Tag: Aeon

Friday flickerings

I’ve tried to include some links here to other things here, but just like all roads read to Rome, all links eventually point to the pandemic.

I hope you and people that you care about are well. Stay safe, stay indoors, and let me know which of the following resonate with you!


Supermensch

Our stories about where inventiveness comes from, and how the future will be made, overwhelmingly focus on the power of the individual. Such stories appeal to the desire for human perfection (and redemption?) recast in technological language, and they were integral to the way that late-19th-century inventor-entrepreneurs, such as Tesla or Thomas Edison, presented themselves to their publics. They’re still very much part of the narrative of technological entrepreneurism now. Just as Tesla wanted to be seen as a kind of superhero of invention, unbound by conventional restraints, so too do his contemporary admirers at the cutting edge of the tech world. Superheroes resonate within that culture precisely because they embody in themselves the perception of technology as something that belongs to powerful and iconoclastic individuals. They epitomise the idea that technological culture is driven by outsiders. The character of Iron Man makes this very clear: after all, he really is a tech entrepreneur, his superpowers the product of the enhanced body armour he wears.

Iwan Rhys Morus (Aeon)

A really interesting read about the link between individualism, superheroes, technology, and innovation.


The Second Golden Age of Blogging

Blogging was then diffused into social media, but now social media is so tribal and algo-regulated that anybody with a real message today needs their own property. At the same time, professional institutions are increasingly suffocated by older, rent-seeking incumbents and politically-correct upstarts using moralism as a career strategy. In such a context, blogging — if it is intelligent, courageous, and consistent — is currently one of the most reliable methods for intellectually sophisticated individuals to accrue social and cultural capital outside of institutions. (Youtube for the videographic, Instagram for the photographic, podcasting for the loquacious, but writing and therefore blogging for the most intellectually sophisticated.)

Justin Murphy (Other LIfe)

I’ve been blogging since around 2004, so for sixteen years, and through all of my career to date. It’s the best and most enjoyable thing about ‘work’.


NASA Fixes Mars Lander By Telling It to Hit Itself With a Shovel

NASA expected its probe, dubbed “the mole,” to dig its way through sand-like terrain. But because the Martian soil clumped together, the whole apparatus got stuck in place.

Programming InSight’s robotic arm to land down on the mole was a risky, last-resort maneuver, PopSci reports, because it risked damaging fragile power and communication lines that attached nearby. Thankfully, engineers spent a few months practicing in simulations before they made a real attempt.

Dan Robitzski (Futurism)

The idea of NASA engineers sending a signal to a distant probe to get it to hit itself, in the midst of a crisis on earth, made me chuckle this week.


Act as if You’re Really There

Don’t turn your office into a generic TV backdrop. Video is boring enough. The more you remove from the frame, the less visual data you are providing about who you are, where you live, how you work, and what you care about. If you were watching a remote interview with, say, Bong Joon-ho (the South Korean director of Parasite) would you want him sitting on a blank set with a ficus plant? Of course not. You would want to see him in his real office or studio. What are the posters on his wall? The books on his shelf? Who are his influences?

Douglas Rushkoff (OneZero)

Useful advice in this post from Douglas Rushkoff. I appreciate his reflection that, “every pixel is a chance to share information about your process and proclivities.”


People Are Looping Videos to Fake Paying Attention in Zoom Meetings

On Twitter, people are finding ways to use the Zoom Rooms custom background feature to slap an image of themselves in their frames. You can record a short, looping video as your background, or take a photo of yourself looking particularly attentive, depending on the level of believability you’re going for. Zoom says it isn’t using any kind of video or audio analysis to track attention, so this is mostly for your human coworkers and boss’ sake. With one of these images on your background, you’re free to leave your seat and go make a sandwich while your boss thinks you’re still there paying attention:

Samantha Cole (Vice)

As an amusing counterpoint to the above article, I find it funny that people are using video backgrounds in this way!


A Guide to Hosting Virtual Events with Zoom

There are lots of virtual event tools out there, like Google Hangouts, YouTube Live, Vimeo Live. For this guide I’ll delve into how to use Zoom specifically. However, a lot of the best practices explored here are broadly applicable to other tools. My goal is that reading this document will give you all the tools you need to be able to set up a meeting and host it on Zoom (or other platforms) in fun and interactive ways.

Alexa Kutler (Google Docs)

This is an incredible 28-page document that explains how to set up Zoom meetings for success. Highly recommended!


The rise of the bio-surveillance state

Elements of Asia’s bio-surveillance revolution may not be as far off as citizens of Western democracies assume. On 24 March an emergency bill, which would relax limits on urgent surveillance warrants, went before the House of Lords. In any case, Britain’s existing Investigatory Powers Act already allows the state to seize mobile data if national security justifies it. In another sign that a new era in data rights is dawning, the EU is reviewing its recent white paper on AI regulation and delaying a review of online privacy rules. Researchers in both Britain (Oxford) and the US (MIT) are developing virus-tracking apps inviting citizens to provide movement data voluntarily. How desperate would the search for “needles in haystacks” have to get for governments to make such submissions compulsory? Israel’s draconian new regulations – which allegedly include tapping phone cameras and microphones – show how far down this road even broadly Western democracies might go to save lives and economies.

Jeremy Cliffe (New Statesman)

We need urgent and immediate action around the current criss. But we also need safeguards and failsafes so that we don’t end up with post-pandemic authoritarian regimes.


The economy v our lives? It’s a false choice – and a deeply stupid one

Soon enough, as hospitals around the world overflow with coronavirus patients, exhausting doctors, nurses, orderlies, custodians, medical supplies, ventilators and hospital cash accounts, doctors will have to make moral choices about who lives or dies. We should not supersede their judgment based on a false choice. Economic depression will come, regardless of how many we let die. The question is how long and devastating it will be.

