Monday 4 September, 2023

Meet Bodhisattva

In the wonderful Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge the other day I came face to face with this figure. It’s the head of what the museum describes as “Lifesize, 13th-century Sung Dynasty (AD 960-1279) polychrome wooden sculpture of a Bodhisattva seated in the position known as ‘royal ease’”. For details of this curious position, see below. Do not try it at home.

Quote of the Day

“Nixon loved air-conditioning. In summer he would turn the thermostat down as low as it would go, so he could toast himself by a blazing log fire in the synthetic chill. Extreme as Nixon’s virtuoso double-polluting habits may seem now, he was more in tune with the American public mood on matters of temperature control than the only President who tried to rein in his nation’s growing addiction to air-conditioning, Jimmy Carter.”

  • James Meek in the LRB.

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Haydn | Trumpet Concerto in Eb, 1st movement (Allegro)| Alison Balsom


Recorded on the Last Night of the Proms, September 12, 2009

Long Read of the Day

Consciousness is a great mystery. Its definition isn’t.

Interesting essay by Erik Hoel.

In the current chaotic discourses about ‘AI’ terms like ‘consciousness’ and ‘sentience’ are batted around like shuttlecocks. I’m not a philosopher, but I can sometimes spot when people have no idea what they’re talking about, and this is one of those areas. Which I why I perked up when I read this.

Here’s how it opens:

There’s an unkillable myth that the very definition of the word “consciousness” is somehow so slippery, so bedeviled with problems, that we must first specify what we mean out of ten different notions. When this definitional objection is raised, its implicit point is often—not always, but often—that the people who wish to study consciousness scientifically (or philosophically) are so fundamentally confused they can’t even agree on a definition. And if a definition cannot be agreed upon, we should question whether there is anything to say at all.

Unfortunately, this “argument from undefinability” shows up regularly among a certain set of well-educated people. Just to given an example, there was recently an interesting LessWrong post wherein the writer reported on his attempts to ask people to define consciousness, from a group of:

Mostly academics I met in grad school, in cognitive science, AI, ML, and mathematics.

He found that such people would regularly conflate “consciousness” with things like introspection, purposefulness, pleasure and pain, intelligence, and so on. These sort of conflations being common is my impression as well, as I run into them whenever I have given public talks about the neuroscience of consciousness, and I too have found it most prominent among those with a computer science, math, or tech background. It is especially prominent right now amid AI researchers… Hope you find it interesting.

When Elon Musk’s ‘flying sofas’ give Ukraine internet access, we can’t sit comfortably

My column in yesterday’s Observer

In February 2022, as Russian tanks rumbled into Ukraine, a cyber-attack took down the satellite system run by Viasat that was providing high-speed communications for Ukrainian military forces, rendering them instantly blind, deaf and dumb. With his forces knocked offline, the Ukrainian digital minister sent a plea to an American billionaire, one Elon Musk, for help. Within hours, Musk responded that his Starlink system had been activated in Ukraine. Days later Starlink terminals began to arrive.

Pause for context update. Musk is the founder and Supreme Leader of SpaceX, an innovative firm that has found a way of building reusable heavy rockets that can launch cargo into Earth orbit and safely return ready to be used again, which is a very big deal, and probably why Nasa has become one of its regular customers. In 2019, SpaceX started launching smallish – “sofa-sized”, according to the New York Times – communications satellites into low-Earth orbit with the aim of eventually providing a global mobile phone system called Starlink. Thus far, it has mostly been providing internet connectivity to 60 countries via about 4,500 satellites, but it’s said that Musk plans to have 42,000 of them up there eventually, which is an awful lot of flying sofas.

At the moment, there are something like 42,000 Starlink terminals in Ukraine – in use by the country’s armed forces, hospitals, businesses and aid organisations…

Read on

Books, etc.

This new collection of Lee Miller’s photographs arrived the other day. I dug out my old, battered Rolleiflex to sit alongside it, as a mark of respect, for some of her most memorable pictures were taken with a Rollei.

My first thought was that the book must be a catalogue of the marvellous exhibition of Miller’s work we saw in the Royal Danish Library in Copenhagen a couple of years ago. But it only partly overlaps with those pictures. So why release the collection now?

Ah! There’s a foreword by Kate Winslet, not hitherto known as a photography buff. But then the penny dropped: Winslet is playing Miller in a biopic that’s coming out later in the year. IMDB has a still from it showing Winslet in combat fatigues and clutching a… Rolleiflex!


My commonplace booklet

Burning Man festival-goers trapped in desert as rain turns site to mud. Link. So there is a God, and She has a sense of humour. From modest beginnings Burning Man morphed from hippiedom into a destination for social media influencers, celebrities and the Silicon Valley elite. The thought of all those self-satisfied creeps shivering in their mud-logged SUVs is, well, deeply satisfying.

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!