Friday 20 January, 2023


… for something.

On Cley beach in Norfolk. For them, patience is clearly a virtue.

Quote of the Day

”Obscenity is what happens to shock some elderly and ignorant magistrate.”

  • Bertrand Russell

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Don McLean | American Pie (Live in Austin)


Long Read of the Day

Secretary jobs in the age of AI

Terrific Long Read by Hollis Robbins, who is the Dean of Humanities at the University of Utah, and has studied organisation theory and bureaucracy. In this post, she predicts that secretaries could be in demand in the AI-driven future — not as old-style administrative assistants, but as confidantes and advisors. She starts by pointing out that the term ‘secretary’ literally means ‘person entrusted with secrets,’ from the medieval Latin secretarius, the trusted officer who writes the letters and keeps the records. The secretarial role as originally conceived was therefore far more central than the 20th-century role implied. In some ways, maybe one could think of Thomas Cromwell as Henry VIII’s secretary.

I have been thinking about the “keeper of secrets” aspect of the old-school secretary now that ChatGPT is being touted as the final answer to a cheap, reliable assistant available to all, from job seeker to CEO. Indeed, ChatGPT is a kind of assistant, the way Google is, but let’s separate the assisting tasks from the assistant position, which is, still, woefully low paid. The general idea is: why hire a person when you’ve got an answer machine in your pocket? Not only is ChatGPT cheaper (even when it stops being free) but the very concept of ‘assistant’ is vexed, particularly among assertive Gen-Z and Millennial women who are expecting to start at the top.

And yet I predict that ChatGPT is going to drive a comeback of the “keeper of secrets” role, paid well to screens calls and emails, who will make whoever can afford a good secretary much more efficient. If you’re in a role of any importance, you’re going to be flooded with AI-written communication, much of which will be incorrect. You’re going to need to hire someone with a head of their shoulders to sort through it. Why not a secretary, if a culture shift could bring back both the job and title?

Interesting throughout.

Speaking truth to power

The UN Secretary-General, António Guterres, excoriated his audience at the Davos gabfest on Wednesday.

“Today, fossil fuel producers and their enablers are still racing to expand production, knowing full well that their business model is inconsistent with human survival,” said Guterres. “This insanity belongs in science fiction, yet we know the ecosystem meltdown is cold, hard scientific fact.”

Guterres highlighted evidence published last week that detailed the precise climate change predictions made by scientists working for ExxonMobil as far back as the 1970s.

”Just like the tobacco industry, they rode roughshod over their own science,” he said, and now the world is on track for a ‘devastating’ 2.8 degree increase in temperature.”

The world’s largest financial institutions and asset managers — many of whom are also on the guest list — are collectively still pouring hundreds of billions of dollars into companies producing and burning fossil fuels, according to a report published by NGOs on Tuesday, despite pledging to align their investments with a world of net zero emissions by the middle of this century.

Those findings echo the criticisms made last year by a task force launched by Guterres to hold corporate actors to account for their pledges.

”More and more businesses are making net zero commitments,” he said. “But benchmarks and criteria are often dubious or murky. This misleads consumers, investors and regulators with false narratives. It feeds a culture of climate misinformation and confusion. And it leaves the door wide open to greenwashing.”

Yep. Wide open.

Lisa’s 40th birthday

Photo by Ted Thai

Yesterday was the 40th anniversary of the unveiling of the Apple Lisa, the precursor of the Macintosh. Ars Technica has a nice piece about it.

I was fascinated by the Lisa from the word go, and managed to persuade Apple UK to lend me one so that I could show it to my academic colleagues. When I set it up in a seminar room in my department the place was packed with curious — and, I have to say — some sceptical observers. The really interesting thing (for me) was that it was the administrators who were most wowed by it. And it meant that from the moment the Macintosh arrived they were the ones who were keenest to have one. For at least one of those present it was a life-changing moment — a revelation of what computing was really for. And of what it could do for non-techies.

Books, etc.

I’m still reading my way through Alan Rickman’s Diaries. I can see why actors everywhere have been wowed by it, because it captures the kind of lives they have to live if they are successful. Endless travel; insecurity (they’re sensitive about bad reviews (like everyone else); they lunch, dine and (it seems) drink too much; are constantly battling exhaustion, not to mention fanatical or obtuse film directors. And, it seems, have very little time to do much thinking.

My commonplace booklet

Two replies to my question of what did people see in it.

  • Keith Devlin (Whom God Preserve): “A startled dog”.

  • Chris McLarty: “The face that looks surprised to see you?”

