The Braindump Blog

Apple Music attempts to adjudicate the top 100 'greatest albums ever made'

Apple Music tempts fate / goes full engagement growth hack by releasing a list of the top 100 ‘greatest albums ever made’.

To save you clicking, the top three are:

3: Abbey Road by The Beatles

2: Thriller by Michael Jackson

1: The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill by Lauryn Hill

Predictably, certain sections of the internet explode in indignant rage at the absence of their preferred artists or genres (or at its least pleasant, that the number 1 album wasn’t recorded by a White man). Personally, I’m finding a few gems amongst them that I haven’t previously given a go, so it’s certainly not all bad.

I believe the list was voted for by a set of people deemed to have some above average insight into the topic, using these criteria:

  • Albums that represented a cultural moment for the artist or genre.
  • Albums that were complete thoughts, not just collections of hit songs.
  • Albums that thoroughly represent culture in production and lyrics.
  • Albums that inspired a generation to want to create more music.
  • Albums that represent the BEST in storytelling, musicianship, recording and production.
  • Albums that are timeless and reached far beyond the genre categorization.

But of course taste is a personal thing. No one else’s top 100 list is going to be yours. Not to mention that your favourites are probably not predicated on whether they ‘reached far beyond the genre categorisation’.

Apple is far from the only company to attempt such a feat. Rolling Stone has done a top 500 which they’ve updated on multiple occasions.

It’s quite fascinating to see how the ‘best ever’ list changes, or doesn’t, over time and over judging panels. The Pudding has made a fascinating interactive visual essay about this, highly recommended.


So far 80 Conservative MPs quit rather than face a general election

More former big hitter Tory stars are abandoning the sinking ship. Perhaps the most surprising to me is Michael Gove, who, just a few days after proclaiming ‘Who dares wins!’ in reaction to the bizarre announcement of a general election, apparently doesn’t dare and won’t win.

We’re now up to 80 Conservatives standing down rather than fighting the next election. Can we make it 100?! For what it’s worth, the comparable figure of Tory standowns before the 1997 Labour landslide general election victory was a mere 75.

If some of this is really due to the prospect of Labour banning MPs having second jobs as The Spectator suggests, well, double good riddance. Ruling the country really should be something you focus on for more than a few minutes a day.


Sunak announces that the UK will have a General Election on July 4th

with nary an umbrella in sight, announces that the UK is to have a general election on July 4th. The date seems symbolic of…something. Perhaps his Americaphilic nature?

In case you’re wondering what the background noise is around 2 minutes in, it’s anti-Brexit campaigner Steve Bray masterfully broadcastingThings Can Only Get Better”, a song which for Britons of a certain age and level of political interest is vividly connected to Labour’s massive 1997 General Election victory, as well as, let us hope and pray, being true at a surface level. Good stuff.

I must admit being somewhat surprised at the timing. Was he drunk? Or was it really that there was one whole week of non-catastrophic economic and migration data and, horrifyingly for the rest of us, that’s as good as he imagines it’s ever going to get.

Apparently I’m not the only one. It seems many of his own Members of Parliament, even the big famous important ones, are a bit taken aback. There seems to be rumours, some coming via Nicholas Watt, of yet more submissions letters of no confidence about Sunak and/or lots of Tory big beasts deciding they’re probably going to stand down rather than face the likely humiliation of trying to get elected when, despite on occasion Labour’s best efforts to disappoint even those of us who want to find a reason to vote for them, you’re still 20+pp down in the polls.

In fact at least 67 Tory MPs have already announced their intentions to do so - mostly well before yesterday’s announcement of the election’s date to be clear - including Theresa May, Sajid Javid, Ben Wallace and Matt Hancock.


The New Yorker suggests there was little evidence behind the conviction of Lucy Letby

An incredible story from the New Yorker about the case of British nurse Lucy Letby, a nurse - nicknamed the “angel of death” by some - who was convicted last year for the murder of 7 babies that were in her care, and the attempted murder of another 6.

But what was such a serious conviction for such a sickening crime based on? Well, if one takes the New Yorker reporting at face value then…honestly not very much. The main piece of evidence appears to be statistical in nature - basically she was in the right place at the right time, or at least most of the places at most of the right times - and highly subject to the Texas sharp-shooter fallacy.

I have no take on whether she’s guilty or not - how could I? - but the evidence seems absurdly lacking if one takes this story at face value.

Although anyone in Britain will struggle to even see the story as that page of the New Yorker website has been blocked from being accessed by any UK users due to a court order.

MP David Davis is not pleased about this, suggesting that such a block is “in defiance of open justice”. As is always the case with these sorts of blocks, the effort in any case seems a bit weird and ineffective in these days of the global internet. It’s easily viewable via a VPN or on one of the many archiving sites. This for instance is the sort of link I’m sure none of us would ever contemplate clicking on. Or, you could just buy the paper version of the New Yorker.


The randomizr package for R (and apparently Stata) provides some nice simple functions to help automate the process of randomly assigning participants to groups in for instance randomised controlled trials.

