Category: Uncategorized

The Final Word

It is the mark of clear thinking and good rhetorical style that when I start a sentence, I finish it in a suitable, grammatical fashion. A complete sentence is synonymous with a complete thought. In the world of AI, completing sentences has become the starting point for the Large Language Models which have started talking back to us. The problem that the neural networks are quite literally being employed to solve is “what word comes next”? Or at least this is how it was explained in Steven Johnson’s excellent Times article on the recent and frankly impressive advances made by the Large Language Model, GPT-3, created by OpenAI.

As is apparently necessary for a Silicon Valley project founded by men whose wealth was accrued through means as prosaic as inherited mineral wealth and building online payment systems, OpenAI sees itself on a grand mission for both the protection and flourishing of mankind. They see beyond the exciting progress currently being made in artificial intelligence, and foresee the arrival of artificial general intelligence. That is to say that they extrapolate from facial recognition, language translation, and text autocomplete, all the way to a science fiction conceit. They believe they are the potential midwives to the birth of an advanced intelligence, one that we will likely struggle to understand, and should fear, as we would a god or alien visitors.

What GPT-3 can actually do is take a fragment of text and give it a continuation. That continuation can take many precise forms: It can answer a question. It can summarize an argument. It can describe the function of code. I can’t offer you any guarantee that it will actually do these things well, but you can sign up on their website and try it for yourself. The effects can certainly be arresting. You might have read Vauhini Vara’s Ghosts in the Believer writing about her sister’s death. She was given early access to the GPT-3 “playground” and used it as a kind of sounding board to write honestly about the death of her sister. You can read the sentences that Vara fed the model and the responses offered, and quickly get a feeling for what GTP-3 can and can’t do.

It will be important for what I am about to say that I explain something to you of how machine learning works. I imagine that most of you reading this will not be familiar with the theory behind artificial intelligence, and possibly intimidated. But at it’s core it is doing something quite familiar.

Most of us at school will have been taught some elementary statistical techniques. A typical exercise involves being presented with a sheet of graph paper, with a familiar x and y axis and a smattering of data points. Maybe x is the number of bedrooms, and y is the price of the house. Maybe x is rainfall, and y is the size of the harvest. Maybe x is the amount of sugar in a food product, and maybe y is the average weekly sales. After staring at that cluster of points for a moment, you take your pencil and ruler and set down a “line of best fit”. From the chaos of those disparate, singular points on the page, you identified a pattern, a correlation, a “trend”, and then impose a straight line — a linear structure — on it. With that line of best fit drawn, you could then start making predictions. Given a value of x, what is the corresponding value of y?

This is, essentially, what machine learning and neural networks do.

The initial data points are what is referred to as the training data. In practice however, this is done in many more than two dimensions — many, many more, in fact. As a consequence, eyeballing the line of best fit is impossible. Instead, that line is found through a process called gradient descent. Taking some random choice of line as a starting point, small, incremental changes are made to the line, improving the fit with each iteration, until that line arrives in a place close to the presumed shape of the training data.

I say “lines”, but I mean some kind of higher dimensional curves. In the simplest case they are flat, but in GPT-3 they will be very curvy indeed. Fitting such curvy curves to the data is more involved, and this is where the neural networks come in. But ultimately all they do is provide some means of lining up, bending, and shaping the curves to those data points.

You might be startled that things as profound as language, facial recognition, or creating art, might all be captured in a curve, but please bear in mind that these curves are very high dimensional and are very curvy indeed. (And I’m omitting a lot of detail). It is worth noting that the fact we can do this at all has required three things: 1) Lots of computing power 2) Large, readily available data sets 3) a toolbox of techniques and heuristics and mathematical ideas for setting the coefficients that determine the curves.

I’m not sure that the writing world has absorbed the implications of what this all means. Here is what a Large Language Model could very easily do to writing. Suppose I write a paragraph of dog-shit-prose. Half baked thoughts put together in awkwardly written sentences. Imagine that I highlight that paragraph, right click, and somewhere in the menu that drops down there is the option to rewrite the paragraph. Instant revision with no new semantic content added. Clauses are simply rearranged, the flow is adjusted with mathematical precision, certain word choices are reconsidered, and suddenly everything is clear. I would use it like a next level spell checker.

And that is not all: I could revise the sentence into a particular prose style. Provided with a corpus of suitable training data I could have my sentences stripped of adjectives and set out in terse journalistic reportage. Or maybe I opt for the narrative cadence of David Sedaris. So long as there is enough of their writing available, the curve could be suitably adjusted.

In his Times article, Johnson devotes considerable attention to the intention and effort of the founders to ensure that OpenAI is on the side of the angels. They created a charter of values that aspired to holding themselves deeply responsible for the implications of their creation. A charter of values which reads as frankly, and literally hubristically, as they anticipate the arrival of Artificial General Intelligence, while they fine tune a machine which can convincingly churn out shit poetry. Initially founded as a non-profit, they now have birthed the for-profit corporation OpenAI LP, but made the decision to cap the potential profits for their investors: Microsoft looming particularly large.

But there was another kind of investment made in GPT-3. All the collected writings that were scraped up off the internet. The raw material that is exploited by the gradient descent algorithms, training and bending those curves to the desired shape. Ultimately, it is true that they are extracting coefficients from all that text-based content, but it is unmistakable how closely those curves hew, in their abstract way, to the words that breathed life into them. They actually explain that unfiltered internet content is actively unhelpful. They need quality writing. Here is how they curated the content in GPT-2:

Instead, we created a new web scrape which emphasizes document quality. To do this we only scraped web pages which have been curated/filtered by humans. Manually filtering a full web scrape would be exceptionally expensive so as a starting point, we scraped all outbound links from Reddit, a social media platform, which received at least 3 karma. This can be thought of as a heuristic indicator for whether other users found the link interesting, educational, or just funny.

(From Language Models are Unsupervised Multitask Learners)

For all of Johnson’s discussion of OpenAI’s earnest proclamations of ethical standards and efforts to tame the profit motive, there is little discussions of how the principal investment that makes the entire scheme work is the huge body of writing available online that is used to train the model and fit the curve. I’m not talking about plagiarism; I’m talking about extracting coefficients from text, that can then be exploited for fun and profit. Suppose my fantasy of a word processor tool that can fix prose styling becomes true. Suppose some hack writer takes their first draft and uses a Neil Gaiman trained model to produce an effective Gaiman pastiche that they can sell to a publisher. Should Gaiman be calling his lawyer? Should he feel injured? Should he be selling the model himself? How much of the essence of his writing is captured in the coefficients of the curve that was drawn from his words?

