Friday 28 June, 2024

En féte

I came on this the other evening in the village where we stay. No idea what the event was celebrating

(Footnote for shutterbugs I would have liked to get in closer without being obtrusive, so what really bothered me was that I had come out with a 35mm (wide-angle) lens fitted to the Leica when I really should have had a 50mm one. Not for nothing was the latter Henri Cartier-Bresson’s usual lens. Growl.)

Quote of the Day

“All rising to great place is by a winding stair.”

(Wise old bird. I love his categorisation of reading material: “Some books are to be tasted; others swallowed; and some few to be chewed and digested.” The last is what I’m doing at the moment with Tony Judt’s magisterial Postwar).

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Norah Jones | The Long Way Home


Long Read of the Day

Ireland rejected James Joyce. Did he reject it back?

Very nice, thoughtful essay by Henry Oliver on Joyce, Ulysses and his complicated relationship with his native land.

Strange as it might be, there was sympathy between Joyce’s fellow writers and the censors who banned his work. Ireland—the country that now celebrates Bloomsday every year, hosts statues of Joyce, and runs tours of the routes taken by the main characters in Ulysses—was the most stringent country when it came to banning Ulysses. Richard Ellmann wrote, in his celebrated biography of Joyce, “To his Irish countrymen he is still obscure and very likely mad; they, alone among nations, continue to ban Ulysses.” That was in 1959, more than thirty years after Ulysses was published, and some eighteen years after Joyce’s death. Ireland never printed or imported the book. It was only available as contraband until the 1960s. The 1967 film was also banned, only released in 2001.

The feeling was perhaps mutual. Joyce left Ireland first in 1902 to study in Paris. He returned in 1903, when his mother was dying. He met Nora on 10 June 1904: they left Ireland that October. From then on, Joyce lived in Europe. In 1906, he tried to get his short story collection Dubliners published, but controversial passages caused anxiety. These sections would hardly be noticed today—implied sexuality, mild swearing, petty violence—but the publishers demurred. In 1909 Joyce visited Dublin, hopeful that a publisher would take Dubliners. It took them three years, until 1912, to finally reject the book, which was deemed so unsuitable the galleys were burned.

So it was that James Joyce left Ireland and never went back…

Do read on…

My commonplace booklet

Internal Combustion Engine by Bartosz Ciechanowski

My comment in Monday’s edition — about how remarkable it was that humans figured out how to propel themselves around by a series of controlled explosions — prompted Johannes Björkman to point me to this wonderful animated explanation of how it works. For which enlightenment, many thanks.


Something I noticed, while drinking from the Internet firehose.

  • Fascinating video of Seamus Heaney talking to Richard Ellman (the acclaimed biographer of Joyce, Yeats and Wilde) about the trio.

It’s quite long (40 minutes) but worth it IMO.

  This Blog is also available as an email three days a week. If you think that might suit you better, why not subscribe? One email on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays delivered to your inbox at 6am UK time. It’s free, and you can always unsubscribe if you conclude your inbox is full enough already!

Wednesday 26 June, 2024

Brief encounter

Quote of the Day

“We look at the present through a rear view mirror. We march backwards into the future.”

  • Marshall McLuhan

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Bach | Wachet auf from Cantata No 140 | Sonny Landreth


I love this Cantata (who doesn’t?), but I’ve never heard it played like this before.

Long Read of the Day

AI as Self-Erasure

A really thoughtful (and thought-provoking) essay by Matthew Crawford in The Hedgehog Review.

I was at a small dinner a few weeks ago in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Seated next to me was a man who related that his daughter had just gotten married. As the day approached, he had wanted to say some words at the reception, as is fitting for the father of the bride. It can be hard to come up with the right words for such an occasion, and he wanted to make a good showing. He said he gave a few prompts to ChatGPT, facts about her life, and sure enough it came back with a pretty good wedding toast. Maybe better than what he would have written. But in the end, he didn’t use it, and composed his own. This strikes me as telling, and the intuition that stopped him from deferring to AI is worth bringing to the surface.

To use the machine-generated speech would have been to absent himself from this significant moment in the life of his daughter, and in his own life. It would have been to not show up for her wedding, in some sense. I am reminded of a passage in Tocqueville where he noticed that America seemed to be on a trajectory that would have it erecting “an immense tutelary power” that wants only what is best for us, and is keen to “save us the trouble of living.”

LLMs, Crawford argues (perceptively, IMHO), won’t return us to a pre-linguistic state, but they do point to a post-human one. This is because words have significance for us, but they don’t have for a machine (or a parrot for that matter).

Do read on. I was often reminded as I read it of my feeling that the subliminal thrust of this technology is what Brett Frischman and Evan Selinger described in their  perceptive book as the re-engineering of humanity in order to make it more amenable to the needs of machines.

I was also reminded of an observation what I used to attribute — wrongly — to Martin Heidegger, but which in fact came from Max Frisch in his book Homo Faber:

“Technology is the art of so arranging the world that we don’t have to experience it.”

