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.

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