Part of Amis knew this frenetically consumerist culture from the inside, while an alter ego submitted it to savagely entertaining satire in the name of a moral norm which is present only by its absence. His fiction thus refutes the old cliché that satire requires a stable standard by which to judge. If anything goes, however, nothing has value — not even shock-value, which is why calling a book Dead Babies smacked of clamouring for attention in an offence-proof world. The great modernist writers had the good fortune to confront a readership that was still eminently shockable. Indeed, the title Dead Babies would have been unthinkable in the Sixties, only a decade before the book appeared. In a postmodern world where the monstrous and psychopathic are routine, Amis didn’t have the modernists’ advantage. This was a civilisation in which nothing could be said, which was both the object of his satire and a source of his endless verbal fertility…

Note the reference to “a moral norm that is present only by its absence”. A typical Eagleton gibe, I guess. Entertaining nonetheless. What I liked about the piece was the contrast it provides to the prevailing reverential tone of the obsequies.

Books, etc.

Freedom to Read

From a post by Richard Ovenden on the LRB blog:

On 10 May 1933, a bonfire was held on Unter den Linden in Berlin. Watched by a cheering crowd of almost forty thousand, a group of students marched up to the fire carrying a bust of Magnus Hirschfeld, the Jewish founder of the Institute of Sexual Sciences. Chanting the ‘Feuersprüche’, a series of fire incantations, they threw the bust on top of thousands of volumes from the institute’s library, which had joined books by Jewish and other ‘un-German’ writers (gays and communists prominent among them) that had been seized from bookshops and libraries. Rows of young men in Nazi uniforms stood around the fire saluting. Goebbels gave a speech:

No to decadence and moral corruption! Yes to decency and morality in family and state! … The future German man will not just be a man of books, but a man of character. It is to this end that we want to educate you … You do well to commit to the flames the evil spirit of the past. This is a strong, great and symbolic deed.

Ninety years later, the excuses of ‘decency’ and ‘morality’ are being used by those who seek to control the books that people can access in public libraries across many US states.

PEN America has tracked more than four thousand instances of books being challenged or removed from American libraries since July 2021, with more than 1400 between July and December 2022 alone…

As the American republic continues its long slide into authoritarianism, the echoes of 20th-century fascism are increasingly striking. Wonder when the book-burning will start.

My commonplace booklet

 A baby hears Pavarotti sing “Nessun Dorma” for the first time

Entrancing video.


Oscar Wilde’s quote about Wagner’s music in yesterday’s edition was incorrect. It should have read ”I like Wagner’s music more than any other music….” Many thanks to the eagle-eyed reader who pointed this out.

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Tuesday 6 June, 2023

The road taken

With apologies to Robert Frost.

Quote of the Day

”I like Wagner’s music more than any other music. It is so loud that one can talk the whole time without people hearing what one says. That is a great advantage.”

  • Oscar Wilde

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Stephen Foster | Beautiful Dreamer | Leslie Guinn, baritone, Gilbert Kalish, piano.


Recorded on period instruments at the Smithsonian Institute, Washington, D.C

Long Read of the Day

The partisans beyond the filter bubble

Terrific Substack post by Charles Arthur (Whom God Preserve) on some research which challenges some of the myths about online filter bubbles. The takeaway conclusion Charles draws is that

Small groups of: (i) ageing (ii) right-wingers (iii) on their desktop computers (because this study wasn’t — couldn’t – be carried out on mobile, only desktop) get their information from unreliable, partisan news sites. The study doesn’t say whether they then go on to share it on Facebook or on their Twitter account grumpyboomer032945231, but it’s not hard to imagine that’s what happens.

This isn’t to let the search algorithms off the hook either, but does go to show that the real problem, as ever, lies with the humans.

Worth reading the whole piece. It’s thought-provoking, not least because it challenges some conventional wisdom about the impact of social media.

Books, etc.

Kieran Setiya has a nice review of Florence Hazrat’s Brief History of the Exclamation Mark!.

Hazrat’s book is packed with wonderful factoids. Other names for the exclamation mark include “the screamer, the slammer, the bang, the gasper, and the shriek.” Not surprisingly, “!” is much-derided. F. Scott Fitzgerald compared the exclamation mark to laughing at one’s own joke, while the journalist Philip Cowell called it “the selfie of grammar.” Yet, writes Hazrat, “it exists in nearly every language from Persian to Mandarin.” We clearly need it!

Thanks are due, then, to Alpoleio da Urbisaglia, who first used a full stop with an apostrophe or raised comma to mark “exclamatory or admirative sentences,” an innovation formalized as “!” by Coluccio Salutati in 1399.