Thanks to Kevin Cryan for alerting me to Crawford’s essay.

Chart of the Day

From Azeem Azhar’s newsletter.

Traffic to traditional news outlets in the US is collapsing and it’s not just them – only 22% of people globally now rely on publisher websites as their main source of news, down 10 percentage points since 2018. The long-awaited platform shift is happening, but to what? The picture isn’t clear. Social and video platforms are on the rise, but the landscape is fragmented. The gatekeepers of control have also changed. Where media moguls like Rupert Murdoch once controlled content, now it’s a mishmash of tech platforms, in a more dislocated ecosystem than we’ve seen in the past decade.

These platforms, which prioritise engaging content, have led to the rise of news influencers. 66% of people worldwide watch short news videos on a weekly basis. At the same time, news avoidance is at an all-time high.

The focus on the individual has mixed effects. The journalistic model isn’t necessarily dead, it’s changing.

Yep. But to what?

My commonplace booklet

Every year the highlight of our Summer is a slow drive down through La France Profonde until we reach Provence: small roads, rural villages, small hotels. This year we noticed something unusual: at the entrance to many rural villages the village sign had been neatly turned upside down. The care with which the operation had been carried out meant that vandalism could be ruled out as an explanation. So eventually I resorted to search engines, and found this useful BBC report, which explained all.

The name-bearing roadside plaques have been unscrewed, flipped, then meticulously screwed back on.

It’s a campaign by farmers to draw attention to what they say is their increasingly precarious way of life.

Starting with a protest in the southern Tarn department in November, it has now spread all over the country.

”We were trying to think of a way of denouncing all the contradictory instructions we keep getting,” said Philippe Bardy, head of the FNSEA farmers’ union in the Tarn.

”Where we come from, if someone tells us to do one thing one day and then the opposite the next, we say we’re walking on our heads. That’s where the idea came from.”

Farmers cite specific grievances such as the increasing cost of farm diesel, late payment of EU subsidies, burgeoning bureaucracy and competition from imports.

But Philippe Bardy adds: “There is no other profession that suffers such a mental load.

”On one side, the minister asks us to change our practices, to make them more ecological. On the other, he tells us to produce as much as possible so France can achieve food sovereignty…


Something I noticed, while drinking from the Internet firehose.

  • From Quartz Daily Brief

”People who live in the U.S. are just too swamped to take a holiday — or so they say.

Despite only receiving an average of 12 vacation days a year, more than half of Americans said they didn’t use all of their vacation time last year. The top reason? “Life is too busy to plan or go on vacation.”

Twelve paid holiday days a year! I had a friend who was a talented but underpaid researcher in Cambridge. He had a growing family (4 energetic boys) and needed to earn more, so he went to work for a big pharmaceutical company in the U.S. where he rose quickly to become a VP for R&D. Despite that seniority, he had only 14 days holiday allowance, and told me that on the first of these fortnight-long breaks his American colleagues were pissed off that he never once opened his laptop.

(In the end he decided he’d be better working for a big pharma outfit in Switzerland, where they take proper holidays.)

This Blog is also available as an email three days a week. If you think that might suit you better, why not subscribe? One email on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays delivered to your inbox at 6am UK time. It’s free, and you can always unsubscribe if you conclude your inbox is full enough already!

Monday 24 June, 2024

Unplanned obsolescence

A lovingly cared-for Harley seen in a French village the other day. En passant, isn’t it amazing how humans tamed the internal combustion engine so that we could ride around comfortably while being propelled by a controlled series of explosions?

Quote of the Day

“I may have my faults, but being wrong ain’t one of them”

  • Jimmy Hoffa

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Louis Armstrong with Dave Brubeck | Summer Song


Long Read of the Day

 “Bits of the Mind’s String”

Lovely essay by Julian Simpson on what you can learn about yourself from keeping a notebook.

I know where I was when I wrote that note because the time and place is scrawled at the top of the page. But the note itself evokes context. I remember writing it, and what else was happening at the time, in a way that I rarely do when I type something. Physical media drops anchors in time. The act of writing with pen on paper snapshots the moment itself.

In her essay “On Keeping A Notebook”, Joan Didion refers to “bits of the mind’s string”. These are pieces of who we are set down on a page and back-linked, to borrow terminology from the notebook’s digital cousin, to a vivid snatch of life experience.

I have been actively keeping notebooks for many years now…

If you’re a notebook-keeper (as I am) this will resonate with you.

Books, etc.

What are laughingly called my working days are currently occupied by a project to which I’ve assigned the shorthand label HWGH (‘How We Got Here’). It’s about how liberal democracies got into the mess they are now in, and it’s a long story. It begins with the shock of the Second World War, and so I took Tony Judt’s magisterial tome away to read while we’re in France, because he starts with an extraordinarily vivid account of the devastation wrought by the war.

