Moday 29 April, 2024

Many happy returns

Quote of the Day

”Anxiety is the price we pay for the ability to imagine the future.”

  • NYU neuroscientist Joseph LeDoux

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Deep River (Arr. Coleridge-Taylor, Kanneh-Mason) | Sheku Kanneh-Mason


Long Read of the Day

Technological risks are not the end of the world

Terrific essay by Jack Stilgoe in Science on the obsession with existential risk of AI which — deliberately or inadvertently — sucks the oxygen out of the discourse we should be having about the technology, namely the harms it’s already doing, and the future harm it will do to the environment of the planet.

Worth your time.

Social media’s business model is incompatible with the elimination of online horror

Yesterday’s Observer column:

Way back in the mid-1990s, when the web was young and the online world was buzzing with blogs, a worrying problem loomed. If you were an ISP that hosted blogs, and one of them contained material that was illegal ,sor defamatory, you could be held legally responsible and sued into bankruptcy. Fearing that this would dramatically slow the expansion of a vital technology, two US lawmakers, Chris Cox and Ron Wyden, inserted 26 words into the Communications Decency Act of 1996, which eventually became section 230 of the Telecommunications Act of the same year. The words in question were: “No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.” The implications were profound: from now on you bore no liability for content published on your platform.

The result was the exponential increase in user-generated content on the internet. The problem was that some of that content was vile, defamatory or downright horrible. Even if it was, though, the hosting site bore no liability for it…

Read on

The real threat…

(In a nutshell)

AI doesn’t have to be sentient to pose a threat — sentient actors are the threat. The 2024 election is going to be the World Cup of online disinformation, as AI supercharges these tactics. Social media bots sound like real people and can engage one-on-one in real time with millions. Deepfake audio and video clips show candidates saying hateful or foolish things. India offers a preview: A skilled AI content creator says hundreds of politicians have asked him for fake material. Some even want badly produced fakes of themselves they can release to discredit any bad press, even legitimate press. China used fake AI content to attempt to sway an election in Taiwan and is using the same tactics in the U.S. Congress is considering legal barriers, but nothing will come of it before the election. The people running the platforms that will deliver these threats to our screens are predictably claiming “it’s too complex” and “this is government’s problem” and “free speech” — all of which is bullshit. However, the liability shield of Section 230 will be enough to keep them unaccountable for another cycle.

Scott Galloway

My commonplace booklet

Why Jonathan Haidt and Andrew Przybylski might BOTH be right about social media and teenagers 

From Charles Arthur:

What the research data (such as it is) suggests:

• children who spend low amounts of time online tend to be unhappy. They’re missing out, they’re shut out of online discussion, they’re unable to participate as others do.

• those who spend a moderate time online are connected, participating, happy. Of course the key thing is that they don’t spend all their time online. The big question is what the top and bottom limits of “moderate” are.

• those who spend a large amount of time online are connected, over-participating, unhappy. Whether their unhappiness is due to the amount of time they spend online, or if they spend a lot of time online because they’re unhappy (and in effect seeking people who they can connect with, to make friends).

This means that both Haidt and Przybylski could both be right: using social media does make some children unhappy, and using social media hasn’t got a global association with well-being.


Some things I noticed, while drinking from the Internet firehose.

Hunting for AI metaphors. Nice blog post on one of my pet obsessions. (h/t to Laura James)

  • Neil Turok on the simplicity of nature. Fascinating and informative interview with one of of the great theoretical physicists of our time.

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Friday 26 April, 2024


I often think I should put this cautionary pic up as a spoiler alert when writing about stuff that’s above my intellectual pay-grade.

Quote of the Day

”You have no idea how much nastier I would be if I was not a Catholic. Without supernatural aid I would hardly be a human being.”

  • Evelyn Waugh

Probably true. The problem is that he was also a gifted satirist.

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Kate Rusby | Who Will Sing Me Lullabies


Long Read of the Day

The Cultural Contradictions of Neoliberalism

Neoliberalism is generally thought of as an economic project, but in fact it’s something much more pervasive — a mindset that has infected most institutions in Western societies. Which means that it has also been a cultural project, and we are living with the cultural wreckage brought about by neoliberal policies and ideology. The Roosevelt Institute has produced an interesting 50-page report on the pervasiveness of this mindset, which I guess is a bit of a stretch for busy subscribers. But the Executive Summary usefully lays out the basic arguments of the report.

Long video of the Day

A TED talk by Mustafa Suleyman, a co-founder of DeepMind and Inflection and now — I think — working for Microsoft. It has the usual TED bugs/features — including the illusion that wisdom can be compressed into 20 minutes. It’s also imbued with the boosterish tech pretence that machine-learning technology is somehow weightless in environmental and societal terms. But his metaphor — which is basically that we should think of AI as a new ‘digital species’ that has arrived on earth — at least provides a different lens for thinking about this stuff. Hence this recommendation.

