Monday 31 July, 2023

Closely observed Sweet Peas

Quote of the Day

“An author ought to write for the youth of his own generation, the critics of the next, and the schoolmasters of ever afterwards.”

  • F. Scott Fitzgerald

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Beethoven | Piano Concerto No. 1 in C major Op. 15: Largo | Daniel Barenboim


Music doesn’t come much better than this.

Long Read of the Day

An ‘Oppenheimer Moment’ for the progenitors Of AI

As regular readers know, I am sceptical of the rhetoric emanating from the tech companies about the ‘existential risk’ posed by AI. Like many other critics, I see it as a ploy to distract public attention from the real and present dangers posed by the rather feeble ‘AI’ we currently have — and about which we should be doing something right now.

But this interesting essay by Nathan Gardels in Noema has opened up an intriguing thought: could there be a plausible existential risk emerging from current AI, but indirectly if it heated up Cold War 2.0 between the US and China? After all, they have weapons which undoubtedly pose an existential threat to humanity, and they have nothing to do with AI.

Here’s the passage in Gardels’s essay that triggered the thought. It’s when he’s discussing

the analogy between Sam Altman and Oppenheimer, who in his later years was persecuted, isolated and denied official security clearance because the McCarthyist fever of the early Cold War cast him as a Communist fellow traveler. His crime: opposing the deployment of a hydrogen bomb and calling for working with other nations, including adversaries, to control the use of nuclear weapons.

In a speech to AI scientists in Beijing in June, Altman similarly called for collaboration on how to govern the use of AI. “China has some of the best AI talents in the world,” he said. Controlling advanced AI systems “requires the best minds from around the world. With the emergence of increasingly powerful AI systems, the stakes for global cooperation have never been higher.”

One wonders, and worries, how long it will be before Altman’s sense of universal scientific responsibility is sucked, like Oppenheimer, into the maw of the present McCarthy-like anti-China hysteria in Washington. No doubt the fervent atmosphere in Beijing poses the mirror risk for any AI scientist with whom he might collaborate on behalf of the whole of humanity instead of for the dominance of one nation.

His essay is interesting throughout. Worth a read. It’s headed by a fabulous illustration by Jonathan Zawada, of which this is a thumbnail.

Go to the essay to see it in all its imaginative majesty.

Will rebranding Twitter give Elon Musk the X factor? I wouldn’t bank on it.

My column in yesterday’s Observer:

So Elon Musk, the world’s richest manchild, has changed the name of his favourite toy. Henceforth, Twitter is to be known as X. Strangely, though, you can still log on to and be invited to tweet. This is a missed comic opportunity. Instead of the chancellor being able to say, for example, that he had tweeted his concern about the public sector borrowing requirement to the prime minister, he could be saying that he had “X’d Rishi” on the matter. Sigh.

So what is it about Musk and X? Well, it goes back quite a way – to 1999, when Musk set up as an early online bank. For “early”, read “weird”…

Do read the whole piece.

Later. Just after the piece appeared, I happened to turn to James Fallows’s blog, and found this:

“Months ago, people were abandoning Xitter for Mastodon. Weeks ago, for Bluesky. Days ago, for Threads. None of these alternatives has — so far — recreated the centrality of the old Twitter, for those who viewed it as central. Musk’s destruction of this forum is a dead loss all around. The fact that he has created a gap doesn’t mean that anyone else can fill it.”

Books, etc.

On 26 and 27 June, Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited young adult romance bestseller list was filled with dozens of AI-generated books of nonsense. By Wednesday, had taken them out of the list but they were, apparently, still available for purchase. These were probably produced by people using ChatGPT and were easily detectable as crap.

But there are other outfits out there touting ‘AI’ tools as a way of getting writing done. Sudowrite, for example (Motto:” “Say goodbye to writer’s block”). For $10 a month it will generate 30,000 “AI words”. $25/month gets you 90,000 words. It is, apparently,

”the non-judgmental, always-there-to-read-one-more-draft, never-runs-out-of-ideas-even-at-3am, AI writing partner you always wanted.️”

It enables you to “write a novel from start to finish in a week.” Its ‘Story Engine’ “takes you step-by-step from idea, to outline, to beating out chapters, and then writes 1,000s of words, in your style”.

Elizabeth Minkel is not impressed. The headline of her essay in Wired — “Why Generative AI Won’t Disrupt Books” — communicates the gist of her message.

Here’s hoping.


Some things I noticed, while trying to drink from the Internet firehose.

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Friday 28 July, 2023

Stairway to where, exactly?

West Cambridge Hub

Quote of the Day

“Almost every desire that a poor person has is a punishable offence”

  • Louis-Ferdinand Céline

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Regina Spektor | SugarMan


Long Read of the Day

The Twilight of Neoliberalism

My friend Sean French and I have one thing upon we both agree. Whenever there’s an article in the New Yorker by Louis Menand we down tools and read it.

He rarely fails to deliver and this essay is no exception. It’s particularly fascinating if (like me) you’re seeking explanations of how democracies wound up in the mess they are currently in.

It’s really a review-essay triggered by the publication of The Big Myth: How American Business Taught Us to Loathe Government and Love the Free Market by Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway.

In the book, Orestes and Conway tell

the intellectual story and the political story of neoliberalism, so their book is, in effect, three histories piled on top of one another. This makes for a very thick volume.

The lobbying story is good to know. Most voters are highly sensitive to the suggestion that someone might take away their personal freedom, and this is what pro-business propaganda has been warning them about for the past hundred years. The propaganda took many forms, from college textbooks funded by business groups to popular entertainments like Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “Little House on the Prairie” books, which preach the lesson of self-sufficiency. (The books were promoted as autobiographical, but Oreskes and Conway say that Wilder, with the help of her daughter, completely misrepresented the facts of her family story.)

