Author: Doug Belshaw (page 1 of 81)

‘The individual’ is an idea like other ideas

Blue sky through dark clouds

I thought I’d share some things that have really opened my eyes recently.

The first is a two-part interview with Vinay Gupta from the Emerge podcast in 2019. I’ve followed Vinay’s work ever since we tried to get Firecloud (a P2P publishing platforming using WebRTC) off the ground in 2013 when I was working at Mozilla. Ten years ahead of the curve, as always.

Working with Vinay absolutely blew my mind, and although we haven’t met up in person for a few years, he’s been changing the world in the meantime. He was the release manager for Ethereum, and he’s currently CEO of Mattereum.

The difference with Vinay, though, is that he’s enlightened. I don’t mean that in a LinkedIn kind of way. I mean that in a studied-under-a-Hindu-guru kind of way. This underpins all of the humanitarian work he does, some of which you can see at myhopeforthe.world

The two episodes on the Emerge podcast are entitled Waking Up in the Monster Factory (Part 1 / Part 2). I guarantee they are worth your time.


The second thing I’d like to share is a documentary series by Adam Curtis that was released last month. Entitled Can’t Get You Out of My Head: An Emotional History of the Modern World it’s available on BBC iPlayer and YouTube.

The late, great Dai Barnes implored me to watch Curtis’ 2016 documentary HyperNormalisation. I’m only half way through the new documentary series, and it’s having a similar effect as when I watched that. A feeling of waking up, and seeing the world as it really is. It’s kind of counter-conspiracy theory.


The crucial thing for me, and my reason for sharing both of these, is a recognition that there’s no-one coming to save us. But, unlike those people discussed in the 99% Invisible podcast episode The Doom Boom, it’s up to us to figure out how to pull together collectively — instead of hunkering down and just making sure that our immediate family and friends are OK.


Quotation-as-title by Harold Rosenberg. Image by Antonino Visalli

Of all lies, art is the least untrue

Nyan cat

The world doesn’t particularly need my opinions on NFTs (‘non-fungible tokens’) as there’s plenty of opinions to go round in other newsletters, podcasts, and blog posts.

After doing a bunch of reading, though, I think that the main use case for NFTs will be ticket sales. That is to say, when there is a limited supply of something with intrinsic value, and both the original buyer and seller want to ensure authenticity.

The rest is speculation and gambling, as far as I’m concerned, with a side serving of ecological destruction. I’m also a bit concerned about the enforcement of copyright everywhere on the web it might lead to…


Twitter’s Dorsey auctions first ever tweet as digital memorabilia — “The post, sent from Dorsey’s account in March of 2006, received offers on Friday that went as high as $88,888.88 within minutes of the Twitter co-founder tweeting a link to the listing on ‘Valuables by Cent’ – a tweets marketplace.”

NFTs, explained — “Non-fungible” more or less means that it’s unique and can’t be replaced with something else. For example, a bitcoin is fungible — trade one for another bitcoin, and you’ll have exactly the same thing. A one-of-a-kind trading card, however, is non-fungible. If you traded it for a different card, you’d have something completely different. You gave up a Squirtle, and got a 1909 T206 Honus Wagner, which StadiumTalk calls “the Mona Lisa of baseball cards.” (I’ll take their word for it.)”

NFTs are a dangerous trap — “The more time and passion that creators devote to chasing the NFT, the more time they’ll spend trying to create the appearance of scarcity and hustling people to believe that the tokens will go up in value. They’ll become promoters of digital tokens more than they are creators. Because that’s the only reason that someone is likely to buy one–like a stock, they hope it will go up in value. Unlike some stocks, it doesn’t pay dividends or come with any other rights. And unlike actual works of art, NFTs aren’t usually aesthetically beautiful on their own, they simply represent something that is.”

Cryptodamages: Monetary value estimates of the air pollution and human health impacts of cryptocurrency mining — “Results indicate that in 2018, each $1 of Bitcoin value created was responsible for $0.49 in health and climate damages in the US and $0.37 in China. The similar value in China relative to the US occurs despite the extremely large disparity between the value of a statistical life estimate for the US relative to that of China. Further, with each cryptocurrency, the rising electricity requirements to produce a single coin can lead to an almost inevitable cliff of negative net social benefits, absent perpetual price increases.”