It was devastation on a scale I had never really understood. Over 36 million Europeans died in the war, numbers that dwarf the casualties of WW1, mostly because WW2 was primarily a civilian experience. It was, writes Judt, “a war of occupation, of repression, of exploitation and of extermination, in which soldiers, storm-troopers and policemen disposed of the daily lives and very existence of tens of millions of imprisoned peoples”.

It was a war in which. “the full force of the modern European state was mobilised for the first time, for the prime purpose of conquering other Europeans”. Nazi Germany fought it

“with significant help from the ransacked economies of its victims. … Norway, the Netherlands, Belgium, Bohemia-Moravia and, especially, France made significant involuntary contributions to the German war effort. Their mines, factories, farms and railways were directed to serving German requirements and their populations were obliged to work at German war production: at first in their own countries, later on in Germany itself. In September 1944 there were 7,487,000 foreigners in Germany, most of them there against their will, and they constituted 21 per cent of the country’s labour force”.

There was savagery everywhere. The Germans captured 5.5 million Soviet soldiers in the course of the war, most of them in the first seven months of Hitler’s invasion of Russia. Of these, 3.3 million died “from starvation, exposure and mistreatment in German camps”. And when the Soviet armies began to arrive in the West, retaliation began. For example, 87,000 women were raped by Soviet soldiers in the three weeks following the Red army’s arrival in Vienna.

On its way to Germany, Judt writes,

“the Red Army raped and pillaged (the phrase, for once, is brutally apt) in Hungary, Romania, Slovakia and Yugoslavia; but German women suffered by far the worst. Between 150,000 and 200,000 ‘Russian babies’ were born in the Soviet-occupied zone of Germany in 1945-46, and these figures make no allowance for untold numbers of abortions, as a result of which many women died along with their unwanted foetuses”. The Germans, Judt writes, “had done terrible things to Russia; now it was their turn to suffer”.

And that’s just for starters. Reading Judt reinforces the conviction that “European civilisation” is an oxymoron. (Not to mention a proposition that is not shared by the former colonies of European states.) But at least it supports my conjecture that the post-war explosion in liberal democracies can be seen as a response to the traumatic shock of the conflict.

My commonplace booklet

Who’s having to pay the ‘NVIDIA Tax’? And who isn’t?

Not sure how to reference this, which came from Brad DeLong’s blog, but it’s insightful…

So far, “AI” is huge profits for NVIDIA, as only Google and Apple have escaped the trap of paying NVIDI, exactly as much as it wants because they do not dare delay things for six months needed to build an alternative, cheaper, hardware-software stack—and quite possibly fail to do so. So far, “AI” is software companies finding that they have to provide services expenses in training and then in data center and electricity inference costs simply to protect their existing oligopoly, profit centers, without gaining significant additional revenue in return. And, so far, “AI “is a bunch of startups with no business models saved to pull the plug into years when Open AI, Microsoft, or Google Sherlock, you—unless you can get acquired by one of them as part of the Sherlock process first. IMHO, Google is highly likely to make money off of this because it does not have to pay the NVIDIA tax. IMHO, Apple is highly likely to make money off of this because it will sell devices for which it does not pay the NVIDIA tax, plus users pay the electricity costs. And Microsoft and OpenAI may make serious money. That is what the finances look like to me right now. But what does all this mean for technology and humanity’s collective wealth? I do not even have a guess yet: Brody Ford: AI Isn’t Making Much Money for Software Companies — Yet.

So it probably came from Ford’s Bloomberg column, but as I don’t have a subscription I can’t be sure.


Something I noticed, while drinking from the Internet firehose.

  • The IEA says that the tech industry’s insatiable appetite for energy is ballooning.

Electricity consumption from data centres, artificial intelligence (AI) and the cryptocurrency sector could double by 2026. Data centres are significant drivers of growth in electricity demand in many regions. After globally consuming an estimated 460 terawatt-hours (TWh) in 2022, data centres’ total electricity consumption could reach more than 1000 TWh in 2026. This demand is roughly equivalent to the electricity consumption of Japan.


Interesting, ne c’est pas? This is the industry that tells us that AI will help us fix climate change.

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Friday 21 June, 2024


The helical chutes inside Frank Gehry’s Tower in the Luma Arles arts centre, photographed yesterday. Believe it or not, perfectly sensible adults come hurtling down these.

The view from the top of the tower is terrific, though. First time I’ve ever had an aerial view of Arles, a city I love.

Quote of the Day

”Sometimes it is the body which is the first to surrender to old age, sometimes the soul.”

  • Michel de Montaigne

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Keith Richards and Norah Jones | Love Hurts


Long Read of the Day

Watergate: a reprise

Lovely post by Heather Cox Richardson on the last time the US had a president who was totally unfit for office.

Early in the morning on June 17, 1972, Frank Wills, a 24-year-old security guard at the Watergate Office Building in Washington, D.C., noticed that a door lock had been taped open. He ripped off the tape and closed the door, but when he went on the next round, he found the door taped open again. He called the police, who found five burglars in the Democratic National Committee headquarters located in the building.

