Wednesday 31 January, 2024

Cambridge, late afternoon

St John’s College

Snapped on my way to a book launch in Heffers.

Quote of the Day

”It would be possible to say without exaggeration that the miners’ leaders were the stupidest men in England if we had not frequent occasion to meet the owners.”

  • F.E. Smith

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Martin Hayes and Cliodhna Ní Aodain | The Westerly Edge


On Monday night we went to Martin’s one-man show in Cambridge and came away mesmerised. He’s an astonishing musician. Who knew a little violin could express so much?

Long Read of the Day

Cory Doctorow’s McLuhan lecture on enshittification

On Monday night, in the Canadian Embassy in Berlin, Cory Doctorow (Whom God Preserve) gave the Annual Marshall McLuhan lecture at the Transmediale festival. His subject was enshittification, the term he coined for the life-cycle of tech platforms.

The transcript is long but worth your time. In a way, it’s the most succinct tour d’horizon of the dystopian empires that tech companies have built. And Cory never pulls punches.

For example:

Most of our global economy is dominated by five or fewer global companies. If smaller companies refuse to sell themselves to these cartels, the giants have free rein to flout competition law further, with ‘predatory pricing’ that keeps an independent rival from gaining a foothold.

When refused Amazon’s acquisition offer, Amazon lit $100m on fire, selling diapers way below cost for months, until went bust, and Amazon bought them for pennies on the dollar, and shut them down.

Competition is a distant memory. As Tom Eastman says, the web has devolved into ‘five giant websites filled with screenshots of text from the other four,’ so these giant companies no longer fear losing our business.


Google and Facebook – who pretend they are called Alphabet and Meta – have been unscathed by European privacy law. That’s not because they don’t violate the GDPR (they do!). It’s because they pretend they are headquartered in Ireland, one of the EU’s most notorious corporate crime-havens.

And Ireland competes with the EU other crime havens – Malta, Luxembourg, Cyprus and sometimes the Netherlands – to see which country can offer the most hospitable environment for all sorts of crimes. Because the kind of company that can fly an Irish flag of convenience is mobile enough to change to a Maltese flag if the Irish start enforcing EU laws.

Which is how you get an Irish Data Protection Commission that processes fewer than 20 major cases per year, while Germany’s data commissioner handles more than 500 major cases, even though Ireland is nominal home to the most privacy-invasive companies on the continent.

You get the idea. He’s one of the smartest and most creative people I know. I kept wondering as I read the transcript what the sober citizens of Berlin were making of it. And whether there is now a German translation of enshittification.

My commonplace booklet

The UK National Grid Dashboard

We get our electricity from Octopus, because it seemed to be the most imaginative and efficient energy supplier in the UK.

Recently Octopus has been working with UK Power Networks on an imaginative flexibility service called Power-ups to help balance the local grid in East Anglia. The scheme funds free electricity for some areas where there’s regularly extra wind energy available.

It works like this:

  • Power-ups are usually an hour or two long, at times when wind and solar make up a high percentage of the electricity mix (often in the middle of the day).
  • Octopus emails us (usually the day before) and we opt in if want to participate at that time.
  • When it’s time to Power up we can use as much electricity as we like and it’s free.

All of which means that I’ve started to take a healthy interest in how the Grid is dynamically balanced.

And why I find the National Grid Live dashboard fascinating. Maybe you will too.


Something I noticed, while drinking from the Internet firehose.

  • Two Donald Trump supporters die and go to heaven. God meets them at the Pearly Gates. “Tell us, “they say, “what were the real results of the 2020 election, and who was behind the fraud? “God answers: “My children, there was no fraud.” After a few seconds of stunned silence, one turns to the other, whispering: “this goes higher up than we thought. “

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 29 January, 2024

All that remains…

… of a groyne on a beach in North Norfolk.

Quote of the Day

“The Massachusetts Institute of Technology now has almost eight times as many nonfaculty employees as faculty employees. In the University of California system, the number of managers and senior professionals swelled by 60 percent between 2004 and 2014. The number of tenure-track faculty members grew by just 8 percent.”

Hard to believe, isn’t it? But useful if you’re seeking to understand what has happened to elite schools in the US.

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Matt Molloy | The Morning Thrush


Long Read of the Day

Please list all the tweets you regret not posting

Thoughtful and perceptive Substack post by Charles Arthur (Whom God Preserve). It was triggered by a remark of Hugo Rifkind on a podcast who, in response to a journalist’s rueful expression of regret about something she had tweeted in the past, offered his view on what one should do in such situations: “It’s a good rule of thumb that every time you want to tweet something: Don’t. And you’ll very rarely look back and go ‘I wish I’d tweeted that’. Whereas you’ll very often be glad you didn’t.”

This axiom, writes Charles,

is relearnt again and again by people the world over; usually it happens when they have aged somewhat from the years when they wrote those tweets (see, that’s why we can still call them tweets) and find themselves in a job or position where suddenly the freedom of expression and eager audience they treasured in their youth seem less attractive than just having kept their virtual mouth shut.

Sometimes, though, it happens with people who you really think should know better. And I was fascinated by the contents of an employment tribunal judgment that came out earlier this week, in which a professor who had worked at the Open University (OU) took up a case claiming that as an employer the university had failed to protect her from harassment and discrimination over her beliefs by colleagues…

Do read it. And wonder at the stupidity/carelessness of nominally intelligent people. And at the way a university can get this stuff badly wrong.

