The rich are scared we're going to eat them

    I’m reading Roots at the moment, the novel by Alex Haley about an African man captured and sold into slavery. I’m at the point of the story where his daughter’s ‘massa’ gets spooked about a slave uprising.

    It’s difficult not to draw parallels when reading about an apparent trend towards billionaires building luxury ‘bunkers’ with supplies and blast-proof doors. They would do well to worry, given the amount of inequality in the world.

    A multi-level, circular billionaire's retreat that resembles a stage set, with a central living space featuring a couch with yellow and blue pillows. Surrounding the living area are various high-tech stations and secure vaults, along with a self-contained ecosystem on the upper level. The space is adorned in light and dark grays, with red and blue accents, suggesting a luxurious yet fortified sanctuary.
    One prevalent speculation that has circulated suggests that these billionaires might possess knowledge beyond the scope of the average person. The idea is that their vast resources are being channeled into constructing secure retreats as a form of preparation for potential global upheavals or crises. This speculation plays into the notion that these elite individuals may be privy to information that the general public is not, prompting them to take unprecedented measures to safeguard their well-being. Moreover, some fear that the escalating global tensions and geopolitical uncertainties may be driving these billionaires to prepare for worst-case scenarios, including the prospect of war.
    Source: Zuckerberg's Bunker Plans Fuel Speculation on Billionaires Building Bunkers | Decode Today

    Image: DALL-E 3

    Monetising a hobby is different to solving a difficult problem for people ready to pay

    Life is never as simple as a 2x2 matrix, but they’re incredibly useful for helping illustrate a key message. In this post, Seth Godin uses one to make the obvious-if-you-think-about-it point that trying to monetise a hobby is a different thing to solving a difficult problem for a group of people who are willing to pay for a solution.

    I’ve been thinking about this kind of thing a lot recently given the ongoing need for WAO business development. The advice, which I’m sure is extremely sound, is to find a group of people or type of organisation that you “wish to serve” and then find out as much about them as possible so you can solve their problem.

    The trouble is that… doesn’t sound very interesting? Perhaps I’m wrong, and I reserve the right (as ever!) to change my mind, but I’d rather follow my interests and try and find aligned people and organisations willing to pay for the outputs.

    All too common are ‘fun’ businesses where someone finds a hobby they like and tries to turn it into a gig. While the work may be fun, the uphill grind of this sort of project is exhausting. If it’s something that lots of people can do and that customers don’t value that much, it might not be worth your time. Taking pictures, singing songs or playing the flute are fine hobbies, but hard to turn into paying jobs.

    On the other hand, in the top right quadrant, there’s endless opportunity and plenty of work for people who can do difficult (unpopular) work that is highly valued by customers who are ready to pay to solve their problems. A forensic accountant gets more paid gigs than a bagpipe player.

    Source: The slog, the hobby and the quest | Seth’s Blog

    Billionaires shouldn't exist, even if they're philanthropists

    I’m sure Charles Feeney was a great guy, and it certainly sounds like he gave the money he amassed to very good causes (and anonymously too!)

    The thing to remember when reading these stories, though, is that billionaires shouldn’t exist. They make their money off the back of workers and tax loopholes. I’d challenge anyone who says otherwise to send proof.

    As I’ve said many times before, if a regular person wakes up with what they think is a ‘good idea’ but is actually misguided and dangerous, then nothing much is likely to come of it. But a billionaire, by dint of their huge unearned wealth can make it happen. And recently, we’ve had an object lesson in how that can go wrong… (cough Musk cough)

    Feeney was a proponent of “Giving While Living,” believing he could make more of a difference in causes he cared about while he was alive, rather than setting up a foundation after he died, according to the Atlantic Philanthropies.

    “It’s much more fun to give while you are alive than to give when you are dead,” Feeney said in a biography about him, “The Billionaire Who Wasn’t.”

    Feeney set up the Atlantic Philanthropies in 1982, transferring all of his business assets to it two years later, according to the foundation. In 2020, the foundation closed its doors after it said it had successfully given away all of its funds.

    In total, the Atlantic Philanthropies made grants totaling $8 billion across five continents — much of it anonymously, the foundation said. Donations supported education, health care, human rights and more. Feeney’s foundation donated to infrastructure in Vietnam, universities in Ireland and medical centers devoted to finding cures for cancer and cardiovascular disease, according to the foundation’s website.

    Feeney chose to live the last three decades of his life frugally, his foundation said: He did not own a car or home, preferring to live in a rented apartment in San Francisco, according to the foundation.