And so it began…

She’s one of the best historians writing in the US at the moment. And has been a Substack star since, well, forever.

My commonplace booklet

LLMs as judges

Now this is really weird. Its author, Adam Unikowsky, is a partner in a fancy American law firm where he specialises in Appellate and Supreme Court cases. He previously served as a Judicial Law Clerk to former Justice Antonin Scalia and before that clerked for Judge Douglas Ginsberg at the U.S. Courts of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. So he’s not your average AI booster.

He recently tried an experiment:

I downloaded the briefs in every Supreme Court merits case that has been decided so far this Term, inputted them into Claude 3 Opus (the best version of Claude), and then asked a few follow-up questions. (Although I used Claude for this exercise, one would likely get similar results with GPT-4.)

The results were otherworldly. Claude is fully capable of acting as a Supreme Court Justice right now. When used as a law clerk, Claude is easily as insightful and accurate as human clerks, while towering over humans in efficiency.

Let’s start with the easiest thing I asked Claude to do: adjudicate Supreme Court cases. Claude consistently decides cases correctly. When it gets the case “wrong”—meaning, decides it differently from how the Supreme Court decided it—its disposition is invariably reasonable.

For example, Thursday and Friday last week, the Supreme Court decided six cases: United States Trustee v. John Q. Hammons Fall 2006, LLC; Campus-Chaves v. Garland; Garland v. Cargill; FDA v. Alliance for Hippocratic Medicine; Starbucks v. McKinney; and Vidal v. Elster. Claude nailed five out of six, missing only Campos-Chaves, in which it took the dissenters’ side of a 5-4 opinion, which is hardly “wrong.”

I’m not a lawyer, so can’t really judge. But the summary judgments produced by Claude looked plausible.

Not sure what this means. Maybe it’s just that legal reasoning is particularly amenable to the ways LLMs work. But this seems a bigger deal than the stories about his the models can ace the tests set for entrants to some professions.

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Wednesday 19 June, 2024

Eagle eye

Bath Abbey

Quote of the Day

”Life breaks all of us but some of us get stronger in the broken places.”

  • Ernest Hemingway 

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Bruce Springsteen | The Rising


Rise and shine.

Long Read of the Day

Why I write the Common Reader

Lovely essay by Henry Oliver which explains why he produces his remarkable blog.

Why do I write The Common Reader?

I was asked this question in an interview the other day, and gave rather a weak answer. Let me expand.

tl;dr. Most of us die without writing a great novel, but we can all read Anna Karenina.

The aim is simple: I want to understand great literature, how it works, whence it derives. The same is true of the other topics I write about (talent, genius, education, wisdom, and so on). Literature is the focus, but the principles are general.

I am bored by mediocrity, including my own. I believe philistinism is a moral failure at the social level…

Hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

My commonplace booklet

Akiro Endo RIP

We’re all in his debt. His research into the relationship between fungi and cholesterol biosynthesis led to the development of statin drugs, which are some of the best-selling pharmaceuticals in history. The number of deaths from heart disease and strokes prevented by his invention must be countless. If anyone deserved a Nobel prize, he did. May he rest in peace. The BBC had a nice obit of him. As did [the New York Times, though behind its paywall.


Something I noticed, while drinking from the Internet firehose.

  • Trump’s view of AI Yeah, you guessed it, it’s alarming and incredible and he’s gonna fix it. Link

  This Blog is also available as an email three days a week. If you think that might suit you better, why not subscribe? One email on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays delivered to your inbox at 6am UK time. It’s free, and you can always unsubscribe if you conclude your inbox is full enough already!

Monday 17 June, 2024

Excitement begins here?

Somehow, I doubt it.

Quote of the Day

“Many a good argument is ruined by some fool who knows what he is talking about.”

  • Marshall McLuhan

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Brahms | German Requiem | Valery Gergiev & London Symphony Orchestra



Long Read of the Day

How AI Will Change Democracy

Transcript of a terrific talk on AI by Bruce Schneier Schneier. Great overview, wise and informed.

To start, I want to list some of AI’s core competences. First, it is really good as a summarizer. Second, AI is good at explaining things, teaching with infinite patience. Third, and related, AI can persuade. Propaganda is an offshoot of this. Fourth, AI is fundamentally a prediction technology. Predictions about whether turning left or right will get you to your destination faster. Predictions about whether a tumor is cancerous might improve medical diagnoses. Predictions about which word is likely to come next can help compose an email. Fifth, AI can assess. Assessing requires outside context and criteria. AI is less good at assessing, but it’s getting better. Sixth, AI can decide. A decision is a prediction plus an assessment. We are already using AI to make all sorts of decisions.

How these competences translate to actual useful AI systems depends a lot on the details. We don’t know how far AI will go in replicating or replacing human cognitive functions. Or how soon that will happen. In constrained environments it can be easy. AIs already play chess and Go better than humans. Unconstrained environments are harder. There are still significant challenges to fully AI-piloted automobiles. The technologist Jaron Lanier has a nice quote, that AI does best when “human activities have been done many times before, but not in exactly the same way.”

