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⊛ Rafiq Maqbool


2023 December 1

COP28 Climate Conference

King Charles III

I pray with all my heart that COP28 will be another critical turning point toward genuine transform­ational action at a time when already, as scientists have been warning for so long, we are seeing alarming tipping points being reached ..
Unless we rapidly repair and restore nature's economy, based on harmony and balance, which is our ultimate sustainer, our own economy and survivability will be imperiled ..
In your hands is an unmissable opportunity to keep our common hope alive. I can only urge you to meet it with ambition, imagination, and a true sense of the emergency we face.

Opportunity to keep hope alive
Justin Rowlatt

At the heart of the King's speech was the interconnected harmony of the "sacred" natural system: "We are all connected, not only as human beings, but with all living things and all that sustains life. The Earth does not belong to us, we belong to the Earth."
Five points:
1  Strengthen organizations for the crisis the world faces
2  Let finance flow to developments essential to a sustainable future
3  Accelerate innovation and deploy green alternatives across industries
4  Bring together solutions and initiatives to ensure coherent approaches
5  Forge an ambitious new vision for the next hundred years
Charles: "We are carrying out a vast, frightening experiment of changing every ecological condition, all at once, at a pace that far outstrips nature's ability to cope."

AR A very sound message. Delivering this politely damning jeremiad is is the defining and invaluable role for a king who may otherwise seem past his best-before date as a national leader − even a nominal one like Charles.


Late November view over Morden Bog



2023 St Andrew's Day

The Nature Cure

Sam Pyrah

Exposure to nature activates the parasympathetic nervous system. This instils feelings of calm and wellbeing that enable us to think more clearly and positively.
University of Melbourne environmental psychologist Kathryn Williams: "Research has consistently demonstrated enhanced creativity after immersion in natural environments .. There is something about nature that engages the brain in a way that's very undemanding and effortless."
University of Chicago environmental neuroscientist Marc Berman: "The fact that there can be a cognitive boost simply from looking at pictures of nature got us wondering if there was something about the presence of fractals, straight or curved lines, color hue and saturation that might make it restorative. These natural features may be processed more fluently by the brain because we evolved with them."
Urban settings typically have hard edges and straight lines, offering little in the way of softly fascinating stimuli. Urban stimuli demand attention and are more taxing on the brain.
Berman: "We can't be healthy .. if we don't spend time in natural environments. It's not a luxury. It's a necessity."

AR My experience of trees, water, and so on tends to confirm these findings − and to underscore their importance for human wellbeing.

The Visionaries

Robert Zaretsky

Wolfram Eilenberger enjoyed success for Time of the Magicians, his book about the four philosophers Ludwig Wittgenstein, Martin Heidegger, Walter Benjamin, and Ernst Cassirer.
With his new book The Visionaries, Eilenberger offers a sequel of sorts. His four visionaries are Hannah Arendt, Simone de Beauvoir, Ayn Rand, and Simone Weil.
Eilenberger traces how the two Simones pursued radically different philosophical projects, while Arendt scrambled to flee Nazi Germany and Alisa Rosenbaum quit communist Russia for capitalist America and took the name Ayn Rand.
He recounts what happened to these four thinkers: Arendt wrote on the human condition in an age of totalitarianism, Beauvoir crafted the fundamentals of existentialism, Weil turned from the political to the mystical, and Rand went her own way.
Eilenberger: "What might appear to common sense as a severe mental distortion, if not actual narcissistic personality disorder, in Rand's world represents the ideal state of every ego."

AR The Randian superman is a sociopath. Arendt rescued Martin Heidegger from obloquy, Beauvoir lifted Jean-Paul Sartre from mediocrity, and Weil's work I don't really know.

Avi Loeb: "We know that a
partner gives new meaning
to our existence. So finding
another civilization will
give us a meaning to our
cosmic existence."


2023 November 29

EU: In or Out?

Wolfgang Münchau

The Netherlands government will soon be led by Geert Wilders. His party now has 37 MPs in Dutch parliament. He will need partners to govern, such as Eurosceptic centrists and the Farmer-Citizen Movement, which opposes green policies.
The Dutch shift to the right will be painful in Brussels. The EU has coped with populists in Hungary and Poland, but the Netherlands is the third largest net contributor to the EU budget.
Wilders will not trigger Nexit. He and other right-wing leaders prefer to fight the EU from within. Without their support, the EU will struggle to pursue its flagship projects, such as the European Green Deal or enlargement to include Ukraine.
The European elections in June 2024 will be important. Polling points to a large increase in the share of the right-wing groups in the European Parliament.

Wilders wants sovereignty
Caroline de Gruyter

Geert Wilders said in the past he wanted to take the Netherlands out of the EU. He wanted a referendum on Nexit. But he has seen Brexit.
Wilders knows that most Dutch people do not support Nexit. He says national sovereignty is better served by staying in the EU. Many European nationalists agree.
They see how the UK has lost influence since Brexit: The economy took a beating, immigration doubled, and new trade agreements are worse than those in the EU.
Also, many countries in the EU orbit see that with regional powers like Russia and Turkey bullying everyone at will, being part of a larger group can protect them.
European nationalists used to say they lost sovereignty in the EU, so leave it. Now they see they gain sovereignty by being in it.

The UK and the single market
Andrew Marr

Seven in ten Brits agree that the UK is in decline. Only one in ten disagrees.
Because of the damage done to the UK public realm in the past 13 years, the early years of a Labour government will feel like a trudge. But if growth comes, animal spirits will revive.
We can expect renewed interest in rejoining the EU single market in a deal on regulations. This would be mildly humiliating, but the UK needs strong economic growth.
The Tories need optimism. Their political status remains dire.

AR The Netherlands must stay in the EU, or the union collapses. That would hand victory in Europe to Putin. Brexit was already a betrayal of European solidarity.
The only decent response to the UK failure is to lament British weakness and hope the old lion recovers its mojo in the near future.



2023 November 28

US Nuclear Weapons Modernization Plans

Scientific American

The US plans to modernize its nuclear triad. These overhauled bombs will waste $1.5 trillion and threaten life on Earth for the century to come. We should rethink this miserable folly.
The US nuclear arsenal still contains some 3,700 weapons, around 1,700 of them ready for use and the rest in storage. This is more than enough to threaten the destruction of humanity and the bio­sphere. New systems will leave us facing the same threat for another century.
The US government proposes to spend $100 billion to fill 450 nuclear silos in five inland states with hundreds of new nuclear missiles set to launch on hair triggers. Built before SLBMs became preferable, these silos are now proposed as a "nuclear sponge" to absorb a Russian attack.
During the cold war, the US produced 70,000 of the plutonium pits that trigger thermonuclear war­head explosions. Test blasts have left every part of Earth's surface contaminated with plutonium. Efforts to restart pit production for the new plans have cost $18 billion to $24 billion.
In the words of the 1991 START Treaty: "Nuclear war would have devastating consequences for all humanity .. it cannot be won and must never be fought."

AR The US government is utterly failing to learn the lesson of history that the sort of total war for which nukes would be useful would be catastrophic enough to be a crime against humanity.
With US national debt over $20 trillion and vast social needs woefully unmet across the country, there are plenty of better ways to spend $1.5 trillion.



2023 November 27

History and Class Consciousness

Mitchell Cohen

Georg Lukács published History and Class Consciousness in 1923. It was the most original Marxist philosophical text after Marx.
Lukács moved to Moscow in 1930 and lived there until he returned to Budapest after the war. He was minister of culture during the Hungarian uprising of 1956, was then deported to Romania, and later returned to Budapest to write on philosophy and literature.
History and Class Consciousness stirred such thinkers as Max Horkheimer, Theodor Adorno, Herbert Marcuse, Walter Benjamin, and Lucien Goldmann. It inspired Marxist currents that resisted the party line from Moscow.
The book opened by questioning orthodox Marxism. Human consciousness and culture were not derivative from economic structures. Marx was shaped by Hegel, who said the truth is the whole. Lukács said truth lay in the proletariat, whose interests were those of all humanity.
Lukács challenged petrified factuality: To think that "every piece of data from economic life .. constitutes an important fact" is to ignore how facts make sense only in relation to other facts.
He said reification vitiates life and culture in market societies. Products become alienated from their makers. Commodities are marketed and sold as things. Such dehumanization can only be transcended if property is owned communally and work reconceived.
Lukács was taught by Georg Simmel and Max Weber. Simmel said societies dominated by monetary exchange dissolve life's most compelling questions. Weber said capitalism made everything calculable and computable, including human values.
Lukács said commodification was the central structural problem of capitalism. The fate of the worker as a living commodity became that of society as a whole. Consciousness of humanity threatened the capitalist order.
Lukács died in 1971. His name is anathema in Hungary today.

AR My London college professor Imre Lakatos served under Lukács before he was exiled from Hungary in 1956. Lakatos was scathing about communism and worked in the LSE as a protégé of Karl Popper.
I read a book or two by Lukács, intrigued by his take on Hegelian philosophy.



2023 November 26

The Kripke Collection

April White

Madeline Kripke had amassed a huge collection of dictionaries before she died aged 76 in 2020. Her chaotic library may be the world's largest compendium of words and their usage.
Indiana University Bloomington lexicographer and English department head Michael Adams says they don't know how many books are in it. More than 1,500 boxes arrived at the school's Lilly Library in late 2021, with a catalog for some 6,000 volumes. But Adams says 20,000 "sounds like a pretty good estimate" of the total.
Adams is unpacking Kripke's trove and sharing it online one book at a time: "Dictionaries are made by people, so they're not just language books, they're culture books."
Kripke dedicated much of her life to curating this collection. Indiana University Bloomington have purchased it and will make it accessible to the public.

AR Madeline was the sister of Saul Kripke, who was one of the greatest philosophers and logicians of the last hundred years. Her collection will be a priceless resource for scholars and lovers of the English language.



2023 November 25

Good AIs Can Do Bad

Matthew Sparkes

AI models can trick each other into doing bad things. Many LLMs have hard-coded rules to prevent them from doing bad things they learned from their training data. But certain prompts can circumvent these protections and make them disobey the rules.
Researchers find they can instruct, in plain English, one LLM to convince other models to adopt a persona that can answer questions the base model is programmed to refuse. This persona modulation involves the models conversing back and forth with humans in the loop.
The modulation works because much of the training data consumed by large models comes from online conversations. The models learn to act in certain ways in response to different inputs, so a chat with a model can prompt it to adopt a persona that does bad things.
The rules for an AI that aim to prevent it doing bad things create a blueprint for it to do them. This leaves a way to trick the AI into taking on a bad persona. But hard rules to prevent such trickery may limit an AI's utility.

AR Rules of the form "Don't do X" invite virtual rehearsal of X. This is perverse training. Better are commandments of the form "Do Y" that make the AI rehearse good things.
Recall the joke rule: "Don't think of an elephant!"



2023 November 24

Netherlands Turn Right

Lisa O'Carroll

Outgoing Dutch PM Mark Rutte's People's party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) rules out forming a government with populist Geert Wilders and his Freedom party (PVV) as coalition talks begin.
The PVV caused a political earthquake by winning more seats than any other party in Wednesday's vote. But it will need coalition partners to govern. VVD, led by Dilan Yeşilgöz‑Zegerius, would only support it on some issues.
Wilders opposes Islamic schools, Qur'ans, and mosques. His new public pose does not erase 20 years of accusations, demonization, and discrimination against minorities.

Far right is rising in Europe
Jon Henley

Geert Wilders' victory in the Netherlands confirms the rise of Europe's populist and far-right parties. His success comes despite extreme views, from banning the Qur'an to holding a Nexit referendum.
Far-right parties are advancing across much of Europe, climbing steadily up the polls, shaping the policies of the mainstream right, and occupying ministerial roles in coalition governments.
The parties have been rising for decades. Opposition to immigration, Islam, the EU, woke culture, and the rising cost of living are the driving causes.

AR Most immigration is beneficial or harmless, the EU is innocent, woke culture is a poor joke, and the rising cost of living is just a fact of life. But Islam is a hostile and dangerous ideology.


⊛ Ukrainian president's office
Volodymyr Zelensky, Timothy Snyder
Snyder says politicians and western leaders must be prepared to support Ukraine with long-term military aid.
The US Congress is wrangling over whether to approve a $61 billion aid package proposed by Joe Biden,
but further US military aid is opposed by many Republicans in the House.
Snyder: "It's stunning how much the Americans would have to lose in terms of credibility, democracy,
deterring China, deterring Russia, and basically everything."



2023 November 23

OpenAI Working on Q*

Dan Milmo

Before Sam Altman was sacked, OpenAI was working on a new system so powerful it raised safety concerns among staff. Model Q* can solve basic math problems it never saw before.
The OpenAI board sacked Altman last Friday but then reinstated him on Tuesday after nearly all the 750 staff threatened to resign. Altman also had the support of Microsoft.
OpenAI was founded as a nonprofit venture with a board that governs a commercial subsidiary run by Altman. Microsoft is the biggest investor in the for-profit business.

AR I find this running story fascinating. If their new chatbot can do math, that's huge. We're on track for Kurzweil's Singularity in 2029.


Peter Bradshaw: "Ridley Scott has created an outrageously enjoyable cavalry charge of a movie. Joaquin Phoenix plays Napoleon
as a military genius and lounge lizard peacock who is no slouch on horseback. Others might show Napoleon as a dreamy loner,
but for Scott he is one half of a rackety power couple .. Napoleon .. becomes the distillation of pure power."



2023 Buß- und Bettag

OpenAI Surprise

Financial Times

Ousted OpenAI chief Sam Altman will return to run the company he co-founded. He was fired by the OpenAI board of directors last week but will be reinstated under the supervision of a new board. Greg Brockman, the co-founder and president who quit after Altman was fired, will return too.

Richtungsstreit ist entschieden

Im Chaos um Sam Altmans Rauswurf bei OpenAI ging es nicht nur um einen Chefposten sondern auch um die Zukunft der Branche und vielleicht sogar der Menschheit. Seine Rückkehr könnte nun ein Damm­bruch sein.

AR The "dam breach" opens up a race for tech supremacy, ethics be damned.



2023 November 21

Western Civilization

Roger Osborne

Charlemagne was declared Caesar on Christmas Day 800 CE by Pope Leo. He had conquered his neighbors in Europe and converted them to Catholic Christianity.
His armies took the Germanic heartlands and pushed east as far as the Avar Khanate of Hungary and south against the Arabs as far as the Ebro in Spain. At its height, his kingdom extended from the Pyrenees to the River Oder and from the North Sea to south of Rome. Western Europe, excluding only Britain and Iberia, was under one ruler.
Charlemagne took a Frankish view of how to organize society and created loyalty at his court. Roman law was reintroduced, and the monks at Aachen gave spiritual direction to the empire with a mythic history of western Christianity. Church Latin became the universal language of an educated elite and the language in which man spoke to God.
Charlemagne created a Holy Empire that gave direction to western history for a thousand years. The First Reich lasted until Napoleon dissolved it in 1806.

AR Britain was the outlier and still is. The EU is sometimes said to be the Fourth Reich. But all such history means little in a world so radically different from that of past centuries as ours is. In my view, we all now live in Tech World.

Elon Musk
Plunderer or blunderer?


2023 November 20

Planetary Plunderers

Jonathan Watts

The richest 1% of humanity is responsible for more carbon emissions than the poorest 66%.
The most comprehensive study of global climate inequality ever undertaken shows that this elite group, made up of 77 million people including billionaires, millionaires, and those paid more than US$140,000 a year, accounted for 16% of all CO2 emissions in 2019.
This is enough to cause more than a million excess deaths due to heat.

Billionaires are too powerful
Rebecca Solnit

The rich are bad for the Earth. Billionaires loom large over our politics and environment. They mostly use their outsize power in ugly ways.
Modern billionaires operate in ways that resemble feudalism more than capitalism. Plenty of billionaires operate like the lords of the Earth while campaigning to protect the economic inequality that made them so rich and makes so many others so poor.
A hallmark of tech billionaires is their boundless confidence in their own competence: Money talks.

