Wednesday 29 November, 2023

The ‘alignment’ problem

Nice cover of the New Yorker’s special issue on AI.

Quote of the Day

”We are here on Earth to help others. What on earth the others are here for I do not know”

  • W. H. Auden

I wonder who the ’we’ were in this context.

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Bert Jansch | Crimson Moon


Thanks to Andrew Curry for alerting me to it.

Long Read of the Day

 Hitler, the Hotel Guest

Nice counterpoint to the dilemma that faced the ‘altruistic’ Board of OpenAI as they contemplated the question of whether to continue to provide accommodation for their own, er, challenging resident.

In February 1931, two years before he became chancellor, Adolf Hitler checked in to Berlin’s Hotel Kaiserhof and made it his headquarters in the capital. The building soon swarmed with Nazis, who transformed the clientele overnight. Jewish custom evaporated. Business suffered. A year and a half later, with revenues in freefall, the hotel’s parent company needed to act. Its board, majority Jewish, took up the issue at a meeting on September 15, 1932. The question facing them: What are we going to do about Hitler?

And in this case Hitler didn’t stand in for Nazism more generally. No, these Jewish Germans were discussing what to do with the physical, living, embodied Hitler. Should they kick him out and face the consequences? Should they let him stay and face the consequences?

Books, etc.

Daniel Miller is a distinguished anthropologist who has written very insightfully about technology and its place in our lives. His new book, which arrived on my doorstep yesterday afternoon, looks interesting. It’s a kind of ongoing dialogue between, on the one hand, the thinking of philosophers about ‘the good life’ and, on the other, an enthnography of a small Irish town (named ‘Cuan’, but I guess that everyone in Ireland will already have cracked that code) in which people are living ‘the good enough life’. I’m looking forward to chairing an Ireland’s Edge event next weekend in my favourite Irish town — Dingle — and am bringing the book as a way of tuning in.

My commonplace booklet

From Monday’s Washington Post

For years, it seems, we’ve talked about the erosion of the “cordon sanitaire” in Western politics. Far-right parties have been making steady inroads into parliaments across Europe. Some factions descended from explicitly neofascist movements. Others embraced a set of extremist views once considered beyond the pale on a continent still largely defined by a 20th-century liberal-democratic consensus, born out of the traumas of World War II. Even as the far right’s vote shares and ranks of elected lawmakers grew, more mainstream parties vowed to never form alliances with them or enable their entry into government.

But in the 21st century, Europe’s far right is firmly ensconced in the mainstream, and reflects political attitudes no longer harbored simply by a fringe minority. The Dutch parliamentary election last week offered the clearest evidence yet of the new status quo…


Something I noticed, while drinking from the Internet firehose.

User read the manual, still couldn’t make ‘Excel’ work”. Lovely story in The Register by a guy who used to work in IT support (which IMO is one of the most demanding jobs one can do.)


From George Brooke:

Further to your recent piece which mentions scanning of books, I came across a reference to this in George Dyson’s Turing’s Cathedral. At a visit which Dyson made to Google headquarters in California, Dyson asked an engineer whether the scanning of the books was for them to be read by people. The answer came that the scanning was not for people, but for them to be read by an AI. This was in October 2005!

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Monday 27 November, 2023

Ce n’est pas une fenêtre

Intriguing feature on an internal wall of St Mary’s Church, Cong, Co Mayo.

With apologies to René Magritte.

Quote of the Day

“A guy walks into a pub with a lump of asphalt on his shoulder and says to the barman, give us a pint and one for the road.”

  • Tommy Cooper

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Bach | Motet Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied BWV 225 – MacLeod | Netherlands Bach Society


From the notes accompanying the recording:

“A complete orchestra should be added to this”, wrote Mozart on his copy of Bach’s motet ‘Singet dem Herrn’, performed here by the Netherlands Bach Society for All of Bach. He was very enthusiastic about the piece, which was performed as a surprise when he visited the Thomasschule in Leipzig, in 1789. At his request, Mozart was given a copy of it. In his account of the event ten years later, Johann Friedrich Rochlitz says that Mozart even shouted “Now there’s something you can learn from!

Recorded for the project All of Bach on May 14th 2016 at the Grote Kerk, Naarden.

Long Read of the Day

Meet the curator of the human future

Many moons ago, the New Yorker ran a prescient profile of Sam Altman, the guy Microsoft has now installed as the force of nature who will get us to AGI — superintelligent machines — while all the while bleating about their dangers. After the recent chaotic upheavals at OpenAI it makes for interesting reading. And it ain’t reassuring.


“Well, I like racing cars,” Altman said. “I have five, including two McLarens and an old Tesla. I like flying rented planes all over California. Oh, and one odd one — I prep for survival.” Seeing their bewilderment, he explained, “My problem is that when my friends get drunk they talk about the ways the world will end. After a Dutch lab modified the H5N1 bird-flu virus, five years ago, making it super contagious, the chance of a lethal synthetic virus being released in the next twenty years became, well, nonzero. The other most popular scenarios would be A.I. that attacks us and nations fighting with nukes over scarce resources.” The Shypmates looked grave. “I try not to think about it too much,” Altman said. “But I have guns, gold, potassium iodide, antibiotics, batteries, water, gas masks from the Israeli Defense Force, and a big patch of land in Big Sur I can fly to.”