Siva Vaidhyanathan (The Guardian)

Not exactly a fun read, but the truth is the world’s economy is shafted no matter which way we look at it. And as I tweeted the other day, there’s no real thing that exists, objectively speaking called ‘the economy’ which is separate from human relationships.


How the Pandemic Will End

Pandemics can also catalyze social change. People, businesses, and institutions have been remarkably quick to adopt or call for practices that they might once have dragged their heels on, including working from home, conference-calling to accommodate people with disabilities, proper sick leave, and flexible child-care arrangements. “This is the first time in my lifetime that I’ve heard someone say, ‘Oh, if you’re sick, stay home,’” says Adia Benton, an anthropologist at Northwestern University. Perhaps the nation will learn that preparedness isn’t just about masks, vaccines, and tests, but also about fair labor policies and a stable and equal health-care system. Perhaps it will appreciate that health-care workers and public-health specialists compose America’s social immune system, and that this system has been suppressed.

Ed Yong (The Atlantic)

Much of this is a bit depressing, but I’ve picked up on the more positive bit towards the end. See also the article I wrote earlier this week: People seem not to see that their opinion of the world is also a confession of character


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Header image by Sincerely Media.

Friday filchings

I’m having to write this ahead of time due to travel commitments. Still, there’s the usual mixed bag of content in here, everything from digital credentials through to survival, with a bit of panpsychism thrown in for good measure.

Did any of these resonate with you? Let me know!


Competency Badges: the tail wagging the dog?

Recognition is from a certain point of view hyperlocal, and it is this hyperlocality that gives it its global value – not the other way around. The space of recognition is the community in which the competency is developed and activated. The recognition of a practitioner in a community is not reduced to those generally considered to belong to a “community of practice”, but to the intersection of multiple communities and practices, starting with the clients of these practices: the community of practice of chefs does not exist independently of the communities of their suppliers and clients. There is also a very strong link between individual recognition and that of the community to which the person is identified: shady notaries and politicians can bring discredit on an entire community.

Serge Ravet

As this roundup goes live I’ll be at Open Belgium, and I’m looking forward to catching up with Serge while I’m there! My take on the points that he’s making in this (long) post is actually what I’m talking about at the event: open initiatives need open organisations.


Universities do not exist ‘to produce students who are useful’, President says

Mr Higgins, who was opening a celebration of Trinity College Dublin’s College Historical Debating Society, said “universities are not there merely to produce students who are useful”.

“They are there to produce citizens who are respectful of the rights of others to participate and also to be able to participate fully, drawing on a wide range of scholarship,” he said on Monday night.

The President said there is a growing cohort of people who are alienated and “who feel they have lost their attachment to society and decision making”.

Jack Horgan-Jones (The Irish Times)

As a Philosophy graduate, I wholeheartedly agree with this, and also with his assessment of how people are obsessed with ‘markets’.


Perennial philosophy

Not everyone will accept this sort of inclusivism. Some will insist on a stark choice between Jesus or hell, the Quran or hell. In some ways, overcertain exclusivism is a much better marketing strategy than sympathetic inclusivism. But if just some of the world’s population opened their minds to the wisdom of other religions, without having to leave their own faith, the world would be a better, more peaceful place. Like Aldous Huxley, I still believe in the possibility of growing spiritual convergence between different religions and philosophies, even if right now the tide seems to be going the other way.

Jules Evans (Aeon)

This is an interesting article about the philosophy of Aldous Huxley, whose books have always fascinated me. For some reason, I hadn’t twigged that he was related to Thomas Henry Huxley (aka “Darwin’s bulldog”).


Photo by Scott Webb
Photo by Scott Webb

What the Death of iTunes Says About Our Digital Habits

So what really failed, maybe, wasn’t iTunes at all—it was the implicit promise of Gmail-style computing. The explosion of cloud storage and the invention of smartphones both arrived at roughly the same time, and they both subverted the idea that we should organize our computer. What they offered in its place was a vision of ease and readiness. What the idealized iPhone user and the idealized Gmail user shared was a perfect executive-functioning system: Every time they picked up their phone or opened their web browser, they knew exactly what they wanted to do, got it done with a calm single-mindedness, and then closed their device. This dream illuminated Inbox Zero and Kinfolk and minimalist writing apps. It didn’t work. What we got instead was Inbox Infinity and the algorithmic timeline. Each of us became a wanderer in a sea of content. Each of us adopted the tacit—but still shameful—assumption that we are just treading water, that the clock is always running, and that the work will never end.

Robinson Meyer (The Atlantic)

This is curiously-written (and well-written) piece, in the form of an ordered list, that takes you through the changes since iTunes launched. It’s hard to disagree with the author’s arguments.


Imagine a world without YouTube

But what if YouTube had failed? Would we have missed out on decades of cultural phenomena and innovative ideas? Would we have avoided a wave of dystopian propaganda and misinformation? Or would the internet have simply spiraled into new — yet strangely familiar — shapes, with their own joys and disasters?

Adi Robertson (The Verge)

I love this approach of imagining how the world would have been different had YouTube not been the massive success it’s been over the last 15 years. Food for thought.


Big Tech Is Testing You

It’s tempting to look for laws of people the way we look for the laws of gravity. But science is hard, people are complex, and generalizing can be problematic. Although experiments might be the ultimate truthtellers, they can also lead us astray in surprising ways.

Hannah Fry (The New Yorker)

A balanced look at the way that companies, especially those we classify as ‘Big Tech’ tend to experiment for the purposes of engagement and, ultimately, profit. Definitely worth a read.


