Wednesday 6 December, 2023

Avian harvesters

Norfolk, on a winter’s morning

Quote of the Day

“I wasn’t actually in love, but I felt a sort of tender curiosity.”

  • F. Scott Fitzgerald in The Great Gatsby

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Advent Calendar 2023 – Day 4 | Niel Gow’s Lament arranged by Seonaid Aitken


Fenella Humphreys is a gifted violinist who’s had the idea of doing a musical Advent Day calendar. Thanks to Sheila Hayman (Whom God Preserve) for the suggestion.

Long Read of the Day

Ben Thompson and ‘Regretful Accelerationism’

Really interesting reflective essay on the implications of what has happened to our culture by one of the sharpest observers of our networked world. Might be behind a paywall (I’m a subscriber to his newsletter), but here’s hoping it isn’t. If it is, see below.

Thompson’s conclusion:

To put it more bluntly, despite the fact my personal and professional life are centered on — and blessed by — the Internet, I’m increasingly skeptical that it can be, as it was in Ready Player One, portrayed as a distinct development from a world increasingly in turmoil. Correlation may not be causation, but sometimes it absolutely is.

In this I do, with reluctance, adopt an accelerationist view of progress; call it r/acc: regretful accelerationism. I suspect we humans do better with constraints; the Internet stripped away the constraint of physical distribution, and now AI is removing the constraint of needing to actually produce content. That this is spoiling the Internet is perhaps the best hope for finding our way back to what is real. Let the virtual world be one of customized content for every individual, with the assumption it is all made-up; some may lose themselves to the algorithm and AI friends, but perhaps more will realize that the only way to survive online is to pay it increasingly little heed.

As an experiment, I asked Claude, the LLM in which I have most confidence, to summarise the essay. Here’s what it came up with:

  1. The portrayal of virtual reality as an oasis in dystopian science fiction books and movies is a cliché. The idea that the online world is a place of escape and freedom while the physical world falls apart seems implausible.
  2. In reality, the physical world has a natural “benevolent monopoly” of interoperability and shared resources, while online worlds are more fragmented into walled gardens and proprietary ecosystems.
  3. The dominance of platforms like Google and Facebook in the 2000s was based on their superior ability to aggregate demand and marshal users’ attention. This gave them outsized power over other players in the digital economy.
  4. The rise of AI-generated content with near-zero marginal costs threatens to overwhelm platforms’ ability to maintain integrity and trust. Spam networks are already using AI tools at scale to game systems optimized for scarcity not abundance.
  5. Social media strips away constraints on anti-social behaviors, resulting in dynamics unlike anything in the real world. Taking social media seriously seems increasingly untenable.
  6. Thompson suggests the demise of the ad-supported model may restore healthier incentives and business models less prone to chasing virality. People may also learn to tune out the excesses of social media and online discourse.
  7. In conclusion, Thompson proposes that removing constraints like distribution costs and content creation costs may spoil the online world but also spur people to value the physical world and real human connections more. Less faith in virtual escapism could be a net positive.

If you’ve had a chance to read the essay you’ll be in a good position to assess how accurate this summary is.

My commonplace booklet

Digital nostalgia


Let’s just state the obvious here: Ayaneo says it’s “paying homage” to the Macintosh, which is a kind way of saying, “We copied the thing pretty much exactly.” This device is the spitting image of Apple’s ’80s-era computer, right down to the floppy drive and the rainbow sticker. (Ayaneo made the sticker a flag shape instead of an apple, though — there’s paying homage and then there’s paying lawyer fees, you know what I mean?) It’s smaller than a Macintosh, but it’s beige and rectangular and even has a black space where the old screen would have gone.

On the other hand…

This thing has five USB ports (one USB-C and four USB-A), plus HDMI, DisplayPort, a headphone jack, ethernet, Bluetooth, and Wi-Fi. You can get it with Windows 11 or buy the “bare” version and install Linux or SteamOS or whatever else your heart desires.


Something I noticed, while drinking from the Internet firehose.

The Political Ideologies of Silicon Valley

Terrific series of seminar papers from a seminar hosted by Johns Hopkins’ Center for Economy and Society and Stanford’s Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences.

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 4 December, 2023

The view from here

Dingle Bay, early yesterday morning.