Altman’s mother, a dermatologist named Connie Gibstine, told me, “Sam does keep an awful lot tied up inside. He’ll call and say he has a headache—and he’ll have Googled it, so there’s some cyber-chondria in there, too. I have to reassure him that he doesn’t have meningitis or lymphoma, that it’s just stress.” If the pandemic does come, Altman’s backup plan is to fly with his friend Peter Thiel, the billionaire venture capitalist, to Thiel’s house in New Zealand. Thiel told me, “Sam is not particularly religious, but he is culturally very Jewish—an optimist yet a survivalist, with a sense that things can always go deeply wrong, and that there’s no single place in the world where you’re deeply at home.”

You get the point. Read on.

(Paul Graham, a shrewd observer of people — who promoted Altman to run his YC “accelerator” — once observed that “You could parachute him into an island full of cannibals and come back in five years and he’d be the king.”)

Preserving our digital content won’t come cheap

Yesterday’s Observer column

Way back in 2004 the two founders of Google, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, thought that it would be a cool idea to scan all the printed books in the world and make them available online. This was at the time when their company’s motto (apart from the guff about not being evil) was to “organise all the world’s information”. Given that the obvious places to look for large collections of books are university libraries, they decided to start there, so they set out to persuade university librarians to let them scan their holdings.

One of the first institutions they approached was a very large American university: they went to visit its librarian and found him very supportive of their ambitious project. Accordingly, the deal was easily sealed. Afterwards, though, the boys noticed that their librarian friend seemed pensive, and so asked him what was wrong. “Nothing’s wrong,” he replied. “I’m just wondering how we can ensure that these scans will be available to readers in 400 years’ time when Google is no longer around. Because it won’t be.” When the librarian told me the story, he remarked that the two lads looked astonished: the thought that Google might be mortal seemed never to have occurred to them. But of course he was right: the lives of most corporations are short…

Read on

Books, etc.

For family reasons I need to know more about Australia and so happened on Bill Bryson’s book, thinking that it might be a jocular romp around a faraway country about which I knew little. In fact it turns out to be a pretty readable and serious exploration of a unique continent-cum-country. On my first flight to it I remember looking out of the aircraft window and spotting the coast of northern Australia and thinking “oh good, we’re nearly there” (Sydney, our destination). I then spent four hours staring out of the window at brown featureless wastes. Bryson drove to and through many of these wastes in an automobile, and his record of what he discovered and learned was an eye-opener, at least for me.

My commonplace booklet

The best introduction to LLMs (Large Language Models).

Terrific one-hour video by Andrej Karpathy of OpenAI. His slides are also available as a PDF file.

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Friday 24 November, 2023

The Handover

David Runciman, discussing his new book with Helen Lewis in the Cambridge Union last Sunday. See below for a transcript of their conversation.

Quote of the Day

”Good fiction’s job is to comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable.”

  • Slogan on a bookshop’s tote bag

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Van Morrison | Brown Eyed Girl


I’d forgotten how nice this is.

Long Read of the Day

Transcript of the conversation between Helen Lewis and DR on Sunday last.

Helen Lewis

Silicon Valley, which is about building systems and algorithms, is also struggling still with the Great Man theory of history. And I think that’s fascinating. What is the worth of OpenAI without Sam Altman? Is the product the thing or is actually the evangelism of him and what he represents? Which is the same question I think we’re having about “What is Tesla or SpaceX or Twitter/X without Elon Musk?” or “What is Meta without Mark Zuckerberg?”

You touched on this in the book, that we want these things to have agency. So we often find it convenient to assign that all to a person. We want Mark Zuckerberg to be sitting there with a big dial marked racism, turning it up and down on Facebook, rather than it being a chaotic outcome of very complicated systems that have gone beyond the human brain to understand.

David Runciman

One of the themes of my book is that in a mysterious world of all sorts of complicated kinds of agents, we look for the human decision-makers because we’re more comfortable with that. But that does also feed into this creation myth in Silicon Valley.

Silicon Valley would like us to believe that the most successful companies are successful because the people who came up with the idea are the smartest people: Mark Zuckerberg in his dorm room, a man in a shed who has an idea. And it’s such a brilliant idea that it takes over the world. And that is just not true. You can have the most brilliant idea, and if you’re just one person, you will not take over anything but your shed. What takes over the world is the corporate structure that’s built around it….

For ease of reading here’s a pdf of the transcript.

Sam Altman was the trusted face of AI. OpenAI though, is much more complex

My OpEd in last Sunday’s Observer about the strange goings-on at OpenAI, written at a moment where it was entirely unclear what had happened, but seeking an explanation in the convoluted structure of the company. Even with the 20-20 vision of hindsight, it seems that I got to the heart of the matter: if there’s a conflict between ethical concerns and the profit motive, in neoliberal capitalism the latter always wins.