HERE IS THE ARTICLE YOU CAN SEND TO PEOPLE WHEN THEY SAY “BUT THE ENVIRONMENTAL ISSUES WITH CRYPTOART WILL BE SOLVED SOON, RIGHT?” — “Much like the world of blue chip, some NFTs may be bought and sold simply as artworks, intended for personal collections and acquired for aesthetic, conceptual, or personal reasons. However, every single one is made from the outset to be liquidated- an asset first, artwork second. They are images attached to dollar figures, not the other way around.”


Quotation-as-title by Gustave Flaubert. Image of Nyan Cat, a 2011 meme, which sold as an NFT for ~$600,000 recently.

One should always be a little improbable

Object hitting and bending a wall

🍲 Introducing ‘Food Grammar,’ the Unspoken Rules of Every Cuisine — “Grammars can even impose what is considered a food and what isn’t: Horse and rabbit are food for the French but not for the English; insects are food in Mexico but not in Spain. Moreover, just as “Hey, man!” is a friendly greeting for a buddy but maybe not for your boss, foods may not be suitable in all grammatical contexts. “A Frenchman would think it odd to drink white coffee with dinner and an Italian probably would resent being served spaghetti for breakfast,” writes Claude Fischler in “Food, Self and Identity.” By the same token, rice is appropriate for breakfast in Korea but not in Ireland.”

The essence of this article is that food is a reflection of culture, and our views of other cultures can become ossified. A good read.


🌍 Scientists begin building highly accurate digital twin of our planet — “The digital twin of the Earth is intended to be an information system that develops and tests scenarios that show more sustainable development and thus better inform policies. “If you are planning a two-​metre high dike in The Netherlands, for example, I can run through the data in my digital twin and check whether the dike will in all likelihood still protect against expected extreme events in 2050,” says Peter Bauer, deputy director for Research at the European Centre for Medium-​Range Weather Forecasts (ECMWF) and co-​initiator of Destination Earth. The digital twin will also be used for strategic planning of fresh water and food supplies or wind farms and solar plants.”

This is the kind of thing that simultaneously fills me with hope and fear. On the one hand, such a great idea; on the other, if we get the model wrong, it could make things worse…


🤑 Why an Animated Flying Cat With a Pop-Tart Body Sold for Almost $600,000 — “The sale was a new high point in a fast-growing market for ownership rights to digital art, ephemera and media called NFTs, or “nonfungible tokens.” The buyers are usually not acquiring copyrights, trademarks or even the sole ownership of whatever it is they purchase. They’re buying bragging rights and the knowledge that their copy is the “authentic” one.”

I’ve got a blog post percolating in my mind at the moment about digital reserve currencies, NFTs and deepfakes. There’s something here about an emerging hyper-capitalist dystopia, for sure.


Quotation-as-title by Oscar Wilde. Image by Tu Tram Pham.

Life is a great bundle of little things

As I’m catching up with news from various sources and bookmarking articles to come back and share via Thought Shrapnel, I also come across interesting tools and resources.

Here are some of them that I thought were interesting enough to share.

ArchiveWeb.page is “the latest tool from Webrecorder to turn your browser into a full-featured interactive web archiving system!”

Bookfeed.io is “a simple tool that allows you to specify a list of authors, and generates an RSS feed with each author’s most recently released book.”

Loudreader is “the world’s only ebook reader that can open .azw3 [and] .mobi files in a browser!”

NES.css is “a NES style (8bit-like) CSS framework.” (also see Simple.css)

novelWriter is “a markdown-like text editor designed for writing novels and larger projects of many smaller plain text documents.”

Open Peeps is a hand-drawn illustration library. “You can use Open Peeps in product illustration, marketing imagery, comics, product states, user flows, personas, storyboarding, invitations for your quinceañera…or anything else not on this list.”

Pattern Generator provides you with a way to “create unique, seamless, royalty-free patterns”.