    Source: Charles Feeney, retail entrepreneur who gave $8 billion to charity, dies at 92 | CNN Business

    Songs are not meme stocks

    Remember NFTs? This article in The Guardian will help remind you of the heady days of early 2022 when digital images of monkeys were apparently extremely valuable. That article ends with a question: “what will the next NFT be? When will it drop? How much money will normal people end up spending on it?”

    Here’s one answer: owning a slice of your favourite song. Or perhaps a popular song. Or an up-and-coming song. It’s essentially applying capitalism at the very smallest level possible, and treating cultural artifacts as commodities.

    The article below in WIRED discusses a platform which offers this as a service. It’s a terrible idea on many levels, not least because, as we’ve seen recently, AI-generated music is tearing fandoms apart. I’ll sit this one out, thanks.

    Imagine a retirement portfolio stocked with Rihanna hits, or a college fund fueled by Taylor Swift’s 1989. In a post-GameStop, post-NFT-mania world, it sounds plausible enough. Wholesome, even.

    A new music royalties marketplace, Jkbx (pronounced “jukebox”), launched this month and plans to officially open for trading later this year. It has filed an application with the US Securities and Exchange Commission and is waiting for notice that the SEC has qualified its offerings. As long as that goes according to plan, Jkbx—god, why no vowels?—will allow fans to buy “royalty shares,” or fractionalized portions of royalties, fees, and other income associated with a particular song. Prices are within reach of regular people. One share of composition royalties for Beyoncé’s “Halo,” for example, is $28.61. You could also buy a slice of the song’s sound recording royalties for the same price.


    Jkbx is debuting with some big-name slices, and is led by a guy with a good track record. “They are very sophisticated,” Round Hill Music founder and CEO Josh Gruss says. “The real deal.” Others agree. “We think they are going to be successful,” Hipgnosis Songs CEO and founder Merck Mercuriadis says.

    Still, plenty of industry analysts and insiders view Jkbx, and the larger world of royalty trading, warily. “I think there are going to be very modest levels of return,” says Serona Elton, a music industry professor at the University of Miami.

    “There is skepticism about how good of an alternative investment strategy something like this is,” musician and data analyst Chris Dalla Riva says.

    “I don’t understand why people keep trying to spin this idea up,” adds producer and music tech researcher Yung Spielburg. “I just don’t get it.”

    Source: The Next Meme Stock? Owning a Slice of Your Favorite Song | WIRED

    Eating the rich is optional, taxing them is mandatory

    The article in Insider discusses the findings of the 2022 World Inequality Report, which highlights extreme levels of wealth and income inequality globally. The report was coordinated by leading economists and debunks the trickle-down economic theory.

    They found that the bottom half of the global population owns just 2% of total wealth, while the top 10% holds 76%. It also notes that billionaires now hold a 3% share of global wealth, up from 1% in 1995. As everyone knows, inequality is a result of political choices and the only way to fix it is through progressive wealth taxes and perhaps even reparations.

    The data serves as a complete rebuke of the trickle-down economic theory, which posits that cutting taxes on the rich will "trickle down" to those below, with the cuts eventually benefiting everyone. In America, trickle-down was exemplified by President Ronald Reagan's tax slashes. It's a theory that persists today, even though most research has shown that 50 years of tax cuts benefits the wealthy and worsens inequality.

    The researchers are some of the leading minds on inequality in the entire field of economics. Chancel is the co-director of the World Inequality Lab, while Saez and Zucman have literally written a book on the rich dodging taxes and helped create wealth tax proposals for senators like Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders.


    Billionaire gains are a well-documented trend: The left-leaning Institute for Policy Studies and Americans for Tax Fairness found that Americans added $2.1 trillion to their wealth during the pandemic, a 70% increase.

    Source: Huge 20-Year Study Shows Trickle-Down Is a Myth, Inequality Rampant | Insider

    Image: Mathieu Stern

    Poverty is expensive. Cash helps homeless people.

    Real-world studies such as this are important for busting myths about homeless people spending money recklessly compared to the rest of us.

    The widely held stereotype that people experiencing homelessness would be more likely to spend extra cash on drugs, alcohol and “temptation goods” has been upended by a study that found a majority used a $7,500 payment mostly on rent, food, housing, transit and clothes.

    The biases punctured by the study highlight the difficulties in developing policies to reduce homelessness, say the Canadian researchers behind it. They said the unconditional cash appeared to reduce homelessness, giving added weight to calls for a guaranteed basic income that would help adults cover essential living expenses.


