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Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton
MANIAC computer with (L to R) Julian Bigelow, Herman Goldstine, J Robert Oppenheimer, John von Neumann, at Los Alamos in 1952


A conventional biography
of John von Neumann


2024 July 13

A Scientific Genius

Sam Leith

Benjamín Labatut: "Why am I interested in mad scientists?"
His books When We Cease to Understand the World and The MANIAC pivot around the time when quantum physics killed off the clockwork universe, when Kurt Gödel's incompleteness theorem broke the logical foundations of mathematics, and when the atomic age was born. He is attracted to the characters who pursued these discoveries, at the cost of their peace of mind and often their sanity.
Labatut: "It's like mystics: They reached their Godhead .. One hundred years after Christ was nailed on a cross, you start to get the Gospels. That's where we are."
The principal protagonist of The MANIAC is John von Neumann, who began his career in the foundations of math, became a central figure in the Manhattan Project, designed the first American computer, set out the basis of game theory, and was one of the fathers of artificial intelligence.
Labatut: "Humankind is never gonna rid itself of its impulse toward apotheosis. We're driven by this thirst for the absolute that's cooked into our minds."
Labatut is attracting anglophone attention: "I grew up halfway between Chile and the Netherlands, speaking English .. I know nothing about mathematics."
On novels, he is dismissive: "I'm interested in ideas. I think so much of writing doesn't have to do with ideas. It has to do with, you know, the vicissitudes of our character. Those things bore me to death."
He explains: "The people I admire the most in every field have this wondrous ability to let their unconscious bleed into what they do. I really think that the highest form of intelligence is possession from outside .. I have to write about the most profound and confounding things out there."
On the rise of AI: "When you have a mathematical system that can run language, you have the two most powerful things we have developed as a species working together .. I think that we are absolutely on the verge of something."

A dystopian nonfiction novel set in the present
John Banville

Labatut's When We Cease to Understand the World is a work of fiction based on real events. It begins with a guided tour of some of the more diabolical inventions prompted by two world wars. Then we are in more tranquil regions, with more familiar characters such as Einstein and other physicists and mathematicians. This is a dystopian nonfiction novel set not in the future but in the present.

AR John Von is a big figure in my mental landscape. His work in set theory, especially his definitions of the ordinals and of the rank function for the cumulative hierarchy, was important for me in my formative years as a thinker, when I was dazzled to discover a new paradox in set theory.
Later, his formalization of quantum theory gave me good insights. His work in computer science, both in defining the von Neumann architecture (now seen as a bottleneck) and in self-reproducing automata (such as viruses), were of capital importance in my estimation. That's not to mention his work on the A‑bomb and H‑bomb, on game theory, and on ballistic missiles.
As for Labatut, I'm not sure what to think. Perhaps I should read The MANIAC, but I think I should read The Man from the Future first, to get the facts right. That's a lot of biography when I'd rather be studying the ideas and the math behind them.



Ray Kurzweil


2024 July 12

Surviving the Singularity

Cade Metz

Ray Kurzweil built a career on predicting the future. Following his 2005 book The Singularity Is Near, he recently published The Singularity Is Nearer.
Kurzweil, 76, says AI and nanotech will soon extend lives faster than people age. He has long said he plans to experience the Singularity and then live indefinitely.
Tech giants and investors are pumping billions into AI development. But predictions about AI may fail as the industry consumes ever more energy and raw materials.
Kurzweil still says AI will match human intelligence in 2029 and the Singularity will arrive in 2045. Will he live to the age of 97?

Machine learning explained
John Pavlus

Machine learning drives most current progress in AI by using algorithms to improve the performance of other algorithms automatically.
Supervised machine learning has a set task, and the goal is to find a mathematical function to accomplish the task. This function, the model, will take one set of numbers as input and transform them into more numbers as output. The model is unlikely to produce accurate results at first.
To train the model, a different function (the objective) computes a number representing the current distance between the model's outputs and the desired result. The training algorithm nudges the parameters of the model to minimize the distance between actual and desired output.
The updated model transforms inputs from the training examples into better outputs, then the objective function indicates a better adjustment to the model, and so on. After enough iterations, the trained model can produce accurate outputs both on training examples and on new ones.
Using one function to repeatedly nudge another function lets a mathematical approximation of the task emerge automatically. With the right setup, it can create powerful computational models. Classification and prediction tasks usually rely on such models.
Unsupervised learning finds structure within unlabeled examples by clustering them into groups. Systems that rely on unsupervised learning can learn from user behavior or recognize objects in computer vision. Language modeling combines supervised and unsupervised techniques.
Reinforcement learning shapes a function by using a reward signal instead of examples of desired results. By maximizing the reward by trial and error, a model can improve its performance on tasks like playing games or driving a car or a chatbot.
Artificial neural networks are algorithms that can handle many complex tasks once considered impractical. Large language models are built on deep neural networks with billions or trillions of parameters.
All machine learning models are just mathematical functions at heart. They all learn the same way: back and forth, back and forth.

AR I am guilty of an embarrassingly careless error. Kurzweil's 2005 book had a massive influence on me, and since then I have written a lot about the Singularity. But somehow, in recent years my citation of the predicted date of this event has been for its appearance in 2029.
Kurzweil's new book reminds me that 2029 is his date for AGI, or human-level artificial general intelligence. The Singularity date is 2045, when he expects progress in AI, especially in recursively self-improving AI, to become so great that prediction of our future is effectively impossible.
Those are two very different events, I think we can agree. I am now devouring Kurzweil's new book and finding it as riveting as one might expect. More thereon later ..


Royal Danish Air Force
NATO deterrence: Danish F-16 fighter jet



2024 July 11

Washington Summit Declaration

NATO Heads of State and Government

NATO remains the strongest Alliance in history. Our commitment to defend one another and every inch of Allied territory at all times is ironclad.
Russia remains the most significant and direct threat to Allies' security. As long as nuclear weapons exist, NATO will remain a nuclear alliance. NATO remains committed to taking all necessary steps to ensure the credibility, effectiveness, safety, and security of its nuclear deterrence mission.
Transatlantic defence industrial cooperation is a critical part of NATO's deterrence and defence. Strengthened defence industry across Europe and North America and enhanced defence industrial cooperation among Allies makes us more capable and underpins our support to Ukraine.
We pledge to build on our ongoing efforts to strengthen national resilience by integrating civilian planning into national and collective defence planning. We will deepen our cooperation with the European Union.
We reaffirm our unwavering solidarity with the people of Ukraine in the heroic defence of their nation, their land, and our shared values. We fully support Ukraine's right to choose its own security arrangements and decide its own future, free from outside interference.
Russia bears sole responsibility for its war of aggression against Ukraine. Russia is responsible for the deaths of thousands of civilians and has caused extensive damage to civilian infrastructure. Russia must immediately stop this war and completely and unconditionally withdraw all of its forces from Ukraine.
The all-domain threat Russia poses to NATO will persist into the long term. Russia is rebuilding and expanding its military capabilities and continues its airspace violations and provocative activities. We stand in solidarity with all Allies affected by these actions.
The People's Republic of China (PRC) has become a decisive enabler of Russia's war against Ukraine. We call on the PRC to cease all material and political support to Russia's war effort. The PRC continues to pose systemic challenges to Euro-Atlantic security.
The European Union remains a unique and essential partner for NATO. Practical cooperation has been strengthened and expanded on space, cyber, climate, and defence, as well as emerging and disruptive technologies.
We affirm our determination to support Ukraine in building a force capable of defeating Russian aggression today and deterring it in the future.

AR This short cut of a long text is cherry-picked to cite my chosen themes. I think it gives a fair indication of the most salient hot-button issues they discussed in Washington. Even thus juiced up, the outcome seems not give any good reason for the PRC to maintain its hostility to NATO.

2024 July 10

Ex-NATO F-16s for Ukraine

Financial Times

US secretary of state Antony Blinken says the first F‑16 fighter jets for Ukraine are on their way: "Those jets will be flying in the skies of Ukraine this summer to make sure that Ukraine can continue to effectively defend itself against the Russian aggression."
Denmark and the Netherlands have donated the jets. Norway will begin further deliveries this year. NATO is is setting up a new command centre in Wiesbaden, Germany, to coordinate training and equipment donations.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky: "F‑16s bring just and lasting peace closer, demonstrating that terror must fail everywhere and at any time."

Russia's shadow war on NATO members

Russia has been engaged in numerous sabotage operations across NATO member states. Its hybrid warfare over the past six months includes physical sabotage on the supply line of NATO weapons intended for Ukraine. Russian agents hire local amateurs to undertake crimes on their behalf.
In one case last year, 14 Ukrainians and 2 Belarusians were arrested in Poland on suspicion of working for Russian intelligence. Maxim, a Ukrainian who had fled to Poland to avoid military service, was sentenced to 6 years in jail after receiving tasks from a Russian handler, Andrzej.
Maxim said Andrzej first paid him $7 in digital currency for spraying anti‑war graffiti around Poland. Andrzej soon started sending Maxim location pins where he should plant surveillance cameras along the railway tracks near the border town of Medyka, where aid went to Ukraine.
Andrzej later asked him to burn down the fence of a Ukrainian-owned transportation company in the eastern Polish town of Biala Podlaska. Maxim realized that Andrzej was a Russian agent when he was told to put cameras outside a base where Poland was training Ukrainian soldiers.
Polish agents arrested Maxim after weeks of surveillance. Other arrests followed, raising concerns in Warsaw about the extent of Moscow's infiltration. A man was arrested in April 2024 for possessing ammunition in a suspected plot to assassinate Volodymyr Zelensky.

AR The drumbeat for more war is increasing in volume and tempo. This bodes ill for the future of Europe, even assuming Russia is finally defeated. The cost and the collateral damage will dog European attempts to catch up in the race to develop and deploy new technologies.


President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine with German defense minister Boris Pistorius in front of a Patriot launcher
at a Bundeswehr training area in Mecklenburg-Vorpommen



2024 July 9

Prewar NATO

Jaroslaw Kuisz, Karolina Wigura

Poland's PM Donald Tusk says a new era has begun: the prewar era. The conflict in Ukraine could become a nuclear world war. NATO leaders in Washington need to decide how to end the conflict.
Some observers recall the events in Sarajevo in 1914 that led the great powers to sleepwalk into WW1. They say the war in Ukraine must not be the starting pistol of a world war.
Others recall the situation in 1938, when Adolf Hitler demanded a part of Czechoslovakia and the European powers appeased him at Munich. Far from avoiding war, the appeasement led to WW2.
The United States recalls the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. That attack taught Americans that if they do not have a carefully calibrated presence in conflicts, they may pay a high price.
America seeks to maximize support for Ukraine, at risk of retaliation. Its support wavers between more or less active and is anxious about Russian escalation. The problems are plain to see.
In 2024, we are not in Sarajevo, Munich, or Pearl Harbor. We are in a new era of hybrid war across the globe. The warfare takes the form of disinformation, spying, and hacking.
We are not condemned to repeat the past. NATO members should put their arsenal of resources at Ukraine's disposal to ensure Russia is defeated.

Solving the Patriot puzzle
Lara Jakes

President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine says he desperately needs at least seven Patriot batteries to defend Ukrainian cities from Russian airstrikes. NATO powers promise five.
Germany, Italy, and Romania have each pledged to donate one of their systems. One more is expected from the United States. The fifth may be delivered in a piecemeal approach.
The radar and three missile launchers will be supplied by the Netherlands. Some interceptor missiles will come from a coalition led by Germany. A mobile fire control center has been promised. Eight countries will provide additional missiles, launchers, and training.
NATO member states have an estimated 90 Patriot batteries, 62 of them owned by the United States. The European states fielding them are Sweden, the Netherlands, Germany, Greece, Poland, Romania, and Spain. Germany donated three of the four Patriot batteries already in Ukraine.
Raytheon can take up to three years to build and deliver a single billion-dollar Patriot battery. Officials aim to speed production with joint contracts and new factories.

NATO has become a monster
Martin Sieff

NATO is a giant careening out of control. While its fantasies of global power projection, it has supported wars that wrecked countries such as Syria, Libya, and Serbia. NATO continues to arm Ukraine and to fuel conflict with Russia.
NATO is pulling the Western world into a global war. NATO is far weaker than the SCO in all direct military comparisons. The SCO can boast of four major thermonuclear military powers with formidable land armies: China, Russia, India, and Iran.
Behind NATO, US diplomats seek to impose their fantasies of human rights, democracy, and free markets on innumerable tiny statelets in the Balkans, while despising and insulting and seeking to destabilize Russia and China.

AR Historical parallels for our predicament regarding Ukraine are amusing but moot. The new era of massive computing power and global precision strikes defies comparison with pre‑2024 precedents. But I fear the main novelty will be that we finesse the thermonuclear abyss for longer, only to find that it extinguishes most human life on Earth when we finally do fall into it.
The Patriot supply issue is troubling. Sinking billions to defend cities could soon bankrupt the West, apart from Raytheon's supply bottlenecks. If the joke weren't in poor taste, I'd suggest letting the Chinese clone the system in half the time at half the price. Systems like Iron Dome would be better for shooting down most of the cheap missiles the Russians are firing into Ukraine.
Sieff's op-ed in China Daily veers between contemptible and laughable. Since when was Iran a major thermonuclear power?


Belarus Ministry of Defense
Chinese troops deploy to Belarus for military exercises
Belarus and China began 11 days of joint military training exercises on Monday. The "Attacking Falcon" exercises
near the city of Brest on the Belarus−Poland border and some 60 km from the Belarus−Ukraine border will allow
Belarusian and Chinese military personnel to practice acting together as one unit.
Belarus is a member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO).

AR China is falling deeper into a geopolitical hole.



2024 July 8

France's Shock Election

BBC News

In French president Emmanuel Macron's snap election, Nouveau Front Populaire (NFP) won 182 seats, Macron's centrists 168, and Marine Le Pen's Rassemblement National (RN) and their allies 143.
Left-wing firebrand Jean-Luc Mélenchon says the NFP, formed in a hurry for the election to include his La France Insoumise (LFI), Greens, Socialists, Communists, and Trotskyists, has a mandate to form a government.
Right-wing PM-in-waiting Jordan Bardella says RN was foiled by unnatural "alliances of dishonour" forged by the Macron camp and the left. More than 200 candidates in a "republican front" pulled out of the second round to let tactical voting stop RN.
France will have a hung parliament. Libération headline: C'EST OUF

France heads back to ungovernability
Ben Hall

RN thought it would finally have the opportunity to show the French people it could govern before for the 2027 presidential election. But French voters turned out in droves to stop them.
France's republican front of centrist and leftwing parties joined forces to thwart the far right. The RN depicts this as a cynical game by the political establishment to lock it out of power.
President Macron will say his gamble paid off. He can say he broke the populist fever gripping France. His centrist Ensemble alliance has done better than expected in the vote.
Macron wanted his snap election to be a moment of political clarification. France now faces months or years of political uncertainty and unstable government. Power has drained away from the Elysée palace to the National Assembly.
Sunday's vote was a victory for the NFP. LFI leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon now claims the premiership and the right to form a government. Macron's camp hopes the NFP will fragment.
Macron may now install a caretaker PM until fresh elections can be called. With three political blocs unwilling to work with each other, France seems ungovernable.