Common designs include simple random assignment, complete randomization, block randomization, cluster randomization, and blocked cluster randomization. randomizr automates all of these processes and assists scientists in doing transparent, replicable science.


OpenAI's latest model - why are we trying so hard to make these products sound so human?

Last week OpenAI, a company who never shies away from inventing something at least adjacent to the torment nexus, demonstrated their latest generative AI model: GPT-4o. The “o” stands for “omni”; whether this may be in the sense of omniscience, omnipresence, omnipotence or omnibenevolence (or all 4) is left as an exercise for the reader.

TLDR: It’s faster, cheaper and can respond to text, audio, image, and video inputs with text, audio, and image outputs in a much more “human” way.

Here it is in action:

It is of course amazing and magical, as is much of the stuff that they produce. But I’m not sure it’s entirely wise.

I can see use-cases for models that can infer something about a user’s emotions, although I would worry about even that given the emotional state of users is something that mainstream social media networks actively try to exploit.

But is it really necessary to give the model the ability to sound like it has emotions? When giving vocal responses it laughs, it jokes, it acts curious and interested, like it cares. Sometimes it seems excited. It flatters, it teases. But why? To obfuscate its artificialness?

I’m not convinced that a primary goal of AI development should be to try and produce products that are increasingly indistinguishable from humans. It’s not like the crew of the Starship Enterprise ever seemed to complain that the ship’s computer was too unemotional. The one time it did end up programmed with an emotional-seeming “personality”, Captain Kirk turned it off as soon as he could.

Once again, perhaps there are legitimate use cases for this - other than to run scams on a mass scale. But I suspect they are rare, should be carefully studied in advance, and aren’t an essential component of providing most humans with the potential everyday benefits of this technology without introducing an unnecessary layer of confusion.

It’s the least original observation available I know, but the OpenAI performance seems rather modelled after the movie Her. This film was in fact created after Spike Jonze read an article about a website that let you chat to an AI program - over a decade a go! Since then we have certainly seen people develop strong emotional attachments and possibly even love for some AI models far less “omni” than GPT 4o.

I dare say that for now the OpenAI verison will have more restrictions than “Samantha” did - but it seems similar in mode and temperament at least.

I’m sure it’ll only be a matter of time before someone runs the Theodore’s lines from the script of Her through GPT-4o. I can’t say I’d be incurious about the results. Hopefully a bit more “As an AI model I cannot….” will be involved.

Here, for the committed, is the full 26 minute announcement of what’s new in the world of OpenAI:


In reassuring news, it turns out that the security code needed to get into the UK’s National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) - purveyors of fine quality password advice - is, wait for it: 1234.

They have their reasons though. An anonymous Whitehall source informs us that:

It’s the code they give to visiting journalists as it’s all most of them can remember.


Britain has the highest rate of homelessness in the developed world

The large majority of homelessness in Britain doesn’t manifest as the stereotypical rough sleepers, but rather an increasing number of people being forced into (frequently dangerous) temporary accommodation of one sort of another - “a peripheral and fragile existence” to quote the Financial Times.

The FT goes on to reveal that Britain has an horrendously high rate of homelessness - “by far the highest rate…in the developed world”.

Bar chart captioned 'Britain has by far the highest rate of homelessness in the developed world

It was not always this way.

Line chart captioned 'Homelessness is rising rapidly in Britain

What happened? The FT puts it down to 3 key factors:

  • Absolutely inadequate rates of housebuilding.
  • An ever-diminishing social housing sector .
  • An erosion of financial support for folk who can’t afford the market rate for rents.

After all, whilst much fuss about housing benefits is often made in “anti-welfare” circles, last year the IFS determined that local housing allowance has now gotten so low in comparison to rent demands that any recipient of that benefit could not possibly afford 95% of the private rental properties listed on Zoopla.


The Tortured Poets Department enters the Taylor Swift Cinematic Universe

🎶 Listening to The Tortured Poets Department by Taylor Swift.

As has everyone else, given it has broken a wide arrange of world records, including being the most streamed album in one week ever, the first album to get to 300 million Spotify streams in one day, the first to occupy the top 14 entries of the Billboard Top 100 Hot Songs chart and also sold the largest number of vinyl copies in a single week in modern times - 859,000.

The reviews seemed to me to go through phases of “this is quite good” to “actually it’s too long and repetitive” - not helped per the release of an extended 31 track “anthology” version hours after the original dropped at which point the NYT asked whether we’ve finally had too much Taylor, apparently not - to “actually there are some great moments”. That’s also roughly my trajectory so far.

It is much more in the style of her last album, Midnights, than her earlier work, so if you liked that you’ll probably like this. Very, very occasionally some of the lyrics felt just a bit like they were made by ChatGPT - but mostly I found it pretty cool and clever. And besides, any bits I didn’t understand are probably because I am no true Swiftie; I don’t know the lore.