The endlessly iterated message of this lobbying, Oreskes and Conway say, is that economic and political freedoms are indivisible. Any restriction on the first is a threat to the second. This is the “big myth” of their title, and they show us, in somewhat fire-hose detail, how a lot of people spent a lot of time and money putting that idea into the mind of the American public.

Menand is very good on Hayek, and particularly good on Milton Friedman’s persuasiveness as a hawker of memorable untruths and simple slogans. And his essay left me with the sinking feeling that I’ve now got to read The Big Myth — and re-read Gary Gerstle’s book on The Rise and Fall of the Neoliberal Order, one of the best books I read last year.

Such a shame there are only 24 hours in a day.

My commonplace booklet

  • 15.6 – concentration of nitrogen dioxide in micrograms per cubic metre of air in urban areas of the UK in 2022, above the World Health Organisation recommendation of 10 micrograms per cubic metre.

  • From “What AI Teaches Us About Good Writing”, an interesting (long) essay in Noema by Laura Hartenberger.

”ChatGPT, in a sense, plagiarizes our voices as it parrots the writing it was trained on. It tends not to cite the specific sources it synthesizes to craft its phrases, and when it does, they are unreliable — the MLA Style Center website cautions writers to “vet” any secondary sources that appear in AI-generated text, as the programs have the occasional tendency to “hallucinate” false sources and provide information of questionable accuracy. Given the opacity of the AI’s sources, a student who tries to pass off AI-generated text as their own may be inadvertently performing a multi-dimensional transgression, plagiarizing an AI that itself is plagiarizing others.”


Something I noticed, while trying to drink from the Internet firehose.

  • Hanif Kureishi on life, death and dreaming of returning home. Truly extraordinary interview. Ten minutes on confronting the consequences of a catastrophe.

Weekend Viewing

John Oliver on AI Link. 27 minutes. Make some coffee.

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Wednesday 26 July, 2023

Books, etc.

A bookshop in rural France.

And the etc.?

Just this:

Interesting conjunction: tampons and faxes, eh?

Quote of the Day

”Even if you’re not interested in climate change, climate change is interested in you.”

  • Andrew Curry, in his consistently perceptive Substack blog.

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Cormac Begley | ‘To War’ | Traditional Irish Jig on a Bass Concertina


Long Read of the Day

The Autism Surge: Lies, Conspiracies, and My Own Kids

Astonishing — and deeply troubling — essay by Jill Escher.

In the summer of 2001 we took our younger son, two-year-old Jonathan, to the neurologist. He hadn’t developed speech, never played with toys, and had a compulsion to stare at cracks in the pavement while flapping his hands. The diagnosis was almost instant: autism. “He has it in spades,” the doctor said.

Autism? We had hardly heard the term growing up, and we had nothing remotely like it up our family trees. My pregnancy was healthy and free from risk factors. Yet here we were, handed a devastating diagnosis, with our son sentenced, for no reason we could discern, to a lifetime of severe mental impairment. And it wasn’t just Jonny. All around us grew a rapidly rising tide of autism. The numbers were surging in the local school districts. The regional developmental disability agency had become overwhelmed with new autism intakes. Serious autism, hard autism—not a sort anyone would have missed before.

When I was pregnant five years later, doctors assured me it was unlikely lightning would strike twice, especially because Jonny’s autism was not caused by some familial genetic defect, but by the time adorable Sophie was 16 months old, the signs were clear. No pointing, no peekaboo, no playing with toys. Like her brother, she met none of her cognitive or language milestones, not even close. Autism, again. In spades.

Today, despite extensive therapies and specialized schooling, both Jonny, 24, and Sophie, 17, remain nonverbal and profoundly disabled by autism…

One of the most sobering pieces I’ve read all year.

How Hollywood’s strikes show that we can’t trust corporations with AI

This is an excerpt from the Observer’s Second Leader on Sunday.

The continuing dispute between the Hollywood studios and screenwriters’ and actors’ unions perfectly exemplifies the extent of the challenges posed by AI. Both groups are up in arms about the way online streaming has reduced their earnings. But the writers also fear their role will be reduced simply to rewriting AI-generated scripts; and actors are concerned that detailed digital scanning enabled by new movie contracts will allow studios to create persuasive deepfakes of them that studios will be able to own and use “for the rest of eternity, in any project they want, with no consent and no compensation”.

So this technology isn’t just a better mousetrap: it’s more like steam or electricity. Given that, the key question for democracies is: how can we ensure AI is used for human flourishing rather than corporate gain? On this question, the news from history is not good. A recent seminal study by two eminent economists, Daron Acemoglu and Simon Johnson, of 1,000 years of technological progress shows that although some benefits have usually trickled down to the masses, the rewards have – with one exception – invariably gone to those who own and control the technology…

By tradition, Leaders are always anonymous. But if you find the style oddly familiar, I couldn’t possibly comment.

Dr Oppenheimer, I presume?

Yesterday we went to see Oppenheimer, Christopher Nolan’s biopic of the life and times of the great physicist who led the Manhattan Project which produced the atomic bomb. It’s a striking, troubling and sometimes puzzling film. Here are some thoughts I came away with.