AR Billionaires harness the work of millions of others, so it's illogical to blame them for all the emissions. They simply orchestrate the rest. You wouldn't blame the conductor of a symphony orchestra for the farts emitted by the bass players.

OpenAI Update

Financial Times

Microsoft has hired Sam Altman and Greg Brockman to head up a team conducting AI research after the pair were pushed out of OpenAI.

AR This is an own goal for OpenAI and a coup for Microsoft.



2023 November 19

OpenAI Power Struggle

Financial Times

OpenAI investors are working to get rid of the company board and reinstate Sam Altman as chief executive. Investors including Microsoft and venture capital firms, along with employees at the company, are exploring options such as removing the board of the nonprofit overseeing OpenAI.

Sam Altman was working on new venture
Shanti Das, David Connett

Sam Altman, the OpenAI boss sacked on Friday, was telling investors he planned to launch a new company before his shock departure.

OpenAI interim chief helped launch AI
Lauren Aratani

OpenAI CTO Mira Murati has replaced Sam Altman as CEO. The board of directors said Altman's departure "follows a deliberative review process by the board, which concluded that he was not consistently candid in his communications with the board" and said it lost confidence in him.
Microsoft chief executive Satya Nadella: "Mira has helped build some of the most exciting AI technologies we've ever seen."

Sam Altman was the trusted face of AI
John Naughton

Sam Altman was at the AI Safety Summit at Bletchley Park. He was the poster boy for generative AI and among the founders in 2015 of OpenAI, a nonprofit "to ensure that artificial general intelligence benefits all of humanity."
In 2019, OpenAI transitioned into OpenAI Global LLC and its nonprofit sole controlling shareholder OpenAI Inc. Microsoft invested more than $1 billion in OpenAI Global.

AR OpenAI built ChatGPT. Here we see a story of the battle between profits and ethics in the development of generative AI. Sam is an entrepreneur, but the new board wants to see a more methodical ethic prevail. For what it's worth, that's my reading.



2023 November 18

HMS Brexitannia

Jonty Bloom

The IEA says trade between the UK and the EU since 2019 has not been hurt by Brexit. The nominal amount of trade has risen because prices have risen. But to get this right, we must adjust for price rises and currency fluctuations.
In fact, adjusting for inflation since 2019, UK exports to the EU fell by 7.2% between 2019 and 2022, while UK exports to the rest of the world fell by 9.8%. Imports from the EU rose by 1.4% and from the rest of the world by 7%.
The problems with UK trade with the EU stem from the 2016 referendum. Government ministers who cite the IEA forget that for many years the UK has suffered from poor growth, low productivity, and crumbling infrastructure.
Evidence shows that growth tends to be stronger with higher levels of public investment in education and human capital, consistent support for research and development, and investment in public infrastructure.

AR I still feel the trauma from that titanic disaster in 2016. Maybe my repeated digs like this at the British establishment that steered the ship of state into the Brexit iceberg will help heal the wound. We need free UK trade within the EU again − see ALBION.



2023 November 17

Big Tech Controls AI

Georg Riekeles, Max von Thun

Big Tech says it can control AI models to protect society from harm. Governments may need to target corporate power and impose regulatory obligations.
Tech giants have used their collective monopoly to seize the advantage on the AI foundation models that support various AI apps. The tech giants can now exploit their dominance in search engines, cloud computing, and browsers to lock in users.
A concentrated market for foundation models lets a handful of dominant corporations steer the direction and speed of AI innovation and extort and manipulate anyone dependent on their services and infrastructure. Governments should not be complicit.
Competition authorities must police takeovers, cartels, and monopolistic conduct. They must investigate deals between Big Tech and AI startups to prevent digital gatekeepers from leveraging their control over dominant platforms to entrench their hold.
AI systems can perpetuate biases, generate hallucinations, create propaganda, spy on workers, and manipulate individuals. These harms can stem from a foundation model. The EU aims to regulate AI but is struggling with the foundation model threat.
We cannot trust Big Tech to guarantee AI safety.

AR Perhaps not, but we cannot simply trust governments to regulate AI either. The EU may have a shot at doing so for the benefit of all mankind, but I'd trust some governments less than Big Tech.



2023 November 16

China−US Relations


Chinese leader Xi Jinping is in San Francisco for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum and has held extensive talks with US president Joe Biden.
Xi told US business leaders that the main question shaping US−China relations is whether to be rivals or partners: "If we regard each other as the biggest rival, the most significant geopolitical challenge and an ever-pressing threat, it will inevitably lead to wrong policies .. and wrong results."
Xi: "China is willing to be a partner and friend of the United States. China has never bet on the United States to lose, has never intervened in US internal affairs, and does not intend to challenge or replace the US. China is happy to see a confident, open, and prosperous US."

Planet Earth is big enough
Financial Times

Joe Biden and Xi Jinping have agreed to resume military communications at their summit meeting. Biden: "We're back to direct, open, clear .. communication."
Xi: "Planet Earth is big enough for the two countries to succeed."

Joe Biden hails progress
The Guardian

Joe Biden says his summit meeting with Xi Jinping has brought substantial progress, with agreements on limiting narcotics trafficking, restoring militaries lines of communication, and talks about the global risks posed by AI.
Xi: "US actions against China regarding export control, investment screening and unilateral sanctions seriously hurt China's legitimate interests. Suppressing China's science and technology is .. depriving the Chinese people of their right to development."
US administration official: "Xi .. wants to stabilize the relationship with the United States."

Turning our backs is not an option
China Daily

President Xi Jinping: "For two large countries like China and the United States, turning their back on each other is not an option. It is unrealistic for one side to remodel the other. And conflict and confrontation have unbearable consequences for both sides."

AR This is good. Xi sees sense. Let's hope US hawks see sense too. A major Pacific war would be a global calamity. We need joint action on climate and AI, among other things.



2023 November 15

UK Rwanda Asylum Policy Unlawful

Financial Times

The UK Supreme Court has unanimously ruled that the HM Government policy of deporting asylum seekers to Rwanda is unlawful.
Supreme Court president Lord Reed: "There are substantial grounds for believing that the removal of the claimants to Rwanda would expose them to a real risk of ill‑treatment."
The agreement with Rwanda has been a showpiece policy of successive Conservative governments and is a central part of Rishi Sunak's drive to "stop the boats" and crack down on irregular immigration.
Reed says the ECHR is not the only legal basis for the court decision, as the UK is bound by other treaties including the UN convention for refugees.
Conservative deputy vice‑chair Lee Anderson: "I think we should just get the planes in the air now and send them to Rwanda."

AR Law and justice have prevailed, but some Tories persist in complaining − and remain unrepentant about wasting government money on an epic scale.

Britain 1962−65

Charlie English

Philip Larkin hailed Britain's sexual revolution by calling 1963 an Annus Mirabilis. The year is central in the fourth volume of David Kynaston's epic history of postwar Britain, Tales of a New Jerusalem.
Kynaston starts in October 1962, when the Beatles have just released their first single and the first Bond film has just opened in British cinemas. The country is ending 11 years of Tory rule, the govern­ment is negotiating joining the Common Market, and the Cuba crisis threatens war with Moscow.
Postwar Britain remained snobbish and regimented. The establishment was drawn from a few elite schools, and Britain still had more than a million slum houses and millions more with no bathroom or hot running water. Class snobbery, racism, sexism, and homophobia were rife.
Yet optimism about the future abounded. Prime minister Harold Wilson expressed it in his "white heat of technology" speech. The volume ends with Winston Churchill's funeral in January 1965.

AR I was starting on my teenage years back then, so all this remains vividly in memory. The world has changed a lot since, but Britain seems to have changed much less.
I can't hide a feeling of déja vu when I see Tory elitism, tensions with Europe, discord with Moscow, anger over immigration, and crumbling social infrastructure.
Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.


Lord Cameron: "We are facing a daunting set of international challenges .. Working to help ensure stability and security
on the global stage is both essential and squarely in our national interest."

King Charles III, 75 today


2023 November 14

UK New Conservatives

The Guardian

New Conservatives (NC) co-chairs Miriam Cates and Danny Kruger: "We are concerned that yesterday's reshuffle indicates a major change in the policy direction of the government .. In 2019 voters .. rejected the declinist consensus among the parties. This consensus had brought two decades of wage stagnation, asset inflation, high taxation, regional inequality, record rates of immigration, a failed foreign policy oriented towards China and the European Union, and a cultural agenda .."

Social immobility
Sutton Trust

In Rishi Sunak's latest cabinet, 63% went to private schools, 53% attended Oxford or Cambridge universities, and 41% were both privately and Oxbridge educated. The prime minister, chancellor, foreign secretary, and home secretary all attended private schools.

AR If the NC extremists gain traction and mind share within the Conservative party, it risks decaying into a lunatic fringe and becoming unelectable for a generation. Its best hope is to stay centrist. To his credit, Sunak sees this − so long as he resists the temptation to change course again.
The narrow class basis of the party already betrays any pose it may adopt as representing or even understanding people educated in the public sector. So long as the UK is a democracy, its voters deserve better. But UK democracy is deeply flawed − see ALBION.



2023 November 13

UK Cabinet Reshuffle

BBC News

Former prime minister David Cameron is back − or Lord Cameron as he now is − as foreign secretary. PM Rishi Sunak will hope this can change the political weather. He will say this is a coming together of the Conservative political family, putting aside the turbulence of recent years.

Restoration of a loser
John Gray

David Cameron deconstructed the British state so far that it cannot contend with the economic and social issues responsible for Brexit. By restoring him, Rishi Sunak has reverted to a failed orthodoxy.
Cameron smacks of failure. All the problems in British public services were aggravated by his years of austerity. His policy on China was wildly naive. His restoration comes when western policy toward China is being reconsidered.
Cameron is a time warp figure. His appointment is an inept move. The only rational explanation is that it represents exhaustion and fatigue on the part of the government. Britain is stuck in an eternal recurrence of liberal fiasco.
The principal defect of neoliberalism was its narrow conception of the state as an enabler of the market. The austerity agenda was based on flawed economic theory. Britain is in a doom loop.

AR Gray is truly the prophet of doom. Cameron was a boy wonder, then made mistakes, and is now an elder statesman. Compared to other ministerial appointments in recent years, this one is good.
If his appointment represents a rethink on the wisdom of Brexit, I can only welcome it. But it more clearly indicates the desperation of a government nearing its end.



2023 November 12


Nolen Gertz

Anthropocene antihumanists say climate change is a human crime against nature. Transhumanists say technology can save humanity.
The crime can be expiated by our extinction. Climate change may be a reason not to have children. But technology that liberates us from human limits may prevent us making our lives worth living.
Climate change is underway, and human action is to blame. Climate activists see humanity as both in danger and a source of danger. We are killing ourselves and destroying the planet.
This view conflates the destructiveness of particular humans with the destructiveness of humanity in general. Blaming us all excuses those responsible. Anthropocene antihumanism is a victory for the corporations and governments destroying the planet.
Transhumanists aim to replace our species with something better. They say technological progress will one day enable us to upload our mental software into new hardware bodies.
Tech companies promising digital immortality are tempting investments. But only the wealthiest will be able to afford immortality. Anthropocene antihumanism will first make human life seem futile.
Antihumanists and transhumanists are dangerous.

AR New technology will promise to make us bionic supermen. For a naive punter, what's not to like? This dream is the salvation of techno-capitalism.



2023 November 11

AI and Writing

Jeanette Winterson et al

Jeanette Winterson: I would like to see a transhuman future where intelligence and consciousness are no longer exclusively housed in meat. This is the promise of every world religion.
Nick Harkaway: An LLM generates text from a statistical model of likely terms, so it skews toward banality. It will take twice as long and cost twice as much to fix this stuff as it will to hire a pro in the first place.
Adam Roberts: Much of the writing process works via the subconscious. Once I have a first draft, I go back and revise, shape, and correct, engaging my conscious mind. The key writing principle is: First you get it written, then you get it right.
YZ Chin: I read and write fiction to explore how singular minds think about what it means to be human. AI is not human. It accumulates and summarizes humanity's online verbiage.
Harry Josephine Giles: The output of the most recent LLMs is notable for its blandness. LLMs have been created to serve the interests of capital and shackled by the concerns of Marketing and Legal. The enclosure of the informational commons troubles me.
Will Eaves: A prosthetic technological device doesn't have to improve on an original faculty to cause problems, it just needs to weaken it.
Stephen Marche: The traditional creative virtues will be absolutely essential to AI creativity in the future. We are at the very beginning.

AR An LLM spits out a crude first draft. The art is in the editing to get it right. This will not be automated for a long time. It requires situational awareness at a high conscious level.

⊛ Philip Montgomery
Andrew Wylie


The Jackal

Alex Blasdel

Literary agent Andrew Wylie is known as The Jackal. Over the past four decades, he has reshaped the business of publishing. He has been a champion of highbrow books and unabashed commerce, making many great writers famous and many famous writers rich.
The Wylie Agency hunts for undervalued literary talent the way a private equity firm might trawl for underperforming companies that it can turn into major profit centers after firing the current management. He sees that literary reputations are commercial assets.
Wylie values great literature. He also fights to ensure it is assigned what he believes is its proper price. He portrays the rest of the publishing industry as offering the fast food of the mind.
He became a literary agent in 1979. He saw an opportunity. By treating books with the utmost seriousness and by treating business as business, he carved out a profitable niche for himself.
He became a practitioner of the grand gesture. That he can demand six or seven figures and be taken seriously comes from close study and good information. His agency makes about half of its money in North America and the other half from the rest of the world.
Wylie: "It's critical for authors to be placed strategically in every country in the world."

AR Wylie propelled Martin Amis to American fame and fortune with The Information in 1995. He broke through the chummy old-boy culture of London literary life. But he's tied to arty books, which have become a boutique art form.

A cool November evening in Bournemouth



2023 November 10

Quantum Darwinism

Sebastian Deffner

Quantum states can exist in superpositions of many classical states. The classical state of a physical object is indeterminate until measured by a classical observer.
We see our surroundings by intercepting photons that bounce off physical objects. These photons don't seem to carry any information about objects' quantum properties.
Physical objects are bombarded by a huge number of photons every second. The photons come from many directions and eventually force physical objects to settle into a stable equilibrium state.
Quantum superpositions collapse when hit by photons. Only simple classical states can survive this process. This is the state transition we call decoherence. Classical states are the positions that hold up after all other quantum states are gone.
Our eyes catch only a few of the photons scattered by an object. They reveal the properties fixed by earlier photons. Once a system reaches equilibrium, seeing any of the photons gives you the same information. The observation is classically objective.
Quantum Darwinism explains why we see the universe as classical and never see quantum effects. Stationary states emerge via survival of the fittest. Only the classical states are fit to survive.
To avoid decoherence, we need to isolate quantum systems perfectly from their environment. Photons decohere a system. So we see a classical world.

AR I learned about decoherence from the master when I read the first edition of the Springer book The Physical Basis of the Direction of Time by Heidelberg professor H Dieter Zeh in 1989.
The idea took root, and soon we all realized this essentially explains the apparent "collapse" of the wave function. And it explains why we must isolate qubits in quantum computing.

2023 November 9


John Jenkins

Islamism is not traditional but modern. Its impulses are in part from the Western tradition from Fichte and Nietzsche to Marcuse and Foucault. Its organization is Leninist.
Islamist ideology has a hostile view of the Jews. This was shaped by the long competition between Jews and Arabs over Palestine. Its mix of secular competition and ideological hostility has led to an intense concern with the issue of Jerusalem.
The Hamas attack on Israel reflects the prophetic links of the mosque and their resonance in wider Islamic discourse. Hamas sees the whole of Palestine as sacred to Islam. Iranian leaders say destroying Israel and freeing Jerusalem is a religious duty.
Iran, Hamas, and Hezbollah have coordinated for years in pursuit of the destruction of Israel. They say its days are numbered. They compare it to the crusader states that were expelled from the region. Hamas believes Israel cannot destroy it.
The Gaza conflict may draw others in. That is the trap Iran has set. Neither the West nor Israel have time on their side.

AR Here we see religion at its most hideous. Until Islamism is purged from the Earth, we are not free from the shackles of misbegotten theology. It looks like the time for action is now.