Would aspiring writers be foolish not to use such a tool? With many writers aiming their novels at the audiences of existing writers and bestsellers, why would they want to gamble with their own early, barely developed stylings? Will an editor just run what they write through the Gaiman/King/Munroe/DFW/Gram/Lewis re-drafter? Are editors doing a less precise version of this anyway? Does it matter that nothing is changing semantically? Long sentences are shortened. Semi-colons are removed. Esoteric words are replaced with safer choices.

The standard advice to aspiring writers is that they should read. They should read a lot. Classics, contemporary, fiction, non-fiction, good, bad, genre, literary. If we believe that these large language models at all reflect what goes on in our own minds, then you can think of this process as being analogous to training the model. Read a passage, underline the phrases you think are good, and leave disapproving marks by the phrases that are bad. You are bending and shaping your own curve to you own reward function. With statistical models there is always the danger of “over-fitting the data”, and in writing you can be derivative, an imitator, and guilty of pastiche. At the more extreme end when a red capped, red faced, member of “the base” unthinkingly repeats Fox News talking points, what do we have but an individual whose internal curve has been over-fitted?

It is often bemoaned that we live in an age of accumulated culture, nostalgia, retro inclination. Our blockbusters feature superheros created in a previous century. There is something painfully static and conservative about it all. But what if artificial intelligence leads us down the road to writing out variations of the same old sentences over and over again?

In Barthes’ essay The Death of the Author he asserts

We know now that a text is not a line of words releasing a single ‘theological’ meaning (the ‘message’ of the Author God) but a multi-dimensional space in which a variety of writings, none of them original, blend and clash. The text is a tissue of quotations drawn from the innumerable centers of culture.

Given that Barthes was quite likely half-bullshitting when he threw out phrases like “multi-dimensional space”, what I have quoted above is a disturbingly accurate description of the workings of a large language model. But it isn’t describing the large language model. It is a description of how we write. Barthes continues:

the writer can only imitate a gesture that is always anterior, never original. His only power is to mix writings, to counter the ones with the others, in such a way as never to rest on any one of them. Did he wish to express himself, he ought at least to know that the inner ‘thing’ he thinks to translate’ is itself only a ready-formed dictionary, its words only explainable through other works, and so on indefinitely.

Maybe Gaiman would have no more cause to call his lawyer than all the great many writers he absorbed, reading and then imitating in his youth and early adulthood. Maybe if Barthes is to be believed here, the author is dead and the algorithm is alive. Our creativity is well approximated by a very curvy curve in a high dimensional space.

One potential outcome that does not seem to have been considered by our Silicon Valley aristocracy is that the Artificial General Intelligence they bring into this world will be an utterly prosaic thinker with little of actual interest to say. It shouldn’t stop it from getting a podcast, though.

Or maybe Barthes was wrong and maybe Large Language Model will continue to be deficient in some very real capacity. Maybe writers do have something to say, and their process of writing is their way of discovering it. Maybe we don’t have to consider a future where venture capitalists have a server farm churning out viable best-sellers in the same fashion they render CGI explosions in the latest Marvel movie. Maybe we should get back to finishing the next sentence of our novel because the algorithm won’t actually be able to finish it for us. Maybe.

Like the Da Vinci of Hot Takes

I only have myself to blame. I was the one who clicked subscribe on the Substack. I’m trying not to write a rebuttal; I’m not a fan of the “debate me” style of writing. And if you dunk on someone on Twitter and no one is around to like it, have you really dunked on them? If my current commitment to writing blog posts serves any purpose (and the consensus is that I am a decade too late to have a personal blog) then it is to organize my thoughts into something coherent, and maybe adorn it all with an appealing turn of phrase. I’d like to explain why what I read was so utterly disagreeable.

Erik Hoel is a neuroscientist, neuro-philisopher, and fiction writer. Recently, he wrote an impassioned Substack post addressing the “decline of genius”. Because, first of all, Erik Hoel believes in genius. Personally, I believe in “genius”, with the scare quotes, but I don’t want to derail my outline of Hoel’s argument this early. Erik Hoel believes, and asserts there is evidence, that the number of geniuses is in decline. This is despite an expanded education system and technological conveniences like powerful personal computers that we can carry about in our pockets. The golden age of human flourishing has not arrived, despite ostensibly perfect conditions. The cause, Erik Hoel believes, is that an old style of education — which he terms “aristocratic tutoring” — is the only reliable system that produces true genius, while the classrooms of today consistently fail to give their students that certain something. And with one weird trick, that is to say replacing classroom education with the one-on-one individual tutoring, we might yet reach a golden age, with a bounteous and reliable crop of little Einsteins, von Neumanns, and Newtons.

Hoel doesn’t simply want smaller class sizes or more resources. He advocates for intensive, rigorous, and engaging tutoring, done one-on-one. There is no compromise (or indeed much civic spirit) on the path to reliably producing geniuses. The education of John Stuart Mill is cited approvingly — Mill’s childhood was was a weird Benthamite experiment, designed to cram the classical canon into a child by the age of twelve, for no less a goal than to raise the future leader of a radical movement. Hoel neglects to mention Mill’s intensive education led to a psychological breakdown at the age of twenty.

There is no hiding the scorn Hoel seems to have for the efforts of the educators we do in fact have. The fact that there might be virtues to a public education system are not taken remotely seriously. But as frustrating as that is, I can merely dismiss it as wrong-headed and distasteful.

It is the genius stuff that really bothers me. The term “genius” is itself is so awfully weighted with elitist and reactionary agendas. Genius is more like a PR stunt than a genuine appreciation of human achievement. It is the convenient idea that Apple used to brand their computers — and not a serious was to engage with the history of science and ideas. You can say Einstein was a genius with absolute conviction and with little understanding of his theory of relativity.

It’s not that I don’t think that there are individuals whose talents and contributions rise above their peers. Your average tenured mathematician certainly deserves respect for their achievements, but for better or worse, there really are people who produce work on entirely another level. After roughly a decade in research mathematics, I can say that whether it be through nature or nurture, God’s gifts have been distributed quite unequally. (Appropriately enough, I appeal here to Einstein’s God).