It was expensive and underpowered, but the Apple Macintosh still changed the world

Yesterday’s Observer column:

Forty years ago this week, on 22 January 1984, a stunning advertising video was screened during the Super Bowl broadcast in the US. It was directed by Ridley Scott and evoked the dystopian atmosphere of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. Long lines of grey, shaven zombies march in lockstep through a tunnel into a giant amphitheatre, where they sit in rows gawping up at a screen on which an authoritarian figure is intoning a message. “Today, we celebrate the first glorious anniversary of the information purification directives,” he drones. “We have created, for the first time in all history, a garden of pure ideology.”

Then the camera turns to a young woman carrying a sledgehammer, hotly pursued by sinister cops in riot gear. Just as Big Brother reaches his peroration, “Our enemies shall talk themselves to death, and we will bury them with their own confusion. We shall prevail!” she hurls the hammer at the big screen, which explodes in a flurry of light and smoke, leaving the zombies open-mouthed in shock. And then comes the payoff, scrolling up the screen: “On January 24th, Apple Computer will introduce Macintosh. And you’ll see why 1984 won’t be like ‘1984’.”

Chutzpah doesn’t come any better than that…

Read on

Books, etc.

The Economist has been sifting through lists of books due in 2024. Here are a few I thought might be interesting.

  • AI Needs You: How We Can Change AI’s Future and Save Our Own by Verity Harding, formerly of Google DeepMind. Due out in March.

  • The Heart and the Chip: Our Bright Future with Robots by Daniela Rus, director of the AI laboratory at MIT. Due out in March.

  • Literary Theory for Robots: How Computers Learned to Write by Dennis Yi Tenen. Blurb reads “Literary Theory for Robots reveals the hidden history of modern machine intelligence, taking readers on a spellbinding journey from medieval Arabic philosophy to visions of a universal language, past Hollywood fiction factories and missile defence systems trained on Russian folktales. In this provocative reflection on the shared pasts of literature and computer science, former Microsoft engineer and professor of comparative literature Dennis Yi Tenen provides crucial context for recent developments in AI, which holds important lessons for the future of human living with smart technology.”

My commonplace booklet

RIP Peter Magubane

From his obituary in LFI…

Born Peter Sexford Magubane on January 18, 1932 in Vrededorp (today Pageview, a suburb of Johannesburg), the youngster grew up in Sophiatown. He started using a Kodak Brownie box camera, while still at school. As a photojournalist in the mid-fifties, he began documenting the everyday racism of the Apartheid system. In doing so, he was frequently attacked and, in 1985, even shot at. He landed in prison a number of times, spending 600 days in solitary confinement, and was banned from working in his profession for many years. “We were not allowed to carry a camera in the open if the police were involved, so I often had to hide my camera to get the pictures I wanted. On occasion I hid my camera in a hollowed-out Bible, firing with a cable release in my pocket. At another time, at a trial in Zeerust from which the press were banned, I hid my Leica IIIg in a hollowed-out loaf of bread and pretended to eat while I was actually shooting pictures; when the bread went down, I bought milk and hid the camera in the carton. And I got away with it. You had to think fast and be fast to survive in those days,” the photographer recalled.

Photo credit

Pedantic observation: This is a lovely photograph, but it must be from a later demonstration of the camouflage technique mentioned in the obit, because the lens in the picture is a Summilux and that was available only in a Leica M-series (bayonet) mount, whereas the Leica IIIg took only screw-mount lenses.


Nice email from Rudy Adrian triggered by my Observer column about the 40th anniversary of the Apple Macintosh. “I still use mine today,” he writes,

because the MIDI software from 1987 is still exactly right for me to make music with (it just records and stores note information, not audio).

Funnily enough, after thirty years of creating ambient music as a hobby, people are now falling asleep to my music …

I do believe the success of the Mac was not because it was over-priced and underpowered, but because it was chosen by talented software writers to create programs for. For instance, ProTools – still the industry standard for mixing sound for film and television, was originally Mac only. The story of [Peter Gotcher] working from his parent’s garage in the 1980s to create sound-manipulating software is one similar to Steve Jobs and Wozniak’s tale.

I hate Apple for its built-in obsolescence and locked-in approach, but some of the 3rd-party software was great!

Yep. Dave Winer is wonderfully eloquent on that particular subject.

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 26 January, 2024


The Law Faculty building at Cambridge. Always reminds me of a beached cruise liner. It’s named after my late friend and mentor, David Williams and was designed by — yes, you guessed it! — Norman Foster.

Quote of the Day

”It’s starting to feel like the only thing scarier than China’s problems are Beijing’s solutions.”

  • Dan Wang

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Van Morrison | Shake Rattle and Roll


Nobody sleeps at the back when this is on.

Long Read of the Day

Dan Wang’s 2023 Long Letter

Dan is the most perceptive China-watcher I’ve read, and every January he produces a ‘Long Letter’ in which he reflects on the year just past. I’ve been reading them for some years, and they have always been informative, interesting and beautifully written.

This, the latest one is no exception.