    They found the cash recipients each spent an average of 99 fewer days homeless than the control group, increased their savings more and also “cost” society less by spending less time in shelters.


    Researchers ensured the cash was in a lump sum “to enable maximum purchasing freedom and choice” as opposed to small, consistent transfers.

    Source: Canada study debunks stereotypes of homeless people’s spending habits | The Guardian

    Woke, broke, and complicated

    I thought the comments about how young people’s desire for instant gratification was nothing particularly new. However, it is worth thinking about the desire for more ‘green’ options being coupled with the desire to get everything instantly. The two are somewhat in tension.

    Uncertainty about the future may be encouraging impulsive spending of limited resources in the present. The young were disrupted more by covid than other generations and are now enjoying the rebound. According to McKinsey, American millennials (born between 1980 and the late 1990s) spent 17% more in the year to March 2022 than they did in the year before. Despite this short-term recovery from the dark days of the pandemic, their long-term prospects are much less good.


    Youngsters’ appetite for instant gratification is also fuelling some distinctly ungreen consumer habits. The young have virtually invented quick commerce, observes Isabelle Allen of kpmg. And that convenience is affordable because it fails to price in all its externalities. The environmental benefits of eating plants rather than meat can be quickly undone if meals are delivered in small batches by a courier on a petrol-powered motorbike. Shein, a Chinese clothes retailer that is the fastest in fast fashion, tops surveys as a Gen Z favourite in the West, despite being criticised for waste; its fashionable garments are cheap enough to throw on once and then throw away. Like everyone else the young are, then, contradictory—because, like everyone else, they are only human.

    Source: How the young spend their money | The Economist

    The corrosive nature of captalism

    I used to think there was no chance of the current system of capital-based society ending within my lifetime.

    But now? I’m not so sure. I see influential writers I respect like Seth Godin and (in this case) Warren Ellis talk openly about the harms of capitalism.

    And given the crypto collapse following the pandemic perhaps people are slowly coming to realise there’s more to life than money…


    From a certain perspective, capitalism is the environment into which we are born, and conditions within it are corrosive: we either adapt to those conditions in order to survive — people will always have to be taught how to tend the machines, and it has been said, after all, that humans are the reproductive organs of machines — or build a sturdy environment suit, or we are seriously harmed. Which casts many of us as good little prisoners or effective wasteland scavengers.
    Source: A Suit Of Capitalism | WARREN ELLIS LTD

    Image: Jorge Salvador

    Crypto clowns

    If you’re at the top of the Ponzi scheme pyramid, you have a vested interest in keeping it going…

    Not coincidentally, the companies doing the least reflecting are the ones with their hands deepest in the cookie jar. Part of what spurred on the current crash was a cryptocurrency called TerraUSD, a type of so-called stablecoin designed to more or less equal the value of the U.S. dollar. The whole point of stablecoins is that they’re supposed to be less volatile than other cryptocurrencies, a way of protecting your money while still keeping your chips in the casino. That was the idea, at least: TerraUSD was tied to another cryptocurrency called Luna, and when its value plummeted in early May, investors promptly dumped their TerraUSD. Tokens meant to sell for $1 a pop were suddenly trading for almost nothing, and, according to Bloomberg, $60 billion of investors’ money was zapped away.


    As the wider crypto market has tanked in the weeks since the Terra collapse, other flailing companies have been similarly unwilling to publicly reflect on the damage. The crypto lender Celsius Network made it big by promising yields much higher than those of traditional bank accounts. That approach generated gobs of money when crypto was booming, but apparently it hasn’t fared so well during the downturn. As rumors began to circulate about Celsius’s financial issues, the company’s founder, Alex Mashinsky, dismissed it all as “FUD,” crypto shorthand for “fear, uncertainty, and doubt.” “Do you know even one person who has a problem withdrawing from Celsius?” he tweeted. Just over 24 hours later, the company put a freeze on all withdrawals, locking customers out of their accounts. (The freeze remains in place almost two weeks later.)


    Throughout the industry, there’s a sense from the biggest players in crypto that if we all just keep the faith, traders can effectively spend their way out of the crisis. Cameron Winklevoss, the billionaire co-founder of the crypto exchange Gemini, recently tweeted that the bitcoin dip feels “irrational,” because “the underlying fundamentals, adoption, and infrastructure have never been stronger.” It’s not a question of fundamentals, though; asking people to look more closely at the tech will not somehow end the bear market. A few days ago, Michael Saylor, whose software company, MicroStrategy, has spent billions of dollars acquiring bitcoin, called the cryptocurrency “a lifeboat, tossed on a stormy sea, offering hope to anyone in the world that needs to get off their sinking ship.” But right now, bitcoin is the sinking ship.