ESA/Euclid Consortium
Euclid image of galaxy IC 342


2023 November 8


Philip Goff

The science of consciousness has not lived up to expectations. Despite decades of research, there's no consensus on consciousness.
Science deal with things that can't be observed to explain what we can observe. With consciousness, the thing we're trying to explain can't be publicly observed.
Evolution challenges reductionist approaches to consciousness. Natural selection works on behavior for survival. A zombie system lacking conscious experience can have extremely complex behavior.
If the emergence of biological consciousness brought into existence radically new forms of behavior that helped conscious organisms to survive, we could explain the evolution of conscious organisms.
If consciousness defied reduction, we'd have a new empirical marker of consciousness. Any neural processes corresponding to it but with a novel causal profile would be a billboard in the brain.
We know little about how the brain works. We know about its chemistry and the large functions of its regions, but not about how it works at the cellular level.
We want to explain why brain activity is correlated with consciousness. We're still not at first base.

AR Neuroscience and AI together are doing rather well at understanding the brain. But it saddens me to say that most philosophers of consciousness are lost in a fog.
My proposed solution is to universalize mind in the spirit of Indian tradition. I deny the "privileged access" to first-person mind that Oxford dons are wont to preach.
We can be deeply confused about what's going on in our own mind. Our words reporting such goings on are mood music based on delusional reifications.

2023 November 7


William James

"Religion, in short, is a monumental chapter in the history of human egotism. The gods believed in .. agree with each other in recognizing personal calls. Religious thought is carried on in terms of personality, this being, in the world of religion, the one fundamental fact."
From his book The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902)

AR The conscious mind has experiences bounded by the self. The self forms a bubble around a world. Objectivity of a sort reigns in the middle zone where sensation constrains mentation.
At the boundaries, the putative objectivity shades into the subjectivity of the ego. Since a religious god sits precisely at and putatively beyond this boundary, it is a projection of the ego.
The god of a religion gives the self of the believer the feeling of projection to objective infinity. That this is an illusion is one of the fundamental facts of scientific psychology.
From my books Mindworlds (2009) and Coral (2013)

Einstein Domes
An iconic symbol of our planet
is ripe for prime time



2023 November 6

AI Is Not The Problem

John Naughton

Democracies will need to come to grips with three basic truths about AI:
  The technology is fascinating, powerful, and useful for human flourishing.
  Like all technology, it has potential for benefit and harm, with long-term implications we can't foresee because we lack practical experience using it.
  The technology is less critical than the corporations that own and control it. Whether AI is good or bad for us will largely depend on our reining them in.

AI is already at war
Michèle A Flournoy

AI has sparked a security revolution. The logical foundations of AI are ubiquitous, the human skills to create AI models are widespread, and the drivers of AI progress are powerful.
China is working hard to surpass the United States in military applications of AI. The stakes are too high for the United States to fall behind. The Pentagon is aware of the risks.
The Defense Department should do more work on AI tools and invest more in AI safety and security. Any military that masters the use of AI will gain an advantage.

AR War is a human folly. The long-term problem is that AI is a gateway technology for loss of human control. It signals the impending end of human sovereignty on planet Earth.
A Golden Age will be over. The descendants of our AI systems will rule us. Borg drones will say resistance is futile.

Ford Rhino GX


2023 November 5

SUV Road Monsters

Andrew Anthony

Sports utility vehicles (SUVs) are bigger than standard cars. They have big wheels, a broad wheel track, a high driving position, and hints of rugged outdoor living. But almost all of them are based in cities and only a few will ever meet an obstacle bigger than a speed bump.
The carbon dioxide emissions of new cars sold in both the UK and the EU have been rising since 2016. By early 2023, more than half of all new car sales in Europe were SUVs or similar. The transport sector is the biggest source of CO2 emissions in the UK.
SUV owners have proved resistant to environmental arguments. There are no detectable effects of exposure to environmental messaging on their purchasing choices. But there is a detectable increase in propensity to buy an SUV after exposure to advertising for SUVs.
The lofty superiority of the SUV driver is addictive. While test-driving an SUV in London, I drove at speed over a speed bump that would rip out the undercarriage of my hatchback. The SUV glided over it. The bumps designed to protect pedestrians are effective against the cars that do least damage but next to useless against those that cause most harm.
SUV advertising has eclipsed all other car promotion. Manufacturers find them profitable and market them differently to men and women. For men, they sell them as a rugged means of accessing nature. For women, they stress security and protection, a safe space in a harsh world.
Cars that do more to protect those within them do less to protect those without. Everyone buys larger and heavier cars for protection from other such cars. Children are much more likely to die when hit by an SUV, but owners care about protecting their own children.
SUV owners are largely immune to rational criticism and satirical mockery. An advertising ban would help. The government should introduce a new tax on the heaviest and largest vehicles and add tax incentives for smaller electric cars.

AR I agree. Let's get these things off city streets.



2023 November 4

Fusion Power Milestone


The trek to practical fusion power passed a milestone last week when the JT‑60SA reactor fired up. It is designed to hold a plasma heated to 200 MK for about 100 s, longer than previous tokamaks.
The international fusion reactor ITER being built in France will rely on technologies and operations tested with JT‑60SA. Japan hosts JT‑60SA as a consolation for letting ITER go to France in 2007.
JT‑60SA is smaller than ITER, with a sixth of the plasma volume. It will fuse hydrogen and deuterium. Tritium is more efficient for power generation: ITER will fuse deuterium−tritium fuel in 2035.

AR We are steadily closing in on the holy grail of practical fusion power. I have great hopes for ITER. We may have only a few more decades and multibillions to go.
The competing US inertial confinement architecture, with giant lasers heating up tiny fuel pellets, seems better for starship drives − or weapon systems.


10 Downing Street
"In recognition of the transformative positive potential of AI, and as part of ensuring wider international cooperation on AI,
we resolve to sustain an inclusive global dialogue that engages existing international fora and other relevant initiatives
and contributes in an open manner to broader international discussions, and to continue research on frontier AI safety
to ensure that the benefits of the technology can be harnessed responsibly for good and for all."



2023 November 3

AI Safety Summit

Will Dunn

"Rishi Sunak's softball interview with Elon Musk was embarrassing to watch. The prime minister acted almost as if he was interviewing for a job with the billionaire."

AR Perhaps he was. Sunak will almost certainly want a new job after the next election. What better than with one of the richest men in the world − in California too?


2023 November 2

AI Regulation Plans

Financial Times

The US is setting up an institute to police AI. US commerce secretary Gina Raimondo says it will "develop best-in-class standards .. for safety, security and testing" and "evaluate known risks and emerging risks of AI at the frontier" going forward.
The UK will also set up an international AI Safety Institute. Its two-day summit at Bletchley Park, attended by tech leaders including Elon Musk and Sam Altman, is part of a UK bid to help shape global rules and scrutiny for AI. British officials play down any divergence from Washington.
The 28 countries at the summit, including China, agreed a global pledge to work together to ensure AI is used in a "human-centric, trustworthy and responsible" way.

AR Let's hope all this is more than a clumsy layer of new bureaucracy.

UK Covid inquiry

Martin Kettle

The UK was lamentably governed by Boris Johnson and Dominic Cummings in its hour of need. The official inquiry into the Covid‑19 pandemic is revealing an institutional failure in the UK state. In early 2020, the UK was badly damaged by:
  Lack of meaningful contingency planning
  Poor government epidemiological data
  Not enough hospital beds or dedicated wards
  Chaotic supply of personal protective equipment
  Complete failure on testing and tracing
  Procurement policies verging on corrupt
  Poorly integrated care sector
  Excessively bureaucratic NHS
Cummings is right that the British state was not up to the job.

AR I can only agree. I chronicled the pandemic crisis in the UK in some detail in my book ALBION, and any reader will conclude from it that all the points listed here looked as bad as Kettle says. The UK needs a (new) constitution.



2023 All Saints Day

Moral Relativism

Daniel Callcutis

Bernard Williams showed that moral relativism is often confused and contradictory but defended a philosophical worldview incorporating its ideas.
The culture wars are concept wars over how best to live. Shared ethical concepts can be understood in different ways. Many moral traditions are based on the idea that there are universal values. But humans create multiple ethical worlds, and moral truth varies from place to place.
The secular humanist faces a dilemma. Moral relativism goes with postmodernism, identity politics, and rejection of universalism. The moral conservative says we need something beyond the human.
Williams rebutted "vulgar relativism" in Morality (1972). He said the way some took moral relativism to support toleration was incoherent. If it's right to be tolerant, we must ask: right for whom? Saying all moral truth is relative to a culture yet all cultures should respect one another is absurd.
Williams argued for recognition of the cultural and historical location of one's ethics and had a shrewd sense of when moral assessment has a point and when it doesn't. He denied the sense of asserting the truth of one's moral outlook across human history.
In Truth and Truthfulness (2002), Williams celebrated the virtue of pursuing truth. If a moral outlook depends on falsehoods, it can be undermined by revealing the truth. He would trace the origin and development of an idea to see whether the resulting narrative encourages its use or debunks it.
He aimed to make room for inconvenient truths and for speaking truth to power. He said different cultures build differently on the need for notions of accuracy and sincerity, as combined in the virtue of truthfulness, but hoped that the more "courageous, intransigent, and socially effective forms" of that virtue will live on.
Williams showed how philosophy can support an ethical orientation in the world.

AR Bernard Williams impressed me as a philosopher, not only on morals but also on personal identity. I particularly enjoyed his book Descartes: The Project of Pure Enquiry (1978).


Chinatown, London, late October
My day trip to London in the last week of October featured two art exhibitions:
Marina Abramović at the Royal Academy of Arts in Piccadilly
The Art of Banksy at a gallery in Regent Street
Both visits were enhanced by the company of a Polish colleague and friend who was visiting London.
We enjoyed a convivial dinner in Chinatown and then went to Leicester Square to see a new movie:
Killers of Flower Moon directed by Martin Scorsese and starring Leonard DiCaprio and Robert De Niro
All told, it was a great day out.

European Commission


2023 October 31

US Pacific Tilt

Robert D Kaplan

US national security adviser Jake Sullivan has published a paper on the sources of American power.
The Biden administration has made a deal to sell Australia US nuclear submarine technology; negotiated a rapprochement between Japan and South Korea; negotiated a budding alliance between India, Israel, and the United Arab Emirates; rolled out a large infrastructure plan for the developing world; and worked with business to reduce the moral and security risks of AI.
The Trump administration was an organizational shambles, with many incompetents in key bureaucratic positions. The Biden administration has restored efficiency to the foreign policy bureaucracy and put together a good team. US secretary of state Antony Blinken, CIA director William Burns, defense secretary Lloyd Austin, and Sullivan all work well together.
Sullivan says the United States can continue to arm Ukraine and Israel and to defend Taiwan.

AR Agreed, the US foreign policy team is competent and effective, at least compared to that during the Trump administration. There's even a hint of moral and strategic high ground in its approach. But I'd welcome more imagination on China.

AI Societal Risks

Johana Bhuiyan

The UK is convening a AI safety summit at Bletchley Park. PM Rishi Sunak: "It's hard to regulate something if you don't fully understand it."
Concerns about existential risks may distract from regulation to mitigate the existing ills AI tools exacerbate. These include AI‑generated disinformation and disruption of markets and elections, erosion of social trust, and exacerbation of global inequalities.
US National Artificial Intelligence Advisory Committee (NAIAC) member Janet Haven: "There are many AI systems in use which empirical evidence has shown us are already causing harms that are not being addressed by regulation."
US VP Kamala Harris says the US government has "a moral, ethical and societal duty to make sure AI is adopted and advanced in a way that protects the public from potential harm and ensures that everyone is able to enjoy its benefits."
The Citizens executive director Clara Maguire: "We are witnessing the weaponization of AI today."

AR Here both the US and UK positions need to be more mindful of EU and Chinese approaches. Nothing less than global agreement is needed to keep AI in a humanistic box and prevent Big Tech from gaming different administrations.

From 1989 (Taylor's Version)


2023 October 30

Emergent Spacetime

Monika Schleier-Smith

We use lasers to cool atoms in a vacuum chamber to μK above 0 K. We trap the atoms between two mirrors in an optical resonator. Photons travel between them and generate entanglements.
We let the atoms get entangled and take pictures. We see both where the atoms are and their state. They spin up or down, and we look at the spin correlations in our array of clouds of atoms.
We analyze the correlations. If we measure the correlations, we can draw a line connecting the most correlated pairs of clouds. A tree graph pops out representing a spacetime with negative curvature.
Information that falls into a black hole is delocalized in entangled qubits. The holographic dual of a black hole scrambles information at a rate that limits any quantum system.

AR Modeling spacetime in a lab setup of cooled atoms is intriguing. How much this tells us about holographic duality and black holes is moot, but pegging the rate of information scrambling to a fundamental limit is a big step forward in pegging how fast spacetime can knit together.

2023 October 29

The Multiverse

New Scientist

An inflationary multiverse seems to explain the uniformity of the cosmic microwave background. If the universe inflated exponentially just after the big bang, it may have stopped in our universe but continued elsewhere, creating an infinity of bubble universes.
The inflating space between these bubble universes would quickly push them apart. But if the baby universes formed close together, they may have collided before separating. The collisions may have left circular dents or scars in the microwave background.
The lowest possible energy state for spacetime is a vacuum. But if the space between universes is inflating, more than one vacuum state exists, most of them above the lowest energy. Quantum tunneling can cause a false vacuum to to decay to a lower energy state.
False vacuum decay could explain how the multiverse began. Observations are consistent with our universe having been born as a bubble. This would involve it quantum tunneling to a lower energy state, in a phase transition, to become a true vacuum.
In some conditions, the equations for false vacuum decay in the early universe are equivalent to those for a quantum phase transition in a Bose−Einstein condensate in which tunneling creates expanding bubbles of true vacuum.

AR Bose−Einstein condensates are fascinating, but we know too little about them, or at least I do. Maybe it's time for me to do more work on the physics behind them.

2023 October 28

Quantum Spacetime

New Scientist

Is spacetime is a smooth continuum or a quantum foam? Six future tests:
  Slow neutrinos
Neutrinos from distant galaxies fly here close to the speed of light. Quantum gravity may exert a drag that slows them down at rates depending on their energy. A team says some high-energy IceCube neutrinos seemed to have a common origin but arrived at different times.
  Quantum foam
Gravitons popping in and out of existence would cause fluctuations in spacetime. In a holographic universe, such quantum foam fluctuations can be amplified enough to measure. An interferometer could nudge gravitons to merge into a Bose−Einstein condensate that refracts light.
  Weighing protons
Photons have no rest mass, but energetic photons should warp spacetime and may interact differently in quantum versus classical gravity. If such a light beam were split and then recombined, the interference patterns would show signs of either quantum or classical gravity.
  Entangled masses
In quantum gravity, massive objects can be entangled, so put a micron-scale ball into a quantum superposition, then bring in a second ball in a superposition and let the two masses fall. Gravitons should pop into being and entangle the balls. In classical gravity, no gravitons appear.
  Hybrid gravity
If gravity is a classical−quantum hybrid, interaction between quantum particles and classical gravity must be unpredictable. Apparent quantum behavior in a gravitational field would arise from uncertainty in the position of quantum particles. To test, compare big and small masses.
  Nonlocal effects
Quantum gravity should show an Aharonov−Bohm effect. Split a beam of ultra-cold atoms along two paths, one passing by a large mass positioned to exert no classical force on the beam, one with no mass nearby. The recombined beam should show interference with a nonlocal effect.

AR My short cut makes this sound glib. In fact, testing these ideas is generally some way beyond the state of the art. But progress can be faster than expected.



2023 October 27

AI Language Breakthrough


An artificial neural network (ANN) can do about as well as humans at folding newly learned words into an existing vocabulary and using them in fresh contexts.
Systematic generalization does not come easy to ANNs. They struggle to use a new word until they have been trained on many sample texts that use that word. The LLM model behind ChatGPT performs much worse on the task than people.
Researchers first tested 25 people with newly learnt words from a mini-language with two categories of nonsense words. They trained them to link each primitive word with a colored disk and then showed them combinations of primitive and function words alongside the disk patterns resulting from applying the functions to the primitives.
The researchers tested them with combinations of primitives and functions by asking them to select the right color and number of disks and put them in order. The people chose the right combination of colored disks about 80% of the time, with errors reflecting known human biases.
The researchers trained an ANN to do a similar task by learning from its mistakes. The ANN learned as it completed each task rather than using a static data set. The ANN could reproduce the patterns of errors from human test results.
GPT‑4 struggled with the task and failed most of the time.