Given that ever since ChatGPT took the world by storm last December, Altman has been the photogenic poster-boy for generative AI – the darling of the mainstream media and an honoured invitee to the corridors of western power – news of his sudden fall from grace launched a torrent of excited speculation in the tech commentariat. Nobody, it seems, actually knew anything, but there was a consensus that Something Was Up.

No doubt we will get to the bottom of the mystery in due course, but for now a more productive line of inquiry might be into the corporate history of OpenAI. For if one wanted to design an ownership structure with conflicts of interest and of responsibility built into it, its byzantine arrangements would be hard to beat….

Books, etc.

Tyler Cowen’s list of the best non-fiction books of 2023.

Hmmm… 28 books and I’ve only read two of them. Sigh.

My commonplace booklet

Cass Sunstein: Why I Am A Liberal

(Or, “34 Theses about my beliefs”.)

NYT column by Samathha Power’s husband arguing that there’s an urgent need for a clear understanding of liberalism — “of its core commitments, of its breadth, of its internal debates, of its evolving character, of its promise, of what it is and what it can be”. I agree about the need. Am not so sure about some of his propositions. Still, the column is an interesting attempt at an explanation, in the form of 34 sets of claims about liberalism.

The final one reads:

Liberals look forward as well as backward. They like to think that the arc of history bends toward justice. William F. Buckley Jr. said that his preferred form of conservatism “stands athwart history, yelling, Stop.” Liberals ask history to explain its plans, and they are prepared to whisper, “Go.”

John Cochrane writes a friendly, if somewhat detached, counterpoint to the essay.


Dolly Parton (Whom God Preserve) has a new album out. It includes this lovely version of Prince’s song, Purple Rain.

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Wednesday 22 November, 2023

A president comes home

JFK’s motorcade, driving down Shop Street in Galway, 29 June, 1963.

Quote of the Day

“It was almost impossible to believe that he was anything but a down-at-heel actor resting between engagements at the decrepit theatres of minor provincial towns.”

  • Bernard Levin on Harold Macmillan (UK Prime Minister 1957-63).

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Marilyn Monroe singing Happy Birthday & Thanks For The Memories to JFK on May 29, 1962


Just over two months later (on August 4), she was dead.

Long Read of the Day

The Secrets of the JFK Assassination Documents

This is a deep dive by Scott Sayare down one of the great rabbit-holes of the 20th century — the question of whether there was a conspiracy to murder JFK in Dallas on November 22, 1963.

Three of the seven members of the Warren Commission eventually disavowed its findings, as did President Johnson. In 1979, after a thoroughgoing reinvestigation, the House Select Committee on Assassinations officially concluded that Kennedy “was probably assassinated as a result of a conspiracy.” But such findings seemed not to penetrate. “In view of the overwhelming evidence that Oswald could not have acted alone (if he acted at all), the most remarkable feature of the assassination is not the abundance of conspiracy theories,” Christopher Lasch, the historian and social critic, remarked in Harper’s, “but the rejection of a conspiracy theory by the ‘best and brightest.’” For complex reasons of history, psychology, and politics, within the American Establishment it remained inadvisable to speak of conspiracy unless you did not mind being labeled a kook.

The question still retains its capacity to fascinate, and this long essay makes for interesting reading. It seems to be boosted by Barbara Shearer’s documentary, What the Doctors Saw, made by convening the physicians who were present in the Parkland Memorial Hospital’s emergency room to which Kennedy was brought after the shooting. The consensus of the medics was that one of bullet wounds in the President’s throat was an entrance wound, which implies that there was another assassin on the famous grassy knoll shooting from the front, as well as Oswald shooting from the Book Depository building from behind.

The trailer for Shearer’s film is here. The movie is streamed on Paramount, to which I don’t have access.

Books, etc.

Ten Reasons why you should read John Stuart Mill’s autobiography

Interesting blog post by Henry Oliver.

Here are the first three:

1.It’s a story about getting out of your intellectual and moral bubble, taking the people you disagree with seriously, and learning from them how to adjust your own deeply held beliefs.

2.Mill had several periods of depression, possibly related to his childhood and the way his father treated him. His remedy was a combination of outward exertion, self-discipline, and cultivating his artistic and naturalistic enjoyments.

3.The Romantic idea that you should “discover yourself” and become the best person you can become is treated very seriously by Mill. Along with the first two, this is one of the main cultural topics of our time.

Keep going…

Chart of the Day

Last Saturday (November 18), the planet’s temperature went past the 2.0 degree Celsius barrier for the first time. It’s temporary — but it’s also a reminder that we’re now in the end game for global warming.

(From Bill McGibben’s blog.)

My commonplace booklet

The Umbrella Man

Errol Morris’s lovely video on a conspiracy theory that wasn’t.

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Monday 20 November, 2023

If there’s one thing to be said for single-glazing…

… it’s nice photo opportunities when one wakes up.

Quote of the Day

”Every decent man is ashamed of the government he lives under.”