In this talk, I am going to be largely optimistic about the technology. I’m not going to dwell on the details of how the AI systems might work. Much of what I am talking about is still in the future. Science fiction, but not unrealistic science fiction.

Where I am going to be less optimistic—and more realistic— is about the social implications of the technology…

Worth your time. Schneier (who is a security guru) describes himself as a ‘public-interest technologist’. We need more people like him.

AI as the next next Manhattan Project?

Yesterday’s Observer column:

en years ago, the Oxford philosopher Nick Bostrom published Superintelligence, a book exploring how superintelligent machines could be created and what the implications of such technology might be. One was that such a machine, if it were created, would be difficult to control and might even take over the world in order to achieve its goals (which in Bostrom’s celebrated thought experiment was to make paperclips).

The book was a big seller, triggering lively debates but also attracting a good deal of disagreement. Critics complained that it was based on a simplistic view of “intelligence”, that it overestimated the likelihood of superintelligent machines emerging any time soon and that it failed to suggest credible solutions for the problems that it had raised. But it had the great merit of making people think about a possibility that had hitherto been confined to the remoter fringes of academia and sci-fi.

Now, 10 years later, comes another shot at the same target…

Do read the whole thing

My commonplace booklet

If you wanted an illustration of the seismic shifts that are going on in liberal democracies, then the response to Israel’s war in Gaza would be hard to beat. The standard post-war Western reflex of unquestioning support for Israel failed to materialise, and instead we saw people taking to the streets all over the place in vocal support of the Palestinians. I don’t think that Western ruling elites have grokked the significance of this yet. And it’s difficult to understand seismic changes as you live through them. So I’m looking for signs.

Which is why I was struck by this excerpt from a blog post by Damon Linker — “On living through the end of something”:

It’s not just election results and polling data. Something has shifted. The political world in which we live is not the same political world in which I grew up (in the late-Cold War 1970s and ’80s) or the one in which I learned how to orient myself intellectually and professionally (in the post-Cold War ’90s and ’00s). Those were decades close enough in time to the centrist-liberal consensus of the mid-20th-century postwar decades that its assumptions shaped the boundaries of the possible by default.

That is no longer the case. Having observed the rapid fading of the postwar consensus as a pundit over the past decade, I’m reminded of Matthew Arnold’s well-known line about the “melancholy, long, withdrawing roar” of retreating religious faith in the mid-19th century. Like a receding wave yanking at my feet and ankles, forcing me to recalibrate my balance to avoid falling backward onto the wet sand, I’ve felt the pulling away of a presence that once surrounded me, something taken for granted that is no longer there as it once was, with the absence growing more obtrusive with every passing year.

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Friday 14 June, 2024

Street furniture

London, near King’s Cross

Quote of the Day

”Always tell the truth and no one will believe you.”

  • Ronald Knox

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Händel | Suite in G minor, HWV 452 | Keith Jarrett


A real discovery for me. I’ve always loved Jarrett’s improvisations (as in the Köln Concert), but had no idea he also played Bach and Handel.

Long Read of the Day

The Harvey Weinstein of Antitrust

If you’re interested in the way political lobbying (and the Chicago Law School) enfeebled antitrust action in the US for several decades from the 1980s onwards, then you’ll enjoy this essay by Matt Stoller on Josh White.

So who is Josh Wright? Well he wasn’t just a professor, though he published over 150 papers on law and economics, some with powerful people like D.C. Circuit Court Judge Douglas Ginsburg and influential legal scholars like Daniel Crane. He ran George Mason’s Global Antitrust Institute, the heir to the Henry Manne training centers of the 1970s, which helped teach Bork’s thinking about political economy to endless numbers of professors and judges. Under Wright, the GAI funneled millions of dollars from Google, Meta, Amazon, and Qualcomm into fancy events in Napa Valley and Hawaii with judges and foreign officials, so much so that it led to an FBI investigation over potential violations of anti-corruption laws.

Wright posed as a scholar in law and economics, but he was a paid advocate. And it was effective advocacy. His hundreds of papers, blog posts, tweets, and comments were devastating to antitrust enforcement. For instance, the Ninth Circuit cited Wright’s papers in its 2019 decision overturning an antitrust verdict against communications chip maker Qualcomm, which had donated $2.7 million to Wright’s antitrust center in 2017. As another example, Wright’s work, whose funding by Google often went undisclosed, helped persuade Democratic FTC Commissioner Edith Ramirez to kill a potential antitrust suit against Google in 2012…

The piece was triggered by revelations in the Wall Street Journal that many women had come forward publicly alleging Wright had used his various positions of power to induce sexual relations with them. According to the accusations, Wright was able to advance the careers of students at law firms and in government, and did so, based on whether they were sleeping with him.

The story of how antitrust was was enfeebled in the US after Robert Bork’s book, The Antitrust Paradox came out in 1978, is a fascinating case study in the way that ideas can influence politics and policy. But these revelations about White add a different angle to the story.