Quote of the Day

”Happiness makes up in height for what it lacks in depth.”

  • Robert Frost

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Van Morrison | Saint Dominic’s Preview


Long Read of the Day

Last Week at Marienbad

Nice witty, ironic essay by Lauren Oyler about a trip she and her boyfriend Thom made to Marienbad. It would, she thought,

confirm that we were in a relationship, and that this relationship was not going to remain forever stuck in the past, in a phase of remembering and fighting over what we remembered – over things that had happened, seriously, the previous year. According to the couple clichés, a trip is a new memory you make together. It’s also a test: how moody one of you might become at a setback; how neurotic the other might be about the schedule; how fundamentally incompatible you are suddenly revealed, in an unfamiliar setting, to be. Kafka knew this. When he and his on-again, off-again fiancée Felice Bauer met at Marienbad for ten days in July 1916, they fought the entire time, unable to overcome the ceaseless rain and ‘the hardships of living together. Forced upon us by strangeness, pity, lust, cowardice, vanity, and only deep down, perhaps, a thin little stream worthy of the name of love, impossible to seek out, flashing once in the moment of a moment.’

We went because we thought it would be funny; we came to realize the movie isn’t even really set there. It takes place, if not in the mind, then in a composite setting of several nineteenth-century Central European spa towns, in a sense of vague possibility and in danger of being lost. The misunderstanding was Thom’s fault. He had seen the movie once before, a long time ago; I had not, but I knew I would have to eventually, because it’s one of those movies you have to see. ‘It’s a trip,’ he told me…

I really enjoyed it. Hope you do too.

Europe’s AI crackdown bends to tech lobbying

Yesterday’s Observer column:

Wednesday will be a fateful day in Brussels, a faraway city of which post-Brexit Britain knows little and cares less. It’s the day on which the EU’s AI proposals enter the final stages of a tortuous lawmaking process. The bill is a landmark (first in the world) attempt to seriously regulate artificial intelligence (AI) based on its capacity to cause harm and will soon be in the final phase of the legislative process – so-called “trilogues” – where the EU parliament, commission and council decide what should be in the bill, and therefore become part of EU law. Big day, high stakes, in other words.

However, the bill is now hanging in the balance because of internal disagreement about some key aspects of the proposed legislation, especially those concerned with regulation of “foundation” AI models that are trained on massive datasets. In EU-speak these are “general-purpose AI” (GPAI) systems – ones capable of a range of general tasks (text synthesis, image manipulation, audio generation and so on) – such as GPT-4, Claude, Llama etc. These systems are astonishingly expensive to train and build: salaries for the geeks who work on them start at Premier League striker level and go stratospheric (with added stock options); a single 80GB Nvidia Hopper H100 board – a key component of machine-learning hardware – costs £26,000, and you need thousands of them to build a respectable system. Not surprisingly, therefore, there are only about 20 firms globally that can afford to play this game. And they have money to burn…

(And also to spend on lobbying.)

Do read the whole thing.

My commonplace booklet

Remembering Kissinger

Bill Emmott’s reflections on “the prickly, ruthless, amoral intellectual that was Henry Kissinger.” (Er, isn’t he forgetting ‘war criminal’?)

Emmott liked, he says,

an opinion piece in the New York Times, headlined “Henry Kissinger: the hypocrite” by Ben Rhodes, a former member of President Obama’s NSC. Rhodes outlined especially well the enduring impact of Kissinger’s amoral actions in places such as Chile, Bangladesh, Cambodia and Laos on America’s reputation as well as any claims it might make about seeking to defend “the international rules-based order” (which is not a claim Kissinger will ever have made, at least not to my knowledge). Sometimes these days people are inclined to write that during the Cold War the severity and clarity of the ideological and military confrontation with the USSR was such as to make brutal actions such as those somehow more acceptable, but I am not sure future Cold War historians will agree. Those actions led to a considerable backlash against America especially but not only in Europe, one that it will be reasonable for future historians to argue might have made the Cold War last longer. Rather less contestable is the fact that memories of such actions lie behind some of today’s unwillingness in Latin America, Southern Africa and many parts of Asia to support the West over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The war in Iraq certainly plays a big part in that, but so do Kissinger’s actions in places like Chile, Angola and Indochina.

Thanks to Andrew Arends for the link.

