Friday 29 December, 2023

Essence of Xmas, 2023

New Yorker cover, December 11, nailed it.

Quote of the Day

”An optimist will tell you the glass is half-full; the pessimist, half-empty; and the engineer will tell you the glass is twice the size it needs to be.

  • Oscar Wilde

Yep, and most of the time the engineer is right.

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Diana Krall | Narrow Daylight


Nice line: Winter is over, Summer is near. Nice thought, that, in the bleak midwinter.

Long Read of the Day

A Love Song for Deborah

Lovely essay by Michael Tobin on life after his wife was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, and on how he found a way of reaching her.

If life were fair, Alzheimer’s should never have eaten Deborah’s brain.

My wife had no family history of the disease. All four of her Lebanese grandparents lived far into their nineties and were as acerbic, argumentative, and quick-witted at ninety-five as they were at twenty-five.

But Alzheimer’s devoured my wife, my best friend, my soul mate. Gone is the compassionate psychologist who graduated from Wellesley, MIT, and the Sorbonne. The polymath fluent in five languages who could calculate complex mathematical formulas in her head and whose brain came with its own GPS. The woman whose body could contort into pretzel-like yoga postures with the ease and grace of a ballerina. The truth-seeker who had an uncanny ability to pierce through layers of psychic sludge to unearth a soul in all its shining glory.

Diagnosed in November 2018, she had won a very perverse lottery…

Do read it, not least because it’s about something that some of us may one day have to live with.

Books, etc.

Nothing for Something: Cryptos, Cons, and Zombies

Peter Lunenfeld’s sharp review essay on the crypto phenomenon in the Los Angeles Review of Books is worth reading. What I liked most about it is his attempt to get up ‘above’ the crypto craze to “the conceptual space where desires are forever leading us to heartbreak and shame, the universal emotions of every mark who has ever been conned”.

The general greed around cryptocurrencies, the nerdish interest in their underlying blockchain technologies, and the desire for something—anything — to fully commodify digital art has not abated. We should expect rebrandings, relaunchings, and hype cycles that do their best to explain that “this time it’s different” even when it’s not. There will be more Bankman-Frieds and FTXs — in fact, there are plenty like him and them on trial or in bankruptcy at this very moment—and when they are gone, their spots will be taken by probably even worse actors in the global techno-economy. One thing we can and should do at this relatively quiescent period in the hype cycle is figure out how these technologies and concepts have attained a kind of immortality already—i.e., how they became zombies destined to shamble through the rest of the 21st century.

My commonplace booklet

“UK quietly drops Brexit law to return to imperial measurements”

From the Financial Times yesterday…

Rishi Sunak’s government has been criticised by a leading Brexiter, after it quietly announced it would not be legislating to expand the use of imperial measures in the UK.

The decision to drop the idea, which had been hailed as a potential “Brexit freedom”, came after it turned out that only a tiny fraction of British businesses and consumers wanted to see a bigger role for imperial units.

The government revealed on Wednesday that out of 100,000 people who responded to a consultation on boosting Britain’s “long and proud history of using imperial measures”, only 1.3 per cent were in favour of increasing their use for buying or selling products.

Jacob Rees-Mogg, former business secretary, said the decision not to expand the use of traditional British measurements — such as gallons, pints, pounds and ounces — was regrettable.

“It is a small reminder that we have government of the bureaucrat, by the bureaucrat, for the bureaucrat,” he said.

(Note for readers outside of the UK: I did not make this up. Apart from anything else, you couldn’t make up a clown like Rees-Mogg.)


Something I noticed, while drinking from the Internet firehose.

The Duke of Wellington writing to his nominal bosses in London.


Whilst marching from Portugal to a position which commands the approach to Madrid and the French forces, my officers have been diligently complying with your requests which have been sent by H.M. ship from London to Lisbon and thence by dispatch to our headquarters.

We have enumerated our saddles, bridles, tents and tent poles, and all manner of sundry items for which His Majesty’s Government holds me accountable. I have dispatched reports on the character, wit, and spleen of every officer. Each item and every farthing has been accounted for, with two regrettable exceptions for which I beg your indulgence.

Unfortunately the sum of one shilling and ninepence remains unaccounted for in one infantry battalion’s petty cash and there has been a hideous confusion as to the number of jars of raspberry jam issued to one cavalry regiment during a sandstorm in western Spain. This reprehensible carelessness may be related to the pressure of circumstance, since we are at war with France, a fact which may come as a bit of a surprise to you gentlemen in Whitehall.

This brings me to my present purpose, which is to request elucidation of my instructions from His Majesty’s Government so that I may better understand why I am dragging an army over these barren plains. I construe that perforce it must be one of two alternative duties, as given below. I shall pursue either one with the best of my ability, but I cannot do both:

  1. To train an army of uniformed British clerks in Spain for the benefit of the accountants and copy-boys in London or perchance,
  2. To see to it that the forces of Napoleon are driven out of Spain.

Your most obedient servant,


Sadly, it’s so good that it has to be a spoof. Wellington was no admirer of officialdom, but the phrase “may come as a bit of a surprise” is unlikely to be one that he would use. Still,…

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Wednesday 27 December, 2023

Dumplings ‘R Us

‘Chinatown’, London

Quote of the Day

”A day without laughter is a day wasted.