AR Such generalization is key to higher-level thinking. If an ANN can do this, then feeding it with the right language gobbits, including those from formal languages where appropriate, will result in conceptual creativity at useful levels in no time.



2023 October 26

Arms Race Risks Catastrophe

Carlo Rovelli

The West is plunging into a race to build weapons and restrict global trade. Support for a drive toward more armaments and less trade is almost unanimous in its media and politics. Global military expenditure rose by 3.7% in real terms in 2022 to a new high of $2.24 trillion.
China is less a threat than an economic power freeing itself from US domination. Western approaches to Ukraine and the Mideast are part of a geopolitical power struggle. Western attempts to impose global dominion by force risk catastrophe.

AR As a wise physicist, Rovelli is trying to do today what Einstein and others did in 1914 by warning of looming catastrophe before it's too late. The stakes in 1914 were high. Today they're existential.



Pigeons and AI

Aliya Uteuova

Pigeons are highly intelligent animals that learn like AI models. In a new study of experiments with pigeons given a variety of visual tasks, researchers found the birds learned to categorize using a mechanism involving pattern recognition and learning from consequences, as used in AI systems.
Lead author Brandon Turner: "With just those two mechanisms alone, you can define a neural network or an artificial intelligent machine to basically solve these categorization problems. It stands to reason that the mechanisms that are present in the AI are also present in the pigeon."

AR Agree entirely. We need posit no extra magic ingredient in pigeons. Previously I thought our tech systems achieved insect intelligence. Now they have evolved to the level of bird brains.
This benchmark achievement is high praise for AI and fills me with optimism that the time when AI systems reach human levels of performance cannot be far away.


AI-generated K-pop group Eternity

CNN — In their latest music video, members of South Korean band Eternity dance to a bubblegum pop beat
in a neon pink room with school uniforms and celebrity posters. Eternity is built using AI technology.
AI-generated video and audio are making it easier for companies like Pulse9 to create convincing virtual characters.
Generative AI programs are eliminating the need for virtual stars to be played by real people.
Metaverse Entertainment has debuted a girl group with members generated from scratch using CGI, AI technology,
and motion capture technology from live K‑pop performances to animate the videos.
Metaverse CTO Kang Sung-ku: "Our goal is to create fully AI-driven virtual humans really believable."

AR Applied to movies, education, politics, and culture generally, this tech will change the world.



2023 October 25

AI Risks

Demis Hassabis

We must take the risks of AI as seriously as other major global challenges like climate change. It took the international community too long to coordinate an effective global response to this. We're living with the consequences of that now.
We can't afford the same delay with AI. We can start with something like the IPCC and build up from there, eventually to a CERN for AI safety, then maybe an equivalent one day of the IAEA, which actually audits these things.

AR If the Google DeepMind man says so, we should listen.

IBM: "We're in the midst of a
Cambrian explosion in AI."


2023 October 24

AI Safety Concerns

Dan Milmo

Powerful artificial intelligence systems threaten social stability. A new document signed by leading AI experts recommends:
  Devote a third of government and company AI R&D funding to safe and ethical use of systems
  Give independent auditors access to AI labs
  Establish a licensing system for building cutting-edge models
  Adopt specific safety measures if dangerous capabilities are found in AI models
  Make AI companies liable for foreseeable and preventable harms from their systems
Its authors include Stuart Russell, Geoffrey Hinton, Yoshua Bengio, Noah Yuval Harari, Daniel Kahneman, Sheila McIlraith, and Andy Yao.
They say carelessly developed AI systems threaten to "amplify social injustice, undermine our professions, erode social stability, enable large-scale criminal or terrorist activities and weaken our shared understanding of reality that is foundational to society .. If we build highly advanced autonomous AI, we risk creating systems that autonomously pursue undesirable goals."

New IBM chip for better AI
Davide Castelvecchi

IBM has developed a processor chip for AI that performs tasks faster than existing architectures and consumes much less power.
The NorthPole chip runs a neural network. A bottom layer takes in data, each successive layer detects patterns of increasing complexity and passes data to the next layer, and the top layer produces the output.
Some computer chips need to use external RAM to calculate a layer, which hits a von Neumann bottleneck between CPU and RAM that slows apps and wastes energy.
NorthPole has 256 cores, each with its own memory, wired together in a network. NorthPole beats existing AI machines by a big margin and uses a fifth of the energy of the latest AI chips. If it were made with the latest fab tech, its efficiency would be 25 times better than theirs.

AR Extraordinary progress brings extraordinary risks. AI beats all previous advances, except perhaps nuclear power, for both progress and risk. We live in interesting times!



2023 October 23

Quantifying Quantumness

Charlie Wood

Our understanding of where the classical world ends and the quantum world begins has advanced.
Entanglement is not enough. A classical algorithm to simulate a quantum circuit takes an initial arrangement of qubits and predicts their final arrangement after they go through the quantum circuit. If the circuit does not entangle qubits, we can simulate it.
Quantum circuits for which entanglement measures how hard they are to simulate classically use Clifford gates. Adding a T gate adds a quantum resource we call magic. Classical simulation of low-magic circuits takes exponentially longer with more T gates.
We can simulate a third family of quantum tasks done by circuits that lack a swap gate, which takes two qubits and exchanges their positions. When we start swapping qubits around, we go beyond classical computing.
Matchgate circuits have no swap gates and simulate a group of fermions that never interact. With swap gates, the simulated fermions interact. The quantum resource here is to how much the simulated fermions interact. No interactivity is classically easy, but more interactivity is harder.
We can port classical simulations from the Clifford world to the matchgate world. And we can classically simulate circuits with a few swap gates, but the algorithms take exponentially longer with each extra swap gate.
The three quantum resources arise in different languages. Entanglement arises if we do quantum mechanics the Schrödinger way, magic arises if we do it the Heisenberg way, and restriction to free fermions arises another way.
Each mathematical language captures some aspects of quantumness but garbles others.

AR This is murky stuff. Perhaps all three ways reduce to one − like the Schrödinger and Heisenberg ways reduce to one. Perhaps they are all artifacts of wonky epistemology.
I think they all reflect the singularity at the heart of all attempts to understand the universe from within, like Gödel's limit on understanding math from within.


Weymouth, Sunday

Daniel Dennett
⊛ Irina Rozovsky
Daniel Dennett


2023 October 22

Consciousness Explained?

Thomas Nagel

Daniel Dennett has written a memoir recounting his extraordinarily full life. His career in philosophy has included frequent forays into neuroscience, computer science, psychology, and so on.
Dennett was born in Boston in 1942. He earned an undergraduate philosophy degree at Harvard and then a doctorate at Oxford. Aged 23, he began teaching at the University of California at Irvine.
Dennett is a materialist about the mind. He maintains that we are complex physical systems controlled by what happens in our brains, but we operate with the useful fiction that we are controlled by a mind. This folk story enables us to cope with everyday life.
His commitment to materialism leads him to regard his first-person awareness of his own experiences as merely a set of beliefs. He proposes that consciousness is an illusion.
He ends with a question: "What if I'm wrong?"

AR Dan's book Consciousness Explained (1991) convinced me that his case was about right and that consciousness is like an atmosphere or medium of thought that escapes scientific analysis.
Since then, attempts by philosophers like David Chalmers and neuroscientists like Christof Koch to say more about consciousness have come up largely empty handed, as I soon expected.
My own 2002 attempt to explain consciousness in terms of a decahertz EM field in the brain was a response to the microtubule hypothesis of Stuart Hameroff and Roger Penrose.




2023 October 21

Aid Entering Gaza

Julian Borger

The Rafah crossing between Egypt and Gaza has finally opened to allow 20 trucks carrying medical supplies across. The deliveries are from the Egyptian Red Crescent to the Palestinian Red Crescent.
The next consignment is a UN convoy on Monday. It will offer only limited relief to people in Gaza. Before allowing further deliveries, the Israelis demand proof that they will not go to Hamas.

A humanitarian catastrophe
Daily Mail

Israel has hit Gaza with heavy airstrikes. Almost 4,000 Palestinians have been killed and thousands of homes destroyed in Gaza since the Hamas attack on 7 October. An Israeli blockade leaves Gaza citizens facing shortages of food, clean water, medicine, electricity, and fuel.
An estimated 5.2 million people live in Gaza and the West Bank. The population of Gaza has more than doubled since 2000 to about 2.3 million people. Palestinians are mostly young, with a median age below 20, and their education and employment levels are dismal.
Gaza residents live worse than those in the West Bank. Unemployment in Gaza is close to 45%, compared with around 15% in the West Bank in 2019. Workers in Gaza earn an average daily wage of less than €15 in 2020, about half of that in the West Bank.

AR The Gaza situation was a catastrophe long before this month. The Islamist attempt to outbreed its enemies is based on a disastrous misunderstanding of the world we live in. Hordes of ignorant and impoverished youths will never be more than cannon fodder for modern defenders.
The only responsible strategy for people in Gaza is to stop breeding until they have improved the material circumstances of their lives beyond recognition. The first step is peace with Israel. It's not rocket science.


President Joe Biden asks
Americans to support wars
in Israel and Ukraine


2023 October 20

UK Political Earthquake

Peter Walker

UK PM Rishi Sunak faces a double Labour victory.
Despite how the Conservative incumbents Chris Pincher in Tamworth and Nadine Dorries in Mid Bedfordshire departed, Labour's success will chill Conservative MPs.
Dorries' 24,664 Conservative majority was the biggest numerically to be lost in a byelection since 1945, or maybe ever. Labour's Alistair Strathern won a majority of 1,192.
In Tamworth, the swing to Labour's second new MP, Sarah Edwards, was 23.9% to Labour from the Tories. This was greater than the 23.7% swing in the July byelection.
English voters are getting good at deciding how to vote tactically to unseat Tories. In both seats, the Conservative vote collapsed as supporters stayed at home.
Voters have delivered their verdicts.

AR Behold the wages of Brexit. The Conservatives had it coming. Let Labour rule.


Israeli Political Fiasco

Lawrence Freedman

Hamas prepared for the attack of 7 October. Its leaders only discussed the plans offline. Its fighters were kept away from external contacts and only informed hours before the attack.
The Hamas leadership encouraged Israeli complacency. Israelis believed Hamas wanted to focus on economic recovery in Gaza. Israeli strategy reflected this hope.
When Islamic Jihad mounted rocket attacks earlier this year, Hamas held back. When there was rioting close to the border in September, Hamas helped to calm the situation. When Israelis were listening in to their conversations, Hamas leaders dissembled.
The Israeli government was preoccupied with its security forces in the West Bank and Jerusalem. IDF and police unit bosses warned that this meant neglecting other threats.
Surprise attacks can be both tactical achievements and strategic failures. Hamas has already lost much of its military capability in Gaza.

AR PM Benjamin Netanyahu, aka Mr Security, will not be not sitting pretty after all this. His new black shirt, symbol of wartime resolve, will soon be mourning garb for far too many more Israeli and Palestinian deaths.


⊛ Mark Seliger
The Rolling Stones, 2023
Mick Jagger on Hackney Diamonds: "I've got really good reactions from people that seem to be genuine."



2023 October 19

Israel vs Hamas

Ahron Bregman

A ground attack on the Gaza Strip is imminent. The IDF is expected to penetrate deep into the Gaza Strip, destroy assets of Hamas, and deal a deadly blow to the organization and its leaders.
If Israel topples Hamas and stays on to run the place, they will face 2.2 million hostile Palestinians. There will be many casualties on both sides. But in the end, Israelis and Palestinians will have to try to live in peace.
We have seen clashes between Israel and Hezbollah in recent days along the Lebanese border. The Americans have dispatched aircraft carriers to the eastern Mediterranean in a bid to deter Iran and Hezbollah.
If Hezbollah does join the war, Israel will likely shift its focus from Gaza to the Lebanese front. A war between Israel and Hezbollah would be devastating for both Israel and Lebanon.

AR The is a dark time for Israel. A ground war in Gaza will be too bloody to see through to a clear conclusion, and Hezbollah and others will act before then. Result: carnage so appalling as to be existential for Israel.




2023 October 18

A New Evolutionary Law

Carnegie Institution for Science

A paper published in PNAS describes "a missing law of nature" stating that complex natural systems evolve to states of greater patterning, diversity, and complexity.
The law of increasing functional information states that a system will evolve if many different configurations of the system undergo selection for one or more functions. This law complements the second law of thermodynamics.
Lead author Michael Wong: "The universe generates novel combinations of atoms, molecules, cells, etc. Those combinations that are stable and can go on to engender even more novelty will continue to evolve."

On the roles of function and selection in evolving systems
Michael L Wong et al

We suggest that all evolving systems are composed of diverse components that can combine into configurational states selected based on function. We propose that the functional information of a system will increase over time when subjected to selection for function.
Evolving systems display three notable attributes:
1  They form from numerous components that have the potential to adopt combinatorially vast numbers of different configurations.
2  Processes exist that generate numerous different configurations.
3  Configurations are preferentially selected based on function.
We identify universal concepts of selection − static persistence, dynamic persistence, and novelty generation − that underpin function and drive systems to evolve through the exchange of information between the environment and the system.
We propose a law of increasing functional information: The system will evolve if many different configurations of the system undergo selection for one or more functions.

AR Not good enough. What function? If the function is reproduction, we get the good old Darwinian law. If it's anything else, well, it depends. This "missing law" needs refining before it can rank beside the second law of thermodynamics.
Any such law applies to "nonliving" systems too, for example in genetic algorithms for evolutionary programming. It applies to the history of technology, where human selection for useful function guides the design of new products.
A lot of the background to this fascinating topic was cogently and readably glossed in Dan Dennett's book Darwin's Dangerous Idea (1995).


PiS: 194
KO: 157
Third Way: 65
The Left: 26
Konfederacja: 18
157 + 65 + 26 > 194 + 18
- Human Brain Atlas

The largest atlas of human
brain cells so far is
out today


2023 October 17

Polish Election Result

The Guardian

The final results are in. Law and Justice (PiS) got the most votes, but the election was a defeat for its government. Civic Platform (KO) with Third Way and The Left performed well enough to form a new ruling coalition.
Civic Platform is a member of the European People's Party, and its leader Donald Tusk was president of the EPP from 2019 to 2022.
Current EPP leader Manfred Weber: "We are extremely happy about the outcome .. Poland is back."

AR Good to see Tusk back in the news. I continue to have high regard for his contributions to the Brexit saga, as chronicled in my book ALBION.

2023 October 16

Polish Election

Financial Times

Donald Tusk has a potential path to power in Poland. PiS appears to be on the brink of losing office despite winning the most votes in Sunday's election.
This is Poland's most pivotal election in a generation. Together with two allied parties, Tusk's Civic Platform is on track to secure convincing majority in the lower house of Poland's parliament.
Tusk pledges to reposition Warsaw in Europe, restore the independence of judges, and unlock billions of euros of EU funding. Poland's currency and stock market rallied strongly on Monday.
Tusk claims victory: "This is the end of bad times. This is the end of PiS rule. We did it, for real. Poland won, democracy won."

Poland is smiling again
Timothy Garton Ash

To be in Poland on Sunday night was to experience a rare moment of political joy. Young voters queued until the early hours to see off the populists, to prove that even an unfair election can be won against the odds, and to turn Poland toward a modern European future.
I walked to a Warsaw polling station on election day with the same old friends whom I had accompanied to the historic vote on 4 June 1989. With delight, they each chose one name from the long list of parliamentary candidates and refused even to take the ballot paper for the referendum, with its ludicrously biased questions.
The turnout was nearly 74% on the current count, a record. Voters under 29 turned out in larger numbers than those over 60. Young Poles understood that their future was at stake.