My commonplace booklet

Legal Fiction

If you want a striking illustration of the degeneration of the UK over the last two decades then this LRB blog post by Nicholas Reed Langen would be hard to beat. It’s written in the aftermath of the passage into law of the Safety of Rwanda (Asylum and Immigration) Bill, which has been relentlessly pushed by the Tory Prime Minister to appease his party’s xenophobic base. In passing the legislation, Langen writes, the UK has effectively become a rogue state which violates international treaties to which it is a signatory. It also runs counter to the judgment of the country’s Supreme Court. So much for the rule of law.


Something I noticed, while drinking from the Internet firehose.

In 2022, researchers at the Bee Sensory and Behavioral Ecology Lab at Queen Mary University of London observed bumblebees doing something remarkable: The diminutive, fuzzy creatures were engaging in activity that could only be described as play. Given small wooden balls, the bees pushed them around and rotated them. The behavior had no obvious connection to mating or survival, nor was it rewarded by the scientists. It was, apparently, just for fun.

The study on playful bees is part of a body of research that a group of prominent scholars of animal minds cited today, buttressing a new declaration that extends scientific support for consciousness to a wider suite of animals than has been formally acknowledged before.

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Wednesday 24 April, 2024

Quai d’Orsay

But not the one on the bank of the Seine. This one found its way to Ely, Cambridgeshire!

Quai d’Orsay” is often synonymous with the French Foreign Ministry, which occupies a magnificent building there. I remember a veteran Foreign Correspondent (I think it may have been the BBC’s John Simpson) once saying that he “never believed anything was true until it had been denied three times by the Quai d’Orsay.”

Quote of the Day

“I don’t necessarily agree with everything that I say.”

  • Marshall McLuhan

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

John Williams | Schindler’s List Theme | Itzhak Perlman


Long Read of the Day

AI isn’t useless. But is it worth it?

Lovely, astute assessment by Molly White, one of my favourite commentators on tech.

As someone known for my criticism of the previous deeply flawed technology to become the subject of the tech world’s overinflated aspirations, I have had people express surprise when I’ve remarked that generative artificial intelligence toolsa can be useful. In fact, I was a little surprised myself.

But there is a yawning gap between “AI tools can be handy for some things” and the kinds of stories AI companies are telling (and the media is uncritically reprinting). And when it comes to the massively harmful ways in which large language models (LLMs) are being developed and trained, the feeble argument that “well, they can sometimes be handy…” doesn’t offer much of a justification.

Some are surprised when they discover I don’t think blockchains are useless, either. Like so many technologies, blockchains are designed to prioritize a few specific characteristics (coordination among parties who don’t trust one another, censorship-resistance, etc.) at the expense of many others (speed, cost, etc.). And as they became trendy, people often used them for purposes where their characteristics weren’t necessary — or were sometimes even unwanted — and so they got all of the flaws with none of the benefits…

Full of good common sense. Worth a read.

Books, etc.

We’re reading — and enjoying — this fascinating group biography by Penelope Fitzgerald (neé Knox) of her four uncles, who were all (to put it mildly) er, distinctive. I had read and loved Evelyn Waugh’s biography of one of them — Ronald — but the others were a mystery to me. No longer.

My commonplace booklet

Every year on his birthday Kevin Kelly offers bits of homespun advice, and last year he collected them into a book — Excellent Advice For Living: Wisdom I Wish I’d Known Earlier. He’s just coming up to his 73rd birthday, and so he’s issued 101 more. Here are a few that struck me.

  • You owe everyone a second chance, but not a third.
  • Admitting that “I don’t know” at least once a day will make you a better person
  • Whenever you hug someone, be the last to let go
  • Read a lot of history so you can understand how weird the past was; that way you will be comfortable with how weird the future will be
  • Most arguments are not really about the argument, so most arguments can’t be won by arguing
  • There should be at least one thing in your life you enjoy despite being no good at it. This is your play time, which will keep you young. Never apologize for it.
  • Changing your mind about important things is not a consequence of stupidity, but a sign of intelligence.
  • You have 5 minutes to act on a new idea before it disappears from your mind.


Something I noticed, while drinking from the Internet firehose.

  • Back to the Future A new Huawei smartphone has a pop-out camera lens, just like ye olde point-and-shoot cameras — Ars Technica

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Monday 22 April, 2024


Glenteentassig Lake on the Dingle peninsula. One of Ireland’s loveliest hidden lakes.

Quote of the Day

“One of my best decisions was being born before the Internet and smartphones.”

  • Robert Shrimsley

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Berlioz | Symphonie Fantastique | 5th movement


I can never decide which is the more dramatic — the music or the acrobatics of the conductor (Leonard Bernstein)!

Long Read of the Day

Remembering Daniel Dennett

A remarkable and provocative thinker has passed away. Gary Marcus sums him up neatly as the man who “arrived at what many would see as shocking conclusions about consciousness (essentially that it is just an emergent effect of physical interactions of tiny inanimate components)”, and who from then on,

was a dead-set opponent of dualism (the idea that there is an ethereal nonphysical elixir called “consciousness”, over and above the physical events taking place in the enormously complex substrate of a human or animal brain, and perhaps that of a silicon network as well). Dan thus totally rejected the notion of “qualia” (pure sensations of such things as colors, tastes, and so forth), and his arguments against the mystique of qualia were subtle but very cogent.

