Friday 28 October, 2022

The Rat-Race as was

Paul Day’s stunning frieze of strap-hanging Tube travellers in the concourse of St Pancras station .

Quote of the Day

”There’ll always be an England, but who wants an England full of morons reading the Express?”

  • P.G. Wodehouse, in a letter to Denis Mackail, 1959

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Jerry Garcia and his acoustic band | Swing Low, Sweet Chariot


Long Read of the Day

Learning Language is Harder Than You Think

Bill Janeway (Whom God Preserve) was worried that yesterday’s Long Read implied that I am unduly impressed by large machine-learning language models (GPT-3 and the like) and so recommends this splendid blog post by Gary Marcus as an antidote. Methinks he overestimates my infatuation with the models but his advice is good. Hence this Long Read which, like most things Gary Marcus writes, is worth one’s time.

Marcus’s argument is that the inference some of the AI crowd are drawing from the ability of machines like GPT-3 to compose perfectly grammatical sentences — that language acquisition is basically a process of memorising usages of language — is naive in the extreme.

Do read it.

A singular scientist

A lovely profile by Roger Highfield of the late, great James Lovelock, “a visionary whose greatest ideas were made possible by his unshakeable independence.”

As the planet lurches towards a climate emergency and its life support systems falter, the need for visionary thinkers with fresh insights and big ideas has never been more pressing. No wonder, then, that the world mourned the death earlier this year of James (‘Jim’) Lovelock, whose Gaia theory provided a new framework to think about nature, one that changed the way we regard our relationship with Earth.

Lovelock contributed to many fields, such as environmental science, cryobiology and exobiology, from thawing hamsters to building exquisitely sensitive detectors to find life on Mars or to sniff out ozone-destroying chemicals. But when he died on 26 July, the day of his 103rd birthday, the world lost what the Earth scientist Timothy Lenton in Science magazine called ‘a genius and iconoclast of immense intellectual courage’. Lovelock was a true original who was detached from the pressure to conform, one who had found a way to do research outside an institution, and who showed a disregard for disciplinary boundaries.

Driven by his scepticism about conventional wisdom, enabled by his skill as an inventor, and guided by visceral scientific insights, Lovelock made much of his independence. When asked about ‘thinking outside the box’ at a meeting in the University of Exeter to celebrate his centenary, he replied: ‘What box?’

My commonplace booklet

Building engines with Lego and compressed air

Wonderful video. 14 minutes of ingenious micro-engineering. Includes the occasional curious cat

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