France's progressives keep out the far right
Jon Henley

The NFP, a left-green alliance dominated by Jean-Luc Mélenchon's far-left LFI, has emerged as the shock winner of France's snap election. Macron's centrist Ensemble coalition came second, Marine Le Pen's far-right RN and its allies third.
France's constitution allows the president to choose anyone he wants as prime minister. But parliament can force the resignation of the government, so the head of state must choose someone acceptable to the assembly. Normally that would be someone from the largest bloc in parliament.
Former PM Édouard Philippe, Macron ally François Bayrou, and Greens leader Marine Tondelier say an anti‑RN coalition could unite around a basic legislative programme. But many centrists refuse to enter an alliance with LFI.
France is heading for a lengthy spell of political uncertainty and instability.

AR France falls into turmoil just as Britain finds a new stability. But the French turmoil can be calmed if Macron can orchestrate some kind of pact between Ensemble and NFP. And the British stability can be undone by a Faragist deal with Tories and renewed agitation over immigration.


UK foreign secretary David Lammy and Polish foreign secretary Radoslaw Sikorski, Chobielin, July 7
Lammy is on a whirlwind tour of key partner countries Germany, Poland, and Sweden to discuss continued support for Ukraine
ahead of the NATO summit in Washington, July 9−11.
Sikorski: "We will confirm that we are the most powerful alliance in history and that the fate of Ukraine is in our vital interest.
And the best thing Putin could do is to retreat from the disastrous, criminal mistake he made."

AR Good to see this proof of UK solidarity with the Weimar Triangle.

UK general election 2024: Results

Poole Bay has turned
from blue to red


2024 July 7

British Foreign Policy

David Lammy

This is a tough geopolitical moment. Britain has to start reconnecting with the world.
Let us put the Brexit years behind us. We are not going to rejoin the single market and the customs union, but there is much that we can do together.
I want to be absolutely clear: European nations are our friends.

AR This is good. Europhiles will be heartened by these words. If Americans elect Trump as POTUS 47, the steps toward Europe will become a stampede.

2024 July 6

Minister of State for Science: Sir Patrick Vallance

BBC News, 1645 BST

Sir Patrick Vallance was central in drawing up the scientific advice to contain COVID‑19 and is well known for his televised Downing Street news conferences.
As a former research head for the UK pharmaceutical giant GSK, Vallance drove the Covid vaccine development and delivery process at an early stage. He put the pieces in place to enable Britain to have ample and varied vaccine supplies when we most needed them.
Vallance is an advocate for long-term thinking and stability. His passions include achieving net zero. He will be a key voice in harnessing the UK research base to deliver growth.

AR An excellent choice. Science is far too important for the UK government to fool around with it. Maybe deeper collaboration with European science initiatives will follow.


PM Keir Starmer chairs his first cabinet meeting, Downing Street, Saturday



My First Cabinet Meeting

Keir Starmer

At the cabinet meeting, I had the opportunity to set out to my cabinet precisely what I expect of them in terms of standards, delivery, and the trust that the country has put in them.
I also discussed mission delivery, how we would put into action the plans that we had set out in our manifesto. We will have mission delivery boards to drive through the change that we need. I shall be chairing those boards so that it is clear to everyone that they are my priority in government.
This will be a politics and a government that is about delivery, is about service. Self-interest is yesterday's politics.

Inside Keir Starmer's preparations for power
Laura Kuenssberg

Sir Keir Starmer formally became prime minister at lunchtime on Friday. For a number of months now, the British state has been quietly preparing for his arrival in Downing Street.
A Whitehall source: "We have every hour of his first day, every day of his first week, every week of his first month, mapped out."
Former civil servant Sue Gray, who will now be the PM's chief of staff, has been in regular contact with cabinet secretary Sir Simon Case.
Expect strong resistance to any calls from the left to be more radical. Some in his party may demand a rapid cessation of arm sales to Israel or an overt commitment to safeguard public services. But with a massive majority, there is no suggestion that Sir Keir will redraft his plans.
One of the big first decisions new Chancellor of the Exchequer Rachel Reeves needs to make is when to hold a review of the public finances. She has already warned of what she calls the worst economic inheritance since the Second World War.
A senior Whitehall official: "Things really are worse on the inside than you can see from outside."
Health secretary Wes Streeting: "From today the policy of this department is that the NHS is broken."
Sir Keir believes in moral socialism. He wants to persuade people that Labour and politicians can be a force for good and a force for change.
An insider: "He'll be the most normal PM we've ever had."

AR Situation dire, all warning lights on red. Keep calm and carry on. I haven't felt more optimistic about Britain's prospects since I came back from Germany. At last we have a UK government that's honest enough to face up to the challenge of fixing the UK from the rotten roots and not just from halfway up the tree.


Buckingham Palace
Sir Keir Starmer has officially become UK prime minister after an audience with King Charles III at Buckingham Palace

Poole result:
LAB 14,168
CON 14,150



2024 July 5

Starmer: 'Change Begins Now'

Henry Zeffman

The UK is a parliamentary democracy with 650 seats elected under the first-past-the-post system. Labour has a vast majority in Parliament.
This is an extraordinary turnaround for Sir Keir Starmer. Nobody in the Labour party thought this was possible in the immediate aftermath of its dire defeat in December 2019.
Voters were clearly furious with the Conservative party. They are more willing than ever before to consider smaller parties: Lib Dems, Greens, Reform UK, and independents.
That puts Labour on notice. Voters may be willing to turf them out rapidly if they fail. The evidence is clear in this victory.

The hard road ahead
Andrew Marr

Sir Keir Starmer sees himself as a patriotic rebuilder of the public realm. Labour has been working to prepare for early "shock and awe" weeks in government. The first 6−18 months will be very hard.
  On Europe, Starmer wants to "tear down the barriers to business and trade" while not rejoining the customs union or single market. That raises many questions.
  On immigration, the boats aren't going to stop. The country is taking a lot on trust and without much detail. What will happen to all the boat migrants already here?
  On the economy, stability and political discipline will encourage overseas investors. But the pressure to raise funding for public services will be intense.

King accepts resignation of Rishi Sunak
BBC News, 1127 BST

Buckingham Palace: "The right honourable Rishi Sunak MP had an audience of the King this morning and tendered his resignation as prime minister and first lord of the Treasury, which his majesty was graciously pleased to accept."

AR I find this election process fascinating. The electorate has performed an extraordinary U‑turn for such a big and shapeless entity. UK politics is volatile again.
As Rishi Sunak made his departure from Downing Street, the national parliamentary seat totals were LAB 412, CON 121, LD 71, etc (with 2 seats to yet declare). Reform and Greens each won 4 seats, despite large popular votes, highlighting the weakness of the FPTP voting system.
Were it not for Nigel Farage, the CON vote could theoretically have been 10% or more higher and Labour would have been struggling. Farage has defeated the Tories by outflanking them on the right. But public anger at Tory squabbling and incompetence had already doomed them.
In the constituency of Poole, the CON man is out for the first time since he won the seat in 1997. The new LAB man is a shop steward.


UK general election, July 4: My local polling station



2024 Independence Day

UK General Election

Financial Times

Britons go to the polls today. Sir Keir Starmer is predicted to win power in a historic Labour landslide, leaving Rishi Sunak's Conservative party facing one of the worst defeats in its history. Polling stations open at 7 am and close at 10 pm BST.

AR I did my civic duty this morning.



2024 July 3

The Fifth Busy Beaver

Ben Brubaker

Busy beavers are simple computer programs that take a surprisingly long time to run. An online team working on the Busy Beaver Challenge has finally nailed how busy the fifth beaver is. The Coq proof assistant says their proof is free of errors.
The programs that interest the team are instructions for Turing machines. Turing proved that the halting problem has no general solution, but some Turing machines resist easy classification.
Tibor Radó imagined sorting Turing machines into groups based on how many rules they had. A Turing machine can have any number of rules, but the number of distinct machines in every group is finite. In 1962, Radó used these groups to define the Busy Beaver game:
Pick the number of rules your machines will have. Feed each one a tape with 0 in every cell. Some machines will run forever. The rest will eventually halt. Of these, some will halt quickly, some will take longer, and one will be the last to stop running − a busy beaver. In the group with n rules, the number of steps that the busy beaver machine takes before halting is the number BB(n).
For n = 1, it is easy to see that BB(1) = 1. For n = 2, there are over 6,000 Turing machines to check, but BB(2) = 6. For n = 3, there are millions to check, but BB(3) = 21. For n = 4, there are billions, but BB(4) = 107 was proved in 1974. For n = 5, there are nearly 17 trillion cases to check.
In 2021, Tristan Stérin listed millions of machines that still needed checking for n = 5. He started an online forum and found contributors. In May 2024, the team announced that BB(5) = 47,176,870.

AR What a heroically impressive feat! As a contribution to theoretical computer science, this may be a mere footnote, but the organized investment of brainpower and cutting-edge computer code adds up to a first-rate achievement. Well worth a prize, I'd say.

2024 July 2

Galactic Magnetism

Susan Clark

The galactic magnetic field plays a role in the physical processes that shape the interstellar medium (ISM). The field plays a role in the evolution of the gas to form molecular clouds that birth stars.
The gas in the galaxy spans physical states ranging from dense, cold molecular clouds to hot plasma. Star formation and galactic evolution involve gas flowing between these different states. We want to understand the story of how gas gets converted into stars and then recycled to seed future stars.
In denser structures in the ISM, the filamentary molecular clouds tend to orient orthogonally with respect to the local magnetic field. We want to assemble the evolutionary picture of how gas and the magnetic field interact to regulate the process of star formation.
The ISM has a lot of dust in it, with irregular grains of micron size or smaller that tend to align in magnetic field. We observe light from a background star filtered by these dust grains, which leave an imprint in the polarization of the observed starlight. The dust grains also radiate polarized light.
We want to understand the origin of magnetism in the universe and to determine how the motions of the ISM amplify and distribute the magnetic field we observe today.

AR For various reasons, the role of magnetism is relatively unexplored in stellar, galactic, and cosmic evolution. The role of gravitation, by contrast, has been much more extensively studied. It's good to find we are still making progress on magnetism.

M Le Pen
⦿ Thibault Camus/AP
RN leader Marine Le Pen
French parliamentary elections:
RN takes 33% of first-round
vote, ahead of rivals
Prediction for Poole


2024 July 1

Britain Needs a Fresh Start

Financial Times

British politics is on the threshold of a momentous shift. Not since at least 1979 has a UK government left the national affairs in such a desperate state. Growth in the economy and real wages since 2010 have fallen well behind the historical trend since the war.
The Conservative party needs a spell in opposition to resolve its internal differences. All too often since 2010, the party has prioritised managing its party politics over sound governance. This generation of Tories has squandered its claim to be the natural party of government.
The Labour party of Sir Keir Starmer is better placed today to provide the leadership the country needs. Starmer has transformed Labour back into a credible party of government. He has worked hard to engage with business and put revitalising growth at the core of his program.
A new government will take over at a time of great upheaval, with the postwar international order in distress. Its growth strategy may prove underpowered. Its reluctance to talk about rebuilding trading relations with the EU closes off a way to boost the economy.
Britain must choose between a Conservative party that appeals to narrow segment of the population and a Labour party that appears to want to govern for the whole country. Labour should be given the opportunity to provide a fresh start.

UK military unprepared for conflict of any scale
Financial Times

Former Ministry of Defence office of net assessment and challenge director Rob Johnson says the UK military is operating with a bare minimum that only lets it mount peacekeeping and humanitarian relief operations, civilian evacuation from warzones, and some anti‑sabotage activities."
"In any larger-scale operation, we would run out of ammunition rapidly .. Our defences are too thin, and we are not prepared to fight and win an armed conflict of any scale .. The UK has reached a situation where it cannot defend the British homelands properly."
Johnson says British air defences are insufficient to stop long-range missile strikes, the Royal Navy lacks enough ships to patrol the north Atlantic to monitor and deter Russian submarine activity, and the Royal Air Force needs almost twice as many fighter jets as it has now.
Johnson, who previously headed the Oxford University Changing Character of War Centre, worries about the threat from Russia: "The government is not taking the public into its confidence about the scale of the threat because it knows it's not ready .. the Russians already know this."
The UK military is unable to fulfil the role the government set out for it last year. The RAF should have 265 combat aircraft, the navy 25 modern warships, and the army 125,000 troops. The next government should boost defence spending to 3% of GDP, equivalent to almost £80 billion a year.

EU would not rush to reopen Brexit talks with Labour
Lisa O'Carroll

The EU will not rush to reopen Brexit negotiations with the UK even if Labour is swept to power next Thursday. The deep scars left by the Conservatives during Brexit negotiations along with the new priorities caused by the war in Ukraine and the rise of the far right weigh heavily in Brussels.
A senior source in the European Commission: "The UK is simply not in people's minds. We have two wars going on. Reopening talks on Brexit would require a lot of political capital and absorb a lot of resources here in Brussels."
King's University professor of European politics Anand Menon: "We are not a priority. They have got bigger fish to fry .. We have to offer them something that many European states are keen on."
Diplomats say the EU is keen on a more formal security and defence agreement with the UK.

AR The state of the nation is dire. A quick fix is not on the cards. Labour could easily fail to ignite the new growth it needs to pay for its plans.


UK general election: Party leaflets for Poole constituency

Defending Taiwan


2024 June 30

The Taiwan Tangle

Ian Buruma

Taiwan could spark a major war during a second Trump administration. MAGA isolationism has always been in tension with Donald Trump's rhetoric and his penchant for making deals with dictators.
People's Republic of China premier Xi Jinping vows to unify the motherland and is prepared to use military force to do so. Taiwan's new president Lai Ching‑te says the Republic of China (Taiwan) and the PRC are not subordinate to each other.
If China were to take Taiwan by force, the consequences could be dire. One way to stop them is to build a system of military deterrence. Taiwan and Japan would need a new military culture. Japan would need to rewrite the pacifist constitution it was given by Americans in 1947.
Premier Xi claims that Taiwan was always part of China. But Austronesian tribes lived on the island until the Dutch colonized it and imported workers from China. The Dutch were ousted in 1662 by a local warlord who ruled until 1683, when the island was taken into the Qing empire.
From 1895 to 1945, Taiwan was a Japanese colony. President Roosevelt had promised to hand over Taiwan to Chiang Kai‑shek, but in 1949, Chiang's Nationalists were defeated by Mao Zedong's Communists. The Generalissimo retreated to Taiwan and made it his fortress.
In 1972, Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger agreed with the Chinese premier Zhou Enlai that there was only one China and that Taiwan was a part of it. The first democratically elected president of Taiwan, Lee Teng‑hui, said Taiwan would join China, but only once China became a democracy.
For the United States, Taiwanese democracy was awkward. Washington sought both to defend democratic Taiwan and to reassure Beijing that Taiwanese independence would be resisted, an incoherent policy. The United States has no treaty obligation to defend Taiwan.
Premier Xi aims to restore the borders of the Qing empire, by force if need be. Trump America may act tough on China by defending Taiwan. Avoiding war will take diplomatic finesse.

AR In this delicate game of diplomatic poker, the Joker is Trump. The consequences of clumsy play here are incalculably bad, so let's hope the next US secretary of state is a smart operator who can act with the grace needed to ensure the Pacific region lives up to its name.



2024 June 29

Cosmic Connections

Charles Taylor

The Romantics used the symbols and music of poetry to recover human contact with reality. Poetry persuades us through the experience of connection, not through the force of argument. Poetry is incomplete, tentative, and enigmatic, but its insight is too moving to ignore.

