Thursday 5 January, 2023

Welcoming 2023

Keeping a postbox warm in Ely yesterday evening.

Quote of the Day

”The musical equivalent of blancmange.”

  • Bernard Levin on the music of Delius

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Mozart | Don Giovanni | La ci darem la mano


Sometimes the creeps have the best tunes.

Long Read of the Day

 What Happened To Amazon’s Employees After AI Automated Their Work

Intriguing essay by Alex Kantrowitz which addresses the question of how automation affects people’s work.

After Amazon automated its vendor managers’ forecasting, purchasing, and negotiation tasks, I expected to find them sullen. The narrative typically dives into mass unemployment, the end of work, and end times. So I was a bit surprised when they instead seemed matter-of-fact about what happened, unworried about what this new wave of AI portends.

“When we heard ordering was going to be automated by algorithms, on the one hand, it’s like, ‘Okay, what’s happening to my job?’” said Elaine Kwon, a former Amazon vendor manager. “On the other hand you’re also not surprised, you’re like, ‘Okay, as a business this makes sense, and this is in line with what a tech company should be trying to do.’ ”

Another current employee told me that at Amazon, “you’re constantly trying to work yourself out of a job. You should not be doing the same thing day to day. Once you’ve done something consistently, you need to find mechanisms to invent and simplify.”

I think this should be taken with a large pinch of salt. It’s very specific to a particular company, and to people at executive-level in that company. And it comes from a book which seems to me to be unduly awestruck by the so-called ‘titans’ of the tech world. But the question of how automation affects people in white-collar employment is an under-studied area at present — which is why I found it interesting.

Watching Congress losing its mind

The Republicans have a slim majority in the House, which means that they should be able to elect the Speaker. But after two chaotic days and four ballots (some of which I’ve been watching on CSPAN) they haven’t been able to do it. Why? Because Kevin McCarthy, the front-runner can’t get enough votes from his fellow Republicans. This is because he is too nauseatingly slimy even for a party that has lost its mind.

You think I exaggerate? Well, set aside 20 minutes and have a listen to this episode of the NYT’s The Daily  podcast.

None of this would matter to the rest of us except for one thing. The Speaker of the House is next in line for the Presidency. And if Biden were to run and win in 2024, and the Republicans still controlled the House, then this Trump-supporting slimeball would be s heartbeat away from the presidency if Biden or his successor passed away.

It’s making Don’t Look Up look prophetic.

Books, etc.

My notes the other day about reading (or re-reading) novels before watching film adaptations of them struck a chord with some readers. A Dutch friend wrote to say that in recent months he and his wife have been engaged in a similar exercise — and (unlike us) writing short pieces about films which they think deserve multiple viewings.

One of the case studies they’ve looked at is the 2011 film Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy – adapted from John le Carré’s novel of the same title.

My friend thinks that the film,

is a brilliant adaptation. To translate the 400+ pages novel into a 2-hour film, while keeping the tone and atmosphere of the book. Bridget O’Connor and Peter Straughan, who wrote the scenario, in a sense have first completely deconstructed the book, to later reconstruct it as film. In the process, they moved scenes to new places, deleted a few, condensed long dialogues into images and to fill up gaps invented some new scenes. For my own education and entertainment I performed a detailed analysis of the (strikingly different) openings of the book and the film. It was very helpful and let me notice details of the film you don’t conscientiously see on a first screening.

So now I have some homework to do. It’s decades since I read the novel. And I’ve never seen the film. I have, however, seen and admired the multi-part BBC series starring Alec Guinness as George Smiley (which, coincidentally, is currently running on THT iPlayer). But that doesn’t count for this project.

He also suggests listening to Hilary Mantel’s fifth Reith Lecture, which I’m about to do.

My commonplace booklet

I love, use (and collect) fountain-pens. But when you have quite a few of them, you sometimes find that it’s hard to get the ink flowing in one that’s been lying around for a while.

The poet Seamus Heaney was also an avid fountain-pen user. He had a simple trick for dealing with the dried-up pen problem: dipping it in an ink-bottle as if it were an 18th-century quill!

My wife and I learned this from a video at a wonderful exhibition devoted to him in Dublin in 2020, and we’ve been using it ever since. Works a treat.

Of course, it partly invalidates the reason for having a fountain pen in the first place. But what the hell. Consistency, as Oscar Wilde once observed, is a puerile obsession.


The link I gave to Leo Breiman’s article on the two cultures in statistical modelling didn’t work for many readers. I’m not sure why, but Seb Schmoller found a link to a version of it that does work:–The-Two-Cultures-with-comments-and-a/10.1214/ss/1009213726.full

Apologies, and thanks to Seb.

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