  • Charlie Chaplin

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Fleetwood Mac | Don’t Stop


One of my favourite tracks from a great album.

Long Read of the Day

My Heart Sasses Back

Sassy blog post by Margaret Atwood based on a nice epistolary interaction with one of her friends.

My longtime friend and sometime translator of my poetry into French, Christine Evain — who lives in Nantes – telephoned my heart long distance, having read of its escapades.

Let it be said that Christine takes a slightly dim view of my French readings of late. They encompasses the 14th century — the series Les Rois Maudits, which added many useful vocabulary words, such as “the atrocious scent of testicles burning on a brazier of coals,” something one might drop into a soirée as a bon mot, and which was used as a source by George Martin for Game of Thrones (he added dragons). Then the French Revolution — I’ll give you my reading list on that in a later post, but, as you know, many heads rolled during the Terror, and it didn’t end well for Robespierre, “The Incoruptible.” Christine is also dubious about the CTM (Chines Traditional Medicine) heart-support pills I’ve been popping; among the ingredients is powdered scorpion. I have nothing against this, but the younger generations can be more squeamish. They never had to drink cod liver oil out of a spoon.

Here’s how the long-distance call went…

I do love Atwood’s blog.

Books, etc.

Lovely Xmas present from my wife.

My commonplace booklet

All my rides

Doc Searls (Whom God Preserve) is a real petrolhead, as indeed I was once. But he’s unearthed this annotated list of all the sets of wheels he’s ever owned. And I am solely tempted to do the same. The only problem is that it might be embarrassing.


Brad De Long on the three big ideas one should take away from Ernest Gellner’s Plough, Sword, & Book: The Structure of Human History:

The Interplay of Production, Coërcion, & Cognition: None of these is prior to the other—although all are profoundly shaped by technology. These three elements interact in shaping human societies as equals, and not simply, because they are interconnected in complex ways.

Non-Linear Progression of Societies: Societal development is diverse and multifaceted, shaped by various cultural and environmental factors. There is very little that is linear, or predetermined.

Cognitive Aspects of Societal Change: Changes in belief systems and knowledge are crucial in understanding societal transformations—and the modes of cognition are not traceable back to modes of production and modes of domination. All you can say is that the mode of cognition needs to make sense of the mode of production and the mode of domination, for if it does not make sense you have a society-shaking revolutionary situation.

Useful because I haven’t read the book and may need to for something I’m working on.

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 25 December,2023

Piece of cake!

Happy Christmas!

Quote of the Day

”Santa Claus has the right idea — visit people once a year.”

  • Victor Borge

Musical alternatives to the morning’s radio news

Take your pick!

  1. FIZZ – Christmas Medley | Radio 1 Piano Sessions
  2. In the Bleak Midwinter Link

  3. Armas Maasalo | Joulun Kellot (The bells of Christmas)

Long Read of the Day

The chroniclers of the crypto collapse

An object lesson by Dave Karpov in how to write a devastating review essay. Especially good on Mike Lewis’s failure to nail Sam Bankman-Fried.

The middle chapters of the book are full of stories where SBF makes rash, impulsive decisions that work out terribly for him. He’s a terrible manager, constantly making shit up as he goes, surrounded by partners who quit because they just can’t deal with him anymore. His one great advantage is that he combines the disciplined angle-shooting of a Wall Street quant to the crypto goldrush before any of the other Wall Street quants arrive.

There’s a scene on page 176 where people keep encouraging Sam to hire a CFO. He refuses, saying: “Some people cannot articulate a single thing the CFO is supposed to do. They’ll say ‘keep track of the money’ or ‘make projections.’ I’m like *What the fuck do you think I do all day? You think I don’t know how much money we have?” [Act III/court case spoiler alert: Sam does not know how much money they have. He’s playing Storybook Brawl instead.]

If the book had ended with Act II — if it had been released before the collapse — then it would seem outdated now, but it would be an interesting artifact of the sheer confidence these hucksters were able to successfully project while the numbers were going up. But events unfolded, and Michael Lewis refused to adjust…


Why AI is a disaster for the climate

Yesterday’s Observer column:

What to do when surrounded by people who are losing their minds about the Newest New Thing? Answer: reach for the Gartner Hype Cycle, an ingenious diagram that maps the progress of an emerging technology through five phases: the “technology trigger”, which is followed by a rapid rise to the “peak of inflated expectations”; this is succeeded by a rapid decline into the “trough of disillusionment”, after which begins a gentle climb up the “slope of enlightenment” – before eventually (often years or decades later) reaching the “plateau of productivity”.

Given the current hysteria about AI, I thought I’d check to see where it is on the chart. It shows that generative AI (the polite term for ChatGPT and co) has just reached the peak of inflated expectations. That squares with the fevered predictions of the tech industry (not to mention governments) that AI will be transformative and will soon be ubiquitous. This hype has given rise to much anguished fretting about its impact on employment, misinformation, politics etc, and also to a deal of anxious extrapolations about an existential risk to humanity.