And I simply don’t buy the idea that we have a shortage of geniuses. I think some people prefer to spout declinist narratives, tell educators that they are doing it all wrong, and dismiss contemporary art and culture and literature as being utterly non-genius. They prefer doing all that to appreciating the successes of today, simply because they don’t conform to some presumed ideal of genius.

It gets my goat because as I read the piece I can think of examples. To take what seems to me to be the example that should settle the debate: Grigori Perelman. Perelman’s proof of the Poincare conjecture in the early 2000s was a momentous moment in mathematics. Not in recent mathematics. In mathematics, full stop. His proofs arrived online without fanfare or warning. While it took time for mathematicians to process what he had written and conclude that a complete proof had been presented, they understood very quickly that it was a serious contribution. It is rather vulgar to say it out loud, and actually a disservice to the entire field of differential geometry, but you can rank it up there with any other seminal mathematical advance. It would be be bizarre to suggest that modern mathematics is impoverished when such work like is being produced.

That is just one example. How long a list would you like? Should I mention the resolution of Fermat’s Last Theorem? Big math prizes handed out reasonably regularly, and I don’t believe there are any shortages of candidates. But maybe their contributions haven’t transformed the world in the way people might imagine “proper” geniuses might. Maybe the problem is that they never read their way through the canon before adolescence. Am I actually expected to entertain this line of thought while I have the privilege of such fine specimens of achievement at my disposal. But I sense that Hoel will simply explain that Perelman and the rest were lucky enough to receive some variation on aristocratic tutoring. Exceptions that prove the rule, and all that.

The whole business annoys me because instead of reading something that is interested in the human achievements that the essay claims to valorize, it wants to stack them up like shiny Pokemon cards to be measured by the inch. It aggravates me because I could be reading a New Yorker profile of someone who might not be a genius, but who is at least interesting. I could be reading the Simons’-funded math propaganda outlet Quanta which has the benefit of believing that there is great mathematics being done and that it is worth writing about. And most of all, for all the “geniuses” have done for the world, I’m still on team non-genius, and we still bring more than enough to the table.

On American Journalism

Back in 2018 I listened with great interest to the New York Times podcast series Caliphate. This ten part, multi-award winning series, narrated by the journalist Rukmini Callimachi, reported on ISIS, focusing on the testimony of Abu Huzaifa, née Shehroze Chaudhry. I heard Huzaifa describe, in interview, his online radicalization, journey into Syria, joining ISIS as a foreign fighter, and even performing executions.

The podcast made headlines, because this former ISIS member had returned to Canada where he was a citizen living freely. In discussion he remained sympathetic while disillusioned with the caliphate. Questions were raised in the Canadian parliament and inquiries made. At the time there was a great deal of concern in the media about fighters returning to the West after the collapse of ISIS. The media had reported with grim fascination on the alienated young people in the West who had been radicalized via social media and then traveling to Syria to join their new cause. ISIS itself had played up to its own sensational image by posting gruesome execution videos online.

But Huzaifa was lying. The entire podcast was based on a lie. He was a fabulist who no doubt harbored genuine sympathies for ISIS, but had likely never even entered Syria and certainly hadn’t joined the Caliphate. When the Royal Canadian Mounted Police concluded their investigation they prosecuted Huzaifa not as a terrorist, but for committing a terrorism hoax. (The case was later dropped in exchange for an admission in court to lying about joining ISIS and agreeing to a $10000 peace bond.) In late 2020 the New York Times issued a retraction.

Journalists live and die by access. Access to evidence, sources, records, and anything at all on which a story can be built. This leaves journalists in constant danger of getting burned by their sources. Leakers are notoriously difficult to work with. Often they are simply disgruntled former employees with a particular axe to grind, and the very same motivations that lead them to talking to a journalist make them suspect.

Sometimes the betrayals can seem utterly inexplicable. In 2020 the New Yorker informed its readers that a celebrated and award winning story on the “rent-a-family” industry in Japan, was compromised because no less than three of the sources used in the story had been lying outright to the writer, Elif Batuman. As Ryu Spaeth outlines in the New Republic:

The trouble began a year after the article was published, when a Japanese magazine reported that an employee of Family Romance had pretended to be a client of the company in a documentary produced by the giant Japanese broadcaster NHK. NHK confirmed that Ishii had told his staffers to carry out the ruse. The New Yorker then began its own investigation, culminating in the stunning admissions that were published this week: that “Kazushige Nishida,” the lonely widower, was in fact married and did not provide his real name; that “Reiko Shimada,” the lonely single mother, was in fact married and did not provide her real name; and that, craziest of all, Reiko and Yuichi Ishii are married to each other. Despite these elaborate deceptions, they all insisted that their stories were otherwise true.

In the aftermath of such retractions, the postmortem can present the mistakes made in the light of a morality play. In the case of Caliphate, the Times admitted that the series lacked the “regular participation of an editor experienced in the subject matter.” And on a practical level, they should have done reverse image searches on the pictures Huzaifa provided as evidence of his travels, and more thoroughly examined his passport and travel records.

But reading Ben Smith’s media column (in the very same newspaper) you are presented with a more expansive set of sins. The kind of narratives that Callimachi actively sought to present not only predisposed her to placing too much trust in a dubious source, but those narratives were themselves problematic.

Terrorism coverage can also play easily into popular American hostility toward Muslims. Ms. Callimachi at times depicted terrorist supersoldiers, rather than the alienated and dangerous young men common in many cultures. That hype shows up in details like The Times’s description of the Charlie Hebdo shooters acting with “military precision.” By contrast, The Washington Post’s story suggested that the killers were, in fact, untrained, and noted a video showing them “cross each other’s paths as they advance up the street — a type of movement that professional military personnel are trained to avoid.” On Twitter, where she has nearly 400,000 followers, Ms. Callimachi speculated on possible ISIS involvement in high-profile attacks, including the 2017 Las Vegas shooting, which has not been attributed to the group. At one moment in the Caliphate podcast, Ms. Callimachi hears the doorbell ring at home and panics that ISIS has come for her, an effective dramatic flourish but not something American suburbanites had any reason to fear.