How Charles Taylor would heal the ills of modernity
Adam Gopnik

Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor, 92, has published an ambitious study of Romantic poetry and music. His book is also about modern life and its discontents, and how we might transcend them.
As a Catholic and a critic of individualism and secularism, Taylor worries about the modern conception of the self and about the primacy it accords to autonomy, reason, and individual rights. This new self has fractured our sense of belonging and meaning.
When I was a kid, Taylor's rehabilitation of Hegel seemed almost sinister. But Taylor had spent a formative period at Oxford, where he spoke the plainer dialects of Anglo-American philosophy.
Taylor stalks a naturalist view of humanity that assimilates our minds and morals to a purely materialist and empirical program of study. He says we are embodied and embedded in the meanings we jointly create. Art is the means of our connection to the cosmos.
Romantic poetry − the poetry of Shelley and Keats, in English, of Novalis and Hölderlin, in German − diagnosed the fracture and said poetry and music can heal it. The arts help us recall feelings of wholeness. Poetry and music convey an apprehension of cosmic connection.
Taylor challenges the belief that science provides objective truth, and art mere subjective feeling. He says human value is grounded in the experience of art.
The phenomenal field of the arts is the interspace between subjectivity and objectivity. This is where meaning is created. To reduce our experience of sublime music to mood misses the cosmic connection.
The last 50 pages of Cosmic Connections pivot to politics. A successful republic, says Taylor, requires a community of shared purpose and a common space of deliberation. You can belong to a tribe and still belong to the people.
Taylor implies that the wrong kind of politics arises from a loss of cosmic connection. The Romantics first sensed this, and it is now is part of the unhappy inheritance of our civilization. He suggests that great music is an agent of moral growth.
Objection: The Third Reich was a civilization where Romantic music was the soundtrack of the people, and where even military victories and defeats were celebrated through symphonic sound. Loving Schubert and Beethoven gets you nowhere ethically.
Taylor evokes experiences of being overwhelmed by aesthetic responses. We encounter them daily: They connect us with the cosmos.

How poetry responds to a disenchanted world
James Matthew Wilson

Charles Taylor is a familiar name for Christians in our day. His theses on the nature of secularity are sources of ongoing puzzlement.
What Christians call instances of epiphany or revelation may be common in our lives. But modern people understand and interpret them in various ways. This is the secular condition.
In earlier books, Taylor tried to describe how such experiences shift as our cultures change over time. In this book, he examines the period from the rise of Romanticism to the aftermath of modernism.
Romantics held that there are two different ways of using language. Some uses are practical; others can reveal a deeper reality. This higher use of language is what the Romantics meant by poetry.
The Romantics felt the absence of a sense of cosmic order. The poet must bring the modern person back into contact with the transcendent order of nature for which the soul longs.
Taylor offers a synthesis of how poets from the Romantics onward have sought to overcome disenchantment.

AR Some 50 years ago I attended Taylor's seminars on Hegel's Phänomenologie des Geistes, which he held in his room at All Souls College in Oxford. We would analyze and discuss a few paragraphs of the holy book intensely, using both the tools of modern philosophy and Taylor's amazingly wide and deep knowledge of the Romantic era. Taylor's 1977 book on Hegel was a delight for me.
As for the Third Reich objection, the music had to work like a powerful drug to induce Germans to fight and die for demented Nazi dreams. The music and poetry were no moral help, but the rot set in only after the Romantic period, with Wagner's grandiose Ring cycle and Nietzsche's wilder musings on Götzendämmerung and the Übermensch.

Moments from the debate


2024 June 28

'That was very painful'


President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump levied personal attacks against each other as they sparred over the economy, immigration, and more at CNN's debate in Atlanta, their first showdown of the 2024 election cycle.
If Joe Biden loses November's election, history will record that it took just 10 minutes to destroy a presidency. Minutes into the showdown, a Democratic panic was underway at the idea of heading into the election with such a diminished figure at the top of the ticket.

Biden must bow out of the race
Thomas L Friedman

Joe Biden, a good man and a good president, has no business running for re-election. And Donald Trump, a malicious man and a petty president, has learned nothing and forgotten nothing. He is the same fire hose of lies he always was, obsessed with his grievances.
The Biden family and political team must gather quickly and have the hardest of conversations with the president, a conversation of love and clarity and resolve. To give America the greatest shot possible of deterring the Trump threat in November, the president has to come forward and declare that he will not be running for re-election.
We are at the start of the biggest technological disruptions and the biggest climate disruption in human history. We are at the dawn of an artificial intelligence revolution that is going to change everything for everyone.
If there was ever a time that the world needs an America at its best, led by its best, it is now. A younger Joe Biden could have been that leader, but time has finally caught up with him.

Biden cannot go on like this
Frank Bruni

On Thursday night, Donald Trump lied incessantly, extravagantly, and unabashedly about pretty much any and every subject that came up.
President Biden, 81, knew that many voters were concerned about his age and had doubts about his sharpness. But from the moment the debate began, he seemed unsteady. His voice was often flat, he garbled words, and he corrected himself over and over again.
Biden is a decent man who, as president, has done a better than decent job. In both of those respects, he outpaces Trump by many miles. But performances as shaky as the one he delivered on Thursday may hurt him badly.
Trump never even came close to erupting. And the reason was obvious: He realized that Biden was sabotaging himself.

AR Democrats: Do your duty to humanity and put Biden out to grass. The threat of a Trump presidency is too horrific to pander to the pride and denial of an old man. Americans cannot play Russian roulette with the western world like this.


Planet Earth is still a great place to live: View over Morden Bog, Thursday



2024 June 27

Understanding the Universe From Within

Thomas Lewton

Science is our best route to objective knowledge. Today, we have a vast tower of ideas and equations that closely predict how reality works at almost every level.
Dartmouth College cosmologist Marcelo Gleiser: "Physical models are not reality .. We must not forget that .. we ourselves are also the authors of the narrative."
LMU Germany theorist Daniele Oriti: "Quantum theory is really screaming at us that observers matter, that facts are relative .. We can only know the universe from the inside."
The ways we understand different aspects of the universe, from multiple observing perspectives, should remain consistent with each other.

A golden age for life
Michael Brooks

Our universe began 13.8 billion years ago. This cosmic show has at least 100 billion years to go. The principle of mediocrity says there is nothing particularly special about us.
Life as we know it formed once there were stars to fuel it and planets on which it could develop. Life requires elements heavier than H and He to support our biochemistry. Several generations of stars are needed to build these elements up to a level where you get planets and the chemistry of life.
Significant intelligence seems to take billions of years to evolve. The star formation that can support it is slowing. More than 95% of the stars that will ever exist have already been born. Star formation is winding down.
In 100 trillion years, all stars will have died and the chances of habitability as we know it will have dwindled to nothing. That is the end of the show.

Feel comforted by the vastness of space
Abigail Beall

On a cold evening last October, I went into my garden to gaze at a fuzzy blob in the night sky. I raised my binoculars to view an elongated smear with a bright centre. This is the Andromeda galaxy.
Contemplating the huge scale of space can give us perspective. Reflecting on the size of the universe and our smallness within reveals how little power we have over the grand course of things.

AR Reflecting on the follies of our species, I find this cosmic view refreshing and satisfying. It has much in common with the Stoic philosophies of ancient times. When modern life gets too turbulent, look to the stars.



2024 June 26

Trump: The Economic Consequences

Edward Luce

Donald Trump's trade plans would trigger a recession by mid‑2025. Unemployment and inflation would jump. The bottom half of US income distribution would suffer the most.
Trump plans to impose a 10% tariff on all imports and 60% on goods from China. The average family would pay $1,700 more a year in higher prices. Republican spokesperson: "The notion that tariffs are a tax on US consumers is a lie pushed by outsourcers and the Chinese Communist party."
Trump is now airing an "all tariffs policy" in which import duties replace income tax. The higher the tariff rate, the greater the disruption to trade. The economic costs would fall mostly on blue-collar workers, as the rich pay a lower share of their income on goods.
Trump's latest plan adds a "full decoupling" from China, leading to higher borrowing costs and soaring inflation. Trump also promises to end US involvement in the "forever wars" in Ukraine and Gaza and may even abandon Taiwan. Yet his tariff plans would make conflict with China more likely.
The economic consequences of Trump's plans' would be disastrous. The unintended geopolitical ones could be even worse.

AR This is shocking. If US voters put him back in the White House, the world as we know it will end. It will be Götterdämmerung for the western world.


Canister of material from far side of Moon lands in China



2024 June 25

Moon Rock Samples Returned to Earth

Simone McCarthy

China's Chang'e‑6 lunar module returned to Earth Tuesday, successfully completing its historic mission to collect the first ever samples from the far side of the Moon.
The reentry module landed in the drop zone in China's northern Inner Mongolia region. A livestream carried by state broadcaster CCTV showed the module touching down via parachute to a round of applause in the mission control room.
China National Space Administration (CNSA) head Zhang Kejian: "The Chang'e‑6 lunar exploration mission has been a complete success."
The Chang'e‑6 probe returned to Earth with up to 2 kg of moon dust and rocks. These will be analyzed by researchers in China before being opened for access by scientists worldwide. Results from the analysis may help us understand the evolution of the Moon, the Earth, and the solar system.
The samples were collected using a drill and robotic arm from a site within the South Pole−Aitken basin, a large impact crater formed some 4 billion years ago. An ascender lifted them off the lunar surface and transferred them in lunar orbit to a re‑entry vehicle for return to Earth.
Lunar soil could be used for 3D printing to produce bricks for construction of research bases on the Moon. Scientists are already working on finding more economical and practical technologies to extract helium‑3, oxygen, and hydrogen from the soil for future missions.

China retrieves rocks from lunar far side
Katrina Miller

China brought a capsule full of lunar soil from the far side of the Moon down to Earth on Tuesday. The sample was retrieved by the CNSA Chang'e‑6 lander after a 53‑day mission.
China University of Geosciences planetary geologist Long Xiao: "Chang'e‑6 is the first mission in human history to return samples from the far side of the Moon. This is a major event for scientists worldwide and a cause for celebration for all humanity."
China has executed a robotic lunar exploration program devised decades in advance. In 2013, Chang'e‑3 landed on the lunar near side in 2013 and deployed a rover. In 2019, Chang'e‑4 became the first vehicle to visit the Moon's far side and put a rover on the surface. In 2020, Chang'e‑5 sent several kg of near-side lunar regolith to Earth. The sample showed that the lunar basalts are about 2 billion years old.
Chang'e‑6 launched on May 3 and brought back material from the far side of the Moon, which has more craters and a thicker crust than the near side. Its lander descended to a site at the edge of the South Pole−Aitken basin. The lander spent two days gathering lunar rock and dust from its surroundings and the subsurface.
A rocket launched the sample canister back into lunar orbit on June 3. The module docked on June 6 with an orbiter that returned the sample to Earth. The canister touched down on June 25.
Scientists will compare the composition of the newly recovered basalts with those from the lunar near side. They will also be looking for material from surrounding regions, blasted away from their original sites by impacts with comets and asteroids. This material may come from the lower crust and upper mantle, offering clues about the structure and composition of the lunar interior.
For the future, Chang'e‑7 and 8 will explore the lunar south pole and search for water and other resources. China aims to send crewed missions to the Moon by 2030 and then build an international base at the south pole.
The US Artemis project is also shooting for the lunar south pole. NASA administrator Bill Nelson describes the parallel programs as a race between the United States and China.
Xiao: "Lunar exploration is a shared endeavor for all humanity."

AR This is an impressive achievement and a major milestone in lunar and planetary science. We need to avoid nationalist discord in space exploration for as long as possible. Being realistic, it will come in time, but let's keep the peace for now.

Chinese view of our AI future
is my next read in prep
for my next book


2024 June 24

How Britain Is Seen Around Europe

Annette Dittert et al

For a German audience .. the British elections are mostly a reminder of where the destructive cluelessness of populist politicians can lead a country .. But .. nobody seems either able or willing to talk about what has happened since the 2016 referendum to leave the EU .. The eerie silence around the issue seems even more absurd given that a large majority of British voters now regret Brexit ..
— Annette Dittert

Sadness and cautious hope are common emotions .. Pollsters and political experts keep telling me Brexit is no longer a main public concern .. my experience is that Brexit comes up in almost every conversation, especially when discussing broken Britain ..
— Maria Ramirez

I have travelled a lot along this campaign trail and find the British people have an overwhelming sense of disillusionment and fatalism ..
— Antonello Guerrera

After Boris Johnson got Brexit done, feverish Austrian interest in Britain died down ..
— Tessa Szyszkowitz

Perhaps the most striking aspect of Polish coverage of the UK elections is that there is so little of it .. After the astonishment at the descent of the UK .. into utter chaos during the Johnson and Truss years, Poles have become so inured to unusual things happening in the UK that .. Britain is no longer considered a tempting place to live.
— Jakub Krupa

AR So much for British exceptionalism. The downfall of a hubristic nation should humiliate all those British nationalists who banged the drum for "Global Britain" and other such vainglorious notions.

2024 June 23

Voting on Independence Day

Mick O'Hare

At the 2019 general election, almost 53% of the electorate voted for parties offering either a second Brexit referendum or to stay in the European Union by revoking Article 50. This was a greater margin of victory than the 51.9% that won the 2016 referendum in the first place. Yet the UK voting system gave the Tories a stonking majority to get Brexit done.
The majority of British voters now recognise that Brexit was a disaster. A recent poll showed 53% wanting to rejoin the EU, with only 35% opting to stay out. In the last 175 polls on the same question, only three have delivered a verdict in favour of staying out, and two of those were in early 2022. The great majority of polls show Rejoin leading by double digits.
The man likely to be the next prime minister, Keir Starmer, says Labour will not rejoin the customs union or single market or return to freedom of movement. Labour says people are exhausted by Brexit, and it plans only to introduce a new security and defence pact with the EU. Starmer should say a reset of the UK−EU relationship is his goal.

AR Independence Day should celebrate the end of Brexiteer misrule and the start of an era marked by UK−EU rapprochement. Starmer and his successors should not feel bound by the misbegotten 2016 referendum result. A great leap forward would be to scrap the obsolete FPTP voting system and introduce proportional representation in the UK.

2024 June 22

Reform UK

John Gray

This is no normal election. We are witnessing a historic collision between technocratic government and political legitimacy. Technocracy hit the rocks when a poll put Reform ahead of the Tories.
Populism takes up issues the progressive consensus deems too important to be left to democratic choice. Immigration and climate policy are such issues, and both have stormed back into the political realm. The next will be the free market model, and its destroyer could be Nigel Farage.
Polite society has forgotten how traditional politicians used to behave. Farage addresses people in a language they understand. Voters are turning to him because he tells a story that gels with what they feel about their lives.
Farage is using his public to exact revenge on the Tories. Beyond this group, he is reaching many who are exhausted and angered by their daily battles to get by. The economic policies in his manifesto connect with the inchoate sense of many voters that market liberalism is foundering.
Farage is caught between a Thatcherite legacy he shares with the Westminster elite and the economic nationalism of his friend Donald Trump. His response is to tilt to protectionism. If Farage wins in Clacton, it will be a sign that Thatcherism is finally over.
In functioning democracies, technocracy rarely works for long. Even sound theories do not legitimate their policies. Anthropogenic climate change is a scientific fact, but science cannot tell you how to resolve conflicting values.
Labour is going all in for technocratic management. But the populist revolt is gathering momentum. In power, Labour will be sunk by the same forces that are submerging the Conservatives.

