Issue #381
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Hello!

I've done a small refresh of the theme for this newsletter, so please do hit reply and let me know what you think.

This solo waffle I'll keep short to let you get to the action. Suffice to say this week has been busy! I hope you're well and staying safe :)

Saturday sandcastles

Brutalist sandcastle 01
The photos of brutalist sandcastles accompanying this week's link roundup made me both smile and really miss care-free walks on the beach. Although technically we're still allowed to visit the coast, our local council has closed nearby car parks.

This week I've been busy, busy, but managed to squeeze in a bit of non-fiction reading, the best of which I'm sharing below. Oh, and one link that I can' really quote is UnblockIt which was shared via our team chat this week. If your ISP filters certain sites, you might want to bookmark it...

There will be no 'back to normal'

In this article, we summarise and synthesise various - often opposing - views about how the world might change. Clearly, these are speculative; no-one knows what the future will look like. But we do know that crises invariably prompt deep and unexpected shifts, so that those anticipating a return to pre-pandemic normality may be shocked to find that many of the previous systems, structures, norms and jobs have disappeared and will not return.
Nesta

I'm going to return to this article time and again, as it breaks down in a really helpful way what's likely to happen post-pandemic in the following areas: political, economic, sociocultural, technological, legal, and environmental.

Plan for 5 years of lockdown

I’m attempting to be pragmatic. I think this is one of those times where we should hope for the best but plan for the worst. Crucially, I think that a terrifying number of people are in denial about the timescales of disruption that Covid-19 will cause, and this is causing them to make horrible personal and professional decisions. I believe that we have a responsibility to consider any reasonably likely worst case scenario, and take appropriate steps to mitigate it. But to do that we have to be honest about the worst case.
Patrick Gleeson

It's hard to disagree with the points made in this post, especially as the scenario planning that universities are doing seems to point in the same direction. Having said that, I don't think 'lockdown' will mean the same thing everywhere and at each stage of the pandemic.

'Will coronavirus change our attitudes to death? Quite the opposite'

For centuries, people used religion as a defence mechanism, believing that they would exist for ever in the afterlife. Now people sometimes switch to using science as an alternative defence mechanism, believing that doctors will always save them, and that they will live for ever in their apartment. We need a balanced approach here. We should trust science to deal with epidemics, but we should still shoulder the burden of dealing with our individual mortality and transience.
The present crisis might indeed make many individuals more aware of the impermanent nature of human life and human achievements. Nevertheless, our modern civilisation as a whole will most probably go in the opposite direction. Reminded of its fragility, it will react by building stronger defences. When the present crisis is over, I don’t expect we will see a significant increase in the budgets of philosophy departments. But I bet we will see a massive increase in the budgets of medical schools and healthcare systems.
Yuval Noah Harari

Some amazing writing, as ever, by Harari, who argues that, because our secular societies focus on the here and now rather than the afterlife, science has almost become a religion.
Brutalist sandcastle 02

A startup debt to talk about more: emotional debt

We incur emotional debt whenever there’s an experience we’ve had, but not fully digested in all aspects of it. In my trauma therapy training I learned that this is in fact a natural and important human survival skill. Imagine you’re living in a pre-historic village and it gets raided by a neighboring tribe. Although no one gets killed, a number of houses have been burned down and food has been stolen. The next morning the most important tasks for everyone are to protect the village again, rebuild the houses and hunt for food to survive. Many of the villagers will have been deeply traumatized from the fears and terror they experienced in their bodies. Since food and shelter takes first priority to humans, not processing these emotions for now is a debt that’s necessary and important to incur. We can put it aside and leave it stuck in our bodies, ready to reengage and digest it later. It’s a great survival feature if you will.
A couple of weeks later when everything has been rebuilt, there might be a chance for the local shaman to offer a ritual around the fireplace where everyone can gather and re-experience the emotions that were too difficult to deal with at the actual event of the raid: the rage and anger towards the attackers, the fear and the terror over their lives and eventually the grief for the loss of their goods and most importantly their safety. Once that has been felt and integrated, everyone is able to move on and the night of the village raid can safely go into the history books, fairy tales and heroes journey accounts that luckily everyone survived, yet learned from.
Leo Widrich

While this is framed in terms of startups, I think every organisation has 'emotional debt' that they have to deal with. I like this framing, and will be using it from now on to explain why teams need times of compression and decompression (instead of never-ending 'sprints').