Same Energy is “a visual search engine. You can use it to find beautiful art, photography, decoration ideas, or anything else.”

Screenstab allows you to “cut down on time and effort by auto-generating appealing graphics for marketing materials, social media posts, illustrations & presentation slides.”


Quotation-as-title by Oliver Wendell Holmes. Image by Jessica Lee.

Criticism, like lightning, strikes the highest peaks

🙏 Blogging as a forgiving medium — “The ability to “move it around for a long time” is what I’m looking for in a writing medium — I want words and images to be movable, I want to switch them out, copy and cut and paste them, let them mutate. “

I love the few minutes after I press publish on a post, which feels like a race against time between me and the first readers of it. Who will spot the typos and grammatical errors first?


📝 Open working blog and weeknotes templates — “We wrote a guide on how to write weeknotes for Catalyst projects. It is based on Sam Villis’ guide and the templates here are based on Sam’s guide too.”

This is useful, especially if you’re not blogging yet (or haven’t for a while!)


How to be more productive without forcing yourself — “Basically, if you’re addicted to any of the high-dopamine, low-effort activity, please quit it. At least temporarily so you can reestablish a healthy relationship to work. The more experienced we’re about the topic, the more obvious this is. There is no other way than to temporarily quit the addiction.”

I like the practical advice in this article. Too many people do stuff that’s too low-value, thus squandering their talent and ability to take on more important stuff.


🤔 Objective or Biased — “This type of analysis software is not widely used in recruiting in Germany and Europe right now. However, large companies are definitely interested in the technology, as we learn during off-the-record conversations. What seems to be attractive: A shorter application process which can save a lot of resources and money.”

This is kind of laughable and serious at the same time. I’ve felt the pain of hiring but, as this research shows, automating the hard parts doesn’t lead to awesome results.


📱 Contact-tracing apps were the biggest tech failure of the COVID-19 pandemic — “The system itself, on a technical level, is the root of the problem. In an effort to provide something that could be used universally, while also protecting users’ privacy, Google and Apple came up with a system that was doomed to be useless.”

My concern here is that the fault for the failure will be placed at the door of privacy activists.


Quotation-as-title by Baltasar Gracián. Images by Vera Shimunia, Russian textile artist via #WOMENSART

Unless one is a genius, it is best to aim at being intelligible

Can on rotary phone. Everything is pink.

👯‍♀️ Secrets of the VIP Party: Why the 1% Love ‘Ritualised Waste’ — “Post-pandemic, in a broader sense, you glimpsed an immediate reckoning and disgust with ostentatious displays of wealth in the context of COVID-19. We saw some instances where people would make statements like ‘we’re all in this together’, while broadcasting from their luxury yacht or private island, followed by a backlash. I think they’ve quickly learned not to do that since…”

This is an incredible read: an interview with a former model turned sociology professor.


💳 Germany To Let Citizens Store ID Cards On Smartphone — “The Interior Ministry said Wednesday that from this fall, citizens will be able to use the electronic ID stored in their smartphones together with a PIN number to prove they are who they claim to be when communicating with authorities or private businesses.”

It’s Germany, so I’m sure they’ll do this sensibly, but it’s incredible to think how quickly smartphones have become an essential part of our everyday life.


🏛️ ‘A very dangerous epoch’: historians try to make sense of Covid — “It is not just the Covid pandemic that can make these feel like unusually significant times. Populism, Trump’s rise and (perhaps) fall, Brexit, the Black Lives Matter and #MeToo protests, mass movement of refugees, the increased might of both China and India and many other issues have contributed to a sense of humanity having reached a historic moment, all while the climate crisis rages with ever more urgency.”

People always think they’re living through unprecedented times. But in our case, we probably are.


🚸 Why there’s no such thing as lost learning — “The fact is that we – as a community of politicians, teachers and education experts – decide what any child must know, understand or be able to do at each age, not some natural law of learning. Why should a child know the structure of a cell membrane by the age of 16? I couldn’t know that information at 16 because it had not yet been fully discovered and described. But I learned it at a later stage.”

