Wednesday 6 March, 2024

In the beginning…

This is Gougane Barra, one of the most magical places in Ireland. It’s where the river Lee starts its journey to the sea on the South coast beyond the city of Cork. My first summer job involved walking the upper reaches of the river in 1965 as part of a government survey of potential salmon spawning grounds. It was a wonderful summer, and my first paid employment. One of those experiences one never forgets.

Quote of the Day

”Failure is the condiment that gives success its flavor.”

  • Truman Capote

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Randy Newman, Mark Knopfler and friends | It’s Money That Matters, Splendid Isolation and Dirty Boulevard


Video concludes abruptly. Sorry about that.

Long Read of the Day

The Science Fiction of the 1900s

An extraordinary essay by Karl Schroeder that stopped me in my tracks.

Here’s how it begins:

The future is terrifying. It wasn’t supposed to be.

I grew up during the cold war and I remember sitting around with friends in high school talking about what we would each do in the 10 to 20 minutes we’d have left after the nuclear attack sirens went off. I remember the sound of those sirens when they were tested; it wasn’t a theoretical discussion. We seriously expected that moment to come, and soon. If it didn’t, we thought humanity would burst through the horror into a new era of peace and prosperity for all.

We’re still terrified today. We can all list the uncertainties and threats that circle our fragile society like wolves in the night. Our fear isn’t greater now than when I grew up; still, it’s different. The despair of helplessness in the face of climate change, of fascism rising like Dracula from its coffin; of resource overshoot and political decay, all feel different to me than the instant nuclear annihilation I was promised as a kid. Part of that difference, I think, is that nuclear war was a binary thing: it would happen, or it wouldn’t. And if it didn’t, then science fiction laid out a future we could look forward to.

Now I’m going to make a terrible accusation…

Do read on. It’s worth it. Among other things, it makes you see Elon Musk in an interesting light.

Books, etc.

My review of an interesting and worthwhile book.

Marianna Spring is the BBC’s first disinformation and social media correspondent, a post best described as prolonged recumbence on a bed of very sharp nails. She is also a plucky and dogged investigative reporter who has repeatedly dived into the cesspit of online hatred and misinformation with the aim of trying to understand, rather than merely ridicule or condemn it. For her pains, Spring has already received – and deserved – some professional awards. But she has also been the target of some of the most vicious targeted attacks that any journalist has had to face: of the 14,488 social media posts targeting staff that the BBC logged between January and June 2023, for example, 11,771 related to her. Any journalist who can endure such an onslaught and remain sane deserves respect.

Among the Trolls is her compelling account of what the dark underbelly of contemporary liberal democracies looks like now. Much of it involves conspiracy theories – those who believe them and those who profit from them. But Spring’s gaze widens into an exploration of the collateral damage such theories cause, not only to individual believers and their families but in the way they undermine the deliberative capacity of democracies. She looks at the way technology has created a world in which, as Jonathan Swift famously put it, “Falsehood flies, and the Truth comes limping after it” – but one in which even blatant falsehoods endure long past their sell-by date because the internet never forgets. And she recounts, in graphic and depressing detail, the unspeakable things that people do and say online. But she also makes some heroic attempts to contact the trolls behind the slurs, sometimes with really interesting results…

My commonplace booklet

 How heavy is a neutrino? Race to weigh mysterious particle heats up

Years ago I read an interesting short story, the title of which is lost in the mists of memory. It was about a writer who comes up with a really implausible plot for a novel. He checks it out with a literary friend who says that it’s so crazy that nobody would take it seriously — except perhaps a particle physicist. Why? “Because those guys believe in the neutrino, a subatomic particle that can pass right through the earth without pausing.”

I filed that away and never found a use for it until yesterday when I came on this article in Nature about serious physicists combining to find how much this weird piece of subatomic dust weighs.

“Observations of cosmic structure at the largest scales suggest that neutrinos are extremely light, with masses of, at most, 0.12 electronvolts — four million times smaller than the mass of an electron.”

Sometimes, science is wonderful. And expensive.


Something I noticed, while drinking from the Internet firehose.

  • A German digital nomad who — legally — lives all the time on trains. Hard to believe but, it seems, true. Wonder how long he’ll keep it up. Link

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Monday 4 March, 2024


Quote of the Day

I went from adolescence to senility, trying to bypass maturity.

  • Tom Lehrer

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Linda Ronstadt and Dolly Parton ! I Never Will Marry


Long Read of the Day

Marshall McLuhan: Prophet

The crowd who run the Free Press Substack has had an idea for a new series. Every Saturday for the next several weeks, they will have an essay on “an activist, scientist, writer, or thinker who somehow knew what would happen years or decades after their deaths”. Their opening ‘prophet’ is Marshall McLuhan.

Here’s how Benjamin Carlson kicks off:

You are reading this essay because Marshall McLuhan, in some sense, planned for it.

In the mid-1960s, when he exploded onto the American pop-cultural scene—which was also planned; more about this in a moment—he decided to embrace television.

This was not because he was born for TV. He was too “hot” for the medium (in the McLuhanesque sense of being uptight), as he famously said of Richard Nixon about his presidential debate loss to the “cool” John F. Kennedy.

Rather, McLuhan used TV because he, more than anyone of his time, understood how electric technology was transforming society and, even then, had already transformed it.

He knew that whether he liked it or not, TV was where he had to be. His mission was to wake people up—to “needle the somnambulists,” as he put it…

It’s an interesting essay. I’ve long thought that some of McLuhan’s ideas were relevant to our digital age (and in fact once gave a keynote talk about him) and his famous aphorism that “the medium is the message”. I still think that every time I see people taking to Twitter/X.

