Friday 10 May, 2024

The Sea, the Sea

From the cafe at Inch beach, Co Kerry, one Sunday morning.

Quote of the Day

“Everything that needs to be said has already been said. But since no-one was listening, everything must be said again.”

  • Andre Gide

(Useful quote for those of us who write for a living. Thanks to Andrew Curry for reminding me of it.)

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Beethoven | Ecossaises in E-Flat Major, WoO 83


Lovely, and hitherto unknown to me.

Long Read of the Day

What Elon Musk’s favorite game tells us about him

Terrific critique by Dave Karpf of Musk’s biographer.

This is how it begins…

Elon Musk really likes the game Polytopia. He has skipped birthday parties and international business meetings to play the game. He has effused that it is “the best game ever.” He has posited that it is more complicated than chess.

Walter Isaacson treats Polytopia as a window into Musk’s unique, brilliant mind. He devotes nearly as many pages to the game as he does to the Boring Company. (Which is, y’know, one of his actual companies. It has a multi-billion dollar valuation.) He even prints eight “life lessons” that Musk and his hangers-on think you can distill from the game.

It’s… a bit much.

I left Polytopia out of my original review of the book. It seemed like a bit of a strange personality tick. The parallel to SBF’s mobile gaming habit was a little interesting. But I had never heard of the game. I’d never played it. And I already had more than enough material to work with.

A few months later, while visiting some family on the west coast, I noticed my brother-in-law playing Polytopia on his phone. “Y’know, Elon Musk says that’s the greatest game of all time,” I said to him. My brother-in-law gave me a quizzical look. He’s a pretty well-adjusted fellow, neither addicted to Musk nor Polytopia. He just thought the game was reasonably fun.

So I tried it out…

Read on to find out what he concluded. (Spoiler alert: Isaacson doesn’t come out of it well.)

Books, etc.


Marion Fourcade and Kieran Healy have an interesting new book out.

Here’s the blurb:

We now live in an “ordinal society.” Nearly every aspect of our lives is measured, ranked, and processed into discrete, standardized units of digital information. Marion Fourcade and Kieran Healy argue that technologies of information management, fueled by the abundance of personal data and the infrastructure of the internet, transform how we relate to ourselves and to each other through the market, the public sphere, and the state.

The personal data we give in exchange for convenient tools like Gmail and Instagram provides the raw material for predictions about everything from our purchasing power to our character. The Ordinal Society shows how these algorithmic predictions influence people’s life chances and generate new forms of capital and social expectation: nobody wants to ride with an unrated cab driver anymore or rent to a tenant without a risk score. As members of this society embrace ranking and measurement in their daily lives, new forms of social competition and moral judgment arise. Familiar structures of social advantage are recycled into measures of merit that produce insidious kinds of social inequality. While we obsess over order and difference—and the logic of ordinality digs deeper into our behaviors, bodies, and minds—what will hold us together? Fourcade and Healy warn that, even though algorithms and systems of rationalized calculation have inspired backlash, they are also appealing in ways that make them hard to relinquish.

Diane Coyle admired the book in her review. And Henry Farrell has a thoughtful essay about it. Which are two powerful arguments for buying and reading it.

My commonplace booklet

The Sam Altman Playbook

Gary Marcus’s insights into Sam “Babyface’ Altman’s modus operandi.

A sample:

Undergirding all is this often a sense that without AI, we are screwed. As Geoffrey Miller put it on X, “[Altman’s] implicit message is usually ‘We need AGI to solve aging & discover longevity treatments, so if you don’t support us, you’ll die.” Longevity is the carrot; death is the stick.

In order to make it all plausible, Sam uses a unique combination of charm, soft-spoken personal humility and absolute confidence in outlandish claims.

He seems like such a nice guy, yet he implies, unrealistically, that the solution to AGI is within his grasp; he presents no evidence that is so, and rarely considers the many critiques of current approaches that have been raised. (Better to pretend they don’t exist.) Because he seems so nice, pushback somehow seems like bad form.

Absurd, hubristic claims, often verging on the messianic, presented kindly, gently, and quietly — but never considered skeptically. That’s his M.O.

Good piece, worth reading. I’ve always been sceptical about Altman. A few months ago I wrote about his plan to raise $7 trillion to build AGI.

He is deeply conscious of the responsibility he carries. “Democracy only works in a growing economy,” he told Friend in 2016. “Without a return to economic growth, the democratic experiment will fail.” If it does, though, Altman will be ready. In a discussion about aggressive AI and nations fighting with nuclear weapons over scarce resources, he said: “I try not to think about it too much. But I have guns, gold, potassium iodide, antibiotics, batteries, water, gas masks from the Israel Defense Forces, and a big patch of land in Big Sur I can fly to.”

Such a nice, innocent lad.

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