  • Memorable performances by Cillian Murphy as Oppenheimer, Matt Damon as General Leslie Groves, Robert Downey Jr. as Lewis Strauss and Benny Safdie as Edward Teller.
  • A renewed appreciation of the complexity of Oppenheimer as an individual — his cleverness, sensitivity, intellectual sophistication, internal confidence and integrity.
  • A realisation that the Project would not have succeeded without the combination of Oppenheimer’s intellectual leadership and Groves’s determined cussedness and organisational muscle. The film captures the complexities of their relationship very well.
  • I always thought that Lewis Strauss was a snake. The film confirms that.
  • One comes away reflecting on the emotional and cognitive dissonances that plagued many of the scientists who worked on the project. They had a pretty good idea of what the bomb would mean for humanity. On the other hand, the prospect that the Nazis might get to it first was the thought that forced/allowed them to suppress their misgivings. Oppenheimer’s clear thinking about this was probably critical in persuading some of them. But whereas they could keep quiet about it in the aftermath, he was too public a figure, and too frank in expressing his concerns, not to become a target for Strauss and the political establishment in the post-war era. This is ultimately a film about power — a thought captured in a snatch of conversation between Oppenheimer and one of the scientists. Oppenheimer is saying that whatever the political establishment thinks of the scientific team “they need us”. “Yeah”, says the boffin, “until they don’t”. Spot on.

Coincidentally, the film comes out at a time when some of the geniuses behind ‘AI’ are loudly proclaiming that they are having their own ‘Oppenheimer moment’ — about the existential risks supposedly posed by the stuff on which they are energetically working. The hypocrisy and doublethink underpinning this faux angst is breathtaking.

Afterwards, physicist (and TV star) Brian Cox had an interesting conversation with the film’s Director. Worth watching. The official Trailer is here.

It’s long (180 minutes) but well worth seeing, IMO. If you do go, bring some earplugs. Nolan likes noise — lots of it.

Chart of the Day

AI corporate concentration in California

Meanwhile, Rishi Sunak burbles about making the UK an “AI Powerhouse”.

Building self esteem

Rebecca Lucy Taylor’s speech on being awarded an Honorary Degree by the University of Sheffield.

“When I was asked if I could accept this honorary doctorate my first thought was, ‘no I don’t deserve it. Everyone will think who is she anyway? She never went to uni.’” Rebecca Lucy Taylor, aka Self-Esteem, Britain’s funniest, frankest and – when receiving her doctorate at Sheffield University – most moving and vulnerable pop star, told an assembled hall of the recently graduated. “I’m not Beyoncé or Stanley Tucci or Michelle Obama. This morning when I looked at myself in the mirror and didn’t know if I looked good enough, I realised the journey is never over. Everything I said about believing in myself doesn’t come easy. It’s a life-long practice. You all committed to something, whether it came easy or naturally, whether it was a struggle when it was boring or maybe really really hard. Now you’re at the bottom of the next mountain. And you and me are just going to be constantly going up.” Words to live by if only we could read them through tears.

Source: Tortoise Media daily newsletter, Saturday 27 July.


Something I noticed, while trying to drink from the Internet firehose.

  • Attn. recovering petrolheads… Caterham are building an EV! Yeah, really. Here’s the video.

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Monday 24 July, 2023

Grasses at dusk

Semur-en-Auxoise, Burgundy.

Quote of the Day

”Superintelligence is not required for ai to cause harm. That is already happening. ai is used to violate privacy, create and spread disinformation, compromise cyber-security and build biased decision-making systems. The prospect of military misuse of ai is imminent. Today’s ai systems help repressive regimes to carry out mass surveillance and to exert powerful forms of social control. Containing or reducing these contemporary harms is not only of immediate value, but is also the best bet for easing potential, albeit hypothetical, future x-risk.”

  • Blaise Agüera y Arcas and colleagues, writing in the Economist.

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Dave Brubeck | Take Five


Long Read of the Day

Revisiting the long boom

This examination of what one might call the Silicon Valley ideology (which I would call “Neoliberalism seen through rose-tinted spectacles”) is long-ish. It involves two pieces:

  1. The first is by Jason Kottke who dug the 1997 article in Wired which predicted 25 years to prosperity and happiness and progress. Guess what?

  2. Then Dave Karpf followed up with a terrific analysis. What drove him was that some of the people who made these Panglossian predictions are still making them. It seems they are unable to learn from their mistakes.

But then, that’s what ideology does to people, I suppose.

I like his summing-up.

The world they are invoking is one where (1) neoliberalism spread everywhere, and works great, (2) its benefits are widely distributed, (3) scientific and technological breakthroughs become easier and faster with time, and (4) on balance, none of those scientific or technological breakthroughs are used for harm. This is… not the world we inhabit today. The neoliberal economic order has not lived up to its billing. Many of our primary political divisions today are either caused or exacerbated by the failings of the neoliberal order. American is not defined by a “new spirit of generosity,” nor have we welcomed increased immigration with open arms. And while we have had plenty of technological advances in the past 25 years, we have also been constantly reminded of Kranzberg’s First Law of Technology: “technology is neither good nor bad; nor is it neutral.”


GPT-4 may be just an AI language parrot, but it’s no birdbrain

My column in yesterday’s Observer:

In 2017, researchers at the British AI company DeepMind (now Google DeepMind) published an extraordinary paper describing how their new algorithm, AlphaZero, had taught itself to play a number of games to superhuman standards without any instruction. The machine could, they wrote, “achieve, tabula rasa, superhuman performance in many challenging domains. Starting from random play, and given no domain knowledge except the game rules, AlphaZero achieved within 24 hours a superhuman level of play in the games of chess and shogi (Japanese chess) as well as Go, and convincingly defeated a world-champion program in each case.”

Speaking afterwards at a big machine-learning conference, DeepMind’s chief executive, Demis Hassabis (himself a world-class chess player), observed that the program often made moves that would seem unthinkable to a human chess player. “It doesn’t play like a human,” he said, “and it doesn’t play like a program. It plays in a third, almost alien, way.” It would be an overstatement to say that AlphaZero’s capabilities spooked those who built it, but it clearly surprised some of them. It was, one (privately) noted later, a bit like putting your baby daughter to sleep one evening and finding her solving equations in the morning.