Don’t let remote leadership bring out the worst in you

Recognize that the pressure you apply is a reaction to a construct of control. You think you can control people – and things – and the reality is you can’t. The quicker you can realize this, the sooner you can shift to a frame of mind where you can focus constructively on the things that actually help your team, such as: (1) Making it clear why the work matters (2) Creating milestones to help that person achieve that work (3) Giving as much context as possible so they can make the best decisions (4) Helping them think through tough problems they encounter.
Claire Lew

I've led a remote team for a couple of years now, and worked remotely for six years before that. Despite this, it's easy to fall into bad habits, so this is a useful article to remind all leaders (most of whom are remote now!) that the amount of time someone spends on something does not equate to progress made.

Google Apple Contact Tracing (GACT): a wolf in sheep’s clothes.

But the bigger picture is this: it creates a platform for contact tracing that works all across the globe for most modern smart phones (Android Marshmallow and up, and iOS 13 capable devices) across both OS platforms. Unless appropriate safeguards are in place (including, but not limited to, the design of the system as described above – we will discuss this more below) this would create a global mass-surveillance system that would reliably track who has been in contact with whom, at what time and for how long. (And where, if GPS is used to record the location.) GACT works much more reliably and extensively than any other system based on either GPS or mobile phone location data (based on cell towers) would be able to (under normal conditions). I want to stress this point because some people have responded to this threat saying that this is something companies like Google (using their GPS and WiFi names based location history tool) can already do for years. This is not the case. This type of contact tracing really brings it to another level.
Jaap-Henk Hoepman

This, by a professor in the Netherlands who focuses on 'privacy by design' is why I'm really concerned about the Google/Apple Contact Tracing (GACT) programme. It's only likely to be of marginal help in fighting the virus, but sets up a global surveillance network for decades to come.
Brutalist sandcastle 03

In this Zombie Apocalypse, your Homework is due at 5pm

Year in and year out, when school’s in, children know that they are to be at certain places at certain times, doing particular tasks in particular ways. And now, weeks loom ahead where they are faced with many of the same tasks, absent of all the pomp and circumstance. This is the ultimate zombie apocalypse nightmare—a pandemic has hit the world with a mighty force, schools and tuition centers are shut, and homework is still due. Children are adaptable creatures, but it will be challenging for many, if not most, to do all that they are expected to do under these altered conditions.
Youyenn Teo

I was attracted to this article by its great title, but it's actually an interesting insight into both education in a Singaporean context and the gendered nature of care in our societies.

Free Money for Surfers: A Genealogy of the Idea of Universal Basic Income

As cash transfers are increasingly seen as the ideal way to confront the magnitude of the coronavirus threat, it is unclear whether our political imagination is truly up to the task. The current crisis might accelerate rather than decrease our dependency on the market, strengthening capital’s grip on society. Large-scale public works are evidently unfeasible with physical distancing. But, with a clear medical equipment shortage and lacking trained personnel, there is obvious space for public planning responses, and “production for use value” seems ever more necessary. None of these ills will be solved by cash transfers.
Anton Jäger & Daniel Zamora

This, in the Los Angeles Review of Books, considers a new work by Peter Sloman entitled The Idea of a Guaranteed Income and the Politics of Redistribution in Modern Britain. Having previously been cautiously optimistic about Universal Basic Income (or 'cash transfers') I'm not so sure it would all work out so well. I'd rather we funded things like the NHS, but then that might be my white male privilege speaking.

How we made the Keep Calm and Carry On poster

I first found the poster in 2000, folded up at the bottom of a box of books we had bought at an auction. I liked it straight away and showed it to my wife Mary – she had it framed and put up in the shop. The next thing we found was that customers wanted to buy it. I suggested we make copies but Mary said: “No, it’ll spoil the purity.” She went away for a week’s holiday, so I secretly got 500 copies made.
Stuart Manley (interviewed by malcolm jack)

This ridiculously-famous poster was discovered in a wonderful second-hand bookshop not too far away from us, and which we visit several times per year. I love the story behind it.