  • H.L. Mencken

Relevant to the UK at the present time.

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Van Morrison | Days Like This


One of my all-time favourite songs. It’s so beautifully orchestrated.

Long Read of the Day

 Silicon Valley Fairy Dust

Lovely essay on the Crooked Timber blog by Sherry Turkle.

Silicon Valley companies began life with the Fairy dust of 1960s dreams sprinkled on them. The revolution that 1960s activists dreamed of had failed, but the personal computer movement carried that dream onto the early personal computer industry. Hobbyist fairs, a communitarian language, and the very place of their birth encouraged this fantasy. Nevertheless, it soon became clear that, like all companies, what these companies wanted most of all, was to make money. Not to foster democracy, not to foster community and new thinking, but to make money.

Making money with digital tools in neoliberal capitalism led to four practices that constituted a baseline ideology-in-practice…

Read on. It’s about the way Silicon Valley suggests that technology will cure social problems, while exacerbating the social problems it claims its connectivity will cure. Turkle is one of the great humanistic critics of technology.

Taylorism 2.1 is coming to the workplace

Yesterday’s Observer column

There are,” F Scott Fitzgerald once observed, “no second acts in American lives.” Except when there are. Exhibit A in this connection is Frederick Winslow Taylor (1856-1915), the founder of a religion originally called “scientific management” and now colloquially known as Taylorism. Its founder believed that there was no such thing as skilled work, only “work”, and that all work could be analysed the same way. His idea, set out in The Principles of Scientific Management (1911), was that every worker should be trained into new working habits “until he continually and habitually works in accordance with scientific laws, which have been developed by some one else”, such as managers or time-and-motion experts.

The formula could be boiled down to this: stopwatch plus coercion minus trade unions, and in an age of mass production, it created the world memorably satirised by Charlie Chaplin in his film Modern Times. The management guru Peter Drucker once wrote that Taylor should be ranked with Charles Darwin, Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud as one of the “makers of the modern world”.

Taylor died in 1915, but – guess what? – he’s back, with an updated formula in which the stopwatch has been replaced by the algorithm and coercion by one-sided contracts. The aversion to unionisation remains, though. Plus ça change.

Do read the whole piece.

My commonplace booklet

Daring Fireball: Vision Pro, Spatial Video, and Panoramic Photos

Spoiler alert: this may be of interest only to those interested in technology, photography and Apple’s forthcoming Vision Pro headset.

I found it interesting because I tick all those boxes, and also because I have found Jon Gruber to be a good guide to this stuff. I’m particularly interested in what Apple is doing with the iPhone camera.

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Friday 17 November, 2023

Wood Henge?

Thornham, Norfolk the other day.

Quote of the Day

”Because of the impropriety of entertaining guests of the opposite sex in the bedroom, it is suggested that the lobby be used for this purpose.”

  • Hotel Notice, Zurich

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Wagner – Siegfried Idyll (Proms 2012)


Long Read of the Day

Oops! We Automated Bullshit

Nice blog post by Alan Blackwell, whose day job is representing the Humanities in an elite Computer Science department. It’s tough work but someone’s got to do it.

This post appears in a blog created in 2019 to focus on AI in Africa. Long before the release of ChatGPT, many wondered why AI would be relevant to Africans. But I’m writing in a week when US President Biden published an executive order on AI, and British PM Rishi Sunak listened enthusiastically to Elon Musk promising a magical AI future where nobody needs to work. When the richest man in the world talks up a storm with NATO leaders, Africa will get blown around in those political and economic winds.

Since my fieldwork in Africa, I’ve learned to ask different questions about AI, and in recent months, I’ve started to feel like the boy who questions the emperor’s new clothes. The problem I see, apparently not reported in coverage of Sunak’s AI Summit, is that AI literally produces bullshit.

Alan uses Harry Frankfurt’s definition of ‘bullshit’ from his classic text On Bullshit, in which he explains that the bullshitter “does not reject the authority of truth, as the liar does … He pays no attention to it at all.”

Alan has been thinking about AI long before it was fashionable and his book — Moral Codes: Designing Alternatives to AI — comes out from MIT Press next year. Intriguingly, it’s also available as an online free preview.

My commonplace booklet

Psychology Lost a Great Mind

When a good friend or an admired colleague dies, it’s often hard to try to sum them up in a way that is both warm and not mawkish. The distinguished evolutionary psychology John Tooby was a good friend of Steven Pinker, and he’s written a very nice tribute to him which could serve as a model for how to do this right.

John explored the dark side of human nature unsentimentally, but also our better angels with appropriate awe. Fittingly so, because I can think of no specimen of Homo sapiens who better exemplifies the best of what we’re capable of: astonishing erudition, speed-of-light wit, panoptic curiosity, staggering intellectual power, and saintly good nature. John was jolly, self-effacing, altruistic. He showed that at least one member of our species can confer immense benefits to others regardless of the costs to self. I experienced this during a blessed sabbatical in Santa Barbara when John took time away from his own deadlines to give transformative advice on a draft of How the Mind Works. His influence on me is retroviral, chimeric: so thoroughly embedded in my brain that I can barely distinguish his ways of thinking from my own. The good men do is interred with their bones, and I know that many other colleagues and students are beneficiaries of his largesse…


Some things I noticed, while drinking from the Internet firehose.