That was six years ago. Spool forward to now, when a friend of mine is experimenting with GPT-4, OpenAI’s most powerful large multimodal model (accepting image and text inputs, outputting text) – the version to which you can get access for $20 (about £16) a month….

Read on

My commonplace booklet

Harry Frankfurt RIP

Nice memoir of him by Kieran Setiya

The philosopher Harry Frankfurt died this week. He was unexpectedly famous for a bestselling book, On Bullshit, that originated as a playful academic essay only to find a second life as an editor’s marketing dream—a mischievous gift-book for the pseudo-intellectual in your life. It earned Harry an appearance on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, and a lot of money.

I particularly enjoyed Setiya’s parting shot:

I think his reply to an audience member at the lectures that became The Reasons of Love could be his epitaph.

Audience member: “What I don’t understand is how, on your view, I have any assurance that my wife will continue to love me.”

Harry: “I’m sorry, sir, I’m afraid I can’t help you with that.”

On Bullshit is lovely.


Something I noticed, while trying to drink from the Internet firehose.

  • Larry Summers thinks that Ivy League colleges need radical change. His list of reforms that places like Harvard (of which he was once President, and where he still is a professor) need to make: banning ‘legacy’ admissions (i.e. of children of alumni), eliminating “aristocratic sports” like rowing and fencing, and training college admissions staff to detect when something in an application is ‘inauthentic’. Interesting throughout. Link

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Friday 21 July, 2023

Where we get our strawberries

From Hacker’s Fruit Farm, of course.

Quote of the Day

“When Silicon Valley tries to imagine superintelligence, what it comes up with is no-holds-barred capitalism.”

  • Ted Chiang

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Pinetop Perkins | “Pinetop’s Blues”


Wonderful. And he had great taste in hats, too.

Long Read of the Day

Why they’re smearing Lina Khan

Terrific, no-holds-barred polemic by Cory Doctorow.

My god, they sure hate Lina Khan. This once-in-a-generation, groundbreaking, brilliant legal scholar and fighter for the public interest, the slayer of Reaganomics, has attracted more vitriol, mockery, and dismissal than any of her predecessors in living memory.

She sure must be doing something right, huh?

A quick refresher. In 2017, Khan – then a law student – published Amazon’s Antitrust Paradox in the Yale Law Journal. It was a brilliant, blistering analysis showing how the Reagan-era theory of antitrust (which celebrates monopolies as “efficient”) had failed on its own terms, using Amazon as Exhibit A of the ways in which post-Reagan antitrust had left Americans vulnerable to corporate abuse:

The paper sent seismic shocks through both legal and economic circles, and goosed the neo-Brandeisian movement (sneeringly dismissed as “hipster antitrust”). This movement is a rebuke to Reaganomics, with its celebration of monopolies, trickle-down, offshoring, corporate dark money, revolving-door regulatory capture, and companies that are simultaneously too big to fail and too big to jail.

This movement has many proponents, of course – not just Khan – but Khan’s careful scholarship, combined with her encyclopedic knowledge of the long-dormant statutory powers that federal agencies had to make change, and a strategy for reviving those powers to protect Americans from corporate predators made her a powerful, inspirational figure…

Great piece. Khan is a remarkable figure.

Books, etc.

One of my Malaysian Press Fellows gave me this, possibly because he knew I had once shaken hands with one of the key figures in the scam. (He was the Prime Minister of Malaysia at the time.) In my defence, the Mayor of London and the UK Home Secretary also shook hands with him that evening.

As for the book: it’s a riveting tale, skilfully told. Recommended as beach or poolside reading.

My commonplace booklet

  • “I knew Robert F. Kennedy, and you’re no Robert F. Kennedy.” Robert Reich on the ”dangerous nutcase” currently trading under the famous name.

  • A novel way of easing global warming — really white paint. Link


Some things I noticed, while trying to drink from the Internet firehose.

  • Why would you build a cloud DC in America’s hottest city? Why indeed? From The Register.

  • TikTok Extends the Wasteland The Hedgehog Review Link


The other day I attributed a quote to the New Yorker writer Bill McKibben. Sheila Hayman (Whom God Preserve) smelt a rat and referred me to Quote Inspector, which ruled as follows:

Dear Quote Investigator: The following quotation has been attributed to the writer and political commentator Gore Vidal:

“The four most beautiful words in the English language are “I told you so.”

Was this statement crafted by Vidal?

Quote Investigator: Gore Vidal did employ versions of this saying on multiple occasions. But the earliest strongly matching instance located by QI was spoken in the British House of Lords in 1953 by Lord Mancroft (Stormont Mancroft). Boldface has been added to excerpts:

”I should like to begin by thanking the noble Lord, Lord Silkin, for having given us the opportunity of discussing this matter this afternoon and also for the moderate and reasonable way in which he has put his point of view forward. Indeed, I should like to congratulate the noble Lord, also, on having successfully resisted the temptation to utter those happiest words in the English language, “I told you so.”

Mancroft used the adjective “happiest” instead of “most beautiful”, and he did not count the words, but the notion he expressed was very similar.

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Wednesday 19 July, 2023

Orwell: Politics and the French Language

Arles, 2010

Quote of the Day

”’I told you so’ are the four least satisfying words in the English language.”

  • Bill McKibben

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Richard Wagner | Tristan und Isolde, Prelude


‘Haunting’ is one word for it. ‘Beautiful’, another.

Long Read of the Day

 The New Media Goliaths

Interesting essay by the formidable Renée Diresta on how our media ecosystem has radically changed, how Chomsky’s ideas about ‘manufacturing consent’ need updating and why there is no such thing any more as ‘public opinion’ (singular)/

It’s the kind of essay that Neil Postman would have enjoyed (and about which he would have had views).

