Wednesday 12 January, 2022

The view from my bike

Taken the other day.

Quote of the Day

Question: Stephen Hawking worried about unintended consequences of machine intelligence. Do you share his concern?

Answer: I worry about the unintended consequences of human intelligence, such as climate change, human-made pathogens, mass poverty, and environmental catastrophe. The quest for AI should result in new technology, greater understanding, and smarter decision making. AI may one day become our greatest tool in averting such disasters. However, we should proceed cautiously and establish clear rules prohibiting unacceptable uses of AI, such as banning the development of autonomous weapons.

  • David Silver, chief architect of DeepMind’s AlphaGo, in an interview with Bulletin of The Atomic Scientists.

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

The Rolling Stones | Far Away Eyes


Jagger with a faux Southern drawl. I never knew that the Stones were fans of country music. You learn something new every day.

Long Read of the Day

How did she do it? 

A terrific essay by Julian Barnes on the novelist Penelope Fitzgerald. One great novelist paying tribute to another. She was an accident-prone grandmother, who fitted writing into the gaps in family life, and her first publisher dismissed her as ‘an amateur writer’. But, says Barnes, she became the best English novelist of her time. His essay explains why, making good use of Fitzgerald’s letters and of his own insights into the process of writing fiction. Sample:

In 1996 an old friend, Hugh Lee, made the bizarre complaint that he found her fictional children “precious”. Denying this, she replied that: “They’re exactly like my own children, who always noticed everything.” And having noticed, voiced innocence’s damaging truths. In 1968 the novelist reported a conversation with – or rather, denunciation by – her younger daughter:

“Maria has much depressed me by 1. Looking at Daddy and me and saying “What a funny old couple you are!” and 2. Telling me that studying art and literature is only a personal indulgence and doesn’t really help humanity or lead to anything, and, I suppose, really, that is quite true: she said it very kindly. My life seems to be crumbling into dust.”

“It is at such moments,” writes Barnes,

that writers have a small advantage over non-writers: the painful moment can at least be stored for later use. Twenty years later, here is Dolly, the plain-speaking young daughter of Frank Reid, owner of a printing works in pre-revolutionary Moscow. When Frank’s wife Nellie inexplicably abandons the family and returns to London, Frank asks Dolly if she wants to write to her mother. Dolly replies, “I don’t think I ought to write.” Frank, whose innocence means that he is devoid of self-righteousness, asks “Why not, Dolly? Surely you don’t think she did the wrong thing?” Dolly gives him a reply neither he nor we expect: “I don’t know whether she did or not. The mistake she probably made was getting married in the first place.”

This is a long read (nearly 5,000 words) but worth it.

Full disclosure: I’m biased. I’ve always been a fan of Julian’s work. And when his first novel, Metroland, came out decades ago, I gave it a rave review in The Listener (sadly now extinct). When an archive edition of the novel was published in 2010, my review was one of the contemporary documents included in that special edition.

Although he preceded me as the Observer’s TV critic after Clive James left for higher things, we had never met until one evening in the late 1980s we both found ourselves at a farewell dinner for Tony Howard, a great editor who had been a mentor for both of us. Julian was on the other side of a large table across which conversation was impossible. Eventually, I got up to go (I had a train to catch whereas most of the other diners lived in London). I made my apologies to Tony and walked towards the door. As I passed Julian he reached out a hand to stop me. “Thank you for the review”, he said. Just that. It was a reminder that writers never forget reviews, even those who say they don’t read them!

We are all polarised

(And that’s a problem)

One of the symptoms of our current malaise is how widespread the inability to ‘agree to disagree’ has become. I have a friend who regards climate change as a myth and thinks Greta Thunberg is a witch, and sometimes I have to remember that he’s also a good and generous soul (and excellent — if provocative — company). But in contemporary public discourse it seems increasingly difficult for people to accept that others with whom they disagree politically are anything other than stupid or wicked.