Marcus has passed on a lovely memoir of Dennett written by his friend Douglas Hofstadter:

Dan was also a diligent and lifelong “student” (in the sense of “studier”) of evolution, religion, artificial intelligence, computers in general, and even science in general. He wrote extremely important and influential books on all these topics, and his insights will endure as long as we humans endure. I’m thinking of his books Brainstorms; The Intentional Stance; Elbow Room; Consciousness Explained; Darwin’s Dangerous Idea; Kinds of Minds; Inside Jokes; Breaking the Spell; From Bacteria to Bach and Back and of course his last book, I’ve Been Thinking, which was (and is) a very colorful self-portrait, a lovely autobiography vividly telling so many stories of his intercontinental life. I’m so happy that Dan not only completed it but was able to savor its warm reception all around the world.

Among other things, that book tells about Dan’s extremely rich life not just as a thinker but also as a doer. Dan was a true bon vivant, and he developed many amazing skills, such as that of house-builder, folk-dancer and folk-dance caller, jazz pianist, cider-maker, sailor and racer of yachts (not the big ones owned by Russian oligarchs, but beautifully crafted sailboats), joke-teller par excellence, enthusiast for and expert in word games, savorer of many cuisines and wines, wood-carver and sculptor, speaker of French and some German and Italian as well, and ardent and eloquent supporter of thinkers whom he admired and felt were not treated with sufficient respect by the academic world.

Worth reading in full. I’ve Been Thinking is such a lovely title for a philosopher’s autobiography.

The big tech firms want an AI monopoly – but maybe the UK CMA can bring them to heel

Yesterday’s Observer column:

“Monopoly,” said Peter Thiel, Silicon Valley’s answer to Darth Vader, “is the condition of every successful business.” This aspiration is widely shared by Gamman, the new acronynm for the Valley’s giants – Google, Apple, Microsoft, Meta, Amazon and Nvidia. And the arrival of AI has sharpened the appetite of each for attaining that blessed state before the others get there.

One symptom of their anxiety is the way they have been throwing unconscionable amounts of money at the 70-odd generative AI startups that have mushroomed since it became clear that AI was going to be the new new thing. Microsoft reportedly put $13bn (about £10.4bn) into OpenAI, for example, but it was also the lead investor in a $1.3bn funding round for Inflection, Deepmind co-founder Mustafa Suleyman’s startup. Amazon put $4bn into Anthropic, the startup founded by refugees from OpenAI. Google invested $500m in the same outfit, with a promise of $1.5bn more, and unspecified sums in A121 Labs and Hugging Face. (Yeah, I know the names make no sense.) Microsoft has also invested in Mistral, the French AI startup. And so on. In 2023, of the $27bn that was invested in AI startups, only $9bn came from venture capitalist firms – which until recently had been by far the biggest funders of new tech enterprises in Silicon Valley.

What’s going on here?

Read on to find out.

My commonplace booklet

Two cheers for Immanuel Kant

The political philosopher Lea Ypi had a nice essay on Kant in the FT on Saturday. I was struck by this passage:

To be free, in a Kantian sense, is to be able to take a critical distance from your passions and inclinations, and to ask yourself if they contribute to “enlightened” thinking: the exit, as Kant puts it, from “humanity’s self-incurred own immaturity”. The process of enlightenment rests on three maxims: to think for oneself, to think putting oneself in the place of everyone else, and to always think consistently. Such maxims, he believed, could be advanced through “the public use of reason”, a modus operandi that is fundamentally different from the “private” use people make of it in their professions (say as students, teachers, doctors, politicians, lawyers or asset managers). While the latter is premised on the acceptance of authority, the former requires pluralistic, impartial and critical engagement.

It is difficult to relate to Kant’s aspirations in an age like ours where public-spiritedness is constantly threatened by the clash between private interests. Our mode of communication is wider and more inclusive than in the 18th century (for example, political participation is formally no longer limited to property-holders) but it is also shallower, more certain of itself and less critical. Dissent manifests itself more in clamorous acts of individual self-expression (preferably recorded on a mobile phone) and less in collective critical engagement.

Like us, Kant lived in an age of crisis marked by great advances in science and technology but a collapse in values. Yet he carved out a role for reason as a universal communicative capacity that tries to steer a middle path between scepticism and dogmatism: between having faith in nothing and blindly following trends. That conception of reason seems harder to revive in our societies, strangled as they are between destructive interests and the individualisation of political commitment.



What is it about fancy wristwatches?

As a (cynical) reader of publications which target people with more money than sense, I am continually intrigued by the advertisements for expensive men’s wristwatches, and in particular by the way so many of them make a song-and-dance about the water depth that they can allegedly withstand. I’m looking at one which is even badged as “Fifty Fathoms” to indicate that it will still tell the time 300 feet below the ocean surface. But here’s the strange thing: I’ve never seen a man wearing one of these watches who has been closer to ocean depths than you get in an infinity pool on the French Riviera. So, basically, these things are just male jewellery. Pathetic, really.

