Wednesday 31 August, 2022

Archway to the grave

Lavenham, Suffolk.

Quote of the Day

The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire is a Grand National with a fence every ten yards, each to be jumped backwards as well as forwards, and you have to carry your horse.

  • Clive James, Cultural Amnesia, 267.

Kevin Cryan pointed me to a wonderful, hour-long conversation, recorded in 2009, between Eleanor Wachtel and Clive James about his book, Cultural Amnesia, totalitarianism, and his remarkable career. The quote came from digging out the book after listening to the podcast and alighting on his essay on Gibbon.

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Wagner | Ride of The Valkyries


Every time I hear this I think of Apocalypse Now.

Long Read of the Day

What’s wrong with Google’s new robot project

Terrific essay by Gary Marcus. Here’s how it begins…

From a showmanship standpoint, Google’s new robot project PaLM-SayCan is incredibly cool. Humans talk, and a humanoid robot listens, and acts. In the best case, the robot can read between the lines, moving beyond the kind of boring direct speech (“bring me pretzels from the kitchen”) that most robots traffic in (at best) to indirect speech, in which a robot diagnoses your needs and caters to them without bothering you with the details. WIRED reports an example in which a user says “I’m hungry”, and the robot wheels over to a table and comes back with a snack, no further detail required — closer to Rosie the Robot than any demo I have seen before.

The project reflects a lot of hard work between two historically separate divisions of Alphabet (Everyday Robots and Google Brain); academic heavy hitters like Chelsea Finn and Sergey Levine, both of whom I have a lot of respect for, took part. In some ways it’s the obvious research project to do now—if you have Google-sized resources (like massive pretrainined language models and humanoid robots and lots of cloud compute)— but it’s still impressive that they got it to work as well as it did. (To what extent? More about that below).

But I think we should be worried. I am not surprised that this can (kinda sorta) be done, but I am not sure it should be done.

The problem is twofold…

Do read on. It’s great. I love his observation that “so-called large language models are like bulls in a china shop: awesome, powerful, and reckless”.

My commonplace booklet

Mentioned in Dispatches **  Fascinating BBC profile of the photographer Tim Page, who made his name covering the Vietnam war. Grim in places; but then so is war. Always.

One of the things that was distinctive of his work is that much of his best photographs were shot with a 21mm lens. Which meant that he had to get in close to some horrifying events.

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