All of this serves the useful function – for the tech industry, at least – of diverting attention from the downsides of the technology that we are already experiencing…

Read on

Books, etc.

Christmas reading: a gift from a generous friend.

Colm Toibín had an interesting review of it in the LRB in January last year.

My commonplace booklet

Look how far we haven’t come since Windows NT 

Interesting reflections in The Register which will strike a chord for anyone who remembers what a breakthrough Windows NT was. I was privileged to work later with someone who worked on the team that created it.

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Friday 22 December, 2023

Xmas Postbox

One of the nicest things that happened (I think during the pandemic) that people started creating knitted tops for Britain’s red post-boxes. I spotted this one in Histon the other day as I came out of the post office. It even has a motion sensor that switches on the toy railway when it detects a possible spectator.

Quote of the Day

”You will know you’re old when you cease to be amazed.”

  • Noel Coward

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Elmore James | Talk to Me Baby


Long Read of the Day

 The Emotional Life of Populism

Remarkable essay by the sociologist Eva Illouz about the populism currently roiling many Western democracies — not to mention the Israeli state that’s currently embroiled in trying to eliminate Hamas.

Illouz is much more illuminating (IMO) than most of the current ‘political-science’ writing about populism. The essay is really an introduction to her new book on the subject.

This is how it opens:

In my book I argue that populist politics blends together four specific emotions – fear, disgust, resentment, and love – and makes these emotions dominant vectors of the political process. The mixture of these emotions forms the matrix of populism because they generate antagonism between social groups inside society and alienation from the institutions that safeguard democracy, and because they are, in many ways, oblivious to something we might call reality. More exactly: populism lives as much in reality (naming ills that have transformed working-class lives) as in the imagination. Fear provides compelling motivation to repeatedly name enemies as well as invent them, to view such enemies as fixed and unchanging, to shift politics from conflict resolution to a state of permanent vigilance to threats, even at the price of suspending the rule of law. Israel’s fear of its outer and inner enemies runs deeper in the state apparatus than other populist forms of fear (it has also a different history and geography), but it bears affinities with them, as they all express fear of a shifting balance of power between majority (racial, ethnic, religious) and minorities and has become existential, about the very existence of the nation. Trump, Orbán, Le Pen, Meloni, the Swedish Democrats, and Modi have focused on the minorities who allegedly threaten their nation. Disgust creates and maintains the dynamic of distancing between social groups through the fear of pollution and contamination: it helps separate ethnic or religious minorities and, by the logic of contamination, it also contributes towards separating the political groups who either support or oppose the minorities. Ressentiment is a key process in self-victimization; its rhetoric has become generalized, as all groups, majority and minority, invoke it to designate the relationship of the other to them; it redefines the political self in terms of its wounds. Trumpist voters or Israeli settlers are united in their common sense of self-victimization against left-wing elites. When all groups are victims of each other, it creates antagonism and changes ordinary notions of justice. It also creates fantasies of revenge. Finally, a particular form of exclusionary patriotism promises solidarity to the in-group at the expense of the others, who become redefined as superfluous or dangerous members of the nation. We should not underestimate the deep relationship that nationalism entertains today with religion and tradition.

Books, etc.

Steven Sinofsky: Books to Read and Gift

A list of 42 books he read this year with a quick note or two on each explaining why he’d suggest it or not. Sinofsky is an interesting guy — was a senior executive at Microsoft and is also on the Board of the VC firm Andreessen Horowitz, so is very knowledgeable about the tech industry. I disagree with his views sometimes, but respect his judgement. So I found his list interesting.

My commonplace booklet

Marina Hyde on Michelle Mone and the PPE scandal

Unmissable column on one of the more egregious creeps on the UK scene.

Michelle is 5ft 9in of pure chaos, and watching Rishi Sunak whinnying feebly about “taking all these things incredibly seriously” tees up the spectacle of the prime minister and a number of other drippy male politicians further incensing this Category 5 “force of nature”, who will lash out all the way down on her well-earned fall from grace. Is that as good as taxpayers getting their money back? No. But I’ll watch.

Before we proceed, though, a recap. Can it really be only 11 years since Michelle was granting a mesmerisingly messy interview to the Sunday Times, in which she wailed rhetorically: “Why did I want to be Michelle Mone? Why did I want to start all these businesses? Why can I never be satisfied with what I’ve got?” Yes. Yes, I do believe it can.

Can it really be only six years since Mone and Barrowman [her husband] were granting “their first joint interview” to Hello! magazine, standing in formalwear in front of their Isle of Man McMansion – a Ferrari parked with gossamer insouciance just behind them, as if to say … well, as if to say GREETINGS, SHITHEADS – DID WE MENTION WE OWN A FERRARI? Again, it can. Readers of various outlets have since been invited inside the property, where decorative flourishes include a paved drive (sorry, but no) and an amphitheatre (actually hysterical). “I feel like I’m in a fairytale,” Michelle told the publication, “a beautiful dream I don’t ever want to wake up from.” Three years ago, as a belated second wedding present, she gifted Doug a gelding (I bet she did).