Thanks to both. I’m with Chris, I think.

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Thursday 19 January, 2023

Icy Rorschach test

What is normally a muddy puddle on one of our regular country walks, took on a more enigmatic appearance yesterday. Can you see a face in it?

Quote of the Day

”The young have aspirations that never come to pass, the old have reminiscences that never happened.”

  • Saki (H.H. Munro)

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Christine McVie | Got A Hold On Me


Long Read of the Day

It’s Time to Get Serious

A bracing post by Katherine Boyle on how “prevailing wisdom insists that your twenties are for extreme exploration—collecting memories, friends, partners, identities.”

TL;DR summary: it’s bullshit.

She has the good sense to start with Sam Bankman-Fried.

The biggest technology story of this past year involves a fraud perpetrated by a boy. Or so the press would have us believe. 

Just months before Sam Bankman-Fried’s unraveling, Fortune Magazine referred to the billionaire as a “trading wunderkind” a latter-day Warren Buffett only with a “goofy facade” and a penchant for fidget spinners. Even after his downfall and subsequent arrest in the Bahamas, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times and Axios all referred to Bankman-Fried, or SBF, as a disgraced “crypto wunderkind.” 

Andrew Ross Sorkin of The New York Times illustrated his boyishness best when interviewing him at the Times’ DealBook Summit last November. “When you read the stories,” Sorkin said, “it sounds like a bunch of kids who were all on Adderall having a sleepover party.”

SBF’s fate will now be decided by the Southern District of New York, but his media charade of aw-shucks interviews and congressional testimony laced with brogrammer idioms built a public persona that we’ve largely come to accept: SBF is just a kid. Indeed, he’s so young that his law school professor parents were involved in his business and political dealings. (In this, they embody the helicopter style of child-rearing favored by nearly the entire Boomer elite.)

The reality, of course, is that SBF is a grown-ass, 30-year-old man. He is twelve years older than many of the men and women we sent to Iraq and Afghanistan…

Great stuff.

Books, etc.

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about an experiment my wife and I are doing — reading novels before watching films based on them. My friend Gerard, who is also interested in the adaptation process, wrote to suggest we listen to one of the novelist’s Hilary Mantel’s BBC Reith lectures. So we did and found it interesting and insightful.

Worth your time.

My commonplace booklet

From WashPo:

For 25 years, the National Archives has been working to rid itself of government red tape — through its gift shop.

We’re talking about actual, physical tape: the red-dyed lengths of fabric that were used from the 1780s to the 1980s to bundle many of the nation’s documents, and that, according to the Archives, gave rise to “red tape” as shorthand for bureaucratic entanglements.

The “tape” the agency is selling off isn’t adhesive tape; it’s a soft, flat and narrow woven cotton that’s snipped from a spool. Red tape eventually was abandoned for white or undyed tape because of its tendency to bleed, but in its heyday, the government used vast amounts of the red stuff. For instance, in 1864, the War Department headquarters purchased 154 miles of red tape, according to the Archives. And even in 1943, the Treasury Department bought nearly 123 miles, a Washington Post article from the time noted. Quite a bit of that mileage landed at the National Archives among its billions of paper records…

Someone should tell the UK’s Brexiteers about this.

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Wednesday 18 January, 2023

Pigeons of Venice unite!

You have nothing to lose save your birdbrains.

Quote of the Day

”All science is either physics or stamp collecting”.

  • Ernest Rutherford

Typical Rutherfordian hyperbole. And a bit hard on stamp collecting.

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee | Baby Please Don’t Go


Long Read of the Day

Globalization is Dead and No One is Listening

Really interesting commentary by Kevin Xu.

Includes his transcript of Morris Chang’s speech at TSMC’s Arizona “tool-in” ceremony.

The “tool-in” ceremony of TSMC’s new fab in Arizona drew a lot of attention last week. CEOs from Apple, Nvidia, and AMD attended and spoke. President Biden, along with a coterie of cabinet officials, congresspeople, and local Arizona politicians, came to rally, celebrate, and claim (as we will see, a premature) victory.

Amidst all the pomp and circumstance was a short, but powerful and sobering speech by Morris Chang, the now-91-years-old founder of TSMC. He shared his dream of building a fab in the US, the hard-earned lessons from TSMC’s first time building a fab in America 25 years ago, his perspective that globalization and free trade is almost dead, and why this event is just the “end of the beginning”. 