Among punctuation marks, “!” is unique in splicing syntax with sentiment:

The power of the exclamation mark to orchestrate tone and feeling makes us nervous, at least some of us. ! has a foot in both camps: grammar and rhetoric; cold hard rule and fuzzy emotion. It sits perched between syntactical exactness and blurry subjectivity, revelling in its double identity, a queer mark that defies binaries…

This helps to explain its massive overuse in email, especially by those, like me, who resist the emoticon.

Guilty as charged, m’lud!

My commonplace booklet

Thank you for not answering

Remarkable, slightly eerie, short experimental film made entirely by ‘Generative AI’. Artist Paul Trillo was the Director.

It’s a claustrophobic film that could have taken oodles of time, money and special effects to shoot, but Trillo generated it in minutes using an experimental tool kit made by an artificial-intelligence company called Runway.

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 5 June, 2023

Where have all the cyclists gone?

Seen in a nature reserve yesterday.

Quote of the Day

”Military glory is the attractive rainbow that arises in showers of blood.”

  • Abraham Lincoln.

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

The Beach Boys | A Day In The Life Of A Tree


Long Read of the Day

Setting time on fire and the temptation of The Button

Ethan Mollick has discovered that, when composing a document in Google Docs, he’s now offered a ‘button’ labelled “Help me write” which, when clicked, invites you to prompt Bard (Google’s LLM) to write the article/essay/email on which you were embarking.

As far as I can see, this facility is currently only available to selected users of Google Docs in the US, but it’ll soon be everywhere. I do much of my writing in Drafts (which runs only on Apple kit) and it already offers a similar button which summons ChatGPT to one’s aid (if that is the correct term for the services of a stochastic parrot).

Mollick has written an interesting post on the longer-term implications universal acceptance of the apparent shortcuts offered by ‘AI’.

So why do I think this is a big deal? Because, when faced with the tyranny of the blank page, people are going to push The Button. It is so much easier to start with something than nothing. Students are going to use it start essays. Managers are going to use it to start emails, or reports, or documents. Teachers will use it when providing feedback. Scientists will use to write grants. And, just as we are seeing with Adobe incorporating AI into Photoshop, when AI gets integrated into a familiar tool, adoption become simple. Everyone is going to use The Button.

Now, there are a million implications to outsourcing our first drafts to AI. We know people anchor on the first idea they see, influencing their future work, so even drafts that are completely rewritten will be AI-tinged. People may not be as thoughtful about what they write, or the lack of effort may mean they don’t think through problems as deeply. We may not learn how to write as well. We may be flooded with low-quality content. All of these implications are significant, but I want to focus on one thing that, as an academic at a business school, really stands out to me: the coming crisis of meaning…

It’s an interesting disquisition on the way the time one puts into composing a document can provides an implicit signal about its worth, which may be useful to its recipient. One example he uses is a task that many academics, especially senior ones, have to do — write letters of recommendation for students or junior colleagues. I have to do this quite a lot, and I put a fair amount of time into it. Recipients (academics often have to write the same kinds of letter) will easily be able to spot how much work has gone into a reference, and assign a value to it accordingly. But what if I started to use a tool like GPT-4 which can rattle off plausible-looking references in a minute or two?

Mollick’s essay has prompted an interesting response from one of his readers, Pascal Montjovent:

As an early adopter, I’ve been immersed in AI and digital technologies, employing tools like GPT and Midjourney in my day-to-day activities for months now. Far from being a luddite, I embrace these developments with open arms, recognizing their potential to shape the future.

But in my field, ever since film cameras were supplanted by digital cameras, and subsequently by smartphones, everyone seems to think that creating a movie is simple.

Clients and agencies have started to cut down on delivery times and budgets. Faith in the expertise of professionals has plummeted.

As a result, projects are less prepared, the duration of shoots is diminished, as is that of post-production: “You don’t need so much time to deliver this edit or mix to me.”

What fades away with this shift towards digital and AI, is the time for reflection, the capacity to take a step back and contemplate what we are doing. The ability to reexamine one’s work after a break or to review an edit after a good night’s sleep is dwindling.

Soon, everyone will be familiar with the concept of “simply pressing The Button”.

Everyone will know that a letter of recommendation can be written in twelve minutes and that minutes of a meeting can be automatically transcribed during the work session.

Yet, the time saved won’t be repurposed for more enriching activities. It will merely serve as a means to accept more work, for the same pay of course, and without the luxury of reflection time.

We’ve drawn closer to the condition of a hamster in its wheel. We are running faster. But for what purpose, and in which direction? This is the question that looms large and, to my mind, requires our immediate attention and action.

