Friday 8 March, 2024


Magdalene College yesterday morning. I’m always astonished what skilled gardeners can do with headstrong plants.

Quote of the Day

“I don’t want to be immortal through my works, I want to be immortal through not dying.”

  • Woody Allen

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Bach | Cantata BWV 147 | Daniil Trifonov


Long Read of the Day

Of top-notch algorithms and zoned-out humans

Sobering essay by the FT columnist Tim Harford on what can happen when we become accustomed to relying on smart machines.

This is how it opens:

On June 1 2009, Air France Flight 447 vanished on a routine transatlantic flight. The circumstances were mysterious until the black box flight recorder was recovered nearly two years later, and the awful truth became apparent: three highly trained pilots had crashed a fully functional aircraft into the ocean, killing all 288 people on board, because they had become confused by what their Airbus 330’s automated systems had been telling them.

I’ve recently found myself returning to the final moments of Flight 447, vividly described by articles in Popular Mechanics and Vanity Fair. I cannot shake the feeling that the accident has something important to teach us about both the risks and the enormous rewards of artificial intelligence.

The latest generative AI can produce poetry and art, while decision-making AI systems have the power to find useful patterns in a confusing mess of data. These new technologies have no obvious precursors, but they do have parallels. Not for nothing is Microsoft’s suite of AI tools now branded “Copilot”. “Autopilot” might be more accurate, but either way, it is an analogy worth examining.

Back to Flight 447. The A330 is renowned for being smooth and easy to fly, thanks to a sophisticated flight automation system called assistive fly-by-wire. Traditionally the pilot has direct control of the aircraft’s flaps, but an assistive fly-by-wire system translates the pilot’s jerky movements into smooth instructions. This makes it hard to crash an A330, and the plane had a superb safety record before the Air France tragedy. But, paradoxically, there is a risk to building a plane that protects pilots so assiduously from error. It means that when a challenge does occur, the pilots will have very little experience to draw on as they try to meet that challenge…

And of course such a challenge did arise.

Books, etc.

This came out in 2022 and I missed it. Now rectifying that mistake.

My commonplace booklet

The Pen, Mightier

As someone who collects fountain pens (and tries never to write with anything else) I’m a sucker for essay about pens and the writing process. This is the latest I’ve come across. If you suffer from the same affliction you might enjoy it.


There was a glaring typo in Wednesday’s edition, when I was writing about “an experience that one never forgets” and it came out as “never gorgets”. Thanks to the readers who tactfully drew this to my attention.

Max Whitby (Whom God Preserve) though, took matters a stage further. “Thanks to your typo,” he wrote, “we can now discover the fascinating history of the neck croissant — via a YouTube video: The 18th Century Gorget: A Vestigial Authority Symbol.

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