Images via The Guardian: For one tide only: modernist sandcastles – in pictures

Thus each man ever flees himself

Image by Simon Migaj
There are some days during this current pandemic when, coccooned in my little bubble, I can forget for a few hours that the world has changed. Conversely, I encounter other days when my baseline existential angst spikes to a level just below "rocking backwards-and-forwards in the corner of the room".

There are a range of ways for obtaining help in such situations, including professional (therapy!), spiritual (religion!) and medical (drugs!) However, while I've dabbled with all three, perhaps my greatest solace comes from bunch of balding white dudes who lived a couple of thousand years ago.

Yes, I'm talking about the Stoics. Having re-read the Seneca's On the Tranquility of the Mind this week, I thought there were whole sections worth sharing for anyone in a similar predicament to me.

In this dialogue, Serenus explains to Seneca his problem. The details may have changed over the years (no slaves, and we tend not to be so envious about other people's crockery) but the gist is, at least for me, immediately recognisable:
The nature of this mental weakness which hovers between two alternatives, inclining strongly neither to the right nor to the wrong, I can better show you one part at a time than all at once; I will tell you my experience, you will find a name for my sickness. I am completely devoted, I admit, to frugality: I do not like a couch made up for show, or clothing produced from a chest or pressed by weights and a thousand mangles to make it shiny, but rather something homely and inexpensive that has not been kept specially or needs to be put on with anxious care; I like food that a household of slaves has not pr pared, watching it with envy, that has not been ordered many days in advance or served up by many hands, but is easy to fetch and in ample supply; it has nothing outlandish or expensive about it, and will be readily available everywhere, it will not put a strain on one’s purse or body, or return by the way it entered; I like for my servant a young house-bred slave without training or polish, for silverware my country-bred father’s heavy plate that bears no maker’s stamp, and for a table one that is not remarkable for the variety of its markings or known to Rome for having passed through the hands of many stylish owners, but one that is there to be used, that makes no guest stare at it in endless pleasure or burning envy. Then, after finding perfect satisfaction in all such things, I find my mind is dazzled by the splendour of some training-school for pages, by the sight of slaves decked out in gold and more scrupulously dressed than bearers in a procession, and a whole troop of brilliant attendants; by the sight of a house where even the floor one treads is precious and riches are strewn in every corner, where the roofs themselves shine out, and the citizen body waits in attendance and dutifully accompanies an inheritance whose days are numbered; need I mention the waters, transparent to the bottom and flowing round the guests even as they dine, or the banquets that in no way disgrace their setting? Emerging from a long time of dedication to thrift, luxury has enveloped me in the riches of its splendour, filling my ears with all its sounds: my vision falters a little, for it is easier for me to raise my mind to it than my eyes; and so I come back, not a worse man, but a sadder one, I no longer walk with head so high among those worthless possessions of mine, and I feel the sharpness of a secret pain as the doubt arises whether that life is not the better one. None of these things alters me, but none fails to unsettle me.
'Serenus' (in Seneca's 'On The Tranquility of the Mind')

As a result, Serenus asks Seneca for help, as he feels stuck between two stools: asceticism and luxury:
I ask you, therefore, if you possess any cure by which you can check this fluctuation of mine, to consider me worthy of being indebted to you for tranquillity. I am aware that these mental disturbances I suffer from are not dangerous and bring no threat of a storm; to express to you in a true analogy the source of my complaint, it is not a storm I labour under but seasickness: relieve me, then, of this malady, whatever it be, and hurry to aid one who struggles with land in his sight.
'Serenus' (in seneca's 'On The Tranquility of the Mind')

For me, Serenus' description of his 'mental disturbances' as being like seasickness really resonate with me. As a friend said earlier this week, we're both a little tired of the "constant up and down".

