Monday 25 September, 2023

Bird’s-eye view

The view from the Conor Pass

Tralee Bay, seen from the top of the Pass in Co. Kerry, one of my favourite roads.

Quote of the Day

“An expert is a man who has made all the mistakes which can be made in a very narrow field.”

  • Niels Bohr

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Dolly Parton | 9 To 5


I dug this out after reading a column by Simon Kuper in the Financial Times about the obtuse determination of certain corporate executives to stop people WFH.

I’ve always admired Dolly as the epitomé of feisty insouciance. And so did my fellow-countryman, Terry Wogan of blessed memory. Once, in a conversation about transubstantiation, when he was asked what he would like come to back as in another life. His reply: “Dolly Parton’s accordion.”

Long Read of the Day

News as Objects: The Materiality of handwritten newsletters

Yeah, I know this isn’t a handwritten newsletter and maybe it isn’t all that ‘newsy’, but this lovely essay by Sara Mansutti shows that the genre has a rich and interesting history.


Sometimes the newsletters report incidents that delayed or stopped their journey, giving a glimpse of how much the materiality of these sheets of paper mattered in the diffusion of the news. Some documents narrate about couriers fallen in rivers with their post-bags whose documents, if retrieved, became illegible due to the ink dissolving. In other cases, the interference with the mail delivery was a political tactic. In 1571 news from Paris warned that the courier of London directed to Paris had been robbed and his mail had been brought to the English court by order of Queen Elizabeth the First.

But the biggest obstacle to the supply of news was the suspicion of plague and the fear of contagion. Letters and newsletters reached their destinations with more difficulty during the epidemics than in wartime, because couriers coming from plague-infested places were forbidden to enter into the safe cities or to pass through some regions. The newsletters were believed to be vectors of infection just like any other physical object and rules were introduced to reduce the contagion caused by them. An avviso from Venice, written in 1564, warned that the letters from Lyon should no longer be tied with twine, because of an outbreak of plague there: the avviso doesn’t say more, but we can infer that twine was believed to convey the disease.

Do read it. And at least this particular newsletter is unlikely to pass on Covid.

When it comes to creative thinking, it’s clear that AI systems mean business

Yesterday’s Observer column on how corporate executives will view Generative AI.

(Spoiler alert: it’s not all good news.)

In all the frenzied discourse about large language models (LLMs) such as GPT-4 there is one point on which everyone seems to agree: these models are essentially stochastic parrots – namely, machines that are good at generating convincing sentences, but do not actually understand the meaning of the language they are processing. They have somehow “read” (that is, ingested) everything ever published in machine-readable form and create sentences word by word, at each point making a statistical guess of “what one might expect someone to write after seeing what people have written on billions of webpages, etc”. That’s it!

Ever since ChatGPT arrived last November, people have been astonished by the capabilities of these parrots – how humanlike they seem to be and so on. But consolation was drawn initially from the thought that since the models were drawing only on what already resided in their capacious memories, then they couldn’t be genuinely original: they would just regurgitate the conventional wisdom embedded in their training data. That comforting thought didn’t last long, though, as experimenters kept finding startling and unpredictable behaviours of LLMs – facets now labelled “emergent abilities”.

From the beginning, many people have used LLMs as aids to brainstorming…

Do read on.

My commonplace booklet

95% of NFTs now totally worthless, say researchers

From The Register

For those who don’t recall, NFTs are entries on a blockchain, typically the Ethereum blockchain, that represent ownership of assets – usually a digital asset like an image file or in-game item, but NFTs could also be tied to physical items.

Back in their 2021-22 heyday, collectors were paying millions for NFTs, but crypto gambling website dappGambl now says that most are worthless.

After looking at 73,257 NFT collections (a collection can contain any number of NFTs that can each be bought and sold) based on data from CoinMarketCap and NFTScan, dappGambl said it determined that 69,795 of those collections have a market cap of 0 Ether.

”This statistic effectively means that 95 percent of people holding NFT collections are currently holding onto worthless investments,” dappGambl said in its report. “Having looked into those figures, we would estimate that 95 percent to include over 23 million people whose investments are now worthless.”

Aw, shucks.

  This Blog is also available as an email three days a week. If you think that might suit you better, why not subscribe? One email on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays delivered to your inbox at 6am UK time. It’s free, and you can always unsubscribe if you conclude your inbox is full enough already!