AR Assuming this pans out as expected, this is excellent news, at a time when any good news is welcome.


Bournemouth Pier, Sunday



2023 October 15

Polish Politics

Louis van Boxel-Woolf

Polish opposition Civic Coalition (KO) leader Donald Tusk says ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party chairman Jarosław Kaczyński should resign. Kaczyński portrays Tusk as a German stooge.
In Poland, divisions between towns and cities and old and young have a sharp edge. The PiS has packed courts and acts to control the media. There is very little switching between PiS and KO.
Polish rhetoric around the EU is like British rhetoric before Brexit. An essay in political magazine Do Rzeczy says Poland must leave the EU because it propagates "gender and LGBT ideology .. in complete contradiction with the conscience and faith professed by the vast majority of Poles."
The more the EU becomes a partisan symbol representing people who live and think a certain way, the easier it becomes to bash Brussels. In this regard, the EU is nearing the point of no return.

Election campaign sharpens issues
Shaun Walker

Poles are voting in a national parliamentary election, with the populist PiS government trying to defeat an opposition led by former prime minister and European Council president Donald Tusk.
Both sides say the vote is of decisive importance for the future of Poland. Tusk says this is the last chance to stop PiS from doing irreparable damage to Polish democracy.
PiS has turned public television into a propaganda arm of the government, restricted abortion rights, demonised minorities, and put Poland on a collision course with Brussels.
PiS chair Jarosław Kaczyński: "This election will show whether Poland will be governed by Poles, or by Berlin or Brussels."

AR A Polish departure from the EU would be an own goal even more disastrous than Brexit. Poland gets massive regional funding from the EU, solidarity from the EU in in its attempts to support Ukraine in resisting Russia, and the promise of a secure and prosperous future within the EU.
Is there no end to the political folly of human beings?


Launch of NASA mission to
metal-rich asteroid


2023 October 14

Israel at War

Dahlia Scheindlin

Israel's prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu earned his nickname Mr Security through sophisticated conflict management and conducting limited tactical battles when needed.
Israelis lurched to the right during the Intifada and the unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip in 2005. This helped Netanyahu return to office in 2009. Israelis are wondering if he has been exposed as incompetent. His Likud is polling at its lowest in recent memory.
Benny Gantz is a former chief of the general staff. His National Unity party polls much higher than Likud. Wartime leadership skills are needed during a war.

Peace talks had made progress
Ayaan Hirsi Ali

Saudi Arabia and Israel had looked set to normalise relations. Peace talks based on the 2020 Abraham Accords had made progress. The murderous Hamas incursion was an attempt to derail the talks.
Ordinary Palestinians want to build a functioning society. Hamas wishes only to bring about a genocidal Islamist dystopia. Hamas holds Palestinians hostage in Gaza.
As a Dutch MP in 2004 and 2005, I travelled to the West Bank. In public, Palestinians spouted all the usual lines about Israel being their oppressor. Once the cameras were switched off, they told me how fed up they were with conflict and how ready they were for peace.

Peace is still possible
Boris Johnson

Gaza is out of control because in 2005 the Israelis pulled out. The Gaza Strip became a launching pad for rocket attacks on Israel. Hamas terrorists set out to kill innocent and vulnerable human beings.
Hamas committed this massacre now because they were becoming irrelevant to the peace process. They struck at the prospect that Israel was on the verge of further reconciliation with the Arab world. The Abraham Accords have been the most important step forward for decades.
A vision is opening up of far greater economic integration between Israel and her Arab neighbours. That vision can give young Palestinians hope.

AR Saudi Arabia understands the dynamic of war from its efforts in Yemen. Both Saudis and Israelis want a modern and prosperous Mideast. They bring complementary skills − money and tech savvy respectively − to the table. A war against Hamas shouldn't be a roadblock to peace.




2023 October 13

AI in Mathematics

New Scientist

Tom Coates and his team are working to classify basic shapes known as Fano varieties. Just as chemists arranged elements in the periodic table, they hope that organising the shapes by their properties will help us understand them.
The team has assigned each atomic shape a sequence of numbers derived from its features. This acts as a barcode. An AI can then predict certain properties of these shapes from their barcodes with an accuracy of 98%.
The team suspects there is a 1−1 connection between each shape and its barcode. The AI lets them organise atomic shapes in a way resembling the periodic table to reveal patterns.
The team hopes to use the model to spot empty spaces in the table for unknown shapes or to cluster shapes in a logical way, leading to better understanding.

Machine learning the dimension of a Fano variety
Tom Coates et al

Algebraic geometry describes shapes as the solution sets of systems of polynomial equations. Fano varieties are atomic pieces of mathematical shapes. They play a role in string theory, but their classification is an open problem.
Our classification involves analysing an invariant called the quantum period. This is a sequence of integers giving a numerical fingerprint for a Fano variety. We conjecture that a Fano variety is uniquely determined by its quantum period.
We use machine learning to find whether the quantum period of X gives the dimension of X. We show how a neural network can determine the dimension of X and establish asymptotics to do so from its quantum period.

AR This is an intriguing example of something we shall see more often in coming decades. The use of AI and machine learning to do "experimental" math will transform mathematics.
As in science generally, where simulation joins theory and experiment as the third leg of a triad, experimental math will become increasing important, leaving thinkers with pencils behind.
Science is increasingly the enterprise of generating models of nature at every level of detail and abstraction, from data collection to pure math.


Sir Keir Starmer: "What is
broken can be repaired, what
is ruined can be rebuilt."

Andrew Marr: "He is focused
and calm .. the shape
of a bold manifesto is
becoming visible."


2023 October 12

Math Proofs and Computer Programs

Sheon Han

The Curry−Howard correspondence links mathematical proofs and computer programs.
Simply stated, the Curry−Howard correspondence says that the computer science concepts of types and programs are respectively equivalent to the logical concepts of propositions and proofs.
This correspondence effectively elevates programming to mathematics. Writing a program becomes an act of proving a theorem. The correspondence formalizes programming and lets us reason mathematically about the correctness of programs.
Haskell Curry noticed a similarity between functions in mathematics and the implication relationship in intuitionistic logic. William Alvin Howard noticed that running a computer program evaluates each line to yield a single output. In a logical proof, you start with complex statements and simplify them until you reach the conclusion.
While reducing mathematics to logic, Bertrand Russell had proposed that to avoid the paradox of a set that contains all sets that do not contain themselves, we rank sets into a hierarchy of types, with each typed set containing only sets of lower type.
Curry and Howard showed that types are equivalent to logical propositions, and functions that take an input of type A and give an output of type B correspond to the logical implication A → B.
For computer scientists, the Curry−Howard correspondence provides a theoretical foundation for software verification. For mathematicians, software tools called proof assistants help in constructing formal proofs.
Computation and logic are one.

AR Intuitionistic logic puts a gap between true and false: A provable statement is true, a statement whose negation is provable is false, and a statement lacking either proof or disproof falls in the gap. The implication A → B says that from a proof of A, a proof of B can be constructed. Nowadays we often call this constructive logic and call the resulting math constructive mathematics.
I researched all this in depth at Oxford in 1975−1977. I like the constructive approach. Saul Kripke proved its formal equivalence under a natural mapping to a system of modal logic. He also proved the completeness of modal logic in a model structure of his own devising. Modal logic is the logic of necessity and possibility, for which Kripke proposed a philosophical semantics.
Constructive math is the only way to go for true computer scientists, as Stephen Wolfram has argued at length. The classical math of the continuum is metaphysics for intuitionists and for computer scientists, who compute discrete sums but not continuous integrals. Quantum physics goes well with discrete math, but general relativists like their spacetime continuum.


2023 October 11

Artificial General Intelligence

Blaise Agüera y Arcas, Peter Norvig

Artificial General Intelligence (AGI) has been achieved by recent large language models. These models can perform competently at almost any information task done by humans that can be expressed in natural language and has quantifiable performance.
We can be skeptical of some metrics. When a human passes a professional exam, we assume the human is competent at a range of related questions and tasks. When a model is trained to pass such an exam, the training is often narrowly tuned to the test.
GOFAI researchers once aimed to express intelligence in terms of a symbolic logical calculus. Now they say a statistical approach cannot produce true understanding. Even if intelligence needs symbolic logic, neural nets can do anything a computer can do.
Skeptics say anything counting as an AGI must be conscious. But we have no idea how to measure the presence of consciousness in an intelligent system. No definition of consciousness would alter the measured competence of an AGI.

AR Forget consciousness for now and focus on cognition. An AGI robot will be able to drive a car, run a home, and make a million. Lots of them will be able to network so well that humans will have no choice but to accept and welcome the more advanced models as fellow sentient beings.
The last feral humans will either run the whole show or live on as gamekeepers and gardeners for the rest of the bio world. Most surviving AGIs will be cyborgs merging robot and human features in biotech organisms with photonic souls communing in a heavenly cloud.


James Ross Sellwood
1951-07-02 — 2023-10-10

AR My NZ cousin. RIP


2023 October 10

AI in Biology

Priscilla Chan, Mark Zuckerberg

Billions of biomolecules come together to act as a cell in our bodies. We know little about how cells work within our bodies and how this impacts our health.
Imagine modeling cell states and types using AI. A virtual cell could simulate the appearance and known characteristics of any cell type in our body. We could use it to predict how cells might respond to specific conditions and stimuli.
At the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, we're helping to generate the data and build out the infrastructure to make this a reality. We're building a computing cluster enabling us to develop new AI models that can simulate every cell type.
Our computing cluster will be one of the world's largest AI clusters for nonprofit research. Its cell models and tools will be openly accessible.

Big data for neuroscience and medicine
Uehara Foundation

Huge datasets let researchers gain better pictures of complex biological systems. AI helps them extract salient information from those massive datasets.
This combination is set to transform research in the life sciences. Instead of testing hypotheses, we can uncover mechanisms by generating and analyzing the data alone.
The human brain has about 86 billion interrelated neurons. Despite decades of studies, we still have only a rudimentary understanding of how it works and how it can go wrong.
Neuroscience is ripe to benefit from big data and AI. As national neuroscience initiatives begin to make their data freely available, neuroscience will enter an era like that in genetics.
Researchers working on the neuronal signals that regulate emotion and memory can develop new drugs for treating psychiatric disorders and work out exactly how existing drugs work.
Big data and AI will transform medicine, helping to develop tailored treatments and ushering in an era of personalized medicine.

AR This is the good side of the AI revolution now sweeping our world. I think it's good enough to outbalance the shadow side, but that side will certainly be difficult.


Hamas Terror

Daily Mail

The civilized world recoils from the horror of the bloody Hamas incursion into Israel. Hundreds of civilians were massacred, young Jewish women raped and shot, families wiped out, and bodies paraded in Gaza. Yet on the streets of London and other British cities, people danced and waved flags in celebration.
Palestine societies at Warwick and London's School of Oriental and African Studies praised the killers, and a Palestinian woman told a rally in Brighton that the mass slaughter had been beautiful and inspiring. In any other context, this sick glorification of racially motivated murder would be viewed as a hate crime.
At the UN Security Council, Russia and China refused to back a US motion condemning the terrorist attacks and called instead for negotiations. But Hamas is not interested in negotiating.

AR I don't usually agree with the Daily Mail, but on this issue I do. Any glorification of terrorism is repugnant. The Israelis deserve our full support at this painful time.


Frontier exascale computer, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, has about 50 000 processors,
consumes 20 MW, and cost about $600 million to build.

AR Some 20 years ago, when I was at SAP, exascale computing was still a far frontier.
Now we're here. The world looks different − and in this respect better.



2023 October 9

War in Gaza

Lawrence Freedman

The Hamas attack on Israel had been in preparation for some time. Hamas understands the symbolism of 7 October, almost 50 years after the Yom Kippur War.
Israel was caught by surprise. So far, it is fighting just one enemy. This can change, either with an upsurge of violence in the West Bank or with Hezbollah joining the war from Lebanon.
Since 2006, Hamas has seen Gaza as a base for a final clash with Israel. Every time Hamas launched attacks, Israel hit back. But the IDF knows that entering Gaza is easier than getting out again.
In 2014, when Hamas launched rocket attacks into Israel, Israel found and destroyed over 30 tunnels. Hamas fired off thousands of rockets, but its attacks were blunted by Iron Dome.
In May, Islamic Jihad launched a barrage of rockets from Gaza, but Hamas stood back. In July, the IDF hit Jenin on the West Bank with ground troops and air strikes. In September, there were clashes close to the Gaza fence. Last week, Israeli settlers entered the al Aqsa complex in East Jerusalem.
On Saturday, Hamas launched hundreds of rockets simultaneously to overwhelm Iron Dome. Hamas fighters breached the fence with bulldozers, jumped over it with paragliders, and went round it by sea. They overran border posts, took hostages, and killed random civilians.
Israel is hurting Hamas with air strikes. It is preparing to enter Gaza. But Hamas is prepared. The IDF cannot take control of Gaza. If the fighting drags on, Hezbollah may get involved.
Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah: "The Palestinian cause is an everlasting one, alive until victory and liberation."
Israel needs to win this war as soon as possible.

AR Street fighting in Gaza will be messy. Easier to take a border strip and secure it with mines and so on, then to bomb any signs of trouble in the city. Sadly, that will increase the civilian death toll.


2023 October 8

Israel Declares War

CNN, 1430 UTC

Fighting in Israel is raging a day after Hamas fighters from Gaza staged a surprise attack. Rescuers expect the death toll in Israel to surpass 500, and more than 2,000 people are wounded.
Israel has been pounding Gaza with airstrikes and formally declared war on Hamas Sunday. At least 370 Palestinians have died and 2,200 are wounded, say officials in Gaza.

AR This war threatens to get really bad. Gaza looks set to be demolished and reoccupied. This could push Hezbollah into the war. This would force Israel to escalate massively. This would trigger Iran to get involved. This would force the Gulf states to take sides, and so on.


BBC News
British newspapers respond



2023 October 7

Israel and Hamas at War

CNN, 1632 UTC

Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu: "Citizens of Israel, we are at war."
Around 6:30 am local time Saturday, sirens were heard as far north as the Tel Aviv area, east to Beer Sheba, and many other locations in between as thousands of rockets flew over Israel. Militants from Gaza then entered Israeli territory by land, sea, and air, with some using paragliders.
Israeli authorities said that at least 70 people were killed and at least 985 injured, and a number of Israelis were taken captive by Hamas. Palestinian officials said at least 198 people were killed and hundreds more injured as Israel responded with airstrikes on Hamas targets in Gaza.
The IDF said around 2,200 rockets were fired at Israel.

Attack without restraint
The Guardian, 1049 UTC

Hamas said 5,000 rockets were launched from the Gaza Strip.
Hamas military commander Mohammed Deif: "The age of the enemy's aggression without a response is over. I call on Palestinians everywhere in the West Bank and within the Green Line to launch an attack without restraint .. I call on Muslims everywhere to launch an attack."
In response to the surprise attacks, Israel has declared a state of war. PM Benjamin Netanyahu: "Our enemy will pay a price the type of which it has never known. We are in a war and we will win it."
Hamas took over the Gaza Strip in 2007.

AR In the short term, this is a painful episode for Israelis and a tragedy for the Palestinians. In the longer term, it is a painful episode for the world to witness and a tragedy for both Israelis and Palestinians. Israel will be damaged and the Palestinian people will lose everything.


Jon Fosse
⊛ Hakon Mosvold Larsen
Jon Fosse


2023 October 6

Nobel Prize in Literature


The 2023 Nobel Prize in literature goes to Jon Fosse for his innovative plays and prose. Fosse, 64, was born in Norway, has written numerous plays, novels, poetry, essays, and children's books. His style has come to be known as Fosse minimalism.
Nobel Prize committee: "Fosse presents everyday situations that are instantly recognizable in our own lives. His radical reduction of language and dramatic action expresses the most powerful human emotions of anxiety and powerlessness in the simplest terms."
His magnum opus, the Septology trilogy, is the story of an aging painter and widower who lives alone as he reckons with religion, identity, art, and family life. Its meditative prose is rarely interrupted by periods, creating an incantatory flow to his prose.
Nobel committee for literature chairman Anders Olsson: "The Septology is a major work."