This is a useful post to point people towards, as the author does a great job of pointing out the ridiculousness of putting an arbitrary body of knowledge before the well-being of young people.


👑 Should Elizabeth II be Elizabeth the Last? At least allow Britain a debate — “But none of [these revelations] reflect the real damage the monarchy inflicts on us. It’s not their money nor their abuse of power, but their very existence that ambushes and infantilises the public imagination, making us their subjects in mind and spirit.”

My views on privilege hardly need rehearsing here, but suffice to say that one of the main problems with our tiny island is the delusions of grandeur we have through outdated institutions such as the monarchy.


Quotation-as-title by Anthony Hope. Image by Tyler Nix.

It would not be better if things happened to men just as they wish

🕸️ A plan to redesign the internet could make apps that no one controls ⁠— “Rewinding the internet is not about nostalgia. The dominance of a few companies, and the ad-tech industry that supports them, has distorted the way we communicate—pulling public discourse into a gravity well of hate speech and misinformation—and upended basic norms of privacy. There are few places online beyond the reach of these tech giants, and few apps or services that thrive outside of their ecosystems.”

It is, inevitably, focused on crypto tokens, which provide an economic incentive. If only there was a way to fix things that didn’t seem to be driven by making the inventors obscenely rich?


🤯 Can’t Get You Out of My Head review – Adam Curtis’s ’emotional history’ is dazzling — “Whether you are convinced or not by the working hypothesis, Can’t Get You Out of My Head is a rush. It is vanishingly rare to be confronted by work so dense, so widely searching and ambitious in scope, so intelligent and respectful of the audience’s intelligence, too. It is rare, also, to watch a project over which one person has evidently been given complete creative freedom and control without any sense of self-indulgence creeping in.”

Adam Curtis’ documentary ‘Hypernormalisation’ blew my mind, and I’m already enjoying the first of these six hour-long documentaries.


💸 Why Mastercard is bringing crypto onto its network — “We are preparing right now for the future of crypto and payments, announcing that this year Mastercard will start supporting select cryptocurrencies directly on our network. This is a big change that will require a lot of work. We will be very thoughtful about which assets we support based on our principles for digital currencies, which focus on consumer protections and compliance.”

Companies like Mastercard haven’t got much of a choice here: they have to either get with the program or risk being replaced. Hopefully it will help simplify what is a confusing picture at the moment. I’ve had problems recently withdrawing money from cryptocurrency exchanges to my bank accounts.


👉 Hovering over decline and clicking accept — “There’s so much written about self-care. And much of it starts from a good place but falls apart the moment things get hectic. But this idea of Past You working in service of Future You isn’t a one-off. It’s not a massage you sneak in one Friday morning. The secret hope that 60 minutes of hot rocks will counteract 12 hours a day hunched over a laptop.”

Some good advice in here from the Nightingales, whose book is also worth a read.


👨‍💻 Praxis and the Indieweb — “If a movement has at its core a significant barrier to entry, then it is always exclusionary. While we’ve already seen that the movement has barriers at ability and personality, it is also true that, as of 2021, there is a significant barrier in terms of monetary resources.”

As I said a year ago in this microcast, I have issues with the IndieWeb and why I’m more of a fan of decentralisation through federation.


Quotation-as-title by Heraclitus. Image by Saad Chaudhry.

Taste ripens at the expense of happiness

Oranges growing on a tree

🧐 Habits, Data, and Things That Go Bump in the Night: Microsoft for Education ⁠— “Microsoft’s ubiquity, however, is sometimes mistaken for banality. Because it is everywhere, because we have all used it forever, we assume we can trust it.”

I haven’t voluntarily used something made by Microsoft (as opposed to acquired by it) for… about 20 years?


You Can Set Screen-Time Rules That Don’t Ruin Your Kids’ Lives — “Bear in mind that the limits you set need not be a specific number of minutes. Try to think of other, more natural ways of breaking up their activities. Maybe your kids play one game before tackling homework. Also, consider granting them one day per weekend with fewer restrictions on screen-time socializing. Giving them more autonomy over their weekends helps approximate the fun and flexibility of their pre-COVID world, and lets them unwind and hang out more with their friends.”