The most important story of China in 2023 might be that the expected good news of economic recovery didn’t materialize, when the end of zero-Covid should have lifted consumer spirits; and that the unexpected bad news of political uncertainty kept cropping up, though the previous year’s party congress should have consolidated regime stability. China may have hit its GDP growth target of 5 percent this year, but its main stock index has fallen -17% since the start of 2023. More perplexing were the politics. 2023 was a year of disappearing ministers, disappearing generals, disappearing entrepreneurs, disappearing economic data, and disappearing business for the firms that have counted on blistering economic growth.

No wonder that so many Chinese are now talking about rùn. Chinese youths have in recent years appropriated this word in its English meaning to express a desire to flee. For a while, rùn was a way to avoid the work culture of the big cities or the family expectations that are especially hard for Chinese women. Over the three years of zero-Covid, after the state enforced protracted lockdowns, rùn evolved to mean emigrating from China altogether.

One of the most incredible trends I’ve been watching this year is that rising numbers of Chinese nationals are being apprehended at the US-Mexico border. In January, US officers encountered around 1000 Chinese at the southwest border; the numbers kept rising, and by November they encountered nearly 5000.

Many Chinese are flying to Ecuador, where they have visa-free access, so that they can take the perilous road through the Darién Gap…

It’s the kind of stuff you don’t find in the Economist or Foreign Affairs. Worth your time.

Books, etc.

Very Ordinary Men 

Sam Kriss in The Point gives a masterclass in how to take a biographer apart. In this case the specimen on the slab is Walter Isaacson, whose most recent project was a biography of Musk.

Walter Isaacson is the perfect writer for the biographies of our times because he appears to be a born sycophant, and fate decreed that he would be in the right position, at the right moment, to spread as much propagandistic bullshit as possible. After stints at Harvard, Oxford, the Sunday Times and Time magazine—Christopher Hitchens called him “one of the best magazine journalists in America” — Isaacson was appointed CEO at CNN in July 2001. During the first phase of the war in Afghanistan, he sent his staff a memo, warning them not “to focus too much on the casualties or hardship in Afghanistan.” Every mention of people being vaporized in their homes by U.S. bombers had to be “balanced” with reminders that these were the people responsible for 9/11. “You want to make sure people understand that when they see civilian suffering there, it’s in the context of a terrorist attack that caused enormous suffering in the United States.” Later, he told PBS that he wasn’t really so jingoistic: CNN initially tried reporting on the casualties in Afghanistan, but then they received some pushback. “You would get phone calls,” he said. “Big people in corporations were calling up and saying, you’re being anti-American here.” So he caved. What else was he supposed to do? Follow the demands of human dignity even in the face of mild, non-life-threatening opposition? Don’t be ridiculous…

And he hasn’t got to the Musk book yet.

My commonplace booklet

No, multimodal ChatGPT is not going to “trivially” solve Generative AI’s copyright problems

Gary Marcus is having none of Arvind Narayanan’s and Sayash Kapoor’s argument that “output similarity” —the inconvenient fact that Generative AIs sometimes produce near-exact copies of copyrighted material (whether they be graphics or stories in the New York Times) — is “easily fixable”. I’m with him on that. Interesting because Narayanan and Kapoor run a pretty sceptical and well-informed commentary on this stuff. But then, even Homer nodded sometimes.


Something I noticed, while drinking from the Internet firehose.

  • As you may have gathered, I don’t much like the elite gabfest that is the World Economic Forum held every January in Davos. So it’s annoying to have to report the that this video of a conversation between a number of tech experts on “The Expanding Universe of Generative Models” is rather good. So good in fact that it warranted 45 minutes of my attention. What’s particularly interesting is what Jann LeCunn said about the learning capacities of young children. If you’re pushed for time, his remarks on that topic start at 7.50.


John Seeley thinks I’ve been a bit hard on the selfie-obsessed rats.

A word on behalf of the rats …

Though I liked your linkage of people, Skinner boxes and Meta etc, I want to indicate that the rats were involved in the life-serious food-and-survival quest. Why waste rat time gnawing through a plastic tower, a camera or cables when some guy is providing sugar for very little effort?

Touché. On the other hand, the ‘sugar’ in the human case is dopamine!

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!

Wednesday 24 January, 2024

Not a post office scandal

Merely a New Year knitted top for a postbox in Ely!

Quote of the Day

”Life must be understood backwards. But with this, one forgets the second proposition, that it must be lived forwards.”

  • Søren Kierkegaard

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Richard Strauss | Four Last Songs, TrV 296 – 4. Im Abendrot | Jessye Norman


I love this. The songs were composed in 1948, when Strauss was 84, and premiered at the Albert Hall in London on 22 May 1950 by soprano Kirsten Flagstad and the Philharmonia Orchestra, conducted by Furtwängler.

Long Read of the Day

AI rights and human harms

Terrifically sharp essay by Helen Beetham (Whom God Preserve), a writer who takes no prisoners.

A possible captive in this context is Jeff Jarvis, a distinguished journalist and academic (and author of an interesting book, The Gutenberg Parenthesis, which I’ve read and enjoyed). When generative AI arrived on the scene, Jeff was excited about its possibilities for journalism and penned an essay cautioning us against imposing unreasonable restrictions on the training of LLMs (Large Language Models) like CPT-4 et al.

His piece included the following stirring paragraph:

To this day, journalists — whether on radio or at The New York Times — read, learn from, and repurpose facts and knowledge gained from the work of fellow journalists. Without that assured freedom, newspapers and news on television and radio and online could not function. The real question at hand is whether artificial intelligence should have the same right that journalists and we all have: the right to read, the right to learn, the right to use information once known. If it is deprived of such rights, what might we lose?