It was the only speech that gave a real sense of what America’s semiconductor future would really look like. Yet no one listened. No American, or any Western media outlet for that matter, bothered to cover this speech. Only Nikkei and a handful of Taiwanese outlets wrote about it. Not even C-Span carried footage of the speech. (And C-Span carries everything!)

Really interesting, including about the amazing training requirements for people who want to work in this kind of chip-fabrication.

Morris Chang is a pretty formidable guy.

‘Succession’ has nothing on Davos

Elite conclave mulls next leader.


DAVOS, Switzerland — It’s the political race everyone is afraid to talk about.

For 52 years the World Economic Forum has been synonymous with its founder and executive chair Klaus Schwab, whose humble manner belies what many who know him describe as great ambition and boundless energy, even into his mid-80s. 

Schwab has grown WEF’s $6,000 startup capital in 1971 into a $390 million a year business, turning a once sleepy organization into the think tank world’s FIFA.

Today, WEF’s annual meeting attracts more billionaires and CEOs than any other event on earth, and more political leaders than any gathering outside the United Nations General Assembly. 

So what (and who) comes after Klaus Schwab? 

Yawn. Frankly, who gives a damn? The Davos gabfest never really recovered from Donald Trump’s election. And it’s interesting to see how media obsession with it has waned in recent years.

Irrelevant factoid #3,567: I went to Davos once, in the Summer, before it was famous. Thought it a very dull place. But I bought a penknife there which I still use, so at least one useful thing came from it .

Striking wind, not oil

The Economist’s Schumpeter columnist (behind a paywall, alas) has an interesting column this week about Texan (Republican) ranchers who are hostile to the green movement but avid supporters of wind and solar energy. Why? There’s money in them thar airflows. His conclusion:

The upshot is that there are ways to promote clean energy that do not rely on convincing climate sceptics that they are bonkers. A better sales pitch may be to play up the cost advantages of renewables rather than the climate benefits, emphasise their contribution to cutting air pollution rather than carbon emissions, and acknowledge that, owing to intermittency factors, natural gas may have a role to play in power generation for years to come. As Michael Webber, a professor of energy at the University of Texas, puts it, “It’s not unusual for Texas to do the right thing for all the wrong reasons.”

My commonplace booklet

Password security

Further to Bruce Schneier’s advice on choosing passwords the other day, if you want to find out if your phone number or email address has appeared in a data breach, haveibeenpwned is a good place to check.

And if you’ve been using LastPass to manage your passwords, it might be worth thinking again.

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Tuesday 17 January, 2023

Gone Fishin’?

Quote of the Day

”No rules, however wise, are a substitute for affection and tact.”

  • Bertrand Russell

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Mozart | Soave sia il vento | Cosi fan Tutte


Long Read of the Day

Remembering Pope Benedict’s Challenge

As long-time readers will probably realise, I am not a fan of organised religion. But I am also increasingly appalled by the moral bankruptcy of the neoliberal economic machine that is currently running — and ruining — our lives, not to mention the planet. How is it possible that we tolerate what is being done to our societies — the unfairness, the social exclusion, the poverty, the unconscionable levels of inequality, the hypocrisy and dishonesty of those in power — even in so-called democracies like the UK? And to think that this is happening in societies that are wealthy enough easily to eliminate many of these social ills if we really wanted to. What are the values that are implicit in our tacit acceptance of this? And where did we get them from?

All of which is a long-winded way of explaining why I was struck by this Editorial in Noema magazine by its Editor, Nathan Gardels. It’s about a long-running disagreement between the former Pope Benedict (aka Ratzinger) and political philosophers like Jürgen Habermnas, who I guess is the nearest thing we liberals have to a pontiff. The core of the disagreement is the question of where do we get our values from? Ratzinger’s argument is that, in the end, the deliberative, consensual process that Habermas envisages as the source of them is (a) inadequate and (b) in so far as it has a reality it actually derives from our shared histories as former Christian cultures.

It’s a very interesting read IMO. And a reminder of what a good magazine Noema is.

Books, etc.

From Laleh Khalili’s LRB review of When McKinsey Comes to Town: The Hidden Influence of the World’s Most Powerful Consulting Firm by Walt Bogdanich and Michael Forsythe.