A New Yorker article provides perhaps the best explanation of what it means to be a Swiftie that I’ve seen. Why in one of the tracks does TS appear to be trying to rhyme “wife” with “bike” when words that actually rhymed would make at least as much sense? Clearly she didn’t make a mistake that no-one noticed. Rather:

Swift obsessives know to connect “imgonnagetyouback” with “Fallingforyou,” a song by the 1975 that was written by Swift’s ex-boyfriend Matty Healy. In it, Healy sings, “I’m so excited for the night / All we need’s my bike and your enormous house.” Swift’s mention of a bike, in “imgonnagetyouback,” is therefore an intentional creative decision, like the lack of spaces in the song’s title.

Some fans have gone even further, claiming that the lack of spaces not only invites a comparison to “Fallingforyou” but to Swift’s own “Blank Space,” a song on her “1989” album. (1975, 1989—there are a lot of years to keep track of here.) “In Blank Space music video, Taylor Swift is smashing things and sings ‘Cause you know I love the players And you love the game,’ ” a YouTube user called Miranda-ry9tf writes in a comment. “In imgonnagetyouback she says ‘We broke all the pieces, but you still wanna play the game.’ ” Perhaps “Blank Space,” released in 2014, was about Healy, too?

And that stuff like this has led to a disconnect between your typical music reviewer and the more intense parts of her fan base.

Kotaku gives another taster of the parallel Taylorverse, linking to a 100 page presentation someone made to explain the timeline of her relationship with Matt Healy, all essential to fully interpret the album - at least for some folk. As the Washington Post wrote some time ago, there’s a whole Taylor Swift Cinematic Universe out there for those with the time and inclination to indulge.


The excellent ConscienHealth blog, writing about a fierce debate in the world of nutrition science, reminds us that big shadowy agenda-led corporations having paid scientists to conduct their research is not the only sort of conflict of interest we should care about when evaluating scientific studies.

We read a lot about perceptions of conflicted interests in nutrition and obesity research. Typically the focus is on financial interests. If a company funded the research, does that mean we cannot trust results that might favor business interests of that company? But experience tells us that intellectual investments can produce equally powerful biases.


Watch a new city block of Pompeii get unearthed in a new BBC documentary

📺 Watched Pompeii: The New Dig.

The BBC shows us some days in the lives of an Italian archeology team as they continue the 100+ year effort to uncover what’s under the horrific mess that the eruption of the Mount Vesuvius volcano caused to be rained down upon the city of Pompeii. in the the year 79 AD.

Much of the city, its contents and the physical remains of the poor people who were stuck there at the time has been astonishingly well preserved by virtue of it all being covered by huge layers of ash. There’s been various efforts to unearth it over the years - Wikipedia gives the modern archaeological effort a start date in the 1920s. But the very start of the process could be a lot earlier depending on when you start counting from.

However, over 100 years later, a surprising-to-me amount of it is still buried under the ash, despite the complex now being a popular tourist site. So this new BBC documentary follows a team of Italian archeologists as they excavate a whole new city block.

Discoveries abound; including potentially the world’s first ever known illustration of a pizza no less. Although the i newspaper is not entirely wrong to suggest that, whilst the discoveries themselves are exciting, it is hard at times to translate that thrill to a 3 hour documentary series where most of the work involved in getting to the discoveries consists of people meticulously digging into piles of dirt. Nonetheless, the end product certainly seems to make their toil worthwhile.

I wouldn’t want to include any more find-spoilers here, but for anyone who is interested enough in the topic to want to see what was unearthed, but not interested enough to spend 3 hours watching the process and commentary, the History Extra website lists some of the brightest and best finds. The accompanying BBC site also has some short highlights clips along with links to a virtual tour of Pompeii put together by the Open University, who were also involved in producing this documentary.

Cover image for Pompeii: The New Dig documentary


The Rwanda bill went through, but that doesn't make it OK

From the combined forces of Freedom from Torture, Amnesty International UK and Liberty:

This shameful Bill trashes the constitution and international law whilst putting torture survivors and other refugees at risk of an unsafe future in Rwanda.

It’s time for those in power to stop demonising and scapegoating some of the most vulnerable people in our society, and to restore the right to asylum in the UK and uphold vital international protections.”

Yes, we’re talking about the Rwanda immigration scheme / scam again I’m afraid.

The government may have, appallingly, finally forced the ‘Rwanda bill’ - the one that magically legislates Rwanda into being a perfect wholly and indisputably pleasant dream destination for the UK to (probably illegally) abrogate its international responsibilities and remaining semblance of human compassion to - through the system.

But they still have to find planes to actually put these poor beleaguered seekers of urgent respite on to - and the UN is warning airlines and aviation operators that, even though the less well-hinged members of our government say that This Is Fine, other organisations do actually still need to try to avoid breaching international human rights laws.

The Conservatives may not care about tiny little minor issues like becoming international pariahs - but they are of course not the only show in town.


Publishers are receiving a deluge of AI-generated dross

The low-effort AI-generated botshit has presumably reached such a volume in the books world that Amazon has decided to impose a limit such that authors may only publish 3 books per day (!) onto its site. Maybe they didn’t enjoy that point in time that pure nonsense started topping their Kindle book charts.

