Issue #399


In this week's issue: hats as a metaphor for conservatism, universities putting wealth before welfare, why Subway bread isn't really bread, amazing drone photography, and more!

On my personal blog this week I published:
Feedback? Hit reply and tell me, or just say hello!

Note: I've changed a setting to

Did someone forward you this? Sign up for yourself here 👀

Like the flight of a sparrow through a lighted hall, from darkness into darkness

Sun behind a cloud
Finding the Silver Lining in 2020 — 10 Developments in Online and Remote Education That Make Us Hopeful

Is it too late to halt football’s final descent into a dystopian digital circus?

🎧 Why Music is Helpful for Concentration

😬 I Lived Through Collapse. America Is Already There.

😷 COVID-19 map for schools (UK)

Quotation-as-title from St Bede. Image from top-linked post.

Face-to-face university classes during a pandemic? Why?

Earlier in my career, when I worked for Jisc, I was based at Northumbria University in Newcastle. It's just been announced that 770 students there have been infected with COVID-19.

As Lorna Finlayson, a philosophy lecturer at the University of Essex, points out, the desire to get students on campus for face-to-face teaching is driven by economics. Universities are businesses, and some of them are likely to fail this academic year.
fter years of pushing to expand online learning and “lecture capture” on the basis that it is what students want, university managers have decided that what students really want now, during a global pandemic, is face-to-face contact. This sudden-onset fetish reached its most perverse extreme in the case of Boston University, which, realising that many teaching rooms lack good ventilation or even windows, decided to order “giant air circulators”, only to discover that the air circulators were very noisy. Apparently unable to source enough “mufflers” for the air circulators, the university ordered Bluetooth headsets to enable students and teachers to communicate over the roar of machinery.
All of which raises the question: why? The determination to bring students back to campus at any cost doesn’t stem from a dewy-eyed appreciation of in-person pedagogy, nor from concerns about the impact of isolation on students’ mental health. If university managers had any interest in such things, they would not have spent years cutting back on study skills support and counselling services.
Lorna Finlayson, How universities tricked students into returning to campus (The Guardian)

I know people who work in universities in various positions. What they tell me astounds me; a callous disregard for human life in the pursuit of either economic survival, or profit.
This is, as usual, all about the money. With student fees and rents now their main source of revenue, universities will do anything to recruit and retain. When the pandemic hit, university managers warned of a potentially catastrophic loss of income from international student fees in particular. Many used this as an excuse to cut jobs and freeze pay, even as vice-chancellors and senior management continued to rake in huge salaries. As it turned out, international student admissions reached a record high this year, with domestic undergraduate numbers also up – perhaps less due to the irresistibility of universities’ “offer” than to the lack of other options (needless to say, staff jobs and pay have yet to be reinstated).
But students are more than just fee-payers. They are rent-payers too. Rightly or wrongly, most of those in charge of universities have assumed that only the promise of face-to-face classes would tempt students back to their accommodation. That promise can be safely broken only once rental contracts are signed and income streams flowing.
Lorna Finlayson, How universities tricked students into returning to campus (The Guardian)

I predict legal action at some point in the near future.

'Rulesy' people

Some people in the world want to fit in. Others want to change it. Still others want to fit in by changing it. Robin Hanson has a theory about how paternalism appears in a culture, linking it to a pattern of behaviours that bestows a form of prestige on those creating and enforcing rules.
The key idea is that there are many “rulesy” people in the world who specialize in learning of and even creating rules, so that they can then find and reveal violations of these rules around them. This allows them to beat on their rivals, and also to raise their own status. It obviously raises their dominance via the power they wield, but they prefer to be instead seen as prestigious, enforcing rules whose purpose is more clearly altruistic. And what could be more altruistic than keeping people from hurting themselves?
So many people who are especially good at noticing and applying rules, good at finding potential violations, good at framing situations as rule violations, and willing to at least gossip about violators, are eager for a supply of apparently-paternalism-motived rules they can enforce. So they take suggestions by elites regarding what is good behavior and work to turn them into rules they can enforce. They push to turn norms into laws, and to make norms out of the weak behavior patterns of elites, or common sorts of praise and criticism.
Robin Hanson, Rulesy Folks Push Paternalism (Overcoming Bias)