A lawyer got ChatGPT to do his research, but he isn’t AI’s biggest fool

My column in yesterday’s Observer:

This story begins on 27 August 2019, when Roberto Mata was a passenger on an Avianca flight 670 from El Salvador to New York and a metal food and drink trolley allegedly injured his knee. As is the American way, Mata duly sued Avianca and the airline responded by asking that the case be dismissed because “the statute of limitations had expired”. Mata’s lawyers argued on 25 April that the lawsuit should be continued and appending a list of over half a dozen previous court cases that apparently set precedents supporting their argument.

Avianca’s lawyers and Judge P Kevin Castel then dutifully embarked on an examination of these “precedents”, only to find that none of the decisions or the legal quotations cited and summarised in the brief existed.

Why? Because ChatGPT had made them up. Whereupon, as the New York Times report puts it, “the lawyer who created the brief, Steven A Schwartz of the firm Levidow, Levidow & Oberman, threw himself on the mercy of the court… saying in an affidavit that he had used the artificial intelligence program to do his legal research – ‘a source that has revealed itself to be unreliable’.”

This Schwartz, by the way, was no rookie straight out of law school…

Do read the whole thing

Why Trump will be the GOP candidate next year

Janan Ganesh wrote a very perceptive column in the Financial Times (behind the paywall) about Ron DeSantis’s chances of defeating Trump for the Republican nomination. The Florida governor is under the impression that evidence of his ability to get things done in his home state gives him an advantage in the contest with Trump.

In this, Ganesh argues, he is deluded. This contest is not about any kind of competence, but about something else entirely.

“Consider for a moment,” he writes,

what Donald Trump gives to his average follower. Membership in a vast nationwide communion of like-minded people. A paternal figure in a confusing world. The frisson of transgression: middle-aged whites don’t often in life get to play the rebel.

Next to all this, what is the marginal benefit of seeing him win an actual election? What, after that, is the marginal benefit of watching his policies come into force? No doubt, Trump fans would rather have these bonus items than not. But he has done them a profound emotional and almost spiritual service before it ever gets to that.

It is not clear that Ron DeSantis understands this about populism.

Poor DeSantis is logical and thinks that modern politics is about getting things done. Ganesh feels sorry for him.

The extent to which it is about belonging — about replacing the group identity that people once got from a church or a trade union — is lost on his rationalist ken. In this one sense, he thinks like a liberal.

And therefore, in the crazed world of American rightwing politics, he’s doomed.

I suppose I should be pleased about this. When DeSantis first appeared on the horizon I was alarmed: the last thing American democracy needed was a competent autocrat. I needn’t have worried. The choice the American people will have to make next year will be between an elderly but competent Democrat, and an incompetent but buoyant autocrat.

My commonplace booklet

If you live in the UK and drink tap-water (and, let’s face it, who doesn’t?) it’d be worth watching this brief video from openDemocracy. Among other things, it illustrates what happens when a major country turns over its water supply to a bunch of private-equity charlatans.

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Friday 2 June, 2023

What’s this?

Outside Cambridge railway station yesterday.

Quote of the Day

”There is always one moment in childhood when the door opens and lets the future in.”

  • Graham Greene

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Sharon Shannon | Galway Girl | Live at Cambridge Folk Festival


Long Read of the Day

The Policy Paradox: The more obvious an idea is the less likely it will happen.

Sobering (and insightful) blog post by Sam Freedman.

I’ve been around for a while now and have occasionally found myself drifting into the cynicial “it’s been tried before” mode. So I’m trying to avoid it by taking a different approach. When I’m talking to a young think-tanker or political aide, whose enthusiam is not yet dimmed, I try not to dismiss ideas that have been doing the rounds for a while, but ask a different question: “given you’re not the first person to think of this why hasn’t it happened before?”

Just because something hasn’t worked, or has been blocked, in the past, it doesn’t mean it can’t work now. But it is important to understand the history and explain why it can be different this time.

The more of these discussions I have the more I have come to realise that there’s an odd paradox that applies to every policy area: the more obvious the idea, the less likely it is to happen. I don’t just mean obvious to me. There are plenty of policies that I personally – as a member of the dissolute liberal new elite – think are no brainers that are nevertheless hotly contested. No, these are ideas that everyone, bar perhaps a tiny ideological fringe, agree with, and that, at any of those panel events, will get a room full of appreciative nods, but nevertheless don’t happen…

It’s interesting, if sometimes dispiriting and when I was reading I kept thinking of Gramsci’s adage that what we need is “pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will”. But, since pessimism can be disabling, maybe “realism of the intellect and optimism of the will” might be more useful.

There’s plenty of realism in this essay.

Thanks to Andrew Curry for alerting me to it.

Books, etc.