Great stuff. It’s also worth noting that it was the Guardian’s dogged journalism that finally lifted the stone on the gilded creep. Overseas readers may be intrigued that this dame is a Baroness — a member of the House of Lords (ennobled by the Tories, needless to say) — and therefore someone who has a say in the governance of the Disunited Kingdom. The best bit, though, has echoes of P,G. Woodhouse: Mone made her first fortune with a lingerie company and, according to Wikipedia, has other ventures including naturopathic ‘weight-loss’ pills, and a fake tan product via ‘Ultimo Beauty’.

Woodhouse fans will remember Roderick Spode, the amateur dictator and Leader of the Black Shorts movement, who in his spare time was the proprietor of a lingerie brand, Eulalie.


Ooops! Wednesday’s edition revealed that I am unable to tell doughnuts from bagels. My only excuse is that I don’t like doughnuts either. Thanks to Lisa Long for gently pointing out the error.

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Wednesday 20 December, 2023


I’ve never liked bagels. On the other hand, I’ve never seen ones like these. Still, I gave them a miss.

Seen in central London, last week.

Quote of the Day

From Politico:

”British Foreign Secretary David Cameron and German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock on Sunday called for a “sustainable cease-fire” in the Middle East, lamenting that “too many civilians have been killed” in the Israel-Hamas war.”

What, then, one wonders, is the correct number of civilians to be killed?

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Ralph Vaughan Williams | Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis | Neville Marriner and the Academy of St-Martin-in-the Fields


I’ve always loved this, but it was especially welcome yesterday as a respite from a dank, dismal, East Anglian winter’s day.

Long Read of the Day

John Quiggin: Training my replacement?

Like everyone else, John Quiggin is interested in Large Language Models.

But first,

I have an urgent article to write, so of course I’m irresistibly moved to do anything else. Following the precepts of creative procrastination, I’ve dealt with a bunch of administrative tasks, done some chores and resisted the urge to dive into social media (until now!). Having done all that, I decided to check on progress in Large Language Models.

What I’ve been interested in since the sudden rise of LLM is whether I could use it to turn out pieces in my own style, recycling and paraphrasing some of the millions of words I’ve typed over my career (my target of 500 words per working day would imply 4 or 5 million in the corpus, not counting blog posts and comments, snarky tweets and who knows how many emails).

We’re not quite there yet, but getting closer. I asked ChatGPT to “Write a critique of SMRs [Small Modular Reactors] in the style of John Quiggin”.

Here’s what he got.

Read on to see what he made of it. And savour the graphic ChatGPT produced in response to the prompt: “produce an image of John Quiggin with his brain hooked up to a computer connected in turn to a printer spooling paper. Style dramatic and futuristic, with a comic element”.

Since DALL-E doesn’t do real people anymore, it went for a generic academic instead. Doesn’t look a bit like Quiggin — or me either, for that matter.

Books, etc.

Dylan Thomas: Notes on the Art of Poetry

I could never have dreamt that there were such goings-on
in the world between the covers of books,
such sandstorms and ice blasts of words,
such staggering peace, such enormous laughter,
such and so many blinding bright lights,
splashing all over the pages
in a million bits and pieces
all of which were words, words, words,
and each of which were alive forever
in its own delight and glory and oddity and light.

My commonplace booklet

”A Ball of Brain Cells on a Chip Can Learn Simple Speech Recognition and Math”

When I first read this I was deeply suspicious. But then I read the Abstract of the paper in Nature Electronics that describes the research. It’s intriguing.

Brain-inspired computing hardware aims to emulate the structure and working principles of the brain and could be used to address current limitations in artificial intelligence technologies. However, brain-inspired silicon chips are still limited in their ability to fully mimic brain function as most examples are built on digital electronic principles. Here we report an artificial intelligence hardware approach that uses adaptive reservoir computation of biological neural networks in a brain organoid. In this approach—which is termed Brainoware—computation is performed by sending and receiving information from the brain organoid using a high-density multielectrode array. By applying spatiotemporal electrical stimulation, nonlinear dynamics and fading memory properties are achieved, as well as unsupervised learning from training data by reshaping the organoid functional connectivity. We illustrate the practical potential of this technique by using it for speech recognition and nonlinear equation prediction in a reservoir computing framework.

A very different approach to ‘AI’.


Something I noticed, while drinking from the Internet firehose.

Google’s blooper

Google announced Gemini, its supposed rival to GPT-4. It launched it with this impressive video.


It’s really interesting, isn’t it?

Yes, but there’s a problem… As Bloomberg’s Pammy Olson put it:

”In reality, the demo also wasn’t carried out in real time or in voice. When asked about the video by Bloomberg Opinion, a Google spokesperson said it was made by “using still image frames from the footage, and prompting via text,” and they pointed to a site showing how others could interact with Gemini with photos of their hands, or of drawings or other objects. In other words, the voice in the demo was reading out human-made prompts they’d made to Gemini, and showing them still images. That’s quite different from what Google seemed to be suggesting: that a person could have a smooth voice conversation with Gemini as it watched and responded in real time to the world around it.”

Talk about shooting yourself in both feet.

It’s truly weird. As the ever-astute Ben Thompson observed:

“Google, given its long-term advantages in this space, would have been much better served in being transparent, particularly since it suddenly finds itself with a trustworthiness advantage relative to Microsoft and OpenAI. The goal for the company should be demonstrating competitiveness and competence; a fake demo did the opposite.”

