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!

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