Monday 8 January, 2024

Swans’ Lake

Photographed at Sutton Gault in the Cambridgeshire fens, yesterday.

Background: A significant portion of East Anglia (about 1,500 square miles) is flat and lies below sea-level. Until the 17th century this was mostly ‘fen’ or marsh (and therefore no good for farming). But then a group of aristocratic opportunists like the Duke of Bedford, aided and abetted by wealthy merchants from the City of London, decided that if these fens were drained, a large amount of arable land could be created. And so they set to it. (The merchants btw were called ‘Adventurers’ because they were supposedly risking their capital in the venture — so they were the first ‘venture capitalists, and thus the spiritual ancestors of the Silicon Valley crowd in Sand Hill Road. Except, of course, that the current lot risk other peoples money, not their own.)

The story of how the massive engineering and hydraulic engineering project to drain the Fens was carried out is interesting but need not detain us here. A key part of it involved the construction of two huge, parallel, elevated, canal-like ‘drains’ — called the New Bedford and Old Bedford rivers — into which water from the low-lying marshes was pumped and then ferried to the North Sea. These two parallel canals had an interesting design feature: their inside walls were slightly lower than the outside ones — which means that at times of heavy rainfall the overflow in the drains cascaded over into the corridor of land that lay between them, creating a massive inland lake.

There was a lot of heavy rain in the last couple of weeks and so yesterday we set out to Sutton Gault to see how the late Duke’s waterworks were faring. Sure enough, they were working fine. And had made a fine lake for a family of swans.

Quote of the Day

Nate Silver, when asked, “Gun to your head, who is going to win: Trump or Biden?”

His answer:

”Shoot me.”

(Silver is the American statistician who persuaded me in 2016 that Hilary Clinton would win the Presidential election. His reputation is not what it was.)

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Freddie White | Tenderness On the Block


Long Read of the Day

Between the Algorithm and a Hard Place: The Worker’s Dilemma 

Really thoughtful piece by Diana Enríquez on the problems you encounter when your ‘manager’ is an algorithm rather than a human.

Today you’re supposed to drop off a package in a location outside the route provided by the AmazonFlex app’s map. The passenger needs to go somewhere and the app wants you to drive on a street that you know has very hazardous road conditions. You also know that the app is always tracking your location and how closely you stick to the “optimized route.” You’ve heard from other drivers that you might get a warning and a strike against you if you go too far off route. Too many strikes means you’ll lose your flexible job, and the supplemental income that is helping you pay your bills.

You have two options:

Break the rules but complete the goal – you decide to leave the route and reach your destination, though it is outside the tracked route. Or, you avoid the hazardous road because you are responsible for maintaining your car and you get to the end destination without any damage. You wait a few days to see what happens… and you get an automated email warning you that your driver score was marked down by your passenger for taking a “longer route” or a warning saying they needed to check whether or not you delivered the final package because they saw you left the optimized route.

Follow the rules but at a heavy cost – you’ve heard too many stories about people being deactivated for not obeying the app’s guidance, so you stick to the route and try to figure out how to reach your final goal anyway. You take the short route but damage your car.

And there’s no human to whom you can explain your decision.

More and more workers face this kind of problem every day. Whenever I see an Amazon driver in our locality I give him a friendly wave. He probably thinks I’m potty. But what I’m really thinking is how glad I am not to have work like he does.

Substack’s Nazi problem

Yesterday’s Observer column:

Substack was founded in 2017 by two geeks, Chris Best and Jairaj Sethi, and a journalist, Hamish McKenzie. It grew rapidly, partly because it looked like a lifeboat to many journalists and writers who could see the writing on the wall for conventional media organisations. It enabled prominent hacks working for prestigious publications to monetise their celebrity, or at least get paid for writing online. (Substack had teamed up with the online payments processor Stripe to make it easy to charge some of the writers’ subscribers a monthly fee; if they did charge, then Substack took a cut of their earnings.) … But, in a way, the money is a side issue: most Substacks are free. What’s important is that, as social media degenerates into fragmented chaos, Substack has evolved into a significant part of our culture’s public sphere. Some of the most thoughtful long-form writing around nowadays can be found on the platform.

From the outset, the founders were emphatic about their commitment to free speech…

Read on

A life worth living

Johnny Flynn as the young Winton and Helena Bonham-Carter as his iron-willed mother.