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 18 December, 2023

Bay View

From our hotel room in Dingle.

Quote of the Day

”The reality is that the Times is becoming the publication through which America’s progressive elite talks to itself about an America that does not really exist.”

  • James Bennet, former Editorial-page Editor of the New York Times, writing in the Economist last week.

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Handel | Concerto grosso in C Major, HWV 318 “Alexander’s Feast” | 1. Allegro


Long Read of the Day

On being wrong about AI

Scott Aaronson is one of the smartest people around. Among other things he works on Quantum computing. He is also one of the most thoughtful and least arrogant. (If you doubt that, try this long interview with him on Scientific American.)

This is an interesting recent post on his blog. I was attracted to it because ever since the ‘AI’ feeding frenzy started I’ve been approached by many people and some institutions wanting to know what it all ‘means’, and sometimes whether I think that Generative AI will lead to AGI or superintelligent machines. For the record, my state of mind on this stuff is what Manuel Castells once memorably termed “informed bewilderment”. And I’m sceptical that endless extension of the machine-learning approach to AI will lead to AGI. But that’s just an opinion.

Anyway, Scott is a far more interesting player in this game, and so I recommend this blog post for its quiet reflectiveness. The road to wisdom on many important questions is uncertainty. But our current public sphere — or at any rate the social-media segment of it — abhors that.

Epic’s epic antitrust win over Google

And that’s not a typo! Yesterday’s Observer column:

The big news last week was that a jury in San Francisco had found Google guilty on all counts of antitrust violations stemming from its dispute with Epic Games, maker of the bestselling Fortnite, which had lodged a number of complaints related to how Google runs its Play store, an Android app market with a revenue of about $48bn (£38bn) a year.

Why is this interesting? Isn’t it just another case of two tech companies squabbling in a US court? Well, in the first place, something very rare happened – a tech giant actually lost a big case in a US court. Second, the case was decided by a jury, not (as often happens in such cases) by a judge. Third, it showed that venerable antitrust (ie anti-monopoly) laws such as the Sherman Act still work.

All this stems from the launch of the smartphone in 2007…

Read on

Books, etc.

Further to Friday’s piece on the way money is wrecking golf, this book is nicely timed. The FT carried an interesting review of it by Sujeet Indap recently.

Over 30 years, Shipnuck, first at Sports Illustrated and now at his own independent website, has become the top chronicler of professional golf. The genteel golf landscape has long bristled at his fearless, detailed reporting and irreverent tone. But his pre-eminence ultimately convinces the sport’s big and little figures to engage with him, if reluctantly.

LIV and Let Die pierces the game’s carefully curated image of decorum, exposing its greed, cynicism and hypocrisy. The book also serves as the inadvertent sequel to Phil, Shipnuck’s bestselling 2022 biography of Phil Mickelson. The left-handed superstar had originally decided not to participate in the biography. But just prior to that book’s publication, Mickelson phoned Shipnuck and made infamous remarks bad-mouthing the Saudi side, describing his dalliance with them as a tactic to extract a ransom from the PGA Tour.

Money always talks. And Saudi money talks louder than most.

Chart of the Day

I gave a talk about the’ AI’ feeding frenzy last week, and before I travelled to the venue I checked where Generative AI is on the current Gartner hype cycle. And there it is, just on the cusp of the ‘Peak of Inflated Expectations’. It’ll be on the downhill slide towards realism soon.

My commonplace booklet

As regular readers know, I’m an inveterate (incurable?) photographer (have been since I was a teenager.) One of my heroes was Elliott Erwitt and the other day I stumbled on a profile of him on the Aperture site which clarified a question that had often puzzled me. One of his most famous photographs is a ground-level picture of a little dog and the feet and calves of its lady owner. I’d often wondered how he’d taken the shot — it looked as though he’d been lying on the ground. An heroic posture for a photographer, perhaps, but not a great position from which to confront a policeman. Turns out the explanation was simple.

His first camera was a Rolleiflex, a twin-lens reflex. All he had to do was stoop slightly.

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!

Friday 15 December, 2023

London’s other East End

Gerrard Street yesterday.

Quote of the Day

”Too much of anything is bad, but too much good whisky is barely enough.”

  • Mark Twain (Especially if it’s a good single malt.)

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Vince Gill | Price of Regret at the Oklahoma Hall of Fame Ceremony


The intro is interesting, but if you’re in a hurry he starts singing at 3:26.

Long Read of the Day

The EU AI Act and Greek Mythology

René Walter’s distinctive take on the forthcoming (and potentially powerful) EU legislation.

It’s a nice riff on a recent lecture by Stephen Fry about ‘AI’.

Fry presents us with the choice of whether we want to be the fire-giving god Prometheus, giving humans the spark of artificial intelligence, or the father of gods, Zeus, with strict regulations in the face of the upcoming, especially AI-based technological leaps that are emerging: Deep learning algorithms recently computed 2.2 million new crystal structures, “800 years’ worth of knowledge,” which can be used for novel technologies and innovations, such as in the production of solar panels. Another study confirms the abilities of large language models in the discovery of new molecules for pharmaceutical research, promising new and (possibly) cheaper drugs. A study from July on the acceleration of scientific research with AI found that artificial intelligence systems explicitly trained on human interferences in the research process — those rare Einsteins proposing completely novel theories — increased the prediction of these AI systems for future discoveries by 400%.

