Wednesday 22 May, 2024

The edge of Europe

The Cliffs of Moher in County Clare last Sunday.

Quote of the Day

”Critics are men who watch a battle from a high place then come down and shoot the survivors.”

  • Ernest Hemingway

Guilty as charged, m’lud.

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Mozart | Violin Concerto No. 3 in G Major, K. 216 – II. Adagio | Anne-Sophie Mutter


The whole concerto is gorgeous, but this movement is sublime — and breakfast-length.

Long Read of the Day

 Roy Jenkins’ unfinished revolution

Lovely New Statesman profile by Simon Jenkins of the claret-drinker’s friend (and formidable political reformer).

When Keir Starmer looks back over past Labour prime ministers, the one said to catch his eye is Harold Wilson. We can only reply, each to his own. But we might ask which Wilson was it? In 1965, a year into Wilson’s first term of office, the Liberal leader Jo Grimond savaged him in a Guardian article as a failed reformer. He called him competent but not radical, and certainly no liberal.

The ever-sensitive Wilson was deeply wounded. He duly summoned his 44-year-old junior minister at aviation, Roy Jenkins, and promoted him to be home secretary. Jenkins was a writer and member of Labour’s sociable Frognal (or Hampstead) set and not altogether to Wilson’s liking. But as a backbencher in 1959 he had sponsored a private members’ bill liberalising “obscene publications”. He seemed the right man to see off Grimond and the Guardian.

At the time, Britain’s attitude to social and sexual behaviour, crime and punishment, had barely changed since the 19th century. Homosexuals were in jail, abortion was illegal and the last hanging had taken place as recently as 1964. Labour’s manifesto had made no commitment to reform any of these areas. With other things on his mind, Wilson was disinclined to engage in controversy.

When Jenkins arrived at his new post he found his office grimly decorated with a picture of Charles I and the names of prisoners previously awaiting execution. As he outlined his reform agenda, his austere permanent secretary, Charles Cunningham, flatly objected and did everything to obstruct him. At one point he even broke down in tears. Jenkins pushed him into retirement and brought in a new permanent secretary, Philip Allen, from the Treasury. He restaffed his private office from outside the department under his personal aide, John Harris. Allen recalled his own first instruction, “There was work to be done, and to be done at once.”

Do read on. It’s an interesting reminder of what an imaginative politician used to be able to achieve in a functioning democracy.

Books, etc.

Neil Lawrence’s book is (nearly) out. I’ve read it in proof, and my guess is that it’ll be big. It’s a refreshing change from most of the stuff currently being published about ‘AI’. This is partly because it’s been a decade in gestation, but largely because its author embodies a rare combination of academic distinction (he’s the DeepMind Professor of Machine Learning in Cambridge) and industrial experience (he was Amazon’s Head of machine-learning for three years).

The title comes from a celebrated thought-experiment by the Greek philosopher Democritus.

He imagined cutting physical matter into pieces in a repeated process: cutting a piece, then taking one of the cut pieces and cutting it again so that each time it becomes smaller and smaller. Democritus believed this process had to stop somewhere, that we would be left with an indivisible piece. The Greek word for indivisible is atom, and so this series was called atomism. This book considers this question but in a different domain, asking: As the machine slices away portions of human capabilities, are we left with a kernel of humanity, and indivisible piece that can no longer be divided into parts? Or does the human disappear altogether? If we are left with something, then that uncuttable piece, a form of atomic human, would tell us something about our human spirit.

What does Neil think will be left after the machines have done their worst? That would be telling! This is a journey where the destination matters.

My commonplace booklet

While we were driving along the westernmost edge of Europe last weekend, Bruce Springsteen was wowing 80,000 of his most devoted fans in Croke Park, Dublin. And of course they were singing No Surrender along with him — as one does.


Something I noticed, while drinking from the Internet firehose.

  • Apple’s muddled thinking about its iPad.  Steven Sinofsky has a shrewd piece about this on (of all places) Twitter/X.

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