One cheery thought, though. Apparently, it’s not a good idea to flaunt your flashy status-symbol in some parts of London nowadays. At any rate the FT reports that “the Metropolitan Police is grappling with a spate of muggings that has sent jitters as far as Delhi and Geneva.”

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Friday 19 April, 2024

Gateway to ‘Global Britain’

Heathrow Airport Terminal 2, on a quiet Saturday afternoon.

Quote of the Day

”He who hesitates is poor.”

  • Mel Brooks

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Mark Knopfler | Two Pairs Of Hands


Long Read of the Day

Why trade unions matter

Interesting and perceptive Long Read by Neil Bierbaum.

During performance related workshops, the question comes up about expectations; what to do about bosses and colleagues who send out emails late at night, expecting an immediate answer—or latest by the next morning? And what to do about the need to prove that you’re on top of things by meeting that expectation? I call it the “cult of busyness”, and point to “wearing busyness as a badge of honour”. What are we to do about that, comes the question.

What I notice is that everybody is looking for an individual answer, a personal solution, as though it’s their problem to resolve. I always ask myself; can nobody see the naked emperor? It’s all very well doing all you can to manage yourself, but what if the system doesn’t leave you alone? I try to steer people towards the idea that it’s a systemic problem and needs a systemic solution, but mostly I get met with blank stares. (I hope by writing it down here and showing some graphs, it will land with more impact.)

The short answer I would offer is that the epidemic of busyness and the dearth of work-life balance is driven systemically by what I call the “primacy of shareholder value”. In other words, placing profit over people. Despite all the talk of the “triple bottom line” (profit, people, planet), it seldom happens in practice. The systemic solution is to make people matter at least as much as profit. To achieve that, we need our leaders, those high priests of profit, to do more than just pay lip service to the “triple bottom line”. To get there, we ourselves need to stop worshipping at the altar of efficiency for the sake of shareholders. We need to start walking and working among the time poor (as much as I dislike that term, I shall use it here for its poetic ease).

This is an interesting and sharp essay (and I’m not saying that because at one point Bierbaum quotes me). One of the axioms of the neoliberalism that took hold of Western governing elites in the 1970s was that corporations needed to reduce operating costs sharply, which meant in practice reducing labour costs, which in turn meant curbing union power. And both Ronald Reagan in the US and Margaret Thatcher in the UK took this to heart. One of the first things Reagan did after taking office, remember, was to sack 11,359 unionised air-traffic controllers workers overnight on August 5, 1981. And over in the UK Thatcher introduced legislation curbing trade-union power (by outlawing secondary picketing, for example) and, later, by taking on — and defeating — the National Union of Mineworkers.

And then came the tech industry, to which the very idea of unionisation was anathema, resulting in the growth of gigantic firms which were effectively neoliberal wet dreams in which the idea of a counterveiling power to managerial fiat was ridiculed as a quaint throwback to the era of Fordist mass production.

In that context, one of the most interesting findings to emerge from Acemoglu’s and Johnson’s magisterial survey of society’s thousand-year experience with technology is that the only periods in which technology-generated wealth was more equitably shared with the non-owners of capital coincided with the growth of counterveiling powers like unions together with societal mobilisation against overweening corporate power.

Chart of the day

Source: Tortoise Media, which commented that:

Despite the attack’s apparent failure, Tehran gathered useful information about Israel’s defences and forced Israel and the US to spend more than $1 billion in one night to counter an attack that cost around one tenth of that to launch.


Something I noticed, while drinking from the Internet firehose.

  • From The Economist, 26/03/2024

“China’s government spends $6.6bn a year censoring online content, estimates the Jamestown Foundation, a think-tank in America. In one two-month period last year the authorities claim to have deleted 1.4m social-media posts and 67,000 accounts (ironically, they branded many of the posts “misinformation”). More recently officials launched an investigation into short-video platforms that were spreading “pessimism” among young people, many of whom are struggling to find jobs.”

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Wednesday 17 April, 2024

Manuel Castells, the first great scholar of cyberspace

Quote of the Day

“If you’re too open-minded; your brains will fall out.”

  • Lawrence Ferlinghetti

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Mark Knopfler’s Guitar Heroes | Going Home (Theme From Local Hero)


There’s an interesting story behind this.

Mark Knopfler’s new special recording of his anthemic ‘Going Home (Theme From Local Hero)’, produced by his longtime collaborator Guy Fletcher (who has edited the contributions into a 9 minute piece), features an unprecedented line-up of some of the greatest guitarists in history. ‘Legendary’ does not begin to cover it – David Gilmour to Ronnie Wood, Slash to Eric Clapton, Sting to Joan Armatrading, Bruce Springsteen to Pete Townshend, Nile Rodgers to Joan Jett, Brian May to Tony Iommi, Joe Walsh, Sam Fender and many more jaw dropping names.