At the weekend we went to see One Life, the story of Nicholas Winton, the young London stockbroker who organised the Kindertransport trains which saved 639 children from the Nazis. It has some wonderful performances — particularly by Anthony Hopkins as the elderly Winton and Johnny Flynn as him as a young man; and by Helena Bonham-Carter as Winton’s mother. And it’s a truly inspiring story. Life-enhancing, you might say. Do see it.

The trailer is here.

My commonplace booklet

Tim Brighouse, the great, charismatic educationist and campaigner for state schools, died recently.

His son Harry told this nice story of an exchange he had on his way back to the US after the funeral:

”The chap serving me at Pret in Heathrow the other day asked if I was going somewhere special for Christmas, and for the second time since Tim died I faltered, and said “I’m going home to Wisconsin, I’ve just been visiting because my dad died on Friday”, and berated myself inside for making him uncomfortable. But he smiled, and said, you know the usual things, and then said “Did he have a good life?” and I found myself grinning widely and said “Yes. He had a great life”, to which his response was “That’s really the best you can ask, isn’t it?”. It was lovely, like something out of the kind of movie that neither my dad nor I would ever willingly watch.”

Remembering Niklaus Wirth

Lovely obituary in The Register by Liam Proven.


Something I noticed, while drinking from the Internet firehose.

  • 52 interesting things Jason Kottke (Whom God Preserve) learned in 2023. Link

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Friday 5 January, 2024

Van Gogh inverted

This lovely photograph by Natalya Saprunova in yesterday’s Washington Post stopped me in my tracks. It shows bubbles of carbon dioxide and methane — released by permafrost melting — floating to the surface of a stream in Siberia. What it instantly reminded me of was paintings by Vincent Van Gogh, and if you turn it upside down you can perhaps see why.

Quote of the Day

One of my grandfathers was a bombardier in the European theater of World War 2. He came back uninjured, but the stress of so many near-death experiences, and so many dead friends, drove him to lifelong alcoholism. Once, in the 1990s, I heard a conservative pundit claim that young Americans had become soft and weak because they had never had to face adversity like the World War 2 generation did. I asked my grandfather what he thought of that. After uttering something unprintable, he said: “I did that [stuff] so you wouldn’t have to.”

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Ye Vagabonds | Whistling Wind


Thanks to Celine Naughton for suggesting it.

Long Read of the Day

Does Capitalism Beat Charity?

Scott Alexander is IMHO one of the most interesting writers on the Web. This essay indicates why. Even when I disagree with him, I admire the way he approaches complicated questions. As in this case.

This question comes up whenever I discuss philanthropy.

It would seem that capitalism is better than charity. The countries that became permanently rich, like America and Japan, did it with capitalism. This seems better than temporarily alleviating poverty by donating food or clothing. So (say proponents), good people who want to help others should stop giving to charity and start giving to capitalism. These proponents differ on exactly what “giving to capitalism” means – you can’t write a check to capitalism directly. But it’s usually one of three things:

  1. Spend the money on whatever you personally want, since that’s the normal engine of capitalism, and encourages companies to provide desirable things.

  2. Invest the money in whatever company produces the highest rate of return, since that’s another capitalist imperative, and creates more companies.

  3. Do something like donating to charity, but the donation should go to charities that promote capitalism somehow, or be an investment in companies doing charitable things (impact investing)

I agree that overall capitalism has produced more good things than charity. But when I try to think at the margin, in Near Mode, I can’t make this argument hang together. Here’s my basic objection…

Read on and enjoy the ride. With Alexander, the journey, not the destination, sometimes matters most.

Books, etc.

I’ve come late to Cade Metz’s book, and regret that fact. It’s interesting, readable and very illuminating about the origins of the current AI frenzy.

Niklaus Wirth RIP

He was a great computer scientist, inventor of several programming languages, two of which — Algol and Pascal — I used during my student days. I particularly liked Turbo Pascal, the development system Borland created for programming in Pascal, which included a fast compiler and a useful front-end for writing code, and which ran on the first IBM PC I owned. I used it to write software what kind-of worked, and which therefore qualified for Roger Needham’s astringent evaluation of being “good enough for government work”.


Something I noticed, while drinking from the Internet firehose.

James Fallows: Updates on the Haneda Airport Collision

Fallows is a great journalist and also a practising pilot who writes insightfully about aviation. This is his update on the horrendous accident at Tokyo airport the other day.

What the pilots and controllers knew.

