Archive for February, 2023

Tyler Cowen: “I’ve never been convinced that AI will rise up and destroy the world or turn us into paper clips.”

Sunday, February 26th, 2023

Economist Tyler Cowen, is always quotable – even when he doesn’t try to be. For the three or four of you out there who haven’t heard of him, he’s professor of economics at George Mason University and the director of the Mercatus Center, a free-market research center and think tank. He is also the co-founder of the popular economics blog Marginal Revolution, and he’s host of the podcast series Conversations with Tyler – he interviewed my humble self some time ago here

Check out this Q&A interview with Jon Baskin in “Progress Studies” in the current issue of The Point. The subject is artificial intelligence. When I saw the quote about paper clips, I knew this would have to be a Book Haven post. A couple excerpts that carry a lot of pith and punch:

“People are right to feel angst. But it’s also an opportunity.”

JB: What kind of benefits do you see AI delivering? Will it bring us some of those big public benefits that you’ve talked about have been missing since 1973?

TC: I think within two years or so, AI will write about half of all computer code, and it will write the boring half. So programmers will be freed up to be more creative, or to try new areas where the grunt work is more or less done for them. That will be significant. Of course, the code has to be edited and checked, there will be errors. But it writes so much of it for you so quickly. And I think that will lead indirectly to some fantastic breakthroughs and creativity of programming.

And then, individuals will have individualized tutors in virtually every area of human knowledge. That is something that’s not thirty years off—I think it’s within one year, when GPT-4 is released, or when Anthropic is released. So imagine having this universal tutor. It’s not perfect, but much better than what you had before. We’ll see how these things are priced and financed. But that, to me, is a very significant breakthrough.

JB: Obviously, there’s a lot of anxiety among, I guess, humanities people, broadly speaking, but also people like the effective-altruism crowd thinking about the ways that AI could go terribly wrong. Do you think those worries have merit? How do we create a market and situation where we are able to advance the beneficial parts of AI and limit some of the potential damages?

TC: I’ve never been convinced by the scenario that the AI will rise up and destroy the world, or turn us into paper clips. [Read about how paper clips could bring about the end of the world here. – ED] I just don’t see the evidence. It doesn’t interact with the physical world in a way where it can do that. It doesn’t think. It’s a predictive language model. 

You know, the humanities are going to have a lot of problems. So people are right to feel angst. But it’s also an opportunity. So far the most visible problem is students using GPT to write their term papers, right? I don’t know how we’ll deal with that. I don’t pretend to have the answer. I think there’ll be other problems related to misinformation, or maybe people treating it like a religious oracle. Every technological advance has difficulties, and this one will too.


Not a happy kind of guy.

JB: I want to talk a little bit about Tolstoy. Max Weber, in his famous 1917 lecture “Science as a Vocation,” says that Tolstoy is the person who most sharply raises the question of whether the advances of science and technology have any meaning that go beyond the purely practical and technical. And he quotes Tolstoy saying that, basically, for the person who puts progress at the center of their life, life can never be satisfying, because they’ll always die in the middle of progress. How would you respond to this charge from Tolstoy about progress?

TC: I’m pretty happy and Tolstoy was not, would be my gut-level response. 

I would put it this way. If there was backwards time travel, and you had to send me back to his time, apart from satisfying some historical curiosity, I would be terrified at that prospect. Life in Tolstoy’s Russia was quite horrible. Even for the intelligentsia, never mind the peasants who had been recently freed from being serfs. And then that’s followed by Soviet Communism, as the reaction against how bad things were under the tsar. That’s awful. Give me Australia and Denmark and northern Virginia. Ask random immigrants or would-be immigrants: Would you rather migrate to Fairfax County or, you know, to Tolstoy’s Russia? It’s not even a choice. I don’t think you’d get many people going to Tolstoy’s Russia. And that, to me, suggests the importance of progress.

Read the whole thing here.

Salman Rushdie: “I’ve always tried very hard not to adopt the role of a victim.”

Thursday, February 16th, 2023
Salman Rushdie before the attack, with friend Abbas Raza in Brixen, in the Italian Alps.