This particular critique is interesting because although Huzaifa’s story was false, his story more or less follows the arc of the very real foreign fighters who joined ISIS. “Jihadi John” really did grow up in London, get a degree, and then later join ISIS and perform a series of beheadings that were recorded and uploaded online. But of course, by the time Caliphate was being made, Jihadi John was dead, leaving him very far from being inclined to offer any reporter at the Times his exclusive story.

Back with the rent-a-family story, Ryu Speath, writing at the New Republic, considered the possibility that the New Yorker fell into the “weird Japan” trap of reporting on the country to satisfy a preconceived notion of Japan’s otherness, oddness, and in-explicability.

Some will say Batuman, a gifted writer, got the story wrong because she had little professional or personal familiarity with Japan. But I think that only makes the Japanese seem even more mysterious, as if these strange creatures can only be understood through lengthy anthropological immersion. Anyway, Japanese journalists fell for the story, too. (No one is more fascinated by Japan’s weirdness than the Japanese themselves.) And everyone is susceptible to cultural blind spots. As I wrote earlier this year, I long viewed the Japanese fondness for sanitary masks as evidence of some deep-seated cultural defect. Now that I wear a mask myself every day, it’s amazing to me that I could not see the obvious, banal reason people use masks: to protect their health.

For all this I should say that I am a massive fan of journalists and the work they do. I consume considerable amounts of American journalism, and subscribe to both the Times and the New Yorker. There is a convenient argument that the retractions and subsequent analysis of their failings provide evidence for the very editorial standards these institutions failed to meet, but that argument is a little too convenient. Smith’s column strongly suggests that the flaws were fundamentally institutional, and the same thing could likely happen again. That said, I do think the retractions mean something.

Ultimately I want to sit down and read reporting from someone who has been there, talked to the people who were there, and gone through the evidence. I want to read articles which have been through a rigorous editorial process. I want to read analysis by people who have spent a lot of time thinking about an issue. Obviously I don’t want to be imbibing the talking points of corporate lobbyists, paying heed to astro-turfing organizations, treating cop-aganda credulously, letting green-washing get a free pass, or uncritically accepting press releases from the military-industrial complex. But assuming good faith, I’m ready to accept the inevitable mistakes, bias, and omissions.

Don’t believe everything you read in the papers. But that doesn’t mean you should stop reading the papers. Don’t expect the “truth” to be handed to you on a platter. Remember that some things really are too good to be true. But most of all, don’t shoot the messenger.

My attempt at a UK-style diary column…

New Hampshire’s state motto — Live Free or Die — struck me from the moment I first read it off a rear license plate as amusingly over-determined. Sure, the sentiment calls back to New England’s revolutionary tradition, but is now laden with so much other import that you have to laugh when you read it. Like with many other of the state mottoes I feel the need to ask “OK, but what are we really concerned about here?

In the case of New Hampshire the answer to that question seems to be “covered bridges”. Which are quite literally what the name suggests. That is to say bridges built with their own roofs, preventing snow and ice accumulating on the road surface beneath. I am to understand that such bridges last longer, are safer to use, and attract an unusual degree of local pride. Based on the selection postcards available on the rack I perused, they are far prouder of their covered bridges than most of the White Mountain peaks. Driving past a particularly congested covered bridge we could see visitors slowing down to gawk and take photographs of themselves.

It’s all much less “Live Free or Die”, and much more “We Like Our Safer Bridges.”

They liked their covered bridge so much they framed it.

The day after new year I went out for a jog around the small-town-liberal-arts-college-campus. With their leaves wet and glistening in sodden piles on the ground around them, the trees had the air of men who had thrown off their soiled garments and stood there completely exposed to the elements. They continued to hold up their branches — as dignified as they had been in their summer pomp.

One tree had been decorated in the fashion of a Christmas tree. I suppose we were still close enough to Christmas that this remained acceptable. Except that instead of the usual hung ornaments, baubles, tinsel and lights, the branches were laden with surgical masks, N95s, mini whiskey bottles, larger gin bottles, and the lids off tin cans, hanging by the ring pull. I imagine a student art project, or perhaps a particular kind of creative writing teacher trying to demonstrate the value of ritual and tradition, and the value of subverting it.

I jog by two kids throwing a blue American football back and forth while an adult supervised. They were wearing facemasks outdoors. I later pass a woman walking her dog and I began to sense a growing trepidation. Omicron was looming on the horizon.

I bought an LCD computer monitor for $25 on Craigslist and I’m feeling the thrill like it is 2002. The online listing site still lives, looking every bit like it is still 2002.

We drove across town to pick up the monitor, and I paid the man in cash. “I’m sorry, I just don’t like letting people into my house,” the seller told me as he led the way into his garage where he would demonstrate the monitor actually working before I took off with it. I told him that was entirely understandable, especially these days, but I realized his concern was not Covid related. After all, I was the only one of the two of us wearing a mask.

He was an older man, lean and wearing faded jeans and sneakers. His garage was tidy and well organized. The mind runs to dark and sensational places when a man explains that he doesn’t like letting strangers into his house. But these are usually the least interesting explanation for a man’s abiding attachment to his own privacy.

I just finished reading Lauren Hough’s collection of autobiographical essays Leaving isn’t the Hardest Thing. One of her more famous essays that appeared a few years back recounted her years working as a “cable guy” in a DC suburb. She often had to explain to customers that if they wanted their internet back, they were going to have to let her go down into their basements. “Unless you have kids in cages, I don’t care,” she would assure them. As she discovered, people have all kinds of reasons to be cautious about letting strangers into their home, many of them not actually sinister.

High Resolution

I feel a real thrill at the prospect of making a New Year’s resolution. While usually inclined toward maintaining my set routine, I remain vulnerable to the countervailing compulsion to rearrange my life, as some are drawn to rearranging the furniture every couple of months. Even the common varieties of vague and Protestant resolution stir something in me. Cook more, eat vegetarian, cut the processed sugar, cut the booze, hit the gym, walk a mile a day; I’m not a fan of the misery and the defeat and, worst of all, the society that makes people suffer for their bodies, yet the idea of experimenting with the way I live persists. Also, I am always eager to hear from someone who has made a resolution because, to my mind, they are setting off on a kind of adventure.

