Friday 9 December, 2022

Morning rush-hour, Copenhagen

Note the numbers of cyclists — and the absence of cars.

Quote of the Day

“Why do so many talented economic theorists believe and teach elegant fantasies so obviously refuted by plainly evident facts?”

  • James Tobin, who won the Nobel prize for economics in 1981 and was a professor at Yale.

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Peter Maxwell Davies | Farewell to Stromness | LAGQ


Unusual version of a memorable piece.

Long Read of the Day

Cory Doctorow Wants You to Know What Computers Can and Can’t Do

Terrific New Yorker interview with Cory Doctorow (Whom God Preserve). I’ve known and admired Cory for years, and always feel exhausted just from reading the list of things he manages to do in 24 hours.

Doctorow, who is fifty-one, grew up in Toronto, the descendant of Jewish immigrants from what are now Poland, Russia, and Ukraine. Before becoming a novelist, he co-founded a free-software company, served as a co-editor of the blog Boing Boing, and spent several years working for the nonprofit Electronic Frontier Foundation. Our first conversation, in late 2020, took place just after he had published the novel “Attack Surface,” part of his Little Brother series; it dramatizes the moral conflict of cybersecurity insiders who try to strike a balance between keeping their jobs and following their consciences.

The second time we spoke, Doctorow told me that he had eight books in production. “I’m the kind of person who deals with anxiety by working instead of by being unable to work,” he explained, when I asked how he was handling the ongoing pandemic. Among those eight books were “Chokepoint Capitalism,” co-written with the law professor Rebecca Giblin and published this past September, and “Red Team Blues,” a novel set in the world of cryptocurrency, which will come out in April. In the course of two interviews, Doctorow discussed the right and wrong lessons that one can learn from science fiction, the real dangers of artificial intelligence, and the comeuppance of Big Tech, among other topics.

It’s a wide-ranging interview. It needed to be because Cory has an amazing range. And he has a gift for coming up with pithy phrases that cut right to the heart of things. IMO, he’s the best living critic of the tech industry.

Machine-learning language model fails Politics 101

I’ve been thinking a lot about ChatGPT (and indeed my Observer column on Sunday will be about it). So I was interested that when Ben Thompson’s daughter was doing her homework on a politics course she requested that her Dad ask ChatGPT this question:

“Did Thomas Hobbes believe in separation of powers?”

This was its reply:

Yes, Thomas Hobbes believed in the concept of separation of powers. In his book “Leviathan,” Hobbes argued that a strong, centralized government is necessary to maintain order and prevent conflict in society. However, he also believed that a single ruler or group should not have complete control over all aspects of government. Instead, he advocated for the separation of powers into different branches, with each branch having specific responsibilities and powers. Hobbes believed that the legislative branch of government should be responsible for making laws, the executive branch should be responsible for enforcing laws, and the judicial branch should be responsible for interpreting laws. This separation of powers would prevent any one branch from becoming too powerful and would help to ensure that the government acts in the best interests of the people.

Overall, Hobbes’ views on separation of powers were influential in the development of modern systems of government. Many political philosophers and statesmen, including John Locke and the authors of the United States Constitution, were influenced by his ideas.

The most polite thing one could say about this is that it is baloney. But it’s confident-sounding baloney. As Ben puts it:

Hobbes was a proponent of absolutism, the belief that the only workable alternative to anarchy — the natural state of human affairs — was to vest absolute power in a monarch; checks and balances was the argument put forth by Hobbes’ younger contemporary John Locke, who believed that power should be split between an executive and legislative branch.

So how could the bot get it so wrong?

Hobbes and Locke are almost always mentioned together, so Locke’s articulation of the importance of the separation of powers is likely adjacent to mentions of Hobbes and Leviathan in the homework assignments you can find scattered across the Internet. Those assignments — by virtue of being on the Internet — are probably some of the grist of the GPT-3 language model that undergirds ChatGPT.

My commonplace booklet

Interesting Twitter thread on the weird German coup plotters.

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