”Bogdanich and Forsythe’s​ book is a damning account of the way McKinsey has made workplaces unsafe, ditched consumer protections, disembowelled regulatory agencies, ravaged health and social care organisations, plundered public institutions, hugely reduced workforces and increased worker exploitation. It begins with an account of McKinsey-driven cost-cutting at US Steel, which led to the deaths of two steelworkers. Similar measures at Disney resulted in a young man being crushed to death on the Big Thunder Mountain rollercoaster. Decades after the consequences of smoking became clear, McKinsey continued to work for the big tobacco producers. As the extent of the US opioid epidemic became apparent, McKinsey advised Purdue Pharma to find ‘growth pockets’ where OxyContin could be more easily prescribed, and lobbied regulators for laxer rules on prescriptions. McKinsey’s unethical activities pack the pages of this book, while its supercilious vocabulary of ‘values’ and ‘service’ runs like an oil slick over slurry.

The primary product sold by all management consultants – both software developers and strategic organisers – is the theology of capital. This holds that workers are expendable. They can be replaced by machines, or by harder-working employees grateful they weren’t let go in the last round of redundancies. Managers are necessary to the functioning of corporations – or universities, or non-profit organisations – and the more of them the better. Long working hours and bootstrap entrepreneurialism are what give meaning to life. Meritocracies are a real thing. Free trade, laissez-faire capitalism and reduced regulation are necessary stepping stones towards the free market utopia. There is also a faith that this work is helping ‘create positive, enduring change in the world’, as McKinsey’s mission statement puts it.”

Spot on.

Thanks to Andrew Curry (Whom God Preserve) for alerting me to it.

My commonplace booklet

Joseph Weizenbaum’s Original ELIZA code

If, like me, you’ve always been fascinated by Joe Weizenbaum’s famous computer-based Rogerian therapist, ELIZA, then you’ll enjoy this.

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Monday 16 January, 2023

On the Beach

My grandson Jasper on one of my favourite beaches.

Quote of the Day

“The heart has its reasons, of which reason knows nothing.

  • Blaise Pascal

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Brownie McGhee | Good Morning Blues


Just the thing for a Monday morning!

Long Read of the Day

Choosing Secure Passwords

Really helpful advice from Bruce Schneier, who knows this stuff inside out.

The best way to explain how to choose a good password is to explain how they’re broken. The general attack model is what’s known as an offline password-guessing attack. In this scenario, the attacker gets a file of encrypted passwords from somewhere people want to authenticate to. His goal is to turn that encrypted file into unencrypted passwords he can use to authenticate himself. He does this by guessing passwords, and then seeing if they’re correct. He can try guesses as fast as his computer will process them—and he can parallelize the attack—and gets immediate confirmation if he guesses correctly. Yes, there are ways to foil this attack, and that’s why we can still have four-digit PINs on ATM cards, but it’s the correct model for breaking passwords.

There are commercial programs that do password cracking, sold primarily to police departments. There are also hacker tools that do the same thing. And they’re really good.

The efficiency of password cracking depends on two largely independent things: power and efficiency.

Power is simply computing power. As computers have become faster, they’re able to test more passwords per second; one program advertises eight million per second. These crackers might run for days, on many machines simultaneously. For a high-profile police case, they might run for months.

Efficiency is the ability to guess passwords cleverly…

Read on to get to his advice. Better still, take it.

Computers need to make a quantum leap before they can crack encrypted messages

Yesterday’s Observer column:

Since the early 1980s, physicists and computer scientists such as Richard Feynman, Paul Benioff, Yuri Manin (who died last weekend at the age of 85) and Britain’s David Deutsch have been thinking about a different idea – using some ideas from subatomic physics to design a new and very distinct kind of computing engine – a quantum computer. In 1985, Deutsch published a proposal for one. And in recent times, companies such as Google and IBM have begun building them.

Why is that relevant? Basically because quantum computers are potentially much more powerful than conventional ones, which are based on digital bits – entities that have only two possible states, on and off (or 1 and zero). Quantum machines are built around qubits, or quantum bits, which can simultaneously be in two different states.

At this point, you may be anxiously checking for the nearest exit. Before doing so, remember that to understand subatomic physics you need first of all to divest yourself of everything you think you know about the physical world we ordinary mortals inhabit. We may sometimes be rude about people who believe in fairies, but particle physicists fervently believe in the neutrino, a subatomic particle that can pass right through the Earth without stopping and we take these scientists seriously…

Do read the whole piece.

My commonplace booklet

Ukraine Army Video Tells Russians How to Surrender to a Drone

I knew that drones were changing warfare, but I never thought of this. One of the many things Putin didn’t understand is the ingenuity of the Ukrainians.

And btw, if you’d like some insight into why the Russians have run into such trouble, this podcast is pretty informative.

This Blog is also available as a daily email. If you think that might suit you better, why not subscribe? One email a day, Monday through Friday, delivered to your inbox. It’s free, and you can always unsubscribe if you conclude your inbox is full enough already!