I have a history of resolutions — New Year’s and otherwise. As a graduate student in Montreal I spent a year exclusively reading books written by women. Another year I read the news exclusively in French. Lent 2017, now living in Israel, I ignored the news entirely. In 2020 I started listening to a slow French news podcast every day, and I succeeded until the national lock-down was declared. That resolution was less failed, more redundant. While half the world was planning on Duolingo-ing their way through their confinement, I realized that my resolution had become superfluous. Like it or not, the entire world’s collective furniture was being rearranged. I no longer had to worry about breaking up my own routines or trying out a new way to live. Not when going to the supermarket became a surreal and uncertain experience. Not when the pandemic began to change the way we dreamed.

The desire to find a different way to live is tightly coupled with a prurient interest in the way other people live. Praise be then to those brave voyagers reporting back to us with their experiences and collected wisdom via You-tube. They have tried doing 100 press-ups a day, 100 crunches a day, and 100 squats a day. They have tried reading 100 pages a day, writing 1000 words a day, and writing a novel in a month. You can find them quitting smoking, vaping, drinking, coffee, sugar, gluten, video games, world of warcraft specifically, social media, and the internet. You can find them trying meat for the first time, playing magic the gathering for the first time, watching a BTS music video for the first time, a kitten seeing snow for the first time, Amish girls seeing an airport for the first time, and Koreans trying bourbon for the first time. People have will tell you how they found eating like Taylor Swift, Donald Trump, Christiano Ronaldo, Adele, Michael Phelps, and The Rock. There are people who try, and debate the merits of, military rations from across the world.

To my mind, we (and especially these Youtubers) are all the descendants of Henry David Thoreau, the New England writer, proto-naturalist, proto-activist, and abolitionist. From July 1845 to September 1847 Thoreau lived apart from his town and community, working with his hands, in a cottage on the edge of Walden pond. His written account of the experiment was published almost seven years later so we can, as the expression goes, read all about it — from growing beans to visiting town every once in a while. But he also explains his motivations — principally, a deep cynicism about the lives of the men around him. He saw them “digging their graves before they are born” and living under the tyranny of their own opinions of themselves.

But men labor under a mistake. The better part of the man is soon plowed into the soil for compost.

Walden – Thoreau

It is not easy to transpose a thinker of the past into current circumstances. If Thoreau was alive today I can’t be sure if we’d find him vlogging about polyamory, a mid level marketing scheme, or radical politics. Quite possibly all of the above. I doubt that he would be the kind of person to play the incredibly sincere looking video game adaptation of his book.

In lieu of Thoreau, we have the likes of the Try Guys, who arrived on the video landscape with a four minute report on wearing women’s underwear for the first time.

You cannot watch such a video of those young men and not acknowledge that they are bucking against the tyranny of their own opinions of themselves. And having glanced through all these videos of people trying, quitting, warning and advising I suspect there is also the underlying cynicism about the way we live our lives that reflects something of Thoreau as well.

So what is my own new years resolution? As a teenager I read a book whose title and precise nature has faded from memory, but what I do remember is that the author, by way of illustrating some other point, briefly described spending a year reading the complete works of Shakespeare. At first, he recounted, it was difficult going, trying to soldier on through all that pentameter. But with perseverance the language opened up and he developed an authentic appreciation of the plays. It was far neater experience than I would today grant credence to, but it struck me at the time as a deeply worthy thing to do. I know for a fact, however, that I would not be able to read that much Shakespeare in a year. Aside from anything else, I am generally committed to reading wherever my fancy takes me. Instead, and by way of trying to get some Shakespeare into my system, I will commit myself to devoting each year to a different play. And I will begin, in 2022, with Macbeth.

Is “lockdown bod” a thing yet?

For obvious reasons, I’m not getting out much. But even sequestered away it is hard to escape how mad everyone in Britain has gone for the online pub quiz. Myself, I went with online chess for a few weeks as my ritualistic bit of fun, but that fell away at some point and now in its place has arisen the New Yorker’s online crossword. Thanks to partner mode it has even become vaguely social. And I couldn’t finish one of them on my own.

It has become de rigueur in academia to talk about imposter syndrome and the ways you can diminish yourself mentally by constantly comparing yourself to your peers. If you are afflicted by this I recommend avoiding the bios of the crossword compilers. They are a precocious and accomplished bunch — the youngest being the worst offenders. They’ve had careers in silicon valley, published books, involved in research and advocacy, write film criticism. Some of the clues are too clever for their own good, if you ask me.

I’m waiting for “lockdown bod” to enter in general usage. It should refer to either the weight gain following from the enforced sedentary lifestyle and comfort eating, or the effect of the hundreds of press-ups and crunches churned out to access those sweet endorphins. So far it hasn’t even registered on the urban dictionary. They do have a pretty amusing definition for “lockdown” though.

I’ve been reading my way through Claire Tomalin’s biography of Samuel Peyps. Pepys’ celebrated diary covers a particularly interesting decade of English history (1660-1669). It was the start of restoration England. Briefly, this means that after a civil war England had replaced the Monarchy with a man called Oliver Cromwell, who subsequently and inevitably died, leaving a power vacuum that they resolved by simply restoring the monarchy, bringing Charles II back to England as King. Bear in mind that his father, Charles I, had been fought against and ultimately executed by many of the same people who were now bringing him back.

This was also the decade of the Great Fire of London and the Great Plague of London. The latter being the final in a long series of outbreaks that seemed to resurface every decade or so. We are beginning to get a little first hand appreciation of how plague affected the lives of those who lived through it. Take the following from a recent New Yorker article on Shakespeare and the plague:

As a shareholder and sometime actor in his playing company, as well as its principal playwright, Shakespeare had to grapple throughout his career with these repeated, economically devastating closings. There were particularly severe outbreaks of plague in 1582, 1592-93, 1603-04, 1606, and 1608-09. The theatre historian J. Leeds Barroll III, who carefully sifted through the surviving records, concluded that in the years between 1606 and 1610—the period in which Shakespeare wrote and produced some of his greatest plays, from “Macbeth” and “Antony and Cleopatra” to “The Winter’s Tale” and “The Tempest”—the London playhouses were not likely to have been open for more than a total of nine months.