And, in a great honour, the track opens with Jeff Beck’s final recording. Roger Daltrey, Teenage Cancer Trust’s Honorary Patron and co-founder of Teen Cancer America (with Pete Townshend), added harmonica, and Beatles icon Ringo Starr is on drums along with his son Zak Starkey, their two drum tracks switching from one to the other, revealing an unmistakable family style. Sting completes an extraordinary rhythm section on bass. With artwork designed by Sir Peter Blake (The Beatles, The Who, Band Aid, Paul Weller etc), this release is a landmark in rock music history.

Long Read of the Day

 From Bauhaus to Buchenwald .. to mid-century cool

Extraordinary essay by Adam Tooze about the famous design school, its historical legacy and the enigmatic career of one of its students, Franz Ehrlich.

As a canonical lieu de mémoire for global modernism, Bauhaus, truly came into its own with a retrospective exhibition hosted in Stuttgart, one of the industrial centers of postwar West Germany, in 1968. According to art historian Iris Dressler, the show with the programmatic title – 50 years of Bauhaus – was a sensational success, traveling to eight museums—in Europe, the United States, Canada, South America and Asia – and attracting more than 800,000 visitors in total. From 1974, a reduced version of the show put together by Germany’s Institut für Auslandsbeziehungen (Institute for Foreign Relations) toured the globe for a further eight years. The stakes were high:

The title, 50 years of the Bauhaus, already ascribes an unbroken continuity to the school—which, as is well known, existed for only 14 years, and in his opening speech the German Federal Minister for Building and Urbanism, Dr. Lauritz Lauritzen, claimed: “The Bauhaus … has significantly contributed to the cultural philosophy of a state designed (to be) democratic and of a democratic society. It is unthinkable without the democratic constitution of the Weimar Republic,” which, as he went on to explain, failed not for political reasons but due to the lack in Germany of an authentically liberal, open society. “The Bauhaus was of global vibrancy. … Without any national hubris one can say that it is a German contribution to culture and civilization in this world of the twentieth century, a contribution to the humanization of the technical century.” He then added: “The men of the Bauhaus who left Germany kept the spirit of German humanism alive in their exiles.”

As Dressler remarks, the exhibition said nothing about the activities of the Bauhaus students who were not forced to leave Germany. Indeed, the entire exhibition was a complex exercise in self-fashioning…

Thanks to Robert Amundsen for alerting me to it.


Something I noticed, while drinking from the Internet firehose.

  • Extraordinary video of Emperor Penguin chicks having to make a momentous decision.

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Monday 15 April, 2024

Waiting for Hockney

The queue for his 2012 Exhibition at the Royal Academy.

Quote of the Day

“Genius creates, and taste preserves”

  • Alexander Pope

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Van Morrison | This Loving Light Of Mine


Bruch Springsteen did a footstomping version version in Dublin.

Long Read of the Day

The Mythical people-life

This is a wonderful riff by Timothy Burke on an idea first articulated by Fred Brooks in his Meisterwerk, The Mythical Man Month, a much-thumbed copy of which sits on my bookshelves as I write.

It took a long time for me to see the pattern that is now in hindsight clear to almost everybody my age, and to younger generations as well. As the advantages gained by the early adopters became clear, more people pushed voluntarily into those spaces. And then as the productivity increases jolted down the line, everybody else was pushed involuntarily. The advantage suddenly vanished. The noise was up, the signal was down. Everything was suddenly being done in email, and suddenly the speed of email dramatically increased the amount of information and communication you were expected to produce and conduct. You were suddenly answering questions from all over all day long. We were all working more and it stopped being magic.

If you’re as old as I am, you’ve now seen this cycle repeated multiple times. We are all in some sense the extra workers being added to a long-delayed project with the expectation that we will make it go faster and instead it gets slower and slower all the time. We are all bugs on the windshield in the race to get to full frictionless efficiency, splattering over and over again as that fictional, inhuman El Dorado shimmers in the distance, calling to those who dream of a world where they no longer have to hire human beings at all but who in the meantime are happy to make the people they pay do more and more work while pretending that in fact they are making it easier for us all.

In academia, this drive to nowhere takes on familiar shapes across campuses. We imitate one another, which provides a ready answer any time you ask “Why are we adopting this new system, this new process?” Answer: because it has become an industry-wide standard! Why did the first adopters do it, then? As well ask which came first, the chicken or the egg…

It’s long, but interesting, thoughtful and insightful throughout. Burke has been around long enough (as have I) to see how digital technology seeps into, and then pervades, an organisation. And, as he says,

In practice what happens is that the job formerly done by a person gets divided in a thousand tiny jobs and distributed to the entire workforce. In this act, it does not magically become less work. The sum remains the same. The hope is just that each person will be able to add it to their workflow and barely notice because it is just that one…tiny…wafer. The problem is that we are all the character from Monty Python’s Meaning of Life, being fed a mountain of tiny wafers until we are engorged to the breaking point.

When became a university lecturer way back in 1972 in the Open University, I was assigned a secretary, Viv, and she did much of the typing of draft course units. Sometimes, this led to charming errors. Once, in a text on economic modelling, for example, my scribbled reference to “exogenous” variables emerged as erogenous, to the great amusement of some of my colleagues.