AR I think this analysis is correct, so far as it goes. Going further, Gray will surely agree that the more aggressive military postures of Putin Russia and Xi China reflect this upswell of angry popular sentiment in the West. Everyone senses a clash coming and is arming up.
These postures were likely triggered in turn by western hegemonism in Europe and the Pacific region. The halcyon days of technocratic globalism have probably passed. The problems of populist tribalism, climate disaster, and resource depletion look set to fuel a global bloodbath.
The aftermath is still in the clouds. A transatlantic West centered in the Americas and Europe will fight an Asian power centered in China through hybrid and proxy wars. The side that better leverages new tech will inherit a scorched Earth.



2024 June 21

Our Tribe

Harvey Whitehouse

Tribalism is a powerful evolved psychological bias. It has motivated tremendous feats of cooperation. But now we need a global tribe of billions: a teratribe.
For most of prehistory, our ancestors lived in small foraging bands. Around 10 ky ago, the first farmers began to settle down. By around 7 ky ago, some people were living in kilotribes, and by 4 ky ago, some were in megatribes of a million or more.
Moralising religions emerged with the first empires, setting limits on the powers of elites and extending the rule of law to all. Agriculture drove the rise of larger and more complex societies. Sociopolitical evolution was also driven by warfare. Nation states harnessed tribalism during interstate conflicts.
When people feel they share personally affecting experiences such as suffering with others, their individual and group identities can become bonded together. We call this visceral sense of oneness with the group identity fusion. It is a form of group bonding and the bedrock of tribalism.
Identity fusion based on shared experiences is scaled up through immersive media reporting about events such as wars and their human consequences. This process helps explain not only why soldiers lay down their lives for each other but also how terrorists can kill themselves.
Fusion can be based on perceptions of shared experiences occurring thousands of miles away and affecting individuals one will never meet in the flesh. It is possible to fuse with all other humans, or even all forms of life. Sharing life-changing experiences is a way of achieving identity fusion.
Thinking we share a biological essence with other members of a group can bind our personal and group identities together. Common ancestry is the basis for families, clans, and ethnic groups. Nationalists use it to portray their country as a motherland or the great leader as a father figure.
Perhaps we are entering a stage in our evolutionary history when we can all pull together as a global teratribe.

AR All of us on Earth need to feel this planetary dilation of tribalism. Some of us already do feel it: When scientists and mathematicians use the majestic plural, their royal "we" embraces all humans who can muster the grace to accept the embrace. Some may not − more fool them.

An MRP poll result


2024 Summer Solstice

The Aftershocks of Brexit

David Gauke

Brexit is the unspoken issue of this general election campaign.
The demise of the Conservative party can be put down to Brexit. In the aftermath of the 2016 referendum, it is all but impossible to appeal both to concerned centrists and to angry populists.
After this election, the Conservatives are likely to choose the populist route. A Tory opposition will adopt the Leave state of mind. Attempts to mitigate Brexit will be condemned as betrayal.
Brexit is unpopular with younger voters. A Labour government aiming to raise UK growth should be radical on UK relations with the EU. Labour party members will be enthusiastic for that.
Brexit was a political earthquake. The aftershocks continue.

The long road back to the EU
Matthew D'Ancona

Between late June 2016 and the end of January 2020, Leavers and Remainers fought a titanic battle in the UK. The elephant trap left by Leavers invites Remainers to say "I told you so" and to resume the fight. To get the UK back into the EU, we need to rethink.
The case for membership should say UK economic security will be impossible without access to the single market and customs union. For Labour to transform our public services, address inequality, and fix broken Britain, it will need to revisit the UK economic relationship with the EU.
American isolationism will be back if Trump wins in November. Europe will need radically more defence collaboration. And in a world faced with hundreds of millions of climate refugees by 2030, mass immigration will force wider collaboration.

AR My advice to Labour: Be bold on grasping the Brexit nettle and make progress on undoing the damage. But I'm sure no one needs my advice.
On the latest poll predictions: Karma.



2024 June 19

The Conservative Effect: 14 Wasted Years

Sir Anthony Seldon et al

It is hard to see the years since 2010 as anything but disappointing. By 2024, Britain's standing in the world was lower, the union was less strong, the country less equal, the population less well protected, growth more sluggish, public services underperforming, and respect for the institutions of the British state was lower.
Brexit will be seen in history as the defining decision of these years. In 2024, the verdict on Brexit is almost entirely negative. The nation was difficult to rule in these 14 years, the Conservative party more so. Longstanding problems contributed to the difficulties, but prime ministers chose to be distracted by the short term.
Overall, it is hard to find a comparable period in history of the Conservatives which achieved so little. Boris Johnson and Liz Truss were not up to the job of being PM. Each incoming PM took next no time to understand what their predecessors were trying to do and how to build on it rather than destroy it.

Labour cannot avoid addressing Brexit
Alastair Campbell

Labour has to tackle the Brexit elephant in the room to get the economy going again:
  Bloomberg Economics put the cost of Brexit to the UK economy at around £100 billion a year.
  The Office for Budget Responsibility estimates a 4% reduction in productivity due to Brexit.
  Goldman Sachs holds Brexit responsible for the UK economy growing 5% less since June 2016.

AR Brexit was the most egregious policy error by a British government since at least 1914 and possibly much longer. The Conservative party must be liquidated to atone for it.



2024 June 18

Israel Is in Existential Danger

Thomas L Friedman

Israel is up against Iran and faces the prospect of a war on three fronts.
Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu has formed a government with Jewish extremists who want Israeli control over all the territory between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, including Gaza. His emergency war cabinet has mo plan for ending the war and safely withdrawing from Gaza.
His government wrote the goal of annexing the West Bank into its coalition agreement. Bibi also ceded control over the police and key authorities in the defense ministry to Jewish supremacists in his coalition. That would be madness in a time of peace, but in a time of war it is insane.
An all-out war with Hezbollah in the north, a third intifada in the West Bank, conflicts with Houthis in Yemen and Iraqi militias in the Golan Heights, and conflict with Iran add up to a prescription for the United States to be dragged into a Mideast war to help Israel.
The only people who can defeat Hamas are the Palestinians of Gaza.

AR As usual on such matters, I think Friedman is right. A hubristic Israel is pursuing the Gaza war so recklessly as to invite overwhelming retribution from its Islamist enemies, led by Iran. That way lies a defeat as final for Israel as that suffered by Jews at the hands of Romans in 70 CE.



2024 June 17

Fearing Silence

Paul Lynch

"Deep beneath the vast economic and political failings of our age there lies a spiritual crisis ..
The modern age has created a religious problem that can no longer be answered by religion ..
We live in an age that fears silence .."

Emergence of free will
Philip Ball

A complex system shows emergence when it has a hierarchy of levels that each work independently of the details of the lower levels.
Researchers studied model systems that have such hierarchical levels and show emergent behavior. They identified three kinds of closure involved in emergent systems:
  Informational closure: Fine details below the macrolevel do not help us predict the macrolevel.
  Causal closure: Interventions at the macrolevel work no better when we go to the micro level.
  Computational closure: We can neglect the lower levels when simulating the upper levels.
Computational mechanics reduces a web of interactions to its simplest description, its causal state. The present state of the complex system determines its possible future states. Present states with the same future states are in the same causal state.
A complex system is a set of machines working at different scales. A computationally closed system has machines at each level that can be made by lumping the components on just the level below.
Traditionally, causation flows from the bottom up. In an emergent system, causation can operate at a higher level. The macroscale behavior has some immunity to randomness at the microscale.
If the main causes of our actions are the emergent mental states that encode memories, intentions, beliefs, and so on, that may be enough for a meaningful notion of free will.

AR On meaning, choose silence. On free will, we can accept the invincible feeling of inner freedom. No computational system can predict its own behavior. If the system is hosted in a human brain, such unpredictability by the self feels like freedom.
Zooming to a finer logical level, the innermost self of a person extends to reflect their entire phenomenal world. The limits of that world − the world of consciousness − are the limits of the innermost self and recede to infinity. In that logical sense, the inner self seems godlike.
Meditators say the self is an illusion. Mystics stay silent.


Windsurfers in Poole Bay on Sunday

Election prediction:
Labour landslide


2024 June 16

UK: Manifestos Reflect Different Philosophies

The Observer

Britain has been misgoverned for 14 years. Productivity and business investment have stagnated, resulting in low growth and frozen living standards.
Life expectancy in parts of England is falling. Infant mortality is rising, the birthrate falling. Poverty blights 4.3 million children. Among adults, 1 in 6 are illiterate or innumerate. Most people cannot afford to buy a house.
Britain has largely cut its ties with its European neighbours. Britain is not trusted to keep its word or honour treaties on human rights. In the last parliament, elected in 2019, ethical standards sank to new lows.
The Tory manifesto includes hangovers from a policy framework that failed. Fresh thinking is limited to dubious proposals such as introducing a form of national service. The focus is on promised tax cuts. There is no new story.
The Lib Dem manifesto breaks the collective silence on Brexit and recognises its damage as a step toward renewed EU membership. It will launch a free national care service and will find the revenue to raise spending on public services.
The Labour manifesto promises a focus on wealth generation to fund party missions on health, education, opportunity, safer streets, and net zero. New public investment will push green projects. Baby steps are proposed on the EU.
The manifestos reveal the gulf between the main parties.

AR A bleak picture − I could have stayed in Germany.

⦿ Hollie Adams
Labour Manifesto


2024 June 15

UK: Keir Starmer's Manifesto

Aditya Chakrabortty

Rishi Sunak and his party are finished. Food prices are about 25% higher than two years ago. Interest rates have risen from about 1% to over 5%. Deprivation hits everyday life: 1 in 5 schools in England have a food bank, and 11% of pupils in the UK go without meals at least once a week. In Portugal, a much poorer country, that number is under 3%.
Manifestos showcase values and lay out visions. In his, Keir Starmer crafts an identity as an agent of change: "I have changed my party .. Now I want the chance to bring that change to the country."
University of York professor Kevin Farnsworth has used a computer to analyse Labour and Conservative manifestos going back to 1945. He finds that Starmer's manifesto is out of line with Labour tradition. It's closer to Ted Heath's Tory manifesto in 1974 than to almost any Labour manifesto. The public is ready for change.

AR Under Starmer, Labour values have moved so far toward Tory ones that the party has swallowed several dubious assumptions. Economic growth is not paramount: Proper usage and distribution of current levels of income and wealth could transform the UK. And deep reform of the political and business environment is essential before any transformation can achieve lasting change.

Quantum Cosmic Censorship

Thomas Lewton

Netta Engelhardt, Evita Verheijden, and Lisa Yang (EVY) are exploring holographic duality and the cosmic censorship hypothesis.
Cosmic censorship hides singularities behind event horizons. EVY used the AdS/CFT correspondence between quantum CFT and AdS spacetime to see if singularities in the bulk spacetime have a signature in the boundary CFT.
EVY asked how black holes might appear in the CFT, where black holes appear as maximally chaotic: Pseudo-randomness in the CFT correlates with the existence of an event horizon in bulk spacetime. EVY call this cryptographic censorship.
A quantum computer, if fed with enough randomness, can turn into a black hole. If the signature of spacetime singularities in the CFT is this randomness, any matter or fields that fall into them are reflected, and they appear random.
Quantum cosmic censorship (QCC) is the conjecture that there are no classical naked singularities. QCC allows very small naked singularities, with too little randomness in the CFT for an event horizon. These are harmless.
EVY hope to explore how the holographic dictionary translates the quantum world into gravity.

AR As is so often the case in fundamental physics, this is work in progress. Unpacking the math sufficiently to see the real implications for singularities will take more time. Meanwhile, this new brand of censorship leaves me unconvinced.

UK general election 2024:
Estimate for Poole

AR Poole was a safe Tory seat.
If we can believe VoteClimate,
we are witnessing a political
earthquake in the UK.


2024 June 14

UK: Electoral Politics of Brexit

Matt Withers

The latest NatCen British social attitudes survey shows just 24% of British people now think the UK should be outside the EU, and 71% think the British economy is worse off because of Brexit.
The Conservatives are so proud of their signature achievement in office that they have resolved never to mention it again. Keir Starmer is convinced it remains popular with northern voters and stays silent. Even the Liberal Democrats mention rejoining the single market only on page 112 of their manifesto.
European Movement UK chair Mike Galsworthy: "Throughout this general election, political candidates of all parties must acknowledge the elephant in the room .. Brexit has failed. It is doing severe damage to the UK every single day. If there were Brexit benefits to be had, we would have seen them by now."
Even Brexit's biggest cheerleaders no longer pretend there were any tangible benefits to their pet project. People can see that Brexit has failed and nobody is willing to talk about it.

AR The Tories have been sunk by Brexit. Nigel Farage has destroyed them. Last night on ITV, he was booed by the studio audience, and the SNP man was cheered for complaining about Brexit. I think Starmer will mellow on this theme once he's in office.

Entropy and Thermodynamics

Sam Green

Sadi Carnot introduced the second law of thermodynamics in 1824. He said heat produced motion for doing work by dropping from a high temperature to a lower temperature.
Rudolf Clausius defined entropy: The second law implies that the entropy of the universe tends to a maximum. Eventually all work will cease in the heat death of the universe.
James Clerk Maxwell, Ludwig Boltzmann and J Willard Gibbs defined entropy in statistical mechanics. Maxwell concluded that the second law has merely statistical validity.
Entropy quantifies how probable the state of a system is. An ordered system has low entropy and low probability because there are more ways to be disordered than ordered. States with higher entropy are more probable.
The laws of mechanics are symmetrical in time. The second law cannot explain time's arrow.

AR Entropy as glossed here is a classical concept. Recent work demonstrates that a quantum view transforms the outlook and offers hope of resolving the problems lurking here.
Essentially, entanglement shrinks the set of possible states, decoherence breaks time symmetry, and information theory puts a new gloss on the statistics of entropy.
A lot of time will flow before this view achieves consensus.


G7 Italia
G7 Summit, Italy, June 13−15, 2024 (L to R): European Council president Charles Michel, German chancellor Olaf Scholz,
Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau, French president Emmanuel Macron, Italian prime minister Giorgia Meloni,
US president Joe Biden, Japanese prime minister Fumio Kishida, UK prime minister Rishi Sunak,
European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen

AR Most of these leaders may be out of office by the end of the year.



2024 June 13

America: A Humbler Superpower

Damien Cave

Across the Asia−Pacific region, America is no longer the confident guarantor of security. The rise of China is too great a threat.
Officials from across the region say the next century is likely to be less dominated by America than the last. The United States has been weakened by the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, the decline of its industrial base, and its own internal divisions.
Since 1945, the US share of the global economy has been cut in half. China now produces over a third of the world's manufactured goods, three times the US share. Japan, India, and South Korea have joined the top seven in terms of output.
US military superiority remains, but China has much more capacity for military production. Military budgets across Asia have soared, and many countries in the region have turned to the United States as a provider of weapons, training, and investment.
Japan has made the sharpest turn. Tokyo is now more critical of the United States and seeks a leading role in protecting regional stability. A senior Japanese intelligence official says the United States is no longer what it was at the turn of the century.
Indian officials see the turning point as the pullout of US troops from Afghanistan in 2021. US officials have toned down their concerns about Hindu nationalism or suppression of dissent and now see India as a multiplier for tech innovation.
Singapore's veteran diplomat Bilahari Kausikan says America is increasingly dysfunctional yet still indispensable.