Photo by David Buchi
Photo by David Buchi

Trust people, not companies

The trend to tap into is the changing nature of trust. One of the biggest social trends of our time is the loss of faith in institutions and previously trusted authorities. People no longer trust the Government to tell them the truth. Banks are less trusted than ever since the Financial Crisis. The mainstream media can no longer be trusted by many. Fake news. The anti-vac movement. At the same time, we have a generation of people who are looking to their peers for information.

Lawrence Lundy (Outlier Ventures)

This post is making the case for blockchain-based technologies. But the wider point is a better one, that we should trust people rather than companies.


The Forest Spirits of Today Are Computers

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from nature. Agriculture de-wilded the meadows and the forests, so that even a seemingly pristine landscape can be a heavily processed environment. Manufactured products have become thoroughly mixed in with natural structures. Now, our machines are becoming so lifelike we can’t tell the difference. Each stage of technological development adds layers of abstraction between us and the physical world. Few people experience nature red in tooth and claw, or would want to. So, although the world of basic physics may always remain mindless, we do not live in that world. We live in the world of those abstractions.

George Musser (Nautilus)

This article, about artificial ‘panpsychism’ is really challenging to the reader’s initial assumptions (well, mine at least) and really makes you think.


The man who refused to freeze to death

It would appear that our brains are much better at coping in the cold than dealing with being too hot. This is because our bodies’ survival strategies centre around keeping our vital organs running at the expense of less essential body parts. The most essential of all, of course, is our brain. By the time that Shatayeva and her fellow climbers were experiencing cognitive issues, they were probably already experiencing other organ failures elsewhere in their bodies.

William Park (BBC Future)

Not just one story in this article, but several with fascinating links and information.


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Header image by Tim Mossholder.

Friday facings

This week’s links seem to have a theme about faces and looking at them through screens. I’m not sure what that says about either my network, or my interests, but there we are…

As ever, let me know what resonates with you, and if you have any thoughts on what’s shared below!


The Age of Instagram Face

The human body is an unusual sort of Instagram subject: it can be adjusted, with the right kind of effort, to perform better and better over time. Art directors at magazines have long edited photos of celebrities to better match unrealistic beauty standards; now you can do that to pictures of yourself with just a few taps on your phone.

Jia Tolentino (The New Yorker)

People, especially women, but there’s increasing pressure on young men too, are literally going to see plastic surgeons with ‘Facetuned’ versions of themselves. It’s hard not to think that we’re heading for a kind of dystopia when people want to look like cartoonish versions of themselves.


What Makes A Good Person?

What I learned as a child is that most people don’t even meet the responsibilities of their positions (husband, wife, teacher, boss, politicians, whatever.) A few do their duty, and I honor them for it, because it is rare. But to go beyond that and actually be a man of honor is unbelievably rare.

Ian Welsh

This question, as I’ve been talking with my therapist about, is one I ask myself all the time. Recently, I’ve settled on Marcus Aurelius’ approach: “Waste no more time arguing about what a good man should be. Be one.”


Boredom is but a window to a sunny day beyond the gloom

Boredom can be our way of telling ourselves that we are not spending our time as well as we could, that we should be doing something more enjoyable, more useful, or more fulfilling. From this point of view, boredom is an agent of change and progress, a driver of ambition, shepherding us out into larger, greener pastures.

Neel Burton (Aeon)

As I’ve discussed before, I’m not so sure about the fetishisation of ‘boredom’. It’s good to be creative and let the mind wander. But boredom? Nah. There’s too much interesting stuff out there.


Resting Risk Face

Unlock your devices with a surgical mask that looks just like you.

I don’t usually link to products in this roundup, but I’m not sure this is 100% serious. Good idea, though!


The world’s biggest work-from-home experiment has been triggered by coronavirus

For some employees, like teachers who have conducted classes digitally for weeks, working from home can be a nightmare.
But in other sectors, this unexpected experiment has been so well received that employers are considering adopting it as a more permanent measure. For those who advocate more flexible working options, the past few weeks mark a possible step toward widespread — and long-awaited — reform.

Jessie Yeung (CNN)

Every cloud has a silver lining, I guess? Working from home is great, especially when you have a decent setup.


Setting Up Your Webcam, Lights, and Audio for Remote Work, Podcasting, Videos, and Streaming

Only you really know what level of clarity you want from each piece of your setup. Are you happy with what you have? Please, dear Lord, don’t spend any money. This is intended to be a resource if you want more and don’t know how to do it, not a stress or a judgment to anyone happy with their current setup

And while it’s a lot of fun to have a really high-quality webcam for my remote work, would I have bought it if I didn’t have a more intense need for high quality video for my YouTube stuff? Hell no. Get what you need, in your budget. This is just a resource.

This is a fantastic guide. I bought a great webcam when I saw it drop in price via CamelCamelCamel and bought a decent mic when I recorded the TIDE podcast wiht Dai. It really does make a difference.


Large screen phones: a challenge for UX design (and human hands)

I know it might sound like I have more questions than answers, but it seems to me that we are missing out on a very basic solution for the screen size problem. Manufacturers did so much to increase the screen size, computational power and battery capacity whilst keeping phones thin, that switching the apps navigation to the bottom should have been the automatic response to this new paradigm.

Maria Grilo (Imaginary Cloud)

The struggle is real. I invested in a new phone this week (a OnePlus 7 Pro 5G) and, unlike the phone it replaced from 2017, it’s definitely a hold-with-two-hands device.


Society Desperately Needs An Alternative Web

What has also transpired is a web of unbridled opportunism and exploitation, uncertainty and disparity. We see increasing pockets of silos and echo chambers fueled by anxiety, misplaced trust, and confirmation bias. As the mainstream consumer lays witness to these intentions, we notice a growing marginalization that propels more to unplug from these communities and applications to safeguard their mental health. However, the addiction technology has produced cannot be easily remedied. In the meantime, people continue to suffer.