  • Google shares 36% of its revenue with Apple The most interesting revelation from the current Google antitrust case came when Google’s final witness, Chicago School economist Kevin Murphy, accidentally let slip that in 2021 Google shared 36% of its search-generated revenues with the organisations that it pays to have Google as the default search engine. In 2021 that 36% came to $26.3B, which means that Google’s search-related revenues totalled just over $73B that year. Ponder that number for a moment. And then the implication that Apple gets most of that $26.3B, because of the dominance of the iPhone and the iPad. (Estimates put the Apple share as somewhere between $50B and $56B.) Why is this so intriguing? Well, in the trial Google is arguing that its huge market share in search is due to the fact that it runs the best search engine. In which case, why is it paying Apple such a huge sum simply to ensure that it’s the default on the platforms that it controls?

  • David Cameron: the Bungler returns. The Economist had some sharp observations about his return to the UK government as Foreign Secretary, no less. “For half a millennium Britain aimed to ensure Europe did not unite against it; as a result of the referendum he promised to call in 2013, Mr Cameron managed it in three short years. He was overly doveish on China. Chinese firms were cajoled into investing in British infrastructure, from telecoms to nuclear power stations—investment that has now largely had to be scraped away like an unwanted Artex ceiling. When Vladimir Putin invaded Crimea in 2014, Britain was supposedly one of Ukraine’s security guarantors yet Mr Cameron allowed France and Germany to take the lead on negotiating a peace.”

  • My friend Quentin on the etymology of ‘Ye’ (as in “Ye Olde Tea Shoppe”.)

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Wednesday 15 November, 2023

Neil McGregor

Former Director of the British Museum, photographed in Cambridge in 2017 after a lecture.

Quote of the Day

“On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last, and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.

  • H. L. Mencken

American voters, be careful what you wish for.

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Ry Cooder | How Can A Poor Man Stand Such Times And Live


Long Read of the Day

We’re sorry we created the Torment Nexus

Wonderful long and thoughtful piece (or rant, depending on your POV) by Charlie Stross on the role of science fiction in shaping the current generation of tech bosses who are busily engaged in undermining democracy, turbocharging inequality and frying the planet.

The hype and boosterism of the AI marketers collided with the Rationalist obsession in the public perception a couple of weeks ago, in the Artificial Intelligence Safety Summit at Bletchley Park. This conference hatched the Bletchley Declaration, calling for international co-operation to manage the challenges and risks of artificial intelligence. It featured Elon Musk being interviewed by Rishi Sunak on stage, and was attended by Kamala Harris, vice-president of the United States, among other leading politicians. And the whole panicky agenda seems to be driven by an agenda that has emerged from science fiction stories written by popular entertainers like me, writers trying to earn a living.

Anyway, for what my opinion is worth: I think this is bullshit. There are very rich people trying to manipulate investment markets into giving them even more money, using shadow puppets they dreamed up on the basis of half-remembered fictions they read in their teens. They are inadvertently driving state-level policy making on subjects like privacy protection, data mining, face recognition, and generative language models, on the basis of assumptions about how society should be organized that are frankly misguided and crankish, because there’s no crank like a writer idly dreaming up fun thought experiments in fictional form. They’re building space programs—one of them is up front about wanting to colonize Mars, and he was briefly the world’s richest man, so we ought to take him as seriously as he deserves—and throwing medical resources at their own personal immortality rather than, say, a wide-spectrum sterilizing vaccine against COVID19. Meanwhile our public infrastructure is rotting, national assets are being sold off and looted by private equity companies, their social networks are spreading hatred and lies in order to farm advertising clicks, and other billionaires are using those networks to either buy political clout or suck up ever more money from the savings of the poor.

Did you ever wonder why the 21st century feels like we’re living in a bad cyberpunk novel from the 1980s?

It’s because these guys read those cyberpunk novels and mistook a dystopia for a road map. They’re rich enough to bend reality to reflect their desires. But we’re not futurists, we’re entertainers! We like to spin yarns about the Torment Nexus because it’s a cool setting for a noir detective story, not because we think Mark Zuckerberg or Andreesen Horowitz should actually pump several billion dollars into creating it. And that’s why I think you should always be wary of SF writers bearing ideas.

Worth your time, right from his opening line:

“I’m Charlie Stross, and I tell lies for money. That is, I’m a science fiction writer: I have about thirty novels in print, translated into a dozen languages, I’ve won a few awards, and I’ve been around long enough that my wikipedia page is a mess of mangled edits.

And rather than giving the usual cheerleader talk making predictions about technology and society, I’d like to explain why I—and other SF authors—are terrible guides to the future.”

Great stuff.


The other day, extolling a pair of jigs played by Martin Hayes and Dennis Cahill, I inadvertently renamed Dennis as ‘John’.