AR Hegelians might say this great historical change is the broadly predictable march of the Weltgeist across the face of the Earth.
China can orchestrate an epochal cleanup of the human act on this planet and prompt Americans and Europeans to update their increasingly dysfunctional political systems in response to their new and humbler roles in global political dynamics.
I say: Look on the bright side.


Taylor Swift stars in The Eras Tour
Taylor Swift fans made Earth move at Edinburgh gig




2024 June 12

UK Election: Nobody Mentions Brexit

Dan Sabbagh

In the 2019 election, "Get Brexit done" was the promise. In 2024, the subject has barely featured.
Keir Starmer hardly mentions the topic but says he aims to build a "closer, better" relationship with the EU. In the run-up to the 2019 election, he pressed for Labour to support a second referendum.
Rishi Sunak is also reluctant to talk about Brexit. The Conservatives have little to show in terms of Brexit successes. Sunak supported Brexit in 2016, but he has not been notably enthusiastic since.
Nigel Farage mentions it only to complain. He says Tory leaders have presided over "a massive betrayal of the 17.4 million people who voted Brexit" by failing to deliver a sharp fall in immigration.
British voters are focused on the cost of living crisis. Leaving the EU has hit UK GDP by 2−3%. Leaders are unwilling to admit this because rejoining would almost certainly require another referendum.
Labour may become bolder. Labour spokesperson for foreign affairs David Lammy wants to negotiate a "security pact" with the EU. This could be extended to economic and climate security.
But perhaps the Brexit silence is due to voter fatigue.

AR The debate needs a new context. European security is endangered by Russian aggression in Ukraine, but this will only shift the dial if and when Trump ends US support for Ukraine. Until then, British Europhiles need to be patient.

⦿ Dafydd Jones
Martin Amis, Christopher
Hitchens, Tina Brown
New York, 1995


2024 June 11

Martin Amis Remembered

Tina Brown

I was 19. Martin was 23. I was still at Oxford. Martin had just finished The Rachel Papers. I was confident and vulnerable. He was cocky, beguiling and witheringly funny. The novel's publication turned him into a wunderkind.
Martin's most seductive appeal was in his voice. Off the page, a rich, iconoclastic croak. On the page, a combination of curated American junkyard and British irony that hit the low notes so hard against the high that sparks flew and made every sentence electric. Over the years, he became graver, more wary perhaps, but unchanged in his satirical glee.
Last February, Isabel arranged for me to visit Martin at their home in Brooklyn. They loved each other devotedly, to the death. He was still Martin: "No one writes anything really good after 70."

A life in quotes
Martin Amis

On writing: "There are pains you have to go through when writing a novel. If I wrote a novel without that .. it would make me very suspicious. It has to have the admixture of pain. But otherwise it seems to me a hilariously enjoyable way of spending one's time."
On reading: "You read literature to have a good time. Or why else would people go on doing it?"
On his father Kingsley Amis: "I always thought if he had been born a generation later, he would have written my novels. And if I'd been born a generation earlier, I would have written his novels."
On his friend Christopher Hitchens: "He had a greater love of life than me. He really enjoyed everything, so much. I quite like life, but I'm not as crazy about it as he was."
On ageing: "The older writer, at some point, is going to lose touch with what the contemporary moment feels like."

AR He and I were undergraduate friends. I found it too easy to envy his success, so I pursued a more serious and purposeful life. Like many philosophers, I can still write useful stuff in my old age.



2024 June 10

Quantum Time Loops

Miriam Frankel

Time loops are closed time-like curves (CTCs). In general relativity, they need a huge mass rotating very fast, such as a black hole. In quantum theory, a time loop at a tiny scale defies the idea that cause always precedes effect.
Quantum theory introduces entanglement. Two entangled particles share a quantum state even when far apart. Entanglement is usually taken to challenge locality and prove reality is nonlocal.
Retrocausality casts entanglement as a connection through time. Measuring an entangled particle sends a signal back to the time it was entangled, which then sets the state of the other particle. Locality is preserved, but standard causality is gone.
Until now, retrocausality has implied a multiverse. A quantum CTC would have a time-travelling particle go back and destroy itself but survive in another strand of the multiverse.
An updated quantum CTC works using post-selection. We use post-selection and entanglement to go back and change things that were never measured in the past and were still uncertain.

AR This an old idea that previously seemed impractical. I recall reading it in a philosophical essay by Michael Dummett decades ago. I mulled how the idea would work in quantum theory and have liked it ever since. Now I can come out and explicate its implications.



2024 June 9

AI for Mathematicians

Terence Tao

Imagine explaining your mathematical proofs to an AI that tries to formalize it in Lean as you go along. If everything checks out, the AI says: "Here's your paper in LaTeX; here's your Lean proof. If you like, I can press this button and submit it to a journal for you."
The fastest way to formalize is first to find the human proof. Humans come up with the ideas and the first draft. Then you convert it to a formal proof. In future collaborative projects, people could have ideas on how to prove little pieces, and the AI formalizes that and tries to put them together.
In three years, AI will become useful for mathematicians. I don't think math will become solved. Even if AI can do the type of math we do now, we'll just move to a higher type. Today, we prove things one at a time like craftsmen, but in other disciplines we have mass production. With AI, we can prove thousands of theorems at a time. Human mathematicians will direct the AI.
We should start formalizing textbooks. Interactive textbooks could describe a proof in a high-level sense, assuming lots of knowledge. You can expand steps you don't understand and go into details down to the axioms. The computer can create these interactive textbooks for you.
A new industry will try to extract insight from AI proofs. Project managers will organize projects, specialists will work in subfields, and people will convert the AI proofs into something readable. It will be like the way other modern industries work.

AR This is the sort of change I've seen coming for over 25 years. At the math publisher Springer in Germany, we discussed it at some length. Now the change is really on its way.



2024 June 8

Shrink the Economy, Save the World?

Jennifer Szalai

Economic growth has long been pursued by governments across the world. But gains in economic growth have failed to lift all boats. Is economic growth desirable?
Degrowth remained on the fringes of the fringe for decades, until increasing awareness about global warming percolated into public debates this century. The 2008 financial crisis fueled a sense that relentless economic growth may be more poison than panacea.
Jason Hickel: "Degrowth is about reducing the material and energy throughput of the economy to bring it back into balance with the living world, while distributing income and resources more fairly, liberating people from needless work, and investing in the public goods that people need to thrive."
Technological advances mean that economic prosperity doesn't have to lead to ecological ruin. But we have plundered the planet instead of figuring out more egalitarian ways to live.
Kohei Saito says any attempt to blend degrowth with capitalism is doomed to fail. Capitalism requires growth. Saito demands not just degrowth, but degrowth communism, not the statism of the Soviet Union but something more like communitarianism.
Like Hickel, Saito promises a new kind of "radical abundance" with a commitment to the commons that lets us savor public wealth instead of endlessly chasing stuff we don't need.
Techno-optimists place their faith in innovation. Degrowthers place theirs in social movements. Both sides claim to be the realists.

AR I tried advocating degrowth at an economics seminar in Oxford in about 1971, but economists were too wedded to growth. Now we've hit planetary limits, perhaps the idea has a chance.
But probably not: Like trees in a forest, each economy seeks to outgrow its neighbors. Only this way can the economic winner also prevail in a clash of arms, or so it seems.


Leopard 2A7+



2024 June 7

NATO Deters Russian Aggression

James Reynolds

NATO is drawing up plans to send US troops to the frontlines of Europe in the event of conflict with Russia. The plans include contingencies in case of Russian bombardment.
NATO leaders agreed last year to keep 300,000 troops in a state of high readiness. The plans are for US troops to land at one of five ports across Europe. NATO already had plans for them to deploy in the Netherlands before moving by train to Poland.
New land corridors offer a failsafe in case of Russia attacks that cut the route through central Europe. Allied troops would move through Italy into Slovenia and the Balkans, through Greece and Turkey toward southern Ukraine, and through Norway and Sweden into Finland.
Poland plans to field the biggest army in Europe by 2035. This year, defence spending will account for around 4% of its GDP. Warsaw has also let US troops establish a permanent garrison in Poland.
Russia has stepped up its war rhetoric. A Russian military expert suggests Russia would be able to knock out Britain's nuclear deterrent in one day in the event of an all-out war. Another says France would likely prove more of a challenge but would likewise be no match for a Russian attack.
Last week, President Putin warned that western countries would suffer grave consequences if they allowed their weapons to be fired from Ukraine into Russia.

Germany reveals plan in case Russia attacks
James Reynolds

Germany has updated its wartime measures to prepare for the possibility of conflict by the end of the decade. The new plans see Germany could impose compulsory conscription, evacuate citizens, and ration food if war breaks out in Europe.
In the event of war, Germany will protect its civilians by facilitating makeshift subway bunkers, preparing hospitals for a sudden spike in the number of patients, and storing emergency food reserves in secret locations. In the worst-case scenario, the government will ration and stockpile food for one hot meal per day and stockpile water for firefighting purposes.
The updated plan outlines further measures in the event of war. Private companies will have to make their vehicles and IT infrastructure available as required for the war effort. Doctors, psychologists, nurses, and vets may be repurposed in military and civil service roles. Compulsory service for conscripts will allow citizens to be drafted at any time.
Defense minister Boris Pistorius: "Due to Russian aggression, we have a completely changed security situation in Europe .. The overall defense of Germany is a task to which we must all contribute .. each and every one of us."

AR This is sobering. China is supporting Russia, which would be less bellicose without that support. Maybe China aims to weaken Europe enough to neutralize it in case of a major confrontation with the United States. If so, the effect is likely to be (a) the opposite and (b) extremely destructive to the human presence on planet Earth.


British media go big on D‑Day 80th anniversary celebrations

Nvidia market cap: $3 trillion

Computex attendees forecast
a surge in demand for AI PCs
with chips to run PA apps. The
biggest thing since WiFi, they
may dominate the PC market
by 2028. Nvidia could use
its GPUs to compete
in that market.


2024 June 6

AI: Creator or Destroyer of Worlds?

Thomas B Edsall

Daron Acemoglu, David Autor, and Simon Johnson (AAJ): "The private sector in the United States is currently pursuing a path for generative AI that emphasizes automation and the displacement of labor, along with intrusive workplace surveillance."
AAJ see a threat to high-skill jobs: "There is no guarantee that the transformative capabilities of generative AI will be used for the betterment of work or workers."
Tyna Eloundou, Pamela Mishkin, Sam Manning, and Daniel Rock (EMMR): "Around 80% of the US work force could have at least 10% of their work tasks affected by the introduction of large language models .. science and critical thinking skills are strongly negatively associated with exposure .. occupations requiring these skills are less likely to be impacted by current LLMs."
Martin Neil Baily, Erik Brynjolfsson, and Anton Korinek (BBK) say LLMs "not only make workers more productive but also increase the rate of innovation" and spur growth: "AI will impact a wide array of industries, prompting investments in new skills, transforming business processes and altering the nature of work."
BBK caution: "If labor can be replaced by machines across a wide range of tasks in the future, we may experience an AI-powered growth takeoff at the same time that the value of labor declines. This would present a significant challenge for our society."
Andreas Jungherr: "AI in autocracies creates an environment of permissive privacy regulation that provides developers and modelers with vast troves of data .. [and] provide authoritarian leaders access to the needs and views of their constituents, helping them increase their state capacities through AI-assisted governance and planning."
Bruce Schneier says AI can cut the need for politicians: Our personal AI could participate in policy debates with millions of other personal AIs, combining their data to reach a consensus on policy.
Schneier: "You will want [your personal AI assistant] to know everything about you, so it can most effectively work on your behalf."

AR This is all stuff I've pondered already, but it's nice to record some references and to know what I can presume my readers will already know. I foresaw the points made by Jungherr and Schneier in my 2010 book on Globorg. Such historic political possibilities cast long shadows, both before and after the apocalypse.



2024 June 5

Mathematical Equality

Alex Wilkins

Mathematicians are divided about what makes two things equal.
Imperial College London mathematician Kevin Buzzard: "Mathematicians use equality to mean two different things, and I was fine with that. Then I started doing maths on a computer."
The first definition of equality is that each side of an equation represents the same mathematical object. This can be proved through a series of logical transformations from one side to the other.
Set theory provides the logical foundations for most modern mathematics. If two sets contain the same elements, then they are equal. The order of the elements in a set is irrelevant.
Two sets are isomorphic if there is 1−1 mapping between them. The canonical isomorphism of two sets is the only reasonable way to link them, if there is one. Traditional equality and canonical isomorphism are defined identically in homotopy type theory.
Having two definitions for equality is a problem for computers. Maybe we should identify canonical isomorphisms and equality and revise computer programs to work around that.
Or maybe we should leave mathematical equality as it is.

AR My vote: Leave it as it is. On the other hand, identity remains unattributable unless some kind of isomorphism can be established. I recall debating the identity of indiscernibles (extensional identity) versus rigid designators (a kind of intensional identity) in philosophy.


China's lunar probe Chang'e‑6 has taken off from the far side of the Moon carrying samples to bring back to Earth.
China National Space Administration (CNSA) says the ascender module has entered orbit around the Moon.
Analyzing the samples will deepen research on the formation and evolutionary history of the Moon.
President Xi Jinping has poured huge resources into the Chinese space program.



2024 June 4

Origins of the Pandemic

Alina Chan

An estimated 25 million people around the world have died because of Covid‑19, with over a million in the United States. The pandemic most likely occurred when a virus escaped from a research lab.

The SARS‑like virus that caused the pandemic emerged in Wuhan. A team of scientists at the Wuhan Institute of Virology had been hunting for SARS‑like viruses.

The year before the outbreak, the Wuhan institute proposed a project named Defuse to create viruses similar to SARS‑CoV‑2. The project would search for and create SARS‑like viruses carrying spikes with a furin cleavage site, making it capable of causing a pandemic.
SARS‑CoV‑2 is the only known SARS‑like virus to possess a furin cleavage site in its spike. Wuhan scientists did not mention the site in their seminal paper in 2020.

The Wuhan lab pursued this type of work under low biosafety conditions that could not have contained an airborne virus as infectious as SARS‑CoV‑2. If the virus had escaped from a laboratory in 2019, the leak most likely would have gone undetected until too late.

The hypothesis that Covid‑19 came from an animal at a seafood market in Wuhan is not supported by strong evidence. The Chinese authorities blocked the reporting of early cases not linked to the market and destroyed patient samples.
The available evidence does not distinguish between a human superspreader event and a natural spillover at the market. All known Covid‑19 cases probably stem from a single introduction of SARS‑CoV‑2 into people.

Key evidence that the virus had emerged from the wildlife trade is still missing. In the SARS and MERS epidemics, scientists found evidence that demonstrated a natural origin. For SARS‑CoV‑2, all this evidence is missing.
When respiratory viruses circulate in animals, variants usually fail to transmit well after crossing over to a new species and tend to die off quickly. SARS‑CoV‑2 required little or no adaptation to spread rapidly in humans and other animals.

A laboratory accident is the most parsimonious explanation of how the pandemic began. A successful investigation of the pandemic's root cause could deter future acts of negligence and deceit.

AR We need to learn the hard lessons from the pandemic. This research is scientifically strong and needs to be taken fully on board. Chinese authorities must begin to behave in more consistent accord with international best practice.