These things are possible today.

Walter is in favour of us playing Zeus, though he would spare Prometheus’s liver. The essay provides some relief from the cacophony about the technology. Hope you enjoy it.

Books, etc.

I’m tempted by this after listening to Burns talking about it with Tyler Cowen on an interesting podcast. It’s £45, though. Hmmm…

My commonplace booklet

(Spoiler alert: this is about golf, which I’m sure some readers regard as a way of ruining a nice country walk.)

I was an avid golfer from the age of 11 until I went to Cambridge in 1968, when I decided that it would be impossible to play regularly enough to be considered for the University team and do any academic work. One of my schoolmates, Ivan Morris, came to the sport later than me but rapidly mastered it and was a distinguished scratch golfer for decades.

Unlike many gifted players, though, he’s also been an astute commentator on it, and in recent years has become a fierce critic of the way the sport has been perverted by money and by the malign influence of equipment manufacturers. One of the consequences of this is that players like Rory McIlroy and Jon Rahm now drive the ball so far that championship golf courses are having to be continually lengthened so that they do not become pitch-and-putt toys for these guys.

Now the governing bodies of the sport have decided that Something Has To Be Done. They’ve decided that by 2030 the aerodynamics of golf balls will have to be modified so that they travel less far in the air.

Ivan is not much impressed by this, as his latest column in Irish Golfer makes clear.

Elite golf is not very interesting or exciting anymore; it’s about slamming the ball as far as possible and turning the game into a putting contest. There used to be a lot more to it than that. In modern golf, the ability to hit the same shot over and over is more important than the ability to play different (types of) shots. Top players must be bored to tears with the game they are asked to play for a living, and it is no fun to watch either. There was a time when the driver was the most difficult club in the bag to control. Now, it’s so forgiving one can blaze away without hardly a care in the world. The game has been manipulated by the ball and equipment manufacturers to a state where it has become too easy for pros while remaining more or less as difficult as ever for the club golfer.

Right on.


Something I noticed, while drinking from the Internet firehose.

 Free and liberated ebooks, carefully produced for the true book lover.

Standard Ebooks is a volunteer-driven project that produces new editions of public domain ebooks that are lovingly formatted, open source, free of U.S. copyright restrictions, and free of cost.

Ebook projects like Project Gutenberg transcribe ebooks and make them available for the widest number of reading devices. Standard Ebooks takes ebooks from sources like Project Gutenberg, formats and typesets them using a carefully designed and professional-grade style manual, fully proofreads and corrects them, and then builds them to create a new edition that takes advantage of state-of-the-art ereader and browser technology.

Standard Ebooks aren’t just a beautiful addition to your digital library—they’re a high quality standard to build your own ebooks on. Looks interesting and imaginative. I’ve been thinking of them for Xmas presents.


H/T Jason Kottke (Whom God Preserve).

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Wednesday 13 December, 2023

Remembering Tony Holden

On Monday I went to the Memorial Service for Tony Holden in St Martin-in-the-Fields. He was one of the best journalists of his generation, but also a hospitable friend and a writer who was vastly more erudite that any of his journalistic peers. He wrote, co-authored or edited 35 books for example, including: a fine book on Tchaikovsky; an accomplished biography of Shakespeare as well as biographies of Laurence Olivier and Mozart’s librettist, Lorenza Da Ponte. He was also a translator — of Don Giovanni (co-authored with Amanda, his first wife), Aeschylus and Greek pastoral poetry. Crowning it all was a bestseller — Big Deal: A Year as a Professional Poker Player — on his lifelong obsession: poker. And, finally, a nice autobiography, Based on a True Story, written after the stroke that damaged his body but not his mind.

Our journalistic paths crossed occasionally, but I really got to know him through our shared friendship with Frank Kermode, the great literary critic. Among other things, this led to many memorable journalistic lunches in our favourite hostelry, the Three Horseshoes in Madingley.

The Church was packed for a nicely-choreographed memorial service which included readings and memoirs by his three sons and many grandchildren, plus tributes by Alan Samson, Melvyn Bragg, Magnus Linklater, Tina Brown and Gyles Brandreth. There was nice music, two sterling hymns (Abide with Me and Jerusalem) and a live rendition of that politically-incorrect duet from Don Giovanni, La ci darem la mano (see today’s Musical Alternative).

The one complaint I had was that nobody mentioned that in his youth Tony had been a scratch golfer. But maybe you need to play the game to know what that means. (Hint: it means he was bloody good.)

The coup de grace, though, came at the end, when each pew was given a basket of poker chips, from which we each took one as a token of remembrance of a fine journalist and a memorable friend.

Quote of the Day

”Holding Cop28 in the United Arab Emirates is like hosting a Narcotics Anonymous meeting at a drug dealer’s house. Fossil fuel is the narcotic to which all countries present at the UN summit are addicted and Sultan Ahmed Al-Jaber, president of this year’s negotiations, is a top international dealer.”