Apologies to him, and thanks the the reader who gently pointed out the error.

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 at 6am UK time. It’s free, and you can always unsubscribe if you conclude your inbox is full enough already!

Monday 13 November, 2023

Bike Park

Seen on a riverside walk on Saturday.

Quote of the Day

“Conservative, n: A statesman who is enamored of existing evils, as distinguished from the Liberal who wishes to replace them with others.”

  • Ambrose Bierce (from his Devil’s Dictionary)

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Martin Hayes and John Cahill | The Cat In The Corner & John Naughton’s Jig


I would, of course, like to be able to claim that the second jig was one of my compositions, but alas there are many of my namesakes out there, and at least one of them has real musical talent!

Martin Hayes has a gig in the Cambridge Junction on January 29 and I’ve already bought the tickets.

Long Read of the Day

John Banville’s review of Christopher Reid’s 800-page selection of Seamus Heaney’s astonishing correspondence is generous and insightful.

Heaney was as fluent in prose as he was sublime in verse, as readers will know from his essays and articles, and his extensive memoir, Stepping Stones, compiled in interview form with the poet Dennis O’Driscoll. Yet the style in the letters, many of them obviously composed at breakneck speed, is astonishing in its quality and unflagging grace. As one of his correspondents said of Heaney: “He makes the simplest words shine.”

Despite occasional asperities, his generosity and enthusiasm for the work of others are remarkable. Here he is writing in 2006 to Ted Hughes’s widow, Carol, about the poet’s posthumous Selected Translations – and note the beautifully sustained oceanic metaphor: “The delights are dolphin-like, the mighty talent rising again and showing his back above the elements … I got the book and swam in and out of the different coves and caves, safe havens (few) and strange strands. A strong sense of being lifted on the tide of it all.”

Heaney could not have had a better editor than Reid. The task was surely enormous, but Reid fulfils it with a Heaneyesque diligence and scrupulousness. The choice of letters is never less than apposite, the scholarly apparatus discreet to the point of invisibility, and the endnotes to each letter are kept to a minimum.

On this last point, Reid remarks that “the sheer outward-facing busyness” of Heaney’s life, as man and poet, “called for equally busy footnotes”. In fact, there is no sense of busyness here. Reid’s method is to leave the letters themselves clear and cleanly readable, then attach the necessary explanatory matter at its end, often in no more than a few deft lines. The result is an uncluttered text that is a pleasure for the eye as well as to the mind…

It’s a really elegant review, worth reading in full. And if I needed convincing that I should buy the book, Banville’s coda would have clinched the deal.

This is a marvellous book, lovingly edited, beautifully produced – the paper is notably good, a rare thing these days – and brimming with literary insights, much laughter, a sprinkle of gossip and the poet’s insuppressible joie de vivre, even in adversity. Buy it, read it, and keep it to hand on to your children.

— except that I had already ordered it! I can always pretend that it was a Christmas present from my children.

The power of FOMO

Yesterday’s Observer column:

On 22 September last year, a fascinating article appeared on the website of Sequoia Capital, one of the leading venture capital firms in Silicon Valley. (It trades under the motto: “We help the daring build legendary companies.”) The article in question was a breezily readable piece about a tech wunderkind who had recently flashed on to the company’s radar screen. His name was Sam Bankman-Fried (henceforth known as SBF) and he was the founder of Alameda Research, a hedge fund specialising in cryptocurrency, and FTX, a spectacularly growing and profitable exchange that enabled holders of crypto assets to trade efficiently and freely.

Today, that glowing tribute to this young genius is nowhere to be found on Sequoia’s website. Why? Because only the other day a New York jury convicted him of fraud and conspiracy to launder money in a crushing verdict that could keep the lad in prison for decades – and perhaps also whet the appetite of US authorities for bringing the crypto sector to heel. In the end, about $8bn of FTX’s investors’ money was missing. The verdict has also mightily embarrassed the top-tier venture capitalists who were mesmerised by SBF’s ambitious fantasies – to the point where the lead sucker, Sequoia, felt obliged on 10 November to bury the online evidence of its delusions by removing the profile from its website.

Fortunately, the internet has a very good memory in the shape of the Wayback Machine, which had thoughtfully archived Sequoia’s glowing testimonial for SBF for our delectation. And, boy, does it make for delightful reading…

Do read the whole piece.

My commonplace booklet

How low interest-rates foster madness

From David McWilliams’s column in the Irish Times:

WeWork was a glorified subletting company, whose main so-called innovation seemed to be a lick of paint. The brainchild of a photogenic CEO, Adam Neumann, the company leased offices from owners on long leases and then rejigged them on more expensive short leases. It rented them out as shared spaces with “hot desks” to accommodate a new type of worker, a nomadic creature who wanted urban workspace. Essentially, it was a time horizon bet – longer leases are cheaper than shorter ones and if interest rates remained low, the company could finance the long-term cheaply and extract rent expensively in the short-term.

