Monday 22 April, 2024


Glenteentassig Lake on the Dingle peninsula. One of Ireland’s loveliest hidden lakes.

Quote of the Day

“One of my best decisions was being born before the Internet and smartphones.”

  • Robert Shrimsley

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Berlioz | Symphonie Fantastique | 5th movement


I can never decide which is the more dramatic — the music or the acrobatics of the conductor (Leonard Bernstein)!

Long Read of the Day

Remembering Daniel Dennett

A remarkable and provocative thinker has passed away. Gary Marcus sums him up neatly as the man who “arrived at what many would see as shocking conclusions about consciousness (essentially that it is just an emergent effect of physical interactions of tiny inanimate components)”, and who from then on,

was a dead-set opponent of dualism (the idea that there is an ethereal nonphysical elixir called “consciousness”, over and above the physical events taking place in the enormously complex substrate of a human or animal brain, and perhaps that of a silicon network as well). Dan thus totally rejected the notion of “qualia” (pure sensations of such things as colors, tastes, and so forth), and his arguments against the mystique of qualia were subtle but very cogent.

Marcus has passed on a lovely memoir of Dennett written by his friend Douglas Hofstadter:

Dan was also a diligent and lifelong “student” (in the sense of “studier”) of evolution, religion, artificial intelligence, computers in general, and even science in general. He wrote extremely important and influential books on all these topics, and his insights will endure as long as we humans endure. I’m thinking of his books Brainstorms; The Intentional Stance; Elbow Room; Consciousness Explained; Darwin’s Dangerous Idea; Kinds of Minds; Inside Jokes; Breaking the Spell; From Bacteria to Bach and Back and of course his last book, I’ve Been Thinking, which was (and is) a very colorful self-portrait, a lovely autobiography vividly telling so many stories of his intercontinental life. I’m so happy that Dan not only completed it but was able to savor its warm reception all around the world.

Among other things, that book tells about Dan’s extremely rich life not just as a thinker but also as a doer. Dan was a true bon vivant, and he developed many amazing skills, such as that of house-builder, folk-dancer and folk-dance caller, jazz pianist, cider-maker, sailor and racer of yachts (not the big ones owned by Russian oligarchs, but beautifully crafted sailboats), joke-teller par excellence, enthusiast for and expert in word games, savorer of many cuisines and wines, wood-carver and sculptor, speaker of French and some German and Italian as well, and ardent and eloquent supporter of thinkers whom he admired and felt were not treated with sufficient respect by the academic world.

Worth reading in full. I’ve Been Thinking is such a lovely title for a philosopher’s autobiography.

The big tech firms want an AI monopoly – but maybe the UK CMA can bring them to heel

Yesterday’s Observer column:

“Monopoly,” said Peter Thiel, Silicon Valley’s answer to Darth Vader, “is the condition of every successful business.” This aspiration is widely shared by Gamman, the new acronynm for the Valley’s giants – Google, Apple, Microsoft, Meta, Amazon and Nvidia. And the arrival of AI has sharpened the appetite of each for attaining that blessed state before the others get there.

One symptom of their anxiety is the way they have been throwing unconscionable amounts of money at the 70-odd generative AI startups that have mushroomed since it became clear that AI was going to be the new new thing. Microsoft reportedly put $13bn (about £10.4bn) into OpenAI, for example, but it was also the lead investor in a $1.3bn funding round for Inflection, Deepmind co-founder Mustafa Suleyman’s startup. Amazon put $4bn into Anthropic, the startup founded by refugees from OpenAI. Google invested $500m in the same outfit, with a promise of $1.5bn more, and unspecified sums in A121 Labs and Hugging Face. (Yeah, I know the names make no sense.) Microsoft has also invested in Mistral, the French AI startup. And so on. In 2023, of the $27bn that was invested in AI startups, only $9bn came from venture capitalist firms – which until recently had been by far the biggest funders of new tech enterprises in Silicon Valley.

What’s going on here?

Read on to find out.

My commonplace booklet

Two cheers for Immanuel Kant

The political philosopher Lea Ypi had a nice essay on Kant in the FT on Saturday. I was struck by this passage:

To be free, in a Kantian sense, is to be able to take a critical distance from your passions and inclinations, and to ask yourself if they contribute to “enlightened” thinking: the exit, as Kant puts it, from “humanity’s self-incurred own immaturity”. The process of enlightenment rests on three maxims: to think for oneself, to think putting oneself in the place of everyone else, and to always think consistently. Such maxims, he believed, could be advanced through “the public use of reason”, a modus operandi that is fundamentally different from the “private” use people make of it in their professions (say as students, teachers, doctors, politicians, lawyers or asset managers). While the latter is premised on the acceptance of authority, the former requires pluralistic, impartial and critical engagement.

It is difficult to relate to Kant’s aspirations in an age like ours where public-spiritedness is constantly threatened by the clash between private interests. Our mode of communication is wider and more inclusive than in the 18th century (for example, political participation is formally no longer limited to property-holders) but it is also shallower, more certain of itself and less critical. Dissent manifests itself more in clamorous acts of individual self-expression (preferably recorded on a mobile phone) and less in collective critical engagement.

Like us, Kant lived in an age of crisis marked by great advances in science and technology but a collapse in values. Yet he carved out a role for reason as a universal communicative capacity that tries to steer a middle path between scepticism and dogmatism: between having faith in nothing and blindly following trends. That conception of reason seems harder to revive in our societies, strangled as they are between destructive interests and the individualisation of political commitment.



What is it about fancy wristwatches?

As a (cynical) reader of publications which target people with more money than sense, I am continually intrigued by the advertisements for expensive men’s wristwatches, and in particular by the way so many of them make a song-and-dance about the water depth that they can allegedly withstand. I’m looking at one which is even badged as “Fifty Fathoms” to indicate that it will still tell the time 300 feet below the ocean surface. But here’s the strange thing: I’ve never seen a man wearing one of these watches who has been closer to ocean depths than you get in an infinity pool on the French Riviera. So, basically, these things are just male jewellery. Pathetic, really.

One cheery thought, though. Apparently, it’s not a good idea to flaunt your flashy status-symbol in some parts of London nowadays. At any rate the FT reports that “the Metropolitan Police is grappling with a spate of muggings that has sent jitters as far as Delhi and Geneva.”

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