Friday 13 January, 2023

The Boss

Quote of the Day

”We want better reasons for having children than not knowing how to prevent them.”

  • Dora Russell

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Eric Clapton | Walkin’ Blues (Acoustic Live)


Long Read of the Day

A Civil War Over Semicolons

Very nice piece by Gail Beckerman in The Atlantic about how LBJ’s (and Robert Moses’s) biographer, Robert Caro, and his editor, Robert Gottlieb, have been arguing with each other for 50 years.

The partnership of Robert Caro and Robert Gottlieb is beautifully anachronistic. As writer and editor, respectively, they have together produced 4,888 pages over the course of 50 years, including the multivolume, still unfinished saga that is Caro’s biography of Lyndon B. Johnson. A lasting collaboration of this sort is impossible to imagine in today’s publishing world of constant churn. Then there’s their method: Caro puts on a dark suit every day, writes his drafts out in longhand, and copies them onto carbon paper using his Smith Corona typewriter, after which Gottlieb marks them up with a pencil—like a couple of cobblers still making shoes with an awl. Whatever deal Caro got from Gottlieb and Knopf in the 1970s, it has allowed him to work monastically on this biography project seemingly without any other source of income. As Caro’s longtime agent, Lynn Nesbit, says of the arrangement in Turn Every Page, a new documentary about Caro and Gottlieb, “I doubt that it could ever happen again.”

Very few authors get that kind of editorial attention nowadays, so it’s interesting to discover what it’s like when it happens.

Particularly nice if you’ve read any of Caro’s LBJ volumes, or indeed his great biography of Robert Moses.

Books, etc.

The art of book reviewing

A well-done review is a fine thing. This one by Carolyne Larrington of Marion Turner’s  The Wife of Bath: A Biography is a gem.

How does an Oxford academic follow up a prize-winning trade book, a newly researched biography of Geoffrey Chaucer? And, moreover, in lockdown, when archives and libraries are largely inaccessible? Marion Turner, the newly elected J R R Tolkien Professor of English Literature and Language at Oxford, has avoided ‘second-book syndrome’ with a breathtakingly simple idea: a biography of Chaucer’s most famous character, Dame Alison (or Alice), weaver, pilgrim, businesswoman and serial participant in the marriage market, better known as the Wife of Bath. Informative, clear-sighted, entertaining and as opinionated as its subject, Turner’s new book is a wonderful introduction to the lives of 14th-century women, The Canterbury Tales and the fascinating ways in which Alison has been read and misread since she first hoisted up her voluminous skirts to show her fine red stockings during the last decade of the 14th century…

Almost enough to make one want to buy the book.

California here we don’t come

In the 1980s I thought that California might be a nice place to live. This blog post by Doc Searls (Whom God Preserve) suggests that I may have been right to resist the temptation.

Most of California has just two seasons: rain and fire. Rain is another name for Winter, and it peaks in January. In most years, January in California isn’t any more wet than, say, New York, Miami or Chicago. But every few years California gets monsoons. Big ones. This is one of those years…

Worth reading.

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Thursday 12 January, 2023

Quote of the Day

””Life would be so wonderful if we only knew what to do with it”

  • Greta Garbo

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Schubert | Die Forelle, D550


Long Read of the Day

The Mars Religion

Terrifically caustic essay by Maciej Cieglowski about the current obsessions about going to Mars…

When you hold on to a belief so strongly that neither facts nor reason can change it, what you are doing is no longer science, but religion. So I’ve come to believe the best way to look at our Mars program is as a faith-based initiative. There is a small cohort of people who really believe in going to Mars, the way some people believe in ghosts or cryptocurrency, and this group has an outsize effect on our space program.

At NASA, the faith takes the form of a cargo cult. The agency has persuaded itself that re-enacting the Moon landings with enough fidelity will reward them with a trip to Mars, bringing back the limitless budgets, uncomplicated patriotism, and rapt public attention of the early sixties. They send up their rockets with the same touching faith that keeps Amtrak hauling empty dining cars across the prairie, dreaming of the golden age of rail.

Outside of NASA, the Mars faith shades darker. It is part of a transhumanist worldview that holds mankind must either spread to the stars or die. Elon Musk, the Martian spiritual leader, has talked about the need to “preserve the light of consciousness” by making us a multiplanetary species. As he sees it, Mars is our only way off of a planet crawling with existential risk. And it’s not just enough to explore mars; we have make it a backup for all civilization. Failing to stock it with subsistence farming incels would be tantamount to humanity lying down in its open grave.