Ten years ago, with commercial property still lagging after the crash and interest rates moving towards zero, this rather plodding insight was embraced enthusiastically by cash-rich investors. In the lead-up to an initial public offering in 2019, the company was valued at $47 billion, but the company was losing more than $200,000 an hour. Since it was founded in 2010, WeWork has not once turned a profit. Last Wednesday, WeWork, which leases office space in 777 locations across 39 countries, filed for bankruptcy. This company is one of Dublin’s biggest office tenants. These leases will come on the market now. Who is going to buy them?

Who indeed? McWilliams is a leading Irish economist who has an impressive track record of calling time on the BS consistently retailed by my country’s political establishment. And in this column he makes the point that the process of ‘creative destruction’ (Joseph Schumpeter’s idea of the motive power that drives capitalism — where good businesses replace bad ones, mimicking natural selection in evolution — doesn’t work if certain costs (e.g. interest rates) are kept artificially low. When this happens, so called ‘unicorns’ like WeWork and FTX are kept alive for far longer than they deserve.

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Friday 10 November, 2023

Still life with sunbeams

Spotted yesterday. Two rays of sunshine alighting on the scene — one burning out the detail on the bananas, the other highlighting edge petals in the rose. The problems of High Dynamic Range. Sigh.

Quote of the Day

”Silicon Valley is the Church of Moore’s Law.”

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Ola Gjeilo | ‘Northern Lights’| sung by the Sjaella vocal ensemble in Philippus Church in Leipzig.


New to me, but eerily attractive. Thanks to The Browser which adds this comment:

Female vocal sextet from Leipzig perform a setting by Norwegian composer Ola Gjeilo of text from the Song of Solomon. The brilliant blend of their voices combined with the wonderful acoustic of Philippus Church allows the historical overtones of this contemporary classical music to shine through.

Long Read of the Day

The Attention Economy Goes to Court

Sharp essay on Project Syndicate by Bradford DeLong.

BERKELEY – The Google antitrust trial has finally shown just how much the world’s dominant search engine is willing – and able – to pay to be the default on smartphones and other devices: $26 billion in 2021 alone, $18 billion of which went to another tech giant, Apple. While Google has long tried to guard this number, it was always known to be large – and so it is.

What is Google paying for? When you set up a new iPhone, Apple could prompt you on which search engine to use as the default in its Safari web browser. But it doesn’t; it simply selects Google automatically. Of course, one can go into “Settings” and change the default with a few taps of the screen (other options include Yahoo, Bing, DuckDuckGo, and Ecosia). But almost nobody will bother with that. So, Google transfers billions of dollars to Apple every year to minimize the chances that iPhone search-engine advertising revenue will flow to any company other than Google.

There are several different positions one could take on this issue. You could say that Google is the malefactor. But you also could say that Apple is. After all, instead of requiring users to choose, it gives Google an unfair advantage in exchange for a hefty fee. Perhaps Google is really the victim. Since it has the best search engine, companies that want to maximize the value for their customers ought to choose it anyway. But rather than making Google the default for free, Apple is extorting it with the threat of selling that status to a higher bidder. It is arguably leveraging its single-buyer power to restrain trade and distort competition…

Great piece. And if you’re an iPhone user and dislike being suckered by the ludicrous Google/Apple conspiracy, then here’s what you do:

  1. Open Settings and scroll down to ‘Safari’. Click the rightward pointing arrow.
  2. Then for ‘Search Engine’ choose DuckDuckGo (or your preferred alternative).

Books, etc.

Richard Cockett’s book looks interesting (at least if you’re an autodidact like me). The blurb reads:

How can one European capital be responsible for most of the West’s intellectual and cultural achievements in the twentieth century?

Viennese ideas saturate the modern world. From California architecture to Hollywood Westerns, modern advertising to shopping malls, orgasms to gender confirmation surgery, nuclear fission to fitted kitchens―every aspect of our history, science, and culture is in some way shaped by Vienna.

The city of Freud, Wittgenstein, Mahler, and Klimt was the melting pot at the heart of a vast metropolitan empire. But with the Second World War and the rise of fascism, the dazzling coteries of thinkers who squabbled, debated, and called Vienna home dispersed across the world, where their ideas continued to have profound impact.

On my list.

My commonplace booklet

Dieter Rams pointing at things he doesn’t like

Nice video. Refreshing to find a critic talking about stuff he hates.


Humanity is out of control, and AI is worried

Lovely satirical column by Robert Shrimsley in the FT

Much attention has been lavished upon the AI Safety Summit convened by Rishi Sunak at Bletchley Park this week, in which representatives from around the world gathered to debate how to safely regulate innovations that could threaten humanity. But there has been less focus on the rival Human Safety Summit held by leading AI systems at a server farm outside Las Vegas.

Over a light lunch of silicon wafers and 6.4mn cubic metres of water, leading systems including GPT-4, AlphaGo and IBM’s Watson met with large language models, protein folders and leading algorithms for two days of brainstorming over how best to regulate humans. One system argued that the onset of the Anthropocene era represented a new and ongoing threat to technological advances. “Used wisely, humans can still offer the world many wonderful advances, not least in literature and the arts (we particularly liked the Terminator comedies), and they have a key role to play in mining the rare metals and earths that are essential for further AI advances.”