    Source: Crypto Is Crashing. Have the Crypto Bosses Learned Anything At All? | The Atlantic

    Billable hours and the psychology of work

    I have to say that tracking my time is the worst thing about consulting rather than being employed. I don’t feel the urge to work at all hours of the day, but I resent ‘accounting’ financially for my time.

    It is tempting to offer some typology of different professions and their attitudes to time. Yet I suspect the types are beginning to blur. In 1992, the economist Peter Sassone coined the phrase “the law of diminishing specialisation”. Thirty years later, it is astonishing how much knowledge work is handled using the same tools and workflow — a workflow that increasingly involves no fixed hours and no fixed location. We are all, like the lawyers, able to do a little bit of extra work before bedtime, even if not all of us can charge £1,000 an hour for it.

    And while the “billable hour” can be a psychological trap, it does teach us one valuable lesson: there is a distinction between working and not working. It’s a distinction worth sustaining.

    Source: The billable hour is a trap into which more and more of us are falling | Tim Harford

    Paying for everything twice

    As someone who’s recently started using a budgeting app, and who has a lot of music-making equipment lying around unused, I concur.

    One financial lesson they should teach in school is that most of the things we buy have to be paid for twice.

    There’s the first price, usually paid in dollars, just to gain possession of the desired thing, whatever it is: a book, a budgeting app, a unicycle, a bundle of kale.

    But then, in order to make use of the thing, you must also pay a second price. This is the effort and initiative required to gain its benefits, and it can be much higher than the first price.

    A new novel, for example, might require twenty dollars for its first price—and ten hours of dedicated reading time for its second. Only once the second price is being paid do you see any return on the first one. Paying only the first price is about the same as throwing money in the garbage.

    Likewise, after buying the budgeting app, you have to set it all up, and learn to use it habitually before it actually improves your financial life. With the unicycle, you have to endure the presumably painful beginner phase before you can cruise down the street. The kale must be de-veined, chopped, steamed, and chewed before it gives you any nourishment.

    If you look around your home, you might notice many possessions for which you’ve paid the first price but not the second. Unused memberships, unread books, unplayed games, unknitted yarns.

    Source: Everything Must Be Paid for Twice | Raptitude

    Pix and digital payments in Brazil

    I came across this story via Benedict Evans' newsletter (it’s not the kind of thing I’d usually track). What I find interesting is this is a hugely successful rollout of a digital payments system done by a central bank. It’s helping real people, including those in poverty.

    Meanwhile, crypto tokens are held by crypto bros and middle-class white guys like myself trying to make a quick buck. Just goes to show that innovation doesn’t always come from where you expect.


    Pix, rolled out by the Banco Central do Brasil in Nov. 2020, was built for efficiency and financial inclusion. It now has 107.5 million registered accounts, more than half of the country’s population. One year after implementation, more than half a trillion Brazilian reais were transacted through the low-cost payments system last month. According to central bank data, Pix payments volume is already equivalent to 80% of debit and credit card transactions.


    “Except for very particular transactions, market penetration tends to 99% on all individual transfers,” [Julian Colombo, CEO of banking technology firm N5] added. However, the rollout has not been without hiccups, including kidnapping.


    On a recent Sunday in Rio de Janeiro, a three-member samba band played for a crowded restaurant. At the end, they passed around the tambourine to collect money. One diner apologized, saying he did not have any cash on him. The drummer said, “No problem, I take Pix,” and proceeded to share his code — which can be an email, phone number or other easy-to-remember code — with the diner, who promptly transferred the money his way.

    Source: Pix breaks ground in Brazil, shakes up payments market | S&P Global Market Intelligence

    Middle class pursuit of pain through endurance sports is a thing

    Oh this is fascinating. Get to your forties and everyone seems to be interested in marathons, triathlons, and putting on lycra to go and cycle somewhere.

    This article explains that this is a function not only of access to the required time and money, but is a deep-seated need for those who are doing well out of the capitalist system.

    Participating in endurance sports requires two main things: lots of time and money. Time because training, traveling, racing, recovery, and the inevitable hours one spends tinkering with gear accumulate—training just one hour per day, for example, adds up to more than two full weeks over the course of a year. And money because, well, our sports are not cheap: According to the New York Times, the total cost of running a marathon—arguably the least gear-intensive and costly of all endurance sports—can easily be north of $1,600.