This has been really hard to managed as a parent, and it’s easy to think that you’re always doing it wrong.


💬 Why do we keep on telling others what to do? — “Usually starting a conversation out with telling people what you feel they are doing wrong is going to make it a negative conversation all in all, and I tend to believe that it’s better to follow “the campfire rule”, try to make all people taking part in a conversation end up a bit better off than what they were when they started the conversation, and telling people what to do or what not to are going straight against this.”

Post-therapy, I’m much better at focusing on changing myself than trying to change others. I’d recommend therapy, but that might be construed as an implicit instruction…


🙌 Twitter Considers Subscription Fee for Tweetdeck, Unique Content — “To explore potential options outside ad sales, a number of Twitter teams are researching subscription offerings, including one using the code name “Rogue One,” according to people familiar with the effort. At least one idea being considered is related to “tipping,” or the ability for users to pay the people they follow for exclusive content, said the people, who asked not to be named because the discussions are internal. Other possible ways to generate recurring revenue include charging for the use of services like Tweetdeck or advanced user features like “undo send” or profile-customization options.”

This is fantastic news. It would destroy Twitter as it currently stands, but that’s fine as it’s much worse than it was a decade ago.


🔒 Do lockdowns work? — “It’s absurd thinking, but the sceptics have finally found an argument that cannot be categorically disproved. Lockdowns have a scientific rational: you can’t transmit a virus to people you don’t meet. Contrary to what Toby says in his article, they also have historic precedents: during the Spanish Flu, cities such as Philadelphia closed shops, churches, schools, bars and restaurants by law (they also made face masks mandatory). And now we have numerous natural experiments from around the world showing that infection rates fall when lockdowns are introduced.”

There will always be idiots who try and use their influence and eloquence to ensure they’re heard. Thankfully, there are people like this who can dismantle their arguments brick-by-brick.


Quotation-as-title by Jules Renard. Image. by Elena Mozhvilo.

Continuous eloquence is tedious

Corner of a high-rise building

🏭 Ukraine plans huge cryptocurrency mining data centers next to nuclear power plants — “Ukraine’s Energoatom followed up [the May 2020] deal with another partnership in October. The state enterprise announced an MoU with Dutch mining company Bitfury to operate multiple data centers near its four nuclear power plants, with a total mining consumption of 2GW.”

It’s already impossible to buy graphics cards, due to their GPUs being perfect for crypto mining. That fact doesn’t seem like it’s going to be resolved anytime soon.


😔 The unbearable banality of Jeff Bezos — “To put it in Freudian terms, we are talking about the triumph of the consumerist id over the ethical superego. Bezos is a kind of managerial Mephistopheles for our time, who will guarantee you a life of worldly customer ecstasy as long as you avert your eyes from the iniquities being carried out in your name.”

I’ve started buying less stuff from Amazon; even just removing the app from my phone has made them treat me as just another online shop. I also switched a few years ago from a Kindle to a ePub-based e-reader.


📱 The great unbundling — “Covid brought shock and a lot of broken habits to tech, but mostly, it accelerates everything that was already changing. 20 trillion dollars of retail, brands, TV and advertising is being overturned, and software is remaking everything from cars to pharma. Meanwhile, China has more smartphone users than Europe and the USA combined, and India is close behind – technology and innovation will be much more widely spread. For that and lots of other reasons, tech is becoming a regulated industry, but if we step over the slogans, what does that actually mean? Tech is entering its second 50 years.”

This is a really interesting presentation (and slide deck). It’s been interesting watching Evans build this iteratively over the last few weeks, as he’s been sharing his progress on Twitter.


🗯️ The Coup We Are Not Talking About — “In an information civilization, societies are defined by questions of knowledge — how it is distributed, the authority that governs its distribution and the power that protects that authority. Who knows? Who decides who knows? Who decides who decides who knows? Surveillance capitalists now hold the answers to each question, though we never elected them to govern. This is the essence of the epistemic coup. They claim the authority to decide who knows by asserting ownership rights over our personal information and defend that authority with the power to control critical information systems and infrastructures.”

