Friday 14 July, 2023

Cool dude & lady friend

Arles, June 25th.

Quote of the Day

“It is not that the Englishman can’t feel — it is that he is afraid to feel. He has been taught at his public school that feeling is bad form. He must not express great joy or sorrow, or even open his mouth too wide when he talks — his pipe might fall out if he did.”

  • E.M. Forster

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Mozart | Don Giovanni | ‘Là ci darem la mano’


In Mozart, as in life, the devil generally gets the best tunes.

Long Read of the Day

Elite US universities are reputation-laundering machines

That, at any rate, is the takeaway I found in this marvellous essay by Scott Alexander. As someone who thinks of Harvard as a hedge-fund with a nice university attached it was music to my ears. Here’s a sample that sets the tone:

Suppose you own a very successful family business. You can leave your son your fortune, you can leave him the business, you can leave him your mansion, but you can’t (directly) leave him an aura of having deserved all these things. What you can do is make a $10 million donation to Harvard in exchange for them accepting your son. Your son gets a Harvard degree, a universally-recognized sign of being a highly meritorious person. Then when you leave him the business, everyone will agree he deserves it. Who said anything about nepotism? Leaving a Harvard graduate in control of your business is an excellent decision!

This happens a little, but I think it mostly isn’t this obvious. More often the transactions are for abstract goods: prestige, associations, favors. The Maharaja of Whereverstan sends his daughter to Harvard so that she appears meritorious. In exchange, Harvard gets the credibility boost of being the place the Maharaja of Whereverstan sent his daughter. And Harvard’s other students get the advantage of networking with the Princess Of Whereverstan. Twenty years later, when one of them is an oil executive and Whereverstan is handing out oil contracts, she puts in a word with her old college buddy the Princess and gets the deal. It’s obvious what the oil executive has gotten out of this, but what does the Princess get? I think she gets the right to say she went to Harvard, an honor which is known to go mostly to the meritorious.

People ask why Harvard admissions can still be bribed or influenced by the rich or well-connected. This is the wrong question: the right question is why they ever give spots based on merit at all. The answer is: otherwise the scheme wouldn’t work. The point of a money-laundering operation is to take in both fairly-earned and dirty money, then mix them together so thoroughly that nobody can tell which is which. Likewise, the point of a privilege-laundering operation is to take in both fairly-earned and dirty privilege, then stamp both with a Harvard degree. “Fairly-earned privilege” means all the brilliant talented ambitious youngsters admitted on the basis of their SAT scores and grades and impressive accomplishments; “dirty privilege” means the kids of various old-money aristocrats, foreign potentates, and ordinary super-rich people. Colleges mix them together, with advantages for both groups.

Do read it. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

Important appointments

Free Speech Tsar

Wonderful blog post by Kieran Healy.

The news that Arif Ahmed is to be appointed the UK’s first ‘Free Speech Tsar’ — a position that apparently comes with “the power to investigate universities and student unions in England and Wales that wrongly restrict debate” and to “advise the sector regulator on imposing fines for free speech breaches” — is disappointing for various reasons. One of them (not the most important one) is that it suggests Britain’s capacity to name things continues to decline. To see this once-great country reach for a foreign title that not only originates with one second-rate empire trying to recall the glory of the Romans but that was first popularized as a job-title within the administrative apparatus of another is really quite sad, given that England has so many equally preposterous but largely home-grown (or at least Norman French) titles available right on its own doorstep. It’s a scandal, really. A kind of Tsargate, if you will.

Here I present a few alternatives of my own…

They’re wonderful. I particularly liked:

  • The Duke of Discourse.
  • Warden of All Chit-Chat.
  • Gold Stick To The Point.
  • The Earl of Axiom.
  • The Keeper of the King’s Premises.

Britain, remember, has a member of the Royal Household called “Silver Stick in Waiting”. And no, I did not make that up. And he’s the deputy to — yes, you guessed it — Gold Stick in Waiting. (Who is currently Princess Anne.)

Chart of the Day

The context windows of LLMs – the amounts of text that models can process and respond to – are growing rapidly. In Q2, Anthropic released a new, 100k-token version of its model Claude. Thanks to its massive context window, Claude can process the entirety of The Great Gatsby and answer questions about it in 30 seconds.

This is really interesting. The capacity (and therefore usefulness) of LLMs seems to be increasing very quickly. No doubt someone already has a plan to upload the whole of the Old Testament into Claude!

Source: Azeem Azhar’s newsletter.

My commonplace booklet

I hate to say this but I found this piece about John le Carré, published in The Mail Online in 2011, fascinating. I think it was timed to coincide with the release of the film version os his Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy novel. Which reminds me, I need to see the film, if only to compare it with the TV series that starred Alec Guinness as George Smiley.


Some things I noticed, while trying to drink from the Internet firehose.

  • Evernote, the memory app people forgot about, lays off its entire US staff — Ars Technica. I used it for years, until better stuff came along.

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