Seneca restates Serenus' problem, first stating what he doesn't require:
Accordingly, you have no need of those harsher measures that we have already passed over, that of sometimes opposing yourself, of sometimes getting angry with yourself, of sometimes fiercely driving yourself on, but rather of the one that comes last, having confidence in yourself and believing that you are on the right path and have not been sidetracked by the footprints crossing over, left by many rushing in different directions, some of them wandering close to the path itself.
seneca, 'On The Tranquility of the Mind'

Another useful metaphor, of being sidetracked by other people's, and perhaps your own, footprints. Instead what Seneca explains that Serenus needs to have "confidence" in himself, and believe that he is "on the right path".

Don't we all need that?

Seneca continues by saying that everyone is in the same boat, which might as well be named The Human Condition. What he diagnoses as the nub of the problem, which is think is particularly insightful, is our attempts to keep changing things. Ultimately, this simply means we live in a constant state of suspense and dissatisfaction.
Everyone is in the same predicament, both those who are tormented by inconstancy and boredom and an unending change of purpose, constantly taking more pleasure in what they have just abandoned, and those who idle away their time, yawning. Add to them those who twist and turn like insomniacs, trying all manner of positions until in their weariness they find repose: by altering the condition of their life repeatedly, they end up finally in the state that they are caught, not by dislike of change, but by old age that is reluctant to embrace anything new. Add also those who through the fault, not of determination but of idleness, are too constant in their ways, and live their lives not as they wish, but as they began. The sickness has countless characteristics but only one effect, dissatisfaction with oneself. This arises from a lack of mental balance and desires that are nervous or unfulfilled, when men’s daring or attainment falls short of their desires and they depend entirely on hope; such are always lacking in stability and changeable, the inevitable consequence of living in a state of suspense.
seneca, 'On The Tranquility of the Mind'

Next, Seneca seemingly reaches through the ages to drive his point home with sentences which, despite being aimed at his interlocutor, seem targeted at me.
All these feelings are aggravated when disgust at the effort they have spent on becoming unsuccessful drives men to leisure, to solitary studies, which are unendurable for a mind intent on a public career, eager for employment, and by nature restless, since without doubt it possesses few enough resources for consolation; for this reason, once it has been deprived of those delights that business itself affords to active participants, the mind does not tolerate home, solitude, or the walls of a room, and does not enjoy seeing that it has been left to itself. This is the source of that boredom and dissatisfaction, of the wavering of a mind that finds no rest anywhere, and the sad and spiritless endurance of one’s leisure; and particularly when one is ashamed to confess the reasons for these feelings, and diffidence drives its torments inwards, the desires, confined in a narrow space from which there is no escape, choke one-another; hence come grief and melancholy and the thousand fluctuations of an uncertain mind, held in suspense by early hopes and then reduced to sadness once they fail to materialize; this causes that feeling which makes men loathe their own leisure and complain that they themselves have nothing to keep them occupied, and also the bitterest feelings of jealousy of other men’s successes.
Seneca, 'On The Tranquility of the Mind'

Seneca continues to give Serenus more advice in the dialogue, but, every time I read these opening few pages, I feel like he has diagnosed not only my condition, and that of all humankind.

While some people are always on the lookout for the new and the novel, I'm realising that the best way to spend the second half of my life might well be to spend a good amount of time wringing out as much value from things I've already discovered.

The quotations in this post are from the Oxford World's Classics version of Seneca's Dialogues and Essays. If you can't find it in your local library, try here.

If you're new to the Stoics, may I suggest starting with The Enchiridion by Epictetus? I'd follow that with Marcus Aurelius' Meditations (buy a decent quality dead-tree version; you'll thank me in years to come) and then dip into Seneca's somewhat voluminous works.

Header image by Simon Migaj. Quotation-as-title from Lucretius, who Seneca quotes in 'On the Tranquility of the Mind'.

Quotation of the week

The great consolation life is to say what one thinks.


(Voltaire)
Until next week!

Doug
Dr. Doug Belshaw is an Open Educational Thinkerer, currently working with Moodle and We Are Open Co-op to improve our world.

You can connect with Doug by replying to this email, or via Twitter, LinkedIn, or Mastodon.


Some say he's sedentary, others says he's rudimentary. No-one thinks he's discretionary.
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