It was the worst Valentine’s Day present ever: on 14 February 1989, the Iranian leader Ayatollah Khomeini called for the novelist Salman Rushdie‘s death. The author’s crime? A brilliant book written with his characteristic wit, erudition, and playfulness called The Satanic Verses. Blasphemy, said the grim and fanatical ayatollah. Rushdie went into hiding, but as the years went by, he inevitably relaxed his guard and began to live more openly, appearing at speaking engagements, parties, P.E.N. meetings, and universities. It seemed he would beat the rap, until last August 11, when an rootless nobody named Hadi Matar attacked him at a speaking engagement in Chautauqua, NY. This month, a fascinating article in the New Yorker, “The Defiance of Salman Rushdie” by David Remnick, discusses his life under a fatwa, his injuries in last year’s attack (he’s lost an eye and the use of a hand), his books, and his indefatigable courage.


Did he think it had been a mistake to let his guard down since moving to New York? “Well, I’m asking myself that question, and I don’t know the answer to it,” he said. “I did have more than twenty years of life. So, is that a mistake? Also, I wrote a lot of books. The Satanic Verses was my fifth published book—my fourth published novel—and this is my twenty-first. So, three-quarters of my life as a writer has happened since the fatwa. In a way, you can’t regret your life.”


Whom does he blame for the attack?

“I blame him,” he said.


At this meeting and in subsequent conversations, I sensed conflicting instincts in Rushdie when he replied to questions about his health: there was the instinct to move on—to talk about literary matters, his book, anything but the decades-long fatwa and now the attack—and the instinct to be absolutely frank. “There is such a thing as P.T.S.D., you know,” he said after a while. “I’ve found it very, very difficult to write. I sit down to write, and nothing happens. I write, but it’s a combination of blankness and junk, stuff that I write and that I delete the next day. I’m not out of that forest yet, really.”

He added, “I’ve simply never allowed myself to use the phrase ‘writer’s block.’ Everybody has a moment when there’s nothing in your head. And you think, Oh, well, there’s never going to be anything. One of the things about being seventy-five and having written twenty-one books is that you know that, if you keep at it, something will come.”

Had that happened in the past months?

Rushdie frowned. “Not really. I mean, I’ve tried, but not really.” He was only lately “just beginning to feel the return of the juices.”

How to go on living after thinking you had emerged from years of threat, denunciation, and mortal danger? And now how to recover from an attack that came within millimetres of killing you, and try to live, somehow, as if it could never recur?

He seemed grateful for a therapist he had seen since before the attack, a therapist “who has a lot of work to do. He knows me and he’s very helpful, and I just talk things through.”

The talk was plainly in the service of a long-standing resolution. “I’ve always tried very hard not to adopt the role of a victim,” he said. “Then you’re just sitting there saying, Somebody stuck a knife in me! Poor me. . . . Which I do sometimes think.” He laughed. “It hurts. But what I don’t think is: That’s what I want people reading the book to think. I want them to be captured by the tale, to be carried away.”

Many years ago, he recalled, there were people who seemed to grow tired of his persistent existence. “People didn’t like it. Because I should have died. Now that I’ve almost died, everybody loves me. . . . That was my mistake, back then. Not only did I live but I tried to live well. Bad mistake. Get fifteen stab wounds, much better.”

Read the whole thing here.

Dana Gioia: running the long race

Friday, February 10th, 2023

A first, incandescent review for Dana Gioia‘s brand new collection, Meet Me At The Lighthouse (Graywolf). Seth Wieck‘s write-up, “Dana Gioia’s Bright Twilight,” is in included the newest issue of The Front Porch Republic, a blog (and book publisher) launched in 2009 with contributors, known as “porchers,” focusing on concepts of community, place, decentralism, and conservation. And sometimes they talk about poetry.

Poetry is a profession that bears well into the seventh decade of life and beyond – better than being an astronaut or Olympic gymnast, or pretty much any other non-literary profession. Dana is playing the long game, and he isn’t missing a beat, metrical or metaphorical. As Wieck writes, “Rather, he’s heeding Eliot’s warning. Don’t turn aside. Take up your lantern and charge into the darkness. Sing all the way into the afterlife. Gioia does not linger on the threshold of death; he wants to be our guide through the Inferno and beyond.” (Please be reassured, gentle reader, Dana is in the best of health.)