Hessie Jones (Forbes)

Another call to re-decentralise the web, this time based on arguments about centralised services not being able to handle the scale of abuse and fraudulent activity.


UK Google users could lose EU GDPR data protections

It is understood that Google decided to move its British users out of Irish jurisdiction because it is unclear whether Britain will follow GDPR or adopt other rules that could affect the handling of user data.

If British Google users have their data kept in Ireland, it would be more difficult for British authorities to recover it in criminal investigations.

The recent Cloud Act in the US, however, is expected to make it easier for British authorities to obtain data from US companies. Britain and the US are also on track to negotiate a broader trade agreement.

Samuel Gibbs (The Guardian)

I’m sure this is a business decision as well, but I guess it makes sense given post-Brexit uncertainty about privacy legislation. It’s a shame, though, and a little concerning.


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Header image by Luc van Loon

Friday feelings

It’s Friday again, so I’m here trawling through not only the most interesting stuff that I’ve read this week, but also verbs that begin with the letter ‘f’.

Happy Valentine’s Day! Especially to my wonderful wife Hannah. We’ll have been together 20 years this coming May 😍


Flying to Conferences

The problem – and the solution – to the issues of environment and poverty and the rest lie in the hands of those people who have the power to change what we’re doing as a society, the one percent who hold most of the world’s power and wealth. They benefit from environmental degradation and we pay the price, just as they benefit from oppressive labour laws, the corruption of government officials, and ownership of real and intellectual property.

Stephen Downes (halfanhour)

This is a fantastic post and one that’s made me feel a bit better about the travel I do for work. Downes deconstructs various arguments, and shows the systemic problems around sustainability. Highly recommended.


Why innovation can’t happen without standardization

Perceptions play a role in the conflict between standardization and innovation. People who only want to focus on standardization must remember that even the tools and processes that they want to promote as “the standard” were once new and represented change. Likewise, people who only want to focus on innovation have to remember that in order for a tool or process to provide value to an organization, it has to be stable enough for that organization to use it over time.

Len Dimaggio (opensource.com)

Opensource.com is celebrating its 10-year anniversary, and it’s also a decade since I seem to have written for the first time about innovation being predicated on standardisation. I then expanded upon that a year later in this post. As DiMaggio says, innovation and standardisation are two halves of one solution.


How to reduce digital distractions: advice from medieval monks

Distraction is an old problem, and so is the fantasy that it can be dodged once and for all. There were just as many exciting things to think about 1,600 years ago as there are now. Sometimes it boggled the mind.

Jamie Kreiner (aeon)

This, via Kottke, has a title rendolent of clickbait, and is an amusing diversion. It’s conclusion, however, is important, that distraction isn’t due to our smartphones, but due to the ways our brains are wired, and our lack of practice concentrating on things that are of importance and value.


How Medieval Manuscript Makers Experimented with Graphic Design

The greater availability of paper in the 15th century meant more people could make books, with medical texts being some of the most popular. A guide to diagnosing diseases based on the colors of urine — a common approach in the era — has two pages illustrating several flasks, so the reader could readily compare this organized knowledge. A revolving “volvelle” diagram on another manuscript allowed readers to make their own astronomical calculations for the moon and time of night. Scraps of medieval songs on loose pages and herbals further demonstrate how practical usage was important in medieval design.

Allison Meier

I think I came across this via Hacker News, which is always a great place to find interesting stuff, technical and otherwise. The photographs and illustrations are just beautiful.


Yong Zhao: PISA Peculiarities (2): Should Schools Promote a Competitive or Cooperative Culture?

As I have written elsewhere, PISA has the bad habit of looking for things that would work universally to improve education or at least test scores and ignoring contextual factors that may actually play a more important role in the quality of education. In so doing, PISA does not (or cannot) have a coherent conceptual framework for understanding education as a contextual and situated phenomenon. As a result, it just throws various variables into the equation and wishes that some would turn out to be the magical policy or practice that improves education, without thinking how the variables act and interact with each other in specific contexts.

Yong Zhao (National education policy center)

Via Stephen Downes, I really appreciate this analysis of PISA test results, which compare students from different countries. To my mind, capitalism perpetuates the myth that we’re all in competition with each other, inculcating it at school. Nothing could be further from the truth; we humans are communicators and co-operators.


1,000 True Fans? Try 100

The 100 True Fans concept isn’t for everyone, nor is 1,000 True Fans. Creators that have larger, more diffuse audiences with weaker allegiance or engagement are likely better off monetizing through sponsorships or branded products. For many, that path will be more lucrative—and require less heavy lifting—than designing the sort of high-value, personalized program 100 True Fans demand.

Li Jin (A16z)

An interesting read. There are currently 53 patrons of Thought Shrapnel, a number that I had hoped would be much higher by this point. Perhaps I need to pivot into exclusive content, or perhaps just return to sponsorship?


Regulator Ofcom to have more powers over UK social media

The government has now announced it is “minded” to grant new powers to Ofcom – which currently only regulates the media and the telecoms industry, not internet safety.

Ofcom will have the power to make tech firms responsible for protecting people from harmful content such as violence, terrorism, cyber-bullying and child abuse – and platforms will need to ensure that content is removed quickly.

They will also be expected to “minimise the risks” of it appearing at all.

BBC News

While I’m all for reducing the amount of distressing, radicalising, and harmful content accessed by vulnerable people, I do wonder exactly how this will work. A slide in a recent ‘macro trends’ deck by Benedict Evans shows the difficulties faced by platforms, and society more generally.