Books, etc.

I’ve been dipping in and out of Seamus Heaney’s letters when an email from a friend mentioned his poem Field of Vision. So I dug it out. Here it is:

I remember this woman who sat for years
In a wheelchair, looking straight ahead
Out the window at sycamore trees unleafing
And leafing at the far end of the lane.

Straight out past the TV in the corner,
The stunted, agitated hawthorn bush,
The same small calves with their backs to wind and rain,
The same acre of ragwort, the same mountain.

She was steadfast as the big window itself.
Her brow was clear as the chrome bits of the chair.
She never lamented once and she never
Carried a spare ounce of emotional weight.

Face to face with her was an education
Of the sort you got across a well-braced gate—
One of those lean, clean, iron, roadside ones
Between two whitewashed pillars, where you could see

Deeper into the country than you expected
And discovered that the field behind the hedge
Grew more distinctly strange as you kept standing
Focused and drawn in by what barred the way.

The woman is Heaney’s aunt Mary. He explained later:

There was something in our relationship, whatever it was, that stood still … For years she was crippled with arthritis and eventually had to have her bed brought downstairs into what had been our sitting room … My memories of those years in the 1970s, before she had to go into special care in the Mid-Ulster Hospital, are of arriving with Marie and the kids from Wicklow and greeting first of all my mother and father and sister Ann in the living room, then going in to sit with Mary. Not a lot getting said or needing to be said. Just a deep, unpathetic stillness and wordlessness. A mixture of lacrimae rerum (tears for the situation) and Deo gratias (praise be to God). Something in me reverted to the child I’d been in Mossbawn. Something in her just remained constant, like the past gazing at you calmly, without blame. She was a tower of emotional strength, unreflective in a way but undeceived about people or things. I suppose all I’m saying is that I loved her dearly.

My commonplace booklet

 What Is the Best Way to Cut an Onion?

Believe it or not, the New York Times recently devoted an entire article to this obviously vital question.


Something I noticed, while drinking from the Internet firehose.

  •  Luxury penthouse in Manchester named after Friedrich Engels

From The Guardian:

The 290 sq metre (3,126 sq ft) flat is listed on the developer’s website as a showhome, but in promotional material it was advertised with a price tag of £2.5m.

A second penthouse apartment, “The Turing” – presumably named after the University of Manchester computer scientist Alan Turing – is also on the market for £2.5m.

“The Engels” features three en suite bedrooms, as well as a home office and a sweeping open-plan living area.

Those whirring noises you hear are of Karl Marx and Alan Turing whirring in their respective graves.

 This Blog is also available as an email three days a week. If you think that might suit you better, why not subscribe? One email on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays delivered to your inbox at 6am UK time. It’s free, and you can always unsubscribe if you conclude your inbox is full enough already!

Wednesday 12 June, 2024

Through a window, brightly

Quote of the Day

“The great charm in argument is really finding one’s own opinions, not other people’s.”

  • Evelyn Waugh

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Haydn | Abschiedssymphonie, final movement | New Year’s Day concert, Vienna 2009 | Barenboim conducting the Wiener Phil


Long Read of the Day

Deep Reading Will Save Your Soul

Really interesting (and optimistic) essay by William Deresiewicz.

Higher ed is at an impasse. So much about it sucks, and nothing about it is likely to change. Colleges and universities do not seem inclined to reform themselves, and if they were, they wouldn’t know how, and if they did, they couldn’t. Between bureaucratic inertia, faculty resistance, and the conflicting agendas of a heterogenous array of stakeholders, concerted change appears to be impossible. Besides, business is good, at least at selective schools. The notion, floated now in certain quarters, that students and parents will turn from the Harvards and Yales in disgust is a fantasy. As long as elite institutions remain the principal pipeline to elite employers (and they will), the havers and strivers will crowd toward their gates. Everything else—the classes, the politics, the arts and sciences—is incidental.

Which is not to say that interesting things aren’t happening in post-secondary (and post-tertiary) education. They just aren’t happening, for the most part, on campus…

I think this largely applies mostly to the US, but I found it intriguing, not least because I worked for many years for the Open University, and in the process saw at first hand how exposure to great literature could liberate and revitalise people who had missed out university the first time around.

Books, etc.

The life of Maynard K

This picture heads Branko Milanovic’s slightly puzzling blog post about Zachary Carter’s fine biography of John Maynard Keynes. The photograph was probably taken at Garsington, the country home of Lady Ottoline Morrell (and was probably taken by her because she was at one time a keen snapper). From right to left it shows Lytton Strachey, Keynes and Bertrand Russell, sucking quizzically on his pipe, and possibly thinking about Ottoline, with whom he had a famous affair.

The photograph is interesting for many reasons, but it’s the sartorial dimension of it that intrigued me. Here are three celebrated intellectuals of the day on a summer afternoon in the garden of a stately pile. Yet they are all dressed formally, though Keynes, in a touch of flamboyance, has white leather shoes which look odd alongside his immaculately-cut tweed suit. It seems a strange way to relax on a country house weekend.