What Shakespeare actually wrote about the plague – Stephen Greenblatt

Pepys was heavily involved in the government of the day — he was a naval administrator during the period he wrote the diary and later would become an MP. It is not hard to compare Pepys’ time of political upheaval and plague with our own time of Brexit and pandemic. If the Diary were to exist today it would be a little like Dominic Cummings keeping a private blog to record the arguments with his wife alongside the details of his work as Boris Johnson’s personal advisor. The real innovation of the diary was Pepys’ decision to record not just his professional activities and first hand accounts of events in London, but also his unsparing depiction of his own personal life.

In one particular respect Peyps comes out of his own account very badly, as alludes to his casual harassment and describes the outright exploitation of women in detail. His misdeeds line up pretty precisely with many of the reports that have come out during the #metoo era. He would take advantage both of the female servants employed in his home, other houses he was a guest at, and the young daughters in families he developed a half friendly, half patronage relationship with. A reader of Pepys’ diaries is left to deduce how the women might have really felt about Pepys’s behavior; present day accounts of exactly the same kinds of abuse provide a convincing answer.

Nothing happening today really feels at all novel when held up against the full perspective of history. We may look at the current culture wars, or the 5G and QAnon conspiracy theories, and wonder to ourselves what the world is coming to. Pepys was caught up in the Popish plot — a public hysteria based on the idea there was a Catholic conspiracy to overthrow Protestantism in England. Although he wasn’t Catholic, he had political connections to the King’s Catholic brother, and this led to a brief stint in the Tower of London.

The manner in which the sordid (or “convoluted” if you prefer a less pejorative term) details of the King’s personal life became a matter of public scrutiny feels very reminiscent of certain heads of state today.

The King’s policy of alliance with Catholic France was generally disliked. So was the fact that he had not only a Catholic wife but Catholic mistresses; some of Nell Gwyn‘s popularity came from her supposed merry declaration, ‘I am the Protestant whore.’

Samuel Pepys – The Unequalled Self, by Claire Tomalin

Nell Gwyn had been a celebrity in her own right, aside from being one of the King’s many mistresses. The quote is provocative enough in its re-appropriation of the accusation that it feels quite modern – good enough for a T-shirt or twitter bio.

I’ve been doing remote classes and consultation sessions, so I’ve spent a lot of time with my old Wacom tablet. While it seems that many of my peers have opted for the iPad and tablet option, I think I much prefer having a desktop computer with a large LCD monitor set at the right height. It has been a long time since I drew any comics, but I decided to entertain the kids with the above doodle before class started.

You pronounce sfumato like tomato.

In the late 15th Century the Italian mathematician and Franciscan friar, Luca Pacioli, published a book on geometry, perspective, and achitecture entitled Divina Proportione — the title a reference to the divine ratio. Having the misfortune of writing over five hundred years ago, he did not have access to LaTex or any kind of similar mathematical markup language, and indeed the typesetting had to be done the old fashioned way. He did however enjoy the services of Leonardo da Vinci for producing the illustrations. Which is a considerable consolation. (You can browse an original copy online.)

These illustrations were the only work published in Leonardo’s lifetime — his celebrated notebooks coming to light posthumously. The illustrations cover variations of the Platonic solids, and in what would have been at the time an innovative approach to mathematical visualization, Leonardo not only drew them as solids, but also as hollowed out skeletons. This aptitude for conveying the three dimensional on the page can also be seen in his famous and influential anatomy sketches from his notebooks.

Being, quite literally, a Renaissance man, mathematics figured among Leonardo’s many interests, often overlapping with his engineering, scientific, and artistic pursuits. Although it has been claimed that Leonardo employed the golden ratio in his art, this seems unlikely. Leonardo documented his process and thinking in his notebooks, often expounding in great length, composing books that would go unpublished, yet there is no mention of him claiming to employ the ratio in his composition.

We do however have extensive evidence for Leonardo’s obsessive hunt to square the circle:

He filled his notebooks with shaded drawings in which he overlapped two half-circles and then created triangles and rectangles that had the same area as the resulting crescents. Year after year, he relentlessly pursued ways to create circular shapes with areas equivalent to triangles and rectangles, as if addicted to the game. Though he never gave the precise dates of any milestones he reached when making a painting, he treated these geometric studies as if each little success was a moment in history worthy of a notarial record. One night he wrote momentously, “Having for a long time searched to square the angle to two equal curves…now in the year 1509 on the eve of the Calends of May [April 30] I have found the solution at the 22nd hour on Sunday.

Leonardo da Vinci, The Biography — Walter Isaacson.

I think all of us mathematicians should take a great deal of comfort in how universal an experience it is to arrive at such false dawns. Kenneth Clarke has commented that the pages Leonardo devotes to these mathematical efforts are essentially of no value — neither to the mathematician nor the art historian. It is worth bearing in mind that most mathematical notebooks are mostly full of ideas that are wrong, incorrectly formulated, or badly expressed.

As the above discussion may suggest, I am currently in the middle of reading my way through Walter Isaacson’s biography of Leonardo da Vinci. Leonardo is a towering and influential cultural figure that it is easy to look over how little you really know about him. Not only the man, but also his actual work. Certainly, you recognize a handful of his paintings on sight, and you may also be aware that he designed unworkable helicopters and impractical war machines in his notebooks, but unless you have taken an art history course (I have not) you wouldn’t know why his artwork was really so remarkable, or indeed appreciate the broad scope of what can be found in his notebooks.

You might believe a well cultured individual would have an appreciation for the works of the Renaissance master. That this hypothetical being could walk into the Louvre, have a gander at the Mona Lisa, and they would experience a whole bunch of appreciation. But I don’t think this hypothetical “well cultured” individual exists. Indeed I would argue that a well cultured individual walking around an art gallery is essentially going in to be overwhelmed. If you spend any time looking at the Renaissance art you actually find yourself deep inside the uncanny valley. This might seem obvious, but we’re used to photographs so our sense of what is real is fundamentally adjusted.

All the techniques that Leonardo developed are available to artists today — perspective, understanding light and shadow, the sfumato painting techniques. And then there are all the modern tools and art supplies. Then there is what is being depicted itself: scenes from biblical narratives dressed up in a Renaissance setting. So the scenes are weird, the setting is weird, the people look weird. I want to reiterate that point. Looking at people in renaissance paintings is often like looking at computer generated special effects from ten or twenty years ago. The comparison is very apt. The preoccupations of a CGI artist are actually very similar to what you’ll find Leonardo wrestling with in his notebooks.