Why People Get the ‘Sunday Scaries’

When I asked Anne Helen Petersen what would cure the Sunday scaries, she laughed and gave a two-word answer: “Fix capitalism.” “You have to get rid of the conditions that are creating precarity,” she says. “People wouldn’t think that universal health care has anything to do with the Sunday scaries, but it absolutely does … Creating a slightly different Sunday routine isn’t going to change the massive structural problems.”

One potential system-wide change she has researched—smaller than implementing universal health care, but still big—is a switch to a four-day workweek. “When people had that one more day of leisure, it opened up so many different possibilities to do the things you actually want to do and to actually feel restored,” she says.

Joe Pinsker (The Atlantic)

As one t-shirt I saw put it: “You don’t hate Mondays. You hate Capitalism.”


A 2020 Retrospective on the History of Work

The future of work is Open. Open work practices allow for unhindered access to the right context, the bigger picture, and important information when it’s needed most. All teams can do amazing things when they work Open.  

Atlassian

Via Kottke, this is an interesting summary of changes in the workplace since the 1950s. And of course, given I’m part of a co-op that “works to spread the culture, processes and benefits of open” the conclusion is spot-on.


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Image by Nicola Fioravanti

Friday foggings

I’ve been travelling this week, so I’ve had plenty of time to read and digest a whole range of articles. In fact, because of the luxury of that extra time, I decided to write some comments about each link, as well as the usual quotation.

Let me know what you think about this approach. I may not have the bandwidth to do it every week, but if it’s useful, I’ll try and prioritise it. As ever, particularly interested in hearing from supporters!


Education and Men without Work (National Affairs) — “Unlike the Great Depression, however, today’s work crisis is not an unemployment crisis. Only a tiny fraction of workless American men nowadays are actually looking for employment. Instead we have witnessed a mass exodus of men from the workforce altogether. At this writing, nearly 7 million civilian non-institutionalized men between the ages of 25 and 54 are neither working nor looking for work — over four times as many as are formally unemployed.”

This article argues that the conventional wisdom, that men are out of work because of a lack of education, may be based on false assumptions. In fact, a major driver seems to be the number of men (more than 50% of working-age men, apparently) who live in child-free homes. What do these men end up doing with their time? Many of them are self-medicating with drugs and screens.


Fresh Cambridge Analytica leak ‘shows global manipulation is out of control’ (The Guardian) — “More than 100,000 documents relating to work in 68 countries that will lay bare the global infrastructure of an operation used to manipulate voters on “an industrial scale” are set to be released over the next months.”

Sadly, I think the response to these documents will be one of apathy. Due to the 24-hour news cycle and the stream of ‘news’ on social networks, the voting public grow tired of scandals and news stories that last for months and years.


Funding (Sussex Royals) — “The Sovereign Grant is the annual funding mechanism of the monarchy that covers the work of the Royal Family in support of HM The Queen including expenses to maintain official residences and workspaces. In this exchange, The Queen surrenders the revenue of the Crown Estate and in return, a portion of these public funds are granted to The Sovereign/The Queen for official expenditure.”

I don’t think I need to restate my opinions on the Royal Family, privilege, and hierarchies / coercive power relationships of all shapes and sizes. However, as someone pointed out on Mastodon, this page by ‘Harry and Meghan’ is quietly subversive.


How to sell good ideas (New Statesman) — “It is true that [Malcolm] Gladwell sometimes presses his stories too militantly into the service of an overarching idea, and, at least in his books, can jam together materials too disparate to cohere (Poole referred to his “relentless montage”). The New Yorker essay, which constrains his itinerant curiosity, is where he does his finest work (the best of these are collected in 2009’s What The Dog Saw). For the most part, the work of his many imitators attests to how hard it is to do what he does. You have to be able to write lucid, propulsive prose capable of introducing complex ideas within a magnetic field of narrative. You have to leave your desk and talk to people (he never stopped being a reporter). Above all, you need to acquire an extraordinary eye for the overlooked story, the deceptively trivial incident, the minor genius. Gladwell shares the late Jonathan Miller’s belief that “it is in the negligible that the considerable is to be found”.”

A friend took me to see Gladwell when he was in Newcastle-upon-Tyne touring with ‘What The Dog Saw’. Like the author of this article, I soon realised that Gladwell is selling something quite different to ‘science’ or ‘facts’. And so long as you’re OK with that, you can enjoy (as I do) his podcasts and books.


Just enough Internet: Why public service Internet should be a model of restraint (doteveryone) — “We have not yet done a good job of defining what good digital public service really looks like, of creating digital charters that match up to those of our great institutions, and it is these statements of values and ways of working – rather than any amount of shiny new technology – that will create essential building blocks for the public services of the future.”

While I attended the main MozFest weekend event, I missed the presentation and other events that happened earlier in the week. I definitely agree with the sentiment behind the transcript of this talk by Rachel Coldicutt. I’m just not sure it’s specific enough to be useful in practice.


Places to go in 2020 (Marginal Revolution) — “Here is the mostly dull NYT list. Here is my personal list of recommendations for you, noting I have not been to all of the below, but I am in contact with many travelers and paw through a good deal of information.”

This list by Tyler Cowen is really interesting. I haven’t been to any of the places on this list, but I now really want to visit Eastern Bali and Baku in Azerbaijan.


Reasons not to scoff at ghosts, visions and near-death experiences (Aeon) — “Sure, the dangers of gullibility are evident enough in the tragedies caused by religious fanatics, medical quacks and ruthless politicians. And, granted, spiritual worldviews are not good for everybody. Faith in the ultimate benevolence of the cosmos will strike many as hopelessly irrational. Yet, a century on from James’s pragmatic philosophy and psychology of transformative experiences, it might be time to restore a balanced perspective, to acknowledge the damage that has been caused by stigma, misdiagnoses and mis- or overmedication of individuals reporting ‘weird’ experiences. One can be personally skeptical of the ultimate validity of mystical beliefs and leave properly theological questions strictly aside, yet still investigate the salutary and prophylactic potential of these phenomena.”