And now? We’re all typists, and secretaries have become ‘Executive Assistants’ who are assigned only to senior executives.

From boom to bust, the AI bubble is only heading in one direction

Yesterday’s Observer column:

Are we really in an AI bubble,” asked a reader of last month’s column about the apparently unstoppable rise of Nvidia, “and how would we know?” Good question, so I asked an AI about it and was pointed to Investopedia, which is written by humans who know about this stuff. It told me that a bubble goes through five stages – rather as Elisabeth Kübler-Ross said people do with grief. For investment bubbles, the five stages are displacement, boom, euphoria, profit-taking and panic. So let’s see how this maps on to our experience so far with AI.

First, displacement. That’s easy: it was ChatGPT wot dunnit. When it appeared on 30 November 2022, the world went, well, apeshit…

Read on

My commonplace booklet

Think Slow

Lovely blog post by Scott Galloway on Daniel Kahneman who passed away the other day. I was pondering writing something about him, but Scott has done it much better than I could have.

Kahneman studied how humans make decisions, and the shortcuts our minds take, unbeknownst to us. These shortcuts are efficient; they foster a key skill for survival, the ability to make rapid decisions with incomplete information. We have to make thousands of decisions every day, and we couldn’t leave the house if we had to objectively analyze every choice: breakfast, outfit, route, music, etc.

Our efficiency comes at the cost of accuracy: Many instinctual decisions will be poorly calibrated (i.e., wrong). To facilitate the requisite speed, our brain buttresses our decisions with artificial confidence. Kahneman’s body of work demonstrates that we are often wrong but frequently confident. These shortcuts and mistakes are present in the structure of our brains, and impossible to avoid, but recognizing them helps us discern between trivial and important decisions and invest the appropriate intellectual capital. Put another way, take a beat and you increase the likelihood of making a better decision.

Though he was a psychologist by training, Kahneman got his Nobel Prize for economics. Before him, economists “relied on the assumption of a ‘homo œconomicus,’” as the prize committee wrote, a self-interested being capable of rational decision-making. But Kahneman “demonstrated how human decisions may systematically depart from those predicted by standard economic theory.” That dry language obscures an intellectual nuclear detonation. Expectations about human decisions — whether to work at a certain job, how much to pay for a specific good — are the foundation of economic theory. Kahneman showed those expectations were incorrect…


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Friday 12 April, 2024

The Public House

The OED says that “pub” is an abbreviation of ‘Public House’ or inn. This legendary institution has been around since 1754, so it was likely to have been called a ‘public house’ for quite a while. (The dictionary dates the abbreviation only from the mid-19th century.)

Quote of the Day

“Democracy has at least one merit, namely that a Member of Parliament cannot be stupider than his constituents, for the more stupid he is, the more stupid they were to elect him.”

  • Bertrand Russell

I kept thinking about this quote as the ‘Honeytrap’ scandal unfolded in Westminster.

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Keith Richards | I’m Waiting For The Man (Lou Reed Cover)



Long Read of the Day

The Apocalyptic Systems Thriller as a non-fiction genre

Henry Farrell is one of the most perceptive observers of the times we’re living in. This essay is just the latest in a thoughtstream of distinctive commentary. It was sparked, he says, by a piece in the New York Times by the novelist Hari Kunzru on a fictional genre he (Kunzru) calls the “apocalyptic systems thriller” (think Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Ministry for The Future (which I highly recommend, btw).

“Just as Kunzru describes the influence of non-fiction on a new genre of fiction”, Henry writes,

that genre is re-shaping non-fiction, and should, in my opinion, be shaping it a lot more. We live in an enormously, terrifyingly complex world. We need new narrative techniques to make sense of it, and even more importantly to begin to articulate ways in which human beings can collectively respond to it. Furthermore, non-fiction writers ought steal liberally from fiction writers, just as fiction writers have stolen from the futurists and scenario planners that Kunzru describes. Rather than emphasizing the one-way passage from non-fiction to fiction, we should think of fiction and non-fiction as intertwined like twin helices, generating and regenerating new possibilities. The great advantage of thinking this way (at least from my selfish point of view) is that it focuses our attention on how to improve narrative technique in non-fiction too…

Do read the whole thing. It’s worth it.

Julian Assange

Good piece by Rupa Subramanya in The Free Press.

Some argue Assange is an anarchist, trying to undermine our nation. Others say he is a heroic activist, fighting for a transparent democracy.

But the truth, actually, lies somewhere in the middle: yes, Assange is a deeply flawed character, and he also does not deserve to spend the rest of his life behind bars. Today, President Biden said he is considering a plea from Assange’s homeland of Australia to drop the case, which is a welcome development. Because if the hacker is convicted, it’s not only journalism that will be weaker—it’s democracy itself.

Democracy depends on whistleblowers. We need people like Chelsea Manning. Or Edward Snowden, the former National Security Agency employee who leaked documents in 2013 that revealed a disturbing level of government surveillance. Or Thomas Drake, a high-ranking NSA official who blew the whistle on 9/11 intelligence failures. Or Jamie Reed, a case manager at a gender clinic for children, who revealed in these pages that doctors there too hastily prescribed hormones to young adults with mental health issues.