  • Cara Augustenborg, writing in yesterday’s Irish Times

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Mozart: Don Giovanni, K. 527 | Act 1 – Là ci darem la mano (Live)


Pavarotti and Sheryl Crow.

Long Read of the Day

Israel’s Failed Bombing Campaign in Gaza: Collective Punishment Won’t Defeat Hamas

Bracing essay by Robert Paper in Foreign Affairs.

Even now, as Israeli forces push deeper into southern Gaza, the exact purpose of Israel’s approach is far from clear. Although Israeli leaders claim to be targeting Hamas alone, the evident lack of discrimination raises real questions about what the government is actually up to. Is Israel’s eagerness to shatter Gaza a product of the same incompetence that led to the massive failure of the Israeli military to counter Hamas’s attack on October 7, the plans for which ended up in the hands of Israeli military and intelligence officials more than a year earlier? Is wrecking northern Gaza and now southern Gaza a prelude to sending the territory’s entire population to Egypt, as proposed in a “concept paper” produced by the Israeli Intelligence Ministry?

Whatever the ultimate goal, Israel’s collective devastation of Gaza raises deep moral problems. But even judged purely in strategic terms, Israel’s approach is doomed to failure—and indeed, it is already failing. Mass civilian punishment has not convinced Gaza’s residents to stop supporting Hamas. To the contrary, it has only heightened resentment among Palestinians. Nor has the campaign succeeded in dismantling the group ostensibly being targeted. Fifty-plus days of war show that while Israel can demolish Gaza, it cannot destroy Hamas. In fact, the group may be stronger now than it was before…

Why is it that states never learn from experience?

Pape is Professor of Political Science and Director of the University of Chicago Project on Security and Threats. He conducted a study analysing the results of over thirty bombing campaigns, including a detailed reconstruction of the Gulf War, and arguing that the key to success is attacking the enemy’s military strategy, not its economy, people, or leaders.

Books, etc.

Just got this after listening to an astonishingly frank (and alarming) discussion about our political future between the author, the economist Diane Coyle and David Runciman. In my bleaker moments, as I ponder (a) the likelihood of humanity finding a way of avoiding climate catastrophe, and (b) the incapacity of liberal democracies to rein in corporations, I think we need a theory of incompetent systems — systems that can’t fix themselves. I came away from the podcast fearing that the need is even more urgent than I had imagined.

My commonplace booklet

Using A.I. to Talk to the Dead

From The New York Times

Some people are turning to A.I. technology as a way to commune with the dead, but its use as part of the mourning process has raised ethical questions while leaving some who have experimented with it unsettled.

Hmmm…. We can expect more of this, I fear. And it’s not entirely novel, either. One academic expert consulted by the Times reminded the reporter that Thomas Edison tried to invent a “spirit phone.”

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Monday 11 December, 2023

Wonders of nature

A large log that’s been lying on our driveway for a while has suddenly sprung a surprise in the form of picturesque clusters of funghi.

Quote of the Day

“The men the American people admire most extravagantly are the most daring liars; the men they detest most violently are those who try to tell them the truth.”

  • H. L. Mencken

He wrote this in 1924. Nothing much has changed.

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

The Waterboys | A Song for the Life


Long Read of the Day

Maybe We Already Have Runaway Machines

Terrific review essay in the New Yorker by Gideon Lewis-Kraus on David Runciman’s new book,  The Handover: How We Gave Control of Our Lives to Corporations, States and AIs. It’s a book I know quite well, having read it both in draft and in published form, and so can appreciate Lewis-Kraus’s insights into it. For people who are wondering whether it might be good Christmas read, the essay might be usefully informative. In a way one could interpret the book as providing a novel perspective on the current hysteria about ‘AI’ and the (possibly-existential) risks the technology might pose for humanity (which are overblown IMO).

Certainly, for anyone wondering what it might be like for humans to live with (or under) super-intelligent machines, then Runciman’s answer is that we already know what it’ll be like: we’ve been living under two kinds of such machines for at least a century and a half! One is the modern sovereign state; the other is the contemporary mega-corporation.

Anyway, the essay is worth your time. As is the book itself.

ChatGPT’s disruptive year

Yesterday’s Observer column:

If a week is a long time in politics, a year is an eternity in tech. Just over 12 months ago, the industry was humming along in its usual way. The big platforms were deep into what Cory Doctorow calls “enshittification” – the process in which platforms go from being initially good to their users, to abusing them to make things better for their business customers and finally to abusing those customers in order to claw back all the value for themselves. Elon Musk was ramping up his efforts to alienate advertisers on Twitter/X and accelerate the death spiral of his expensive toy. TikTok was monopolising every waking hour of teenagers. FTX had just gone bankrupt and at least $1bn of investors’ money had gone awol. Here in the UK, the bedraggled online safety bill was wending its way through parliament. And nobody outside the tech world had ever heard of Geoffrey Hinton or Sam Altman.

And then one day – 30 November 2022, to be precise – everything changed. OpenAI, an upstart tech company headed by Altman that had been building so-called large language models (LLMs) for some years, released ChatGPT. The strange thing, though, was that, even weeks earlier, ChatGPT wasn’t a product…

Do read the whole piece.