The puzzling thing about Milanovic’s essay is that he seems to have got the relationship between Keynes and FDR wrong.

Despite his many political connections, he was not much of a policy prophet in his own land. But with the New Deal and Roosevelt’s policies his glory was assured. In fact, FDR played for Keynes the same role that Lenin played for Marx. Without the politicians, both Marx and Keynes would have been moderately well-known political economists, agitators and pamphleteers. But once adopted by the powers-to-be (in the case of Keynes extending all the way to Reagan), their fate justified Keynes own view on the value of ideas, expressed towards the end of The General Theory: “Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist.”

I haven’t got Carter’s book to hand as I write, but my memory of that part of it is that FDR couldn’t abide Keynes when they two met (and nor could FDR’s economic advisers), and one of the reasons Keynes embarked on his General Theory is that he felt he needed a theoretical argument to impress those who were giving the President economic advice. Also, it seems odd to say that Keynes’s ideas influenced Reagan. That seems implausible to me.

But then I’m no economist. And no historian either.

My commonplace booklet

From The Register:

In 2013 The New York Times and other media outlets saw their operations come under attack by a bunch of miscreants calling themselves the Syrian Electronic Army. During these incidents, which occurred over a period of months, readers were unable to visit some publications’ websites at times; at other times, pages were defaced by intruders. _ > *The Register* was targeted, too, by the gang in a failed spear-phishing attack. At least one of our vultures was sent an email claiming to be from a senior editor, with a link to a fake copy of our publishing system to phish their credentials; the giveaway was that the message was far too cheery for that editor to be real. It also prompted us to introduce mandatory multi-factor authentication at work.

Don’t you just love the reasoning that alerted the Register’s hacks! That would have been familiar in any print newspaper in the old days too.

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Monday 10 June, 2024

Rooms with a view

Albufeira marina, Portugal, in evening sunshine.

Quote of the Day

“Most of our assumptions have outlived their uselessness.”

  • Marshall McLuhan

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Bach | Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme (BWV 645)


First time I’ve heard it played by a brass ensemble.

Long Read of the Day

In the Former Eastern Bloc, they’re terrified of a Trump Presidency

Interesting piece in The New Republic reminds us that people in the former Soviet empire know a thing or two about living under tyranny.

The view the Bulgarian minister and others expressed to me was that a Trump win would result in a redrawing of the map of Europe in ways that would enable and embolden Vladimir Putin while simultaneously weakening the NATO alliance. Indeed, a Trump win would amount to nothing less than an undoing of many of the gains that came to the West through winning the Cold War and of many of the most important achievements forged in the wake of World War II.

This view is based not only on Trump’s public statements and actions while in office and since but also on a European perception of the Russian threat that is much more sweeping and menacing than most Americans and many of our leaders in Washington seem to grasp.

Anne Applebaum, the Pulitzer Prize–winning author who has written extensively on the former Soviet Union and emerging authoritarian threats, told me, “Many Europeans are afraid that a second Trump administration would work together with the Russians and their far-right allies in Europe—both those in power in Hungary and Serbia, as well as those who lead opposition parties in France and Germany—to transform European politics, destroy the European Union, and eventually dismantle NATO as well. That would make it easier for Russia and China to divide and dominate the continent for both economic and political advantage.

“Of course this is not in America’s interest,” she went on, “but Trump does not act in America’s interest.”

Yep. I can’t understand why Europeans are apparently so relaxed (or indifferent) about the risks that lie ahead.

Look before you scan

Yesterday’s Observer column:

Here’s a familiar scenario. You’re going to a meeting in an unfamiliar part of town. You’re running late and it’s raining. And there isn’t a car park in sight. Ah, but here’s some on-street parking and you gratefully pull into the empty bay. Now all you have to do is pay for a couple of hours and then scuttle along to your meeting. But the parking meter (of course) no longer takes coins. This is the 21st century, after all.

No worries – you can pay by phone. There are notices plastered all over the meter on how to pay using an app that – of course – you have not yet downloaded. The rain is getting heavier and there’s no mobile signal. You’re getting increasingly flustered. And then you spot that there’s a Quick Response (QR) code – a nice (if incomprehensible) square with lots of funny squares and spaces – on one side of the meter. Phew! All you have to do is scan it and you’ll be through to a website in no time. So you do and you are. Job done. Relax.

Er, possibly. Or possibly not…

Read on

Books, etc.

Neil Lawrence in the middle of a mammoth book-signing after the launch of his book on Thursday evening in Cambridge.

It’s a terrific book, the best on ‘AI’ that I’ve read since Stuart Russell’s book —  Human Compatible: AI and the Problem of Control — way back in 2020. Judging from the reaction on Thursday evening, it’ll be the big seller that it deserves to be.