Any humans that can in fact author four high quality books a day might suffer. Luckily they probably also don’t exist.

Smaller companies are obviously suffering more. Last year, the famous Clarkesworld sci fi magazine had to stop accepting submissions for publication because they couldn’t handle the volume of AI generated guff. Their competitors, Asimov’s Science Fiction and The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fictions are seeing similar behaviour.


Some services that help transfer your music library and playlists between different music streaming services

I’m slowly weaning myself away from the use of the mainstream music streaming service - Spotify et al - both due to the problematic effects they increasingly seem to have on the industry and the now-radical idea that I might want to permanently own my music collection.

That said, I’m not there yet, and perhaps there will always be a role for them when it comes to, for instance, modern-day music discovery. Problematic or not, they do indisputably provide tremendous accessibility to a music library far beyond the ability of most individual humans to cultivate.

In the mean time, I wanted to reduce the fragility of my situation by replicating my library as far as possible between more than one service.

If, for instance, I only have my music libraries in the walled garden of Apple Music, there’s a (possibly paranoid) feeling that should they ever close my account, I feel compelled to close my account, some bug means they lose the details of my collection or I simply can’t afford the subscription any more then not only can I obviously no longer listen to my hand-picked collection, I also entirely lose access to what that collection was in the first place. Which albums I added to my libraries, which tracks I liked, the algorithm that suggests new music to me, all gone.

I don’t think there’s much I can do about the latter, algorithms are virtually never accessible or portable in their current instantiation. But in terms of one’s library and playlists, it is possible to try and recreate that in another service, say Spotify.

This will never work perfectly as another issue with the services is they don’t necessarily have the same music. If for instance you switch to Spotify from Apple or vice versa you may simply not have the option to listen to some of your preferred tracks, they’re just not on the service. Such is the penalty of not owning your collection. However, realistically, if your collection is vaguely mainstream most of it probably exists in most of the big services.

However, these wannabe-prison services do not want you to leave, so offer no universal way to export or import a useful list of what is in your collection that I can see. Data portability is probably the last thing they want - and something I’d love regulators to enforce one day. But for now by default it’d be a manual effort, laboriously going through everything you care about on one service and trying to search for it on the other service, saving to library, liking, whatever.

This is fairly untenable, or at least very tedious, if you have anything beyond a fairly small collection. But there are third party solutions that attempt to solve this problem by automating the search-and-save operation. You would have to give them access to the accounts you wish to transfer from and to, but if you’re comfortable with this then they can attempt to automate copying your libraries and playlists from one service to another.

In my case, I’m a big listen-to-albums fan so I was most concerned in copying my library of albums across to a new service. Let’s assume Apple Music to Spotify to take a common example. Importantly. I wanted my album library to appear as actual albums in Spotify, not as playlists containing the album’s songs. Some people prefer the latter of course or only use playlists in the first place. There’s no right way to do this kind of stuff.

So below is a list of services that promise to do this kind of thing that I compiled from a few searches for apps and services that can automate this transition, including what at-a-glance appeared to me as being their scope and their costs.

There’s a fairly wide range of pricing and features. Most are subscription based, although if you only want to do this kind of thing once you could just buy one month. You will generally have to pay if you have anything beyond a very small library, although many have a limited free version you could test to see how well it’s going to work for you.

A common feature some have is a continual sync of libraries across services. I was mainly interested just in testing a one-time operation at present but I can imagine use-cases for the latter.

Whilst my examples above all about Apple Music and Spotify, many of these products handle a much wider range of services so don’t let that put you off.

None of these are recommendations as such as I haven’t yet tried them. But as a starter list, here’s some options I found, their taglines, pricing and what their homepage indicated to me is their rough feature-set, in no particular order.

Playlists.cloud

Playlists.cloud - “Connect to your favorite music streaming services, transfer your music playlists between them, easily generate backups, and more.”

Features:

  • Supports Apple Music and Spotify
  • Works with playlists only
  • Transfer your playlists between Apple Music and Spotify, either as a one-off or a continuous sync.
  • Transfer your playlists from one account of a given service to another account of the same service.
  • Create new playlists by uploading a CSV file
  • Export playlists into a CSV file.
  • Free of charge.

SongShift

SongShift - “Simple Music Transfers and Sharing”

Features:

  • Supports many services: Amazon Music, Apple Music, Deezer, Discogs, Hype Machine, LastFM, Napster, Pandora, Qobuz, Spotify, TIDAL, YouTube.
  • Works with playlists, songs or albums.
  • Transfer your music from one provider to another either as a one-off or a continuous sync.
  • Share your playlists with anyone on any supported platform
  • Free and paid version ($9.99 per month, $39.99 per year, $59.99 lifetime). Not immediately obvious what the limits on the free version are except for being slower and able to connect more services at once.