I’d happily read a full-length book on this subject, as it’s a fascinating area. The tension between knowing that much/all of the phenomena is reducible to materiality and mechanics may explain what’s going on, but it doesn’t explain it away…


Surveillance Tech Is an Open Secret at CES 2020 (OneZero) — “Lowe offered one explanation for why these companies feel so comfortable marketing surveillance tech: He says that the genie can’t be put back in the bottle, so barring federal regulation that bans certain implementations, it’s increasingly likely that some company will fill the surveillance market. In other words, if Google isn’t going to work with the cops, Amazon will. And even if Amazon decides not to, smaller companies out of the spotlight still will.”

I suppose it should come as no surprise that, in this day and age, companies like Cyberlink, previously known for their PowerDVD software, have moved into the very profitable world of surveillance capitalism. What’s going to stop its inexorable rise? I can only think of government regulation (with teeth).


‘Techlash’ Hits College Campuses (New York Times) — “Some recent graduates are taking their technical skills to smaller social impact groups instead of the biggest firms. Ms. Dogru said that some of her peers are pursuing jobs at start-ups focused on health, education and privacy. Ms. Harbour said Berkeley offers a networking event called Tech for Good, where alumni from purpose-driven groups like Code for America and Khan Academy share career opportunities.”

I’m not sure this is currently as big a ‘movement’ as suggested in the article, but I’m glad the wind is blowing in this direction. As with other ethically-dubious industries, companies involved in surveillance capitalism will have to pay people extraordinarily well to put aside their moral scruples.


Tradition is Smarter Than You Are (The Scholar’s Stage) — “To extract resources from a population the state must be able to understand that population. The state needs to make the people and things it rules legible to agents of the government. Legibility means uniformity. States dream up uniform weights and measures, impress national languages and ID numbers on their people, and divvy the country up into land plots and administrative districts, all to make the realm legible to the powers that be. The problem is that not all important things can be made legible. Much of what makes a society successful is knowledge of the tacit sort: rarely articulated, messy, and from the outside looking in, purposeless. These are the first things lost in the quest for legibility. Traditions, small cultural differences, odd and distinctive lifeways… are all swept aside by a rationalizing state that preserves (or in many cases, imposes) only what it can be understood and manipulated from the 2,000 foot view. The result… are many of the greatest catastrophes of human history.”

One of the books that’s been on my ‘to-read’ list for a while is ‘Seeing Like a State’, written by James C. Scott and referenced in this article. I’m no believer in tradition for the sake of it but, I have to say, that a lot of the superstitions of my maternal grandmother, and a lot of the rituals that come with religion are often very practical in nature.


Image by Michael Schlegel (via kottke.org)

Friday flexitarianism

Check these links out and tell me which one you like best:

  • The radical combination of degrowth and basic income (openDemocracy) — “One of the things you hear whenever you talk about degrowth is that, if the economy doesn’t grow, people are going to be without jobs, people will go hungry, and no one wants that. Rich countries might be able to afford slowing down their economies, but not poorer ones. You hear this argument mostly in countries from the Global South, like my own. This misses the point. Degrowth is a critique of our dependency on work. This idea that people have to work to stay alive, and thus the economy needs to keep growing for the sake of keeping people working.”
  • The hypersane are among us, if only we are prepared to look (Aeon) — “It is not just that the ‘sane’ are irrational but that they lack scope and range, as though they’ve grown into the prisoners of their arbitrary lives, locked up in their own dark and narrow subjectivity. Unable to take leave of their selves, they hardly look around them, barely see beauty and possibility, rarely contemplate the bigger picture – and all, ultimately, for fear of losing their selves, of breaking down, of going mad, using one form of extreme subjectivity to defend against another, as life – mysterious, magical life – slips through their fingers.”
  • “The Tragedy of the Commons”: how ecofascism was smuggled into mainstream thought (BoingBoing) — “We are reaching a “peak indifference” tipping point in the climate debate, where it’s no longer possible to deny the reality of the climate crisis. I think that many of us assumed that when that happened, we’d see a surge of support for climate justice, the diversion of resources from wealth extraction for the super-rich to climate remediation and defense centered on the public good. But that expectation overestimated the extent to which climate denial was motivated by mere greed.”
  • What Would It Take to Shut Down the Entire Internet? (Gizmodo) “One imaginative stumbling block, in playing out the implications of [this] scenario, was how something like that could happen in the first place. And so—without advocating any of the methods described below, or strongly suggesting that hundreds or thousands of like-minded heroes band together to take this sucker down once and for all—…we’ve asked a number of cybersecurity experts how exactly one would go about shutting down the entire internet.”
  • Earning, spending, saving: The currency of influence in open source (Opensource.com) — “Even though you can’t buy it, influence behaves like a form of virtual currency in an open source community: a scarce resource, always needed, but also always in short supply. One must earn it through contributions to an open source project or community. In contrast to monetary currency, however, influence is not transferable. You must earn it for yourself. You can neither give nor receive it as a gift.”
  • The Art of Topophilia: 7 Ways to Love the Place You Live (Art of Manliness) — “It’s not only possible to kindle this kind of topophilic love affair with “sexier” places chock full of well-hyped advantages, but also with so-called undesirable communities that aren’t on the cultural radar. Just as people who may initially appear lowly and unappealing, but have warm and welcoming personalities, come to seem more attractive the more we get to know them, so too can sleepier, less vaunted locales.”
  • A Like Can’t Go Anywhere, But a Compliment Can Go a Long Way (Frank Chimero) — “Passive positivity isn’t enough; active positivity is needed to counterbalance whatever sort of collective conversations and attention we point at social media. Otherwise, we are left with the skewed, inaccurate, and dangerous nature of what’s been built: an environment where most positivity is small, vague, and immobile, and negativity is large, precise, and spreadable.”
  • EU recognises “right to repair” in push to make appliances last longer (Dezeen) — “Not included in the EU right to repair rules are devices such as smart phones and laptops, whose irreplaceable batteries and performance-hampering software updates are most often accused of encouraging throwaway culture.”
  • I’m a Psychotherapist Who Sets 30-Day Challenges Instead of Long-Term Goals. Here’s Why (Inc.) — “Studies show our brains view time according to either “now deadlines” or “someday deadlines.” And “now deadlines” often fall within this calendar month.”