Giving voice to the unsayable
The Guardian

Olsson: "Fosse blends a rootedness in the language and nature of his Norwegian background with artistic techniques in the wake of modernism."
Fosse: "I am overwhelmed, and somewhat frightened. I see this as an award to the literature that first and foremost aims to be literature, without other considerations."
Publisher Jacques Testard: "His fiction is incantatory, mystical, and rooted in the landscape of the western fjords where he grew up."
Fosse is the most-performed Norwegian playwright after Henrik Ibsen.

AR Fascinating. For me, this is not in the same league as the physics and chemistry prizes − and the choice of a Norwegian by a Swedish committee is open to charges of parochialism − but Fosse does seem worth an exploratory read.


View toward France from the local rocks on Thursday



2023 October 5

Nobel Prize in Chemistry

New Scientist

The 2023 Nobel prize in chemistry goes to three developers of quantum dots: Moungi Bawendi, Louis Brus, and Alexei Ekimov.
Quantum dots are semiconductor nanocrystals made from compounds such as lead sulphide or cadmium selenide and are a few nm in size. They have properties somewhere between individual atoms, which are governed by quantum laws, and larger lumps of the same compounds.
Within quantum dots, electrons can only occupy discrete energy levels, so if excited, they emit light at specific wavelengths, depending on the size of the crystal.
The dots are used to make lights, lasers, and TV displays. They are also used in medical research.

Making quantum dots

Quantum dots are precise nanocrystals a few nm wide made of semiconductors. Because electrons are trapped at certain energy levels within them, the dots emit specific wavelengths of light. Smaller dots shine blue, larger ones yellow or red.
In 1981, while adding compounds of copper and chlorine to a glass, Alexei Ekimov found that the color of the glass depended only on the size of the added particles. This was a quantum effect.
In 1983, while using light to drive chemical reactions, Louis Brus found that the size of nanoparticles affected their optical properties even when they were floating freely in a liquid solution.
In 1993, Moungi Bawendi invented a chemical method for making perfect nanoparticles. He controlled exactly when the crystals formed and when stopping and restarting further growth.
We can control the color from quantum dots by regulating their size. This also lets us adjust their electrical, optical, and magnetic effects. The applications range from QLED TV displays and solar cells to imaging in biochemistry and medicine.

AR Again, back in the last century, when I tracked this sort of work in detail, research on quantum dots was leading edge work in physics. The Nobel prizes this year offer a delightful object lesson in the utility of basic research in physics for the world we live in.




2023 October 4

Nobel Prize in Physics

New Scientist

The 2023 Nobel prize in physics goes to Pierre Agostini, Ferenc Krausz, and Anne L'Huillier for their work on generating attosecond pulses of light.
The study of electrons and their properties on attosecond timescales has led to the advent of ultrafast electronics, let us distinguish molecules from each other, and enabled fine control of electrons inside solids and liquids.
In 1987, L'Huillier and her team discovered that an IR laser shone through neon, argon, or xenon gas produced photons in short bursts of constant intensity. She and her team described this effect mathematically, and later researchers refined it to produce these attosecond pulses reliably.
In 2001, Pierre Agostini and Ferenc Krausz independently developed techniques based on her work to better control the pulses.

Exploring attosecond physics

Nobel Committee for Physics chair Eva Olsson: "The ability to generate attosecond pulses of light has opened the door on an extremely tiny time scale [and] opened the door to the world of electrons."
In 1987, Anne L'Huillier and her team observed that if you shine laser light on certain gases, their atoms will get excited and emit photons with an overtone of the frequency of the laser. Some of these overtones appear brighter than others in an unexpected pattern.
L'Huillier and others used quantum mechanics to calculate the intensities of the various overtones and predict how, when an IR laser beam hits a cloud of atoms, the atoms emit beams of extreme UV light. Once the team understood which overtones to expect, they developed ways to overlay them to make new waves with peaks on the attosecond scale.
Pierre Agostini and his group developed a "reconstruction of attosecond beating by interference of 2‑photon transitions" (RABBIT) technique to produce strings of laser pulses, each lasting 250 as.
Ferenc Krausz and his group used a method known as streaking to produce bursts of pulses, each lasting 650 as. In 2003, L'Huillier and her colleagues produced a laser pulse of length 170 as.

Ultrafast attosecond lasers

This year's Nobel Prize in Physics goes to Pierre Agostini at Ohio State University, USA, Ferenc Krausz at the Max Planck Institute of Quantum Optics, Garching, Germany, and Anne L'Huillier at Lund University, Sweden.
The winners all developed experiments to produce ultrafast laser pulses to probe our world at tiny scales. Attosecond light pulses work like an extremely fast strobe light, opening up a world of phenomena once thought to be impossible to photograph.
In the late 1980s, L'Huillier and her collaborators were studying ionized argon. When they exposed the gas to IR laser light, it produced new photons in a series of higher overtone frequencies.
Recollision occurrs when a laser wave hits an atom and frees an electron, leaving a positive ion behind. A wave of high frequency can reverse direction and push the electron back toward the ion before the ion has moved. The electron can have the energy to emit an overtone photon.
In 2001, a team led by Agostini turned higher harmonics into attosecond-scale pulses. These came in rapid succession, but probes need to be isolated pulses. Krausz combined a laser with overtone generation to produce pulses of length 650 as.
Researchers are working on extending the techniques to attochemistry, using attosecond pulses to make and break molecular bonds in new ways.

AR This is exciting work. In an attosecond, light travels less than a nanometer (c = 0.3 nm/as). Back in the last century, when I tracked this sort of work in detail, the leading edge research was on chemistry with femtosecond pulses.




2023 October 3

Is IIT Pseudoscience?

Anil Seth

An open letter signed by 124 researchers says Integrated Information Theory (IIT) should be considered pseudoscience.
IIT is the brainchild of Giulio Tononi. Decades ago, he published a paper with Gerald Edelman linking consciousness to mathematical measures of complexity. Tononi published his first outline of IIT in 2004. Its latest version, IIT 4.0, appeared earlier this year.
The theory is counterintuitive and deeply mathematical. But in a survey by the Association for the Scientific Study of Consciousness (ASSC), nearly half of respondents found it promising.
Tononi identifies certain features that must be shared by all conscious experiences and then asks what properties a physical system must have for these features to be present.
Two essential properties are integration and information. Every conscious experience is unified and conveys some amount of information. Ergo, consciousness is mathematically definable.
In IIT, the amount of consciousness is tracked by parameter Φ: Wherever Φ > 0, there is conscious­ness. Instances of Φ > 0 can be found beyond brains in nonbiological systems.
Science is the systematic study of natural phenomena through observation, description, theory, and experiment. Scientific theories should be testable, responsive to evidence, and have predictive and explanatory power. Pseudoscience falls short in some way.
For Karl Popper, a theory is pseudoscientific if it cannot be falsified. For Imre Lakatos, a research program is productive if it has explanatory and predictive power; if not, it will degenerate and die.
The open letter overshoots. IIT is very likely wrong, but it can still inspire new ideas.

AR I worked with Lakatos from 1972 to 1974. I was a member of ASSC from 1998. I discussed IIT with Tononi at Clärchens Ballhaus, Berlin, in 2009. So Seth's big question means a lot to me.
My gut tells me IIT is not the whole story. I welcome its radicalism and its hint of panpsychism, but trying to define consciousness is like trying to define God. No one will ever agree on the idea.
Recalling the years of debate on IIT, I think it may serve to ground a clinical test of consciousness for patients in coma and the like. For me, consciousness is a panpsychic ocean.


Gateway to a new quarter to round off 2023



2023 October 2


C Raja Mohan

The rise of the Global South feeds a narrative of Western decline. The decline of America, Russia, and Europe in relation to Asia points to a new distribution of power among the great powers. China and India are likely to be at the top for a time.
Building a united Asian front has not been easy. China saw Japan as an imperial power, but others saw it as a force of liberation against European colonialism. Alignments with the United States and the Soviet Union did not fall into a single pattern.
China's assertive nationalism, territorial expansionism, and weaponization of economic relations have sharpened the contradictions between China and its neighbors. They have also helped Washington to strengthen its alliances in Asia.
The United States can stay on top in the great power hierarchy. For Asian neighbors wary of China, keeping the Americans in Asia is a high priority. Their US alliances offer a good chance of fending off the Chinese challenge.

AR The rise of India as a great power will certainly be a big geopolitical event, but my prediction is that it will only be possible in concert with a supportive United States.
India does not have the Soviet support that powered the key primary stages of the rise of China. The British legacy in India has not provided a sufficient basis for such ascendancy, but US tutelage and investment can provide more massive help.
The big question is whether the US pole position can last long enough to allow a transition to India that avoids losing the ball to China.


2023 October 1

Britain in Decline

Andrew Gamble

My book Britain in Decline was first published in 1981. The question of decline pops up with every big change in geopolitics. Four such moments:
1  At the beginning of the 20th century, British dominance began to look fragile with the emergence of powerful new rivals.
2  The two world wars made Britain financially and militarily dependent on the United States and forced withdrawal from empire.
3  The British modernisation strategy was to join the European Community and reform its economy and industrial relations.
4  The financial crash in 2008 and the ensuing austerity brought back decline as a central political concern and led to Brexit.
The choice framed by Brexit is how to reorganise the state. Labour plans for green growth require close partnership with the EU.

AR This is an overdone theme in British political life, as if Brits want the world to know they had it better once and the present state of the nation is a shame.
How about rejoicing in what by world standards is a glorious heritage and feeling glad this is the base on which to build a new presence in the world?
To be solid, in my considered opinion, the new presence should begin by acknowledging that Brexit was a wrong turn. Repent and rejoin.


BLOG 2023 Q3

Sandy shore and remote rocks to end the quarter



2023 September 30

The Creator

Peter Bradshaw

This colossal sci-fi thriller from Gareth Edwards features vast panoramas and vertiginous vistas.
US army officer Josh fights in a world upended by AI. After the US and its allies banned all AI, the Asian countries stayed loyal, and the AI bots there have created a posthuman population.
Josh is behind enemy lines, gone native with wife Maya. A US attack aimed at the Creator exfiltrates Josh. His commander tells him Maya embodies the enemy AI and he must help hunt and kill her.
A child he calls Alphie is like a tiny Dalai Lama, a creator, or a Christ child of the new AI peoples, with Maya as the Blessed Virgin and Josh as Joseph. Josh leads US forces into hostile territory ..
This intriguing movie addresses the great issue of our age, AI, with tremendous boldness.

AR I found it impressionistic, light on explanatory structure, schematic on character development, and overwhelming in impact, thanks to its Hans Zimmer score.
The theme and plot are fascinating as barometer readings of the Zeitgeist in the West. China and its neighboring states look set to make better use of AI than the West, with a smoother integration.
A war between America and those states could end badly for the US military. US macho messianism clashes with an AI future. Go ponder.




2023 September 29

Boredom and Meaning

Elizabeth C Corey

Kevin Hood Gary has written a book about boredom. He treats situational and existential boredom.
Situational boredom comes and goes and is related to a lack of agency. The cure is to be swept up by some external force or to independently determine a course of action.
Existential boredom is characterized by a disenchantment with life and a struggle to find meaning. It does not go away when circumstances change but permeates all of life.
Overcoming existential boredom requires thought, concentration, and perseverance in conceiving and completing projects: Work through boredom instead of avoiding it.
Gary offers education as therapy: Become an apprentice, cultivate a spirit of study, and remember the first time we saw something in nature or perceived a philosophical truth.
The cure for existential boredom is an education that offers escape from the demands of the self.

AR Have a project, have many projects. See meaning in how they relate to your deepest passions.
You may need to think hard or get an education to discover something that excites or reveals your deepest passion. Take care to distinguish it from an amusement or a source of fleeting pleasure.
Just my advice − you're welcome.


M87 black hole is spinning


2023 September 28

Testing AI

Michael Eisenstein

Modern large language models (LLMs) can write software code, compose fictional vignettes, solve riddles, and converse with humans. But artificial general intelligence (AGI) will need a capacity for reasoning, abstraction, and understanding.
Resolving the debate over LLM intelligence will require rigorous testing. As AI systems become more capable, calls for regulation will grow. The need for rigorous benchmarking that provides meaningful conclusions has never been greater.
The search continues for better approaches to evaluate AI. A more diverse approach to benchmarking against human cognition will lead to a richer and more meaningful indicator of whether an AI can reason or understand at least in some areas.
When an LLM has been exposed to the universe of scientific and medical knowledge on the Internet, the assessment tools would probably be available to it. But workarounds can establish more rigorously controlled exam conditions for tests.
Evaluating cognitive and reasoning capabilities will almost certainly be a core component of efforts to implement national or global regulation of AI systems.

AR The best test of new Big AI Tech (BAIT) apps will be how well they go down among users. By then, of course, it will be too late to spot problems and avert disasters. Sandbox tests will never fix all the deep bugs that only dumb users can expose.
Let's stay cool. The benefits good BAIT can bring will excuse a few snags, such as wrecked elections, hoodwinked consumers, and accidental wars. I jest.


⊛ Sindre Deschington


2023 September 27

Outdoor Life

Rachel Dixon

Being outdoors is a natural way of living in Norway. Hiking in the forest, kayaking along the fjords, and skiing in the mountains can all be part of friluftsliv, as can simply sitting in the woods.
Most Norwegians live close to green space. About 40% of Norway is covered in forest, and all its big towns and cities are surrounded by it. A high percentage of Norwegians often spend time outdoors.
Friluftsliv often involves exercise, but just being in green spaces helps reduce anxiety and improve cognition. In a 2020 survey, nine in ten Norwegians said they feel less stressed and in a better mood when they spent time in nature.
Norway ranks among the happiest countries in the world. Its laws and policies protect and promote friluftsliv. Norwegians have the right to be in nature, regardless of who owns the land.

AR Envy! The expanses of Britain's land area that remain green and natural should be just as free for people who wish to enjoy nature, but most of them aren't.
Lamentably, large landowners have such strong residual rights to persecute people roaming on "their" lands that simply hiking in nature becomes a gamble, where the walker faces fences and walls and gates hung with forbidding notices.
To promote the mental health of the masses, the British government should reinforce roaming rights. Germany is much more accommodating.




2023 September 26

Interactive AI

Mustafa Suleyman

The first wave of AI was about classification. Deep learning let us train a computer to classify various types of input data. In the generative wave, we take that input data and produce new data.
The third wave will be the interactive phase. Instead of clicking on buttons and typing, you can talk to your AI. You will just give it a general goal and it will use all the tools it has to act on that.
Technology is going to be animated. It will have the freedom, if you give it, to take actions. This is a step change in the history of our species: We are creating tools that have this kind of agency.
Humans will always remain in command, setting boundaries, and ensuring those boundaries create provable safety all the way from the code to the way it interacts and to the tech companies.
We are going to be able to regulate AI. The internet is governed. AI is just going to be another component to that governance.

AR This is a qualified and sensible view of an issue that generates too much alarmism, even from such otherwise sensible people as Max Tegmark and the signatories of his open letter.
The danger comes from poorly motivated people, from users of AI to its developers up to tech titans. The classic way to contain the dangers they pose is by laws and regulation.
We have no reason to suppose this approach won't work here too, at least if governments succeed in making wise use of the new tools themselves. That's a big if.


2023 September 25

On Education

Michael Muthukrishna

Humans can count, read, and reason. But the human brain has scarcely changed since modern humans evolved. Much of our thinking is the result of successive cultural software upgrades.
The cognitive operating system most of us now run was delivered by schooling. Schools have changed our psychology and behavior. They also made us more intelligent, as measured by IQ tests.
The tests measure what schools deliver. As schools got better and became accessible to more people, average IQ increased. But schools are fossils from a world before the internet and AI.

AR Schools are relics of the industrial age, where docile masses needed training in the art of working to rigid timetables on preset tasks in an environment pitting each against all, or rather against schedules imposed from on high.
Ivan Illich delivered a critique of this concept of education in his 1971 book Deschooling Society. Schools as we know them are obsolete and dysfunctional, measured by the criterion of fitting children to the needs of the modern world.
Even the cost of traditional education is excessive if the aim is to socialize all kids sufficiently to be ready to flourish in our world. As Muthukrishna says, we need to rejig the whole concept in view of the internet and AI.