Soundiiz

Soundiiz - “Transfer your playlists and favorites”

Features:

  • Supports 43 services, including Spotify, Apple Music, TIDAL, Amazon Music, YouTube Music
  • Works with playlists, albums, artists, and tracks - although some services may not work with some of these.
  • Transfer music between services either as a one-off or a continuous sync.
  • Create smartlinks to playlists and releases you can share.
  • Generate playlists using artificial intelligence.
  • Import and export your playlists from / to file.
  • Free and paid version (£4.5 per month, £36 per year). Free version looks to be limited to dealing with playlists, one at a time, and only up to 200 tracks per playlist and one active sync.

Free Your Music

Free Your Music - “Transfer, sync & move your music library”

  • Supports many services including Spotify, Apple Music, TIDAL, SoundCloud, Deezer.
  • Works with playlists, liked songs and albums.
  • Transfer music between services either as a one-off or a continuous sync.
  • Back up playlists in cloud.
  • Free and paid version. Free version lets you transfer up to 100 songs and 1 playlist, or 300 songs if you provide an email. Paid services include one-off £10.99 for “basic” or £34.99 per year / or £4.66 per month for premium. Basic version doesn’t allow automatic syncing or backup.

Tune My Music

Tune My Music - “Transfer Playlists Between Music Services”

  • Supports many services including Spotify, TIDAL, Apple Music, YouTube, Amazon Music and Deezer.
  • Works with playlists, favorite songs, favourite artists, favorite albums.
  • Transfer music between services either as a one-off or a continuous sync.
  • Share your music with friends who use other music services.
  • Upload songs to your library via a file (I think this must surely mean uploading a playlist, not a song itself!).
  • Backup your music library (again I think this means your playlists etc. via exporting a CSV - not the music files themselves).
  • Free and paid version ($4.50 per month or $24 per year). Free plan limits you to transferring up to 500 tracks, no syncing.

Playlisty

Playlisty - “The Playlist Tool for Apple Music / Spotify”

  • Has one app that works to get music into Apple Music and a different one to get music into Spotify.
  • Works with playlists, mixes, liked tracks and albums.
  • Can transfer playlists from several music services into Apple Music / Spotify, or also import them from text, weblinks or various file formats. You can browse other people’s playlists from various music sites too.
  • Can export playlists to a file.
  • Free trial version lets you create playlists up to 20 tracks. Paid in-app purchase of a one-off $2.99 unlocks other features.

Playlistor

Playlistor - “Convert playlists between Apple Music and Spotify”

  • Supports Apple Music and Spotify
  • Playlists only
  • Paste in the URL of a playlist and the site will convert it to the appropriate services, no signup required.
  • Only one playlist at a time. It seems really designed as a useful service to share a single playlist with someone who uses another service, not designed to transfer your library from one account to another so wasn’t actually suited to this list.
  • Free

'Ghost Hunter' details some of Hans Holzer's spooky cases

📚 Finished reading Ghost Hunter by Hans Holzer.

Hans Holzer was a parapsychologist and a ghost hunter. As well as a prolific author, having written over 120 books on this kind of subject. Perhaps most famously, he was involved in investigating the “Amityville Horror”, which of course there are more than a few films about now. He also hosted the TV show “Ghost Hunter” at one point.

This book sees him chronicle a few of his adventures into ghost hunting. The typical set up is that he’ll hear of some unexplained ghostly type phenomena; a person living in a home with weird noises or other more disturbing occurrences, that type of thing. He’ll go recruit a medium, and off they set to visit the location in order to hold some kind of seance.

The medium invariably falls into a trance whilst he, via the medium, tries to communicate with whatever ghostly presence. The hope is to resolve whatever the problem is that’s causing the spirit to feel inclined to annoy or scare the living humans around them. In general he reports being successful at this.

He wants us to believe he’s doing this in a scientific way, although some of his peers were sceptical. I don’t think it’s a book that’s going to change anyone’s mind about whether ghosts or ghostly experiences are “real”. But nonetheless it’s a fun series of somewhat spooky short stories, along with some commentary on his methods and the tremendous value he puts on mediums during such activities.

Book cover for Ghost Hunter

Happy to see that even the Norton anti-virus homepage totally acknowledges that their prices get crazy expensive if you let the subscription renew. Next step: how about don’t do that scammy behaviour in the first place.

Screenshot where Norton promotes that theiy they have 'great first year prices'

Most people are probably fine without specific antivirus software now Windows comes with one built in. But if you do feel you need one, then never a license renew before seeing if buying as a new customer is far better value. With Norton, it absolutely is, and it’s far fro alone.


Hundreds of IPCC scientists think we'll being living in an environmental semi-dystopia by the end of the century

Nearly 80% of the 380 expert scientists from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) that responded to a Guardian survey reported expecting that, as in the grand scheme of things we’ve done so little to combat global warming, temperatures are likely to rise by at least 2.5C by 2100. Which is pretty much in line with last year’s pre-Cop28 UN report that had us on track for a 3 degree increase in the same time frame.

This is….not good. The claim is that a 2.5 degree increase will cause “catastrophic consequences for humanity and the planet,”

Many of the scientists envisage a “semi-dystopian” future, with famines, conflicts and mass migration, driven by heatwaves, wildfires, floods and storms of an intensity and frequency far beyond those that have already struck.