That last, rhetorical, question is what irked Helen. “Whose rights are really at risk?” she asks

Who or what is being ‘deprived’ of development? If we read closely, it is not the models at all, but ‘we’ who will ‘lose out’ if AI is not allowed to ‘learn’. This is not a coherent moral position. If models have rights, it can only be on their own behalf: their rights must relate to their own needs and purposes and vulnerability to ‘loss’, not to anyone else’s.

So what passes for moral philosophy in Silicon Valley really amounts to this: let big tech get on with doing big tech, without annoyances like legal frameworks and workers rights. The very last thing these corporations want is a new class of entities with rights they might have to worry about. They don’t want to give up valuable server space to failed or defunct models just because they ‘learned’ or once passed some spurious test of ‘sentience’: they want to decommission the heck out of them and make way for something more profitable. That is hardly a rights-respecting relationship. No, the models that big tech really cares about are business models and the thing they want to be accorded more rights, power and agency is the business itself.

Warming to her task, she exhumes an essay in a special issue of Robotics and AI about whether robots should have moral standing. “The essay,” she writes,

uses the examples of ‘servants’, ‘slaves’ and ‘animals’ to argue that what matters is how ‘virtuously’ the ‘owner’ behaves towards those in his power. The lived experience of slavery does briefly appear – so props to the author for realising that there might be an issue here – but in the end only to lament that the robot-slave metaphor is ‘limited’ by the unhappy particulars. Not that the ‘virtuous slave owner’ is a problematic moral guide. Not that human slavery should conscientiously be avoided as a metaphor for something else, such as the rights of non-human machines.

You are free to use the metaphors you choose, guys, but your choices betray your perspective. And in all these cases, the perspective is from someone with power. The power to choose, the power to behave nicely, or not so nicely, towards other people, women, servants, slaves, animals, chatbots, substrates. What these choices give away is a complete lack of understanding of the agency, the consciousness, the realities and perspectives and struggles of other people. The puzzle you can see lurking behind these examples is: where did all these rights of non-white non-guys come from? And the answer: it can only have been from the enlightened virtue of the white guys in charge. They decided that women deserved the vote, that slaves should be free. And in exactly the same way, they can decide to endow rights, privileges, consciousness even, to things they have created from their own incredible brains.

There’s lots more in that vein, which makes for a striking, exhilarating read.

My commonplace booklet

 Our Rodent Selfies, Ourselves

From the New York Times

A photographer trained two rats to take photographs of themselves. Guess what: They didn’t want to stop.

(Instagram and TikTok users, look away now.)

Augustine Lignier, a professional photographer, began to wonder why so many humans feel compelled to photograph their lives and share those images online.

So he built his own version of a Skinner box — a tall, transparent tower with an attached camera — and released two pet-store rats inside. Whenever the rats pressed the button inside the box, they got a small dose of sugar and the camera snapped their photo. The resulting images were immediately displayed on a screen, where the rats could see them. (“But honestly I don’t think they understood it,” Mr. Lignier said.)

Do read it. And reflect. We are the rats in the Skinner boxes devised by Meta, ByteDance, Google & Co. But at least Mr Lignier’s rodents, unlike us, didn’t have better things to do with their lives. We, on the other hand, do. Go figure.


Something I noticed, while drinking from the Internet firehose.

  • Machine-learning (‘AI’) is coming for your signature. Link

Just as well we’ve stopped writing cheques.

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 22 January, 2024

Days like this

Just an ordinary picture, taken on an ordinary winter Saturday afternoon. I was sitting after lunch brooding on the Financial Times’s coverage of the Post Office scandal (about which I had written the next day’s Observer column), and listening to Van Morrison singing ‘Days Like This’, when suddenly the light changed and I saw the table — cluttered with (among other things) newspapers, a copy of Seamus Heaney’s letters that I’d been reading, a vase of tulips, a significant number of pots of newly-made marmalade — in a different light. And because one of the great things about smartphones is that one always has a camera to hand, I snapped it. And then thought that we rarely take such pictures. Generally we take photographs because something (or someone) is going on. But at this particular moment, nothing was happening. And yet it was a special moment.

Quote of the Day

”Somebody’s boring me. I think it’s me”

  • Dylan Thomas

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Van Morrison | Days Like This


Long Read of the Day

The Inside Story of Josef Koudelka’s Career

Josef Koudelka is IMO the greatest living photographer, so it’s great to learn that Aperture has published a ‘visual biography’ of him, written by Melissa Harris with his full cooperation.

This is the transcript of a terrific interview of Harris that Lesley A. Martin has done.

Here’s how it starts:

Martin: How do you prepare to take a project like this, in which you have to understand the entirety of a life—or at least try to? What is the process of research?

Harris: We just started talking. I wasn’t really sure where to start with him, and so I thought I would start personally. He really did not know what he’d gotten himself into. It was brutal, our first meeting: Nobody was unpleasant or anything, but it was just really hard for him to talk about his parents or to talk about certain things about his childhood. Not because he had bad relationships or had been unhappy, but because he is very private, and in his own way, quite shy. At the start, it was mostly about figuring out the pacing and just going slowly, letting him formulate responses to questions he hadn’t been asked before or that he had stealthily evaded…

It’s fascinating from beginning to end. And it has a few of his most famous images strewn through it.