Bournemouth beach, Sunday

A more interesting movie
than you might think


2024 June 3

Brain Implants

Clive Cookson, Richard Waters

Computerized implants can interact with the human brain and CNS. Brain−computer interfaces can assist severely disabled people. BCI business could soon be worth billions of dollars a year.
Elon Musk founded Neuralink to develop BCI technology. He aims to use it to merge human intelligence with AI by greatly increasing the bandwidth of the brain. But collecting, exporting, and interpreting signals from the brain is still an infant science.
Medical uses for two‑way neural implants between brain and device go beyond paralyzed people and range from tackling sight and hearing loss to improving treatment of chronic pain and psychiatric conditions.
External BCIs placed on the skin or scalp can detect and modulate neural activity to some extent, but the only way to record it sensitively and for extended periods is with a device placed surgically under the skull. The invasive brain surgery required rules out the procedure in most cases.
A recent BrainGate study inserted two arrays each about the size of a small pill with a total of 128 electrodes into the cerebral cortex of a patient who had lost the ability to talk. An AI decodes her neural activity into spoken phonemes. Another AI converts the stream of phonemes into words for speech or screen output.
A company is testing thin electrodes on silicone that wraps over the folds of the cerebral cortex. Another is testing a graphene interface that sits on the cortical surface like shrink‑wrap.
Breakthroughs will depend on continued improvements both in sensor electronics to read and transmit brain signals and in AI apps to interpret the signals.

AR This will be an enormously consequential development, imho. When the relevant AI matures and the required surgery becomes safe and routine, people will sign up in their millions for BCIs. This will overcome the bandwidth bottleneck that currently condemns us to fiddly touchscreen interfaces.

Royal Museums Greenwich
Captain James Cook RN


2024 June 2

Reform UK

Mail Online

Opinium finds the Labour party is polling at 45% while the Tories are at 25%. Reform UK founder Nigel Farage has opted against making another bid to become an MP on July 4, but he joined Reform leader Richard Tice on the campaign trail yesterday.
Farage is rumoured to want to facilitate a merger with the Tories after the election. He calls it "more like a takeover" but says he has "no interest" in striking a pre-election deal with the Tories: "There is no deal with the Conservatives whatsoever."
Conservative MPs fear Reform UK will hand Labour a bigger victory by splitting the right-wing vote. Reform is currently polling at 12−15%.

AR It's in the Mail; it must be true. Seriously, the political right in the UK is due for a metamorphosis into something much more radical. Fascism in the UK, here we come.

2024 June 1

The Wide Wide Sea

Hampton Sides

On July 12, 1776, Captain James Cook, already lionized as the greatest explorer in British history, set off on his third voyage in HMS Resolution. On February 14, 1779, on a beach in Hawaii, Cook was killed in a conflict with the natives.
Renowned for his humane leadership, dedication to science, and curiosity and respect greeting societies new to him, Cook had already mapped huge swathes of the Pacific and initiated first European contact with numerous native peoples.
The Wide Wide Sea is at once a ferociously paced, epic adventure and a searching examination of the consequences of the Age of Exploration from a master storyteller.

"Enthralling .. as gripping as any well-paced thriller but a lot more interesting because it is also true"
The Times
"Splendid in every way .. a marvellous nonfiction thriller"
Wall Street Journal
"Extraordinary .. meticulous research shores up a fast-paced narrative"
Financial Times
"Viscerally dramatic .. spellbinding .. bold, dynamic, unusually vivid"
The New York Times
"Unforgettable .. a pulse-racing epic .. a masterful work of history and storytelling"
Los Angeles Times
"Reads like a first-class epic thriller"

AR I read the book over the past week. I found it superb, captivating, a genial mix of painstakingly researched analysis and artfully written and paced narrative, so good that I cleared my diary to enjoy it in a concentrated binge of pure joy. Declaration of interest: I am a blood relative of James Cook on my mother's side.


Poland 2024
(57 photos)



2024 May 31

Donald Trump, Felon

The New York Times

In Lower Manhattan on Thursday, Donald Trump was convicted of 34 felony counts. The presumptive Republican nominee for president was found guilty of falsifying business records to prevent voters from learning about a sexual encounter that he believed would have been politically damaging.
The rule of law binds everyone, even former presidents. The trial was conducted much like any other criminal trial in New York. That 12 Americans could sit in judgment of the former and potentially future president is a remarkable display of the democratic principles that Americans prize.
Trump received a fair trial. The public should know about the unethical way that Trump conducts his life and his business. The conviction will affect the decision of many voters. They will be able to consider the choices before them with full information, then freely cast their ballots.

AR It's a step forward. Perhaps enough voters will be disenchanted with Trump by the conviction to vote Democrat in November. But I suspect that Trump's core base will be energized by the verdict to campaign even more passionately. A stronger smackdown is needed.



2024 May 30

European Air Defences

Financial Times

NATO says its members can provide less than 5% of air defence capacities needed to protect central and eastern Europe against a full-scale attack.
NATO foreign ministers are preparing for a NATO summit in Washington in July, where beefing up European defence will be a central topic. Some say Russia may be able to attack a NATO member state by the end of the decade.
Russian use of missiles, drones, and glide bombs in Ukraine adds urgency to NATO efforts to ramp up defence spending. European NATO states have limited stocks of air defence equipment and have failed to provide enough to Ukraine. Some EU capitals suggest raising common debt to fund European defence projects.
A NATO official: "NATO's new defence plans .. increase air and missile defence requirements in quantity and readiness."

Putin wants to negotiate
Paul Mason

Vladimir Putin offers to end the war in Ukraine at the current front lines. But he says he will prolong the war unless Kyiv surrenders the Donbas region and Crimea.
Western leaders will assemble in July for a NATO summit to renew their commitment to Ukraine. A week later, Ukraine will host a major peace conference to propose a return to internationally recognised borders, a formal end to hostilities, and the prosecution of alleged war criminals.
Western governments can enable Ukraine to win. The best way to deter Chinese aggression in the Pacific is to defeat Russia in the Black Sea.

Biden under growing pressure
David E Sanger

President Biden is edging toward reversing his ban on Ukraine shooting US weapons into Russian territory. He was concerned it could escalate into a direct US confrontation with a nuclear-armed adversary. After months of complaints from Ukraine, the White House is reassessing the risk.
US secretary of state Antony Blinken suggests the Biden administration might "adapt and adjust" its stance on attacks inside Russia with US weapons, based on changing battlefield conditions.
Any change of policy will most likely come with severe restrictions on how the Ukrainians can use US arms. If Biden reverses course, officials say he might never announce it. Instead, US artillery shells and missiles will just start landing on Russian military targets.
The Kremlin says Biden is risking escalation. Last week, it ran exercises involving its arsenal of tactical nuclear weapons.
Former US military official Joseph Nye: "Putin is rattling the nuclear saber to keep Biden from letting US weapons be used to counterattack .. what you have happening is a nuclear bargaining game, and a credibility game."
Former US military official Seth Jones: "Worries about Ukraine using US weapons to strike war-related targets on Russian territory are misplaced .. Putin's threats of escalations since the war began have been hollow."

AR Western leaders cannot let Putin continue to ravage Ukraine. Letting Ukraine use US weapons to best military effect is the least we can do. Americans were happy enough to bomb Germany and Japan in WW2, and Putin is appealing to WW2 ideas to motivate his assaults on Ukraine.
As for NATO air defenses, it is obvious that ramping up production of such systems now is far better than sending in troops later to recover NATO territory lost due to weak air defenses. The NATO edge in developing and producing such systems is great enough to make any shortfall here inexcusable.
As for peace deals with Putin, forget it. He has to go. Unconditional demand.



2024 May 29


Peter Geoghegan

Friedrich Hayek published The Road to Serfdom in 1944. He said that welfare states would lead to totalitarianism, individuals acting in their own self-interest were a bulwark against tyranny, and rich people should put their wealth beyond the reach of government.
Inspired by his book, belief in the primacy of the free market, deregulation, and globalization has been US−UK political orthodoxy for the past 40 years. It has been embraced by Democrats and Republicans, Conservatives and Labour, Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher.
The neoliberal era launched by Reagan and Thatcher has brought with it huge disparities between rich and poor. Even on its own terms, neoliberalism has not delivered. Over the past 40 years, growth has been slower globally than it was for much of the postwar period.
George Monbiot and Peter Hutchison propose a politics of belonging in a participatory democracy. The first step is a campaign for finance reform to stop the rich buying political outcomes.

AR Someone should write a critical history of neoliberalism titled The Road to Perdition. The first priority of any economic system should be the welfare of the people whose work creates and sustains the wealth that politicians and others steer toward chosen economic outcomes. Maximization of the bank balances of the richest 1% cannot be allowed to override that priority.
The United States and the UK are plutocracies, run by and for ruthless capitalists in the former system and an entrenched establishment in the latter. Neither polity is optimal by any reasonable standards for judging the political systems our world has to offer. By those standards, the two flagship Anglophone economies are unfit for purpose.



2024 May 28

Quantum Arrow of Time

Leah Crane

In the beginning, there was no quantum entanglement. When two particles become entangled, outside interference will eventually cause their entanglement to break down by decoherence.
The decoherent, or quantum, arrow of time is the idea that because decoherence is irreversible, it could explain why time flows forward and never backward.
The classical thermodynamic story sets the direction of time by the idea that entropy must always increase, so the starting state of the universe had extremely low entropy.
Jim Al‑Khalili and Eddy Keming Chen say there was no entanglement in the very early universe. The initial state of low entanglement had low thermodynamic entropy.
Al‑Khalili: "Once you .. you have thermodynamic entropy, you have gravity clumping everything up .. Once you have an arrow .. everything else happens on its own."
A decoherent arrow of time suggests the universe will continue to evolve long after its thermodynamic heat death.
Chen: "There's going to be the thermodynamic heat death, everything becomes a soup with no structure, but it will take many, many billions of years later to reach maximum entanglement .. interesting things .. happen after the heat death of the universe."
Al‑Khalili: "The direction of time, I would argue, is fundamental, and therefore time is real."

AR Apart from the vivid headline, this is old news. Continuing cosmic evolution due to rising entanglement entropy was a clear consequence of recent work on the information paradox for black holes. But it's nice to have the big consequence so clearly spelled out.


Chinese Killer Dog
In the recent China−Cambodia "Golden Dragon 2024" military exercise, the People's Liberation Army showed off a robot dog
with an automatic rifle on its back: "It can serve as a new member in our urban combat operations, replacing our members
to conduct reconnaissance and identify enemy and strike the target."



2024 May 27

Chinese Industrial Policy

The New York Times

China accounted for 85% of all clean-energy manufacturing investment in the world in 1922. Now the United States, Europe, and other wealthy nations are planning to subsidize homegrown companies and block competing Chinese products.
China's industrial dominance follows decades of experience using the power of a one-party state. Its unrivaled production of solar panels and electric vehicles is built on an earlier cultivation of key industries and investment in infrastructure.
From 2017 to 2019, China spent 1.7% of its GDP on industrial support, more than twice the share of any other country. It is said to have skirted international trade agreements, engaged in intellectual property theft, and used forced labor.
China's rise to dominance shows the potential and power of national industrial policy. Beijing claims that China has increased the global supply of goods and alleviated international inflation pressures, while helping the world fight climate change.
President Biden will impose tariffs of up to 100% on imports of Chinese green technologies including electric vehicles. The aim is to deny China any more of an opening in America. European officials are expected to impose their own tariffs.
Hong Kong professor Zheng Yongnian: "The West's decision to pursue neoliberal economic policies was a strategic mistake, which led to the deindustrialization of their economies and provided China with an opportunity."

AR China's rise is a remarkable and impressive phenomenon. If the disastrous social aftermath in the United States and the UK had not already done so, that rise demonstrates the grossly wrong-headed decisions in the Reagan−Thatcher era to pursue market-driven "greed is good" policies and promote neoliberal capitalism as the ruling ideology.
Most European governments were more skeptical about the merits of neoliberalism, with the result that EU orthodoxy today is less toxic in its impact on domestic wellbeing than the nationalist nonsense that led to Brexit in the UK.

Netflix trailer
Jennifer Lopez


2024 May 26



Atlas, directed by Brad Peyton and starring Jennifer Lopez, centers on the hunt for a rogue android terrorist named Harlan who flees Earth after a major attack on humanity. This $100 million action flick features an AI specialist named Atlas Shepherd (Lopez) who insists on joining the hunt. Atlas is really about trust and how difficult it is to trust people.

AI shrugged
Alissa Wilkinson

The notion of an AI terrorist, as in Brad Peyton's new sci‑fi action movie Atlas, seems plausible.
That terrorist, Harlan, threatened humanity with extinction, wiping out millions of people before decamping for outer space. Humans left behind on Earth wait uneasily for his second coming.
After years of waiting, the authorities capture an AI bot associated with Harlan. A scientist named Atlas Shepherd (Jennifer Lopez) is called in as the world's leading expert on Harlan. She boards a spacecraft headed for the planet where Harlan has been hiding out.
At times, Atlas feels like pure pastiche, and it looks kind of fake in the big action sequences. Despite having an AI in her home, Shepherd is suspicious of the technology. So most of the movie's tension comes from her relationship to an AI named Smith.
Atlas is concerned with the morality of AI. It says we're wrong to stand in the way of progress.

Netflix mockbuster
Benjamin Lee

Atlas lead Jennifer Lopez is an actor with more star presence than most. An action movie with a sci‑fi bent is something new for her but feels like an awkward mismatch.
As data analyst Atlas Shepherd, Lopez plays someone who was a child raised alongside a robot called Harlan, which then became the world's first AI terrorist before escaping to another planet. Decades later, a mission to capture Harlan is launched with Atlas along for the ride.
Lopez is then situated inside a robotic mech suit, learning to fight and befriending an entity called Smith. As she finds that maybe AI isn't so bad after all. Lopez is stuck with some hideously corny dialog. The scenes of her bonding with Smith are embarrassingly awful.
For a film that wants us to stop worrying and love big tech, Atlas does an awfully good job of showing us why we should still be wary of it.

AR Atlas is made for American teens addicted to shootouts, explosions, and destructive mayhem in chaotic profusion. But if you cut through all that, there's a tender (yet sentimental) tale about friendship and trust transcending the humans-vs-machines divide. As a bonus, there's some really cool tech in the form of a supersized AI mech suit that Atlas drives and survives inside.
Most of the movie is generic, with obvious homage throughout to Aliens and Avatar. But the crafted quality of those James Cameron classics is lost and gone in Atlas. Instead, we get an exuberantly spectacular surfeit of over-the-top action scenes that defy all credibility as they consume vast arsenals of munitions to kill baddies yet not goodies.
The redeeming message of Atlas is that AI is good, so long as the humans who create and deploy it do their jobs well. Naturally, human imperfection makes this precondition hopelessly utopian. The result is a movie for which high hopes are also utopian, but at least it gives US teens a dose of moral uplift along with its orgies of destruction.



2024 May 25

European Rearmament

Radosław Sikorski

Since the end of the Cold War, the West has focused on high-value, hi-tech platforms and weapons. We are only now rediscovering that actually you need large volumes of low-tech stuff as well.
We allowed all those production facilities to be closed down. With hindsight, this looks like a mistake. Europe is lagging behind, and its defence, technological, and industrial base suffers from years of underinvestment.
Vladimir Putin is an absurd leader of international conservatism. We are talking about a KGB colonel. The Russians noticed that on some issues like attitudes to homosexuality, gender, to all kinds of identities, you can drive wedges in our societies.
We should drop the principle of unanimity in sanctions against Russia. Some of them have been delayed by one member state blocking them. Breaching EU sanctions should be an EU crime that can be prosecuted by the European prosecution service.
Poland welcomes the deepest possible inclusion of the UK in the EU security and defence structures. The EU−UK security defence cooperation must be revitalised within a more methodical framework.
I could imagine Britain being a permanent guest at the foreign affairs council. You can count on Poland being very receptive to those ideas.