The lawmakers and regulators have not helped as one might have hoped they would.

Numerous experts said they had been left feeling hopeless, infuriated and scared by the failure of governments to act despite the clear scientific evidence provided.

But most of us, especially those in more privileged positions, likely bear at least some small responsibility for the situation. Or as on unnamed scientist said:

The world’s response to date is reprehensible – we live in an age of fools.


Rewatching Westworld in the AI-infused year 2024

📺 (Re)watching Westworld.

Humans invent a theme park populated by supposedly memory-less, insensible androids; mere automatons there solely to allow the (rich) customers to live out their wild-west fantasies . Something other than hilarity ensues.

I’d watched season one several years ago and vaguely remember it being one of the finest and most fascinating pieces of TV in a long while. Season two to be honest I don’t remember very much from at all, not sure if that’s their fault or mine, we’ll see. Season 3 and 4 I haven’t yet had the pleasure of.

From the very beginning though, the show does hit a bit differently in a today’s world where artificially intelligent drink-serving robots already exist, albeit typically less clothed in artificial human skin than their Westworld equivalents are.

A creepy white humanoid android
A creepy 'drone host' from Westworld.
A silver real-world humanoid android from figure.ai
A creepy robot from our world (from figure.ai).

It doesn’t stop there. Out here in our world, real people are already falling in love with their virtual AI companions. And there’s a non-zero contingent of folk out there who suspect that even today’s chatbots are already sentient and surely many more who are working, at least tangentially, on the issue of making them so.

Their electronic brains certainly already have memories, so perhaps we best treat them more nicely than the show park’s visitors treat Delores just in case.

Kind-of spoiler ahead: The whole weird billionaire’s big business secretly surveilling everyone’s data whilst you feel like you’re being entertained is also not exclusive to the fictional world, nor are the big potentially catastrophic leaks of the resulting information.


Everyone was right - Barbie is indeed a fun feminist-leaning film.

Watched Barbie (the movie).

Unfortunately this film was a big enough sensation that I’d heard many of the best lines before watching it, and I don’t suppose it’s single-handedly going to cause the feminist revolution we all still sadly need. But it was very cool to see some of these ideas brought to the truly mass market](https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/movies/movie-news/barbie-biggest-warner-bros-movie-globally-box-office-1235575786/) in such an enjoyable way, alongside some nods and winks to folk who already have already started the journey to enlightenment.

Same applies to film buffs - many shoutouts are included to iconic films of years past. The way it starts is an extremely clear parallel to 2001: A Space Odyssey’s famous intro.

The world design was also delightful, especially (I’d assume) if you have a history of playing with the classic doll. And somewhat educational too. I did for instance learn that there used to be a pregnant Barbie, aka Midge, for real. The Today website informs us that it came with:

…a detachable, magnetized pregnant belly that could fit her accompanying plastic infant

No-one wouldn’t want to see this, so here we go, from the same Today article.

Midge, the pregnant Barbie doll

Not to mention an $82 doll actually called ‘Sugar Daddy Ken’. But don’t worry, that’s definitely not wildly inappropriate, he comes with a dog-doll that happens to be called Sugar. He’s just Sugar’s Daddy. Only someone must have forgotten the apostrophe and s when designing the box. Here he is, taken from the same article.

The Sugar Daddy Ken doll

And, at the other end of the slightly disturbing spectrum, ‘Growing Up Skipper’ which was:

…a technological marvel of a doll that grew taller — and grew breasts — when users twisted her left arm

So you’ll need to see a video of that one.

For the avoidance of doubt, despite being the film’s villains, Mattel - owners of the Barbie brand - are probably not all that upset at the film. They estimated the film will have increased their monetary takings buy at least £100 million - some directly as coming from the rights to a percentage of box office revenues, other parts more due to a surge of interest in Barbie after the film release.

But it can’t be all bad though. After all, the movie drove a certain kind of conservative activist wild when it came out - who can forget hilariously thin-skinned Ben Shapiro burning his Barbie in protest?

Here’s the trailer for the few remaining people who haven’t seen it.


Ukraine’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs now has a AI-generated 'digital person' as a spokesperson

Ukraine’s latest government spokesperson is an AI-generated “digital person”. A deep-fake, if you will, although it’s not a trick - the authorities are being very transparent about what we’re seeing. And what the spokesperson actually says is going to be 100% written by humans, as much as anything is these days anyway.

Known by the name “Victoria Shi”, the idea is that she (it?), rather than a traditional human being, will share any necessary official operational and consular information with us. Whilst not supposed to be reflective of a real person as a whole, her image is (consensually) based on none other than singer and former ‘The Bachelor’ contestant, Rosalie Nombre.

I am a digital person that means that the text you hear was not read by a real person it was generated by artificial intelligence I will carry out a number of tasks first and foremost I will inform the public providing timely and verified information from Ukraine’s Consular service I will provide journalists with updates about the work of consules in protecting the rights and interests of Ukrainian citizens abroad.

Supposedly this is all in the service of freeing up time and resources for real humans to do what they need to do in times of war. Something tells me people will come up with a wide range of alternative theories though.