AI’s insatiable need for water and energy

Yesterday’s Observer column:

One of the most pernicious myths about digital technology is that it is somehow weightless or immaterial. Remember all that early talk about the “paperless” office and “frictionless” transactions? And of course, while our personal electronic devices do use some electricity, compared with the washing machine or the dishwasher, it’s trivial.

Belief in this comforting story, however, might not survive an encounter with Kate Crawford’s seminal book, Atlas of AI, or the striking Anatomy of an AI System graphic she composed with Vladan Joler. And it certainly wouldn’t survive a visit to a datacentre – one of those enormous metallic sheds housing tens or even hundreds of thousands of servers humming away, consuming massive amounts of electricity and needing lots of water for their cooling systems.

On the energy front, consider Ireland, a small country with an awful lot of datacentres. Its Central Statistics Office reports that in 2022 those sheds consumed more electricity (18%) than all the rural dwellings in the country, and as much as all Ireland’s urban dwellings…

Read on

Films, etc.

We went to see Tran Anh Hung’s film The Taste of Things the other day and loved it. Set in 1899, it’s about the romance between a passionate gourmet Dodin (played by Benoit Magimel) and his cook Eugenie (played by Juliette Binoche). But really it’s a film about fin-de-siecle rural France, the importance of cooking and food, love and loss. As someone who loves rural France, and goes there every Summer, I was of course a sucker for it. And the next day I set to and cooked a Coq au Vin which — even though my countrymen often ridicule it as “chicken in a lorry” — was (IMHO) delicious, though alas not up to Dodin’s standards. Still…

The trailer is here. Guardian review here.


Something I noticed, while drinking from the Internet firehose.

Electric bikes actually give more exercise than pedal bikes

Eh? That’s what this piece claims. On the other hand, it’s from an outfit that sells electric stuff. Caveat lector.

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Friday 1 March, 2024

Things to come

It is, after all, the 1st of March.

Quote of the Day

When you make motion pictures, each picture is a life unto itself. When you finish and the picture is over, there’s an understanding, a realisation that we’ll never be assembled this way again. That these relationships are severed forever and ever. And each of these films is a little life.

  • John Huston

I thought of this as the credits rolled at my first viewing of his beautiful film, The Dead. It was his last movie, and he directed it from a wheelchair.

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Erik Satie | Gymnopédie No.1


Long Read of the Day

Developing AI Like Raising Kids

This is a transcript of a remarkable conversation between two remarkable people — Alison Gopnik and Ted Chiang. It’s the most insightful thing I’ve read on the craziness of the current conviction of the AI crowd (Altman & Co) that extrapolation of machine-learning technology will one day get us to human-level intelligence.

Here’s a snatch of one part of the conversation that gives a flavour of the interaction;

Chiang: One of the guiding questions for me when I was writing Lifecycle of Software Objects was “How do you make a person?” At some level, it seems like a simple thing, but the more you think about it, you realize that it is the hardest job in the world. It is maybe the job that requires the most wrestling with difficult ethical questions, but the fact that so many people raise children makes it very easy to devalue it. We tend to congratulate people who have written a novel or something like that, because relatively few people write novels. A lot of people have children! A lot of people raise children to adulthood! And what they have accomplished is something incredible.

Gopnik: Just in terms of the cognitive difficulty level, it’s an amazing accomplishment. One of the things that we’ve been thinking about in the context of the Social Science Group is that the very structure of what it means to raise a person is so different from the structure of almost everything else that we do. So usually what we do is we have some set of goals, we produce a bunch of actions, insofar as our actions lead to our goals, we think that we’ve been successful. Insofar as they don’t, we don’t. But of course, if you’re trying to create a person, the point is that you’re not trying to achieve your goals, you’re trying to give them autonomy and resources that will let them achieve their own goals, and even let them formulate their own goals.

If you are puzzled by the current ‘AI’ madness, do read this transcript.

Having read it, I bought Exhalation the collection of Ted Chiang’s stories which includes the novella, Lifecycle of Software Objects, that he mentions in the conversation.

I’ve been reading his non-fiction essays on AI for a while — e.g.”Silicon Valley is Turning into its Own Worst Fear and ”Will AI Become the New McKinsey?”. Like Gopnik, he’s one of the most perceptive thinkers about this stuff.

Books, etc.

Kara Swisher’s new book

The New York Times’s reviewer is not impressed. Here’s how he sums it up:

Her forthrightness goes some way in helping us believe that “Burn Book” doesn’t merely represent a convenient pivot, as they say, from Tech royalty to Tech heretic at a time when strident industry criticism is trending hard. But “Burn Book”’s fatal flaw, the reason it can never fully dispel the whiff of opportunism that dooms any memoir, is that Swisher never shows in any convincing detail how her entanglement with Silicon Valley clouded her judgment. The story of her change of heart is thus undercut by the self-aggrandizing portrait that rests stubbornly at its core. “At least now we know the problems,” Swisher writes of Silicon Valley at the end of “Burn Book.” Do we?

My commonplace booklet

From John Thornhill in the FT of 3 February:

The tendency of generative artificial intelligence systems to “hallucinate” — or simply make stuff up — can be zany and sometimes scary, as one New Zealand supermarket chain found to its cost. After Pak’nSave released a chatbot last year offering recipe suggestions to thrifty shoppers using leftover ingredients, its Savey Meal-bot recommended one customer make an “aromatic water mix” that would have produced chlorine gas.

Lawyers have also learnt to be wary of the output of generative AI models, given their ability to invent wholly fictitious cases. A recent Stanford University study of the responses generated by three state of the art generative AI models to 200,000 legal queries found hallucinations were “pervasive and disturbing”. When asked specific, verifiable questions about random federal court cases, OpenAI’s ChatGPT 3.5 hallucinated 69 per cent of the time while Meta’s Llama 2 model hit 88 per cent.

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