It is not that there isn’t much to appreciate in these works of art — I’ve certainly enjoyed reading Isaacson’s biography. But I think the person who wanders around an art gallery with a proper sense of appreciation is really just a certain kind of nerd. Like the rest of us.


It was during second dessert — a euphemistic term for booze, chocolates, and conversation away from the dining hall — when the snuff box arrived. I had been listening to a philosopher convince me that certain metaphysical questions were interesting. While I declined a sniff of the stuff, he took a pinch between his finger and thumb, raised it to his nostril and inhaled. To my admiration he did this as if this were a perfectly normal and natural thing to do. Which it really wasn’t, at least as far as I was concerned. You can be attending an alumni dinner in the middle of Hillary term, passing around the dessert wines, and the whole business will still feel like fancy dress and pretend. Maybe the point at which you accept the snuff is the same point at which everything else seems completely natural as well.

Anyone following the ongoing controversy around the relative health benefits and dangers of vaping over cigarette smoking, should know that there have always been other means of ingesting tobacco and obtaining the nicotine hit. Just so that everyone is on the same page let me give the briefest of background. Snuff, which goes back as far as tobacco itself, is the product of pulverizing tobacco leaves down to a powder fine enough to inhale. It has had varying degrees of popularity, but never held the iconic status that the cigarette enjoyed through the 20th century. You can still buy it, and some use it.

The obscurity has led to many faux pas. I’ve been informed that guests, at past Oxford dinners, unfamiliar with the usual customs have laid out lines of the brown powder so as to hoover it up their snout like coke. Of course you can’t jump to too many conclusions; lines of coke have been rendered iconic by TV and cinema, and even individuals as sheltered as myself are aware of it.

The Wikipedia does reveal that a certain crevice in the hand, under a tendon leading to your thumb, is often referred to as the “anatomical snuffbox“. The French even have a word for it: the tabatière. So if you feel inclined to partake when the snuff box arrives, you can deposit a little pile there and show off a little vocabulary.

You can also go ahead and buy your own snuff box to impress/intimidate your house guests. Etsy offers an impressive range. They can get pretty pricey though. A snuff box bequeathed to Magdalen was considered valuable enough to be stolen a couple of decades ago. The controversy around the culprit apparently lingers on.

You can also find quite striking snuff boxes featuring hand painted Victorian erotic vignettes. For what it’s worth.

Oxford, Hearties, and Clever-Sillys.

I’m now halfway through Michaelmas term (that’s Fall semester to Americans, and Autumn term to almost everyone else in the UK) so I’ve been able to settle into a routine here at Oxford. I’ve been having a whale of a time cycling backwards and forwards across town, while my experience with the university has been wonderful, but also quite obscene.

Most of my academic life these days is spent in the Andrew Wiles building — an ultra modern mathematics facility that is just over five years old now. There is a chapel right outside the main entrance however, so you won’t be forgetting where you are in a hurry. Then for lunch I head over to Magdalen College to eat at high table with the other fellows.

The college is more in line with what you might expect from watching Inspector Morse or Harry Potter. Describing it as a 19th Century Gentleman’s private club only goes so far, because you have to explain that it also has it’s own chapel, and extensive grounds which includes a deer park. All that aside, the most refreshing thing about the college system is that I’m sitting down to eat with other academics in the college, who come from all across the sciences and humanities. The last time I was regularly encountering anyone outside the mathematics department socially was during my undergraduate degree, and I’ve badly missed it.

Between the mathematics building and the college you are caught between two extremes of academic opulence.

After arriving I wanted to read something that would give me a good feel for the history of the place, but at the same time I wasn’t very excited about any of the worthy door-stoppers that I was being pointed towards. I really wanted something salacious. As luck would have it I found just the thing.

Look Back in Laughter: Oxford’s Postwar Golden Age by R.W. Johnson is the 2015 memoir of former Oxford don, Rhodes scholar, and Magdalen College Bursar (at a particularly precarious time in the college’s history). I should say that I mentioned this book with some of my more senior college colleagues, and they assured me that the book was either completely sensationalized or a complete pack of lies.

There are actually several strands going through the memoir. I certainly began to get the immediate feel for the world of dons, the Senior Commonroom, hearties (what Americans would call jocks), and clever-sillys (a certain kind of academic). Johnson arrives at Magdalen as a Rhodes scholar, narrowly escaping trouble in South Africa where he had been involved in anti-apartheid activism, and soon found himself a fellow at the tender age of 25. The decades he spent there covered many seismic shifts: the admission of women into the college, the opening up of Oxford to the wider academic world, and the increasing influence of the PPE course on public policy, politics, and journalism. This last strand is particularly striking; the last insert photos is a group shot of the Lib-Dem/Conservative coalition government, signed by three of Johnson’s former students. Two other ministers were also Magdalen alumni. Johnson also describes how the Economist became increasingly dependent on him to pass on gifted undergraduates for exciting jobs at the magazine (which inevitably led to swift success and promotion). Previous generations of Oxford graduates would have had to slog for years at local newspapers under the barely concealed contempt of their editors.

The idea that many of us may have of Oxbridge as being some engine of meritocracy, excellence, and academic success only arrived in the 20th Century when the “Red dean”, Harry Weldon, decided that they should start admitting students on merit, rather than the pedigree of their boarding school. This was somewhat controversial at the time with many dons (C.S. Lewis is cited) as being unashamed snobs. Indeed, world class academics only began to be hired around this time as well. Johnson goes so far as to describe most of Magdalen’s history as “disgraceful”.

Like just about everyone else, I think, I knew that Magdalen was intellectually extremely distinguished and we all assumed that that his had always been so.

This was in fact quite wrong. Only much later did I learn that for a great deal of its history Magdalen’s dons had been undistinguished and slothful. The college had not long been founded when, in 1520, many of the fellows had to be summoned to answer charges of gambling, hunting, frequenting taverns, misbehaving in Chapel, and the like. But again in 1584 it was reported that all these vices were common, that both President and Bursars were corrupt and that all discipline had broken down, forcing the Visitor, the Bishop of Winchester, to intervene to insist that the founder’s statutes be upheld.