Zuboff is an interesting character, and her book on surveillance capitalism is a classic. This might article be a little overblown, but it’s still an important subject for discussion.


☀️ Who Built the Egyptian Pyramids? Not Slaves — “So why do so many people think the Egyptian pyramids were built by slaves? The Greek historian Herodotus seems to have been the first to suggest that was the case. Herodotus has sometimes been called the “father of history.” Other times he’s been dubbed the “father of lies.” He claimed to have toured Egypt and wrote that the pyramids were built by slaves. But Herodotus actually lived thousands of years after the fact.”

It’s always good to challenge our assumptions, and, perhaps more importantly, analyse why we came to hold them in the first place.


Quotation-as-title by Blaise Pascal. Image by Victor Forgacs.

When we ask for advice we are usually looking for an accomplice

Changing the Letter, 1908, by Joseph Edward Southall. The subject is taken from the poem 'The Man Born to be King' from William Morris's 'The Earthly Paradise'. The sealed letter is addressed 'To The Governor'

🏡 What can we learn from the great working-from-home experiment? — “A few knowledge jobs, such as IT support, are properly systematised to allow focused work without endless ad hoc emails. [Cal] Newport believes that others will follow once we all wise up. Or we may find that certain kinds of knowledge work are too unruly to systematise. Improvisation will remain the only mode of working — and, for that, face-to-face contact seems essential.”

I disagree with this, having spent almost a decade doing creative, improvisational work, mostly from my home office.


They left Mozilla to make the internet better. Now they’re spreading its gospel for a new generation. — “Plenty of older tech companies spawned networks of industry leaders. Mozilla has, too, only it’s a different kind of group: a collection of values-driven engineers, marketers, program managers and founders. Most of them share a common story: Looking for a sense of purpose in tech, they took a financial hit for the chance to become part of the company’s cult-like obsession with openness and privacy. Though the company had its flaws, they left feeling deep loyalty to the mission, and a sense of betrayal from those who went on to work for the tech giants Mozilla has been battling. “

Some companies act as a filter for a certain type of person. Mozilla is like that, and while I was there I worked with some of the most ethical and awesome people I’ve ever come across.


🤪 Why It’s Usually Crazier Than You Expect — “The idea that people like (or hate) what other people like (or hate) is important, because it lets small ideas grow bigger than you’d guess if you assume everything is ranked by quality alone. Social momentum is hard to model on a spreadsheet, so it’s hard to predict or think about in terms that seem rational. But it’s so powerful.”

The standard economic model is that people act in their individual and group self-interest. But humans are much more complicated than that.


🎓 Academics Are Really, Really Worried About Their Freedom — “Some will process this as a kind of whining, supposing that all we should really be concerned about is whether people are outright dismissed. However, elsewhere a hostile work environment is considered a breach of civil rights, and as one correspondent wrote, “It isn’t just fear of firing that motivates professors and grad students to be quiet. It is a desire to have friends, to be part of a community. This is a fundamental part of human psychology. Indeed, experiments examining the effects of ostracism highlight what a powerful existential threat it is to be ignored, excluded, or rejected. This has been documented at the neurological level. Ostracism is a form of social death. It is a very potent threat.”

Given how conservative humanity has been for the past tens of thousands of years, and given how radical we need to be to fix the world, I don’t have lots of sympathy with this view. Especially when tenured professors have the kind of job security most people can only dream of.


👩‍💻 Where we are with digital learning adoption — “We should have less big bang summative exams sat in big rooms with invigilators, there are plenty of alternatives. Online assessment systems can at least allow for typing, which is more authentic, and why not also speaking, and drawing? And in the scenarios where an unseen timed assessment is the only option and it has to be online: sometimes proctoring might be useful. It shouldn’t be the default. But it might have a place, sometimes.”

I’m sharing this to +1,000,000 Amber’s suggestion that, for assessment purposes, speaking and drawing should be as authentic as typing and writing.


Quotation-as-title by Marquis de la Grange. Image: Changing the Letter, 1908, by Joseph Edward Southall