Books, etc.

Milan Kundera RIP: The Nobel Prize for Literature Winner We Never Had

The celebrated Czech novelist has died at the age of 94. Kate Webb had a nice obit of him in the Guardian. And Robin Ashenden in Quillette has a rounded assessment of him which ponders the question of why Kundera’s reputation had faded in recent decades. “You get the sense,” he writes,

that Kundera, whose novels for so long were required reading for anyone drawn to world literature, was being pushed firmly to the margins. Some of it surely was his writing on sex, which since the #MeToo movement was jarringly out of fashion. Kundera was avid about it in ways that, to the squeamish, now seemed less ground-breaking than a bit creepy, with lip-smacking descriptions of the female body and sundry deviant sex acts. But sex—which we’re no longer supposed to think or care about—represented a fraction of his themes and was arguably a legacy of the communist period, one of the few ways individuals could assert their liberty in a repressive state.

Or was it just that Kundera had become

a teller of truths inconvenient to the modern age, that his ruthless analysis of male-female relationships, his omniscient male voice and his dissection of sheep-like political movements were simply too close to the bone. More than almost any other writer, he seemed in his early work to foresee our own times: an atmosphere of growing intolerance and Rhinoceros-like groupthink that increasingly resembles the Soviet world we thought we’d left behind.

I particularly liked his Unbearable Lightness of Being and Philip Kaufman’s film of it.

My commonplace booklet

Was Napoleon Hot?

That’s the question asked by Luke Winkie in a piece in Slate triggered by the launch of the trailer for Ridley Scott’s forthcoming biopic of Boney.

Let’s get this out of the way up front: Napoleon Bonaparte was not short. Most contemporary sources put him at about 5-foot-6, typical of the average 19th-century Frenchman. He earned that apocryphal diminutive reputation from an English newspaper cartoonist named James Gillray at the dawn of the Napoleonic Wars. Gillray portrayed the emperor as a stormy, teensy-tiny toddler—flipping tables, stomping his feet—a likeness that swiftly became canonized across the world.

All of this is to say that the dimensions of Joaquin Phoenix (5-foot-8) fit neatly into a historically authentic Bonapartian silhouette, which is surely why Ridley Scott tapped him to play the leading man in the forthcoming epic Napoleon. What is less clear is whether or not Napoleon possessed the striking movie-star good looks—and almost uncanny facial symmetry—of someone like Phoenix. Scott certainly seems intent on making us think so. The first trailer for the film was released on Monday, giving us an initial taste of Joaquin in full Grande Armée regalia. I watched it over and over again, stuck on the same burning question. “Wait a minute, am I supposed to think that Napoleon was hot?”

As it happens I have a dog in this fight: I’m 5’6” and definitely not hot.

Was Boris Johnson undemocratically removed from Parliament?

In a word (well, a splendid blog post by Mark Elliott, a distinguished public law scholar), No.

Although Johnson chose to avail himself of no part of it, there is a clear and carefully constructed system for dealing with situations in which MPs are found to have engaged in certain forms of misconduct that sound either in criminal conviction or suspension from the House of Commons for a period that signals the seriousness of the wrongdoing that has been established. We can also see that this system is not undemocratic. That is so for two reasons. First, the system is rooted in both the processes of the House of Commons and in legislation enacted by Parliament, and which therefore necessarily enjoys a democratic imprimatur. Second, not only is the system underpinnedby arrangements that were put in place democratically; the system also exhibits several democratic characteristics: the Committee cannot suspend, let alone remove, an MP; suspension can occur only if supported by a majority of MPs in the House of Commons; a recall petition is subject to the requirement of the support of 10 per of voters in the MP’s constituency; and the MP is free to stand in the resulting by-election should the recall petition succeed.

That Johnson was not undemocratically or otherwise improperly ‘forced out’ of Parliament is thus an argument that can be made out quite straightforwardly and without taking any position on the egregiousness or otherwise of Johnson’s conduct — whether in terms of the acknowledged rule-breaking at the heart of Partygate or his subsequent statements to the House of Commons and the Committee of Privileges. The contrary narrative, according to which Johnson was undemocratically ejected from Parliament, is both deeply flawed and highly corrosive. Indeed, its post-truth character means that it can be described as Trumpian without any risk of hyperbole.


Thanks to Quentin for alerting me to it.

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Monday 17 July, 2023

A rose by any other name…

… would smell as sweet.

Quote of the Day

”While Twitter felt like a rowdy pub at chucking-out time, Threads feels like a corporate box at a concert.”

  • Helen Lewis, writing about her social media experiences.

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Fats Domino | Red sails in the sunset


Famous song with an interesting history. It was written by the Northern Irish songwriter Jimmy Kennedy. According to the FT’s ‘Life of a Song’ column, it came about because one evening in the mid-1930s Kennedy saw the sloop, Kitty of Coleraine, sailing off the resort of Portstewart during a magnificent sunset. As he watched, he saw the boat’s white sails take on the colour of the setting sun. The rest, as they say, is history. It was the biggest hit of the 2,000 songs Kennedy wrote during his career.

Long Read of the Day

Talking about a ‘schism’ is ahistorical

Terrific essay by Emily Bender on the way the current discourse on the supposed ‘existential risk’ posed by ‘AI’ manages to avoid the really important questions — and ignores everything we already know about existing harms of the technology.