I’ve been thinking about his work for a while recently, because I’ve gone back to black-and-white photography, and discovered that, after years of shooting in colour, one has to re-learn how to do it. Photographers like Koudelka are inspiring because they demonstrate how powerful monochrome can be. It’s a completely different medium.

And I’ve ordered the book.

If the Horizon Post Office story is treated as a scandal, nothing will change

Yesterday’s Observer column:

The key question raised by the Horizon story is whether it’s a scandal or a crisis. Why is that important? Simply this: although scandals generate controversy, shock, anguish and anger, they don’t result in significant change. After a while, the public becomes bored, the media caravan moves on – to the next story, the next scandal; politicians piously declare that “lessons have been learned” (though heads rarely roll), and so on. Crises, on the other hand, do lead to systemic change, at least in working democracies. Laws change, institutions are closed or radically reformed, culprits go to jail… life does not go on as before.

There’s no question that the Post Office’s inhumane treatment of sub-postmasters constituted an egregious scandal. And initially there were indications that it might actually have become a crisis. Just a week after Mr Bates vs the Post Office aired on ITV, for example, the prime minister announced that the government would be introducing a new law to quickly exonerate and compensate the victims of “one of the greatest miscarriages of justice in our nation’s history”.

A whole new law, eh? Maybe this scandal is a crisis after all. Not so fast. Although we don’t know the detail yet, it will just be a piece of legislation to right a specific wrong – a bit like the Dangerous Dogs Act of 1991, say. But it will do nothing about the systemic problems that led to the mistakes and injustices in the first place…

Read on

My commonplace booklet

An interesting question

Willard McCarty is one of the most thoughtful and scholarly people I know. He’s also annoying (for me) because he seems to have read everything . He’s the Editor of the Humanist daily newsletter (to which I’m a devoted subscriber), and he has a nice habit of lobbing hard questions into the community which often trigger interesting epistolary debates.

On Friday last, this is what he asked:

For the purposes of argument, let’s put aside whether Sigmund Freud’s theories of mind are correct or the latest word on the psyche. Let’s ask instead whether the great influence they have had and continue to have tells us something important about how we construe mind. For some of the world’s inhabitants (e.g. at least some indigenous Amazonians) the idea of ‘the unconscious’ (a black-box mind) makes no sense whatever. To paraphrase a forthcoming paper, everyone in a specific tribe knows what’s going on in another person’s mind; what they have no access to is what this person’s unknowable relations with other humans and with non-human others will lead him or her to do.

The question I want to ask is this: what do we do on discovering people who think in radically different ways than we do? Would not the best response be to question our possibly quite provincial assumptions about mind?

Why is this significant for those interested in computing? For one thing, taking radical diversity in the exercise of intelligence just might sensitise us to the anomalies of the artificial kind, and suggest that its failures to perform as expected just might open a window on emergent radical diversity in smart machines.

Needless to say, this has led me (and no doubt others) into exploring numerous rabbit-holes. Two I’ve been down already are Samuel Hammond’s essay “Where is all this heading? and Sam Altman’s “The Merge”. What I’ve learned so far is that I’m out of my depth.


Something I noticed, while drinking from the Internet firehose.

UK parcel firm disables AI after poetic bot goes rogue

From Reuters

A dissatisfied customer of DPD tricked its ‘customer service’ chatbot into writing a poem about how bad it was. This is how it went…

There once was a chatbot named DPD,
Who was useless at providing help.
It could not track parcels,
Or give information on delivery dates, And it could not even tell you when your driver would arrive.

DPD was a waste of time,
And a customer’s worst nightmare.
It was so bad,
That people would rather call the depot directly,
Than deal with the useless chatbot…

You get the idea. Not a promising poet. But DPD pulled its plug nevertheless.

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 19 January, 2024


Well, it is cold around here just now.

Quote of the Day

”The true hypocrite is the one who ceases to perceive his deception, the one who lies with sincerity.”

  • André Gide

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Sony Terry & Brownie McGee | Bring it on home to me


Decades ago, I heard them play in the Cambridge Guildhall. The kind of evening one never forgets.

Long Read of the Day

 Davos duplicity

This is the week of the nauseating annual gabfest in Switzerland, in which powerful elites gather to smooch and do virtue-signalling. It’s mostly pass-the-sickbag stuff, but this year’s edition is really OTT: the ‘theme’ is “Rebuilding Trust”, which is beyond satire, given that most of the big US corporations are there.

Robert Reich’s blog post nails it. These titans have been confessing, apparently, how worried they are that Trump will be re-elected.

“Yet”, observes Reich,

”many of them are fueling Trump and political upheaval in America by continuing to bankroll the 147 members of Congress who refused to certify Joe Biden’s victory on January 6, 2021.

Recall that after the certification vote and storming of the Capitol, a cavalcade of big corporations announced with great fanfare that they had stopped making political contributions to these 147.

Since then, most have resumed campaign donations to them — thereby helping the deniers get reelected and threatening the stability of American democracy.

All told, at least 228 of America’s biggest (Fortune 500) corporations — representing more than two-thirds of some 300 companies with political action committees — have given $26.3 million to election deniers during the 2021-2024 election cycles…

Do read it. But check your blood-pressure first.