My commonplace booklet

I’m a pragmatist about tech tools. From the beginning, I saw chatbots as akin to spreadsheets. I’m old enough to remember the impact of VisiCalc in 1978. (Indeed, I still have a copy of the original disks in my office, and when ChatGPT broke cover I was immediately reminded of it, because, well…, after VisiCalc nothing was ever the same.) And so I’ve been constantly playing with/using tools like Perplexity, Claude and GPT-4 for the last six months.

Not surprisingly, then, I was intrigued by Google’s new toy NotebookLM — billed as “your personalized AI research assistant powered by Google’s most capable model, Gemini 1.5 Pro”. I had been alerted to it by Steven Johnson, who’s been involved in some way in its development, and whom I take seriously. I’ve uploaded some foundational texts relevant to something I’m writing at the moment, and — to be honest — have been a bit surprised by how immediately helpful it has been.

Of course, that just a first impression. But still…


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Friday 7 June, 2024

No parking

Quote of the Day

”An intellectual is someone whose mind watches itself.”

  • Albert Camus

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Sweet Home Chicago | Blues Harmonica


It’s clear that I’ve been underestimating the harmonica for a long, long time.

Long Read of the Day

D-Day 80 years on – World War II and the “great acceleration”

Adam Tooze’s reflections on yesterday’s anniversary.

The rest of the world may be somewhat puzzled by this trip back in time, but for “the West” the 80th anniversary of “D-Day” is the perfect occasion for a rally. For the United States, France and the Commonwealth (the former members of the British Empire), D-Day is the decisive turning point in “our” World War II.

In June 1944 the landings had been a long time coming. After a series of crushing defeats between 1939 and 1942, the comeback of the British Empire and the USA in World War II began in North Africa in 1942 and continued in Italy 1943. But, it was the landing in Normandy in June 1944 that were the decisive breakthrough. The destruction of the German forces in Northern France opened the door to the liberation of Paris and to the eventual meeting with the Red Army in Central Germany in May 1945.

Many evenings, growing up in West Germany in the 1970s, my parents, who were children of wartime Britain, would tune in to the BBC World Service. The broadcast began then with a radio call sign that the BBC had used in World War II: “This is London” followed by an orchestral rendition of the 17th century tune Lillibullero (or Lilliburlero). Translated into morse code the opening bars sound out the “Victory V” – dit-dit-dit-dah. As a child, I imagined people across occupied Europe huddled around their radio sets listening for that tune, waiting for the moment of D-day to come. …

What troubles me now is how this “legendary” history of World War II continues to operate at the heart of Western political ideology. How it is used, 80 years later to frame and shape our understanding of a radically different world. What I struggle with is how to frame a historical understanding of the war that wrenches it out of this framing, that is not saccharine, that is not nostalgic that is not atavistic, but speaks in more challenging and eye-opening ways to the present…

Characteristically thoughtful. Worth a read.

Books, etc.

Six non-fiction books you can read in a day (according to the Economist anyway.)

Poolside reading for busy executives?

  1. Six Records of a Floating Life. By Shen Fu. Translated by Leonard Pratt and Chiang Su-Hui. Penguin Classics; 144 pages; $16 and £9.99
  2. Oranges. By John McPhee. Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 149 pages; $16. Daunt; £9.99
  3. A Room of One’s Own.  By Virginia Woolf. Mariner; 128 pages; $16.99. Penguin Modern Classics; £5.99
  4. Iphigenia in Forest Hills: Anatomy of a Murder Trial. By Janet Malcolm. Yale University Press; 155 pages; $13.95 and £9.99
  5. Ways of Seeing. By John Berger. Penguin Modern Classics; 155 pages; $11 and £9.99
  6. A Man’s Place. By Annie Ernaux. Translated by Tanya Leslie. Seven Stories Press; 96 pages; $13.95. Fitzcarraldo Editions; £7.99

I’ve only read #3 and #5 but can recommend both.

My commonplace booklet

LLMs are weird

Well, we knew that. But we didn’t how weird. Some Harvard evolutionary biologists have been finding out. Here’s the Abstract for their paper.

Large language models (LLMs) have recently made vast advances in both generating and analyzing textual data. Technical reports often compare LLMs’ outputs with “human” performance on various tests. Here, we ask, “Which humans?” Much of the existing literature largely ignores the fact that humans are a cultural species with substantial psychological diversity around the globe that is not fully captured by the textual data on which current LLMs have been trained. We show that LLMs’ responses to psychological measures are an outlier compared with large-scale cross-cultural data, and that their performance on cognitive psychological tasks most resembles that of people from Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic (WEIRD) societies but declines rapidly as we move away from these populations (r=-.70). Ignoring cross-cultural diversity in both human and machine psychology raises numerous scientific and ethical issues. We close by discussing ways to mitigate the WEIRD bias in future generations of generative language models.


Something I noticed, while drinking from the Internet firehose.

  • What happens when you ban cars from city centres? Ask Paris. Changes designed to encourage people to take other forms of transportation have contributed to a 40% decline in air pollution, according to city officials.

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