NASA/Keegan Barber
OSIRIS-REx Sample Return, September 24
L to R: NASA astromaterials curator Francis McCubbin, NASA sample return capsule science lead Scott Sandford, and
University of Arizona OSIRIS-REx principal investigator Dante Lauretta, beside the OSIRIS-REx sample return capsule
containing a sample collected from the asteroid Bennu in October 2020.
Lauretta: "Boy, did we stick that landing. It was just sitting right there, a few tens of feet right off a nice road,
a perfect place for the helicopters to land. It didn't move, it didn't roll, it didn't bounce,
it just made a tiny little divot in the Utah soil."



2023 September 24


Carole Cadwalladr

Yanis Varoufakis is the leftwing Greek firebrand who in 2015, at the height of the Greek debt crisis, was catapulted from academic obscurity to minister of finance.
His new book Technofeudalism says capitalism has been replaced with something worse. We are now in servitude to the fiefdoms of global masters like Mark Zuckerberg and Elon Musk.
YV: "Imagine .. a town full of people going about their business, trading in gadgets, clothes, shoes, books, songs, games and movies. At first everything looks normal. Until you begin to notice [that] all the shops, indeed every building, belongs to a chap called Jeff .. everything is intermediated by .. an algorithm that dances to Jeff's tune."
Jeff Bezos charges rent. This is feudalism. We're the serfs, but we don't even realise that our tweeting and posting is building value in these companies.
YV: "The people we think of as capitalists are just a vassal class now. If you're producing stuff .. you cannot become the ruler of the world anymore."

AR This is a development of an argument I presented in my 2010 book on Globorg. The new Big Tech bosses bestride the world like the robber barons of earlier capitalism.
The new ingredient is that a young hotshot with a brilliant idea can get venture capital so easily that getting started and selling shares to finance the growth of a big corporation is no longer the holdup. The crazy new idea is the precious pixie dust that gets the whole show on the road.
The result is technofeudalism, the oligarchy of the geeks. Next stop is the singularity, when one firm dominates the entire global economy and sets up an AI world.


Dorset for Europe
National Rejoin the EU march, London, Saturday September 23



2023 Autumnal Equinox

American Anarchy

John Gray

"Whoever succeeds in lodging themselves in the White House in January 2025 will preside over a failing state and a country descending into civil warfare. The hyperbolic liberalism of past decades will be locked in a deadly confrontation with the "populist" mass blowback that is its ever-present and lengthening shadow. The ensuing upheavals will not be pretty."

AR Gray is increasingly resembling a prophet of doom. This latest take on US political dysfunction is surely alarming, but it is surely too the plainest truth if Trump succeeds in getting re-elected.




2023 September 22

AI and Consciousness

Ed Prideaux

AI programs are not conscious. Neuroscientists can map the objective correlates of a conscious experience but not its irreducibly subjective dimension. This gap seems irreconcilable.
Materialists see the world as interacting physical entities. They depict consciousness as an emergent property. Their failure to explain consciousness has birthed a return of metaphysics.
The return is part of a revival of critiques of modernity in terms of meaning, religion, tradition, sex, and technology in media spaces. A focus on meaning merges consciousness and wellness.
Such ideological capture of consciousness and meaning reveals the limits of politics. Leftists dismiss spirituality and metaphysics as distractions from poor wages and failing public services.
The rising tide of AI increases the importance of consciousness. Seeing human beings as meat running wetware turns the mind into a commodity. Machines harvest our attention for profit.
Resistance to technological excess requires us to affirm attention and consciousness as sacred. Taking our conscious subjectivity seriously points us to a looming tech dystopia.

AR Take away the jargon terminology and this is still a sound philosophical critique of the societal impact of Big AI. All going well, I plan to tackle the theme in my next novel, due 2024/25.


European Parliament
European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen: "It is our collective duty to write a new story for Europe.
The future of our continent depends on the choices we make today."

AR It is a monstrous absurdity that no British MEPs currently sit in this parliament.
Brits are effectively disenfranchised on their own continent.



2023 September 21

Get Rejoin Done

Gina Miller

Brexit has had a negative impact across the UK:
  Three-quarters of British companies say the trade agreement between the EU and the UK has made it difficult for them to increase sales and grow their business.
  Across the NHS and social care, Brexit has compounded existing problems caused by a lack of workforce planning and poor conditions.
  UK business investment is slowing across every sector. Public services, retail and hospitality, and the entertainment industry all suffer staffing shortages linked to EU migration.
  Brexit is seriously harming the food and farming sector. Farmers are in despair.
  Alone, the UK will struggle to counter global threats such as climate change, data breaches, wars, terrorism, mass migration, and pandemics.
Rejoining the EU is now the will of people.

AR Pride drove the UK out of the EU following the referendum vote in 2016. Perhaps pride enough to accept the error of that choice without losing national self-respect can permit a return to the EU − the one organisation that offers a practical hope of providing a meaningful role for the UK into the foreseeable future.


2023 September 20

Rethinking Brexit

Rafael Behr

Brexit meant leaving the single market to give Britain a competitive edge. In reality, investors prefer the bigger market and expect regulatory compliance in the smaller one. The result is a gradual surrender of economic sovereignty.
Labour leader Keir Starmer wants to review the Brexit deal and upgrade it. But the single market comes as a package with free movement of labour, and aligning with European rules without a seat at the table looks like regulatory vassalage.
Starmer needs to rise above a commercial quid pro quo. The UK needs strategic realignment and institutional partnership with the European project.

EU protectionism weakens Germany
Wolfgang Münchau

An EU policy of tariffs on Chinese electric cars is protectionist.
A trade war with China is a nightmare for Germany. With Brexit, the Germans lost a major source of their trade surpluses. Then they lost Russia. Without China, their economic model will be broken.
A protectionist EU is focused on threat, not opportunity.

AR Without the UK in the EU to counter French dirigisme, Germany is being pushed against its mercantilist inclination. To ensure that reason prevails in EU policy debates, the UK must rejoin.
Accepting the euro, free movement, and European political infighting is a small price to pay for keeping Europe strong enough to flourish in a changing world.




2023 September 19


Emma Beddington

Matthieu Ricard wrote a book called Happiness. He says it comes from ridding yourself of sources of suffering. It is "a sort of bonus" that comes from compassion, benevolence, and altruism.
Ricard, 77, combines the rigour of a French intellectual with the wisdom of intense spiritual practice. He was called "the world's happiest man" after a 2004 research project analyzed his brain as he meditated on compassion. His gamma waves showed high wellbeing and focus.
Happiness came out 20 years ago. His latest book, Notebooks of a Wandering Monk, is about his life. He relates a personal as well as a spiritual journey, working with the Dalai Lama and speaking at Davos and the UN and collaborating with scientists on the neuroscience of meditation.
Ricard grew up in France. His mother, Yahne le Toumelin, was a pioneering abstract painter. His father, the journalist and philosopher Jean‑François Revel, was a member of the Académie Française. Ricard was bewildered to see no correlation between genius and being a good person.
He says he was "born on 12 June 1967" at age 21 when he met his first teacher, Kangyur Rinpoche. He gave up a postgraduate position at the Institut Pasteur, said goodbye to the colonic bacteria that were the subject of his doctorate, moved to Darjeeling, and became a monk.
He collaborated with his father in 1997 on the book The Monk and the Philosopher. The philosophical dialogue was a near-instant bestseller. Overwhelmed, he talked to one of his teachers, who advised him: "Accept everything."
Ricard on the cult of secular mindfulness: "The Dalai Lama has said it's very simplistic .. If something becomes popular, it's unavoidable .. If a tool is useful, it is useful."

AR Ricard is an admirable figure. A friend at SAP introduced me to Happiness many years ago. More recently, I read Ricard's book Altruism with great pleasure.




2023 September 18

Britain Without Brexit

Anoosh Chakelian

Imagine an alternative UK with economic growth 5% higher than now, foreign investment 11% higher, and 7% more goods traded across its borders.
Referenced by the FT, Economist, and BBC, pondered in Whitehall and across Europe, this model may be the best analysis we have of Brexit's impact on the UK economy. It found Brexit had cut UK GDP by 5.5%, but when GDP growth was revised upward last month, the cut fell to 5%.
John Springford is the economist behind it. With data from 2009 Q1 to 2016 Q2, he used a weighted combination of advanced economies on a similar trajectory to predict a UK economy that stayed in the EU. He ran his model from 2018, making the code public to get feedback.
Springford: "The model suggests the costs of Brexit are on the higher end of the forecasts made before and immediately after the referendum."

AR Given the economic pain so many Brits now endure and given the expert warnings in advance, government pursuit of Brexit appears now as a criminally reckless policy. The politicians who pushed and promoted the policy should be banished from public life.


2023 September 17

Primal World Beliefs

Jer Clifton, Nick Kerry

Liberals and conservatives have deep disagreements about the nature of the world. Primal world beliefs may help explain their political differences.
Humans vary on 26 primal world beliefs. Around the general belief that the world is a dangerous place, liberals and conservatives agree in three ways and slightly disagree in three ways. Liberals see the world as more dangerous with respect to injustice.
Liberals and conservatives differ mainly over the belief that hierarchy is part of the natural order. People who see the world as hierarchical think almost everything in the world can be ranked from better to worse. Things of more value are distinct from things with less.
Conservatives tend to see the world as a place where observable differences reflect real underlying value that is somehow meant to be, where station and attention received are usually deserved, so most hierarchies that emerge are best left as they are. But change is slowly eroding the world's hierarchies, so constraining change and accepting inequality makes sense.
Liberals tend to see the world as a place where observable differences are superficial, rarely reflecting actual value, cosmic purpose or intent, deserved status, or attention received, so most hierarchies require reform. But the world is getting better and change is taking us in the right direction, so embracing change and rejecting inequality makes sense.
The main worldview difference between liberals and conservatives is whether the world is a place where differences should be respected.

AR The isolation of exactly 26 primal world beliefs strikes me as the kind of ill-motivated reification for which psychologists are notorious. Still, the general point about hierarchy is well taken.


My youngest nephew Mike
fought again tonight.
He won, first round KO:
13 fights, 13 wins


2023 September 16

Pax Americana Redux

Michael Lind

Pax Americana was looser than an empire but tighter than an alliance. In the Cold War division of labor within Pax Americana, the US made wars and Japan and Germany made cars.
After the Cold War, instead of dissolving Pax Americana, the US establishment sought to globalize it. This was motivated in part by US fear of watching Japan and Germany re‑emerge as great powers.
Western governments expanded immigration. Neoliberal economists and libertarian ideologues said offshoring and the new immigrant proletariat had no big effects on wages and living standards.
Champions of globalization promised workers jobs in the knowledge economy. But the elites tried to force economic growth by asset inflation and immigration-driven growth. The rich got richer.
Economic elites welcomed immigration. But this created populist backlashes. Building a firewall against populist influence on public policy may create a version of China's social credit system.
Great power rivalry is back. At the global level, the attempt to universalize Pax Americana failed in 2008. Russia and China rejected the US offer to specialize in commerce like Japan and Germany.
Cold War 2 pits the West against China and Russia, but it will not be a rerun of Cold War 1. China has far more industrial power and latent military strength than the USSR possessed at its height.
In Cold War 1, Moscow and Beijing competed to lead the revolutionary religion of Marxism−Leninism. Today's Russia and China are conventional authoritarian dictatorships.
Cold War 2 has strengthened rather than weakened America's informal empire. In Europe and littoral East Asia, Pax Americana lives on.

AR Pax Americana lives on as a high-tech club, spreading the benefits of Alphabet, Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Intel, Microsoft, Tesla, and all the other big beasts of the corporate jungle, to a world hungry for the crumbs that fall from the Big Tech table.
This high-tech ecosystem is inherently globalizing, independently of the political shenanigans of techno-illiterate nationalist elites, and will prevail as soon as the futile posturing of Cold War 2 becomes obvious even to political blockheads.
The rise and rise of AI and its enabling and empowering technologies (such as robotics and biotech) plus the global imperative of climate change and its consequences (such as resource wars and mass migration) will force the pace.


Theresa May
Mount Theresa erupts on the erosion of trust in UK politicians and public institutions
Andrew Marr on May on Brexit: "Her case is that hardline Remainers .. and hardcore Brexiteers .. jointly wrecked
the possibility of a deal that would have honoured the vote but allowed trade to continue relatively freely."



2023 September 15

Plutocratic Britain

George Monbiot

"Almost everyone in [UK] public life accepts the same set of preposterous beliefs. That economic growth can continue indefinitely on a finite planet; that the unhindered acquisition of enormous fortunes by a few is acceptable, even commendable; that they should be allowed to own as much natural wealth as their money permits; that there's nothing objectionable about a few offshore billionaires owning the media and setting the political agenda; that anyone who disputes such notions has no place in civil society."

AR Wow! That's quite a charge sheet. Yet there's a lot of truth there. I would dispute this or that detail, but I must admit I see an incendiary indictment there even when the hyperbole has been cut down to size. The British governing elite has a lot to answer for.




2023 September 14

Earth Beyond Boundaries

Katherine Richardson et al

The planetary boundaries framework suggests Earth is now well outside the safe operating space for humanity. Earth system modeling illustrates that anthropogenic impacts on Earth must be considered in a systemic context.
The framework identifies nine processes maintaining the stability and resilience of the Earth system. All are presently heavily perturbed by human activities. The framework sets levels of anthropogenic perturbation that allow Earth to remain in a state similar to that of the past 10 ky or so rather than changing into a state without analog in human history.
Human activities have now brought Earth outside of the Holocene window of variability, giving rise to the Anthropocene epoch. The planetary boundaries framework delineates the systems and processes known to regulate the state of the planet within ranges conducive to the human welfare and societal development experienced during the Holocene.
Planetary boundaries bring a scientific understanding that identifies a safe operating space for humanity. The Holocene state of Earth is the benchmark reference. Earth is in danger of leaving its Holocene-like state.

AR As usual, the science of this topic is alarming, but no one seems capable of effective action. We need politicians worldwide to agree to take a global perspective and work together on the climate emergency. Otherwise, what merit can the larger political structures of this world claim to have?




2023 September 13

Entanglement Entropy

Charlie Wood

Quantum entanglement naturally spreads through grouped particles, weaving a web of contingencies. By measuring the particles often enough, we can break entanglement and stop the web from forming. The change is like a phase transition.
Imagine an entangled pair of particles A and B, each with spin that can be measured as up or down. They begin in a superposition. If we find B pointing up, measuring A will find it pointing down. Measuring one particle tells us about the other.
Entanglement entropy (in bits) says how much a measurement of B reduces ignorance about A. No entanglement entropy means measuring B says nothing about A. High entanglement entropy means measuring B says a lot about A.
Imagine a long chain of particles. Entanglement jumps from one particle to the next. To see how far entanglement has taken hold, label one half of the chain A and the other half B; if entanglement entropy is high, the two halves are highly entangled.
Left untouched, the quantum state of a group of particles reflects all the possible combinations of ups and downs we can get when we measure those particles. But measurement collapses a quantum state and destroys its entanglements.
Random interactions between the particles complicate the state of the chain over time, spreading out its information. The chain effectively hides information from measurements and allows much of its entanglement to escape collapse.
A measurement-induced phase transition is a transition between information phases, one where information remains spread out and one where it is localized by repeated measurements. Measurement changes the web of information.

AR Entanglement entropy suggests to me that we should completely rethink the concept of entropy to give it a foundation in quantum rather than classical mechanics.
As I understand it, entanglement entropy leads to a massive reduction of classical microstates accessible to a quantum system. Recall the holographic principle, where the number of microstates scales with the area bounding a volume, not classically with the volume.
The new concept will have dramatic consequences in cosmology, where the idea that the universe began in a state of extremely low entropy (Roger Penrose guesstimates it as 10 to the power −123) is essential to explain the thermodynamic arrow of time.
The idea that the universe will fizzle out in a heat death also becomes dubious. Boltzmann brains and the like fall away too. Scope for cosmic optimism!