My commonplace booklet

Invisible Ink: At the CIA’s Creative Writing Group

What, you didn’t know the CIA had a creative writing group? Me neither. Not the propaganda department, either; ‘Real’ creative writing. But first you have to negotiate the parking problems at Langley.

Fabulous essay by Johannes Lichtman in The Paris Review.

On the agreed-upon morning a few weeks later, I left my apartment in D.C. and drove into the haze of Canadian wildfire smoke that was floating over the city. By the time I turned off the George Washington Parkway at the George Bush Center for Intelligence exit, and on to a restricted usage road, I was already nervous. I’m the kind of person who weighs and measures my suitcases before flying, lest I be scolded at the airport, and I do not like driving down roads with signs like EMPLOYEES ONLY and WILL BE ARRESTED.

At the gate intercom, I gave my name and social security number—Vivian had gathered this information and more ahead of time, over a series of phone calls, each from a different phone number—and a police officer gave me a visitor’s badge that was to be displayed on my person at all times. He warned me that I was to be escorted at all times.

I met Vivian in a lot between the first gate and the second gate, where her car was the only one parked. She gave me another badge that appeared identical to the first. I left my phone in my car as instructed, and we got into Vivian’s car and drove to the second gate. That was when things started not going as planned.

Four agitated police officers blocked our way.

“He can’t leave his car here!” they yelled when Vivian rolled down her window.

“But I cleared this ahead of time,” Vivian said.

“He can’t leave his car here. It’s a security risk.”

“But how am I supposed to escort him if we can’t drive together?”

“Ma’am,” one of them said, “I just do parking.” Read on.

It gets better. Nice to know that the fate of Western civilisation is in the hands of these guys.


Something I noticed, while drinking from the Internet firehose.

  •  How is AI education going to work?. In two different ways, according to Tyler Cowen.

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!

Wednesday 17 January, 2024

This is how you do it

Trinity Street, Cambridge.

Quote of the Day

”I love criticism so long as it is unqualified praise.”

  • Noel Coward

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Tuba Skinny | Jubilee Stomp – Royal Street I


Long Read of the Day

 The Case for Trump … by Someone Who Wants Him to Lose

A really interesting column by Bret Stephens, a columnist on the New York Times. It’s significant because it comes after a day that confirms that Trump will be the Republican candidate for President. The piece makes for uncomfortable reading — mostly because it makes one contemplate the mote in one’s own (liberal) eye.

You can’t defeat an opponent if you refuse to understand what makes him formidable. Too many people, especially progressives, fail to think deeply about the enduring sources of his appeal — and to do so without calling him names, or disparaging his supporters, or attributing his resurgence to nefarious foreign actors or the unfairness of the Electoral College. Since I will spend the coming year strenuously opposing his candidacy, let me here make the best case for Trump that I can…

If I had to sum up the argument, I’d say it was this. Trump is unquestionably a monster (a point upon which even many of his supporters may conceivably agree). So we need to look at why some many Americans seem willing to overlook his loathsomeness. In a nutshell, my hunch is that it’s because the kind of democracy that our neoliberalist ruling elites have carefully curated and venerated hasn’t been much good for many of them. And so they may be less troubled than we privileged elites are by the thought that Trump might be the wrecking ball that will blow up the whole wicked system. To adapt the the old joke — “What has posterity ever done for me?” — Trump voters may be asking “What has this neoliberal democracy ever done for me?” Of course they should be careful what they wish for for. But still…

The hard truth about AI? It might produce some better software** 

Sunday’s Observer column:

In its Christmas issue, the Economist carried an instructive article entitled “A short history of tractors in English” (itself an understated tribute to Marina Lewycka’s hilarious 2005 novel, A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian). The article set out to explain “what the tractor and the horse tell you about generative AI”. The lesson was that while tractors go back a long way, it took aeons before they transformed agriculture. Three reasons for that: early versions were less useful than their backers believed; adoption of them required changes in labour markets; and farms needed to reform themselves to use them.

History suggests, therefore, that whatever transformations the AI hype merchants are predicting, they’ll be slower coming than they expect.

There is, however, one possible exception to this rule: computer programming, or the business of writing software…

Read on

Books, etc.

Just downloaded this, after strong recommendation by a friend with good judgement. Entrancing title, ne c’est pas?

My commonplace booklet

If you want to understand how difficult cybersecurity is, read this.

New iPhone Exploit Uses Four Zero-Days.


Something I noticed, while drinking from the Internet firehose.

Mute inglorious Miltons

Lovely meditation by John Quiggin on those who worry about ‘peak population’.

I’m going to start with a claim that came up in discussion here and is raised pretty often. The claim is that the more children are born, the greater the chance that some of them will be Mozarts, Einsteins, or Mandelas who will contribute greatly to human advancement. My response was pre-figured hundreds of years ago by Thomas Gray’s Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard. Gray reflects that those buried in the churchyard may include some “mute inglorious Milton” whose poetic genius was never given the chance to flower because of poverty and unremitting labour

But Knowledge to their eyes her ample page
Rich with the spoils of time did ne’er unroll;
Chill Penury repress’d their noble rage,
And froze the genial current of the soul.

  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 15 January, 2024

In flight

Two of my kids, on a memorable day on the Mayo coast, way back in 2004.

Quote of the Day

”There’s no underestimating the intelligence of the American public.”

  • H.L. Mencken

As we may be destined to discover in November.