On current evidence, the Japan Air Lines plane had been properly cleared to land on Runway 34R. It is possible the pilots in that Airbus cockpit did not see the small Coast Guard plane sitting on the runway until the very last instant, or perhaps at all.

How could this be? The runway lights were bright, at night, and could make it hard to see wingtip lights in unexpected locations; the Coast Guard plane was relatively small, in a runway environment packed with other blinking lights; the Airbus windshield would have been showing a “heads up display” of the landing path, which could obscure weak lights on the runway; the controller appears not to have cautioned the crew about previously departing traffic or other complications; etc.

Latest evidence suggests that controllers had intended the Coast Guard plane to taxi to the entry point for Runway 34R, but not onto the runway. This is a fundamental life-and-death distinction in aviation, with lots of language and procedures designed to underscore the difference. “Hold short” when you’re not supposed to enter the runway; “line up and wait” when you are cleared to enter the runway but not to take off; “cleared for takeoff” when it’s time to go.

At all airports I’ve ever seen, there are bright red signs to alert you that you’re about to turn onto a runway…

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Wednesday 3 January, 2024

Boxed set

Cycling past the University Library in Cambridge over Christmas, I noticed that some genius — in a neat touch — had placed a classic red telephone box on the forecourt. Why ‘neat’? Simply that the phone box as well as the Library had both been designed by the same architect — Giles Gilbert Scott.

But to see the joke you need to take a wider view.

Note the shape of the Library tower.

Quote of the Day

”I loathe writing. On the other hand I’m a great believer in money.”

  • S.J. Perelman

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Kate Rusby | Who Will Sing Me Lullabies


Long Read of the Day

James Fallows on the year ahead for the US

From the veteran journalist’s blog..

Three hundred and nine days from now, America’s prospects will look very different than they do as we begin this year—different one way or another. The results will depend on an electorate whose downcast mood contrasts with the strongest economic growth in decades. In the starkest way since Bush v. Gore in 2000, the outcome may be in the hands of a Supreme Court that is less trusted and more politicized than in that era, and far more visibly corrupt. Public information will depend on a mainstream press still struggling to cope with a movement like Trump’s, and social media companies that barely try…

Fallows is a sharp and perceptive observer of mainstream media in the US In his piece he includes a dramatic graphic of what Gallup heard from American voters in the run-up to Trump’s election.

It’s a vivid demonstration of how US mainstream media allowed themselves to be distracted from the important issues in the 2016 campaign. I can see the same deficient narrative building again this time, partly because of the ‘balance as bias’ dysfunctionality that still plagues political journalism everywhere. Nowhere, for example, will voters be introduced to the idea that Joe Biden might turn out to be a more effective President than Barack Obama — at least in terms of getting things done. Or that Trump is showing signs of serious cognitive impairment which make Biden look like Spinoza.

Books, etc.

From GoodInternet.


Something I noticed, while drinking from the Internet firehose.

100 Greatest Beatles Songs

Good list in Rolling Stone magazine.

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Monday 1 January,2024

Those New Year resolutions…

From Nellie Bowles in The Free Press:

I keep thinking of resolutions. This year, I should call my friends more often to check in, or my parents (maybe). This year, I should do yoga once a week. This year, I should read less news and more books. Or. . . this year, I should wear makeup and better clothes, put a little effort in, and maybe I will actually do this. But honestly, then I think: I’ve got enough on my plate! I’m doing plenty and it’s great. I can’t add any of these to some sort of guilt treadmill.

I tried this argument out with some family members in the living room just now, and they said, “Oh, so you think you’re perfect?” Well. Look. I’m 35. I’ve got a kid and a job. I’m nice enough. I’m in some kind of shape. And I like reading the news. I call my friends plenty; we’re all busy moms, it’s really fine. And so this year: no resolutions. I’m not perfect, but I look things over and I think: no major notes. Keep on keeping on into 2024. If that makes me a monster, so be it. Maybe I’ll work on it in 2025.

Where next?

Wicken Fen, Cambridgeshire, Friday.

Quote of the Day

“In spite of all the hype and the drama, few compelling business use cases for the technology emerged. All the talk about generative AI reinventing internet search fizzled out after Microsoft’s AI-enabled Bing failed to disturb Google’s market dominance. Concerns about data security, intellectual property rights and generative AI’s dirty habit of “hallucinating” facts — or, more crudely, just making stuff up — also deterred companies from deploying the technology. And many AI-powered start-ups, promising to revolutionise various industries, blew up on the launch pad as the release of increasingly capable generative AI models destroyed their original business models.”