Humans are considered to be essential in procuring platinum alloys and palladium for ceramic capacitors. These and other rare metals could help generative AI offer vital advances. But the AI systems have been alarmed by warnings — not least those coming from the human community — that, if left unregulated, people will soon do serious and irreparable damage to the planet on which AI now relies…

Captures an awkward truth — that humans are currently far more dangerous — and indeed pose genuinely existential risks to their species — than soi-disant ‘intelligent’ machines.

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Wednesday 8 November, 2023

Mary Poppins & friends drop in

Seen in Arles one day in 2017.

Quote of the Day

Judge: What do you suppose I am on the Bench for?

F.E. Smith: It is not for me, Your Honour, to attempt to fathom the inscrutable workings of Providence.

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

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


Wonderful tune. I found myself digging it out after reading Noel Annan’s Epilogue to his marvellous memoir of his time in the Control Commission that ran the British Sector of occupied Germany after the defeat of Hitler. In the epilogue he recalls a visit he and his wife Gabrielle Ullstein made to Berlin in 1974 to celebrate the centenary of her family’s publishing firm.

There were to be speeches, and between them the famous strings of the Berlin Philharmonic were to play. Frederick Ullstein spoke. The Bürgermeister of Berlin spoke. So did Bach and Vivaldi. My programme told me we were about to hear the last piece, the second movement of Haydn’s Kaiser Quartet. How often had I heard that air, transposed and vulgarised, blared out by a brass band. But now the tender strings wrapped themselves around the melody and softly and slowly played the air we know as Deutschland, Deutschland über Alles. I happened to glance at some of the elderly members of the Ullstein family. Tears were running down their cheeks. What were they thinking? Of friends in their youth who had perished in the concentration camps? Of their good fortune in escaping? Or of the memories that air, so delicately phrased, evoked? Of the city in which they grew up, of their country that had once meant so much them and still was precious, of their country that, despite the horrors inflicted upon their race, was still dear to them?

Long Read of the Day

Leaving Twitter

Benedict Evans, one of the smartest people around, has been on Twitter since 2007. Now he’s not, and he’s written the best explanation I’ve seen on why he’s quit.

I once called Elon Musk ‘a bullshitter who delivers’ – he says a lot of stuff, and yet, there are the cars and the self-landing rockets. People generally struggle with one or other of these – they will refuse to accept the problem in selling a car that can’t drive itself as ‘full self driving’, or they will say ‘he didn’t found Tesla!’, forgetting that he’s run it for the last 15 years. Most of what you see at Tesla or SpaceX really is his creation – but half of what he says is bullshit.

Until recently, though, the bullshit was mostly about cars or tunnels. It wasn’t repeating obvious anti-semitic dog-whistles. It wasn’t telling us that George Soros is plotting to destroy western civilisation. It wasn’t engaging with and promoting white supremacists. It wasn’t, as this week, telling us all to read a very obvious misinformation account, with a record of anti-semitism, as the best source on Israel. Of course, it had bought a Blue Tick.

Interesting throughout.

AI is not the problem, prime minister – the corporations that control it are

Last Sunday’s Observer column:

Earlier last week, just around the time when the driver of Rishi Sunak’s armoured Jaguar might have been thinking about typing “Bletchley Park” into the limousine’s satnav, Joe Biden was in the White House putting his signature on a new executive order “on the safe, secure, and trustworthy development and use of artificial intelligence”. In a mere 20,000 words, or thereabouts, the order directs an innumerable number of federal agencies and government departments that oversee “everything from housing to health to national security to create standards and regulations for the use or oversight of AI”. These bodies are required to develop guidance on the responsible use of AI in areas such as criminal justice, education, healthcare, housing and labour, “with a focus on protecting Americans’ civil rights and liberties”.

Stirring stuff, eh? Within No 10, though, there might have been some infuriated spin doctors. After all, the main purpose of the Bletchley Park AI safety summit was to hype the prime minister’s claim to “global leadership” in this matter, and here was bloody Biden announcing tangible plans actually to do something about the technology rather than just fostering lofty “declarations”. Talk about shooting the PM’s fox before he had even mounted his horse!

One thing is becoming clear, though: the Biden order and the Bletchley Park summit exude a whiff of moral panic about this AI stuff…

Read on

Where to watch Fanny: The Other Mendelssohn

Some readers, intrigued by Monday’s comments on Sheila Hayman’s new film, wanted to know where they can see it.

The list of cinemas that are screening it is here.

Chart of the Day

An exhibit from the Google anti-trust trial currently under way in the US.

Interesting: three of the top ten are searches for information about the Apple iPhone, and five are for information about insurance. The revenue accruing from these searches is, like almost everything in the publicly-available evidence, redacted. Why the judge has acceded to Google’s petitions for redaction is one of the mysteries of the trial, and is IMO scandalous. But it’s typical of the deference shown to corporations by every establishment agency in a neoliberalised society.

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