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Muireann Bradley | Candyman (Jools’ Annual Hootenanny)


A gifted Donegal teenager who was one of the discoveries of 2023. A kid who really understands the blues.

Long Read of the Day

Inside My Dark Room

A really lovely essay by Julie Park in the Los Angeles Review of Books.

This is how it begins…

I felt cornered. A colleague had given me his comments on the manuscript for my academic book in progress about the camera obscura as a model for interiority and interior space in 18th-century England, and he didn’t like my argument. As a senior white male, this colleague had a significant measure of power over me, a woman of color who was junior to him professionally. He was considered one of the gatekeepers in our field; at the time, I was relying on him to write me letters of recommendation for jobs and fellowships.

My colleague said that the focus on the camera obscura in my argument worked to conceal my book’s “true” topic. According to him, this was the discourses on empiricist philosophy surrounding 18th-century literature. I suspect its fault lay also in departing from his preferred critical orientation and failing to cite him, among other colleagues, in the process. This was my second book, yet his feedback made me seem like a disobedient child. Clearly, I could no longer rely on him to support me in my professional endeavors unless I changed my book to more closely reflect what seemed to be his own way of thinking and writing, jettisoning my focus on the camera obscura. I didn’t want to.

In Latin, camera obscura means “dark room.” As the name suggests, the basic features of a camera obscura are easy enough to grasp: the visual device projects images of the external world onto a wall in a dark room via a ray of light coming through a hole on the opposite wall. Yet its fundamental mechanism can be explained in even simpler terms: in the fourth century BCE, Aristotle described how, during an eclipse, he caught sight of the way images of the sun appeared on the ground between the leaves of a tree…

Horrified by Horizon? Then get ready to be totally appalled by AI

My Observer OpEd on the Post Office scandal.

It doesn’t take much imagination to describe what happens when a large corporation, over 16 long years, is allowed vindictively to prosecute 900 subpostmasters for theft, false accounting and fraud, when shortfalls at their branches were in fact due to bugs in the accounting software imposed on them by that corporation, as “one of the greatest miscarriages of justice in our nation’s history”.

But then Rishi Sunak is not the most imaginative of men. The US Marines, on the other hand, have an economical term that fits the Horizon fiasco like a glove: it was a “clusterfuck” – primly defined by the Cambridge Dictionary as “a very rude word for a complete failure or very serious problem in which many mistakes or problems happen at the same time”.

Horizon was the product of a flawed and sometimes clueless IT procurement system to which the British state has for decades been addicted. The system eventually procured – from an offshoot of ICL owned by the Japanese giant Fujitsu – was a sprawling, computer bug-filled monster…

Read on

My colleague Tim Adams has a terrific article on the scandal in the same issue. And Andrew Rawnsley, in his column, explores the way the British political establishment ignored the injustices and allowed the toxic corporation at the heart of it to prosper.

My commonplace booklet

Clearly I’m not the only person who is increasingly pissed off by the New York Times.

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 12 January, 2024

It’s a long, long road…

… that has no turning.

(Though it might have been built by the Romans.)

Quote of the Day

”The four stages of life are infancy, childhood, adolescence and obsolescence”

  • Art Linklater

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Leo Kottke and Mike Gordon | Tiny Desk (Home) Concert


A jewel from the pandemic time. I’ve enjoyed Kottke’s playing ever since I heard him play Jesu, God of Man’s Desiring at the Cambridge Folk Festival sometime in the 1970s.

Long Read of the Day

ChatGPT is an engine of cultural transmission

By Henry Farrell.

Background: A while back, the cognitive scientist Alison Gopnik, one of the wisest people around, gave a terrific lecture and co-authored an academic paper in which she offered the first original perspective I’d seen on Large Language Models (LLMs) like GPT-4, Claude, et al. She thinks we should regard them not as oracles (or even “stochastic parrots”) but as “cultural technologies” — more specifically an information retrieval technology. That is, says one insightful summary of her view,

we should not think of an LLM as being something like a mind, but much more like a library catalog. Prompting it with text is something like searching over a library’s contents for passages that are close to the prompt, and sampling from what follows. “Something like” because of course it’s generating new text from its model, not reproducing its data. (LLMs do sometimes exactly memorize particular sequences … but they simply lack the capacity to memorize their full training corpora.) As many people have said, an LLM isn’t doing anything differently when it “hallucinates” as opposed to when it gets things right.

And that’s because it doesn’t actually know anything. It just knows about statistical correlations between different ‘tokens’ standing for words or parts thereof. Artificial intelligence programs that learn to write and speak can sound almost human—but they can’t think creatively like a small child can.

Her lecture is, sadly, behind a kind of academic paywall, though the academic paper she co-authored is not, as far as I can see.

All of which is by way of a long-winded introduction to a remarkable essay by Henry Farrell that has just appeared, in which he picks up Gopnik’s insight and runs with it.

What’s lovely about reading people like Farrell and Gopnik is that they think about this stuff the way Lewis Mumford and other sages once thought about technology and its role in society. Which is why I think this latest essay is worth your time.

My commonplace booklet

Richard Susskind, who has just stepped down as Technology Adviser to the Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales, had an interesting piece in The Times (behind a paywall). Here’s the bit that caught my eye:

Long term, the significance of AI in law will not lie in replacing tasks currently taken on by human lawyers. To suppose this is to imagine, by analogy, that the future of surgery is entirely about robots replacing the work of human surgeons. Instead, the key to future health care is in non-invasive therapies and preventative medicine.