That is some heavy stuff to lay on a small, rocky world…

It is.

Thanks to Charles Arthur for spotting it. I enjoyed his acerbic take on it too:

The difficult and unglamorous problems of a Mars mission — how do you wash your socks? What is there to eat? — get no love from Elon Musk. Once you get beyond “rocket factory go brrrrr,” there is no plan, just a familiar fog of Musky woo. The Mars rockets will refuel from autonomous robot factories powered by sunlight. Their crews will be shielded from radiation by some form of electromagnetic handwaving. Life support, the hardest practical problem in space travel, “is actually quite easy”. And of course Musk dismisses the problem of microbial contamination (which I can’t emphasize enough is governed by international treaty) as both inevitable and no big deal.

My commonplace booklet

Study Finds That Buttons in Cars Are Safer and Quicker to Use Than Touchscreens


As some Tesla owners (including this one) will confirm.

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Wednesday 11 January, 2023

Yeats’s Fortress

One of my favourite places in Ireland. It’s a 16th century fortified Hiberno-Norman tower house built in Ballylee by the De Burgo family. It was originally known as Ballylee Castle but is now known as Thoor Ballylee (where Thoor is the Irish for ‘tower’) because the building was restored by William Butler Yeats in 1919 as a retreat for himself and his family. They lived there for ten years.

There’s a plaque on the wall that reads:

I, the poet William Yeats,

With old mill boards and sea-green slates,

And smithy work from the Gort forge,

Restored this tower for my wife George.

And may these characters remain

When all is ruin once again.

Quote of the Day

”Don’t cheer, boys. Those poor devils are dying.”

  • Admiral J.W. Philip, on passing a burning Spanish ship at the battle of Santiago on July 3, 1898.

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Liam O’Flynn | Cailín na Gruaige Donn


Literally, the girl with brown hair.

Long Read of the Day

Exit by Hari Kunzru

This is worth reading. Kunzru is a terrific novelist, but this is him turning a laser beam onto something that has preoccupied many of us for at least a decade — the ideological underpinnings of the tech imaginary.

One measure of how perceptive the essay is that he’s spotted the significance of Jacob Rees-Mogg’s old man.

One of the most quietly influential books about libertarian political exit is The Sovereign Individual, which was written in 1997 by the antitax activist (and future Newsmax board member) James Dale Davidson with the editor William Rees-Mogg, the father of the Conservative minister and arch Brexiteer Jacob Rees-Mogg. Together the authors imagine a “cognitive elite” who will operate outside political control:

”At the highest plateau of productivity, these Sovereign Individuals will compete and interact on terms that echo the relations among the gods in Greek myth. . . . The new Sovereign Individual will operate . . . in the same physical environment as the ordinary, subject citizen, but in a separate realm politically. Commanding vastly greater resources and beyond the reach of many forms of compulsion, the Sovereign Individual will redesign governments and reconfigure economies in the new millennium.”

Fueled by the pandemic and the crypto boom, such exit schemes have multiplied.

Do read the piece. It’s worth your time.

’Fine dining’ is not so fine, apparently

Whenever I hear the phrase “fine dining” I would have reached for my revolver if I possessed one. I’ve always seen it as a pretentious euphemism for what one of my more irascible friends calls “starvation at £100 a plate”.


This rant is prompted by the news, courtesy of the New York Times that the Copenhagen restaurant Noma, supposedly the world’s best eatery, is closing its doors. Its founder, René Redzepi, says that fine dining at the highest level, with its gruelling hours and intense workplace culture, has hit a breaking point: “It’s unsustainable.”

Given that two of its current specialities are grilled reindeer heart on a bed of fresh pine, and saffron ice cream in a beeswax bowl I get the unsustainability bit. So the global class of gastro tourists that “schedules first-class flights and entire vacations around the privilege of paying at least $500 per person for its multicourse tasting menu” will just have to find somewhere else to set fire to $100 bills.

Apparently Noma will become “a full-time food laboratory, developing new dishes and products for its e-commerce operation, Noma Projects, and the dining rooms will be open only for periodic pop-ups” and Mr Redzepi will morph into “something closer to chief creative officer”. Hopefully from then on he’ll be able to sleep nights.

Books, etc.

From Craig Brown’s biography of the late Princess Margaret. The passage comes from a chapter about the alleged sexiness of the princess when she was a young woman.