The problem with the ‘schism’ framing is that to talk about a ‘schism’ is to talk about something that once was a whole and now is broken apart — authors that use this metaphor thus imply that such a whole once existed. But this is emphatically not a story of a community that once shared concerns and now is broken into disagreeing camps. Rather, there are two separate threads — only one of which can properly be called a body of scholarship — that are being held up as in conversation or in competition with each other. I think this forced pairing comes in part from the media trying to fit the recent AI doomer PR pushes into a broader narrative and in part from the fact that there is competition for a limited resource: policymaker attention…

This is an important and perceptive essay by one of the sharpest minds around. And it provides a welcome antidote against the fake dichotomies about ‘AI’ currently being peddled by mainstream media and the tech industry.

Howard Jacobson has a blog

He’s a very good writer but an online virgin, and is therefore new to this game.

I haven’t jumped out of an aeroplane but I doubt it would be as frightening as this.

Until today I have never digitally posted anything. I have never blogged. I have never tweeted. I have never cyber-liked or cyber-disliked or sent an emoji, though I did once try to send one back. I am a stranger to WhatsApp and neither chat nor date.

In his first post, he decided that maybe he should become a flaneur like Baudelaire, and walk the streets of the city where he lives – in his case, London:

Last week, in this spirit of being simultaneously inside myself and out of it, I took to the streets. Does that sound revolutionary? Well for me it was. ‘Stay out of your head,’ I chided myself in advance. ‘Pretend this is the party you would never go to as a boy.’ And lo, as though by miracle, as I crossed from Mortimer Street into Great Portland Street the life I had come in search of, came in search of me – a very small woman, dressed in a miniature leather jacket and flimsy polka-dot shorts, pushing a very big pram. I remembered that Dickens had noted a similar sight on one of his perambulations across London, then I reprimanded myself for letting literature nudge out life. ‘Look at the mother,’ I said. ‘Let yourself be touched by the arduousness of her life – a child to look after and she scarcely bigger than a child herself.’ Why, even at first glance, was she so affecting? And then she stopped to lean into the pram and soothe the crying baby. ‘Any more of that and I’ll be taking you home,’ she said, firmly but not without kindness. And as, with tremendous effort, she lifted the baby out to make it more comfortable, I saw that she was not a mother but a little girl, no more than eight or nine years old herself. The sister of the child? Who knew? A host of questions: was she walking the baby to give the actual mother an hour off; had the actual mother died or run away leaving this little girl with a baby to look after for the rest of her childhood; was her tiny body strong enough for the task of caring for a child; was she resentful or was she consumed with love for the occupant of the pram and delighted to be trusted with it; was this a sorrowful tale or a happy one?

Once a writer, always a writer.

My commonplace booklet

  • In Friday’s edition I mused about how long it would take for someone to upload the entire Old Testament corpus into an LLM. Thanks to Sheila Hayman (Whom God Preserve), I now know that Meta has already done it for the New Testament!
  • Gadgets and Gizmos That Inspired Adam SmithLink. Hmmm…. I’m a gadget freak and no sooner had I read this than I turned out to the contents of my trouser pocket, which consisted of a tiny fountain pen, and a mechanical pencil, both of which go everywhere with me and don’t require me to wear shirts with pockets! So I’m in no position to patronise Adam Smith’s contemporaries.


Some things I noticed, while trying to drink from the Internet firehose.

  • The Fasinatng… Fascinating History of Autocorrect Link

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Friday 14 July, 2023

Cool dude & lady friend

Arles, June 25th.

Quote of the Day

“It is not that the Englishman can’t feel — it is that he is afraid to feel. He has been taught at his public school that feeling is bad form. He must not express great joy or sorrow, or even open his mouth too wide when he talks — his pipe might fall out if he did.”

  • E.M. Forster

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Mozart | Don Giovanni | ‘Là ci darem la mano’


In Mozart, as in life, the devil generally gets the best tunes.

Long Read of the Day

Elite US universities are reputation-laundering machines

That, at any rate, is the takeaway I found in this marvellous essay by Scott Alexander. As someone who thinks of Harvard as a hedge-fund with a nice university attached it was music to my ears. Here’s a sample that sets the tone:

Suppose you own a very successful family business. You can leave your son your fortune, you can leave him the business, you can leave him your mansion, but you can’t (directly) leave him an aura of having deserved all these things. What you can do is make a $10 million donation to Harvard in exchange for them accepting your son. Your son gets a Harvard degree, a universally-recognized sign of being a highly meritorious person. Then when you leave him the business, everyone will agree he deserves it. Who said anything about nepotism? Leaving a Harvard graduate in control of your business is an excellent decision!

This happens a little, but I think it mostly isn’t this obvious. More often the transactions are for abstract goods: prestige, associations, favors. The Maharaja of Whereverstan sends his daughter to Harvard so that she appears meritorious. In exchange, Harvard gets the credibility boost of being the place the Maharaja of Whereverstan sent his daughter. And Harvard’s other students get the advantage of networking with the Princess Of Whereverstan. Twenty years later, when one of them is an oil executive and Whereverstan is handing out oil contracts, she puts in a word with her old college buddy the Princess and gets the deal. It’s obvious what the oil executive has gotten out of this, but what does the Princess get? I think she gets the right to say she went to Harvard, an honor which is known to go mostly to the meritorious.

People ask why Harvard admissions can still be bribed or influenced by the rich or well-connected. This is the wrong question: the right question is why they ever give spots based on merit at all. The answer is: otherwise the scheme wouldn’t work. The point of a money-laundering operation is to take in both fairly-earned and dirty money, then mix them together so thoroughly that nobody can tell which is which. Likewise, the point of a privilege-laundering operation is to take in both fairly-earned and dirty privilege, then stamp both with a Harvard degree. “Fairly-earned privilege” means all the brilliant talented ambitious youngsters admitted on the basis of their SAT scores and grades and impressive accomplishments; “dirty privilege” means the kids of various old-money aristocrats, foreign potentates, and ordinary super-rich people. Colleges mix them together, with advantages for both groups.