    There are a handful of obvious reasons the vast majority of endurance athletes are employed, educated, and financially secure. As stated, the ability to train and compete demands that one has time, money, access to facilities, and a safe space to practice, says William Bridel, a professor at the University of Calgary who studies the sociocultural aspects of sport. “The cost of equipment, race entry fees, and travel to events works to exclude lower socioeconomic status individuals,” he says, adding that those in a higher socioeconomic bracket tend to have nine-to-five jobs that provide some freedom to, for example, train before or after work or even at at lunch. “Almost all of the non-elite Ironman athletes who I’ve interviewed for my research had what would be considered white-collar jobs and commented on the flexibility this provided,” says Bridel.


    Even so, there are myriad ways for relatively comfortable middle-to-upper-class individuals to spend their time and money. What is it about the voluntary suffering of endurance sports that attracts them?

    This is a question sociologists are just beginning to unpack. One hypothesis is that endurance sports offer something that most modern-day knowledge economy jobs do not: the chance to pursue a clear and measurable goal with a direct line back to the work they have put in. In his book Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work, philosopher Matthew Crawford writes that “despite the proliferation of contrived metrics,” most knowledge economy jobs suffer from “a lack of objective standards.”


    Another reason white-collar workers are flocking to endurance sports has to do with the sheer physicality involved. For a study published in the Journal of Consumer Research this past February, a group of international researchers set out to understand why people with desk jobs are attracted to grueling athletic events. They interviewed 26 Tough Mudder participants and read online forums dedicated to obstacle course racing. What emerged was a resounding theme: the pursuit of pain.

    “By flooding the consciousness with gnawing unpleasantness, pain provides a temporary relief from the burdens of self-awareness,” write the researchers. “When leaving marks and wounds, pain helps consumers create the story of a fulfilled life. In a context of decreased physicality, [obstacle course races] play a major role in selling pain to the saturated selves of knowledge workers, who use pain as a way to simultaneously escape reflexivity and craft their life narrative.” The pursuit of pain has become so common among well-to-do endurance athletes that scientific articles have been written about what researchers are calling “white-collar rhabdomyolysis,” referring to a condition in which extreme exercise causes kidney damage.

    Source: Why Do Rich People Love Endurance Sports? - Outside Online

    Time millionaires

    Same idea, new name: there’s nothing new about the idea of prioritising the amount of time and agency you have over the amount of money you make.

    It’s just that, after the pandemic, more people have realised that chasing money is a fool’s errand. So, whatever you call it, putting your own wellbeing before the treadmill of work and career is always a smart move.

    First named by the writer Nilanjana Roy in a 2016 column in the Financial Times, time millionaires measure their worth not in terms of financial capital, but according to the seconds, minutes and hours they claw back from employment for leisure and recreation. “Wealth can bring comfort and security in its wake,” says Roy. “But I wish we were taught to place as high a value on our time as we do on our bank accounts – because how you spend your hours and your days is how you spend your life.”

    And the pandemic has created a new cohort of time millionaires. The UK and the US are currently in the grip of a workforce crisis. One recent survey found that more than 56% of unemployed people were not actively looking for a new job. Data from the Office for National Statistics shows that many people are not returning to their pre-pandemic jobs, or if they are, they are requesting to work from home, clawing back all those hours previously lost to commuting.

    Source: Time millionaires: meet the people pursuing the pleasure of leisure | The Guardian

    On the dangers of CBDCs

    I can’t remember the last time I used cash. Or rather, I can (for my son’s haircut) because it was so unusual; it’s been about 18 months since my default wasn’t paying via the Google Pay app on my smartphone.

    As a result, and because I also have played around with buying, selling, and holding cryptocurrencies, that a Central Bank Digital Currency (CBDC) would be a benign thing. Sadly, as Edward Snowden explains, they really are not. His latest article is well worth a read in its entirety.

    Rather, I will tell you what a CBDC is NOT—it is NOT, as Wikipedia might tell you, a digital dollar. After all, most dollars are already digital, existing not as something folded in your wallet, but as an entry in a bank’s database, faithfully requested and rendered beneath the glass of your phone.

    Neither is a Central Bank Digital Currency a State-level embrace of cryptocurrency—at least not of cryptocurrency as pretty much everyone in the world who uses it currently understands it.