Image by Yung-sen Wu (via The Atlantic)

Friday fluctuations

Have a quick skim through these links that I came across this week and found interesting:

  • Overrated: Ludwig Wittgenstein (Standpoint) — “Wittgenstein’s reputation for genius did not depend on incomprehensibility alone. He was also “tortured”, rude and unreliable. He had an intense gaze. He spent months in cold places like Norway to isolate himself. He temporarily quit philosophy, because he believed that he had solved all its problems in his 1922 Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, and worked as a gardener. He gave away his family fortune. And, of course, he was Austrian, as so many of the best geniuses are.”
  • EdTech Resistance (Ben Williamson) ⁠— “We should not and cannot ignore these tensions and challenges. They are early signals of resistance ahead for edtech which need to be engaged with before they turn to public outrage. By paying attention to and acting on edtech resistances it may be possible to create education systems, curricula and practices that are fair and trustworthy. It is important not to allow edtech resistance to metamorphose into resistance to education itself.”
  • The Guardian view on machine learning: a computer cleverer than you? (The Guardian) — “The promise of AI is that it will imbue machines with the ability to spot patterns from data, and make decisions faster and better than humans do. What happens if they make worse decisions faster? Governments need to pause and take stock of the societal repercussions of allowing machines over a few decades to replicate human skills that have been evolving for millions of years.”
  • A nerdocratic oath (Scott Aaronson) — “I will never allow anyone else to make me a cog. I will never do what is stupid or horrible because “that’s what the regulations say” or “that’s what my supervisor said,” and then sleep soundly at night. I’ll never do my part for a project unless I’m satisfied that the project’s broader goals are, at worst, morally neutral. There’s no one on earth who gets to say: “I just solve technical problems. Moral implications are outside my scope”.”
  • Privacy is power (Aeon) — “The power that comes about as a result of knowing personal details about someone is a very particular kind of power. Like economic power and political power, privacy power is a distinct type of power, but it also allows those who hold it the possibility of transforming it into economic, political and other kinds of power. Power over others’ privacy is the quintessential kind of power in the digital age.”
  • The Symmetry and Chaos of the World’s Megacities (WIRED) — “Koopmans manages to create fresh-looking images by finding unique vantage points, often by scouting his locations on Google Earth. As a rule, he tries to get as high as he can—one of his favorite tricks is talking local work crews into letting him shoot from the cockpit of a construction crane.”
  • Green cities of the future – what we can expect in 2050 (RNZ) — “In their lush vision of the future, a hyperloop monorail races past in the foreground and greenery drapes the sides of skyscrapers that house communal gardens and vertical farms.”
  • Wittgenstein Teaches Elementary School (Existential Comics) ⁠— “And I’ll have you all know, there is no crying in predicate logic.”
  • Ask Yourself These 5 Questions to Inspire a More Meaningful Career Move (Inc.) — “Introspection on the right things can lead to the life you want.”

Image from Do It Yurtself

Friday fidgetings

These things popped into my consciousness this week:

  • Soon, satellites will be able to watch you everywhere all the time (MIT Technology Review) — “Some of the most radical developments in Earth observation involve not traditional photography but rather radar sensing and hyperspectral images, which capture electromagnetic wavelengths outside the visible spectrum. Clouds can hide the ground in visible light, but satellites can penetrate them using synthetic aperture radar, which emits a signal that bounces off the sensed object and back to the satellite. It can determine the height of an object down to a millimeter.”
  • The lesson from the ruins of Notre Dame: don’t rely on billionaires (The Guardian) — “They have banked the publicity, while dreaming up small print that didn’t exist in the spring. As another charity executive, Célia Vérot, said: “It’s a voluntary donation, so the companies are waiting for the government’s vision to see what precisely they want to fund.” It’s as if the vast project of rebuilding a 12th-century masterpiece was a breakfast buffet from which one could pick and choose.”
  • Does It Stick? (Hapgood) — “But you see something that I often have trouble explaining to others — with the right habits you find students start sounding like entirely different people. They start being, in some ways, very different people. Less reactive, more reflective, more curious. If the habits stick, rather than decay, that effect can cumulative, because the students have done that most powerful of things — they have learned how to learn. And the impact of that can change a person’s life.”
  • The Last Days of John Allen Chau (Outside) — “In the fall of 2018, the 26-year-old American missionary traveled to a remote speck of sand and jungle in the Indian Ocean, attempting to convert one of the planet’s last uncontacted tribes to Christianity. The islanders killed him, and Chau was pilloried around the world as a deluded Christian supremacist who deserved to die. Alex Perry pieces together the life and death of a young adventurer driven to extremes by unshakable faith.”
  • Human magnetism (Aeon) — “Even Charles Darwin added his two cents on these topics, claiming that ‘some part of the brain is specialised for the function of direction’. If such a mechanism did exist in our ancestors, could it have been muted – phased out with the advancement of consciousness and communication, the onset of civilisation, the invention of artificial means such as the compass and, ultimately, technologies such as GPS?”
  • How can we help the hikikomori to leave their rooms? (Aeon) — “If these anxieties are keeping people inside their homes, what’s prompting them to retreat there in the first place? One answer could be school phobia. The survey revealed that hikikomori are more likely to have dropped out of education. The transition from high school to college appeared especially harsh.”
  • 3-day weekends could make people happier and more productive (Business Insider) — “There might not be an immediate change in productivity with the introduction of a four-day workweek, but with less time to kill at work, employees may procrastinate less (though there would always be those who try to take advantage).”
  • Does the Mystery of Stonehenge Involve Pig Fat? (Atlas Obscura) — “New research says the megaliths may have been dragged to the site with the help of lard.”
  • In praise of the things that cost nothing (The Guardian) — “There is plenty to enjoy that is free in a world where it seems everything has a cost.”