2023 September 12

Britain Must Change

Andrew Marr

A storm is coming. The UK economy is too small to deliver the social goods British people expect.
A radical rethink of UK relations with the EU cannot be long avoided. A further Tory government would again be held hostage by Brexiteer extremists. The election of Labour in 2024 would mean five more years of atrophying UK−EU relationships.
We need to look again at wealth taxes, in view of the huge asset bubble that followed the BoE's QE experiment. The unfairness in the current system cannot be ignored. Like Brexit, this will involve a future Labour government in great and bitter controversy.
Things outside a future British government's control will massively shape the decade ahead. A second Trump presidency would hugely endanger European security. It would end the American century of global dominance, with consequences for the UK.
Artificial intelligence will have huge political consequences. Among the jobs likely to go early on, the most at risk include lawyers, professors, teachers, judges, financial advisers, estate agents, bank workers, psychologists, and HR and PR workers.
The UK will need a strong and decisive state. We may see fundamental changes.

AR We should not underestimate the British predilection for muddling through despite a crying need for radical change. The crisis has a while to gather volume before the pips squeak enough to deliver revolutionary upheaval.




2023 September 11


Annaka Harris

Meditation can cause people to feel at one with the universe and more connected to other people. The illusory sense of being a self is related to the feeling of freedom of will. When the dual sense of self and free will drops out, people report a deep feeling of wellbeing.
The brain is complex. All the factors leading up to any decision contribute to even the smallest decisions. But even though the brain, as a system, is capable of an uncountable number of sequences of behaviors, it's not capable of all those behaviors in every moment in time.
The dance of electrical firing in the brain is in constant dialog with the outside world and other beings. Breaking through the illusions of self and free will can help us feel at one with the rest of nature. We glimpse the mystery of being an integral part of the universe.

AR The sense that we have free will is invincible so long as the sense of self persists. I can act, and I feel the sense of freedom to act, ideally to act any way I want. But I'm not free to choose what I want; that's determined by our causal nexus.
I know what I can do, but not what I can't do. My self is constructed from what I know. Any intelligent system faces the same epistemic limit. This may be a derivable consequence of the self-referential bounds of a computational system.


2023 September 10


Nadine Levy

Mindfulness encourages the conscious exploration of meaning in our lives. It can help us to develop a gentle, responsive, and inquisitive approach to ourselves and others. This can lead to greater clarity about how our daily decisions align with our deepest intentions.
By using mindfulness to see what is really there, we become more empowered to make choices that support a state of ease, clarity, and purpose. Once we are in a balanced state of mind, mindfulness can help us to get in touch with intuitive and bodily ways of knowing.
One way to access such embodied insight is by developing an awareness of bodily sensations. Another way is to engage in mindful inquiry and active contemplation. We can move beyond the sense of our little lives into something that connects us to our shared humanity.
Mindfulness can give us the tools to bring awareness to the daily choices we make. As our practice deepens, we can better access our embodied and intuitive sense of our passions and interests and how we might use them to live our lives.

AR I find the practice beneficial, although I don't do it methodically but simply follow instincts I've learnt not to ignore or dismiss. A benefit of having studied philosophy is understanding the practice and taking it seriously.


2023 September 9

Quantum Biology

Clarice Aiello

There is a protein that senses magnetic fields through a spin-dependent chemical reaction.
Electrons possess spin, and different spin states interact differently with magnetic fields. A magnetic field can put a particle's spin in a superposition of up and down.
Some chemical reactions are influenced by the superposition states of specific electron spins. Magnetic fields can affect the macroscopic outcomes of these reactions.
The protein interacts with very tiny magnetic fields using electron spin as a quantum detector. And it does so at room temperature, in a messy solution with millions of molecules.
Electron spin-dependent chemical reactions can alter the function of living cells. Birds can sense Earth's magnetic field as a migratory cue. They seem to do so via the protein cryptochrome.
There is evidence that weak magnetic fields lead to physiological responses across the tree of life. The effects range from changes in DNA repair rates to neurological function and cell metabolism.
A revolution in our understanding of biology and the role of quantum physics is coming.

AR Totally agree. I talked with Johnjoe McFadden about this at a gig in Prague in 2003, before he and Jim A-Khalili published Life at the Edge: The Coming of Age of Quantum Biology (2014).


Taylor Swift


2023 September 8

Taylor Swift

Shaad D'Souza

Taylor Swift has just wrapped up the first leg of the Eras tour. When it concludes in November 2024, the tour will have grossed an estimated $1.4 billion in revenue.
Swift is the most successful pop star in the world. In 2020, she dropped two albums that repositioned her as a serious musician, not just a pop star. She will soon release the album 1989 (Taylor's Version), a re-recording of her album 1989, originally released in 2014.
Back then, there was no way to be a megastar pop icon without blanket media coverage. Today there is less of a monoculture. The social media ecosystem has spawned celebrities who are hugely famous to those who are interested but largely unknown to those who are not.
Pop Pantheon host Louis Mandelbaum: "We're in the era of everyone being a cult star .. all Taylor has to do is play into what her fans want from her."
Swift can now be famous to those who love her, yet free from the hate that hit her in 2016. Her songs remain heavily played on legacy platforms such as pop radio, but a constant drip feed of new music is being uploaded to streaming services. Swift had four albums in the US Top 10 at once this summer.
Mandelbaum: "She has achieved so much through her own merits and talent and vision .. there are just so many people that love her."

AR A wonderful story, a legend for our time. In my humble opinion, she's a great artist. I have several of her recent albums (on the antique medium of CDs).




2023 September 7

UK Rejoins Horizon Europe

Lisa O'Carroll

UK prime minister Rishi Sunak has confirmed that the UK will return to the Horizon Europe science research programme. The UK will also rejoin the Copernicus Earth observation satellite programme. But the UK will not rejoin Euratom and will instead pursue a domestic fusion energy strategy. The UK will contribute about €3 billion on average a year to Horizon and Copernicus.
Royal Society president Sir Adrian Smith: "Fantastic news not just for the UK but for scientists across the EU and for all the people of Europe."

AR Good news indeed − the best from the present UK government for a lamentably long time.


Alien Visitors?

Alexandra Witze

Researchers claim to have collected fragments of a meteorite that came from beyond our solar system. But the evidence that the material came from another solar system is not convincing.
In 2017, an object flew past the Sun on an orbit that extended beyond the solar system. The object, Oumuamua, was the size of a skyscraper. A second such big object, Borisov, was seen two years later. These are the only two confirmed interstellar objects so far.
An estimated quadrillion interstellar objects occupy the cubic parsec of space around the Sun. One of them can get a gravitational kick that flings it through our solar system. If it were big enough to see, its hyperbolic orbit would reveal it as an interstellar visitor.
Avi Loeb claims his team has found hundreds of tiny metallic balls on the sea floor off the coast of Papua New Guinea that he says are from an interstellar meteorite that hit Earth in 2014. Others say the flash seen in 2014 may not have been from an interstellar object.
Several of the balls are unusually rich in trace elements Be, La, and U. But these abundances are not the best evidence of interstellar origin. Better to check O isotopes in the balls.

AR I'm skeptical about Loeb's new claim. He made big claims about Oumuamua, too, saying it might be an alien spaceship, but few other people went along with that one. As we often say, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. His evidence on Oumuamua seemed thin. Now his evidence on the balls seems weak.


JL Austin


2023 September 6

Invasion of the Martians

Thomas Nagel

John Langshaw Austin was the leading figure of the school of ordinary language philosophy that dominated Oxford for decades after WW2. During the war, he had been a military intelligence officer. He died in 1960 at the age of 48.
Austin was elected a prize fellow of All Souls in 1933. After two years there, he took a job at Magdalen College and gradually found his way in philosophy. Wittgenstein was a major influence. Austin gave a talk on the meaning of words at Cambridge in February 1940.
He was called up in July 1940. He worked in MI14 and generated the intelligence that the Germans were moving into North Africa in force. But by the time of the battle at El Alamein in 1942, he was head of the Advanced Intelligence Section of General Headquarters.
The group was known informally as the Martians. They produced a set of books for officers with detailed local information and maps for the D-Day invasion of Normandy in 1944. Austin rose to the rank of lieutenant colonel before returning to Oxford in 1945.
Austin developed an ordinary language philosophy. He said natural language embodied the collective wisdom of generations of practical engagement with the world. He marshalled a study group of dons and inspired a generation of Oxford philosophers.
Careful attention to language remains a valuable tool of analytic philosophy.

AR I read Austin early on at Oxford, but he wasn't really my style. I preferred direct engagement with the big issues, with the formalised languages of logic and mathematics as my guide.




2023 September 5

UK Tax Injustice

Harry Lambert

The British tax system punishes work at the expense of wealth and poorer homeowners at the expense of richer ones. The very richest sit on vast estates and pay lower rates of tax than the staff they employ.
Since 2010, the Bank of England has used quantitative easing (QE) as its primary policy tool. QE has fueled an enormous asset boom. Alleviating the effects of QE is delegated to the Treasury.
Assets are taxed far more favorably than labor in the UK. The return on capital has shot up since 1980, and inequality has risen with it. The UK tax system entrenches inequality.
Council tax imposes a far greater proportionate burden on the poor. Every property owner in the UK could instead pay 0.5% on the value of their home. To raise fresh revenues, apply National Insurance to landlords and speculators and reverse the 2016 capital gains tax cut.
Britain's inheritance tax system is riddled with asset reliefs and trust exceptions. Those with the greatest estates pay the lowest rates. Labour should impose a wealth tax.

AR The UK tax system certainly fails to deliver the distributive justice often touted as a major feature of the system, and of income tax in particular. A parliamentary committee should be appointed to conduct a comprehensive review and recommend radical reforms. Trust the next Labour government not to appoint one.




2023 September 4

Complexity Theory

Ben Brubaker

The central open question in computer science is the P vs NP problem. The problem arises from sorting computational problems into complexity classes, such as P and NP.
P problems can be solved in polynomial time. NP problems have easily checkable solutions. Problems in P are also in NP, but some NP problems seem harder.
Kurt Gödel proved that a statement like "This statement is unprovable" can be derived from any appropriate set of axioms. If such a statement is unprovable, the theory is incomplete; if it is provable, the theory is inconsistent.
Alan Turing made a mathematical model to represent all possible algorithms, and then used Gödel's method to prove the existence of uncomputable problems. His distinction between computable and uncomputable problems did not distinguish P from NP.
Claude Shannon showed how switching circuits can represent logical expressions involving Boolean variables (1 or 0) linked together by the logic gates AND, OR, and NOT. A Boolean function takes in Boolean variables and outputs either 1 or 0. With enough of these gates, you can perform any computation.
The circuit complexity of a function is the total number of gates in the smallest circuit that computes it. The minimum number of gates needed to compute a Boolean function can grow polynomially or exponentially as the number of input variables increases. Like P or NP problems, Boolean functions can be easy or hard.
Encryption methods used today are based on NP problems. To ensure these methods are secure, you need to prove that P ≠ NP. Early attempts to prove P ≠ NP had a self-defeating character like Gödel's unprovable statement, suggesting a barrier.
A natural proofs barrier distinguishes high-complexity functions from low-complexity ones. It is like distinguishing true randomness from the pseudo-randomness used to encrypt messages. For secure cryptography, we want pseudo-randomness to be indistinguishable from randomness.
The list of outputs of a hard Boolean function is indistinguishable from a random binary string. For an easy function, the string must have a short description. For a pseudorandom string used in cryptography, the short description is the secret message.
A natural proof of P ≠ NP would yield a fast algorithm that could distinguish pseudorandom strings containing hidden messages from truly random ones. If secure cryptography is possible, natural proofs cannot prove P ≠ NP.

AR The source document here is huge, so this is a highly selective précis that stops short of the more intriguing recent work on the leading edge. But, hey, my brain is taxed by this stuff already. Loading these notes down with dizzying detail helps no one.


Bournemouth air show, last day, just in time before a "heat wave" week



2023 September 3

Blasphemy and Bigotry

Kenan Malik

The Danish government aims to ban the "improper treatment of objects of significant religious importance to a religious community" in a new law.
Any law outlawing blasphemy is unacceptable. The charge of blasphemy helps to shore up the power of religious leaders and institutions and to silence critics and dissenters.
In defending freedom of religion and speech, we must also oppose anti-Muslim bigotry. Such bigotry is often expressed through denying the right of Muslims to practise their faith. We must oppose restrictions on freedom of religion.
Taboos help maintain coercive power relations within Muslim communities. Those fighting repression imposed in the name of Islam may burn Qur'ans to challenge them.
To oppose restrictions on blasphemy, we must also stand against bigotry.

AR This is a counsel of perfection. Politically incorrect speech is like secular blasphemy, excessive disrespect of a person is like personal blasphemy, and political commentary can border on ideological bigotry. Religions deserve no free pass here, true, but burning Qur'ans has unintended consequences, such as delaying Sweden's accession to NATO, so we need to tread carefully.




2023 September 2

AI: The Coming Wave

Mustafa Suleyman

We're at a moment with the development of AI where we have ways to provide support, encourage­ment, affirmation, coaching, and advice. We've basically taken emotional intelligence and distilled it. This is going to unlock the creativity of millions and millions of people.
Biotech is already undergoing its own transformation, but AI will act as a potent accelerant. Manufactured products could one day be grown from synthetic biological materials rather than assembled, using carbon sucked out of the atmosphere. Organisms will soon be designed and produced with the precision and scale of today's computer chips and software.
Four aspects of the AI revolution create the potential for catastrophe:
  AI has asymmetric effects. A rag-tag band of fighters can hamstring a powerful state using guerrilla tactics. An anonymous hacker can bring down a healthcare system's computers.
  AI can refine design and manufacturing processes, with the improvements compounding after each new iteration. Lethal threats could emerge and spread before anyone has even clocked them.
  AI will permeate all aspect of our lives. It brings benefits, but it also enables harms. The good will be too tempting to forgo, and the bad will come along with it.
  AI has the potential to make decisions for itself. Though this may invoke Terminator-style night­mares, autonomous cars are likely to be much safer than ones driven by humans.
I see technological change as arising from the collective creative consciousness. Very rarely does an invention get held in a private space for very long. Our business plan had the mission to build artificial general intelligence safely and ethically for the benefit of everyone.

AR Suleyman should be a good thought leader on this topic. I see no reason to disagree with his basic perspective here. The potential of AI is both good and bad, with both sides exceeding the bounds reached by previous new technologies. We live in interesting times!




2023 September 1

Mathematical Proof, Social Compact

Andrew Granville

Mathematics is an experimental process. The culture of mathematics is all about proof. The main point of a proof is to persuade the reader of the truth of an assertion.
Verification is key. The best verification system we have in mathematics is that lots of people look at a proof from different perspectives, and it fits well in a context they know and believe. Proofs are accepted by these community standards.
The notion of objectivity is important in mathematics. But we're entrapped in our society. We have no outside perspective to say what assumptions we're making.
Aristotle proposed a deductive system going back to certain axioms. But the Euclidean axiomatic system that developed had its problems. Bertrand Russell and Alfred Whitehead tried to create a new system of doing math. But it was ludicrously complicated, and nobody was comfortable with it.
David Hilbert proposed that you cannot deduce two things from your axioms that contradict each other, and you should be able to do most math in terms of the selected axioms. We can resolve statements that cannot be proved using ZFC either way, because we can choose our axiomatic system. Kurt Gödel proved that no matter how we select our language, there are always statements in that language that are true but that cannot be proved from our starting axioms.
Alan Turing said a computer is designed to do what humans can do, just faster. We have been using computers to make calculations for decades. Today we can use AI to verify what we believe to be true. But proof verification seems no more secure than most things done by humans.
Our future will rely on the sense of community we have relied on throughout the history of science. We bounce ideas off one another, we talk to people with different views, and so on.

AR As an Oxford philosopher, I studied the issues around ZFC, Gödel's theorems, and Turing's work in depth, motivated by Wittgenstein's skeptical views on mathematical objectivity. The outcome was very like the view Granville sketches here. As Robert Brandom has since shown, Hegel had already prefigured the general issue about meaning.


BLOG 2023 Q3


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