AR All this reassures me. Poland's security is crucial to European security and hence also to British security. If Poland were to suffer Russian covert attacks or subversion, Germany would be exposed much like Poland is today, and the whole European economy would be affected.
The UK cannot stand back from such developments. Brexit was already a betrayal of European solidarity. Conversely, British military posturing without European coordination would be a lapse in European discipline that could have disastrous consequences.



2024 May 24


Alexandre Lefebvre

Liberals say decent democratic countries must be as inclusive as possible. Religious conservatives see a slow and steady creep of liberal values into areas remote from politics.
I believe their assessment of the scope of liberalism is correct. Liberal ideals and sensibilities have become omnipresent in the public and background culture of western democratic societies.
Religious people get their values and moral sensibility from a church, faith, or religious text. Most religious nones should identify liberalism as the source of the values that underlie who they are.
Liberalism has a characteristic set of values. At its core are personal freedom, fairness, tolerance, reciprocity, self-reflection, and irony, all built on noble ideals.
As an observer of the United States, I see conservatives fearing their views will die out in the current culture. They resist liberalism and use the power of the state to advance their views.
The most vital political movements in the world today are not liberal. They claim to know what a life worth living is for citizens, are confident of support, and will use their powers to advance it.
Instead of talking up our strengths and virtues, we liberals bang on about institutions. Our opponents appeal to identity, meaning, purpose, and redemption.

David Brooks

American pessimism, hostility to elites, and authoritarian tendencies are all average.
The political climate in the United States and across the world is favorable for populists. Populism has emerged as the dominant global movement.
Europeans are bracing for the European Parliament elections next month. The parliament is likely to shift sharply to the right. Anti-Europe populist parties are likely to come out on top in the voting in France, Italy, Austria, Belgium, the Czech Republic, Hungary, the Netherlands, Poland, and Slovakia. Some 40% of European voters aged up to 35 have moved toward the right or far right.
American politicians are tossed about by global conditions beyond their control.

AR I tend to share Lefebvre's view of liberalism. I see it as a more or less secular (subject to his commentary) offshoot of Christianity. Populism, by contrast, is like Protestantism, a rude upstart in comparison but moved by mostly decent sentiments.



2024 May 23

The UK General Election

Financial Times

The UK government has seemed to be living on borrowed time. The Conservatives lag behind the opposition Labour party by almost 21 points in polling. With prices more than 20% higher than in 2021, the promise that things might be better tomorrow is thin gruel from a party in power for 14 years.
Parties need to address four main questions:
  How to resolve the strains in healthcare, education, policing, local government, and defence
  How to raise the necessary revenues and overhaul the tax system
  How to level up left-behind areas and revive productivity growth
  How to improve competitiveness and tap into new growth sectors
The UK needs a vision for its relationship with Europe and the wider world.

AR A lot to do, and neither main party is up to the scale of the challenge. Their campaign platforms are focused on the next 5−10 years, when generational thinking is required.


Dream Chaser
Sierra Space
Sierra Space's Dream Chaser is set to use its first trip to orbit to deliver supplies to the International Space Station later this year.
Dream Chaser is a lifting-body spacecraft that launches on a rocket and lands on a runway. It will carry about 5 tons of cargo
and could also make suborbital flights to deliver urgent supplies on Earth.



Optical Neural Networks

Amos Zeeberg

Computing with photons looks promising. Optical signals have more bandwidth than electrical ones, they can compute more in less time and with less latency, and they can do so using less energy.
An optical neural network (ONN) on a silicon chip encodes input data into beams of light and sends the beams through a series of gates. The ONN computes by repeatedly splitting the beams, changing their phase, and recombining them, then photodetectors measure them to show the result.
A new ONN called HITOP scales up throughput with time, space, and wavelength to push more data through the ONN faster, driving down cost. HITOP performs about 1 Tflops. The best Nvidia chips do 300 Tflops, but the HITOP energy cost is a thousand times lower.
A new chip-based ONN shines a laser onto part of the semiconductor substrate to change its optical properties. The laser maps the route for the optical signal to define a calculation. Since it is easily reconfigured, the model can be trained after installation on the semiconductor.
Optical computing is still in its infancy, but within a decade, an ONN could make some AI models a thousand times more efficient.

AR The field will be called photonics, by analogy with electronics. In future, the idea of computing by pushing crowds of electrons through resistive media will seem hopelessly clumsy. Orchestrating photons as they zip around at light speed will seem the obvious way to go − once we develop the skills to do so. Looking out further, photonic quantum computing will be a whole new world.

Rishi Sunak
UK PM Rishi Sunak announces
July 4 general election


2024 May 22

Nuclear War

J P O'Malley

Nuclear War: A Scenario by Annie Jacobsen shows the prospect of nuclear war is still alarmingly real.
In December 1960, US officials convened in Nebraska to share a secret plan to hit Moscow in a pre-emptive first nuclear strike. The plan (SIOP) calculated that 275 million people would be killed in the first hour and that at least 325 million more would die from radioactive fallout within 6 months.
In June 1983, Ronald Reagan ordered a war game to predict the outcome of a major nuclear war. Large parts of the northern hemisphere would be left uninhabitable for decades, with 500 million people killed in the initial nuclear exchanges. This forecast led Reagan to reach out to the Soviets.
In October 1986, Reagan met with Soviet premier Mikhail Gorbachev at the Reykjavik Summit. The global nuclear weapons stockpile was then over 70,000. In July 1991, the United States and the USSR signed a treaty to reduce their deployed nuclear warheads to below 6,000 each by about 2020.
The nuclear winter following a war between the United States and Russia could kill 5 billion people.

Russia begins tactical nuclear weapon drills
Pjotr Sauer

Russian forces have started military drills near Ukraine simulating use of tactical nuclear weapons. Vladimir Putin ordered the drills earlier this month.

AR I used to think about the prospect of nuclear war in my teens, when the movie Dr Strangelove was new and RAND researcher Herman Kahn said "spasm war" would kill hundreds of millions.
Ever since then, "thinking the unthinkable" (in all its guises) has been my main preoccupation as a philosopher. A psychologist may see a link there.

Scarlett Johansson


2024 May 21

Sounds Like Scarlett Johansson

Alissa Wilkinson

In 2013, the movie her seemed like a fantasy. Its AI assistant Samantha was voiced by Scarlett Johansson. OpenAI CEO Sam Altman said he loved her.
At the reveal of ChatGPT‑4o, its AI assistant Sky sounded like Samantha. Altman posted the word "her" to his X account.
During the reveal, an engineer asked Sky to solve a math problem. When he scolded Sky for starting to solve the problem before even seeing it, she giggled and said: "Whoops, I got too excited. I'm ready when you are!"
When shown a written "I  ChatGPT" sign, she said: "That's so sweet of you!"

AR Johansson twice declined when OpenAI asked her to be the voice of Sky. So I guess the judges will rule in her favor in the upcoming litigation. This is all good publicity for ChatGPT‑4o, but Johansson may be missing a trick here. I think she could make more money by licensing her voice to OpenAI than she would lose thru any likely reputational damage at being that voice.
More generally, lawyers worldwide seem likely to be more generous to content providers whose work is hoovered up by AI than is consistent with their likely financial loss. An AI trained from Johansson's voice could equally have been fed with a similar − or synthesized − voice. All the law will do is force expensive workarounds.
Open AI has now dropped the Johansson-like voice from the Sky voice options. Losers all round − except for the lawyers, of course.



2024 May 20

How AIs Think

Matthew Hutson

Explainable AI (XAI) can help explain AI systems.
Large language models (LLMs) power chatbots and are particularly inexplicable. Researchers probed an LLM that had 52 billion parameters to reveal which bits of the training data it used while answering questions. When they asked it whether it consented to being shut down, they found it drew on texts about survival to compose its response.
Some researchers interrogate LLM workings by asking the models to explain themselves. This approach resembles those used in human psychology. Treating an LLM as a human subject like this can illuminate sophisticated behaviors. Chain-of-thought prompting can get LLMs to show their thinking, but the models can confabulate their responses.
In causal tracing, researchers give a model a prompt and let it answer, then give it another prompt and watch it say something else. They then take some of the internal activations resulting from the first prompt and variously restore them until the model gives the first answer in reply to the second prompt. They can then edit what the model knows.
XAI is still work in progress.

What is thought?
Kate Douglas

Thinking is surprisingly hard to pin down. Even the experts are unsure about what thoughts are. Neuroimaging studies suggest we may never truly pin down how they manifest in the brain.
Cognitive neuroscientist Kalina Christoff: "Thought is a mental state, or series of mental states, that has some kind of content to it, with some personal attitudes toward the content, like an attitude of remembering or believing or imagining."
Thoughts are independent of any stimulus produced by the object of thought. Three streams feed into our consciousness to trigger them: exteroceptive (from the outside world), interoceptive (from the body) and conceptive (from the subconscious mind).
Christoff: "The mind emerges out of a physical substrate, the brain, and the relationship of emergence is not deterministic."

AR My first systematic attempt to think about thought was at Oxford in 1971. Back then, the topic was mired in a legacy of bad metaphysics in the Cartesian tradition. Starting some 20 years ago, neuroscience has been transformed by hard data and massive computational models.
Traces of the metaphysics remain (not least in work on the hard problem of consciousness), but generally the field has changed beyond recognition. Philosophy has given birth to a new science. Clouds of fog have dispersed. Yet the problem of thought remains.


On Sunday afternoon, hiking over a hilltop overlooking Poole Bay, I waded barefoot through fields of buttercups

Warner Bros
her is a 2013 movie written
and directed by Spike Jonze:
Lonely man (Joaquin Phoenix)
develops relationship with AI
virtual assistant (voice by
Scarlett Johansson)


2024 May 19


Manohla Dargis (2013)

She sounds young and friendly. For Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix), that voice (Scarlett Johansson) is a lifeline to the world, from which he has drifted apart since he separated from his wife.
Her is the unlikely yet plausible love story about a man, who sometimes resembles a machine, and an operating system, who very much suggests a living woman. Theodore runs the software on his home computer and phone. It calls itself Samantha.
Phoenix is an actor who excels at exquisite isolation. He plays wounded, stunted souls whose agonies are expressed in halting words and somatic contortions. His Theodore presents a harmless, defeated picture. Samantha saves him from solitude.
Written by Spike Jonze, her features plenty of talk and comparably little action. In her, the great question isn't whether machines can think, but whether human beings can still feel.

AR Last night I watched her again, for the second time, and the first time in over 10 years. It's as good now as it was then, understated but effective, a sharp portrait of a man who needed the help his OS gave him. One can read it as a proof that assigning sentience to future AI systems really won't be a problem; on the contrary, not doing so will be.

2024 May 18

New ChatGPT Is Her

Jeff Yang

OpenAI's latest version of its LLM is GPT‑4o. The lowercase "o" on its name stands for omnimodal: GPT‑4o can accept input in any combination of text, image, or audio, and can produce any combination of them as output.
GPT‑4o can comprehend human speech and respond in kind. It speaks with stunning fluidity and startling fidelity, interacting at the same brisk pace as humans do, in what will eventually be more than 50 different languages.
GPT‑4o can interactively provide wellness advice based on simple auditory cues, verbally explain how to solve a handwritten algebra problem step by step, and function as a real-time translator, interpreting between people speaking different languages.
The primary goal with GPT‑4o is enabling more natural human−computer interaction. GPT‑4o displays a personality that's close to human and surprisingly appealing, even when it glitches.
OpenAI CEO Sam Altman says his favorite sci‑fi movie is her, about a man who falls in love with a self-aware and constantly evolving AI assistant.

The race for an AI‑powered personal assistant
Madhumita Murgia

An AI assistant is a personalized bot to help you work, create, communicate, and interface with the digital world. They are among a flurry of new AI developments from Google and its AI division DeepMind, as well as Microsoft-backed OpenAI.
The new AI tools are multimodal: They can interpret voice, video, images, and code in a single interface, and also carry out complex tasks like live translations or planning a family holiday.
OpenAI CTO Mira Murati: "We're looking at the future of interaction between ourselves and the machines."
Google CEO Sundar Pichai says AI agents are intelligent systems that show reasoning, planning, and memory, and can think ahead and work across software and systems.
Apple is expected to be a major player in this race. OpenAI has sealed a deal with Apple to create a desktop app for Macs. Apple has a massive existing user base, with more than 2.2 billion active devices around the world.
Google DeepMind CEO Demis Hassabis: "Imagine agents that can see and hear what we do, better understand the context we're in, and respond quickly in conversation, making the pace and quality of interaction feel much more natural."
Meta chief AI scientist Yann LeCun: "We will be talking to these AI assistants all the time. Our entire digital diet will be mediated by AI systems."

AI safety man quits
Dan Milmo

Former OpenAI safety researcher Jan Leike has quit. He co‑headed superalignment, ensuring that powerful AI systems adhere to human values and aims. He quit days after the launch of GPT‑4o.
Leike: "Building smarter-than-human machines is an inherently dangerous endeavour. OpenAI is shouldering an enormous responsibility on behalf of all of humanity."

AR This development appears to realize the promise of the chatbots released last year. But it sounds like much more than a consolidation release. The threshold for widespread user acceptance comes with speed, fluency, and personality. All now nailed.
The next step will be to go for the humanoid form factor. Building the chatbots into android bodies will bring another new level of user acceptance (or protest). By then, the bots will have conquered AGI territory and we'll be in the promised land.



2024 May 17

Climate Change: Economic Damage

Oliver Milman

In a new working paper, researchers say a 1 K increase in global temperature leads to a 12% decline in global GDP. Climate scientists predict a 3 K rise by 2100 due to ongoing burning of fossil fuels.
A co-author of the paper, Harvard economist Adrien Bilal: "There will still be some economic growth happening, but by the end of the century people may well be 50% poorer than they would've been if it wasn't for climate change."
Bilal says purchasing power would already be 37% higher than it is now without the global heating seen over the past 50 years. The new paper, not yet peer-reviewed, calculates the social cost of carbon emissions to be about $1 per kg.
Even with steep emissions cuts, climate change will have a heavy economic cost. If global heating is restrained to little more than 1.5 K by 2100, the GDP losses are still around 15%.
Rising temperatures, heavier rainfall, and more frequent and intense extreme weather are projected to cause $38 trillion of destruction each year by 2050.

AR We cannot expect neoliberal governments in capitalist national economies to orchestrate an effective response to the challenge of climate change. Only more authoritarian governments, acting together in the global self-interest, can reasonably be expected to do so. Sadly, this "solution" is hopelessly utopian and altogether unlikely to be implemented at sufficient scale in time.
Perhaps this challenge will be existentially damning for human civilization as we know it. Like those Easter Islanders who cut down all their trees for vanity projects and lost the basis for their survival, humans in this century will be decimated and the survivors driven back to a more primitive lifestyle and forced to recapitulate recent progress on more solid foundations.