My first thought on learning of Kissinger’s death was of Tom Lehrer’s crack that satire died the day he won the Nobel Peace prize.

Ben Rhodes’s piece is worth reading, btw. Kissinger, he writes,

exemplified the gap between the story that America, the superpower, tells and the way that we can act in the world. At turns opportunistic and reactive, his was a foreign policy enamored with the exercise of power and drained of concern for the human beings left in its wake. Precisely because his America was not the airbrushed version of a city on a hill, he never felt irrelevant: Ideas go in and out of style, but power does not.

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 1 December, 2023

Xmas gift ideas!

In an American newspaper — in 1912!

We EV owners used to feel smug about being ‘early adopters’. Turns out we are over a century behind the curve!

Thanks to Quentin (a fellow EV owner) for spotting it.

Quote of the Day

”You’re not a star until they can spell your name in Karachi.”

  • Humphrey Bogart

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Franz Schubert | Nachtgesang im Walde Op. 139 | Ruhrkohle-Chor


Long Read of the Day

 Douglas Murray: Wartime Diary

Eyewitness reporting from Israel and Gaza.

I was at the children’s hospital in Tel Aviv when the first children and their parents were released. When the helicopters landed and the hostages got out, IDF soldiers blocked their faces with screens to protect them from the glare of the cameras. But I’d already been sent a single photo taken by the Arab press that showed some of the mothers with their children inside a bus when they were still in Gaza.

The terror on their faces. They looked as though they’d aged by decades.

But at this moment, there was joy. As the helicopters landed, traffic stopped, and people got out of their cars and broke into song. They clapped and their voices rang out as they welcomed back the hostages with songs like “Hevenu Shalom Alechem.” (“We brought you peace.”)

As it happened, 12 of the 13 returnees that night were from Kibbutz Nir Oz, the first place I visited on my trip to Israel…

A premonition…

One of the people I’ve followed for years is Robert Reich, who taught at Berkeley for years and was Secretary for Labour in Bill Clinton’s Administration.

In 1994, when he held that post, he gave a speech at Thanksgiving which I’ve just watched. It’s very striking, and a good way to spend nine minutes or so.


His colleagues in the Clinton Administration were not amused, btw. Here’s how Reich remembers what happened:

Speeches by Cabinet members were supposed to be approved in advance by the White House, but in this case I doubted the White House would approve my speech because it was so foreboding. So I sent to the White House a different speech — one that was anodyne and boring.

I thought I could get away with this because I doubted the media would pay much attention to my speech.

I was wrong. It made headlines.

Not surprisingly, I was ordered to the White House — where an ambush awaited me. Clinton’s chief of staff Leon Panetta, his economic adviser Bob Rubin, his political adviser George Stephanopoulos, and other top advisers told me in no uncertain terms that I had violated White House rules.

They accused me of not being a team player and barred me from making any further speeches.

I told them I didn’t work for them. I had been nominated by the president and confirmed by the Senate, and they had no power over me. I’d be silenced only if the president directed me to be.

Well, that was the end of it. I knew Bill Clinton wouldn’t tell me to stop speaking my mind.

My commonplace booklet

Yesterday was the first anniversary of the arrival of ChatGPT. Azeem Azhar had the nice idea of asking its GenerativeAI sidekick, DALL-E, to produce an image of a birthday cake for his newsletter.

Azeem’s comment:

“You’ve shown us how vulnerable we are to strings of text produced by a machine – willing to believe and put faith in them. Even though you still misspell your own name on your birthday cakes.”

See also  How ChatGPT rewired the tech world .


Something I noticed, while drinking from the Internet firehose.

  • Charles Arthur (Whom God Preserve) noticed a piece in Britain’s only broadsheet tabloid about the IEA’s observation that the oil and gas industry faces losses of more than $3 trillion (£2.4 trillion) because of net zero policies.

“Note the faint undertone in this story,” Charles writes, “which appeared in the Daily Telegraph, favourite of the Tory-voting stock-owning (ancient) generation: ‘net zero’ will do these things to companies’ valuations, and therefore net zero is bad. Rather than these companies are contributing to wrecking the planet, and are therefore bad and deserve to fall in value concomitant to the damage they’re causing.”

Quite, as the late Queen might have observed.

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!