Do read it. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

Important appointments

Free Speech Tsar

Wonderful blog post by Kieran Healy.

The news that Arif Ahmed is to be appointed the UK’s first ‘Free Speech Tsar’ — a position that apparently comes with “the power to investigate universities and student unions in England and Wales that wrongly restrict debate” and to “advise the sector regulator on imposing fines for free speech breaches” — is disappointing for various reasons. One of them (not the most important one) is that it suggests Britain’s capacity to name things continues to decline. To see this once-great country reach for a foreign title that not only originates with one second-rate empire trying to recall the glory of the Romans but that was first popularized as a job-title within the administrative apparatus of another is really quite sad, given that England has so many equally preposterous but largely home-grown (or at least Norman French) titles available right on its own doorstep. It’s a scandal, really. A kind of Tsargate, if you will.

Here I present a few alternatives of my own…

They’re wonderful. I particularly liked:

  • The Duke of Discourse.
  • Warden of All Chit-Chat.
  • Gold Stick To The Point.
  • The Earl of Axiom.
  • The Keeper of the King’s Premises.

Britain, remember, has a member of the Royal Household called “Silver Stick in Waiting”. And no, I did not make that up. And he’s the deputy to — yes, you guessed it — Gold Stick in Waiting. (Who is currently Princess Anne.)

Chart of the Day

The context windows of LLMs – the amounts of text that models can process and respond to – are growing rapidly. In Q2, Anthropic released a new, 100k-token version of its model Claude. Thanks to its massive context window, Claude can process the entirety of The Great Gatsby and answer questions about it in 30 seconds.

This is really interesting. The capacity (and therefore usefulness) of LLMs seems to be increasing very quickly. No doubt someone already has a plan to upload the whole of the Old Testament into Claude!

Source: Azeem Azhar’s newsletter.

My commonplace booklet

I hate to say this but I found this piece about John le Carré, published in The Mail Online in 2011, fascinating. I think it was timed to coincide with the release of the film version os his Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy novel. Which reminds me, I need to see the film, if only to compare it with the TV series that starred Alec Guinness as George Smiley.


Some things I noticed, while trying to drink from the Internet firehose.

  • Evernote, the memory app people forgot about, lays off its entire US staff — Ars Technica. I used it for years, until better stuff came along.

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Wednesday 12 July, 2023

Le Penseur

Well, not quite what Rodin had in mind, but what the hell.

Quote of the Day

“What makes the war on terror different from other wars is that victory has never been based on achieving a positive outcome; the goal has been to prevent a negative one. In this war, victory doesn’t come when you destroy your adversary’s army or seize its capital. It occurs when something does not happen. How, then, do you declare victory? How do you prove a negative? “

  • Eliot Ackerman, write in Foreign Affairs in his reflections on being a CIA agent.

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

MonaLisa Twins | Mercedes Benz | (Janis Joplin Cover)


Long Read of the Day

Demographics drive history

That, at any rate, is my reading of this absorbing essay by Yi Fuxian of Project Syndicate.

The deterioration in US-China relations is ultimately due to the bilateral trade imbalance and to US frustration with Chinese politics. Both can be traced back to China’s one-child policy, which was in place from 1980 to 2016.

When Western leaders welcomed China into the World Trade Organization in 2001, most assumed that they were creating the conditions for eventual democratization. A growing Chinese middle class, they assumed, would demand greater accountability from the government, ultimately creating so much pressure that the autocrats would step aside and allow for a democratic transition. This political fantasy underpinned the Sino-American relationship for decades.

But it wasn’t to be. The Communist Party of China (CPC) has been regressing on all fronts, reasserting more top-down control over the economy and tightening censorship and other forms of social and political control. It has been led down this path by the legacy of the one-child policy, which fundamentally reshaped the country’s demographics and economy…

I learned a lot from this, which is why I think it’s worth your attention. It also helps to explain why we in the West have so often been wrong about China.

The best and worst case scenarios for sea level rise

Bad news for future generations (and indeed some current ones too) in this Guardian ‘explainer’.

Part of the problem is the that even if the world stopped emitting greenhouse gases immediately – which it will not – sea levels would continue to rise. Even in the best-case scenario, it’s too late to hold back the ocean.

The reason for this is not widely known, outside the science community, but is crucial. The systems causing sea level rise – specifically, the thermal expansion of the ocean and the melting of glaciers and ice sheets due to global heating – have a centuries-long time lag.

My commonplace booklet

Musée des Beaux Arts

WH Auden, 1938.

About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along

How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.

In Brueghel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

I’ve always loved this poem. What brought it to mind today was the contrast between Western media’s obsession with the Titan submersible at the same time that they were paying little attention to the sinking of the migrant boat off the coast of Greece.


Contrary to my claim in Monday’s edition that Ed Fredkin, the great computer scientist, had died at the age of ’1988’, he was in fact a mere 88 years of age. Apologies to all, and thanks to the readers who tactfully pointed this out.

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Monday June 10, 2023

Provence, sans eau

Normally, this fountain provides endless amusement for kids on a hot day. But not at the moment: Provence, like many other places around the world, is short of water.

Quote of the Day

A great way to understand yourself is to seriously reflect on everything you find irritating in others.”

  • Kevin Kelly

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Mark Knopfler | Telegraph Road | Dijon 2013


Long Read of the Day

‘Why I might have done what I did’: conversations with Ireland’s most notorious murderer.


Riveting. And see below for a review of the book.

Edward Fredkin, RIP

A remarkable computer scientist has passed away at the age of 88. He had an astonishing life and career which is nicely chronicled in a very good NYT obit. It includes this remarkable photograph of four central figures in the history of computing.

Books, etc.