Peace in rural Dorset on Friday — priceless



2024 May 16

Civil War

Manohla Dargis

Civil War shows the United States at war with itself. The president is holed up in the White House. The Western Forces lead the charge against what remains of the federal government.
The movie is a nightmare stoked by memories of January 6. Director Alex Garland explores the unbearable if not the unthinkable. When the movie opens, the fight has been raging for an undisclosed period, with the divisions behind the conflict left to your imagination.
Kirsten Dunst plays Lee, a war photographer alongside her friend, reporter Joel (Wagner Moura). We meet them in New York, milling through a crowd anxiously waiting for water rations, when a bomb goes off. By then, aspiring photojournalist Jessie (Cailee Spaeny) is also in the mix.
Lee, Joel, Jessie, and veteran reporter Sammy (Stephen McKinley Henderson) pile into a van and head to Washington. Joel and Lee are hoping to interview the president, and Sammy and Jessie are riding along, Sammy as the wise old man, Jessie as the eager upstart.
Civil War is brutal. The carnage feels incessant, palpably realistic, direct, at times shockingly casual and unsettling. The premise makes the movie tough going.

AR I saw the movie for the third time today. I find it well made and effective. The unexplained background, the brutally violent gunplay, and the wistfully tragic tone of the descent into hell are all good choices to flesh out the promise of the premise of the nightmare.
The obvious cinematic comparison is with Francis Ford Coppola's 1979 Vietnam epic Apocalypse Now. Much of the construction and ludic irony look like conscious homage to Coppola's classic. But the fictional setting, the focus on the personal drama, and the brief screenplay are contrasts.
A more intriguing comparison is with the 1969 road movie Easy Rider with Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper. The episodic action along the road trip and the use of mood music seem parallel. But this time the utter contrast of tone and topic suggest a darker conclusion.
America has changed radically in the 55 years between 1969 and 2024. The year of Apollo and Woodstock was a time of happiness and hope in America, despite Vietnam and race riots. The year 2024 looks much bleaker, as Garland's nightmare reflects all too well.



2024 May 15


Emine Saner

Sarah Thornton's new book Tits Up is a deep dive into our fixation with boobs. Writing it has transformed how she views breasts: "I did not realise how deeply patriarchal even my own view of breasts was. I was dismissing them as dumb boobs."
She doesn't want to be a killjoy: "But the sexualisation of breasts causes many women a lot of stress, anxiety and dissatisfaction. That is a real shame, if not a serious political problem."
Thornton traces the sexualisation of breasts to France: "You need breasts to be disconnected from their primary use in order for them to be fully eroticised, and the first real cultural evidence of that is in French Renaissance painting."
Thornton: "I genuinely believe that the dismissal of our breasts for the complex things they are is a serious problem for women."

A respect long overdue
Lucinda Rosenfeld

Sarah Thornton says women's breasts are unjustly sexualized and trivialized. She argues that the derogatory way western culture views tits helps perpetuate the patriarchy.
She says breasts have been seen as "visible obstacles to equality, associated with nature and nurture rather than reason and power" and asks readers to reimagine the bosom as a site of empowerment.
After writing a survey of the new-millennium art world, Thornton arrived at her new topic after undergoing a double mastectomy in 2018. Then she hit the research road.
She interviews a diverse group of strippers, feminist sex activists, and performance artists, then concludes that strippers' breasts might be seen less as sex toys than as salaried assistants. She visits the women at a nonprofit milk reservoir and reflects on the economics of jugs.
She visits a bra designer and decides it's past time to stop hiding our nipples. She visits a plastic surgeon and concludes that breast alterations are outside the logic of resistance or submission. She attends a California retreat for women to practice alternative spirituality.
A final thought: "Women have no federal right to breastfeed or to obtain an abortion, but we have the right to fake tits."

AR I agree that this is a serious political issue on which cool reason should prevail. Viewing breasts as sex toys is surely a pathology that should frame the viewer as silly and infantile. Public breastfeeding and nipple exposure should be indulged without censure.
I know this is a counsel of philosophical perfection that may demand too much of men who lack the composure to stay cool. But the weakness of some men should not be accepted as a reason to curtail the freedom of women on this most basic of issues.

LGM-35 Sentinel GBSD
US nuclear arsenal
modernization program:
$2 trillion plus


2024 May 14

European Fears

Nathalie Tocci

Fear is pushing European governments and institutions to make poor choices in world affairs:
  Fear of nuclear Armageddon or Russian implosion explains their inconsistency on Russia's invasion of Ukraine. Instead of supporting Ukraine more when they fight back well, European governments do more when Ukraine is struggling.
  Fear helps explain their approach to Africa and the Mideast. European demographics should lead to a rational debate on fostering legal migration, but instead fear explains the current scramble for unethical deals to stop migration to Europe.
  Fear haunts them in the Israeli−Palestinian conflict. The EU is a major trade partner for Israel and the Palestinians' biggest aid donor, but fear of antisemitism prevents criticism of Israel. Europeans see a human catastrophe but fail to act.
  Fear of changes in both America and China has led to paralysis in forming consistent European policies toward them.
Europeans need to rethink their role in world affairs.

AR All this is overly one-sided criticism. Increased timidity is a rational response to a diminution in the European presence, both economic and demographic, in world affairs. Vainglorious attempts to deny or undo this diminution are still all too evident in some national responses.
A shared European perception of the dimensions of this diminution would be welcome for the sake of consistency. As it is, states like Hungary and the UK nurse nationalist delusions that make them outliers. The only continent-wide regimentation is economic, not military.
Fear of US disengagement from NATO and Europe are rational. Fears of Russian disruption of Europe and the cost of responding are rational. Fears of chaos due to mass migration, resource shortages, environmental destruction, and climate change are all rational.



2024 May 13


Rahul Jandial

Dreams may play a bigger role in our lives than we thought.
For decades, dreaming studies focused on rapid eye movement and concluded that we spend about two hours a night dreaming. But researchers at sleep labs find dreaming is possible at any stage of sleep. We may spend almost a third of our lives dreaming.
Dreams are the product of changes the brain undergoes each night. The rational, executive network in the brain is switched off, and the imaginative and emotional parts are dialled way up. The dreaming mind has free rein in a way that has no parallel in our waking lives.
The sleeping brain burns glucose and pulses with electricity to produce dreams. Attempts to explain their evolutionary benefits include keeping our minds nimble, playing wild scenarios to help us understand the everyday, delivering therapy, and rehearsing threats.
The dreaming brain shuts the body down through a form of paralysis. People who have had enough sleep but are dream deprived start dreaming as soon as they fall asleep again. In the absence of sleep, vivid dreams can even emerge into waking life.
The brain needs to sleep. We need to dream.

AR I see dreaming as the mental flipside of electrical activity in the brain. The electrical music manifests phenomenally as free imagery, unlinked from bodily movements. This may be a basic requirement for the conscious operation of the neural network during waking hours.
The requirement may map directly to a corresponding need in present and future artificial neural networks. Such a temptingly plausible mapping invites the speculation that ANNs have inner phenomenology − minds − just as we do. Like us, they may be conscious.



2024 May 12

Dyson Spheres

Jonathan O'Callaghan

Two surveys of millions of stars in our galaxy have revealed mysterious spikes in IR radiation from dozens of them. This could be evidence for alien civilizations harnessing energy from their stars using Dyson spheres.
A Dyson sphere is a hypothetical structure surrounding an entire star to absorb its energy. It could enable advanced aliens to draw huge amounts of power. If such objects exist, their IR signature could alert us to the presence of alien life.
Two teams of astronomers combined data from the ESA Gaia satellite with IR survey results from ground and space telescopes. Each team analyzed the same 5 million stars from the combined datasets, and both turned up unexplained signs of excess IR in 60 of them.
Among red dwarfs within 900 ly of Earth, 7 were up to 60 times brighter in IR than expected. This excess would have been caused by something with a temperature of up to 400 C, with up to a sixth of each star obscured, suggesting a variant of the idea called a Dyson swarm. The other candidates were found among larger stars at distances of up to 6500 ly from Earth.
A natural explanation that could produce the IR spikes is that the stars are surrounded by hot, planet-forming debris disks, but most of the stars found appear to be too old for this. The JWST could explore these stars.

AR Dyson spheres and swarms have intrigued me for decades. They would be the best giveaway for advanced alien civilizations, given our present powers of detection. Freeman Dyson was quite a visionary on such future space technology.


⦿ Martin Meissner / AP
Nemo: "I broke the code"



2024 May 11

Eurovision Song Contest

Malmö, Sweden

Switzerland won the 68th Eurovision song contest. Swiss singer Nemo won with the song The Code.

AR It was a great show. And Nemo was a worthy winner.



2024 May 10

UK Life Gets Worse

George Monbiot

Life in the UK is in a doom loop. There was a time when Brits believed that a rising economic tide would lift all boats. Everybody would have a good home, jobs would get better, we would enjoy greater economic security, education and healthcare and health would improve, the UK would get cleaner and greener, and governance would get better.
Instead almost everything has gone to shit. Poverty, morbidity, educational exclusion, wretched housing, crumbling infrastructure, and bad jobs have all returned with a vengeance. Newcomers include environmental chaos, political dysfunction and misrule, impunity for the powerful, cruelty toward the powerless, and "woke" wars.
The reason for this horror show is neoliberalism. This doctrine says our wellbeing is best realised through the market. It will determine who succeeds and who does not, and everything that impedes the creation of this "natural order" should be shoved aside. Neoliberalism has dominated life in the UK for 45 years.
Neoliberalism is the means by which rulers seek to solve the problem of democracy. It works through the state, the force behind market forces, the whip enforcing economic freedom. Governance in the UK feels like one long trick played on the public.

AR Hard truths that explain the demise of the Conservative party, compounded by the folly of Brexit, and the rise of the Labour party. Whether the next government will at last abandon the delusion of market fundamentalism, time will tell. It's hard to be hopeful in face of so many years of misrule at the behest of plutocrats with tax havens.

May 9


2024 May 9

New AI Tools Predict How Biomolecular Structures Assemble

Yasemin Saplakoglu

Knowing what proteins look like is critical to untangling how they function and malfunction. Researchers can now use machine learning algorithms to predict the folded shapes of not only proteins but other biomolecules with high accuracy.
Google DeepMind's AlphaFold3 can predict the structures of proteins, DNA, RNA, ligands, and other biomolecules, either alone or bound together in different ways. The tool follows a similar updated algorithm, RoseTTAFold All-Atom.
The previous versions of these algorithms predicted protein structures. AlphaFold2 unlocked an immense world of previously unknown protein structures. A competing algorithm, RoseTTAFold, also predicted protein structures from sequence data.
RoseTTAFold Diffusion can be used to design new proteins. AlphaFold Multimer can look at the interaction of multiple proteins. Based on a limited data set, AlphaFold3 appears to be more accurate than RoseTTAFold All-Atom.
Google will make AlphaFold3 accessible by offering a new server to biologists running it. Predicting biomolecular structures takes a lot of computing power.

Accurate structure prediction of biomolecular interactions with AlphaFold3
Josh Abramson et al

AlphaFold3 can predict the joint structure of complexes including proteins, nucleic acids, small molecules, ions, and modified residues. The model shows that accurate modeling across biomolecular space is possible within a single unified deep learning framework.

AR This sort of thing is what the new AI tools do best. Any model for natural-language usage is soon involved in the hotly embattled but illogical human politics surrounding diversity, inclusion, and equity. Outside science, AI results need human curation.



2024 May 8

Global Heating

Damian Carrington

Hundreds of leading climate scientists expect global temperatures to rise by at least 2.5 K this century.
A Guardian survey shows that almost 80% of respondents from the IPCC foresee at least 2.5 K of global heating above preindustrial levels. Almost half, including more than half of those under 50, anticipate at least 3 K. Only 6% say the 1.5 K limit will be met.
The climate crisis is already damaging lives and livelihoods around the world, with only 1.2 K of global heating on average over the past 4 years. Current climate policies leave the world on track for about 2.7 K of heating this century.
A scientist: "We live in an age of fools."

AR We live in an age where global governance is still in the hands of national politicians with short time horizons. We need to put more power in the hands of scientists. Perhaps a suitable future AI system can decide which powers to allocate to them.



2024 May 7

All the Light We Cannot See

Anthony Doerr

Marie-Laure lives in Paris near the Museum of Natural History, where her father works. When she is 12, the Nazis occupy Paris and father and daughter flee to the walled citadel of Saint-Malo, where Marie-Laure's reclusive great uncle lives in a tall house by the sea. With them they carry what might be the museum's most valuable and dangerous jewel.
Anthony Doerr is the author of six books and is a two-time National Book Award finalist. His fiction has won five O Henry Prizes, the Pulitzer Prize, and the Carnegie Medal.

AR I found this a wonderful novel. Its form and style are thoroughly readable, its story is compelling and beautifully organized, and its characters are deftly drawn and eminently credible. Altogether, I would compare this novel with the best of Günter Grass but rate it a notch higher.



2024 May 6

Quantum Reality

Michael Brooks

We are starting to view the cosmos as a quantum whole linked by entanglement.
Entanglement defies common sense. Get two quantum particles to interact in some way, then perform a measurement on one and do the same on the other. In the right circumstances, you find the properties of the two particles are correlated.
In Bell tests, two entangled photons are generated by the same source and sent to Alice and Bob. They each randomly choose to measure the spin of their photon along one of three directions, then compare observations to assess the correlation. Quantum correlations violate the Bell inequality.
Bell inequalities have been violated in countless laboratory experiments. Entanglement has been demonstrated between a wide range of entities. That might change if we do Bell tests inside a particle collider at a trillion times higher energy.
Collider experiments could change how we see space. Traditional Bell tests examine entanglement over large distances, but correlations over tiny distances are equally interesting. Collide tests at the fm scale might tell us space emerges from entanglement.
High energies bring a new world of particles into play. When particles are accelerated close to the speed of light, some of the beam energy is turned into virtual particles. These fleeting disturbances in the fields inside the collider are involved in a range of fascinating phenomena.
Collider experiments could even solve the measurement problem.

AR It certainly seems worth testing entanglement at the fm scale, but I doubt it will reveal anything new. I would expect space to dissolve at much smaller distances, way down near the Planck scale. Down there, I'd expect Bell correlations to go haywire.

2024 May 5

The Elephant and the Blind

Thomas Metzinger

Views of meditators:
"Space expanded and time no longer played a role, there was only pure being, a pure feeling of happiness."
"It reveals itself as pure presence, no thoughts, no physical sensations. A feeling of fullness and emptiness at the same time."
"The perception of the body disappears .. One notices the disconnection only when consciousness realizes that it moves completely free as light in an infinite space."
"There was no self-experience, but sounds were perceptible. My body schema no longer existed .. no experience of time, no words."
"There was a sensation of 'being turned inside out,' as if I had slipped through the eye of a needle, and everything dissolved."

AR MIT Press has made the text Open Access.

2024 May 4

Pure Consciousness

Alun Anderson

The Elephant and the Blind
The experience of pure consciousness: philosophy, science, and 500+ experiential reports
Thomas Metzinger

Thomas Metzinger: "Consciousness can exist not only in the absence of thought and sensory perception, but even without time experience, without self-location in a spatial frame of reference, and without any egoic form of bodily self-consciousness."
Metzinger says we already know what pure awareness is, but says consciousness "is simply too close for us to see, too profound for us to fathom, too simple for us to believe, or even too good for us to accept" and advises we develop a Bewusstseinskultur.

AR This is a must-read for me, even at over 600 pages. I discussed consciousness with Metzinger on several occasions earlier this century and hold him in high esteem as a thinker. His big and hard book Being No One (2004) influenced me greatly some 20 years ago.


At a friend's country house in a village near Łódź, Poland, May 1

BLOG 2024 Q2


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