Image via Poorly Drawn Lines

Trust and the cult of your PLN

This is a long article with a philosophical take on one of my favourite subjects: social networks and the flow of information. The author, C Thi Nguyen, is an assistant professor of philosophy at Utah Valley University and distinguishes between two things that he things have been conflated:

Let’s call them echo chambers and epistemic bubbles. Both are social structures that systematically exclude sources of information. Both exaggerate their members’ confidence in their beliefs. But they work in entirely different ways, and they require very different modes of intervention. An epistemic bubble is when you don’t hear people from the other side. An echo chamber is what happens when you don’t trust people from the other side.

Teasing things apart a bit, Nguyen gives some definitions:

Current usage has blurred this crucial distinction, so let me introduce a somewhat artificial taxonomy. An ‘epistemic bubble’ is an informational network from which relevant voices have been excluded by omission.

[…]

An ‘echo chamber’ is a social structure from which other relevant voices have been actively discredited.

[…]

In epistemic bubbles, other voices are not heard; in echo chambers, other voices are actively undermined. The way to break an echo chamber is not to wave “the facts” in the faces of its members. It is to attack the echo chamber at its root and repair that broken trust.

It feels like towards the end of my decade as an active user of Twitter there was a definite shift from it being an ‘epistemic bubble’ towards being an ‘echo chamber’. My ‘Personal Learning Network’ (or ‘PLN’) seemed to be a bit more militant in its beliefs.

Nguyen goes on to talk at length about fake news, sociological theories, and Cartesian epistemology. Where he ends up, however, is where I would: trust.

As Elijah Millgram argues in The Great Endarkenment (2015), modern knowledge depends on trusting long chains of experts. And no single person is in the position to check up on the reliability of every member of that chain. Ask yourself: could you tell a good statistician from an incompetent one? A good biologist from a bad one? A good nuclear engineer, or radiologist, or macro-economist, from a bad one? Any particular reader might, of course, be able to answer positively to one or two such questions, but nobody can really assess such a long chain for herself. Instead, we depend on a vastly complicated social structure of trust. We must trust each other, but, as the philosopher Annette Baier says, that trust makes us vulnerable. Echo chambers operate as a kind of social parasite on that vulnerability, taking advantage of our epistemic condition and social dependency.

That puts us a double-bind. We need to make ourselves vulnerable in order to participate in a society built on trust, but that very vulnerability puts us at danger of being manipulated.

I see this in fanatical evangelism of blockchain solutions to the ‘problem’ of operating in a trustless environment. To my mind, we need to be trusting people more, not less. Of course, there are obvious exceptions, but breaches of trust are near the top of the list of things we should punish most in a society.

Is there anything we can do, then, to help an echo-chamber member to reboot? We’ve already discovered that direct assault tactics – bombarding the echo-chamber member with ‘evidence’ – won’t work. Echo-chamber members are not only protected from such attacks, but their belief systems will judo such attacks into further reinforcement of the echo chamber’s worldview. Instead, we need to attack the root, the systems of discredit themselves, and restore trust in some outside voices.

So the way forward is for people to develop empathy and to show trust. Not present people with evidence that they’re wrong. That’s never worked in the past, and it won’t work now. Our problem isn’t a deficit in access to information, it’s a deficit in trust.

Source: Aeon (via Ian O’Byrne)

Are cows less valuable than wolves?

When debating with people, one of my go-to approaches is getting them to think through the logical consequences of their actions. Effectively, I’m a serial invoker of Kant’s categorical imperative: what would happen if everyone acted like this?

This article gets people to think about a world full of vegans:

Vegetarianism and veganism are becoming more popular. Alternative sources of protein, including lab-grown meat, are becoming available. This trend away from farmed meat-eating looks set to continue. From an environmental perspective and a welfare perspective, that’s a good thing. But how far should we go? Would it be good if the last cow died?

Well, let’s think it through…

There is a distinct difference between cattle on the one hand, and pandas and wolves on the other. Modern cattle owe their existence to selective breeding by human beings: they are very different animals from the wild oxen from which they are descended. We might think that this difference is relevant to their moral value. We might think, that is, along the following lines: we have a duty to preserve the natural world as far as we can. Wolves and pandas belong to that natural world; they occupy their place in it due to the mechanisms of evolution. So we have a duty to preserve them (not an absolute duty of course: rather one duty among many others – to our children, to each other, and so on – each of which makes different and sometimes conflicting demands on us).

Right, so that’s quite complex.

If we think, as I do, that being cultural is itself an adaptation, a natural feature of human beings, then we shouldn’t think that the ways in which we are cultural exempt us from nature, or that the products of our culture are themselves unnatural.

In other words, we should put to one side our status of mammals at the top of the food chain when thinking about this stuff. Fascinating.

Source: Aeon

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