”It was in the early 1950s that Pablo Picasso first began to have erotic dreams about Princess Margaret. Occasionally he would throw her elder sister in for good measure. From time to time Picasso shared these fantasies with his friend, the art historian and collector Roland Penrose, once even confiding in him that he could picture the colour of their pubic hair.”

It’s clear that I’ve led a sheltered life.

My commonplace booklet

Disguising solar panels as ancient Roman tiles in Pompeii

Now this is an interesting idea.

This Blog is also available as a daily email. If you think that might suit you better, why not subscribe? One email a day, Monday through Friday, delivered to your inbox. It’s free, and you can always unsubscribe if you conclude your inbox is full enough already!

Tuesday 10 January, 2023

Travel in style

Glimpsed in Provence last Summer. Seems a long time ago just now.

Quote of the Day

”We’re all endowed with certain God-given talents. Mine happens to be punching people in the head.”

  • Sugar Ray Robinson, world middleweight champion boxer

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Ry Cooder & David Lindley | Jesus on the Mainline | New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival


I know, I know: I’ve highlighted this at least a couple of times. The reason: every time it comes up on one of my playlists, I turn up the volume until the neighbours come armed with noise abatement orders. I’m not a religious man, but I wouldn’t mind having it played at my funeral.

Long Read of the Day

Nothing is Real: Craig Brown on the Slippery Art of Biography

I think this essay by Craig Brown is the best thing I’ve ever read on the biographer’s trade. It’s full of insights and sharp observations.

For example:

In the first paragraph of his biography of the Queen, Robert Lacey describes Her Majesty at Balmoral on the Thursday after the death of Princess Diana, reading the newspapers. “Digesting their angry sermons with the long-practised pensiveness which caused her eyes to narrow, her jaw would firm slightly as her thought processes started, shifting her chin forward a fraction—a signal to her staff to think one more hard thought before they opened their mouths.”

This passage raises any number of questions. Was the intrepid Mr Lacey in the Balmoral breakfast room that September morning, perhaps hiding under the table with a periscope to hand? If not, how could he know that the Queen’s reading “caused her eyes to narrow?” And how does anyone, let alone the Queen, set about practising pensiveness? And — since, presumably, Lacey was crouching in her brain, like one of the Numbskull cartoon characters in The Beezer, could he please explain what, if anything, was going on in The Queen’s brain before she firmed her jaw and “her thought processes started”?

Or this:

In 2003, at the age of 45, Mark Lewisohn began researching a history of the Beatles. Ten years later, he published the first volume. The extended version runs to 1698 pages, and only takes the Beatles up to the end of 1962, and the recording of Love Me Do. Lewisohn is now 62, and expects to be well into his seventies before his trilogy is complete. It is, by any measure, an extraordinary achievement, but the detail sometimes threatens to smother the whole. For instance, you may well want to know that George Harrison’s first car was a Ford Anglia. Fair enough. But do you really need to know that it was a second-hand two-door blue Ford Anglia 105E Deluxe, bought by George from Brian Epstein’s friend Terry Doran who worked at a car dealership in Warrington?

It’s all in aid of understanding the perennial problem facing the conscientious biographer: what to put in — and what to take out.

Hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

And if you’re ever bored, Ma’am Darling — Brown’s hilarious biography of Princess Margaret — will see you right.

Books, etc.

One of my sisters gave me this for Christmas. It’s a collection of 11 essays by one of Ireland’s most prolific writers. Initially I thought it would be just one of those collections that writers’ agents bully them into publishing while they are working on the next novel. And because I read most of the periodicals in which his longer pieces appear I expected no surprises.

I was wrong. There’s a marvellous long essay on the Irish judicial system in the 1980s which was published in 2007 in The Dublin Magazine and which I hadn’t seen. And even re-reading some essays that I had read before in periodicals made me see them in a different light. This is especially true of his astonishingly open account of being diagnosed with, and treated for, cancer. Turns out that you can’t judge a book by its cover. My sister has good taste.

My commonplace booklet

Potato-shaped stones are better for skimming, say experts


Scientists have identified particular types of stone that can produce “almighty” leaps out of the water when skimmed across the surface.

While aficionados of the pursuit favour thin, flat stones for long-distance skimming, the researchers’ mathematical model reveals that heavier, potato-shaped stones can achieve more dramatic results, which blast the rock into the air.

“Try some wacky stones and see what happens,” said Dr Ryan Palmer, an applied mathematician at the University of Bristol. “Try and throw a stone that looks like a potato. You can get some fun things happening with heavier stones.”