An excerpt:

“The book closes with the 14-page poem “The Underworld,” giving it a weight no other poem in the collection receives. The 17 seven-line stanzas return us to the afterlife with which the book opened. However, instead of a lively jazz club, now the ‘you’ is seated on a silent train commute to the Underworld. It flips the tropes of those ancient epics where a hero interviews a long train of shades, hoping to garner wisdom. In Gioia’s Underworld, ‘You’ speak to no one. There are no fantastical creatures, ‘no triple-headed dogs…no Titans bound in chains.’ There are no malebolges stuffed with squirming sufferers. There is only the commute full of dead-eyed passengers isolated from one another, turned to stone as if the Gorgon had gazed back from their morning mirrors, or the screens in their palms.

Gioia at the Sierra Poetry Festival (Photo: Radu Sava)

The train never quite arrives anywhere, yet all the passengers are anxious to get there. For those people like Tennyson and Baudelaire—like me on the days I get off work and succumb to sitting vacantly in a room with my family, each with a face to a respective screen, absence substituting absinthe—for those, the Underworld, Hell, is already here. As Gioia reminds us in the poem’s epigraph, quoting The Aeneid, ‘Descending into Hell is easy.’ The sentence doesn’t stop here, however. If we were to heed Gioia’s guidance and work our way back through the poets, the tradition, the wisdom handed down to us through the ages (with no lack of God’s providence in the process), then we’d arrive back at Virgil and finish the line: ‘Descending into Hell is easy / But to return, and view the cheerful skies, / In this the task and mighty labor lies.’”

“As I mount midlife—Tennyson’s rocky walls—and attempt to gather my bearings for what’s coming in the next 40 years, I find fewer and fewer people have been able to run the long race. The energy and ambition and love I had in my youth is running low. Wouldn’t it be easier to fold my hands, to repeat the catch phrases and sound bites, to laugh at the canned cues and teach my children to? Whose woods these are I think I know. Then out on the wrinkled sea, the high notes come shimmering over the cold waves, and 72-year-old Dana Gioia says, ‘Meet me at the Lighthouse.’”

Read the whole thing here.

California’s greatest poet wrote in Polish – from Berkeley!

Tuesday, February 7th, 2023

It’s been a spectacular few days for Czesław Miłosz: A California Life. Over the weekend, an opinion piece about the poet and my book, written by Joe Mathews, was featured on page 9 of The San Jose Mercury News here. Then The San Francisco Chronicle here. The East Bay Times here, Zócalo Public Square here, and southern California’s Ventura County Star here. It also went out on Yahoo News here, and that means it went everywhere. We’ll add any more links that come along. [Feb. 8 postscript: Here’s another one! The Bakersfield Californian here. And finally, a Feb. 12 postscript: we were featured today on the estimable 3QuarksDaily website here.)

His essay summarizes the book this way: “His experiences here, she writes, ‘transfigured him from a poet writing from one corner of the world to a poet who could speak for all if it, from a poet focused on history to a poet concerned with modernity and who always had his eyes fixed on forever.'”

Thanks to Elizabeth Conquest for the heads-up (we’ve written about her here and here). The whole thing might have passed us by, since proof pages and revisions are dominating the week.

Here’s the downside: Czesław Miłosz: A California Life sold out at Amazon. However, you can order directly from Heyday in Berkeley on website here: Or directly from Bookshop here.

Please do. I want you to enjoy the marvels of this remarkable poet, and let his astonishing life absorb you as it has me for almost a quarter century, since I first interviewed him on Grizzly Peak in 2000 – his last interview in America before he returned to Poland forever.

Amazon is out of books! Order from Heyday’s website here or Bookshop here until Amazon gets its act together.

A small correction: The article refers to Miłosz’s sisters. He had none. The two elderly spinsters (“Samogitian parakeets”) are women he knew in Vilnius. He describes them in section 12 of “City Without a Name”here.