Look Back in Laughter; Chapter 4

The most stunning details come from the chapter covering the three years Johnson spent as Bursar, in which he uncovered extensive financial impropriety, and what I believe can only be accurately described as outright corruption. In short, the college’s once extensive resources were being plundered while the buildings and grounds were being neglected to a dangerous and illegal extent (portions of the college being listed buildings and protected under law). The following passage concerns what happened when he started reviewing the properties that the college was leasing (often at below market rates, and left unreviewed for decades).

Another was someone whom everyone seemed afraid of. I called in Strutt, the Head Porter, and asked him what he know of this case. The man was a major international criminal, he said, specializing in child pornography. Even in Amsterdam he had come across his traces. The police were frightened of him for he was extremely careful and sophisticated in his dealings so nothing could ever be finally be pinned on him and any who approached him would be hounded by the best lawyers money could buy. In addition he had bought several city councilors who could be relied on to make a lot of trouble if their patron was seriously bothered.

From Strutt I got the name of a private detective and asked him to investigate. Rather breathtakingly, he reported soon thereafter that he had broken into the man’s flat, opened his mail and tapped his phone. he had also followed the man round Oxford and said he never took the same road home twice a week. it was the same with all his other dealings — his letters and phone calls were all in code. There were, he said, the marks of a top-class professional criminal with very large assets at risk. Next he traced the man to a large meeting held at a manor house outside Oxford attended by two-dozen men arriving in chauffeured limousines. The detective noted all the number plates but was himself seen while doing so. The meeting immediately broke up. Using his contacts in the police, the detective was able to ascertain that everyone at the meeting hat left the country within 12 hours — a sign that our man was part of a sophisticated international syndicate. At which point I realized that the whole thing was simply beyond me. I was looking at an investigation on which a proper police force might deploy many men for over a year. But the police wouldn’t touch the case and I couldn’t do much with a solitary private detective. I had to let it go.

Look Back in Laughter, RW Johnson, Chapter 12

I don’t think I will think about the difference between an academic and an administrative role in the University quite the same way again.

The Radcliffe Camera
The Natural History Museum.

Cycling around Munster, (long) after the siege.

Back in May I was visiting Giles in Munster. Aside from meditating on what exactly a symmetry restricted group should be, and going to see Detective Pikachu, we did a fair amount of cycling back and forth across the city. Munster enjoys a reputation (perhaps self-proclaimed) of being the cycling capital of Germany, and with all the cycle paths and low levels of automobile use it is not hard to fall in love with the place and wonder why we aren’t all living is such a fashion.

If you are observant enough while wandering around the city, you will notice three metal cages hanging from the steeple of St Lambert’s church. Those cages once held the mutilated remains of religious radicals who had been so jazzed up by the Reformation that they had declared Munster the New Jerusalem and announced the imminent apocalypse, Jesus’s return, and all the rest of it. So deplorable was their rule of the city (and embarrassing) that both Catholics and Lutherans united to lay siege to the Munster to bring an end to New Jerusalem.

This photo of Muenster Cathedral (St. Paulus Dom) St Lambert’s Church is courtesy of TripAdvisor

Giles was good enough to lend me his copy of New Jerusalem: The short life and terrible death of Christendom’s most defiant sect, by Paul Ham. (A good alternative source is this episode of In Our Time on the Siege of Munster, although the reintroduction polygamy is not even given a mention). It makes for quite remarkable reading. To a contemporary reader the most obvious parallel is to ISIS. I would go so far as to say that everything you could find in the rise and fall of ISIS you can also find in the history of New Jerusalem. Down to the beheadings.

The founding of New Jerusalem was the culmination of the work of many personalities. They were all united in the Anabaptist cause: abandoning infant baptism as a perversion of the “true” gospel by the church in Rome. While the followers of Luther took a more pragmatic, and even conservative, approach to religious reform, these “re-baptisers” were revolutionaries outside any kind of religious establishment who were provocative to the point of inciting violence. (Baptism is no small point; you will still find many protestant churches today which require adult baptism for membership.)

Melchior Hoffman, an Anabaptist preacher, prefigured the events in Munster when he declared Strasbourg to be the New Jerusalem, and the site of the apocalypse the following year, 1533. The authorities back then took such rantings seriously enough that they threw him in a dungeon, where he could safely be forgotten. Then came John Matthais, a self proclaimed prophet, who received the divine revelation (or simply decided, depending on your point of view) that Hoffman had got the time and place wrong, and that Munster was in fact the right location. Initially it seemed that this prophesy was realized, as in February 1534 the city was taken into Anabaptist control. This turn of events was seen as an embarrassment, nuisance, and danger to the various authorities involved. Ultimately it fell to Bishop Waldeck — more a nobleman or prince than an actual religious leader — to marshal an army and lay siege to the city. Due to the commitment and tenacity of those under siege, Munster’s excellent fortifications, and the drunkenness of the mercenaries that Waldeck employed, the whole sorry business lasted a year and a half.

John Matthais would go on to have himself cut to pieces by the armies of Bishop Waldec in possibly the most ill advised cavalry charge in history. It is Matthais’ second in command, John of Leiden, who takes over control of New Jerusalem and ruled it through most of the rebellion. Leiden’s rule quickly becomes a tyranny marked with the reintroduction of polygamy and summary executions by decapitation. The whole episode was marked with a strange combination of farce and grim horror.

While ISIS is the most obvious modern parallel, with its explicitly apocalyptic mission, reading the accounts of meetings between radical preachers and Luther calls to mind the general dangers of political radicalism.

Instead, Rothman set off on the well-worn pilgrimage to Wittenberg, as reform-minded novitiates tended to. There, Luther and Melanchthon deigned to meet this impassioned young man, as they had met Hoffman and so many other zealous young preachers. They noted his intelligence and eloquence, yet something about Rothmann troubled them. His passions were unguarded, and untutored. His self-righteousness lacked the grace of humility. They concluded that he was probably mentally unfit for the job. As Melanchthon observed, Rothmann might turn out to be exceptionally good or exceptionally bad.

New Jerusalem, Chapter 7 — Paul Ham

I find the reformation, or at least what little I understand about it, deeply fascinating. It is on the list of subjects that, once you understand a little of what it meant and continues to mean, you are staggered by the degree with which you misunderstood so much of what is going on in the world today.

(For whatever it is worth, Detective Pikachu was fun but completely disposable.)