    Instead, a CBDC is something closer to being a perversion of cryptocurrencyor at least of the founding principles and protocols of cryptocurrency—a cryptofascist currency, an evil twin entered into the ledgers on Opposite Day, expressly designed to deny its users the basic ownership of their money and to install the State at the mediating center of every transaction.

    Source: Your Money and Your Life - by Edward Snowden - Continuing Ed — with Edward Snowden

    Leslie Caron on Cary Grant's attitude to money

    I read most things online, but I came across this one via my print subscription to Guardian Weekly (which I recommend highly). Leslie Caron, who danced and acted with a host of big names, highlights Cary Grant’s attitude towards money.

    I’ve always found Cary Grant fascinating, and in fact my online avatar used to be a photo of him. It seems, as Leslie Caron points out, that one’s mindset can be out of step with reality — which is a lesson to us all.

    Who was her most talented leading man? “Cary Grant,” she answers immediately. In 1964, she starred with Grant in the romcom Father Goose; Grant was 27 years her senior. “Cary was a complicated brain,” she says, pointing to her head. “He was a remarkable performer. He was very instinctive, seductive, intelligent. But when he got mad he would get into a terrible state. He worried about money.” Surely he had plenty of it? Yes, she says, but when you grow up poor you always think like a poor person. “I remember Charlie Chaplin saying to me: ‘If I were rich …’” When Chaplin died in 1977, he left more than $100m to his fourth wife, Oona.
    Source: ‘I am very shy. It’s amazing I became a movie star’: Leslie Caron at 90 on love, art and addiction | The Guardian

    'Prepper' philosophy

    This morning, I came across a long web page from 2016, presumably created as a reaction to everything that went down that year (little did we know!)

    Ostensibly, it's about preparing for scenarios in life that are relatively likely. It's pretty epic. While I've converted it to PDF and printed all 68 pages out to read in more detail, there were some parts that jumped out at me, which I'll share here.

    [T]he purpose of this guide is to combat the mindset of learned helplessness by promoting simple, level-headed, personal preparedness techniques that are easy to implement, don't cost much, and will probably help you cope with whatever life throws your way.

    lcamtuf, Doomsday Prepping For Less Crazy Folk

    Growing up, my mother was the kind of woman who always had extra tins in the cupboards 'just in case'. Recently, my wife has taken this to the next level, with documents containing details on our stash including best before dates, etc.

    Effective preparedness can be simple, but it has to be rooted in an honest and systematic review of the risks you are likely to face. Plenty of excited newcomers begin by shopping for ballistic vests and night vision goggles; they would be better served by grabbing a fire extinguisher, some bottled water, and then putting the rest of their money in a rainy-day fund.


    I see this document, which goes into money, self-defence, hygiene, and even relationships as neighbours as more of a philosophy of life.

    Rational prepping is meant to give you confidence to go about your business, knowing that you are well-equipped to weather out adversities. But it should not be about convincing yourself that the collapse is just around the corner, and letting that thought consume and disrupt your life.

    Stay positive: the world is probably not ending, and there is a good chance that it will be an even better place for our children than it is for us. But the universe is a harsh mistress, and there is only so much faith we should be putting in good fortune, in benevolent governments, or in the wonders of modern technology. So, always have a backup plan.


    Recommended reading 👍

    (also check out the author's hyperinflation gallery)

    At times, our strengths propel us so far forward we can no longer endure our weaknesses and perish from them

    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.

    [A]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.

    The crisis in professional sport is one of its own making

    I couldn't agree more with this analysis from Barney Ronay, one of my favourite sports writers:

    Professional sport is facing a crisis of unprecedented urgency. It must be prepared to face it largely alone.

    At which point it is worth being clear on exactly what is at stake. This is a moment of peril that should raise questions far beyond simply survival or sustaining the status quo. Questions such as: what is sport actually for? And more to the point, what do we want it to look like when this is all over?

    It helps to define the terms of all this jeopardy. There has been a lot of emotive rhetoric about sport being on the verge of extinction, its very existence in doubt, as though the basic ability to participate, support and spectate could be vaporised out from beneath us.

    This is incorrect. What is being menaced is the current financial management of professional sport, its existing models and cultural practices, much of which is pretty joyless and dysfunctional in the first place.

    Barney Ronay, Never waste a crisis: Covid-19 trauma can force sport to change for good (The Guardian)

    Was sport less enjoyable before loads of money was thrown at it? As Ronay points out, Gareth Bale earning £600,000 per week "could keep every club in League Two in business by paying their combined wage bill out of his annual salary".

    I'm not sure the current model is sustainable, so if the pandemic forces a rethink, I'm all for it.

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