The legitimate videos will each feature a QR code that link to a text version of the speech published on the official website of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in order to let you verify their integrity. Whether the inevitable future fake versions will do something similar, or whether the majority of humankind would care enough to actually check each time that each video is legit, seems less certain to me.

Here’s an example of her in action from Business Today.


A council has provoked the wrath of residents and linguists alike after announcing it would ban apostrophes on street signs to avoid problems with computer systems.

(from The Guardian)

It seems not at all surprising that Britons would mount incandescent and effective campaigns against the desire of various authorities to remove apostrophes from their street names. An Englishman’s home, and hence his address, is his castle and all.

But it did surprise me that here, in techno-AI-infused 2024, the stated rationale for doing so is because computer databases don’t handle them well. Even though my professional life leads me to find this very plausible, it’s still a bit embarrassing.

I suppose grammatical error-riddled street signs would grate on me a little too, if I’m being entirely honest.


Tom Hunt's predicament is a perfect example of why voter ID laws are usually bad laws

Yesterday the UK saw a swathe of local and other miscellaneous elections taking place. It’s one of the first occasions Britons have been to the polls en masse since the introduction of the law requiring you to bring certain types of photo ID with you to the polling station in order to be allowed to vote.

This policy was introduced via Boris Johnson’s Conservative government via the Elections Act 2022. So it was rather darkly hilarious to learn that day before the elections were to run, Conservative MP Tom Hunt realised that he had no suitable ID and hence wasn’t going to be able to vote.

The reason we know about this is because someone leaked a Whatsapp message (of course!) where he was asking fellow Tory party members to help him out via being his emergency proxy, a facility designed for people who lose their ID amongst other circumstances, that I’m certain the vast majority of the UK populous doesn’t know about. If they even know about the photo ID requirement in the first place; for such a big change I at least haven’t seen any publicity around it recently.

It later came to light that he suffers from a medical condition called dyspraxia , which is what he attributes his overweight to. Some of the symptoms of that condition include “difficulty with organisation and/or problems with attention, working memory and time management” so it’s perfectly plausible and may make the more vicious commentators of a certain type tone down their output, as tempting an opportunity as it is.

But, as a friend noted, another thing Tom’s situation perfectly demonstrates is why voter ID requirements tend to be bad laws that cause unjust disenfranchisement in the first place.

Back in 2022, Toby James shared six reasons why introducing the voter ID law to Britain was a bad idea.

  1. There is no evidence of voter fraud.
  2. Photographic voter ID could deny legitimate voters
  3. Photo ID discriminates
  4. Voter identification is expensive
  5. The change is happening at too short notice
  6. Other problems need fixing

Some of these seem more serious than others to me - but points 2 and 3 exactly describe the situation with Mr. Hunt. There’s no question he was a legitimate voter. And had he not known about the proxy workaround, or been unable for any reason to use it, he would have been denied his right to vote.

Some research for the government carried out in 2021 put the number of people who say they have no recognisable photo ID they could use was 4%. That might sound low, but as James notes it’s equivalent to 1.9 million potential voters. And that’s just any recognisable photo ID. The proportion of people reporting that they don’t have any recognisable photo ID that hasn’t expired is more than twice that, 9%.

In reality, I’d wager that the number of people who say that they have usable, in-date, photo ID is somewhat higher than the number of people that can actually locate such a thing and remember to provide it at a polling station.

Furthermore, having some kind of disability puts Hunt in one of the many groups that have a higher risk of being prevented from voting than others as a result of this law.

From the same governmental research:

12% of respondents with a severely limiting disability and eight per cent of those with a somewhat limiting difficulty said that having to present photo ID at the polling station would make voting difficult, compared with four per cent of those with no disability.

Some of that relates to their concurrent finding that people with a disability are less likely to have appropriate photo ID in the first place. Other groups that also had lesser rates of having ID include:

  • Older people, especially those who were 85+ years old.
  • Unemployed people.
  • Those with few educational qualifications.
  • Those who haven’t previously voted.
  • People living in certain regions of the UK, e.g. West Midlands, South West and Yorkshire and the Humber.

As ever, it’s perhaps of note that these are different segments of the population that those who typically work in politics or the media.

Younger people aged 18-29 were actually more likely to report having a photo ID than the rest of the population. Although if they were talking about their travelcards then that would be meaningless giving a strange-on-the-surface decision by the government to allow the Oyster travel card issued to 60+ year olds as valid voter ID, but not the Oyster travel card issued to 18+ year old students or the railcards issued to 16-25 year olds. There is an actual reason for this that relates to the differing application processes for the two types of cards which can certainly be discussed - but the survey I’m took the above numbers from certainly didn’t include that nuance.

The Electoral Reform Society has similar concerns. As does the Joseph Rowntree Foundation who, focusing on the economic dimension of privilege, wrote that:

…there is a very real risk that the Government’s Elections Bill, which is currently making its way through Parliament, will disenfranchise around 1.7 million voters living on a low income.