This has become particularly obvious in relation to attitudes towards ‘anti-vaxxers’. Almost everyone I know (that is to say, members of my ideological bubble) think they are misguided or just plain crazy. That’s too crude a response, I think. For one thing it assumes that all vaccine sceptics or opponents are the same. They’re not. Some have legitimate health reasons for being hesitant. Some undoubtedly are conspiracy theorists. Some are libertarians, ideologically speaking. But many are — for very good reasons — sceptical about anything that the neoliberal ‘democratic’ state tells them to do. Which means that any attempt to reduce the degree of vaccine hesitancy (to use the polite term) that doesn’t recognise the diversity of the phenomenon is doomed to fail.

This thought is sparked by discovering — courtesy of Andrew Curry (Whom God Preserve) — a paper that was published in The Lancet in (wait for it!) December 10, 2020. Its title: “The COVID-19 vaccines rush: participatory community engagement matters more than ever.”

It’s behind a journal paywall, I think, but the relevant bit for me was this:

From the outset it is important to distinguish between people wholly opposed to vaccination (anti-vaxxers) and individuals with limited or inaccurate health information or who have genuine concerns and questions about any given vaccine, its safety, and the extent to which it is being deployed in their interests before accepting it (vaccine hesitancy). In conflating and problematising the spectrum of those who do not accept vaccination, authorities might further erode trust and confidence, thereby exacerbating rather than resolving the factors underlying vaccine hesitancy. COVID-19 vaccines arrive as the social contract between some governments and their populations is being eroded and when many people, especially those in vulnerable groups, have little confidence that their government will protect them. In the UK, for example, a parliamentary report highlighted that more than 60% of Black people do not believe that their health is protected by the National Health Service to the same extent as White people.

Globally, the COVID-19 pandemic has further marginalised historically oppressed and excluded groups, including people with disabilities and growing numbers living in precarity. These groups have suffered disproportionate economic and health consequences, and have been largely excluded from social protection and resources needed to minimise their contracting the virus. The widespread impacts of the pandemic have illuminated the structural violence embedded in society. Now these communities are being asked to trust the same structures that have contributed to their experiences of discrimination, abuse, trauma, and marginalisation in order to access vaccines and to benefit the wider population.

The thrust of the paper’s argument was that neither government diktats nor contempt for vaccine refuseniks would do any good. Experience since 2020 seems largely to confirm this view. Different kinds of community-based initiatives (outlined in the paper) might, but as far as I know none of these have been adopted by the UK government.

Morals of this story:

  1. Polarised thinking may make people feel comfortable in their righteousness; but it’s not a way of solving a problem.

  2. Most of us are polarised in one way or another.

My commonplace booklet

From a nice essay, ”Have We Forgotten How to Read Critically?”, by Kate Harding:

Not every piece of short nonfiction writing is an opinion piece, crafted to advance a particular argument. This is the first thing we all need to understand. What you’re reading now, for instance, is an essay—not an op-ed, a chapter, or a blog post. I’ll spare you the customary French translation here and simply note that I love the essay form because it’s an opportunity to watch someone—including yourself, if you write them—think deeply, out loud. To me, the signal pleasure of reading is finding partial answers to the question I have about everyone I encounter: What is it like inside your brain? I am incorrigibly nosy, and reading essays is a socially acceptable outlet for it.

Essays worthy of the name—i.e., distinct from diaries, journals, op-eds, and other forms with lower expectations for depth—have a certain quality that Virginia Woolf identified as belonging “to life and to life alone. You have not finished with it because you have read it, any more than friendship is ended because it is time to part. Life wells up and alters and adds.” In the opening essay of The Gutenberg Elegies, Sven Birkerts describes a similar quality in Woolf: The ideas in A Room of One’s Own, he writes, “are, in fact, few and fairly obvious—at least from our historical vantage. Yet the thinking, the presence of animate thought on the page, is striking.”

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