  • Financial Times Editorial on AI in 2023, 28 December.

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Bob Dylan | Shelter from the Storm


And if you want to see what religious folks make of the lyrics, see here.

Long Read of the Day

An Odd Silence

Very perceptive blog post by Bill McKibben on the way our mainstream media seem to have a blind spot about the climate crisis as they continue to practice what Michael Mann called “the sociology of the last five minutes”.

The world—its politics, its economy, and its journalism — has trouble coping with the scale of the climate crisis. We can’t quite wrap our collective head around it, which has never been clearer to me than in these waning days of 2023.

Because the most important thing that happened this year was the heat. By far. It was hotter than it has been in at least 125,000 years on this planet. Every month since May was the hottest ever recorded. Ocean temperatures set a new all-time mark, over 100 degrees. Canada burned, filling the air above our cities with smoke.

And yet you really wouldn’t know it from reading the wrap-ups of the year’s news now appearing on one website after another…

Read on. It’s good — especially on the problem that while in geological terms “we’re warming at hellish pace” that’s not “how the 24/7 news cycle works”.


For all the hype in 2023, we don’t know what AI’s long-term impact will be

Yesterday’s Observer column.

So the lesson of history in relation to tech bubbles is this: what things will be left after the bubble bursts? Because they always do. Which neatly brings us back to the current madness about AI. Sure, it’s wonderful that it enables people who are unable to string sentences together to “write” coherent prose. And, as Cory Doctorow observes, it’s great that teenagers playing Dungeons & Dragons can access an image generator that creates epic illustrations of their characters fighting monsters – even if the images depict “six-fingered swordspeople with three pupils in each eye”. And that the tech can do all of the other tricks that are entrancing millions of people – who are, by the way, mostly using it for free. But what of lasting value will be left? What will the historians of the next century regard as the enduring legacy of the technology?

Read on

My commonplace booklet

From Gallup

This holiday season, 43% of U.S. workers say they plan to take a vacation during the holidays, and of that group, roughly half — or 21% of all workers — will completely disconnect from work. Meanwhile, 22% of workers will be taking a vacation but checking in with work via email or other means.


Something I noticed, while drinking from the Internet firehose.

From Dave Winer (Whom God Preserve)…

In the early 80s, my main development machine was an Apple II, believe it or not. Sometimes the machine would just refuse to boot, so I’d get on El Camino to Computer Plus in Sunnyvale, which was the main developer store in the Valley, owned by Dick and Lucy Applebaum and Mark Wozniak. Very often when I got to the store and plugged the machine in, it would start right up. That became a superstition, if your computer won’t launch take it for a ride in the car. Anyway, this morning, in 2023, my web app, the new version of that I’m working on was in a state that was really depressing. I was working on making it mobile-friendly and nothing I did would make the timeline fit into the allotted space. I was at my wits end, thinking maybe I’d have to revert my changes and try another approach. So I went out for a walk, it’s a nice day, kind of warm, and the air is clear, no rain, and there are even some trees in bloom which is weird considering that it’s the day after Christmas for crying out loud. But it was a good thing to do, when I got back I had a plan for how to go forward. My brain was now clear. I got myself a nice bowl of fruit salad and a glass of water, and sat down and rolled up my sleeves, and I bet by now dear reader you’ve figured out the punchline. It worked. I did nothing. Every bit showed up in the right place, more or less (modulo some tweaking). Back with Apple II in the 80s it wasn’t really magic. The chips weren’t soldered into the motherboard on the machine, and they would get pretty hot, and when you’d turn the computer off and on, it would go hot and cold, which meant the pins on the chips would expand and contract and in doing so, over months, one could unseat. A trip in the car might just jog it back into its socket. The same way, forty years later, if you get up from the computer and go for a walk, when you come back, cached requests have now aged-out and the files that weren’t getting refreshed are now up to date, and it turns out I wasn’t crazy or incompetent, and it probably wasn’t some kind of act of god, it’s just the internet being the internet.


Eugene O’Connor wrote to criticise the Oscar Wilde quote about glasses being half-full or half-empty.

Actually, on earth, the glass is always full … of fluid. Half gas and half liquid.

On the moon it might be different, but who would want to drink there, there’s no atmosphere.

Quite. But Wilde didn’t read physics at Oxford, which is probably just as well.

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