And note that making available an option to get a “free” photo ID is no panacea:

It’s not easy, or necessarily going to be a priority, to apply to your local authority for a free Voter Card if you’re working in an insecure job with irregular, unpredictable and long hours, or juggling multiple jobs to make ends meet while also managing caring responsibilities and health needs. It’s also much harder to apply for a free Voter Card if you don’t have access to technology, or if previous interactions with your local council or job centre have created a feeling of fear and mistrust of the system.

The same article notes that other organisations such as Crisis, Operation Black Vote and The Runnymede Trust have similar concerns.

In any case, our voter ID law appears to be targeting a basically non-existent problem. Sure, any motivated media organisation will likely be able to find (or conjure up) a handful of individual stories of people that seemingly got away with defrauding the system. But an analysis of elections held in 2019 showed just how rare electoral fraud of the nature this law sets out to reduce seems to be.

As far as I can see from the Electoral Commission’s figures there were a whole 2 people convicted or cautioned for using someone else’s identity in order to vote in a way that this kind of voter ID law could potentially have perhaps prevented. Out of around 58 million votes. Which is not surprising when there are already mechanisms in place to ensure that votes are attributed to real individuals, that the same person can’t vote twice and, let’s face it, you’re going to have to fake-vote a whole lot more than twice to make an meaningful impact on the result of almost any election.

Toby James and Alistair Clark published an analysis of a pilot voter ID initiative that was carried out during some of the 2018-2019 local elections that found that:

Attempted impersonation was exceptionally rare, however, and measures to introduce voter identification requirements therefore had little effect on the security of the electoral process.

Rather, the ID requirements during the pilot:

…led to some voters not casting their ballot, either for reasons of convenience and availability of suitable forms of ID, or reasons of principle and protest.

These laws thus seem to be setting out to solve a problem that doesn’t really exist at meaningful scale, or less charitably, only exists in the minds of a certain type of culture-war-addled populist brain. Instead, in practice it creates a new and real problem that prevents a set of people from exercising their most fundamental fundamental democratic right. Worse yet, the disenfranchisement is likely to be biased particularly against those people who may already be struggling more than the average citizen, have a relative lack of power and privilege, and may thus be particularly affected by the constitution and nature of any elected government.

The real problem the UK has with people’s voting behaviour is not that too many imaginary people vote, but rather that too few real people do. According to research from the House of Commons Library, the turnout at England’s local elections in 2021 - even before voter ID was introduced - was a pretty appalling 35.9%. Nearly two thirds of people who could have voted didn’t vote. Perhaps we should use any available resources to focus on increasing the number of people who see fit to vote, not making it harder to do so for those who are already motivated to do so. Remove the existing barriers, don’t add new entirely unnecessary ones.

Just to finish on a moment of comedy rather than despair, another person who inadvertently (?) turned up to the polling station yesterday without any suitable ID was naturally none other than our former Prime Minister Boris Johnson, the very person who presided over the country and the government that put these rules into place in the first place. He is, to be fair, not known for his ability to adhere to rules, even those he himself put in place.


For future reference, there is a website where you can find out what your local candidates for the role of Police and Crime Commissioner have to say for themselves: choosemypcc.org.uk .

I’m sad that I discovered this a day too late to be useful, but also glad to know I didn’t accidently vote for the one who is going to “stop woke policing” and blah blah something about net zero I’m sure the PCC has no control over. Also:

Push to ban all Police officers from dancing while on duty/ in uniform

That’s definitely going to solve the whole “most crime is defacto legal” issue the UK has 🙄.


Happy 50th birthday to SQL!

Structured Query Language is an incredibly popular computer language used to query a huge variety of databases today. But it was described by Chamberlin and Boyce in a paper published in 1974.

They may have saved us from having to query databases using its predesccor, SQUARE, which had much trickier sounding concepts of bound variables, quantifiers and first order predicate calculus.

TIL: the reason many people pronounce SQL as “sequel” perhaps relates to the fact it was actually called SEQUEL - “Structured English QUEry Language” until they noticed another company had a trademark on SEQUEL. Wikipedia claims the modern-day correct pronunciation to be simply its letters: S-Q-L. But I doubt anyone involved would be confused either way.


The British people's opinion on immigration is becoming less hostile whilst the number of immigrants goes up

Peter Kellner notes what seems to be something of a paradox in the British peoples' views around immigration to the UK.

Since Brexit, the number of migrants coming to the UK has rapidly increased - by a lot. Which I’m sure is annoying to a certain type of Brexiteer. The media is constantly in a frenzy about the issue, the government makes ever more desperate promises it won’t keep whilst simultaneously attempting probably illegal and certainly immoral strategies to make it all go away.

But yet, even with all that, the British public’s hostility to immigration has tended to decline over the last few years, albeit with a slight uptick last year.

Back in the ancient pre-Brexit-referendum era of 2015, an Ipsos poll saw 67% of British public saying that they wanted to see a reduction in immigration. Last year’s update showed that figure has dropped to 49%. And the percentage of people that want to see an actual increase in immigration has more than doubled from 10% to 22%.