Monday 4 December, 2023

The view from here

Dingle Bay, early yesterday morning.

Quote of the Day

”Happiness makes up in height for what it lacks in depth.”

  • Robert Frost

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Van Morrison | Saint Dominic’s Preview


Long Read of the Day

Last Week at Marienbad

Nice witty, ironic essay by Lauren Oyler about a trip she and her boyfriend Thom made to Marienbad. It would, she thought,

confirm that we were in a relationship, and that this relationship was not going to remain forever stuck in the past, in a phase of remembering and fighting over what we remembered – over things that had happened, seriously, the previous year. According to the couple clichés, a trip is a new memory you make together. It’s also a test: how moody one of you might become at a setback; how neurotic the other might be about the schedule; how fundamentally incompatible you are suddenly revealed, in an unfamiliar setting, to be. Kafka knew this. When he and his on-again, off-again fiancée Felice Bauer met at Marienbad for ten days in July 1916, they fought the entire time, unable to overcome the ceaseless rain and ‘the hardships of living together. Forced upon us by strangeness, pity, lust, cowardice, vanity, and only deep down, perhaps, a thin little stream worthy of the name of love, impossible to seek out, flashing once in the moment of a moment.’

We went because we thought it would be funny; we came to realize the movie isn’t even really set there. It takes place, if not in the mind, then in a composite setting of several nineteenth-century Central European spa towns, in a sense of vague possibility and in danger of being lost. The misunderstanding was Thom’s fault. He had seen the movie once before, a long time ago; I had not, but I knew I would have to eventually, because it’s one of those movies you have to see. ‘It’s a trip,’ he told me…

I really enjoyed it. Hope you do too.

Europe’s AI crackdown bends to tech lobbying

Yesterday’s Observer column:

Wednesday will be a fateful day in Brussels, a faraway city of which post-Brexit Britain knows little and cares less. It’s the day on which the EU’s AI proposals enter the final stages of a tortuous lawmaking process. The bill is a landmark (first in the world) attempt to seriously regulate artificial intelligence (AI) based on its capacity to cause harm and will soon be in the final phase of the legislative process – so-called “trilogues” – where the EU parliament, commission and council decide what should be in the bill, and therefore become part of EU law. Big day, high stakes, in other words.

However, the bill is now hanging in the balance because of internal disagreement about some key aspects of the proposed legislation, especially those concerned with regulation of “foundation” AI models that are trained on massive datasets. In EU-speak these are “general-purpose AI” (GPAI) systems – ones capable of a range of general tasks (text synthesis, image manipulation, audio generation and so on) – such as GPT-4, Claude, Llama etc. These systems are astonishingly expensive to train and build: salaries for the geeks who work on them start at Premier League striker level and go stratospheric (with added stock options); a single 80GB Nvidia Hopper H100 board – a key component of machine-learning hardware – costs £26,000, and you need thousands of them to build a respectable system. Not surprisingly, therefore, there are only about 20 firms globally that can afford to play this game. And they have money to burn…

(And also to spend on lobbying.)

Do read the whole thing.

My commonplace booklet

Remembering Kissinger

Bill Emmott’s reflections on “the prickly, ruthless, amoral intellectual that was Henry Kissinger.” (Er, isn’t he forgetting ‘war criminal’?)

Emmott liked, he says,

an opinion piece in the New York Times, headlined “Henry Kissinger: the hypocrite” by Ben Rhodes, a former member of President Obama’s NSC. Rhodes outlined especially well the enduring impact of Kissinger’s amoral actions in places such as Chile, Bangladesh, Cambodia and Laos on America’s reputation as well as any claims it might make about seeking to defend “the international rules-based order” (which is not a claim Kissinger will ever have made, at least not to my knowledge). Sometimes these days people are inclined to write that during the Cold War the severity and clarity of the ideological and military confrontation with the USSR was such as to make brutal actions such as those somehow more acceptable, but I am not sure future Cold War historians will agree. Those actions led to a considerable backlash against America especially but not only in Europe, one that it will be reasonable for future historians to argue might have made the Cold War last longer. Rather less contestable is the fact that memories of such actions lie behind some of today’s unwillingness in Latin America, Southern Africa and many parts of Asia to support the West over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The war in Iraq certainly plays a big part in that, but so do Kissinger’s actions in places like Chile, Angola and Indochina.

Thanks to Andrew Arends for the link.

My first thought on learning of Kissinger’s death was of Tom Lehrer’s crack that satire died the day he won the Nobel Peace prize.

Ben Rhodes’s piece is worth reading, btw. Kissinger, he writes,

exemplified the gap between the story that America, the superpower, tells and the way that we can act in the world. At turns opportunistic and reactive, his was a foreign policy enamored with the exercise of power and drained of concern for the human beings left in its wake. Precisely because his America was not the airbrushed version of a city on a hill, he never felt irrelevant: Ideas go in and out of style, but power does not.

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