If politicians truly respect the First Amendment, they must defend the freedom of whistleblowers and investigative journalists to deliver the truth to the public—however ugly it may be…


My commonplace booklet

On the naming of plants

A fragment from a nice essay in the New Yorker by Yiyun Li:

“Lotus” comes from the Greek lōtos, a mythical plant bringing forgetfulness to those who eat its fruits. (I have eaten my share of lotus seeds, a delicacy in Chinese cuisine, without achieving oblivion.) “Fuchsia,” a word I often misspelled as “fuschia”—what mythical story accompanies thee? It turns out that fuchsia was named for the sixteenth-century German physician and botanist Leonhard Fuchs, whose name gave birth not only to that of the flower and that of the color but also to the nickname, Fuchsienstadt, for his home town of Wemding, where there is a pyramid made of as many as seven hundred fuchsia plants. And yet Fuchs never saw the flower fuchsia in his lifetime: it was discovered in the Caribbean and named by the French botanist and monk Charles Plumier, who was born a hundred and forty-five years after Fuchs. What led Plumier to name the flower for Fuchs? One can ask the question, but any speculation would be closer to fiction, just as peony was once the physician of the gods and lotus would bring forgetfulness.

I love fuchsia, largely I guess because I spent part of my childhood in Kerry, where it grows in fabulous abundance — so much so that you can drive on small rural roads where the hedges on either side seems to be entirely made up of fuchsia. And, like Li, it took me years to realise that it’s not spelled ‘fuschia’!

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Wednesday 10 April, 2024

The listening post

Dishes in Cambridge’s Lord’s Bridge radio telescope system: listening to the universe.

Quote of the Day

“He would have been considered a great Emperor, had he never ruled.”

  • Roman historian Tacitus on the Emperor Galba

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Van Morrison | Green Rocky Road


Long Read of the Day

The State of the Culture, 2024

Or a glimpse into post-entertainment society. (Spoiler alert: it’s not pretty)

Intriguing essay by Ted Gioia.

Here’s how it opens:

Until recently, the entertainment industry has been on a growth tear—so much so, that anything artsy or indie or alternative got squeezed as collateral damage.

But even this disturbing picture isn’t disturbing enough. That’s because it misses the single biggest change happening right now.

We’re witnessing the birth of a post-entertainment culture. And it won’t help the arts. In fact, it won’t help society at all.

Even that big whale is in trouble. Entertainment companies are struggling in ways nobody anticipated just a few years ago…

Read on. It’s good, particularly on how the Tec industry views ‘entertainment’, and where we’re headed.

Andrew Curry also had a nice commentary on it on his Substack.

Books, etc.

Sometimes, serendipity works. I’ve been brooding for ages about whether cybernetics and complexity science would be helpful in understanding the mess we’re in — which led to me re-reading Stafford Beer and other systems theorists. And then, out of nowhere, two interesting books pop up. This is the first one: Doyne Farmer is Professor of Complex Systems Science in Oxford but he’s also attached to the Santa Fe Institute. The book is out on April 25. The other book is  The Unaccountability Machine: Why Big Systems Make Terrible Decisions – and How The World Lost its Mind by Dan Davies, who has also been thinking about Stafford Beer and cybernetics. So an interesting few weeks lie ahead.

My commonplace booklet

From Seth Godin’s newsletter, which is a fount of pithy common sense:

Have you ever wondered what the wiring layout behind the control panels at Abbey Road studios was like?

Neither have I.

The Beatles recorded some of their best work there, and I have no idea if it was a rat’s nest of tangled wires, or if each wire was labeled, coded and perfectly aligned.

Just as I have no idea if Eliot Peper writes his novels in Scrivener or Word.

Yes, of course, for sure, it helps if your tools are properly arranged and maintained. Yes, it saves time and effort to embrace mise en place and get your workspace right.

But making it even more right, alphabetizing the pencils and making sure your servers all have the right names–that’s simply stalling.

Yep. One of my favourite adages when talking to students and others about their projects is that “the perfect is the enemy of the good”..


Something I noticed, while drinking from the Internet firehose.

The costs of long COVID – estimated for the UK

While Long Covid remains inadequately understood, the evidence is clear on the adverse effects on people’s lives. The most recent ONS estimates from early March 2023 suggested that there were almost 2m people living with Long Covid in the UK, representing some 3% of the UK population. While diverse in its symptoms, around 80% of people reported Long Covid as affecting their ability to carry out day-today activities in at least some way. For those more severely affected, people have reported being unable to live alone without assistance and either a reduced ability to work or having to leave work altogether. The financial implications for individuals and families may be substantial.

Early hopes that Long Covid might prove to be short-lived have not been realised and at this point, Long Covid should be considered a long-term condition that requires investment in long-term solutions. UK government commitments to addressing Long Covid remain uncertain, with current funding in England of clinics for assessment and rehabilitation only recently extended to March 2025, with no commitment to longer-term support.