Palmer and his colleague Frank Smith, a professor of applied mathematics at University College London, created the mathematical model to investigate how the shape and mass of an object affect how it skims on the surface of water.

Do not try this at home.

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Monday 9 January 2023

Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks

This is one of my favourite paintings — of a late-night diner in a deserted New York in 1942. Three people, presumably strangers, sit around the counter, physically close yet apparently psychologically isolated — which has often led critics to ‘read’ the painting as an allegory of the alienation of big city life. Not being a critic, I was struck by the fact that my father used to wear a hat very like the one worn by the man next to the woman, and because it reminds me of him I bought a reproduction of it many years ago. Corny, I know, but what the hell. I may not know much about ‘art’ but I know what I like.

Quote of the Day

”Publishers can get their minds halfway round anything.”

  • John Le Carré

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Fauré | Cantique De Jean Racine Choir of St. John’s College Cambridge


Long Read of the Day

What CHATGPT Reveals about the Collapse of Political/Corporate Support for Humanities/Higher Education

A really thoughtful essay by Eric Schliesser on Crooked Timber, (one of the best blogs on the Web, IMO). What he’s spotted is the risk to the Humanities — already under pressure and threat in a neoliberal world — posed by systems like ChatGPT. After all, if Humanities teachers are saying that (a) ChatGPT is basically a bullshit-generator, and (b) is producing stuff that if created by a human student might get him or her a B grade, then sooner or later ideologically-minded politicians and technocrats might start asking: well, then, what does that say about the Humanities?

“Of course”, Schilesser says at one point,

I am not the first to note that in many ways higher education is a certification machine, where the signal generated by the admissions office is of more value to future employers than the subsequent scholastic record. But it is not a good thing that one can pass our college classes while bullshitting thanks to (say) one’s expensive private, high school education that taught one how to write passable paragraphs.

This state of affairs helps explain partially, I think, the contempt by which so many in the political and corporate class (especially in Silicon Valley) hold the academy, and the Humanities in particular (recall also this post a few months ago). (I am not the first to suggest this; see here; here on the UK; here on Silicon Valley and US politics.) And, as I reflected on the academics’ response to ChatGPT, who can blame them? The corporate and political climbers are on to the fact that producing grammatically correct bullshit is apparently often sufficient to pass too many of our introductory courses. (I started thinking about this in a different context: when a smart student, who clearly adored my lectures, fessed up that they could pass my weekly quizzes without doing the reading.) And if introductory courses are their only exposure, I suspect they infer, falsely, from this that there is no genuine expertise or skilled judgment to be acquired in the higher reaches of our disciplines. To be sure, they are encouraged in this latter inference by the countless think pieces stretching back decades by purported insiders that strongly imply that the humanities have been taken over by bullshit artists. (If you are of my generation you are likely to treat the Sokal Affair (1996) or the letter protesting the intention to award a honorary degree to Derridaby Cambridge University (1992) as ground zero, but obviously one can go further back.)

We are all going to have to absorb this latest instalment of what the late great Robert Hughes called “the shock of the New”. And as I said in my Observer column (see below), we’re already overestimating the short-term impact of the technology while underestimating its longer-term implications.

Interesting times.

The ChatGPT bot is causing panic now – but it’ll soon be as mundane a tool as Excel

Yesterday’s Observer column

So the ChatGPT language processing model burst upon an astonished world and the air was rent by squeals of delight and cries of outrage or lamentation. The delighted ones were those transfixed by discovering that a machine could apparently carry out a written commission competently. The outrage was triggered by fears of redundancy on the part of people whose employment requires the ability to write workmanlike prose. And the lamentations came from earnest folks (many of them teachers at various levels) whose day jobs involve grading essays hitherto written by students.

So far, so predictable. If we know anything from history, it is that we generally overestimate the short-term impact of new communication technologies, while grossly underestimating their long-term implications. So it was with print, movies, broadcast radio and television and the internet. And I suspect we have just jumped on to the same cognitive merry-go-round.

Before pressing the panic button, though, it’s worth examining the nature of the beast…

Do read the entire piece

Books, etc.

I’m reading Alan Rickman’s diaries at the moment and can see why they’ve had such rave reviews from a legion of famous (and not so famous) actors. It’s basically because he provides a graphic picture of what a terrible life actors have. Even famous ones like him. It’s a chronically unstable, erratic, stressful way to earn a living. We should be grateful that talented people like him want to do it.

My commonplace booklet

Man Ages 15 Years in a Four Minute Timelapse With Photos Taken Every Day From 2007-2022


Sobering stuff. You have to admire his stamina.

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