Monday 22 August, 2022


The Rhone at Arles on a lovely Summer evening.

Quote of the Day

“Men are the only animals who devote themselves assiduously to making one another unhappy. It is, I suppose, one of their godlike qualities.”

  • H.L. Mencken

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Liam Clancy | And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda


First time I’ve heard this. Explains why my Aussie and NZ friends take Anzac Day so seriously.

Long Read of the Day

The Evolutionary Mystery of Menopause

Fascinating essay in Nautilus by David Barash, an evolutionary biologist who has specialised in animal behaviour and is now emeritus professor of psychology at the University of Washington.

Around age 50, women stop ovulating, a biological mystery because reproduction is the sine qua non of evolutionary success, and yet menopause occurs at an age when women often have a few decades of healthy life ahead of them. Men keep producing sperm (albeit fewer and less viable) into their eighth and even ninth decades. For women, it’s not about becoming unable to make eggs, since every girl is born with all that she will ever have, which await maturation and release. The “how” of menopause is well understood; it is brought on by a dramatic reduction in endocrine hormones, notably estrogen.

But why has selection favored this rapid and consequential decline, causing women’s endocrine machinery to poop out when it does? What are the ultimate, evolutionary reasons? If you like mystery stories, you’re in for a treat. Mark Twain noted that it was easy to stop smoking; he’d done it hundreds of times. It’s easy to explain menopause; there are many hypotheses, albeit fewer than a hundred. There is now a leading candidate, the grandmother hypothesis, which I first described in Nautilus in 2016, and which has been reinforced by two new studies…

Not my field at all. But I found it interesting. Hope you do too.

AI-generated art illustrates another problem with technology

Yesterday’s Observer column

It all started with the headline over an entry in Charlie Warzel’s Galaxy Brain newsletter in the Atlantic: “Where Does Alex Jones Go From Here?” This is an interesting question because Jones is an internet troll so extreme that he makes Donald Trump look like Spinoza. For many years, he has parlayed a radio talkshow and a website into a comfortable multimillion-dollar business peddling nonsense, conspiracy theories, falsehoods and weird merchandise to a huge tribe of adherents. And until 4 August he had got away with it. On that day, though, he lost an epic defamation case brought against him by parents of children who died in the 2012 Sandy Hook massacre – a tragedy that he had consistently ridiculed as a staged hoax; a Texas jury decided that he should pay nearly $50m in damages for publishing this sadistic nonsense.

Warzel’s newsletter consisted of an interview with someone who had worked for the Jones media empire in its heyday and, as such, was interesting. But what really caught my eye was the striking illustration that headed the piece. It showed a cartoonish image of a dishevelled Jones in some kind of cavern surrounded by papers, banknotes, prescriptions and other kinds of documents. Rather good, I thought, and then inspected the caption to see who the artist was. The answer: “AI art by Midjourney”.

Ah! Midjourney is a research lab and also the name of its program that creates images from textual descriptions using a machine-learning system similar to OpenAI’s Dall-E system…

Read on

Marina Hyde on Britain’s next Prime Minister, Ms Truss

Gloriously acerbic Guardian column:

For now, Truss maintains the remorselessly upbeat demeanour of a holiday rep who regards herself as the life and soul of the booze cruise, and whose lower back is tattooed with the Chinese symbols for “Only depressing people get depressed”. The overwhelming vibe you get from her campaign appearances is that she is going to make destitution fun for people. The logic puts me in mind of the Depression-era dancehall marathons epitomised in They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, where desperate competitors are given the opportunity to twirl, then lurch, then stagger their way out of poverty. Or to death – whichever comes sooner.

The fact that Liz will take over a country whose own sewage is literally lapping at its shores feels too on the nose – an image so hammily overdone it could have been crafted by recidivist newspaper columnist Boris Johnson. Which, in a more literal way, I suppose it was. We’re both the sick man of Europe and the dirty protest of Europe. Johnson – who wouldn’t dream of swimming in his own excrement, either literally or metaphorically – is currently on his second foreign holiday in a fortnight, displacing whole hogsheads of the Aegean in the cause of not giving a toss about what happens to the country he let down in the way he has always let everyone down in the end…

My commonplace booklet

From Saturday’s Financial Times.

Guess the weekly rent. Answer tomorrow.

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