With Long Covid now established in the population and clearly affecting health and livelihoods, there are questions about what Long Covid means in the longer term for the UK economy. This report takes the available evidence to examine future scenarios of Long Covid to 2030, considering trends such as future prevalence, effects on the ability to work and the costs of Long Covid treatment.

Using our E3ME macroeconomic model to simulate a Long Covid future, the results suggest that Long Covid may have macroeconomic costs of some £1.5bn of GDP each year, with the impacts increasing if future prevalence were to rise. The main driver of this result is the way in which Long Covid reduces people’s ability to work, leading to lower household incomes and lower economic growth overall. Lower employment of around 138,000 by 2030 follows as a consequence. The pattern of these impacts across the economy reflects a mix of sectors in which more people have Long Covid, leading to reductions in and exits from work; and lower economic activity, which tends to affect market services in an economy such as the UK.

Two million people! 3% of the population. Why aren’t we hearing more about this?

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Monday 8 April, 2024

Light, shade and all that rot

Quote of the Day

”Musk’s management philosophy for Twitter hasn’t so much been a random walk as a grasshopper lepping around on a hotplate.”

  • Henry Farrell

(Nice, especially Henry’s use of the derisive Irish term for ‘leaping’).

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Handel | Semele HWV 58 / Act II | Where’er you walk | Bryn Terfel


I love this aria, and have even been tempted to sing it in the shower, even if the lyrics are premier-grade tosh.

Long Read of the Day

Death is a Feature

Striking blog post by Doc Searls (Whom God Preserve).

Here’s how it opens:

Elon Musk wants to colonize Mars.

This is a very human thing to want. But before we start following his lead, we might want to ask whether death awaits us there.

Not our deaths. Anything’s. What died there to make life possible for what succeeds it?

From what we can tell so far, the answer is nothing.

To explain why life needs death, answer this: what do plastic, wood, limestone, paint, travertine, marble, asphalt, oil, coal, stalactites, peat, stalagmites, cotton, wool, chert, cement, nearly all food, all gas, and most electric services have in common?

They are all products of death. They are remains of living things or made from them…


How one engineer’s curiosity may have saved us from a devastating cyber-attack

Yesterday’s Observer column

On Good Friday, a Microsoft engineer named Andres Freund noticed something peculiar. He was using a software tool called SSH for securely logging into remote computers on the internet, but the interactions with the distant machines were significantly slower than usual. So he did some digging and found malicious code embedded in a software package called XZ Utils that was running on his machine. This is a critical utility for compressing (and decompressing) data running on the Linux operating system, the OS that powers the vast majority of publicly accessible internet servers across the world. Which means that every such machine is running XZ Utils.

Freund’s digging revealed that the malicious code had arrived in his machine via two recent updates to XZ Utils, and he alerted the Open Source Security list to reveal that those updates were the result of someone intentionally planting a backdoor in the compression software. It was what is called a “supply-chain attack” (like the catastrophic SolarWinds one of 2020) – where malicious software is not directly injected into targeted machines, but distributed by infecting the regular software updates to which all computer users are wearily accustomed. If you want to get malware out there, infecting the supply chain is the smart way to do it…

Read on

Books, etc.

On reading ‘A Room of One’s Own’

Andrew Curry has been reading Virginia Woolf’s little masterpiece. He hadn’t read it before, and so was coming to it fresh. And he plans three blog posts about it, of which this is #1.

When she gave the pair of lectures to Cambridge undergraduates, her reputation as a leading modernist novelist was secure. She was in her 40s, and had already published Mrs Dalloway and To The Lighthouse. But the persona that Virginia Woolf adopts for the pair of lectures, to women undergraduates in Cambridge, is of the poorly educated woman who is struggling to understand the things that male authority figures are saying about women in general, and about women writers in particular.

For example, in an early sequence in the British Library she ploughs through a large pile of books written by men about women, while also noting that there are far fewer books the other way around:

How shall I ever find the grains of truth embedded in all this mass of paper? I asked myself, and in despair began running my eye up and down the long list of titles. Even the names of the books gave me food for thought. Sex and its nature might well attract doctors and biologists; but what was surprising and difficult of explanation was the fact that sex—woman, that is to say—also attracts agreeable essayists, light-fingered novelists, young men who have taken the M.A. degree; men who have taken no degree; men who have no apparent qualification save that they are not women.

It’s one of my favourite books, so I’m looking forward to seeing what Andrew makes of it.

My commonplace booklet

I discovered these on the faded back of an old postcard that had been pinned to the notice board of an office I used to have.

Techniques of argument

  1. Avoiding giving evidence
  2. Using carefully selected evidence
  3. Over-extending your opponent’s argument
  4. Appealing to ‘authority’, epistemic or otherwise
  5. Appearing to be clever
  6. Sarcasm, innuendo, etc.
  7. Appealing to people’s prejudice
  8. Asking rhetorical questions
  9. Appealing to your opponent’s vanity

In my time I have been guilty of #2,3,6 and 8. I tried #5, but it didn’t work (because I’m not).

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