Killer in a cravat

Nice review by Ruth Dudley Edwards of Mark O’Connell’s A Thread of Violence: A Story of Truth, Invention, and Murder, a biography of a double murderer who was once at the centre of a political scandal in 1980s Ireland.

‘And so it was that, on the evening of August 4, 1982,’ writes Mark O’Connell halfway through this gripping portrait of double killer Malcolm Macarthur, ‘the Irish government’s most senior legal official had his housekeeper prepare the spare room for his friend, a man who had just days previously murdered two strangers, and who had that very evening botched an armed robbery at the home of an acquaintance.’

The police arrested Macarthur at the flat nine days later. The morning after, the innocent and bewildered attorney general, Patrick Connolly, having cleared it with the police and Charles Haughey, the Taoiseach, set off for a long-planned holiday in New York. The story had broken by the time he arrived. Ireland was in uproar and Connolly was hounded by reporters (the New York Post would run the headline ‘Irish Biggie Flees Here After Slay Scandal’). Haughey summoned him back to Dublin, where he resigned from the tottering government. Haughey described it as ‘a bizarre happening, an unprecedented situation, a grotesque situation, an almost unbelievable mischance’. Haughey’s merciless enemy Conor Cruise O’Brien shuffled his adjectives to create the acronym by which the murders are still known: GUBU.

Hmmm… Interesting. I just might have to buy the book.

If Threads is the final nail in Twitter’s coffin, where will the hacks and politicos go?

My column in yesterday’s Observer:

the hucksters are still staying away. As of February this year, more than half of Twitter’s leading 1,000 advertisers before the acquisition had stopped advertising on the platform. And, according to the New York Times, Twitter’s US advertising revenue for the five weeks from 1 April to the first week of May was $88m, which is 59% lower than a year earlier. All of which makes it tempting to interpret what’s happening to Twitter as the beginning of a death spiral.

Coupled to this is the fact that increasing chaos on the platform has led to an exodus to a range of services such as Mastodon, Reddit, Discord, LinkedIn, Substack’s Notes and the invite-only Bluesky Social, a Twitter-like platform developed by Jack Dorsey (a co-founder of Twitter) – and, from last week, Instagram Threads, courtesy of Meta. It goes without saying that all these alternatives have pros and cons: all have some Twitter-like features, but none of them looks to me like a proper replacement for it. And Meta’s product comes with the company’s usual comprehensive surveillance.

In that respect, the most significant thing about the exodus is that there is one particular class of user who doesn’t seem to have joined it – professional journalists and politicians, for whom Twitter seems to remain an absolutely must-have service…

Do read the entire piece.

Dangerous metaphors

I’m fascinated by metaphors and often use them as a way of introducing unfamiliar ideas to an audience. But they can sometimes be both convincing and dangerously misleading, as this example from the Johnson column in The Economist nicely illustrates.

Some metaphors are more persuasive—and more dangerous. Take the metaphor of a “deal”. Typically, if a deal is rejected, the status quo ante obtains, notes Anand Menon of King’s College London. Brexiteers believe that, to get a better “deal”, Britain should just stay cool and be willing to walk away. “No deal is better than a bad deal,” some claim.

That would be true if Brexit were like buying a second-hand car. You size up the vehicle, hoping not to spend all of the £5,000 in your pocket. But the dealer wants the lot. You walk away; he still has his car, you still have your £5,000. But this is not the case with a no-deal Brexit. Supply lines, trade links and more would be disturbed. You don’t keep the £5,000. You end up with less—and no car. Which, metaphorically speaking, is what has happened to the UK.

My commonplace booklet

On Friday I reported on my jaundiced reaction to Meta’s Twitter-clone, Threads.

Jason Gilbert had a more eloquent reaction. Using Threads was, he said, “Like a $19 turkey sandwich at an airport”.

Warming to the topic, he says…

  • Threads feels like when a local restaurant you enjoy opens a location in an airport.
  • It feels like a Twitter alternative you would order from Brookstone.
  • It feels like if an entire social network was those posts that tell you what successful entrepreneurs do before 6AM.
  • It feels like watching a Powerpoint from the Brand Research team where they tell you that Pop Tarts is crushing it on social.
  • It feels like Casual Friday on LinkedIn.

On the other hand…

My friend Charles Arthur, who’s one of the most perceptive tech critics I know, had a different reaction.

On Wednesday night UK time, working late, I installed the Threads app on my phone, found it had signed in to my personal Instagram account, and went to bed. At 7am on Thursday morning, when the Do Not Disturb setting turned off automatically, my Apple Watch started making occasional BOINGG noises. Usually those mean some sort of news story, so I dozed on. But the noises kept on coming, and eventually I thought something worth investigating must be happening. Turned out that Threads was sending a notification to my Watch every time someone started following me. And they were doing so with a surprising regularity and intensity.

So I opened the app in my befuddled state and took a look at what was going on. And there I saw something that I hadn’t seen for absolutely ages; for years and years, in fact. I scrolled and scrolled, and there was one emotion on show: people were happy. They were making jokes, laughing in text. The screen was full of joy.

His view is that because Instagram has a billion users, and Threads is hooked into that, its arrival means that Twitter is now in terminal trouble.

Here’s how Charles sums it up:

It was like that all over the place. People were delighted to have somewhere new to use where everyone already seemed to be there. Apparently there were 30 million signups within the first few hours, and by the end of its first day there were 95 million posts. That’s a lot of happiness. Because Threads seems, despite its rudimentary state (no bookmarking, strange URL structure, no content search, algorithm-only timeline), to have all the things people want from Twitter, but without, well, being Twitter.

What it comes down to, I suppose, is that some people like social media and some can’t abide it. And I’m in the latter camp.


Some things I noticed, while trying to drink from the Internet firehose.

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!