Cory Doctorow on a “Big Tech Dissassembly Manual”

Cory (Whom God Preserve) gave the Peter Kirstein Lecture in UCL yesterday. It was a typical Cory performance — which means that nobody slept at the back. The lecture theatre was packed and he outlined his ‘enshittification’ thesis of tech platforms with verve and wit and coruscating sarcasm. I like to think that I am critical of the tech industry, but in comparison to Cory I sound like a PR agent for Zuckerberg & Co.

I’ve also recently finished his first venture into mainstream thriller writing — Red Team Blues — and enjoyed it hugely. What’s special about it is the way it takes for granted the astonishing way in which tech (notably crypto) facilitates money-laundering, tax evasion and criminality on a cosmic scale. Henry Farrell wrote a perceptive review of it recently, and so now has his sister Maria — who was also at yesterday’s event, as evidenced below.

Cory is a truly extraordinary individual, the nearest thing we have to a one-man think-tank on the nature and pathologies of digital capitalism. More power to his elbow, as we say in Ireland.

My commonplace booklet

’Fire of Love’ trailer

This is a movie I’d like to see.


By now you will have gathered that in yesterday’s edition the number 10^60 (ten to the power of 60, which is as big a number as you are ever likely to contemplate), was rendered as 1060, which sounds like the state of England before the Norman Conquest!

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Thursday 1 June, 2023

Fontenay on an August evening

The Abbey of Fontenay in northern Burgundy. One of the loveliest and most peaceful places I know.

Quote of the Day

”I can always hire mathematicians, but they can’t hire me.” * Thomas Edison

I was thinking about this a few weeks ago when I gave a talk about AI to a hedge fund which employs a hundred mathematicians and 500 software engineers.

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Handel | Ombra mai fu | Xerxes HWV 40 | Andreas Scholl, countertenor.


Long Read of the Day

 Open the pod bay doors

You may have seen the recent spate of stories about how ‘AI’ (aka machine-learning) has ‘discovered’ a new antibiotic.

I found this LRB blog post by Liam Shaw really illuminating. Hope you might too.

It has been reported that abaucin was ‘discovered using AI’. This needs a bit of unpacking. Finding any new drug means searching through ‘chemical space’ – the many possible configurations of atoms that can make up molecules. It’s difficult to get a grip on how vast this universe of possibility is. Most drugs consist of molecules with fewer than thirty atoms and a molecular mass of less than 500 daltons (a hydrogen atom has a mass of one dalton, give or take). It’s hard to estimate, but even if you restrict yourself to a handful of elements (carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, sulphur) there are at least 1060 possible molecules that fit these criteria. This is a big number, more than a thousand times the number of hydrogen atoms in the Sun. Exploring this chemical universe in its entirety is impossible. The hope is that using predictive algorithms from machine learning can help guide you to the right galaxy…

Good example of how to explain something that’s rather complex.

An auto CEO came very close to saying the right thing about heavy EV batteries

A story from The Verge.

The race to cram heavier and heavier batteries into bigger and bigger electric vehicles hit a speed bump today when a major automaker CEO finally threw up his hands and asked why.

“I have no idea what’s going on in this industry right now,” Ford CEO Jim Farley said during his company’s capital markets event Monday. He referenced electric vehicles coming out with 450–500 miles of range, including “a three-row crossover” announced today that was likely the new electric Cadillac Escalade.

Higher ranges will necessitate bigger batteries, he noted, adding, “These batteries are huge.”

“These batteries are huge.”

Farley is right. US automakers are relying on supersized batteries to power their equally supersized EVs — namely, all the electric trucks that will soon flood the US market…

That’s why taxing EVs on kerbside weight might be the right thing to do.

Books, etc.

Jeff Jarvis’s new book arrived the other day (I’m reviewing it for The Literary Review). It’s basically a book-length exploration of an idea first articulated by the Danish scholar Thomas Pettitt in 2010 — the notion that the period from, roughly, the 15th century to the 20th, an age defined by textuality — was really an interruption (a parenthesis) in the broader arc of human communication. And that we are now, via the architecture of the web, gradually returning to a state in which pre-Gutenberg orality — conversation, gossip, ephemera — defines our media culture.

There’s a nice video clip of Pettitt explaining his idea here.

I’m looking forward to seeing what Jeff does with it.

My commonplace booklet

Submarine cable map of the world


Cyberspace was once defined (by William Gibson, I think) as “the space behind the screen”. Nowadays, I suppose that people think of it as residing in the ‘Cloud’ (another misleading euphemism for thousands of huge metal sheds called ‘data-centres’ or even ‘server farms’. But there are good grounds for thinking that Cyberspace also exists underwater, in the global network of submarine cables.

Note also how the cables mirror the pathways of 19th century colonial power.

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