So too in law. The future of law is not robotic lawyering. It will be using AI to deliver the legal outcomes that citizens and organisations need, but in entirely new ways — for instance, through online dispute resolution rather than physical courts.

More fundamentally, the huge promise of legal AI systems lies in enabling a shift from dispute resolution to dispute avoidance.


Something I noticed, while drinking from the Internet firehose.

The Seven Social Sins

Wealth without work.
Pleasure without conscience.
Knowledge without character.
Commerce without morality.
Science without humanity.
Religion without sacrifice.
Politics without principle.


Ironic that we have built societies that reward every one!

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!

Wednesday 10 January, 2024


This is the kind of daft things that photographers do (well, this photographer anyway) when they should be working.

It’s a photograph taken with an iPhone of what a venerable analog camera (a Hasselblad 501CM) saw yesterday morning. (And, yeah, I know that the Hass wasn’t level. Growl.)

And here’s what the iPhone saw, all on its own.

Of the two, I think I prefer the analog one. Not sure why.

Quote of the Day

”Nothing is inevitable until it happens”.

  • A.J.P. Taylor

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 5 in E Minor, Op. 64, TH. 29 – II. Andante cantabile, con alcuna…


Ravishingly beautiful.

Long Read of the Day

The desperate race to save Generative AI

Lovely blast by Gary Marcus, who with Reid Southen published a pretty damning analysis of generative AI plagiarism in the IEEE Spectrum journal. The tech companies, led by OpanAI are lobbying furiously for protection from having to pay for their IP theft.

TL;DR summary:

We won’t get fabulously rich if you don’t let us steals please don’t make stealing a crime.

Oh, and don’t make us pay licensing fees, either.

Sure, Netflix might pay billions in licensing fees, but we shouldn’t have to.

But don’t rely on that summary. Do read the whole thing. Basically, the tech industry is having its “Napster Moment”. One’s heart bleeds for it. Not.

Pandemics and diaries

For the first 100 days of the pandemic I kept an audio diary. Every night, before going to bed, I would record my thoughts on the day, and readers of this blog would listen to it at breakfast. It was, said the wife of one dedicated reader, “Like Thought for the Day but without the God stuff”. Later, I published the scripts as a Kindle book, 100 Not Out: A Lockdown Diary.

I was going through the text the other day looking for something that I needed to check, when I came on the entry for Day 61, Thursday 21 May, 2020. This is how it went, in part:

Among the many things I’ve always thought I would not like to do for a living, running a restaurant ranks pretty high. It seems to me to be backbreaking, tense work, done in very pressurised environments, and requiring you always to be polite to customers, many of whom are obnoxious.

My Observer colleague, our restaurant critic Jay Rayner, told a nice story a couple of weeks ago that illustrates this nicely. It comes from the opening chapter of Wine Girl, the entertaining memoir of a well-known American female sommelier, in which she describes an encounter with a diner from hell.

It is a Monday lunch at a posh New York eatery and the creep in question has chosen a fancy Burgundy (a 2009 Chevalier-Montrachet from Domaine Ramonet). Having checked at her serving station that the wine is ok, James returns to the table and pours a small measure for the customer to taste. He declares it corked. “I think she has too much perfume in her nose, this girl…” he says, as if competing for a gold in the misogyny Olympics.

There are only two bottles of the wine in the restaurant’s cellar. James does not want to waste a big-bucks bottle when she knows it is perfectly fine. Instead, she presents the unopened second bottle, takes it away, then returns and gets him to taste the original bottle again. And between racist epithets, he declares it perfect, with a fat top note of triumph in his voice.

This, says Rayner, “is small penis energy at work.”

You can see why I love having colleagues like this.

While we’re on the subject of Covid reflections, my friend, the historian David Vincent, has also published his thoughtful and scholarly diary of the first year of the plague.

My commonplace booklet

From Kevin Munger

First, the facts: in 2024, either Trump or Biden would be the oldest person to win a presidential election. We have the second-oldest House in history (after 2020-2022), and the oldest Senate. A full 2/3 of the Senate are Baby Boomers!

Not only is the age distribution of US politicians an outlier compared to our past—we also have the oldest politicians of any developed democracy. And not just the politicians, but the voters, too: more Americans will turn 65 years old in 2024 than ever before—and given macro-trends in demography, maybe than ever again.

We baby boomers have a lot to answer for.


  1. In my reference to the new film about Nicholas Winton, I mistakenly referred to his rescue effort as the Kindertransport. Judy Armit has written to point out that this term only related to children saved from Germany and Poland. Those rescued by Winton are known as “Nicky’s Children”. She also pointed me to an impressive resource which fosters “historical understanding and an understanding of the Holocaust’s contemporary relevance. I regret the mistake and am grateful to Judy for having it so tactfully pointed out. One of the great compensations of being a blogger is having readers who know more than I do.
  2. Thanks also to Andrew Clark, who pointed out that I didn’t spell Hillary Clinton’s name correctly in Monday’s edition. I would of course like to blame Apple’s bossy autocorrect for the error, but in this case but instead have to fall back on Samuel Johnson’s answer to the annoyed lady who asked him how he could have made the mistake of defining “pastern” as “the knee of a horse”. “Ignorance, Madam, pure ignorance”.

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!