Books, etc.

I’ve known and liked Melvyn Bragg ever since the days when I was the Observer’s TV critic, and so have been feeling that it’s about time that I read his autobiography. So I downloaded the Kindle version and started reading. Turns out to have been a good decision. It’s an interesting and affecting memoir.

My commonplace booklet

Sisyphus and the volcano of content

Charles Arthur ponders the impact of AI on our information ecosystem. The tsunami of AI-generated content will mean, he thinks that

content creation by humans will increasingly be pushed into spaces where the human touch makes a difference. And what are we good at? It isn’t articles saying that volleyball is difficult without a ball. It’s going to be stuff that gets people wound up, and also makes you money.

Great Substack post.


Something I noticed, while drinking from the Internet firehose.

  • Sultans of Swing solo, as if it were written by Jimi Hendrix Link

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Friday 8 December, 2023

Vanishing point

Green Park Tube Station the other day.

Quote of the Day

“When the missionaries came to Africa they had the Bible and we had the land. They said ‘Let us pray.’ We closed our eyes. When we opened them we had the Bible and they had the land.”

  • Bishop Desmond Tutu

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Bob Dylan | Bob Dylan’s Dream


Long Read of the Day

 What the Algorithm Does to Young Girls

For years I’ve been convinced that Instagram is terminally toxic for teenage girls. But who am I, a white male boomer, to know anything about this? So maybe you can understand why I have been so struck by the writing of Freya India, and particularly by this essay, which I stumbled upon the other day. If you’re a parent or grandparent of teenage girls, maybe you should read it and ponder.

Let’s say you were born in the year 1999, so Instagram comes out when you are 12. Back then it was fairly benign: a platform to share pretty sunsets and candid pictures with friends. A few years in, the editing app FaceTune arrives (launched in 2014), and everyone on your feed starts to look perfect. You start editing yourself—smoothing your skin, reshaping your nose, restructuring your jaw. By the time you’re 16, your Instagram face is very different from your natural face, which you’ve come to despise.

And then the algorithms are introduced: your feed is no longer chronological but customized. Instagram now serves you not just photos of the friends you follow but of “influencers”—beautiful women from all over the world, selecting the ones that make you feel the most insecure. Soon you get ads to fix your flaws: Botox; fillers; Brazilian Butt Lifts! By the time TikTok comes out you’re 18, and your feed tracks you even faster. Hate your nose? Try this editing app. Not enough? Try this video editing app. Want it in real life? Nose jobs near you! Suddenly you’re in your 20s and you’ve transformed your style, your face, maybe even your body. And yet you are still insecure. You still hate how you look. And every day your feeds flash on with This is your sign to get a nose job!, The earlier you start Botox the better!, Get ready with me for a Brazilian butt lift!

For many girls, this rewiring of their self-image, this pressure to alter their appearance, happened without them realizing it. It was gradual. Subtle. Drip-fed.

And where have we ended up?

Read on to find out.

Henry K, contd.

 A People’s Obituary of Henry Kissinger

Scorching assessment by historian Greg Grandin in The Nation. He contends that “reading Kissinger as an alien out of tune with the chords of American Exceptionalism misses the point of the man. He was in fact the quintessential American, his cast of mind moulded to his place and time”.

At every single one of America’s postwar turning points, moments of crisis when men of good will began to express doubts about American power, Kissinger broke in the opposite direction. He made his peace with Nixon, whom he first thought was unhinged; then with Ronald Reagan, whom he initially considered hollow; and then with George W. Bush’s neocons, despite the fact that they all rose to power attacking Kissinger; and finally with Donald Trump, whom Kissinger fancifully imagined as the realization of his belief that the greatness of great statesmen resides in their spontaneity, their agility, their ability to thrive on chaos, on, as Kissinger wrote in the 1950s, “perpetual creation, on a constant redefinition of goals.”

“There are two kinds of realists,” Kissinger wrote in the early 1960s, “those who manipulate facts and those who create them. The West requires nothing so much as men able to create their own reality.” Trump, the reality-show president, certainly creates his own reality. A “phenomenon,” Kissinger called Trump, saying that “something remarkable and new” might emerge out of his presidency.

It’s a great piece, worth reading in full, which cuts the old brute down to size. Isaiah Berlin, observing K’s weird partnership with Richard Nixon (whom he seemed to despise), christened the beast ’Nixonger’, presumably because it was more than the sum of its grotesque parts.

My commonplace booklet

Charlie Stross (Whom God Preserve) had heard bad things about Google Bard, the search giant’s ‘AI’-assisted search tool. So he decided to test it on a topic on which he is a world expert: himself. It doesn’t end well, but Charlie’s account of it is both funny and serious.

His takeaway: “LLMs don’t answer your questions accurately—rather, they deliver a lump of text in the shape of an answer.”



Something I noticed, while drinking from the Internet firehose.

This is my Treat of the Week, a recording of Benedict Cumberbatch reading a letter of complaint from George Bernard Shaw to the management of the Royal Opera House after attending a performance of Don Giovanni.

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