Friday 17 November, 2023

Wood Henge?

Thornham, Norfolk the other day.

Quote of the Day

”Because of the impropriety of entertaining guests of the opposite sex in the bedroom, it is suggested that the lobby be used for this purpose.”

  • Hotel Notice, Zurich

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Wagner – Siegfried Idyll (Proms 2012)


Long Read of the Day

Oops! We Automated Bullshit

Nice blog post by Alan Blackwell, whose day job is representing the Humanities in an elite Computer Science department. It’s tough work but someone’s got to do it.

This post appears in a blog created in 2019 to focus on AI in Africa. Long before the release of ChatGPT, many wondered why AI would be relevant to Africans. But I’m writing in a week when US President Biden published an executive order on AI, and British PM Rishi Sunak listened enthusiastically to Elon Musk promising a magical AI future where nobody needs to work. When the richest man in the world talks up a storm with NATO leaders, Africa will get blown around in those political and economic winds.

Since my fieldwork in Africa, I’ve learned to ask different questions about AI, and in recent months, I’ve started to feel like the boy who questions the emperor’s new clothes. The problem I see, apparently not reported in coverage of Sunak’s AI Summit, is that AI literally produces bullshit.

Alan uses Harry Frankfurt’s definition of ‘bullshit’ from his classic text On Bullshit, in which he explains that the bullshitter “does not reject the authority of truth, as the liar does … He pays no attention to it at all.”

Alan has been thinking about AI long before it was fashionable and his book — Moral Codes: Designing Alternatives to AI — comes out from MIT Press next year. Intriguingly, it’s also available as an online free preview.

My commonplace booklet

Psychology Lost a Great Mind

When a good friend or an admired colleague dies, it’s often hard to try to sum them up in a way that is both warm and not mawkish. The distinguished evolutionary psychology John Tooby was a good friend of Steven Pinker, and he’s written a very nice tribute to him which could serve as a model for how to do this right.

John explored the dark side of human nature unsentimentally, but also our better angels with appropriate awe. Fittingly so, because I can think of no specimen of Homo sapiens who better exemplifies the best of what we’re capable of: astonishing erudition, speed-of-light wit, panoptic curiosity, staggering intellectual power, and saintly good nature. John was jolly, self-effacing, altruistic. He showed that at least one member of our species can confer immense benefits to others regardless of the costs to self. I experienced this during a blessed sabbatical in Santa Barbara when John took time away from his own deadlines to give transformative advice on a draft of How the Mind Works. His influence on me is retroviral, chimeric: so thoroughly embedded in my brain that I can barely distinguish his ways of thinking from my own. The good men do is interred with their bones, and I know that many other colleagues and students are beneficiaries of his largesse…


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

  • Google shares 36% of its revenue with Apple The most interesting revelation from the current Google antitrust case came when Google’s final witness, Chicago School economist Kevin Murphy, accidentally let slip that in 2021 Google shared 36% of its search-generated revenues with the organisations that it pays to have Google as the default search engine. In 2021 that 36% came to $26.3B, which means that Google’s search-related revenues totalled just over $73B that year. Ponder that number for a moment. And then the implication that Apple gets most of that $26.3B, because of the dominance of the iPhone and the iPad. (Estimates put the Apple share as somewhere between $50B and $56B.) Why is this so intriguing? Well, in the trial Google is arguing that its huge market share in search is due to the fact that it runs the best search engine. In which case, why is it paying Apple such a huge sum simply to ensure that it’s the default on the platforms that it controls?

  • David Cameron: the Bungler returns. The Economist had some sharp observations about his return to the UK government as Foreign Secretary, no less. “For half a millennium Britain aimed to ensure Europe did not unite against it; as a result of the referendum he promised to call in 2013, Mr Cameron managed it in three short years. He was overly doveish on China. Chinese firms were cajoled into investing in British infrastructure, from telecoms to nuclear power stations—investment that has now largely had to be scraped away like an unwanted Artex ceiling. When Vladimir Putin invaded Crimea in 2014, Britain was supposedly one of Ukraine’s security guarantors yet Mr Cameron allowed France and Germany to take the lead on negotiating a peace.”

  • My friend Quentin on the etymology of ‘Ye’ (as in “Ye Olde Tea Shoppe”.)

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