I like Hanson's explanation of how this can work in practice:
For example, maybe at first some elites sometimes wear hats. Then they and others start to praise hat-wearers. Then more folks start to wear hats, and get proud of how they are good hat people. Good candidates for promotion to elite they are. Then hat fans start to insinuate that people who don’t wear hats are not the best sort of people in various ways, and are only hurting themselves. They say that word needs to get out about the advantages of hats. And those irresponsible people arguing against hats really need to be dealt with – everyone should be told that their arguments don’t meet the highest possible standards of scientific rigor. (Though neither do pro-hat arguments.)
It becomes a matter of pride to teach your children to wear hats. And to have hats taught in school. And to include the lack of hats in lists of problems that problem people have. Hat fans start to push the orgs of which they are part to promote hats, sometimes even requiring hats at org functions. Finally it is suggested that wouldn’t it be simpler and more efficient to just have the government require hats. Then foreigners who visit us won’t think we are such backward non-hat people. And its really for their own good, as we all know.
At every step along this path, people can gain by pushing for stricter and stronger hat norms and rules. They are good people, pushing a good thing, which just happens to let them dump harder on rivals. Which is plausibly why we tend to end up with just too many overly restrictive rules. Rules rise with the ratchet of crises that can be blamed on problems said to be fixed by adding new rules. But between the crises, we rarely take away or weaken our rules.
Robin Hanson, Rulesy Folks Push Paternalism (Overcoming Bias)

The importance of co-operation

Quoting Stephen Downes in the introduction to his post, Harold Jarche goes on to explain:
Managing in complex adaptive systems means influencing possibilities rather than striving for predictability (good or best practices). Cooperation in our work is needed so that we can continuously develop emergent practices demanded by this complexity. What worked yesterday won’t work today. No one has the definitive answer any more, but we can use the intelligence of our networks to make sense together and see how we can influence desired results. This is cooperation and this is the future, which is already here, albeit unevenly distributed.
Harold Jarche, revisiting cooperation

It's all very well having streamlined workflows, but that's the way to get automated out of a job.

One is not superior merely because one sees the world in an odious light

Wear The Mask poster
😷 “Wear The Mask” poster now available as free download

🐙 How To Win Any Debate

🤔 Irish court rules Subway bread is not bread

🚀 Jet suit paramedic tested in the Lake District 'could save lives'

👍 Helsinki Design Lab Ten Years Later

Quotation-as-title by Chateaubriand. Image from top-linked post.

How to give advice

A great metaphor from a fantastic article:
Suppose you are holding a ball in your hand inside a moving train. From your frame of reference, the ball is static. But from somebody else’s perspective, one who looks at you from outside the train, it’s a completely different picture. They see what you cannot see. Advice helps us realise that the ball, along with you, is moving at the speed of the train.
Abhishek Chakraborty, Giving Advice is Not Giving Solutions

I'm definitely guilty of giving people solutions when they just need me to help them with seeing things from a different angle 🤔

The truth is too simple: one must always get there by a complicated route

😍 Drone Awards 2020: the world seen from above

😷 Adequate Vitamin D Levels Cuts Risk Of Dying From Covid-19 In Half, Study Finds

🔊 The BBC is releasing over 16,000 sound effects for free download

👍 Proposal would give EU power to boot tech giants out of European market

🎧 The Hidden Costs of Streaming Music

Quotation-as-title by George Sand. Image from top-linked post.

Until next week!

Dr. Doug Belshaw is an Open Thinkerer, currently working with We Are Open Co-op to help make the world more open and awesome. You can hire him to help improve your organisation!

Connect by replying to this email, or via LinkedIn and Mastodon. A feed of his writing from various places goes out via Twitter.

Some say he's confrontational, aggressive and impulsive. Others think he's repulsive. No-one thinks he's convulsive.
Thought Shrapnel Weekly is sent out to around 1,500 subscribers and kept going thanks to generous supporters.

Many thanks to Bryan Mathers of Visual Thinkery for the Thought Shrapnel logo. All product names, logos, and brands are property of their respective owners and are used in this newsletter are for identification purposes only.

Unsubscribe | Manage subscription

🤘 Super-secret link to reward those who scroll to the bottom of newsletters!