Friday 10 March, 2023

The Sea, the Sea

Maghera Beach, Co Donegal.

Quote of the Day

”What’s a thousand dollars? Mere chicken feed. A poultry matter.”

  • Groucho Marx

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Ye Banks and Braes O’Bonnie Doon | The Philharmonic Winds


I heard this sung on Radio 3 the other day, but prefer this orchestral version.

Long Read of the Day

 How The Friedman Doctrine Leads To The Enshittification Of All Things

This blog post by Mike Masnick is about about a topic that’s dear to my heart — the neoliberal dogma that the only function of a company is to maximise shareholder value.

Once you’ve gone public, even if you have executives who still want to focus on pleasing users and customers, eventually any public company is also going to have other executives, often with Wall Street experience, who talk about the importance of keeping Wall Street happy. They’ll often quote Milton Friedman’s dumbest idea: that the only fiduciary duty company executives have is to increase their profits for shareholders.

This goes back to something I wrote more than 15 years ago, talking about Craigslist. At the time, Craigslist was almost certainly the most successful company in the world in terms of profits per employee. It was making boatloads of cash with like a dozen employees. But the company’s CEO (who was not Craig, by the way) had mentioned that the company wasn’t focused on “maximizing revenue.” After all, most of Craigslist is actually free. There are only a few categories that charge, and they tend to be the most commercial ones (job postings). And this resulted in some arguing that the company lacked a capitalist instinct, and somehow this was horrible.

But, as I wrote at the time, this left out the variable of time. Because maximizing revenue in the short term (i.e., in the 3 month window that Wall Street requires) often means sacrificing long term sustainability and long term profits…

Good essay IMO.

To put it another way, an outfit like Meta (neé Facebook) could be run by clones of Mahatma Gandhi and St Francis of Assisi and it would still be a toxic enterprise.

Dow said it was recycling our shoes. We found them in Indonesia

Here’s a nice example of good investigative reporting. An American petrochemicals giant and the government of Singapore said they were transforming old trainers into playgrounds and running tracks.

Reuters put that promise to the test by planting Apple AirTags inside 11 pairs of donated shoes.

At a rundown market on the Indonesian island of Batam, a small location tracker was beeping from the back of a crumbling second-hand shoe store. A Reuters reporter followed the high-pitched ping to a mound of old sneakers and began digging through the pile.

There they were: a pair of blue Nike running shoes with a tracking device hidden in one of the soles.

These familiar shoes had traveled by land, then sea and crossed an international border to end up in this heap. They weren’t supposed to be here.

Five months earlier, in July 2022, Reuters had given the shoes to a recycling program spearheaded by the Singapore government and U.S. petrochemicals giant Dow Inc. In media releases and a promotional video posted online, that effort promised to harvest the rubberized soles and midsoles of donated shoes, then grind down the material for use in building new playgrounds and running tracks in Singapore…

That reminded me of a moment about thirty years ago when I was in in the shoe department of Gray’s, a sportswear retailer in Cambridge (now long gone) and an elderly lady came in with a pair of her grandson’s trainers. She explained to the young salesperson that these had been a very good buy, but now the soles were beginning to crack and she would like to have them re-soled.

I’ll never forget the look on the shop assistant’s face.

Noam Chomsky (and colleagues) on ChatGPT et al

I was waiting (and hoping) for this — Chomsky’s observations on contemporary chatbots.

These programs have been hailed as the first glimmers on the horizon of artificial general intelligence — that long-prophesied moment when mechanical minds surpass human brains not only quantitatively in terms of processing speed and memory size but also qualitatively in terms of intellectual insight, artistic creativity and every other distinctively human faculty.

That day may come, but its dawn is not yet breaking, contrary to what can be read in hyperbolic headlines and reckoned by injudicious investments. The Borgesian revelation of understanding has not and will not — and, we submit, cannot — occur if machine learning programs like ChatGPT continue to dominate the field of A.I. However useful these programs may be in some narrow domains (they can be helpful in computer programming, for example, or in suggesting rhymes for light verse), we know from the science of linguistics and the philosophy of knowledge that they differ profoundly from how humans reason and use language. These differences place significant limitations on what these programs can do, encoding them with ineradicable defects.

It is at once comic and tragic, as Borges might have noted, that so much money and attention should be concentrated on so little a thing — something so trivial when contrasted with the human mind, which by dint of language, in the words of Wilhelm von Humboldt, can make “infinite use of finite means,” creating ideas and theories with universal reach…

This last observation really strikes home. A couple of weeks ago I spent two days watching my three-year-old grand-niece effortlessly learning language. What was particularly striking was not so only her sponge-like capacity to absorb information, but also the tacit skills displayed by the adults in the family as informal language teachers. She already knows more about the world than any number of neural networks.

My commonplace booklet

How to age as a woman

By Maureen McEly, courtesy of McSweeney’s.

Based on current celebrity beauty standards, the goals are clear: you need to look like you’re in your twenties until you’re thirty-five, then look thirty-five until you’re dead. Also, regardless of age or retirement eligibility, all women should have supple, lineless skin with no evidence of sunspots, muscle movement, or laughter. The only indication that you’ve been on Earth long enough to outlive a household pet should be the look in your eyes, which peer wearily out of your flawless, youthful face like a haunted doll.

There’s lots more in that vein.

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